Q&A: Wes Sharon ~ The Grammy Nominated Producer Discusses His Approach to Making Records, the Importance of Listening Intently & More
For producer Wes Sharon, a lifetime spent working in music is much more than just a job - it’s a passion and a way of life that can be clearly heard, and felt, when he speaks. Based in Oklahoma where he helms his studio 115 Recording, Sharon has been an integral part of critically acclaimed albums from well-respected artists such as Parker Millsap, the Turnpike Troubadours, and newcomer Jared Deck as well as being Grammy nominated for Best Americana album in 2013 for his work on John Fullbright's From The Ground Up. Between mixing, engineering and producing, Sharon graciously took the time to speak about his roots, his approach to producing, the importance of being a good listener and more.
Your journey in music has truly been a lifelong one. What was the progression like from bassist to producer?
I’m originally from Oklahoma, but when I was fourteen we moved to Texas. I really didn’t have a lot of friends, so I started playing music. When we moved back to Oklahoma, I was playing bass and eventually ended up in a couple of bands that were regionally successful. When we did sessions, I wouldn’t use headphones because I thought they sounded bad, so I always ended up in the control room. By default, I became the guy who would be able to critique a take and answer someone’s questions. Eventually, a band we were friends with asked if I would come in the studio with them, which I did, so I was kind of producing and engineering and I didn’t even know I was doing it. That got me deeper into it and I started recording at home using a dual cassette player to do overdubs. I’d do that for hours - and the results were pretty horrible - but it had me, as a senior in high school, playing parties while my friends were washing cars (laughing).
After awhile, I ended up in California where I started working at Prairie Sun, which is where I really learned everything I know. I went out there because that’s where Tom Waits, who is one of my heroes along with Keith Richards and Frank Sinatra, recorded. But when I got out there, I found out they didn’t even record him anymore. Instead, it was metal heaven. Musically it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I worked with these incredibly talented guys and had an invaluable experience that taught me how to deal with drums and other instruments on an engineering level. While I was out there I met and became friends with Remy Zero. They were on Geffen Records and on rare days off, I’d go and record them, which brought me to the attention of the owner of Prairie Sun and got me started working with alternative-rock bands - which was more in line with what I myself would listen to.
So you were in California, working at Prairie Sun on projects that you enjoyed; what spurred the move back to Oklahoma?
It’s always the same old story, I broke up with a girlfriend and came home to get away for a little bit, but then decided to stay. I was flying back to California to do sessions for a little while, but then I began working with my friend, April Tippens who was in a band called Radial Spangle. They had a deal with an English label, Beggars Banquet, so I recorded them in my house which led me to record local bands. The really key moment though was when I met Ryan Engleman and became the bassist in his band, Ryan Engleman Ant the Midnight Marauders. From there, Ryan, who is like the connective tissue in all of this, introduced me to everyone I work with now. He took me to see John play, and later when he joined the Troubadours, they came in to record and from there one thing led to another.
And now you own 115 where you engineer, mix and produce records. It seems those roles, especially that of producer, are pretty encompassing ones.
It’s easier to not describe it at all than it is to tell people what you do because it’s hard to tell where it starts and stops. How much you do will often depend on the person you’re working with – sometimes you’re doing a little or a lot depending on what the job calls for.
Right, different artists I speak with will either say the producer was great because they were hands off or they were great because they were so involved. So where do you fall, how invested are you in terms of your involvement in making a record? Or is that something that varies by artist?
I approach everything the exact same way: when I’m working with someone all I want to do is hear something I would want to listen to and that’s it. I know some people who play music and they despise their job, but I got into this because I love it so much. I’m a geek. I literally do this twelve-to-fifteen hours a day then I go home and watch a documentary on recording or on some band or read about music, because honest to God, if it’s about people making music, I’m probably going to watch it, listen to it or read it. Music is so much more to me…it’s a way of life.
When I work with someone, I’m their audience. People can come to listen to your music in clubs, but that’s not always a good barometer of whether your songs are good or not. You can play really, really well and the crowd that night may not care to hear the music, so you won’t know if your songs are killing it. So, when I work with someone I’m trying to be that really good listener. John [Fullbright] is a really good friend of mine, but when he’s asking me what I think he doesn’t want my friendship, he wants my assessment. That’s a big deal and something I don’t take lightly. I’m very, very serious about my commitment to that part of the process. Sometimes I have good ideas and other times I may have bad ideas, but I’m fairly certain there aren’t listeners that are as good as I am. But then again, there might a lot of people that listen better than I do (laughing). I just try to listen very intently and aim to make a record I’d buy.
Is that your guiding principle or philosophy when working with someone – to make a record you’d buy?
The big thing about making a record isn’t even really my take on it. A record should sound like the best example of the songs and the way I approach that is that a song shouldn’t sound like you today, it should sound like you after you’ve gone out and played it a thousand times. In the studio, you’re putting a song through the paces if it hasn’t been done before, seeing how far it can go and doing it quickly. My goal is to be someone the guys I work with can trust and that the record they put out will have legs they can tour on for two years.
Many times a producer has a particular style and you’ll hear that in a recording. Is there anything that makes something a Wes Sharon project?
