Brian Wheat is best known as the bass guitar player for the multi-platinum rock band, Tesla. In addition, he is a gifted song writer, producer, recording studio owner, manager, and talented photographer and artist.
Anyone that knows me will tell you that Tesla has long been one of my favourite bands that came out of the 80’s and I’ve seen them play countless times over the years all over the world on four different continents, but in the 11 years of The Rockpit I’ve never interviewed any of the guys. Late last year bassist Brian Wheat put out a book about his life entitled ‘Son of a Milkman’ and I read it over the holidays. It’s a great read that actually pulls off the difficult job of sounding like you’re having a chat with the man himself.
So finally I got to sit down with Brian and discuss the book, all things Tesla and so much more…
Mark: Hi is that Brian?
Brian: Yeah! Hey how you doing, where you at?
Mark: We’re calling from Perth Western Australia
Brian: That’s fantastic!
Mark: You’ve got a huge number of Australian fans down here, so we’re thrilled to get to talk to you today. I thoroughly enjoyed your book over the holidays!
Brian: Alright you read it?
Mark: I guess the obvious question is what gave you the idea for the book, had it been a long time coming or was it covid-related with time on your hands to think about it all?
Brian: No it wasn’t Covid-related at all. It felt like the right time. The right time in my life and the right time in my career to just think about Tesla and speak about my life.
Mark: And it comes out great, it reads like a real, honest down to earth conversation that would inspire anyone who suffers from health issues. It shows us all what can be achieved.
Brian: And that was the point really. To try to help some people that suffer from the same kinda stuff I do. I wanted to let people know that they’re not the only one out there when sometimes it maybe feels like that. There are other people who are dealing with the same thing, so hang in there.
Mark: That’s a great motivation to write. I love the fact that the book is ‘bookended’ with two little cameos by two people that are obviously very important to you. The introduction I thought was really nice by Joe (Joe Elliott of Def Leppard)
Brian: You know, he’s one of my best friends he’s like a big brother and a mentor to me. I met him when we opened for Def Leppard on the Hysteria Tour where he kinda took me under his wing, and he’s been kinda a role model to me all these years.
Mark: Taking it back to the early years there’s a lot in the book that I think people will relate to – growing up in a small town or city, the house parties, the pot, the parties, the family life, I think it’s all something we can relate to. What were your ambitions in those early years maybe the Earthshaker years?
Brian: I guess the same thing everyone does. The goal was always the same – to become Tesla- that was always the goal. We didn’t just want to be a band that played in the Clubs and earned a living singing other people’s songs. The goal was to become a Rock and Roll band that was on the radio! To be a Rock Star I guess to use a clichéd term!
Mark: And it worked out pretty well! But I guess as the book shows it was a pretty hard journey at times, and what I love about the book it that it’s full of great little stories that show you how hard it is to get there. I loved the shout out to your first manager who obviously didn’t have the connections to take you to the level you needed but really seems to have instilled in you that real work ethic?
Brian: Yeah he did, he taught us that nothing in this life came easy and if you wanted it you had to work hard for it. So as much as at the time when we were going through it we hated him because he was like a drill sergeant, as we got older he was more of like a father figure to us. We were all really close to him and in later life we always said “What would Steve have said?” you know. Probably ‘Get off your ass and work harder! Anyone can quit!” (laughs) He was just that kinda guy. He had a lot of drive, I’ve never seen anyone with more drive than that guy.
Mark: And then you met two guys who a lot of our readers will know Cliff and Peter who were both equally driven but in a different way and I guess at a different level and hugely important to the growth of the band.
Brian: Oh yeah, Cliff and Peter are the best managers in the business and they were great managers for us. I think we drove them nuts because we were a bit hard-headed at times. I have a lot of respect and admiration for both of those guys because it definitely wouldn’t have happened without Cliff or Peter or Tom Zutaut as well.
Mark: Another important part of the story. Growing up at the time I must admit that the Tesla debut album was very important to me, so it was interesting to read the thoughts you have on the ‘sound’ of that album as some sites have reported. I thought that they blew up your comments up a bit out of proportion.
Brian: Yeah you know it’s funny there’s a website here in the US that just takes bits and pieces of your interviews from other people’s interviews and distort them.
