Brian Wheat has a story to tell. And although he shares many of the trials, tribulations, and hopping good times with his band Tesla, this story is focused more on the man behind the bass. Son Of A Milkman: My Crazy Life With Tesla, will hold your attention from page one, where he tells the reader straight out that he has “a few issues” and those issues cover the range of his memoir: from health to family to being a musician for most of his life.
Wheat, who helped form the basis of Tesla with guitar player Frank Hannon in 1982, is not one to hold back his tongue. The book, published in mid-December 2020, contains honest depictions of Wheat’s life up to age fifty-eight. “I am what I am, and I wasn’t about to try and make it all pretty just because I was writing a book.” And with that, we’re on our way through Wheat’s up and down life. He hopes that his revelations about self-image, anxiety attacks, weight problems, his bold personality, and bouts with depression will help others in the long run.
A family secret about his parentage is only the first of many unique things that have happened to Wheat but Tesla has been one of his “most proudest achievements in life,” he told me during a recent interview. Building their talent in Sacramento, California, instead of opting for the Sunset Strip in LA, bonded the band and helped solidify their rocker roots. Whereas LA was overrun by flashy metal bands with skyscraper hair and fast guitar thrill rides, Tesla stayed home and became a band that has now lasted almost forty years. Their debut album, Mechanical Resonance in 1986, gave them two hit songs, “Modern Day Cowboy” and “Little Suzi,” despite Wheat writing that he felt the album could have sounded a lot better: “My criticism of that record is just that it’s drenched in reverb,” he wrote. “The reverb is louder than the actual drums.”
The Great Radio Controversy kept their trajectory pointing upwards with “Love Song” and “The Way It Is.” And then came Five Man Acoustical Jam and that blazing cover of “Signs,” which brought Tesla to a whole new level. “It doesn’t really bother me that ‘Signs,’ a song we didn’t write, was our biggest song, because it sounds like us,” Wheat wrote about the success of the song that is still heavily played on the radio. The band would eventually release eight studio albums, and two fan-favorite cover albums called Real To Reel. The only reason we haven’t heard anything lately is because, well, a pandemic swept the nation throughout 2020.
Now that Wheat’s memoir is out there for the fans to devour, he’s definitely ready to start making music again with Tesla. Until then, Wheat is in promo mode, talking about his book and his bass playing. And although we didn’t have time to talk about the latter, he did leave me with these words about the musician he has always idolized: “On the eighth day, God created Paul McCartney.”
Yeah, why do you want to tell something that’s not true. To try to make myself look good? I don’t need to do that. I figured I’d give you the story and this is it and this is how it went down and this is how I saw it. But I didn’t want to candy-coat it and make it seem like it was something it wasn’t. So yeah, it’s honest. I think if you’re going to put out an autobiography on yourself, or your memoirs, why lie? That’s just not my bag. I’ve been known to just kind of put things out there and not sugar-coat it. And that’s what I did. I stuck true to what I normally do and I think the reader can appreciate that more than some bullshit story, you know.
Did anything surprise you about yourself while you were writing this?
No, I mean, I know who I am and I know what I’ve done. It’s not like all of a sudden I had some revelation, like, “Oh my God I did that?! You’re kidding me, I didn’t do that, did I?” Of course I did! I know who I am. Nothing surprised me about myself, you know. For me, it was liberating. It was like, okay, it’s all out there, there it is, now I can move on to the next thing.
You write a lot about self-image in regards to your weight. When did you finally feel 100% comfortable with who you are physically?
I’m still not, to this day. I just live with it. I reside with the fact that I’m fifty-eight years old and this is who I am. I’m not going to maintain this look like I had in the eighties and nineties. I talk in the book about how I maintain that and then when the autoimmune disease kicked back in, the medication literally prevents it. I mean, when you go on steroids, you’re not going to drop weight. It puffs you up. I’ve been on them so many times, I can’t count.
You wrote that losing weight taught you that everyone has the power to control what they need to do. But not everybody has enough self-confidence or self-esteem to make changes. So where did your strength come from to make your necessary changes?
Well, at the time when I was young and Peter Mensch, my manager, said, “We’ll put you in the back of the pictures and tell everybody you’re not the lead singer.” I wanted to be a rock star more than anything, I guess, and that was where I drew the power from. Within I just went, well, if you want this bad enough, you can do it. You make whatever sacrifice you have to and you can do it. And that’s what I did. Could I do it today? I don’t know. The medication makes it really difficult, cause I bounce around twenty, thirty, forty pounds at a time. You know, up, down, up down. It’s like a seesaw. But certainly at the time when I was young and I didn’t have the autoimmune disorder that I have now, I could. I made a conscious choice and dieted and exercised and dropped the weight.
