Lori Smerilson Carson – If there was ever a time to read a good book, it would be now. SON OF A MILKMAN My Crazy Life with Tesla by Brian Wheat (with Chris Epting) is a definite must read! Extraordinary musician, Bassist Brian Wheat truly captures the history of not just his band Tesla who first became world renown for their amazing debut rock album Mechanical Resonance released in 1986, then continued their success with The Great Radio Controversy released in 1989, Psychotic Supper released in 1991, and displayed their outstanding talents for five more studio LP’s, but of the music industry as a whole and times from the 60’s through today.
The book starts off with Singer/Songwriter/Producer Joe Elliott (Lead Vocalist of Def Leppard) who wrote the Foreword and ends with rock music Photographer Ross Halfin who wrote the Afterword. In between is an adventure that will bring back memories, enlighten and explain some realities of those times. While catching up with Wheat, he revealed some details about his book SON OF A MILKMAN My Crazy Life with Tesla.
Ohio Music Experience: How did this title come about?
Brian Wheat: Well, I was the son of a milkman. My biological father was the milkman in the neighborhood, and he came by and hooked up with my mom and let us just say, dropped off a little cream, milk, and butter and Brian and got on down the road to another route. True story (he laughed). I am the prodigal bastard son of a milkman. It’s alright, you know. Some people, it would like maybe bum ‘em out or whatever, but I kind of wear it like a badge of honor. It made me have a lot more drive in my life, I think.
Ohio Music Experience: How so?
Wheat: Well you know. Coming from that kind of taboo thing. Just like (he whispered) the things you don’t talk about. You know what I mean? I’m not ashamed of it.
Ohio Music Experience: Actually, you wrote your mom dated your biological father for six months, right?
Wheat: Yeah, I think they dated for a little bit. Once she got pregnant, well he cut out (he laughed). He got out of there.
Ohio Music Experience: What inspired you to write the book?
Wheat: Well I think what inspired me to write the book is a couple of things. One thing is I’m getting older in my life. So, that was one of the things, and I thought well, if I’m ever going to do a book, it’s kind of getting to the point where maybe I should. I’ve been in this business thirty years, and early on when I was in therapy with my psychiatrist for my anxiety, Dr. (Isaac) Herschkopf, he actually said to me, you know, one day you should consider writing a book because it allows you to release things that you internalize. So, those things kind of just came to a point together where I went, ok it’s time. I should let go of this shit I’ve been carrying around all these years, and that’s kind of the inspiration for the book. You know, and as a sideline, obviously, to tell a bit of the chronological story of this band I’m in. That I’ve been with since I was eighteen years old.
Ohio Music Experience: I read the whole book and it was awesome! Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I just wanted to finish the whole thing.
Wheat: Well, thank you.
Ohio Music Experience: You’re welcome. In the book you talk about your close ‘n play record player and playing your brother’s records and when you heard “Eleanor Rigby” you thought Paul McCartney’s voice was soothing. Why did you feel that way? Is that just what struck you?
Wheat: It’s just what struck me. I mean, I still find his voice soothing to this day. If you listen to “Eleanor Rigby” or “Let It Be”, his voice is pretty comforting.
Ohio Music Experience: That is true. This is what sparked you into wanting to become a musician. When you broke your leg sliding on a toboggan and your mom bought you an acoustic guitar. Why did she choose an acoustic guitar do you think? Was it more affordable?
Wheat: Probably more affordable and she didn’t know the difference between a bass and a guitar. She just knew that I wanted to play guitar, so she thought guitar was an acoustic guitar. I don’t think she really realized I wanted to be a bass player.
Ohio Music Experience: The only formal training you had was in school? You wrote in the book how you played along with different records?
Wheat: Yeah, that’s how I kind of learned by playing the records. I never really took lessons or anything. There were kids in the neighborhood that played and then you’d get together with them and trade ideas. You know, they show you a song they learned. You show them a song you learned. That’s kind of how I learned.
Ohio Music Experience: That’s impressive! You mention Sacramento and other successful artists from there, and that it had a small-town feel. How did that influence you?
