Stuart Sullivan, producer, proprietor, and wearer of many hats at Wire Recording in Austin, TX is an industry pearl. His is a noteworthy discography that began budding in a small suburban town in Central Indiana, where his musical family established a balance between creating and enjoying it quite early. With a 2-year wait list for guitar lessons with his mother, for whom music was much more than a respite, music was such a fixture that, for the Sullivans, family hootenannies weren’t out of the ordinary.
Studying business and recording at Indiana University in Bloomington before the latter was a formally established program—which happened in 1982— he entered electronic music composition as a 19 year-old pre-business major sophomore. In the classroom with students that had clung to the program with all 4 limbs intent on obtaining a doctorate in EMC, his was a special position that almost automatically qualified him as the upper classmen’s mascot. Bolstering the musical foundation of his formative years, Sullivan teamed up with different musical projects including the highly experimental Contemporary Sounds Coop. "It was the first wildly open and creative, but serious situation that I'd found myself in musically," he explains.
After the recording program was formally established in 1982 and Sullivan effectively became faculty, he had rein over the massive Viennese opera hall that is the musical and performing arts center. It was a "magnificent acoustical structure," he reflects. He stayed up all night once a week for three years for what he called his "late night experiments." His dedication even bled into the summer he went home, when he reserved Friday night studio time.
After graduation, Sullivan faced a difficult decision; accept a job at a big studio in Chicago or move to Austin, where he had no job offers but did have friends. Deciding to migrate to a city he'd deemed "mythic and wondrous" was "quite physical and visceral because I wanted to be fuckin' warm!" he says emphatically. The rest matters much less. After moving and seeking out the studios to which he'd sent query letters, being avoided like a door-to-door salesman, or being offered an internship he'd pay for, he landed an evening job sweeping and cleaning at now-defunct Lone Star Studios in addition to joining media services for the University of Texas at Austin's Bass Concert Hall. Sullivan also learned the many ropes that hold Texas French Bread together, which helped him organize the amorphous aspects of this life and fill in when and where he could because of his schedule. Says Sullivan of Austin in 1984: "It was a great town to be broke in."
His diligence landed him a job wiring in Willie Nelson's Arlyn Studios, located in the old Austin Opera House. The venue's sheer size encouraged heavy traffic and allowed for shows at least 5 nights a week. It was the kind of place you'd happen upon "some old rockabilly guy" after work—and it was Roy Orbison. In Austin at that time, there was ample opportunity to belong to what was going on. "You're exposed to so much it's hard to dwell on one," he recalls. These experiences grounded the anything-goes philosophy he'd carried with him from Indiana, "I find it enormously entertaining and fun—it keeps me excited and enthusiastic about things.”
The early pages of his catalog contain work with Dino Lee and the White Trash Revue and work on an Alejandro Escovedo demo, from which came the True Believer record, which spawned the True Believers, with whom Sullivan also worked. All part of the New Sincerity scene that happened in Austin in the mid- 80's, says Sullivan, "All these experiences build on each other year after year to layer themselves to create a deep, rich history." Dividing his time between working at Arlyn and being Nelson's chief engineer at Pedernales, Clifford Antone approached him about making records for his label, which not only introduced Sullivan to great blues artists like Mike Keller, Riley Osborne, and George Rains, it gave him a sonic personality. "I was indoctrinated into the vintage sound, which was interpreted as roomy," he explains.
One momentous project was working on Nick Lowe's 1988 record Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, through which he was invited to move to London to work. After a year of working in the old Air Studios in Oxford Circus, but with only one style of music, says Sullivan, "I was homesick and a bit freaked out," and, unsure of what he wanted to do, he returned to Austin. Returning to Pedernales and Arlyn, Sullivan teamed up with Paul Leary on some initial work for the Butthole Surfers, which kick-started a serious work cycle that includes the Bad Livers, and once they received a call from the Meat Puppets—Boom!—it started. After Sublime's self-titled record was released in 1996, "the floodgates opened," and in came a deluge of work.
This concentration of work introduced Sullivan—and many producers in Austin— to Pro Tools by way of Gina Fant-Saez of Blue World Studios in Dripping Springs, who also developed a software to help people do session work over the internet. Though it was odd to have the set up at the time, Sullivan credits her for "bringing Pro Tools to a retro town like Austin and establishing it," which really solidified itself in the late ‘90s. In all of the hundreds of hours spent on the records in his expansive discography, specific albums don't shine as much as particular moments. Sitting in the control room with Willie Nelson in the incredible structure that is Pedernales proved to be one of those shining moments. "He turned to me and said, 'Stuart, I'm goin' to play you a song I've been workin' on,'" and, sitting just a couple of inches from touching knees, Willie hooked Stuart’s eyes and attentions with his song. "Freddie Fender did that to me too," as he sang a love song in Spanish that couldn’t have been done by anyone but the Tejano-Texas Rock legend.
For Sullivan, a shift happened in late 1999, when fellow producer/engineer Craig Ross planted thoughts in his mind about opening up his own studio; and after the greater part of a year and all figures pointing to yes, he navigated the network of red tape for procuring and spending funds to finance such a venture, and opened Wire Recording for session in June 2001. Complete with a vintage 32-channel API console and a buffet of microphones, instruments, and outboard gear, among other necessities, Wire is well stocked and well taken care of.
"For 4 or 5 years, I've been pushing for a maintenance thing, and 3 years ago, Greg Klinginsmith came in and liked what was going on and agreed to be part of the deal with me," Sullivan explains of the maintenance aspect of Wire. "You don't have to pour hundreds of thousands, but you do have to commit money, hundreds and thousands if you have a lot of old stuff, because if you take care of it right, it sounds like the legend it's supposed to be and it brings value to your place."
"Wire has been an experiment. I didn't have to come up with an idea then come up with the figures to justify it," Sullivan explains. Assessing the traffic he worked with at Arlyn and Pedernales throughout the years, the numbers legitimized his branching out. His plans for expansion include moving into a facility with multiple rooms that will be on a tiered system of price and range of equipment in order to maximize the opportunity for artists with a range of expectations and financials to work with Wire. As it is now, though the studio's physical construction is the weakest aspect, there's a healthy range of prices for artists varying capabilities, including late/overnight sessions.
Another aspect of maintaining vintage equipment and holding Wire up to the highest standards is reviving the coherent centralized maintenance process that was default for the big studios of yesteryear. And what has he been working on lately? He's collaborating on an audio book that should be complete in November and Melbourne-natives Jet have cut tracks recently. Texas singer/songwriter James McMurtry will be mixing his new live record, and Josh Tatum will be starting a record in October at Wire, so Sullivan has full days and evenings ahead. As far as the studio's relocation, he's working on it. Wire could bloom into its new environs in about a year, or it could take a little longer. Either way, it'll happen— Sullivan's relentless persistence and love of the diversity each project brings leaves no room for stopping.