Mark: I know the one you mean (laughs)
Brian: Right. “Brian Wheat doesn’t like Mechanical Resonance!” Well for the record I love ‘Mechanical Resonance’ I think it’s a great record. I just said that I wish it was mixed differently. You know you get asked the question “Do you have any things that you would have changed or done differently?” and I said “Yeah I would have liked to have been at the mix for ‘Mechanical Resonance” because I would have liked that record mixed like ’Psychotic Supper’ – and that record would have been explosive if it was mixed like that! But we got where we wanted to be. So it’s not that I don’t like that album, I love that album, it’s one of my favourite albums that we ever made, if not THE favourite album, but you know, I still don’t like the sound of it, there’s too much reverb on it. It’s funny how people take your quotes and mix them all about, then put them up and make you look like an idiot, they must have nothing better to do.
Mark: I think that’s the modern world Brian.
Mark: The first time we actually met was many moons ago in Nottingham in the UK when you guys did a signing at the old Virgin Megastore.
Brian: You saw us at Rock City?
Mark: Of course
Brian: I remember that, it was a great show.
Mark: It’s still one of my favourite shows I’ve seen you play. The last time I met you though (and there have been a few in between) was 2015 on the Monsters of Rock Cruise – we were up on the top deck having a photo and there was a little kid on the Disney ship behind flipping us off!
Brian: (Laughs) I remember that (laughing) I still remember that little bastard! (laughs)
Mark: That’s exactly what you said at the time! (laughs)
Brian: (still laughing)
Mark: I was actually thinking the other day I’ve now seen you guys on four different continents which just shows how far you have travelled over the years.
Brian: Yeah. But just the once to Australia.
Mark: That was a great quick tour, I saw you in Melbourne when you came.
Brian: That was a long time ago.
Mark: Hopefully we’ll see you back again one day when all of this craziness is over. There’s so much in the book that I enjoyed reading and I love to get a story from the perspective of someone who was there in the thick of it because it puts a lot of detail in there that you otherwise don’t get. I loved reading about the tours and how they progressed from the first with Dave Lee Roth, to the first Def Leppard shows to the bigger dates later. And I loved the fact that you come across as just as much a fan as we are with your Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page encounters!
Brian: Yeah they are my two heroes and I was lucky enough to meet Paul a few times and Jimmy is now actually a really good friend of mine. You have to remember that as a kid I had their posters on my wall! So to meet your heroes and to become pretty good friends with them is pretty fucking cool man.
Mark: One of the shows I wanted to talk to you about was the Texas Jam because you talk about it a bit in the book, but it was a huge show for Tesla at the time and the line-up was amazing!
Brian: You know what’s funny is that I just drove past that place yesterday! I was coming to my house from New York to Texas and we drove past the Cotton Bowl with one of the guys that works with me. We played there and there were 100,000 people – with Aerosmith and Whitesnake, it was such an amazing gig! We’d just started out so it was pretty monumental –one of the biggest, if not the biggest show we ever played.
Mark: There was one weird connection reading the book as I have friends in Dallas and also in Fort Worth and I remember a few years back being taken to a place called ‘Primal Brewing’ in Baird where your place is!
Brian: OK down town! Yeah I’ve seen that but I don’t drink so I don’t go in there, it’s a small place Baird so that is a coincidence!
Mark: One of the other intriguing things about the book is your connection with Italy, what draws you to that part of the world in particular?
Brian: Yeah, I have a house there and we’ve been going there since 2006, I love it, it’s my sanctuary. It’s my safe place, the place I most love on the planet. But unfortunately right now I can’t go while we’re all in this Covid lockdown.
Mark: It’s crazy times Brian for sure. One of the biggest moments in the book and it builds up to it really well is the first split of the band in 1992. The ‘Bust a Nut’ Tour which I never actually got to see sounds like it must have been one of the low points as a band?
Brian: Well yeah it was, we were playing smaller places, we were a four piece, it was the first time Tommy wasn’t in the band, and on top of that the word around the campfire was that Geffen Records was gonna drop us. But we’d just sold 700,000 records. So it was a low point but I think that was because all of those things built up and then when you add the drugs and the alcohol that we were still doing, or at least some of us, because there were times when we didn’t do anything. We’re just normal folks you know, we had problems like everyone else and I think I showed that in the book. But we’re survivors, and we went through all of that and today we’re still a band and we’re still playing really well. 35 years later we’re still up there and we’re not ‘phoning it in’ we’re delivering. So it was a low point, but probably not the lowest point of our career.
Mark: The way the book plays out it’s almost like a break that had to happen, I’d hate to think what might have happened to one or more of the band if things had carried on the way they were? Is that how you see it?
