Brian Wheat has been the bassist for popular rock band Tesla for more than 37 years. Throughout that time, he’s enjoyed sharing hit singles with his bandmates, like Call It What You Want, Signs and Love Song, but he’s also faced a lot of demons along the way.
In his new book, Son Of A Milkman, Brian tackles all those demons head on, but he does it with humour and honesty.
For fans, music lovers and those who like a good read, Son Of A Milkman, is a great way to spend a few intimate hours with someone that starts out as a rockstar and quickly becomes your friend.
Congratulations on the new book. What inspired you to write it and why now?
Well, I’m 58 and Tesla has been a band for 37 years, so those two things, I think there’s enough time in this story to make a good story. What inspired me to write it? It was brought up to me by my psychiatrist, back in 1990, that one day I should consider writing a book because it’s a great way to let things go that you keep internalized. So at the time, when he said that, I was only on my second album, and no one really would want to read a book about Brian Wheat, a bass player in a band called Tesla. We hadn’t achieved huge success yet, so why would someone bother? That’s that side of it.
When I turned 50, I decided, “Well, you know what? I’m 50. The band’s been together 25 years. Let me attempt at telling my story.” It started out and the book changed. It went from being more about Tesla to more about me and my health and some of the things I deal with, anxiety and depression and all these other things, so where it started eight years ago and where it ended up are two different things. But I guess that could answer your question why I decided to do a book and what inspired me.
Back in 1990, did you start taking notes?
No. It was just an idea that was sparked, and I never thought, “Well, I’ll take notes and do this seriously.” It just shot off me like water off a duck’s back, but that was the first time it was ever mentioned. Like I said, when I hit 50, I went, “Ah,” and I remembered Mike telling me that and had seen some other people had done books, people that were my peers, Duff McKagan, people that had been in bands that were my contemporaries at the time. I went, “Well, maybe I’ll do a book.”
It’s quite an undertaking. To say you’re going to do a book and actually do a book and finish a book is two different things. There’s a lot that goes into it, which I didn’t realize. But everything I start, I try to finish, so once I pulled the trigger on starting this, I saw it all the way through.
Fans tend to look up to their rock stars as heroes. Was it difficult to share your weaknesses knowing that?
No. I was telling my story. That’s the whole thing. If I was going to try to make me look like a hero, I’d be writing a book for the fans, how maybe they want to perceive me or who they perceive me as. I was writing my story. Having said that, maybe there are other people that , you know, that’s a good point because they may look up to their rock stars as heroes and never think that those heroes would suffer from maybe some of the same everyday things that the fans suffer from. They might almost think we’re superhuman or something, that we don’t have colitis or depression or anxiety, or bulimia, or fight with their family or whatever. So I put that out there for them like, “Look, I go through these things, too. I’m just like you. I just happen to sing Signs for my paycheck. That’s what I do.”
I can actually relate to that because I’ve had many great interview opportunities over the years, but because of my weight and because of the way I feel, a lot of times I was too self-conscious to take photos. I look back now and I’m like, “I should have probably took a photo.”
Well, I’ve done the same thing. I don’t like my pictures taken, especially if I’m bloated from Prednisone or whatever. Some of the medications put weight on me that I have to take, and I don’t like my picture taken, so I can relate to it. There you go, see?
Me and you were relating to something. You would think that all I want to do is have my picture taken, and it’s the least thing I want to have done, to be quite honest with you.
I have a bit of a little backstory, because I was lucky enough to catch you guys and interview Frank, when you were with Def Leppard on the first tour in Ottawa. I brought along the band’s first press photo to get signed, but the record
company took it away from me and replaced it with a newer one, explaining that you were uncomfortable with it. That was the first time for me and just made me stand back a little and go, “Oh, wow.”
Yeah. It’s not the most flattering picture of myself, is it?
When you look at now, how do you feel?
I mean today, I would sign it because I’m okay with it. But it’s one of those things, where I was that fat kid, and I had to lose all this weight and stuff, and you don’t want to. I wasn’t even aware that they took the photo away from you. I wouldn’t have told them to do that. They know I never liked that picture, for obvious reasons.
Of course. Here you are, you’ve achieved the first album, and you want to try and be the best you can be, right?
Right, and I lost all that weight, from the first album on. That picture was taken before the record was finished. Then, when we started the David Lee Roth tour, I’d lost 75 pounds. I maintained that image until my colitis kicked in the year 2000 and I had to go back on Prednisone. It put all this weight back on me, and I’ve struggled for the last 15 years with my weight. That’s why, if you see pictures of me, sometimes I look better, thinner. Then, it’s, “Oh, he’s gaining weight again. He must be gone to the donut shop.” Well, that’s not the case at all. I’ve had to take this medication that puts weight on you, so I could go out and play and continue my life. It’s a constant teeter-totter, if you will, tug of war of maintaining these things.
