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It's a late April afternoon at Sawhorse Recording Studios, the home base of studio engineer Jason McEntire. The local rock act Building Rome has been recording a new album, Nightmare, at the south-side studio with producer Steven Haigler since late March. Nightmare's basic tracks are done, and Haigler, McEntire and Building Rome vocalist/songwriter Jon Heisserer are adding extra flourishes. This part of the recording process is often the most tedious; bands and producers might spend hours tweaking a miniscule section of a song.
At the moment that's exactly what's going on with "What Are We Fighting For?" a dark, emo-punk tune reminiscent of My Chemical Romance. Sleepy-eyed Heisserer, his dyed black hair marked with a faint skunk-streak of blond, defers to the two men as they discuss percussion textures. A surveillance-style video screen (think Blair Witch Project-grainy) above the mixing board is trained on the tracking room, where McEntire can be seen banging on a bass drum. Haigler, sporting a black long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans and Converse high-tops, is attempting to articulate what he wants to hear.
After a bunch of thunderous takes, McEntire returns to the console room and settles in at his computer. The glow from the screen illuminates his faint facial hair as the men play back the same small section of the song, fixing imperceptible off-key pitches and isolating keyboards. Satisfied for now, "Fighting" is put aside, and the men move on to adding a keyboard melody to the AFI-like title track. It's a process that will stretch out over several hours — and include McEntire easing the slightly testy atmosphere by jokingly busting out snippets of "Axel F," the Doogie Howser theme song and Journey's "Separate Ways" on a keyboard.
Haigler is no stranger to recording sessions such as this: The Charlotte, North Carolina, resident mixed the Pixies' Bossanova, Doolittle and Trompe le Monde, and has produced albums by Local H, Brand New, Fuel and Quicksand. He chose to work with Building Rome because he was impressed by Heisserer's "unique way of writing quirky pop songs, guitar-pop." But he was also happy with his Sawhorse experience.
"It's a real comfortable place to work, it feels very creative," Haigler says. "As a producer going into a room for the first time and working with an engineer that you don't know for the first time, your senses are heightened. And you just hope everything's going to work out OK — and fortunately, it did."
Since moving to this building from its previous location (an old church in Union, Missouri) in April 2006, Sawhorse has become a little less under-the-radar. Part of it is luck — McEntire started working with Ludo in earnest on 2005's Broken Bride EP, and then the band continued to work with him after signing to Island. (In fact, McEntire received a production credit for "Go-Getter Greg" on You're Awful, I Love You.) On the strength of the McEntire-produced Buckle in the Bible Belt, Ozarks rockers Ha Ha Tonka signed to Bloodshot Records, and then chose to work at Sawhorse again for its forthcoming Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South.
Still, local word of mouth about Sawhorse keeps it constantly busy. In fact, either McEntire or the studio had a hand in new albums by the Trip Daddys, Magnolia Summer, Nothing Still, Firedog and John Henry & the Engine; future releases from the Feed, Stella Mora, the Love Experts and Adam Reichmann also have involvement with Sawhorse.
To many people going to a recording studio to make a record is an antiquated notion — mainly because recording gear and audio technology have evolved so much that anyone can make a record at home using a computer. But professional studios such as Sawhorse offer services that home studios can't, beyond just higher-quality recording equipment.
"Records can be done at home — very well," McEntire says. It's late on a stormy Tuesday night a few weeks after the Building Rome sessions, and he's just finished engineering a drum session for ex-Nadine singer Adam Reichmann. It's hard to believe that the youthful-looking McEntire, dressed as he is in a white hoodie with thin black stripes, is 35 years old. "But sometimes what people forget is that they're having to push the buttons themselves, they're having to be this engineer's mind, this production mind and [be] an artistic musician.
"That's what this place can offer for people; it's a place to go and work," he says. "And there's someone else pushing those buttons, and someone else worrying about what's plugged in where. You can get artists to concentrate on the whole, because you're concentrating on the specifics."
The father of three is in perpetual motion as he talks. It's a reflection of his speaking style — he's a self-confessed "motor mouth," a state enhanced by the Red Bull he recently drank — and of his racing mind, which always seems several steps ahead of the present. McEntire's a strategic thinker, though, with the ability to offer musicians more than just a place to make music.
"He works with bands really, really well," says Ludo Moog player Tim Convy. "It's such a hard thing, when you have way different personalities — especially in our band, where it's extremely different personalities and extremely strong personalities. You have to not only work with them to get something good, but help them work with each other to get something good. He really quickly was able to befriend all of us and work toward things for the greater good."