Brian: Yeah, I do. I think it did have to happen. And I’m glad it happened because it allowed us to take a step back and look at what we had and not take it for granted. And also allowed us to get back together in 2000. Now we’ve been back together 21 years which is a feat in itself when you think that we were only together ten year the first time! So you know, it had to happen and I wouldn’t change it –I’ll take what we’ve had these last 35 years over going back and changing that and not knowing what might have happened if we had stayed together in 1995.
Mark: There’s been some great music over the years and I love some of your contributions, particularly ‘Paradise’ – is that one of your favourites over the years?
Brian: It’s one of my favourites that I wrote but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourite Tesla songs. My favourite Tesla song is one called ‘Song and Emotion’ (a Tribute to the late Steve Clark of Def Leppard). But ‘Paradise’ was the first real song I wrote, you know what I mean so I think that’s why it stands out, it’s like your first child if you will.
Mark: I must admit on ‘Simplicity’ I loved ‘Life is a River’ which I think is another track of yours?
Brian: Yeah it is, and that came from the producer, he said “Try to write another ‘Paradise’.” Which no one had ever really asked me to do (laughs)
Brian: So I just said “OK I’ll give it a try” and I must admit I do enjoy that one, that’s one of my favourite songs on the ‘Simplicity’ album.
Mark: One of mine too. I love the fact that you mentioned Pete Way in the book too, a lovely guy, and UFO was the first band I ever saw on a really big stage. I always saw Tesla as the US equivalent of UFO, real honest workingman’s rock, Blues based blue-collar rock?
Brian: Yeah, yeah. I grew upon UFO and Pete Way was one of my heroes who became a very good friend of mine as well. I became very good friends with all the guys from UFO but mostly Pete. I’ll be honest I grew upon UFO and Def Leppard and those two bands as a kid really spoke to me. Def Leppard was workingman’s Rock too when they were doing ‘High and Dry’ and stuff like that.
Mark: Great band from my part of the world. I know that you’re a vinyl collector Brian and one of the things were been asking people now that we have a bit of time on our hands to listen to stuff due to lockdowns and restrictions, is can you recommend an album that people should revisit and really have a listen to in isolation.
Brian: Well right now I’d recommend that people listen to Paul McCartney’s new album, I think it’s fantastic, I really is an inspiration. Another record I think people should be listening to is ‘My Chemical Romance – Welcome to the Black Parade’ I think that’s one of the greatest Rock records made in a long time. But aside from those I like the band The Struts a lot, I think they’re cool, I like Shinedown a lot – but I like to listen to a lot in the car and if I’m sitting down to listen to vinyl it’s usually 60’s or 70’s stuff that I collect.
Mark: I think it will always be the 70’s for me Brian, the best of the 60’s plus all of that musical experimentation. As well as Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney another influence you mention in the book is Freddie Mercury, did you ever get to see Queen play as a kid?
Brian: I didn’t, I did see them last year though with Adam Lambert, I kinda know Brain via email and I’ve met him a few times and we’ve hug out, but I’m such a Freddie fan that I was worried about someone else singing the songs, but I thought “Hey just let him sing the songs” and I did and he was great. He does a fantastic job, Adam does.
Mark: I thought the same, I honestly thought I would hate it and that no one could take the place of Freddie, but he doesn’t try so it works, he’s his own person. I think our time is almost up, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you I just have one final question if we can?
Brian: Sure buddy.
Mark: It’s a question that seems pretty fitting in these times – ‘What is the meaning of life?’
Brian: What is the meaning of life? Life is to be lived. Life is a journey and try to enjoy it all along the way. Try to be god to people and try to have patience and compassion and that’s about it.
Mark: That’s a great answer. ‘Son of a Milkman’ is a great book that sounds like it comes from the heart and after speaking to you it actually does sound like a conversation with Brian Wheat!
Brian: Thank you that’s what I hoped it would do.
Mark: I love the big story of you and the band but there’s also some great anecdotes and great moments in there too. I loved the story about the flat screen TV!
Brian: Oh Ronnie Montrose! (laughs) Get your people to read the book, let’s not give at all away! There are lots of funny little stories in there they’ll love!
Mark: We’ll tease them with that one Brian!
Brian: And like you said it’s written in my voice, it is like talking to me and not like listening to an interviewer who’s talked to me.
Mark: I’ve ordered my signed copy so hopefully that will be here with me soon!
Brian: I hope so. I can’t believe that you came to Baird Texas!
Mark: (laughs) I can’t believe it either!
Brian: I don’t know many people who have been to Baird Texas! Anyways man take care of yourself man and hopefully we’ll see you on the road soon! Or maybe in Australia or somewhere else on the planet! Take care!
Mark: You too mate and thank you.
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Author: Mark Diggins