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My Own Worst Enemy: An Exclusive Interview With BRIAN WHEAT Of TESLA

By Ruben Mosqueda, Contributor
Monday, December 14, 2020 @ 11:28 AM

"I want to be crystal clear, I have never thought about suicide. It’s never been on the table, but I finally did understand how it could be so overwhelming for someone that suicide would be their only way out."

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Photos By Thomas Coffman Photography & Travis Failey

This is my last KNAC.COM interview for the year and it’s probably the most candid one to date. On December 10th, 2020 I spoke with TESLA bassist Brian Wheat who has an autobiography Son Of A Milkman: My Crazy Life With TESLA due on December 15th. This is a ‘tell all’ like you have never read before, Wheat talks about his battle with anxiety disorder, depression, an autoimmune disease, a bout with an eating disorder, and his childhood where he was literally the son of a milkman like the title says. Let’s not forget, he’s also part of one of the best no frills, blue collar, rock ‘n’ roll bands from the 80s--TESLA. They are still very active. Well, until COVID-19 but then again the whole music world is on hold for now. What a great opportunity to pick up a copy of Brian’s fantastic book and dig in.

KNAC.COM: I have great memories of TESLA playing in Portland, Oregon. DJ Bill Prescott who worked at KGON and then KUFO was a huge supporter.

WHEAT: He was the first to play us when he was at KZAP in Sacramento. We’ve had a long relationship with him. He’s a great guy.

KNAC.COM: Bill Prescott is a good dude, he had the morning show on KUFO with former KNAC DJ the late Tawn Mastery.

WHEAT: That’s right! I remember it well, they were supportive of TESLA. And now here on KNAC.COM talking about the book. This isn’t your typical rock ‘n’ roll autobiography. This isn’t an 'I partied with Keith Richards' and stuff like that. I bare it all in this book, it’s about me, I’m not much different than you, I just happen to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band you know.

KNAC.COM: When did you make the commitment to write Son of A Milkman? What was the length of time that you spent working on this book?

WHEAT: It was a total of about five years in the making. I wanted to write a book that was honest and that laid it all out there for people. It’s not ‘very rock ‘n’ roll’ because it’s not a rock ‘n’ roll book! [laughs] I wasn’t interested in writing a book about all these chicks that I fucked and all the drugs that I used. I wanted people to know that I’m like them, I suffer from everyday stuff like the guy that works at WalMart does. I have health issues, mental health issues, self-esteem issues.

KNAC.COM: The book flows very well, it’s an easy read and a book that you don’t want to put down. I had to last night because I had to eventually get some sleep. The best autobiographies are those where the writer shares stuff that fans didn’t know anything about. You shared about your childhood, health and your challenges with depression and anxiety disorder. Was writing Son of a Milkman therapeutic for you? Did you have to go through rewrites, because perhaps you thought you shared stuff that was too personal?

WHEAT: It was therapeutic for me. I think me writing this book was part of my therapy to tell you the truth. I think that by writing this book, putting it out there, it did liberate me to some extent. It was so good to let go of all of these things that I have been holding inside for all of these years. I think there were a couple of things that I changed or took out because it might have been a bit too personal, but I didn’t have to change too much. I started like I said five years ago, I went through a couple different drafts. I started with Pete Makowski in England who used to write for Sounds Magazine. I did a lot of the writing with a close friend who has been with TESLA since the beginning. His name is Kenny Nicholson. When that draft was finished I sent it around to get some opinions and feedback. I wanted it to read just like an interview, like a chronological interview. That’s when I got together with Chris Epstien who is a professional writer and who does these kinds of books. He and I really hit it off and we worked on the draft and the end result is what is now the book. There were things that were rewritten or were changed once I sat down with Chris and we started working on the draft. I might have softened up my stance on something or I might have felt in some instances where I might have needed to make more of a point on something.

KNAC.COM: How do you handle an anxiety attack while onstage? You talked about having a difficult time on the tour with DEF LEPPARD in 2019. What are some coping skills that you have developed?

WHEAT: It is in how you cope with it. Like you said, we were on tour last year with DEF LEPPARD across Canada. Every night we play to sold-out arenas to 15-20 thousand people. I’m having anxiety attacks every night! There I am on stage coping through it by telling myself ”I have to get through the set”. Then my mind is racing and I tell myself “I can’t forget the set”. I’m going all these different directions. It was unsettling because it was the most unfocused that I have ever been on a tour in my whole career. I found myself asking “Why now? Why at this point in my career? Things should be amazing at this point”. There I was still struggling with this anxiety and these attacks followed by this depression. You learn to cope with it and that was one of the benefits of the therapy. Dr. Herschkopf helped me deal with it on my own with self-talk and talk myself off the ledge. That’s what you do because your mind does all of these things simultaneously while you’re trying to play “Little Suzi” on stage! [laughs]

KNAC.COM: Anxiety is debilitating. It’s like standing on a diving board 50 feet above the pool, not knowing how to swim and someone is on the other end sawing the board.

