Master mind: Q and A with 115 Recording’s Wes Sharon
By Scott Strandberg
115 Recording in Norman features state-of-the-art equipment and a world class producer in Wes Sharon, who has recorded albums with the likes of John Fullbright, The Turnpike Troubadours and Parker Millsap.
Tulsa-born Wes Sharon has seen it all in the music industry. Now based out of Norman, Sharon’s career to this point took him from local punk-rock bassist, to renowned Grammy-nominated producer. Sharon’s studio in Norman —115 Recording — is now one of the premier recording destinations for bands in the area.
Sharon garnered that Grammy nomination for his work on John Fullbright’s “From the Ground Up,” but his list of accomplishments hardly stops there. Sharon also produced albums for other highly successful regional acts, including The Turnpike Troubadours and Parker Millsap.
NTown sat down with Sharon to discuss his rise through the ranks of music production.
Q: How did you transition from playing in bands to crossing over to the production side?
A: I started playing bass when I was a kid, and played in several bands. By the time I was 18 or 19, other bands were asking me to go into their sessions to offer my opinion. Basically, acting as a producer, but I’m using that term very loosely.
I got into the engineering side simply because I wasn’t getting things back sounding the way I thought they should sound. I just wanted to know how things were done. That led me to getting an internship at Prairie Sun Recording [in Cotati, California].
I ended up getting hired and working there for a few years. Then, I started freelancing and put my own room together.
Q: There has to be more to the story than just putting a room together. Walk us through the process of creating 115 Recording Studio.
A: The space itself has been used as a recording studio for close to 40 years, and I first worked here in the 90s. At that point it was pretty spartan; my memory is a lot of shag carpet. It was dingy — just a funky room — but that suited my aesthetic at the time.
Most importantly, it had been designed as a space to make music for quite a while. At that time I remember thinking, “I wish I had this space. It would be a good place to make punk records.”
It was 10 years before I set foot in the place again, and it had fallen into disrepair. Then, around 2006, I was hired to put the place back together as a functioning recording studio, with the idea that I would work here.
Not long after that, the owner decided to get out altogether, so I bought him out. I’m lucky, I was hired to build the place I’d want to work.
The big thing with any recording space is figuring out how the room sounds, and dealing with any deficiencies. This room is constantly evolving. Not just the acoustics, but with the equipment as well.
I’m comfortable in less than perfect settings. I’ve made records in all kinds of environments. It’s just a matter of getting used to it. Having said that, I recently overhauled the entire control room, and that’s been a huge step up for this studio as a listening space.
Q: This is probably a tough question for someone with as much experience in the music industry as you have, so all apologies in advance. Are there any artists you’ve worked with that stand out as an especially enjoyable experience for you, and why?
A: That is really difficult. It’s easier to think of what I did in eras, and the phases of my career. In ‘94 I was in California just getting started, and I worked with Remy Zero. They were signed to Geffen Records, and they had rented the band a mansion up in Santa Rosa.
It had a wine cellar, the works. They had two separate studios put together; a demo room downstairs, and a more legitimate setup that was two stories with a stairwell. I’d go there in my free time and record them. Eventually, I brought them into Prairie Sun, and we recorded a bunch of their songs.
The president of Geffen called the studio owner, and had all of these really great things to say about my work. I was still so new to it all, and I think that jump-started my career, as well as getting the label excited about [Remy Zero].
In the end, Geffen made them re-record the entire album in Los Angeles, but some of what I did made it on the album. It was an amazing way to get started in this line of work. That kind of recording budget didn’t last much longer. The industry changed drastically not long after that.
Q: You certainly don’t hear “our record company rented us a recording mansion” stories every day anymore. What was your focus upon returning to Oklahoma?
A: Once I moved back, I recorded the first stuff that Traindodge put out. Those guys have always been so great. I’m incredibly proud of that first album. It was recorded in less than ideal circumstances —about as punk-rock as you can get — but I think it’s a testament to how well a band can play live, together in a room.
In the last few years I’ve been lucky to work with so many amazing people — The Turnpike Troubadours, Parker Millsap — but making records with John Fullbright is about as much fun as I’ve ever had in a recording studio. And we got nominated for a Grammy, so there’s that. That was new to me.
Q: Is there anyone who strongly influenced your production style? Any albums that gave you an “I want my records to sound like that” moment?
A: I wouldn’t say I wanted my albums to sound like them, but there were a couple that made me want to make records. I loved Tom Waits, and when I heard “Bone Machine,” it just fascinated me. Also, I’ve always been a huge Rolling Stones fan, and “Exile on Main Street” is one of my favorite albums.
Something about those two — “Exile” and “Bone Machine” — seems similar to me. They both have a murkiness, little things that set them apart sonically. Sometimes it’s like you’re listening to a field recording. Those two albums were big influences.
I loved “Bone Machine” so much that I went to California and got that job at Prairie Sun, the studio where they made that album.
Q: Are there any albums you worked on that didn’t receive much attention, but you still think back fondly on artistically?
A: Absolutely. I produced an album for Smarty Pants, a band from Oklahoma City. That album was really complex and made on a shoestring budget, but it was highly orchestrated and arranged.
I made that album around the same time as the Traindodge album, which came together quickly. Smarty Pants was much more labor intensive, but they both turned out great.
Q: What’s coming up next for 115 Recording? What albums are you looking forward to, and more generally, what does the future look like for you?
A: I’m finishing several things right now. I’m almost done with an album for Jeff Hobbs, a singer/songwriter. I just finished tracking the first single for Anchor the Girl, a new band featuring Jesse Davis from The Nixons.
Then, there are a few things that will be released soon. The Patron Aints first single; those guys are great songwriters and players. DoubleVee’s debut album should be out soon. That’s a new project from Alan Vest of The Starlight Mints, collaborating with his wife. And we’ll be starting a new Fullbright album very soon.
As far as the studio itself, I recently partnered up with Mike Phenix. We have another mix room — the Phenix Room at 115 — in the same building. He’s a great engineer, and that room is designed around his workflow. It’s set up for mixing, but he can also handle sound for film, mastering, etc.
With a Grammy nomination now under his belt, the demand for Sharon’s services is on the rise. Who knows what next major act will surface from his studio just off Main Street in Norman. For now, Sharon is focused on the present — and whatever challenges it may bring him today — but with one eye constantly looking to the future.