Nobody in Dallas had heard of Stuart Sikes. It was 2002, and the unemployed recording engineer walked into Bass Propulsion Laboratories and introduced himself.
"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."
In third grade, Sikes began hoarding country records he bought at a store near his Plano home. With the help of his older sister, he turned toward rock in middle school, and in his teens, he dabbled on drums with a few bands. When they recorded demos, he was usually the one to helm the four-track recording device.
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.
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 Cells or 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."
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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.
"I'd like to record every band in the world if I could," Sikes says. "Even someone who just listens to KLUV at work, a song comes on and her day's better. That's why I do this. Does she care how it was recorded? No. It's just the feeling that she has when she hears the song."