WHEAT: That’s exactly it! It’s fight or flight and irrational thoughts and a sense of overwhelming dread. That's the scariest part of it, then when you get derealization it feels like you’re having an out of body experience. When that happens it takes it to a whole other level of fucking freakines.

KNAC.COM: You spent some time with the late, great Chris Cornell, who as we know lost his battle with mental health disorder and possibly substance. What did you take away from your time with Chris? He opened up to you about it and you didn’t know him that well at the time.

WHEAT: Ross Halfin, my friend who is a famous rock photographer was going out to do a photo session with Chris. I happened to be out in L.A. hanging out with Ross. I had my car with me and he asked if I would drive us around to some places to get some shots. Ross was in the back seat and Chris was in the passenger seat. We were driving around and Chris and I started talking, just general chit-chat about this, that or the other. Somehow we got on the topic of anxiety attacks. Chris said, “I get these panic attacks”. I was like, “I get them too. I have had them since I was 14 years old”. We shared stories about our anxiety and panic attacks and I never saw him after that. It wasn’t too long after that he committed suicide and died. It was a real drag because I was a fan of his. I love his music and he is an amazing singer. He was the only guy that I had met that had anxiety attacks, because it isn’t very rock ‘n’ roll.

KNAC.COM: You spoke about the impact that his death had on you. You also mentioned the Chester Bennington and Anthony Bourdain deaths.

WHEAT: The point I was trying to make there with Anthony Bourdain, Chris and Chester is that they passed close to the same time. I don’t understand how things can be so bad that someone could take their own life. I have anxiety and I have been depressed, but I couldn’t understand that level of depression until I was on tour in the summer of 2019 with DEF LEPPARD. I was so overwhelmed by that depression. I want to be crystal clear, I have never thought about suicide. It’s never been on the table, but I finally did understand how it could be so overwhelming for someone that suicide would be their only way out.

KNAC.COM: You spoke candidly about struggling with your self image which has been attributed to struggles with weight that lead to an eating disorder. Guys have these issues, it’s something that isn’t talked about. It’s like it’s a ‘woman’s thing’. There was a statement you made where you wanted to bust out your best Pete Way [UFO] moves, but elected to hang back by the drum riser instead.

WHEAT: Yeah, people think that those things are exclusive to ‘supermodels’ or something but it’s not. The fact of the matter is I was a fat kid. I lost all of this weight. If you look at the photos of me during the Mechanical Resonance album I was a fat kid, then I lost a lot of weight. To be able to maintain that...we were out during that time where everyone was looking for that image and MTV was huge. I started sticking my fingers down my throat to keep myself from gaining weight! I did that for 3-4 years! It was during ‘88, ‘89, ‘90 and ‘91 that entire time period. I know what this is like and that’s a slippery fucking slope! I haven’t done that in years. I’m heavier now, of course but that’s due to my autoimmune disease. I have taken Prednisone regularly. It’s hard to be thin and take Prednisone at the same time. It’s a steroid that puts a lot of weight on you, it bloats you among other things. My weight fluxuates. Today I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I want the guy or the girl in Des Moines, Iowa to read this and know that I’m just like them, they can overcome it and there are other people that are experiencing the same problems. This isn’t a gender thing, it happens to all of us. And I wanted to be Pete Way so bad! He was the best and baddest, bass player there ever was! [laughs]

KNAC.COM: You wrote about THE BEATLES having a huge impact on you as a kid, specifically Paul McCartney. In fact, Let It Be was the first album that you bought with your money. You play a violin style bass because of him. When you met him, how did you not get tongue tied and become a total ‘fanboy’ at that point? I love the story in the book of the first time you met the guy. It was all hand signals.

WHEAT: THE BEATLES were everything. I’m still of the belief to this day that on the 8th day God created THE BEATLES! To me they are right up there with God! [laughs] I’m such a huge fan of their work. Like you said I’m especially fond of Paul McCartney. They are still very important in my life to this day. I don’t think there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t listen to THE BEATLES. There’s alway some thought related to THE BEATLES or some reference to THE BEATLES everyday of my life [laughs] somewhere throughout the course of the day. When I met Paul the first time I was freaking out inside, but I was trying to keep my composure! [laughs] I don’t know how I kept it together to tell you the truth. I guess I just rose above it? I still have to pinch myself because I can’t believe I was able to have an intelligent conversation with him! [laughs] That was pretty fucking cool man! [laughs] I’m a pretty lucky guy to have met my hero or to have met several of my heroes! I’m blessed.