When you went out on that first tour, were you working hard at losing weight or did it just happen because you were on tour?
No, no, I worked very hard at it.
What were some of the things you did?
For one thing I had to diet, and my exercise regime was crazy. It was two hours a day.
Yeah, and you can keep that up when you’re young. When you get 50 years old, you try exercising two hours a day. It’s hard. Your knees are all fucked up from jumping around stage all those years. The autoimmune is taking a toll on your body. Your joints hurt. Look, I’m not looking for sympathy. That’s the last thing I want. I was just saying, “Look, these are the things that I go through to do what I do. This is my story.” I just did a podcast with a guy in Montreal and he’s got colitis as well. He’s like, “Dude, I’m connected with you.”
That’s what I hope happens from the book, that people that are suffering from colitis or Crohn’s, or depression and anxiety, they got someone that they feel that maybe they can connect with. It will make them talk to other people because talking about these things helps each other, especially with depression.
How are you making out now health wise?
I’m okay. It’s up and down. Obviously, this year, 2020, wasn’t good for my depression.
It wasn’t good for anybody.
But I’m okay. I think a lot of people are suffering from depression. The anxiety is in a pretty good place, and the autoimmune disease is okay. This year was okay. It wasn’t a bad year. The last really bad year I had was 2009. Then, I’ve had about 10 pretty good years, where I got pretty healthy. It’s a balancing act, and you just got to try to balance it. It’s hard if you’re out on tour playing 120 shows a year. That kind of stuff is not a conducive lifestyle to someone with an autoimmune disease.
I caught that first tour, and then, interestingly enough, in 2009, I caught you guys in London, Ontario and again with Def Leppard. You guys have a real connection. There’s Joe, who wrote your book forward, and Phil produced Shock. That’s the stuff everybody knows, but there must be a deep friendship there with thos
Yeah. We’re pretty friendly with them. We have a lot of similarities. They took us under their wing on the Hysteria tour. We were just starting out. They’ve encouraged us to write songs. They have always been very encouraging, and there is a pretty deep friendship. The one band that we’re the closest to, of any band out there, is Def Leppard, as far as the camaraderie.
Do you think that touring and working with Def Leppard actually make you guys better?
Absolutely. They’re a pretty good act and having to play before them and try to stay in the same ballpark makes you a better band.
I remember the first tour was in the round because Def Leppard had the round set up for that show. As I was backstage, because I just finished interviewing Frank, he had showed me laundry hampers. He said, “That’s how the Def Leppard guys get to the stage.” Is that how you guys got to the stage?
Well, that’s how they got there. They wheeled them out in these laundry hampers. People just thought it was whatever. No, with us, the lights went out, and then we ran up through the halls or the aisles to the stage and got on the stage. But with Leppard, the lights went out, and they were already on stage. They were snuck into the bottom of the stage by these laundry hampers.
A very clever way of doing it.
Yeah, it was.
You added a lot of humor to your book. Is that one way that maybe you’re coping with your story?
Well, I think anytime you talk about subjects that are heavy and matter to you, if you make light of them, it’s easier to deal with them. So I approached it with humor, as well. I think you got to be able to laugh at yourself.
In the book, you mentioned you became friends with Jimmy Page. That’s a dream millions of fans have. What was it like, and was it what you envisioned?
No, it was way more. Jimmy’s a very kind, giving, humble man. Next to the word gentleman in the dictionary, you would see Jimmy Page’s picture. He’s a true English gentleman. The whole thing is really surreal because I was such a fan. I still am such a fan, admirer, of Jimmy’s work. But when I was a kid, him and Paul McCartney were these two larger than life rock stars that were my heroes. I was lucky enough to meet Paul a couple of times. But to become friends with Jimmy and actually be his friend, that’s pretty cool, man. If you would have told me that when I was 15, I would have said you were nuts.
Earlier, we talked a little bit about that first photo. On your book, you look great on the cover by the way, but you chose a killer guitar for that one. Why that guitar specifically?
Well, there’s this one guy that plays that same guitar. He’s a little bit bigger than me. He’s my hero. Paul McCartney is my hero. I’ve had a Hofner since the second album. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get one. Then, once I made some money, I bought a Hofner. Stuff like The Way it Is and Love Song on Great Radio Controversy, that’s me playing a Hofner. What You Give, obviously the Five Man Acoustic Jam, I played the Hofner the whole night.
