By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Three years later, Sikes' local load has picked up considerably, yet he still talks as if work could dry up at any moment. He owes his low price tag and large workload not only to a love for music but also to a fear of unemployment.
"I never want to turn anything down," Sikes says. "I tell bands that if they enjoyed working with me, tell their friends."
That's the kind of simple directness you can expect from Sikes in the studio. (Not to mention privacy; requests to visit his studio were denied.) He doesn't talk much between recording takes, so when he does, people tend to listen, searching for meaning in his few words. When a take, or even a whole song, doesn't pan out, Sikes won't hold back from saying so, and he gives the bad news with a musician's respect.
Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, who worked with Sikes on 2004's Bows and Arrows, offers a peculiar insight, which he insists is a compliment.
"Stuart's...slow. Likes to talk slow, likes to move slow."
It's the result of Sikes' meticulous nature in the studio. He'll rearrange microphones while listening to minutes of static until he finds a speaker's "sweet spot." He'll spend more than five hours a session preparing and miking a drum set. And even when sitting idly, his face will have a pained, thoughtful expression, as if he's agonizing over every note he hears.
[DARYL]'s Dylan Silvers became friends with Sikes when they worked together on that band's ambitious Ohio. "Whenever I ask what he's working on, he'll say, 'The bands wish it were going faster,'" Silvers says. "His slowness is about trying to get perfection, not about being lazy. The hours we worked were insane, and when he was behind the boards, he barely ever took a break."
"You don't waste a lot of time doing stuff over with Stuart," says Peter Schmidt. "He's always thinking and assessing the situation, so he gets it right the first time."
Yet he's not a bossy perfectionist; in fact, the thing you're most likely to hear about Stuart Sikes is how likable he is. He can calm an entire band during tense, money-tight sessions, swap places with a musician to lay down a drum line for fun or even cut up at the bar after a long recording day.
"You feel like he's on your side," says former Pleasant Grove drummer Jeff Ryan. "He's a player himself. He plays drums, and I know he can tinker around with other instruments. He's recording with you, not recording you."
Most amazing is how unidentifiable Sikes is from album to album. You can't compare Rocket From the Crypt's Group Sounds to The White Stripes' White Blood Cellsor Cat Power's what would the community think to Jets to Brazil's Orange Rhyming Dictionary, because Sikes doesn't imprint bands with a signature sound. It's the one strength he doesn't hesitate to agree with.
"I try to help bands make a record that they want to have. I don't want to put some sound on it," Sikes says. "It's not my band; it's your band. My job is about the intangibles I can do to make someone play better. If that's just making them more comfortable, then I'm doing a good job."
Bigger records haven't swayed Sikes' love for hometown projects, though, and he glows when talking about the scene. In addition to The Happy Bullets and [DARYL], Sikes recorded albums last year with The Baptist Generals and Pleasant Grove, among many other Dallas bands. But he's doing more for that scene than merely engineering: He also volunteers his connections and spare time to attract more national indie acts to play concerts in Dallas (and land good opening gigs for locals at those shows). All, Sikes says, to improve the city's reputation as a bad city to visit on tour.
It might not be much of a stretch to say that Sikes could change the reputation of Dallas music altogether. Stories of bands leaving town to find fame and record deals have become too common in the past few years, and if Sikes' stellar résumé persuades the mainstream to care more about Dallas music, nobody would mind a bit.
"Recording in Dallas is becoming a cool thing," says producer Toby Pipes. "With Stuart, there's a guy with that much talent with engineering and mixing that's in our hometown. It's a really cool thing for Dallas bands that can call Stuart Sikes up and get their record recorded."
But the spotlight isn't natural for a man whose job is to not exist--to help musicians sound as great as possible usually means to stay out of their way. His natural place is behind the curtain, in the background, tucked away somewhere. That's what makes him so great.
"The older you get, you get sick of people fighting for attention," says songwriter Schmidt. "You appreciate the quiet confidence of someone who can let himself be discovered."
When talk turns to bands, Stuart opens up, but even when modesty and insecurity cloud the conversation, his passion for music is clear.