KNAC.COM: You developed a relationship with Jimmy Page, this was after he mentioned that he was a fan of Five Man Acoustical Jam.

WHEAT: We were working with Ross Halfin, we were working on the album Bust A Nut in England. We were mixing the album. We were going out to Ross’ place for the weekend. He said, “Hey we’re going out tonight to see David Lee Roth.” He was playing at Hammersmith Odeon that night. Ross said, "Jimmy is going to be there". I knew that Jimmy Page was one of his good friends. I was like, “Okay, cool”. He said, “Listen, don’t be a ‘fanboy’ tonight”. So he tipped me off to be cool, that was fine because I’m not like that, it’s not my nature. When Jimmy got there Ross introduced Jimmy and I to one another. I went to get a drink and brought one back for Jimmy. Ross was off talking with someone else and Jimmy and I were there talking. Jimmy looks over to me at one point and says, “I really like Five Man Acoustical Jam”. I looked over at him and said, “I didn’t even know you know who we were or who I am”. He said, “You’re Brian from TESLA. We’re on the same record label”. That was one of the most amazing compliments that I have ever had in my life! [laughs] Since then we have become good friends, we keep in touch. I see him every time I go to England. We make a point to get together for dinner or lunch or something. That’s pretty special to me because outside of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page is my second hero.

KNAC.COM: You talked about the first photo shoot that you and the band had with Ross Halfin and how you came back with the belief that you didn't want to ever work with that guy again because of his abrasive nature. Then management instructed you to give him attitude back!

WHEAT: The hooker story! [laughs] We didn’t know what to think when we first worked with him. Ross has gone on to become one of my dearest friends. He’s like a brother to me. We did give it back to him after that! [laughs] It was all good though. He’s a character! [laughs] I don’t know if you’ve ever met him? I love him to death. Some of the shit he says to people! [laughs]

KNAC.COM: You mentioned in the book that you really respect Peter Mensch’s opinion and him as a person. I get the vibe in reading the book that he became a mentor to you.

WHEAT: I do hold Peter in high regard to this day. I had a great relationship with Cliff [Burnstein] at Q Prime too, but I had a spiritual connection with Peter. Cliff wasn’t the kind of guy that you would call to tell him that your dog died. He would be like, “Why are you telling me this? I can’t do anything about that”. Where Peter is one that would help console you and make you feel better and he’d listen. That’s not a slight on Cliff, he’s just different. Cliff was actually the guy that managed us first. I didn't meet Peter until we were in the mixing stage of Mechanical Resonance. I do hold Peter in high regard and he is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll manager there is. I think I even modeled myself after him at times. Peter fights for his bands and I fight for TESLA. If you’re a band of Peter Mensch’s no one is going to mess you around! [laughs] He was a firm guy, labels or promoters aren’t going to push him around. I think you’re right, at a time when I was young and was coming up in the business he was a mentor.

KNAC.COM: TESLA was on the soundtrack from the Arnold Schwarzenneger Last Action Hero movie. TESLA was one of the standouts on that soundtrack which had a lot of talent on that. You spoke about getting approached about being a part of that soundtrack. Arnold at that point was having hit after hit movie.

WHEAT: We thought that it was going to be a huge hit film. It was the next movie he did after Terminator 2 so we were thinking it was going to be a blockbuster. We had the title track for the film “Last Action Hero”. We were so excited. We were like, “Yeah we’re going to be in the movie”. The song didn’t show up until the fucking end credits! [laughs] So there was our song. It didn’t even make it into the film! [laughs] The movie was a flop! [laughs] We spent over $100,000 to record that one song and it could have been done in two days for $10,000! The point I was making is that is when we really started spinning off the rails!

KNAC.COM: I really liked what you did with the live recording you did of Mechanical Resonance. Would you do that again with another of your classic albums?

WHEAT: [long pause] I don’t know. Who knows? Maybe so. We did that one. I think fans liked it. Maybe so. We could do Great Radio Controversy or Psychotic Supper? We kind of have done Five Man Acoustical Jam again with Five Man London Jam. You never know. With this band you just never know. It just depends on what mood we are in at the time. You never know what could happen. I won’t say yes and I won’t say no.

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