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Believe it or not, this is the first time Brian Wheat has ever done an interview for a bass guitar publication. Despite playing bass for Tesla, one of the most successful rock acts to survive the ’80s—thanks in large part to their hit, “Love Song,” which reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989—Wheat cites the band’s lack of image as part of the reason for such oversights. “We were like this imageless band,” he says, noting that they are often lumped into the “hair metal” category, even though they were basically just a jeans and t-shirt band, more akin to Aerosmith and AC/DC than Poison or Mötley Crüe. “It’s like if you saw us on the street, you wouldn’t know it was us,” he confides. “But if you heard us on the radio, you’d go, ‘Oh, I know that song.’ And that’s how I think we survive. On one hand, in the ’80s, we were bitching that we weren’t getting press and magazine coverage. On the other hand, I think it allowed us to have the longevity that maybe we wouldn’t have had. It’s a double-edged sword—you want what you want, but you get what you get.”

It’s kind of surprising to think that this is Wheat’s first interview in a bass publication considering the crafty bass lines he contributed to Tesla’s catalog. Although he can be somewhat self-deprecating when talking about his own playing style, his lines are often resourcefully implemented, providing the appropriate proportions of melody and groove. Check out the aforementioned “Love Song,” or “Signs” (their Five Man Electrical Band cover), or “Little Suzi” for prime examples of his simple, but effective, playing style—he clearly has the restraint to mostly lay back, and the intuitiveness to tastefully spice things up.

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The youngest of six children, Brian Wheat was born in 1963 in Sacramento, California. His passion for music started young, thanks to his older siblings’ record collections. Specifically, it was the 1966 Beatles album Revolver [Capitol] that lit the musical spark for him. “It literally changed my life,” he recalls. He eventually became a founding member of Tesla, named after inventor and radio pioneer Nikola Tesla. The band formed in 1985, also in Sacramento, out of an earlier, locally popular group called City Kidd, of which Wheat was a member. Within a year, Tesla was signed, and released their debut album, Mechanical Resonance [1986] on Geffen Records. It reached the Top 40 and eventually went platinum, thanks to the hits, “Modern Day Cowboy” and “Little Suzi.” However, it was their 1989 follow-up, The Great Radio Controversy [Geffen], that made the band world famous. The second single, an unconventional ballad called “Love Song,” which substituted a bit of hippie utopianism for the usual power ballad histrionics, hit the pop Top Ten, pushing The Great Radio Controversy into the Top 20 and solidifying the foundation for a 35-year-career that is still going strong. Tesla’s latest, and eighth, studio record, Shock, was released March 2019 on UMe, and was produced by good friend and Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen.

Wheat is currently on a break from Tesla’s Let’s Get Real! Tour, but we caught up with him earlier in 2021 when he was promoting his new book, Son of a Milkman: My Crazy Life with Tesla [Post Hill Press], written with Chris Epting and chronicling his career with the band. The impetus for writing a book actually dates all the way back to Tesla’s early days, when a doctor once suggested he take up writing as a way of easing anxiety. But back then, the idea of a book, after only his second album, seemed kind of whimsical. Fast forward 30 years and he reconsidered after reflecting upon Tesla’s accomplishments. “I started saying to myself, ‘Here’s a band that’s had a 35-year career, made several albums and is pretty well known throughout the world, so, maybe it makes sense to write a memo of my life story.’” Though he started the book about five years ago, he says it really only started to take shape once he hooked up with Epting, who helped Wheat wrangle the material into his own voice. “Now, it’s in my language,” he says. “It sounds like me talking. One of the things people have said when they read the book, is they feel like they’re sitting in a room having a beer, talking to me, telling stories.”

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Memoir writing aside, Wheat’s bread-and-butter is his “day-job” as the bass player and one of the primary songwriters in Tesla. When asked to describe his playing style, he comes up with the following assertion. “There are guys who are bass players, and then I think there are guys who play the bass,” he says. “I play the bass, I’m not a bass player. I appreciate guys like Flea and Geddy Lee, but Paul McCartney and John Deacon were probably my two favorites because they approached it from a more supportive perspective. If you listen to Paul early on, when they [the Beatles] were a straight-up pop band, he was just kind of playing the root. And then, Rubber Soul and songs like ‘You Won't See Me’ and ‘Drive My Car’—that’s still pretty fundamental. Even the bass line in ‘Something…’ [Abbey Road] it’s so busy, but that song wouldn’t be the same without it—somehow, it works.” Wheat’s other big influence was UFO’s Pete Way. “He looked so cool,” he attests. “And between Paul McCartney being the greatest musician/bass player/singer/songwriter ever, and Pete Way looking so cool, that made me want to play bass.” Another player he really liked and studied is James Jamerson. “I think if you grabbed a record of greatest hits from Motown and the White Album [the Beatles], and learned all that stuff, you’d be a pretty good bass player.”