Were you ever not confident as a musician?
I suppose when you’re starting out and stuff but I’m confident today. Was I ever not confident? No, I think I always thought I could do what I needed to do, or I attained that level. I’ve been making records since I was nineteen years old, twenty years old, so I had to rise to the level. It’s kind of like a boxer. You get in the ring and you either throw punches or you’re going to get your ass knocked out. And I’ve been throwing punches since I was a kid, in one way or another.
I interviewed Troy Luccketta [Tesla drummer] a few years ago and I asked him who in Tesla stayed grounded the most when all the fame hit and he said it was you, that you were the solid individual who stayed on top of the business end. But yet you write in your book that you and he didn’t have the best of relationships.
Yeah, we used to butt heads a lot when we were younger. Today, we’re great, we’re fine. But we disagreed a lot but he’s my brother and that’s what brothers do. He’s a true brother, all those guys in that band are, and you don’t always agree, you have disagreements. But I think I stated in the book that I had more disagreements with him than anyone else, because we’re both passionate guys and we’re both Italian and we both have tempers. But it’s kind of a thing like, I might be able to call him a bastard, right, but as soon as someone else calls him a bastard, I’ll hit them in the mouth. And that’s the relationship I have with Troy, and him with me. We’ve got each other’s back. I love Troy, he’s my brother. We’ve argued in the past but in the last three or five years, we’ve kind of found a place now where we take a deep breath and we stop and listen to each other instead of react on one another. So we’re okay. I spoke to him the other day. I just think we got older and we appreciate each other a lot more. It’s called growing up.
Tesla was thrown in with all the hair metal bands at the time when you were really more a true rock & roll band like old Aerosmith and Free. How did you guys react to that?
Well, when people call us a hair band, I think it’s kind of condescending, which I don’t like it because they say it in a condescending manner, almost like making fun of us. I think we were just a rock & roll band, period. But they want to put a label on it and because you came out in 1985 or 1986, you’re a hair band. But the Black Crowes came out in 1989 and they’re not a hair band. I think we were more like the Black Crowes, as far as musically, than we were maybe Motley Crue or Poison or Winger or something. Not that there is anything wrong with those bands, I’m not knocking them or anything. I’m just saying musically, we were more like a Black Crowes, which was more of a blues-based rock & roll band. Look, they called us “hair band but rock,” all kinds of stuff, but the coolest thing is the last few years they’ve actually called us a classic rock band. I like that.
Do you think that categorization back then hindered the growth of the band at the time?
I don’t think it hindered or helped. I think Tesla has always done what we do. We’re from a small town in California, or a smaller town. We weren’t from LA or San Francisco or San Diego. We’re from Sacramento. We weren’t involved in a music scene, per se, like the bands in LA were or the San Francisco bands. We just always kind of did what we did and that’s what we’ve always done from day one.
At that time, Def Leppard was out, Loverboy was out, Judas Priest was out. But you had that whole LA scene that was happening with Poison and then Ratt, all that stuff was going on. All those bands were coming out of LA and we didn’t go to LA to make it. We stayed in northern California. We only went to LA to play or visit the record companies, so we weren’t down there living on the Sunset Strip where everyone is competing to play Gazzarri’s or The Whisky or the Roxy so I think there are a lot of similarities in those bands at that time.
What did you think of the music Tesla put out between 1994 and 2008, because those albums sometimes get overlooked?
There was a lot of rock music being played. I don’t think it’s any different or better or worse than any other rock music being played at the time. To be honest with you, I’ve never really thought about it (laughs). Obviously we made Into The Now, and that was in 2004, and then in 2006 we made the Real To Reel records, which were the covers records, and then Forever More was the first studio all-original record Dave Rude was on.
What song in the Tesla catalog do you recall taking the most time to get right in the studio?
“What You Give.” I think we tried recording it two or three times and we just couldn’t get it right. It took forever to finally get the version right that we had but it was just one of those ones that I think we recorded at three different places and tried it three different times.
I understand you have your own recording studio
Yeah, I have my own studio and my own label and my own management company where I develop young bands and kind of guide and mentor them and try to develop them to become a bigger band; and that’s J Street Entertainment and the studio is called J Street Recorders. I work with several young bands across the country.
Was that ever anything you thought you’d end up doing?
