Sikes is best known for the Grammy he won in 2004 for engineering the album Van Lear Rose by Loretta Lynn. He relocated to Austin in September, and he will continue to mix, engineer and produce records. He says he is looking forward to working with Austin artists as well as the national artists with whom he's worked over the past 20 years.
"My wife Diane got a job in Austin," he says. "I'm still processing it, but I'm really excited. I've spent a lot of time here; I have a bunch of friends here. And I've worked here before, with Austin bands like TV Torso, The Great Nostalgic, Collin Herring, Marcus Stripling from Pleasant Grove — hopefully we're going to do some stuff together."
"The fact that I built Elmwood is pretty amazing," Sikes says. "I never thought I would get to do that."
Sikes, a Plano native, moved to Dallas in 2001 after having worked at Easley-McCain Studio in Memphis, famous for its connection in the 1960s to Elvis Presley, and then as a recording destination for alt-rock bands such as Pavement, Sonic Youth and the White Stripes. (Easley-McCain suffered a catastrophic fire in 2005 and is currently undergoing restoration.)
Sikes started as an intern and spent seven years there, mixing and engineering such acts as Jets to Brazil, Modest Mouse, the White Stripes and Cat Power.
The Loretta Lynn record came about because Sikes had worked with Jack White of the White Stripes.
"Her manager called and asked if I would do it," he says. "Honestly, I think they wanted the guy who mixed and recorded the White Stripes' Elephant, but he was going to charge an assload of money," says Sikes, modestly. "But I had done [White Stripes'] White Blood Cells, which Loretta's manager liked. I had worked with Jack, and they wanted to keep it in line with that. That was a long time ago, so it's a little hazy."
As for his 10 years in Dallas, he has something solid to show for it: a studio called Elmwood Recording.
"The fact that I built Elmwood is pretty amazing. I never thought I would get to do that," he says. "But I was traveling a lot for work, and I wanted to try and not travel as much. I would ask bands I was working with, 'If I had a studio in Dallas, would you come here to work with me?' Whether they were telling me the truth or not, they said yes. So that gave me the confidence to build it."
The studio was finished in 2007. Sikes shared the studio with musician/producer/Renaissance man John Congleton, who's now using the space full-time. The first act to record there was Cat Power, who came to Dallas to work on her '07 release Jukebox. "I've worked on three Cat Power records," Sikes says. "My atrocious voice is on one of her songs."
The recording industry has changed dramatically since Sikes began.
"Instead of traveling to a studio and mixing a record with a band, people send me hard drives," he says. "I mix it and send them a song. If they want changes, they tell me — often via email. That's one thing that's a little weird: I’ve mixed I don't know how many bands where I've never met or talked to them on the phone. It's all through email.
"What's even crazier is if they sing in a language you're not familiar with. You don't even know what the song's about. It's awesome to be able to do that. I would never have been able to do that seven years ago."
For those reasons, among others, he has no plans to build a studio in Austin.
"There's already a lot of good studios in Austin," he says. "The drummer from Spoon has an amazing one, Public Hi Fi, and there's another one called Wire I’ve worked at that I really like. There's a long list. But I am bringing a load of equipment, which will need a place to live. More than likely, I'll set up something when we buy a house — maybe do something in the backyard."
Some of Stuart Sikes' favorite recent recordings:
- Baptist Generals, of Denton, Void Touching Faster Victuals. "They're on Sub Pop. They haven't put out a record in 10 years. We tried to record five or six years ago, but it didn't turn out the way they wanted. We did it again, and everybody is really happy. It's the best thing they've ever done."
- RTB2, of Denton, We Are A Strange Man. "For two people, they are more impressive than most full bands."
- Riverboat Gamblers, The Wolf You Feed. "They live in Austin now. I had a blast doing that. It showed you can make a really good record in 10 days."
- Stomacher, from San Francisco, Clara. "They’re sort of Radiohead-ish, but more on the rock side. They also have spaghetti Western reverbed-out guitars."