Interviews & Features
Tesla Turns 30
Frank Hannon talks about guitars, stars — and Tesla cars
By Gary Graff
February 3, 2017
Naming your band after a 19th and 20th Century engineer and inventor doesn’t sound very rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s worked out just fine for Tesla. The group from Sacramento, Calif., celebrated its 35th anniversary last year, as well as the 30th anniversary of its debut album, Mechanical Resonance. Its hard rock was forged in the sound of post-Van Halen California, but Tesla’s breakthrough ironically came via 1990’s Five Man Acoustical Jam, a platinum set that launched a hit cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs.” Tesla broke up for a few years during the late ‘90s, but the group has been going strong again since 2000, with another new album, produced by Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, currently in the works. Guitarist and co-founder Frank Hannon shared his views on all this while at home, just before heading out on a new leg of the Mechanical Resonance 30th anniversary tour…
FGPO: Tesla has reached 30, and beyond. Pretty surreal. Was this a band that was built to last like that?
Hannon: Well, absolutely it was. But it wasn’t our idea, really. We were so young. But we had some great mentors. When I was 15, 16 years old, we were playing the clubs and writing our own songs and trying to get established, but in order to get a gig you had to play some pretty sappy music, so we were playing the Top 40 of the day. And Ronnie Montrose discovered us and he saw our talent and said: “You guys are gonna go far, but you need to get away from playing these cover tunes and write songs with grit, from your heart, that are real.” So he gave us that good advice.
FGPO: That’s a real artist’s point of view though. Did you have trouble getting that kind of buy-in from the industry?
Hannon: Well, flash forward a few years later and we got discovered by Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, who were managing AC/DC and Def Leppard and Metallica with their company [Q Prime]. We were getting ready to record our first album and sorting through all our songs and writing more songs when Cliff and Peter said: “Guys, remain true to yourself and write songs that are quality. Make an album from start to finish, don’t just write one good song and a bunch of shitty, sappy songs.” They said: “IF you want to have a career and you want to be around in 40 years, make sure you write songs that are from your heart.” We were gonna do that anyway, but it really helped to have them feel that way and be in our corner.
FGPO: You talk about Montrose and the rest of the stable at Q Prime, and you grew up in some pretty heady guitar company. What kind of impact did that make on you?
Hannon: Well, gosh, it’s an honor to share the stage with Def Leppard and Scorpions and the people that we’ve done things with. When I was younger, it inspired me to be as competitive and play as good as I can. But now that I’m older, I realize, again, it’s about the songs and being able to write a song and keep it simple.
FGPO: So you approach the playing more as a songwriter than a guitarist, then?
Hannon: I think so, yeah. Being a great guitar player really isn’t how technically advanced or how fast you play it. It’s really how slow you can play and how much feeling you can put into it. I’ve tried not to think about it too much; I just try to make recordings and demos and try to play with a lot of feeling, and that’s pretty much all you can do.
FGPO: Who were your greatest influences along the way?
Hannon: I started out when I was 10 years old, and I was very blessed to have caught the tail end of a great era of music, the mid-70s. The trend in the mid-70s was live — quote unquote — albums. And the whole live album experience — Frampton Comes Alive, Ted Nugent Double Live Gonzo, Jimi Hendrix Live At Monterey, Band of Gypsys live, the Allman Brothers live, Lynyrd Skynyrd — these live albums were phenomenal, and as a kid that’s what made me want to do it. Just hearing that audience and hearing that electric guitar and the singer communicate with the audience. To me that’s the ultimate experience, even now.
FGPO: Were you always a guitarist or is there a secret accordion virtuoso or something in you?
Hannon: [laughs] I started off playing the organ with my grandmother. She had a Wurlitzer organ in her living room, and she taught me how to play melodies like “Ramblin’ Rose” and stuff like that when I was five or six years old. Then my next choice was drums; I got a cheap little drum kit, but I didn’t like that and immediately switched to guitar in 1976 when I got the Frampton Comes Alive album for my birthday.
FGPO: You play banjo, too, at least in the video for Tesla’s new song “Save That Goodness.”
Hannon: I fool around on a lot of stuff. Because I like to make demos and I like to record, I like to learn any instrument that I can get my hands on. Some of them are more difficult than others — like, I haven’t been able to get a good sound out of a fiddle, a violin, and I’ve been trying to do that for years. But I like to play the flute; I love the way Ann Wilson from Heart plays, and Jethro Tull.
FGPO: A guitarist first and foremost, though?
Hannon: My favorite instrument, honestly — you’d be surprised — is bass. I love playing bass guitar, and I love playing bass like a bass player, with my fingers and putting rests and pop in and, like, silence between the notes and that kind of stuff. And the reason I love it is because when I make a home recording and demos, you have to learn all the instruments to make them sound good.
FGPO: A great irony in Tesla’s career, of course, is that this hard rockin’ band broke through with an acoustic project. What was that like?
Hannon: That was just a matter of timing, of era and an accident that happened. We just accidentally played some acoustic gigs and recorded one of them out of necessity, when we had a day off, and…boom. But, y’know, we always put acoustics on our albums. On the Mechanical Resonance, there’s acoustic solos I did on there. Ronnie Montrose had us playing acoustic guitars on some things, and half of Frampton Comes Alive is acoustic. Some of Led Zeppelin’s greatest songs are acoustic. Keith Richards plays great acoustic on “Wild Horses.” Music is multidimensional, man, and I love to explore in all dimensions of it. I don’t like to be narrow minded, and I really like to experiment with different things. I admire people who are one-dimensional; AC/DC, Carlos Santana has one thing and he does it great. I admire those people, but I’m not like that. I like to play everything and learn everything.
FGPO: You’re working on a new album with Phil Collen from Def Leppard. How’s that going?
Hannon: I’d say we’re about 80 percent done. We have about 10 songs that are 90 percent done and we’re going to do some more. Phil has mentored us now for a couple of years, sort of like Ronnie did. He’s been offering us lots of great advice and teaching us a lot of techniques he learned from Mutt Lange, the stuff he learned on the Def Leppard records like Pyromania. It’s going really well. He’s really put a shot in the arm for Tesla. He’s been a big fan of Tesla since 1989, when we first met him.
FGPO: So what’s it sounding like?
Hannon: It’s sounding like the same as all of our albums — from the heart and multi-dimensional, with different instruments. I did a mandolin solo on one of the songs the other day. But it’s advanced in production. Phil is showing us those tricks of getting your guitar to sound a certain way that I’ve never known. He’s applied a lot of that technique to the new record and it’s taking it up a level.
FGPO: The Tesla car — is that good or bad for a band named Tesla?
Hannon: [laughs] A lot more people are saying the word Tesla now. We have to sometimes clarify: “Oh, we’re talking about the band, not the car.” But it’s great because if anything it’ll bring more awareness to Nikola Tesla. He’s the namesake and he got the short end of the stick. He was responsible for almost everything we enjoy today, like this iPhone I’m holding in my hand, alternating current, radio, electricity, satellites — all of that stuff, Nikola Tesla was dreaming up and giving his ideas to other people and he got ripped off. So Tesla the band, Tesla the car, I think there’s even a Tesla guitar company that’s coming out, all of that should go back to Nikola Tesla ’cause he deserves the credit.