By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Someone told me I should come by here," he said vaguely.
The owners, Todd and Toby Pipes, gave him a nod and the standard spiel. The brothers behind '90s alternative sensation Deep Blue Something, the Pipes are used to these kinds of cold calls from studio hands in search of work.
"'That guy seems pretty cool,'" Toby Pipes remembers saying after Sikes left. "'Wonder what he's done.'"
The next day, Sikes dropped off a résumé. When they looked at it, the brothers had one reaction: "Holy shit."
Dozens of bands filled the page, and what the list lacked in platinum sales it more than doubled in critical acclaim. Albums by Jets to Brazil and The Promise Ring, two of the most respected underground emo bands of the '90s. What would the community think by Cat Power, a singer-songwriter known as much for her gorgeous songs as her bizarre behavior. Albums by critical darlings like The Spinanes, The Grifters and Rocket From the Crypt, dozens of musical underdogs. He worked with The White Stripes. Engineered an album called White Blood Cells.
It's the kind of résumé music professionals dream about. But Stuart Sikes--out of work, hungry to get into a studio--didn't once tout his accomplishments. He's quiet and thoughtful, modest to an extreme, even as his national reputation soars. In 2004 he engineered albums from Modest Mouse and The Walkmen, but he'd never tell you that if you didn't ask. After working on White Blood Cells, he didn't tell even close friends about the session much less recommend the album. When he left Dallas to mix Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, which recently received two Grammys, few of his friends and co-workers knew where he'd gone.
Sikes is no salesman. Even with his stellar résumé, he's rotten at self-promotion, which is one of many reasons it's taken this long for Sikes to become a noticeable force in local music. Jason Roberts, singer and guitarist for Dallas band The Happy Bullets, who worked with Sikes on his band's second album, remembers a conversation with the engineer.
"I'm surprised I'm not busier," Sikes told him.
"Well, you're pretty intimidating," Roberts said. "People are afraid to talk to a guy who's recorded Cat Power, Jets to Brazil, White Stripes."
"But those guys were nobodies before I recorded them," Sikes told him.
"That's the reason we're intimidated," Roberts said. "You made all their breakthrough albums."
After graduating, Sikes attended recording school in Orlando ("Probably the worst year of my life," he says, "because I was in Orlando") and then secured an internship at Easley-McCain Studios in Memphis, where bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement had recorded. The internship soon blossomed into full-time engineering work, made all the more impressive because Sikes squeezed into what chiefly had been a two-man operation.
For the uninitiated: Music engineers don't only adjust microphones, tweak knobs and tune guitars. Especially in the lower-budget realm of indie rock, an engineer often serves as a kind of producer, guiding bands and directing sessions as he pleases. In this respect, engineers can spoil a record by being too hands-on or, on the flip side, not offering enough input.
Stuart credits his studio education to Doug Easley and Davis McCain, with whom he built friendships while learning the relaxed, supportive recording style famous in Memphis--hands-on production balanced by open, creative interplay with musicians. Jerome Brock, a close Dallas friend, visited often enough to watch Sikes' progression from obscure Memphis bands to acts like The White Stripes.
"By the time Stuart moved out of there," Brock says, "he was pretty much running that place."
But after seven years, Sikes was ready to move on from 10-hour days as the underpaid chief engineer at Easley-McCain. With his wife scouting for university positions (she currently teaches art at the University of Texas at Arlington), his hometown seemed like a good combination of friends, recording contacts and opportunity. Upon his September 2001 homecoming, however, work barely trickled in, and Sikes became uneasy as his once-packed studio schedule became eerily free.
"You might know some of the bands I recorded, but a lot of people in Dallas, studio owners, don't know who these indie rock bands are," Sikes says. "I also didn't know how to work [Pro Tools] at that point, so it was like six months without work. I flew back to Memphis and did a couple of things, too."
Since Sikes isn't one to tout his résumé, he's fortunate enough to know people who will. Friends like Mark Reznicek, drummer from platinum-sellers The Toadies, and Peter Schmidt, singer for local rock legends Funland and LCC, floated Sikes' name out to studios and musicians. Idol Records owner Erv Karwelis urged rockers in his catalog, including [DARYL] lead singer Dylan Silvers, to call Sikes.