Tesla bassist on his new memoir, Son of A Milkman
By Gary Graff
February 8, 2021
The title of Brian Wheat’s new memoir – Son of a Milkman: My Crazy Life with Tesla – certainly indicates what’s included in its pages. Wheat is referring to the band, not the car (nor the inventor), of course. Formed by Wheat and guitarist Frank Hannon (as City Kidd) in 1981, the group has scored five platinum-or-better albums along with rock radio hits such as “Love Song,” “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)” and its unplugged cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs.” Wheat has led the group through two incarnations, reforming in 2000 after a four-year breakup, and also co-founded the band Soulmotor. In Son of a Milkman he offers a straightforward account of life as a rock star, mostly upbeat despite battles with substance abuse, anxiety, depression, weight issues, bulimia and colitis. It’s one man’s journey through the music world, and it’s fair to say you don’t need to be a Tesla fan to take the ride.
FBPO: Why a book?
Wheat: I had thought about writing a book for awhile, and it was first brought up, I think, in 1991 when I was in therapy. My doctor at the time said, “You should consider writing a book one day because it will help you let go of some of the things you keep inside.” I thought, “Yeah, OK, maybe so,” but at that time there wasn’t that much of a story to tell. We were only on our second album. Flash forward 30 years and you go, “Well, I’m approaching 60. The band’s been around 36, 37 years. Maybe it’s time to actually write a memoir,” so here it is.
FBPO: It’s been a dramatic and even troubled life. What’s the story you wanted to tell?
Wheat: The underlying thing is that no matter what life throws at you, you keep moving forward and you keep trying to do your best. That’s what I hope people get out of the book. Yeah, I’ve had some bad things come at me and stuff, but I deal with them and I do the best I can and come out still standing. The one thing I don’t want people to do is pity me or feel sad or bad for me. Trust me, I’m fine. Doing this (book), I learned that if you let things go and put them out in the universe, it can be liberating…and maybe I can help some people let go of their (stuff) too.
FBPO: How did you gravitate to playing bass?
Wheat: It was Paul McCartney. Paul McCartney was the reason I got into music. He was my first thing I could ever really recall listening to outside of those little kiddie records you had, Donald Duck or somebody singing to you. When I snuck into my brother’s room and grabbed one of his records, it was Revolver; I grabbed it ’cause it looked like a cartoon to me, that pencil-drawn Klaus Voorman cover. I put it on my shitty little record play, and “Taxman,” the first song, had a scratch, so the next song I played was “Eleanor Rigby,” and when I heard that, that sound of McCartney’s voice double-tracked and the strings and everything, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. From that moment on I became a Beatle fanatic and mainly a Paul McCartney fanatic. His voice just did something to me. And he was a bass player, so I wound up playing bass because I wanted to be like Paul. If he had been a drummer, I would’ve wanted to be a drummer, too. And when I saw he played the piano, I learned how to play the piano.
FBPO: And your first bass…
Wheat: I bought it. I sold my Schwinn 10-speed for $50 and bought a used Mosrite, and that was my first bass. I started playing in a garage, like all kids do. Then, when I met Frank, he was such a higher level of player than I was, it forced me to play up to his level. And he taught me a lot about the bass. He taught me how to play the bass in terms of that kind of rock ‘n’ roll band set-up, if you will.
FBPO: As you noted, it’s been a good, long run for Tesla. What kind of perspective did the book give you on the band and its legacy?
Wheat: When I read it as a whole and realized all the shit we’ve gone through as a band, the ups and downs, I was really proud of the fact we’re still here and we’re still working and people are coming to see us. We’ve overcome whatever personal struggles we’ve had, or collective struggles, to keep the thing intact and going in a positive direction. That does make me really proud.
FBPO: Do you have a sense of what worked so well back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
Wheat: I think it was the fact we were kind of an alternative to the bands that were out there at the time. We were more of a blues-based, melodic rock band and some of our contemporaries were a bit more glittery. We were a bit more like a newer version of Bad Company where you had your Mötleys and your Cinderella’s and Ratt and all that stuff. Tesla kind of carved out a little niche that was different than those bands, just like someone like the Black Crowes carved out a niche for themselves. And the songs were encouraging, which I think people gravitated to as well.
FBPO: Do you think that was partly a function of coming from Sacramento rather than the Sunset Strip?
Wheat: I think a lot of it is, yeah. We didn’t go to L.A. to make it. We weren’t on that scene with all those other bands. They were kind of similar to each other ’cause they were competing for the best spot at the Roxy or the Troubadour or Gazzarri’s. We were pretty far removed from that. All we had was our Humble Pie and Bad Company and Aerosmith records — Led Zeppelin as well. That’s where we drew our stuff from. So we were different.
FBPO: How did you wind up being the guy in charge of the band at this juncture?
Wheat: I didn’t really want it to be that way, (laughs) so it’s funny how that happened. It just kind of happened. I was always, like, the liaison between us and the record guys and us and the managers. And then when we got back together it was because I was that guy. I kind of looked after the business side of the band the best I could, and that’s my role. I’m the one that tries to keep everyone together and going down a positive path.
FBPO: Has it gotten easier over the years?
Wheat: There are times it’s hard and times it’s easy. When it’s hard it messes with my anxiety and stress. But when everything is running smooth it’s actually pretty easy. But we’re humans. We have ups and downs and we have mood swing sand stuff. Nothing’s easy in life. If you work at Tesla the car company, Elon Musk probably has challenges as much as Brian Wheat does with Tesla the band company. That’s the way life is. But I’ve come to terms with it. Over the years I used to try to battle it and wrestle it, but now I’ve come to terms with it. There’s gonna be some great times and some shitty times and I just try to endure ’em both.
FBPO: What kind of relationship does the band have with Tesla Motors, if any?
Wheat: It’s funny; When you say, “It’s Brian from Tesla,” they’re like, “Oh, the car company?'” “Yeah, I’m the sales representative.” (laughs) The car has surpassed the popularity of the band by a long shot, but that’s OK. I saw a picture of (Elon Musk) wearing a Tesla (band) shirt at Sundance. We reached out to his executive assistant and sent him some shirts and he sent us back some Tesla (car) shirts. We invited him to a show but he couldn’t make it, and then he invited us to the plant but we were not able to go over there. We just keep missing each other, but I’m sure our paths will cross someday. It certainly would be a good photo opportunity.
FBPO: In the book you write about your unique friendship with Jimmy Page. That must be quite a perk of the whole trip.
Wheat: When I was a kid and had his picture on my wall, Led Zeppelin posters and stuff, if you would’ve told me, “One day you’ll be good friends with him,” I would’ve told you you were nuts. But he is a real friend. He’s such a great guy, and a lovely man. When we hang out we talk about books and food and photography and buildings and history. The last thing we talk about is Led Zeppelin. A few years back I played with him at a thing in Seattle, a celebration of Jimmy’s career. I played with Paul Rodgers and did some of The Firm stuff, and then Jimmy got up and played. We did “‘Rock and Roll” and that’s the one time I was like, “That’s Jimmy fucking Page! Whoaaaaa! I’m playing with Jimmy Page!'”
Brian’s book, Son of A Milkman: My Crazy Life With Tesla, is available here:
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.