I really hope that other than my involvement, that there’s nothing. I swear to God I don’t make Wes Sharon records, I make John Fullbright records, I make Parker Millsap records and Jared Deck records. When I was twenty-four years old at Prairie Sun I had an ego. I was doing those metal records when I wanted to do punk/alt-rock records and the owner, Mark [“Mooka”] Rennick, who is my mentor, was like, “Hey buddy this is not your record.” I remember so vividly standing in his office and him saying that. It was a really tough smack down, but he was right.
So rather than injecting yourself in a record, you aim to bring the artist out.
There have been occasions, especially after the Grammys, where I think people thought that if they came to work with me they would get this certain type of thing and have instant success, but really if that’s what someone wants then they’re talking with the wrong guy. I tell people all the time that if I’m writing lyrics or guitar parts - not that that doesn’t happen, but it’s more like me saying, “What if you did this or instead of that you said this?” - we are in trouble because that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. What I'm supposed to be doing is finding the things that those people do that I think are really great – and it might even be something someone else told them was horrible - but if I hear something and like it, I always think everyone else is going to like it. I’m not the type of person to say it’s my way or the highway, I just make suggestions as to how I would go about it with them…which I hope is something they appreciate.
Earlier, you mentioned that you want songs on a record to sound like they’ve been played it thousands of times. How do you achieve that especially if it’s a new artist or someone’s first record?
You get really excited about it. People are always asking, “How do you listen to the same thing over and over and over?” And it’s a really difficult thing to answer. I don’t think I’m listening like a normal record buyer would listen. They say any recording has ten thousand decisions in it. Now, I don’t know if that’s an actual number, but I do subscribe to that line of thinking. When I’m listening, I’m looking at all of the little parts of the song and whether they’re working together. There are a lot of decisions to be made and if you try and address those things it’s going to look like you’re listening to the same song over and over again, but it never feels like it. When it’s a good song, it’s not work – you enjoy it and find something new in it. It’s not hard to fall in love with this music.
The artists that you work with are relatively new or were fairly new when you started working with them including John, Parker, the Troubadours and now Jared. You seem to work really well with newer artists.
I think I do work really well with new artists and I don’t know exactly why that is. Maybe it’s because I’ve played in bands and remember what it’s like to be in their position. I’ve been through it all, so I want to protect them and have them do well.
You’re able to offer them the wisdom that accompanies experience.
In this business, people are going to blow so much smoke up your ass you’re going to need a detector or you’re going to suffocate, and I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want to be an asshole telling people they suck, because I have never operated like that and I’m not that kind of person, but there’s a joke in my life where I say, “Everybody’s entitled to my opinion.” (laughing) I don’t think everyone appreciates that but if somebody walks in here and they think they’re shopping at Walmart it’s probably not going to go over really well. If they come in thinking that I might be the guy that can offer them something, then we get along great.
I think about Parker when he was fourteen, everybody thought he was so great, and he was, but I think one of the reasons they worked with me was because I was the guy who told them that the cute is going to wear off and at some point, you’re going to need to play. I know that because I was that fourteen-year-old kid who could do this thing on the bass that everybody thought was so impressive. I wasn’t a horrible musician, but it was like I wasn’t a musician – it was like I was a trained seal or something. And I really, really often wonder what would have happened if someone told me, “You probably shouldn’t do that. You should probably do this.” I was the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t have listened (laughing), but if somebody just said something like that, my life probably would have been very different.
When I was in my 20’s I really didn’t have anything to say, it was all about girls and booze - I could care less and it showed. But if you look at these guys writing songs today…I can’t believe these kids have something to say. When John or Jared or Parker bring you a batch of songs, it’s not hard to find your way through that. They’re really together and in charge, so some of the best advice is just helping them find their voice and be true to who they are. I hope I’m not a burden to the guys I work with and to be honest, it doesn’t always go well, but my whole thing is if you really want to do music, then have some respect for it. It works a lot better if you can look yourself in the mirror and say, “I did my absolute best today.”
You mentioned you hope you’re not a burden to the guys you work with and that they trust you, but the fact that they keep returning to work with you speaks volumes.
I’m incredibly lucky I get to work with people over and over again and even luckier to be friends with some of them. I’ve done three albums with the Troubadours and they keep asking me to do stuff for them and I’ll always say yes, not just because they’re my friends but because it’s an honor. The same with The Grahams, John, and Jared. This industry does not read good manners and so the fact that I get to meet and work with people and we treat each other with respect….that’s just cool. I have no complaints.
Those types of friendships are really special.
So far this year you produced Jared’s self-titled debut. How many projects do you work on in a year?
I work on little projects like singles, straight to digital or albums of the three-week variety, off and on, but as far as albums go I probably do three big ones a year.
In addition to producing, I get a lot of separate engineering and mix work, and sometimes not for the same band. I recently partnered with an engineer, Mike Phenix. He’s done work in Austin and Nashville and now he has moved here and set up a mixing suite in the building, so we’ll do stuff for one another where I might work on guitar and he might work on vocals, and we’ll master records like that.
Finally, what are you currently working on?
I’m friends with Allan Vest from the Starlight Mints who is now in this band called doubleVee. I just finished their record which is this amazing alt-rock album and just one of the coolest things I have been a part of in a while. And now we’re getting ready to start the new Fullbright record. It’s going to be really interesting with a lot of little surprises.
For more information on Wes Sharon and 115 Recording visit here
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