Even though Wheat gravitated to bass as his musical voice of choice, he admits he’s been more focused on the art of songwriting throughout his career, than he has been on bass techniques. After all, it’s the songs that have enabled his livelihood. “I’m more precious about my songwriting, than my bass playing,” he affirms, and as evidenced by the fact that he mostly writes on piano or acoustic guitar. “You’ve got to stick with the template. Tesla is guitar rock—that’s the whole thing. And when you have a band like Tesla, with two guitar players playing solos and dual solos [harmonies], and a drummer who plays really free, someone’s got to hold down the fort—that’s me keeping that backbeat on the bass because the drums are going wild sometimes, and I’m fine with that.”

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While Wheat seems content to just “do his job” as a bass player, there’s clearly more to his style than meets the eye. “Because I’ve always gravitated more towards songs than musicianship, I’ve always been like, ‘How do you get something across with as few notes as possible?’ I’ll tell you, ‘Look, I only know five notes, but I play the fuck out of them [laughter].’” Strictly a pick player, because of the McCartney and Way influence, Wheat generally plucks one of three basses on stage and in the studio. “For the last 25 years, I’m either going to play my Hofner, which I’ve been playing since 1989, when we did the live Five Man Acoustical Jam record [Geffen, 1990], or I’m going to play an active Warwick Thumb 5-string or Gibson Thunderbird. On the first couple of albums I used Gibson Thunderbirds, but around the third album, Psychotic Supper [Geffen, 1991], I started using active basses, like the Warwick, or a Thunderbird with EMG pickups.” When it comes time to record, he’s been plugging straight into an Avalon U5 for the last 20 years or so. “It’s an Avalon with an SVT plug-in after,” he clarifies. “I don’t really use much anymore in the studio because the plugins have gotten so good.” Live, he relies on an old arena-rock standard: Ampeg SVTs and Ampeg 8X10 speaker cabinets. “I use two rigs, one EQ’d for my Hofner and the other rig for the more grindy, active sound.”

Wheat says that people often praise his tone, and it is his sound, rather than chops, that’s of paramount importance to his identity as a bassist and his role within Tesla. “People say I have really good tone,” he attests. “Tom Petersson [Cheap Trick] told me this when I was young, he said, ‘Dude, your tone is in your right [picking] hand.’ He said it doesn’t matter what amp you’re playing. It’s in your right hand. And he’s absolutely right. It’s the way you hit the strings—that’s how you get the tone. I guess if you asked Frank Hannon [Tesla guitarist, co-founder and de facto musical director] what he likes about my playing, he’d say, ‘Well, Brian’s really solid and even. You can just sit on it; you can go to sleep on it [laughter].’ That’s my right hand—the way I pick is really even and solid. That’s how I know how to do it—how I learned how to play. And that’s become the way I play after all these years.”

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Getting back to the topic of Tesla getting lumped in with “hair metal,” Wheat offers the following assessment. “It actually drives me fucking nuts,” he admits. “We are more like Badlands or the Black Crowes than Poison or Ratt or Mötley Crüe. And it’s because it’s said in such a condescending manner—that’s what irritates me. It’s like, ‘Oh, you guys weren’t good musicians.’ I think we are very good musicians and I think we play very well as a band, absolutely. And we wrote some pretty decent songs. The chemistry between us all works, and it’s been working for a long time.” –BM

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HEAR HIM ON

Shock, Tesla [UMe, 2019]

GEAR

Basses Hofner Violin, Gibson Thunderbird (with EMG pickups),

Warwick Thumb BO 5-string

Amps Ampeg SVT-CL, Ampeg SVT-810E

Strings D’Addario EXL165 [.045 - .105]

Picks Jim Dunlop Tortex Standard .73mm (yellow)

MORE ONLINE

For more info on Brian Wheat’s autobiography, Son of a Milkman: My Crazy Life with Tesla: Click Here

For Tesla tour dates: Click Here