Wheat: Well, I think if anything it influenced Tesla in the sense that we were from this small town, whereas had we been from L.A. and we were in the L.A. club scene, the Sunset Strip scene if you will, it may have altered the way we approached writing songs, or our look or this, that or the other. Where being from Sacramento, being a smaller town, we just kind of did what we did on our own normally without the outside influence of let’s say a music scene that was going on or something.
Ohio Music Experience: That makes sense. When you guys first formed and your band was called City Kidd, you went through a few drummers until you found Troy (Luccketta). You wrote that he had a really powerful sound. What was it that you all knew at that point that that was the band? That that was Tesla.
Wheat: Well Troy came in and hit his drums so hard, and there was so much authority in his playing that we had never really experienced that before from the drummer we had. So, I think it was pretty clear and evident to us at that point that you know, he was the right drummer for the band and that was gonna complete the band as it was.
Ohio Music Experience: You also mentioned in the book that he had said some not so nice things and sometimes it sounded like maybe he could be kind of snarky? How did you deal with that at the time?
Wheat: Well, I would bite back at him. Me and him would go back and forth at each other. I mean, look, we have a great relationship today and a level of understanding of one another. We’re brothers and sometimes brothers argue and fight and butt heads. So, he was just the one guy that I used to butt heads a lot within the band really. I never really butted heads with Jeff (Keith) or Frank (Hannon). Nor Tommy Skeoch really outside of his own issues, but that’s a whole other story I don’t even want to get into. Me and Troy were always seeming to butt heads. So, you know I tell people it’s like, I can call him a bastard and he can call me a bastard, but as soon as someone else calls him a bastard to me, I punch them in the mouth. So, it’s that kind of a thing. He’s like your brother you know, and sometimes you argue, and we had a period there where we were arguing a lot, me and him. We’d have an argument and not talk to each other for a day and then it was over and be fine for a month, and we’d do it again. We just don’t do that anymore. We don’t let shit fester up and we get along great. I talked to him the other day.
Ohio Music Experience: Oh, that’s good. Since you guys were kind of the founding rock band signed to Geffen Records, do you think that gave you an advantage in some ways? Back then everything was about image and the product had to look pretty and so on, but how do you think being on Geffen vs other labels may have given you guys an advantage?
Wheat: I can’t really answer that because I wasn’t on those other labels. All I know is what happened at Geffen and Geffen let us do our own thing, and they were really supportive in what we were doing. I mean, who knows? If we had been on another label would we have been bigger? Or would it maybe not have happened? I don’t know. That’s just an intangible thing you can’t really answer.
Ohio Music Experience: Later in the book you wrote you felt like Tesla was in fourth place with Geffen?
Wheat: Well yeah, I mean. Look, when we first came out, they didn’t have any really rock bands. They had Aerosmith and Aerosmith had just done Done with Mirrors and that didn’t really live up to the expectations they had hoped, and then they put out Mechanical Resonance and that broke through on the rock market. So, for a short time there we were like their prized possession, right? Then Aerosmith came out with Permanent Vacation and then Guns N’ Roses came out, and then they had Whitesnake and all of the sudden, we went from being their number one priority, to their number four priority behind Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith and Whitesnake which were all bigger than us. I mean on the success scale in terms of records sold. They were bigger, so I understand it. It didn’t help our feelings at the time. We were bummed out about it, but we still managed to have four platinum albums straight. Six gold records straight. So, we did ok. I’m not complaining. I’m just giving people a bit of perspective as to what was going on at the time.
Ohio Music Experience: Did it seem that Geffen threw themselves behind whoever needed them at the time?
Wheat: I think like any business, they went with whatever horse was winning the race (he chuckled). Obviously, Guns was winning the race. And Aersomith with Pump and Permanent Vacation and that big huge Whitesnake record at that time. Then the grunge thing came in and they had Nirvana. When Nirvana came out, there was rumblings that they were going to drop us. So, go figure.
Ohio Music Experience: Oh wow!
Ohio Music Experience: You wrote about having that sense that something could happen at any time. Is that what was going on that fed into that feeling?
Wheat: Yes. I think it was an unsettling feeling and it shook our confidence around the time we broke up. It contributed to the band’s anxiety, let alone my anxiety. You know, the fact that you’re hearing rumors that your record label’s going to drop you, and you just sold seven hundred thousand records. So, it was kind of unsettling at the time. I mean, I understand it. It’s business. You know, you go into these things thinking that everyone’s your best friend and they’re not. It’s business and in business it’s all about if you’re winning, you’re winning and if you aint, you’re out of there.