It just happened to be one of the pictures that was taken in my dressing room a couple of years ago. If you see us play, I’m either playing a Gibson Thunderbird or a Hofner. That’s all I played my whole career on stage. The original cover was going to be a headshot of me, but we couldn’t find the high res picture, so that picture actually was the second choice. It was just me in my dressing room before we went on stage because I keep a little Hofner in my dressing room to warm up with. Oliver grabbed the camera and took the photo. Looking back at it, there was three or four ideas for what would be a cover, and that’s the one we chose.
But that is the iconic Hofner bass that Paul McCartney played in his whole career. Because of that, I decided that I was going to play a Hofner. It’s no little different than seeing Jimmy Page playing a Les Paul and Slash playing a Les Paul. You know what I mean? Same thing. I mean we’re all fans of music. Just like Paul was a fan of Elvis and Buddy Holly and Little Richard, Jimmy was a fan of the same kind of guys, and me and Slash are fans of Jimmy Page or me, being a bass player, Paul McCartney. Then, the other thing is I play a Gibson Thunderbird because Pete Way played one in UFO, who was another big hero of mine that I became friends with.
Tell me about the other guitar. What are the differences between the two guitars that you like?
Well, one is more for rock stuff, like Coming at You Live or Modern Day Cowboy or Easy Come Easy Go, or Edison’s Medicine, Heaven’s Trail. The other one, which is the Hofner, has a softer sound. So on the more ballady, mid-tempo things that Tesla’s so good at doing, Way It Is, Love Song, Signs, What You Give, those were all played on the Hofner. Honestly, it’s my favorite bass to play because it’s really easy to play. It’s got a little bit shorter neck and center. I have small hands, so it’s easier for me to get to certain positions on it.
It’s interesting that there’s two basses and one for each style of music. It’s almost like that’s the band itself. You can have fans that really enjoy the slower stuff, and then you have fans that really like the rock stuff. Tesla’s a band that could be looked at in two different ways.
Yeah, absolutely, actually three. There’s the softer stuff, the acoustic stuff, and the rock stuff.
I tell people Tesla are more like a Foreigner or a Bad Company than like Poison or Motley Crue, when you get into this thing of people saying, “Well, Tesla, we’re a hair band.” They say it in a condescending way. It’s like, “Well, wait a minute, you didn’t call the Black Crows, the hair band,” and we were more similar to the Black Crows than some of our contemporaries at the time, in the 80s. We only got one cover of one magazine in our whole career, where all those “hair bands” were all over the magazines all the time, whether it was Cinderella or Motley Crue or Poison or Warrant or whoever they were at the time – they all had big hair.
You can tell that difference because the first album was a lot heavier and really straightforward rock. Then, the band progressed as each album went along, and the sound really developed. Was the sound that you guys ended up at, with the last few albums, more of what you really envisioned in the first place, or did it just happen?
I think it’s just evolved over time.
Was there any effort to improve the sound every time? I’m sure the answer’s yes.
Yes, you always try to make a record better than the last one. You always want to grow.
You begin and end the book with Chris Cornell. How important is Chris to you? He’s obviously important to telling your story because he opens and closes it pretty much.
Well, I only met Chris Cornell one time. The one thing about that meeting is that he had told me about how he was suffering from anxiety. I had never talked to anybody else in a band that ever told me they were suffering from anxiety, so that’s what struck me at our meeting. I didn’t know him. I don’t know that I closed the book. I talk about that in the beginning. Is that in the end?
Yeah, there’s a little bit there.
Oh, well yeah, that must have been Chris Epting’s doing.
Briefly tell me about enhanced photography. I’m a concert photographer, so I’m curious.
Enhanced photography is this art form that I do where I take pictures, mostly travel pictures, all over the world. I put them on canvas. Then I take acrylic paint, and I paint on certain aspects of the pictures. Then, I put this clear gel over the top of that. That makes it have a texture, and that becomes enhanced photography. That’s what I do.
What does enhanced photography mean to you?
Well, it’s a therapy thing. I mean I go on trips to relax, and I take my camera because I like taking photographs. Then, when I actually started painting on them, it became a therapeutic thing.
Lastly, COVID has slowed everything down. Is there anything on the horizon for you or for Tesla?
Well, as soon as they lift all this stuff, you bet your ass we’ll be back playing again.
Has it affected you not being able to play?
Well, it’s affected me in many ways. The one thing, this is my job, so I’ve been unemployed for a year. That the one thing, and then the other thing is that this is the most I’ve sat in one place in 20 years. I’m used to being on the road every other month, so that’s affected me. Like I said, people are suffering from depression and anxiety from this COVID thing. We’re in a crazy time right now.
For more information on what Tesla’s upto check out their website: teslatheband.com