I think it’s a natural progression. If you spend thirty years in a band writing songs and making records and stuff, I think it’s a natural progression to turn into a mentor, kind of, or have your own company where you develop bands like people developed you when you were young. So I think it’s just the natural progression of it.
Def Leppard has always been a big supporter of Tesla – Phil Collen produced your last record Shock – so what has been the most important lesson you’ve learned from being around them?
The most important lesson I think I learned from those guys was don’t be negative, try everything; don’t put on blinders, try something even if you think it’s going to suck, because maybe it won’t and you won’t know until you try it.
The last time I saw Tesla, you were on tour with Def Leppard and Phil was in the back working with you guys on the record.
Yeah, we were doing Shock and I had my ProTools rig with me, my mobile rig, and I’d be in the dressing room set up and we’d be back there working with Phil, either me and Frank or me and Dave or me and Jeff, working on putting songs together and stuff. And Phil was great. He was very helpful and he was a great motivator for us and we really enjoyed making that record with him. It was a lot of fun and I think it’s a really good record.
You have become friends with Jimmy Page. How much was he like/not like what you had envisioned him to be?
He’s a real gentleman, a real, real nice guy. When I was a kid watching The Song Remains The Same, he was this larger than life character for me and today he is my buddy Jimmy, right. I got to play with him about four years ago, five years ago, and I’d never played with him. I’d known him since the mid-nineties and I’d go to England or I’d see him wherever we’d be and he was just, you know, my buddy Jimmy. And we’d go record shopping, coffee shops, eat chicken – we like chicken (laughs) – things like that. Normal stuff.
So I went to this thing in Seattle where he was being honored by Paul Allen [co-founder of Microsoft] and I was invited to come up and be one of the people to play in this tribute to Jimmy. And I played with Paul Rodgers and we did The Firm songs and after that for the last ones, he decided he was going to get up and jam with us, which that wasn’t supposed to be part of the deal. They had said, “Look, he’s not going to play,” but he comes up, and they had an amp right by me, where my bass amp was, and that’s where he plugged in and stood. And at that moment, he turned his back to the crowd to look at the drummer to start “Rock & Roll,” and I looked at him and went, holy fuck, it’s Jimmy Page! That four or five minutes we were onstage, I’m like, it’s fucking Jimmy Page! That’s THE Jimmy Page! And he became that guy for me and I was floating on air.
The cool thing is I woke up the next morning and in rollingstone.com there was a picture of me and him and I was like, man, what a cool thing, right. So I cherish that friendship because we’re really good friends and it’s not based on me being a fan of Led Zeppelin or Jimmy Page; we share a lot of common interests and have a mutual respect for one another as people and musicians. We’re just people, you know.
You mentioned Paul Rodgers. What was it like with him?
I spent a couple of days rehearsing with him and he was very nice. I didn’t really speak too much to him outside of we talked about the songs. We did “Radioactive” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and we did a couple rehearsals and he was just a really nice man. But that was it, that was the extent of it. But he was really nice, very cordial, always smiling and a great singer, one of the best, isn’t he.
Was there ever a time when you did not like being in Tesla?
Hmm, I’m sure there was, when I’d get frustrated or things weren’t going good or you get tired on the road. But Tesla is one of my most proudest achievements in life. I started the band with Frank so to see something like that through and still be there thirty-seven years later says it all.
What are you all doing now?
We ain’t doing shit. How’s that for an answer? (laughs) We’re sitting on our asses waiting for someone to tell us we can go play concerts again and go earn a living.
You begin and end your book with Chris Cornell. How did his death open your eyes?
I only met Chris one time. My friend Ross Halfin, who was doing a photoshoot with him, I was up seeing Ross in LA and he asked if I’d drive him and Chris around LA to take some pictures, cause I was down there and I had my car and I said sure. So as we’re driving around, Chris started to talk to me about how he was suffering from anxiety attacks, and I had been having anxiety attacks since I was fourteen. So I said, “Wow, I have those and this is what happens with me and this is what I do.” And that was the extent of it and it wasn’t too long after that he killed himself and it was a real tragedy.
I never understood why or how someone could do that, how it would get so bad with depression that someone could contemplate killing themselves. Then last year I came across a really bad bout of depression that was more severe than anything I’d ever experienced and at that point, I understood how it could get that bad. Now, I’m not saying I contemplated killing myself cause I didn’t but I finally understood. I saw the dark side and it was not pretty. Before that, I couldn’t understand. So that was how it affected me.
Live photograph by Leslie Michele Derrough