Ohio Music Experience: At the end of the book you wrote about your J Street Music Group and that you want to develop new artists. Are you mentoring new artists?
Wheat: Yeah. I’ve got young bands that I’m developing and mentoring, and producing and managing, and trying to guide their careers to get them to a point where they can become successful and you know, by a guy that has done it. I think if you’re going to buy a plane and you want someone to fly it, you’re going to want someone that’s flown a plane. Not someone that’s been riding a bicycle. So, with these young bands, it’s like I’ve done everything they’re trying to do or they want to do. It’s rewarding taking a young band and seeing it all the way through, and all of the sudden their songs on the radio and stuff.
Ohio Music Experience: Is that your goal? To guide them through and stay with them?
Wheat: To a certain point. I imagine you know, until they get bigger. So big that someone comes along and steals them (he laughed). A bigger management company or whatever, but for me the challenge is getting them to that point.
Ohio Music Experience: Throughout the book you wrote about Steve Clausman, Tom Zutaut and Peter Mensch. What would you say in summation that they contributed to your career?
Wheat: Well, it wouldn’t have happened without any one of those guys. Tesla wouldn’t have happened without Steve Clausman, Tom Zutaut, or Cliff Burnstein or Peter Mensch. They were all intracell in the success of Tesla.
Ohio Music Experience: Now at one point in the book you wrote about how you were the one that kept the band together. You seem to have a good business sense. Did that come naturally?
Wheat: Ah, I think yeah it just came naturally to me. I just think I’ve always kind of had a business mind and a practical mind and you know, when we’d be fighting or doing whatever. I was always the one in the room to say, come on, man. We’re not going to be doing this. Let’s value what we have here.
Ohio Music Experience: Was it hard when everybody was going through their different addictions? At one point you wrote about getting into hallucinogenic drugs. With everything going on now and people getting depressed or going through tough times, what would you recommend?
Wheat: I don’t know. I mean, look. I think for us it was kind of, you take drugs because you’re curious right? And then you like ‘em and then you get bored and being on the road adds to that, but at a certain point, it’s a business and you’ve got to grow up and you’ve got to stop. Well, unfortunately for one of the guys in the band, he didn’t stop. He didn’t want to stop and he’s no longer there and the rest of us kept going. I can’t really speak on his behalf. Look, I took drugs. I liked ‘em. I’d be fucking lying if I told you I didn’t like them. I mean, I think anyone who took drugs liked them, but at a certain point you stop because you get older. You can’t do that anymore. It fucks up your business. Or both, and that’s what happened. It started fucking up our business and we made a conscious decision to stop.
Ohio Music Experience: In regards your health, you wrote about your Colitis and sometimes you’d be in a lot of pain and you just played through it. How did you do that?
Wheat: You grit your teeth and you muscle through it. I had to do it. It was my job. I had to get up there and get onstage. It was part of my job. I had people depending on me. I had the crowd depending on me. I had my business partners depending on me, and there was a couple of shows I missed because I couldn’t do it, but there were lots of times that I was in a lot of pain playing and you just put on your brave face and you go for it.
Ohio Music Experience: You wrote that you’re eating raw vegetables and working out to help your autoimmune issues. Is that still working? Have you had to change anything up?
Wheat: It’s a constant battle. The thing with the autoimmune disease and the Ulcerative colitis is that they don’t know what causes it and there’s no real cure for it. You just kind of try to get it into points where it’s in remission and those are good days, and sometimes there’re bad days. The stress is a big factor in it. If you’re stressed out, it can really trigger it, and I try to keep my stress levels down and that helps.
Ohio Music Experience: How do you do that?
Wheat: How do I do it? By meditation. Taking myself out of stressful situations. It’s a big thing. Trying to alleviate whatever stress I’m going through. You know, recognize what’s causing it and try to get rid of it.
Ohio Music Experience: You wrote “This was definitely the highlight of my life” when Jimmy Page was being honored in Seattle in 2015 and you played with him onstage.
Wheat: That was pretty cool, man. That was pretty much, you know, that was a big one.
