Rock star and Sacramento native Brian Wheat built a seven-figure recording studio on Alhambra Boulevard in 2012-13 for his private use, but he was on tour so much with his Tesla bandmates that the place sat empty for months every year.
Last year, Wheat said, he realized he was ready to segue at his J Street Recorders studio. He has asked music engineer Jack O’Donnell to manage the space drawn up by internationally known studio designer and acoustician Vincent van Haaff and open it for public use for much of the year.
It’s not the first time the two men have worked together. Fifteen years ago, when O’Donnell was a teenager, Wheat hired him as an intern at his original studio, the one he operated behind his home on J Street. That building was demolished after a devastating fire in 2010.
“What I remember most,” O’Donnell said of his initial encounter with Wheat, “is that in the process of meeting me, he asked, ‘What do you have your hands in?’ I said, ‘Well, I just made a microphone out of a speaker.’ His eyes got about this big, and he said, ‘You did what now?’ I told him that I tore the guts out of a speaker, put it on input and used it to record, and he saw something in me.”
For the past 10 years, O’Donnell has been doing freelance engineering work on various musicians’ recording projects; he crossed paths with Wheat again a few months ago and the rock star shared his frustration.
“Maybe I work in this place four months out of the year,” Wheat said, “and then for eight months, it does nothing, and so a year ago, I thought, ‘Well, I should open it up,’ and then I had a couple of guys try to do it. They didn’t know what to do with it. Then I met up with Jack, and I remembered that he was an intern. I was impressed with what he’s done on his own at his house.
“I’m like, ‘Look, why don’t you take what you do and make this your own and book it while I’m gone? Make this the place to come to record if you’re serious about making a record.’ ”
O’Donnell said he’s spent the past few months assessing the space, reworking elements of each room, tuning up and repairing equipment, bringing local musicians into the space to put it through its paces and preparing to reach out to the media.
“Skip’s Music puts on a summer camp for kids that puts individual musicians into a band, makes them write three songs and then they have a big battle of the bands at the end of the year, and the winner gets a recording package,” said O’Donnell, 30. “We provided that opportunity this year. One of the musicians from that project was exceptionally talented, so I brought her in to do some more promotion stuff. She’s a 16-year-old beyond her years, just really, really skilled. I gave her the opportunity to record a song that she wrote, but then I brought in my session musicians. It was her composition but with professional players.”
Since Wheat opened J Street Recorders in 2013, he has contracted with Tesla to record and produce two albums there, and also has been paid to produce albums for clients. However, he said, he’s not opening up the studio just to bring in another income stream.
“It wasn’t, ‘Let’s open it because I need to make money,’ ” Wheat said. “I could just keep the doors shut if I wanted to, but then I’m not giving back to some young musicians. Along the way if we make some money, then so be it. But that’s not my motivation. I’ve invested well and I’m still out there touring every year.”
Wheat, 52, is a graduate of Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School. He said he knew he wanted to become a rock musician even as a preschooler.
“I’m the youngest of six children, and my oldest brother is 15 years older than me,” he said. “When I was a little kid, 4 or 5 years old in the 1960s, I remember hearing them play ‘Revolver.’ I used to sneak in their rooms and grab their records, and the first record I ever grabbed was ‘Revolver’ from the Beatles. I put on ‘Revolver,’ and when I heard ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and that voice, Paul’s voice, I went, ‘Whoa!’ It just hit me. Something changed my life. From that time, at 4 or 5 years old, hearing that song by that man, I wanted to be like him.”
His mother bought him his first guitar, an acoustic model, at age 6 to give him something to do after he broke his leg while tobogganing on a church field trip to Soda Springs. He didn’t like it, he said, because it had too many strings. He ended up buying a bass guitar from one of his older brother’s friends for $40, selling his Schwinn Varsity 10-speed bicycle to fund the purchase.
It wasn’t, ‘Let’s open it because I need to make money.’ I could just keep the doors shut if I wanted to, but then I’m not giving back to some young musicians.
Tesla bassist Brian Wheat
He and his pal Frank Hannon began playing together in the early 1980s, first in a band called Earthshaker and then City Kidd and finally Tesla. By 1985, Tesla had a recording contract with Geffen Records. Tesla recently released a live album, “Mechanical Resonance Live,” to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of its multiplatinum debut album, “Mechanical Resonance.”
Wheat said that it was his drive, not his talent, that allowed him to achieve success in the music industry.
“I was the drive and Frank was the talent, and we just built this thing to where, by the time 1985 came, we had a recording deal with Geffen Records,” Wheat said. “I’m a very driven man. That’s how I got to where I am today. Believe me, it wasn’t talent. It was mostly drive. Talent came later. I developed it.”
By opening up his studio, Wheat said, he hopes he can give another teenager a shot at making it in a tough business, and the studio is equipped with the tools they will need: Avid Technology’s Pro Tools software, a Neve 8128 console like the one used by such bands as The Who and Fleetwood Mac, amplifiers, compressors, multiple speakers, baffles, microphones and more. To learn how to book the studio, visit www.jstreetrecorders.com.
O’Donnell said: “I take an idea and I turn it into a complete product. Anything from a song scribbled on a napkin to someone who already has a song developed. I polish it. I make it better than it was by itself. I get the most out of the client. A lot of recording isn’t just about capturing a good performance. It’s about coaxing a good performance out of a client.”