Ohio Music Experience: He asked you what song you wanted to play?
Wheat: No, no. He didn’t ask me. He just said, look, only one song because he had got up there and he wasn’t planning on it. He said, “Rock and Roll”. I said, “ok, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Ohio Music Experience: You wrote that he’s the one who got you into collecting vinyl records. Are you still doing that?
Wheat: Absolutely! Yeah, yeah. I spoke with him over the Christmas season and yeah, I still collect vinyl. I’m not able to see him right now because he’s in lockdown in England and we’re in lockdown in America, but you know, he’s my pal. My pal Jimmy.
Ohio Music Experience: That’s really cool. You also wrote that you do a lot of traveling. You go to Italy a lot. Was it tough this year not being able to?
Wheat: Yeah, it’s tough. I haven’t been able to go since April, I think. The last time I was there was this time last year. That was the last time I was there for Christmas and New Year, and then I came back and we played those shows. Then after we played in February or whatever, we were off for a bit in March and then this whole Corona thing came up in March.
Ohio Music Experience: Hopefully by next summer live shows can come back. That’s what the word is. You wrote that when Tesla broke up, you said, “I don’t think a break up is imminent.”
Wheat: Well, that’s the best thing that ever happened to us.
Ohio Music Experience: Why is that?
Wheat: Well because it kind of humbled us and made us appreciate what we have. We’ve been together twenty years since the original break up in 95’, so we’ve been together twice as long as we were the first time. I think we have a lot more value for what we have together and appreciation and respect for it than we did at that point and time. I think the breakup had to happen. It had to happen for us all to kind of realize what we have, and you know, I tell people with this Covid thing, it’s a similar kind of thing because now when I speak to Jeff or Frank or Troy, it’s hey, I can’t wait to get back together and do stuff again, where it’s like another reverse If you will.
Ohio Music Experience: Are you still doing anything with Soulmotor (band that he and Frank Hannon started) or no?
Wheat: Yeah, Yeah. I’ve got a new record that’s done that I was going to put out, but with Covid, I didn’t want to put it out because I want to go play. I want to take the band and go do a month of shows in America with the band, so I’ve kind of been holding that back. So, as soon as they start allowing us to play and everything again, then I’ll put that record out, and you know Tesla will play and off time, I’ll go play with Soulmotor and Tesla will make a new record and I’m sure Soulmotor will make another record again as well.
Ohio Music Experience: So, you’ll be very busy. When you worked with Phil Collen when he produced Shock and he wrote “Save That Goodness”, what was that experience like?
Wheat: It was great! Phil’s a very positive, motivating guy. So, when he came on the picture you know, we were on tour with Def Leppard and he said, “look, I wrote this song. I think it would be good for your band.” I went, “OK. Let me hear it.” So, he played it. I went, “yeah, you’re right. Let’s play it for the guys.” So, we did and then we went in. We recorded it and put it out on this Tesla live Mechanical Resonance (Live) album as one of the bonus tracks, and we enjoyed working with him so much he said, “let’s try to do a full-length record.” So, we did and you know, it was real enjoyable. Phil’s a great guy. He’s a great songwriter. He’s a great musician. We had a great time and some people love the album. Some people hate the album, but that’s with every one of our records I imagine.
Ohio Music Experience: From the book it seems like Def Leppard was really there for you guys. You mentioned Joe Elliott who seemed to be a very positive influence throughout your career, as well as a friend.
Wheat: Yeah. He’s one of my best buddies as well.
Ohio Music Experience: Are you still doing the photography painting?
Wheat: Yeah, Yeah. I’m still doing that. I mean, obviously Covid has kind of slowed that up because they closed the galleries down so everything’s kind of been on hold.
Ohio Music Experience: Do you ever coordinate or consult with Rick Allen with his paintings?
Wheat: Not about art. No, no. Not too much but we do shows together. We do showings together. I’ve known Rick since we were young. I’ve known Rick since 1987 as well. Same as Joe. So, he’s like a brother. You know, there’s a kinship there. He does his art. I do my art. We belong to the same gallery, so sometimes they put us together especially like on the Monsters of Rock boat cruise.
Ohio Music Experience: Is that the Wentworth?
Wheat: Wentworth Gallery, yeah.
Ohio Music Experience: That’s nice, people can see your work on the Monsters of Rock Cruise?
Wheat: Yeah and then we were talking about this next cruise because I didn’t think Tesla was going to play this next one, that me and Rick would put together a little band and go on the cruise and do our art, and then have a little band together as well because Rick would get up and play with Tesla every night when we were on the cruise ‘cause he was on there promoting his art, so we’d bring him out and he’d play a song with us. And then Covid happened and everything just kind of stopped.
Ohio Music Experience: Well you have more home time with your dogs, right?
Wheat: Yep. They’re my kids.
Ohio Music Experience: You have four, right? Thelma,
Wheat: Louise, Alfalfa and Spanky. Yeah. They’re all Jack Russells.
Ohio Music Experience: That’s nice. You wrote about renovating your Victorian house into apartments that you rent out? You’ve got a lot of your plate!
Wheat: I’m a busy guy. Yeah.
Ohio Music Experience: I like that style too. It that your favorite architecture?
Wheat: Yeah, yeah.
Ohio Music Experience: Are you still collecting antiques?
Wheat: Not so much this year because I’ve been unemployed all year (laughed), but yeah, yeah. I mean, my wife’s still buying the odds. You know, we’ve been blessed. We have four houses. We have one in California still. A small one, and then we have one in New York and one in Texas and one in Italy. So, we’re always buying some cool piece of furniture. I don’t like new stuff too much. I don’t like modern architecture and I don’t like modern furniture and modern art really. So, I kind of lean toward the older stuff.
Ohio Music Experience: What inspires you to write songs?
Wheat: What inspires me to write songs? I don’t know. I mean, you know, it’s funny. I write for a purpose. Like if Tesla’s making a record. I say, “ok, I’ve got to go write some songs. Right?” So, I’m kind of weird that way in the sense like well, I need to go paint some pictures so I’ll paint some pictures. I got a show coming up. A Gallery show or I have a record coming. Tesla’s going to make a record, so I need to go write some songs or Soulmotor. I want to put a Soulmotor record out. So, I’ll go write some songs for that, but I don’t sit around writing songs all day long. I only do it when there’s a reason to do it, if that makes sense because I’m so busy doing all these other things. Like, I haven’t written a song in, well I take that back. I have because I’ve been working with these bands, developing. So, I’ve been co-writing with them, right? But I haven’t written a song for myself probably in six months. So, maybe I will you know, when Tesla get back together. If I’m playing my piano or something in my living room and something kind of sticks in my mind, I’ll pull out my phone and record the idea, and then you just sit and then I’ll go back to it and go, oh let me finish that, or that sucked. Never mind that one (he chuckled). It’s kind of that kind of thing.
Ohio Music Experience: Well that is something for fans to look forward to.
Wheat: I mean, like when we’re actually allowed to get back together and play and do concerts, then certainly, we’ll do some concerts, and then we’ll address making another record, and then it will be time to write some more songs. You know, Franks probably got 150 songs right now. He’s always writing and stuff. I write when it’s time to write and I think Jeff’s the same way. He writes when it’s time to write.
Ohio Music Experience: There was some funny stuff in the book. I actually laughed out loud when I read about the fan who told you he named his son after you and you said, “That’s cool, I haven’t met many boys called Tesla,” and he said, “no, I named him Brian Wheat,” and you said, “Ok, security”! Did you really? That was hilarious!
Wheat: Yeah, that was pretty funny. Yeah. Oh wow! I never met a boy named Tesla. He’s like, no I named him Brian Wheat. I’m like, Oh shit!
Ohio Music Experience: That’s quite an honor.
Wheat: Yeah. It kind of freaked me out a little bit.
Ohio Music Experience: In the epilogue you wrote you want people to walk away from the computer, walk away from bullies, stress. That you want them to believe in themselves. Is there anything you want to add for people to get out of the book overall?
Wheat: I think the overall thing is like look, if you have a dream, dreams can come true. Chase ‘em. I’m living proof. I was a kid. I had a dream and you know, I chased it. Worked hard and I achieved a lot of the things that I set out to achieve. Anyone can do it. You’ve just got to believe in yourself.
Ohio Music Experience: That’s very inspirational. Great advice. It’s a great book!