By Drew Ailes
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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."
McEntire's non-studio experience is also valuable, according to Ha Ha Tonka vocalist/guitarist Brian Roberts. "Whenever we were recording Buckle, [we were] extraordinarily green in all aspects of the industry. He's toured with other bands, he's worked in different aspects of recording and artist development. He has a wealth of knowledge on every issue that a young artist — or an old artist — would need to know."
Indeed, McEntire was the touring soundman for industrial rockers My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult for years, and was a keyboard player in the high school incarnation of St. Louis rockers Colony. (He also grew up playing piano, clarinet and drums.) Still, McEntire was always fascinated by recording music. After brief sojourns at the Ohio Recording Workshop and a gospel studio in Owensboro, Kentucky, he returned to St. Louis in the early '90s, determined to work for a local studio. Because of the diverse groups of artists it attracted, he zeroed in on Hill stalwart Music Masters.
"I remember one night, I walked up to the door when I knew there was a big session going on, there were a bunch of cars parked out front," McEntire says. "I knocked on the door, and a guy came out. I was like, 'I mailed a résumé a couple of weeks ago, I called last week and you said you got [it]. I just want to make sure you're looking at it. Here's my résumé.' The guy looks at it, and he goes, 'What's your favorite vocal mic?'
"I paused for a second [and] I said, 'Who's singing?' and he said, 'Huh. Why don't you come in?' I didn't know I had even said the right thing, it was a legitimate answer. Turns out, he was the owner — they wound up hiring me as an assistant, and I stayed there for, like, six years."
After leaving Music Masters in 1998, McEntire went to the Upper Room, the studio owned by ex-Uriah Heep member Ken Hensley. There, he had the opportunity to engineer a session with a pre-Survivor Destiny's Child. (The track was never used, although McEntire speaks highly of the group's talent.) When the Upper Room suddenly closed in 2000, leaving McEntire and other freelance studio engineers with bookings but no room, the church in Union became his new base.
What was meant to be a temporary relocation turned into a five-year stint. But all along, McEntire had a vision for what a studio should be like — an idea inspired by his experience going to Vancouver with Colony in the mid-'90s as it recorded its major-label debut, Siren, with Ben Mink.
"It was a really big studio with the right mentality, the right people," McEntire recalls. "It was when I knew: This is how studios should be — laid-back, run professionally. It was like you went to a factory, but it was a Willy Wonka factory you were working at. You always left with a smile. I knew I needed to be in this trade, no matter what."
The atmosphere and décor at Sawhorse reflect a certain childlike whimsy. (Think Pee-wee's Playhouse for audio geeks.) Magazines, musical instruments and knickknacks are strewn about the control room — everything from a Kiss figurine and a miniature version of the fishnet-leg lamp from A Christmas Story, to a cardboard cutout of Christopher Walken's head and Snoopy paintings on the wall. McEntire himself is an overgrown big kid, with a positive and optimistic attitude, quick smile and mischievous (but amiable) demeanor. During sessions he's fond of grabbing a melodica and working out abstract melodies, or thinking of raunchy phrases that match the cadence of drum rhythms.
But Sawhorse's gear is anything but child's play. For instance, the studio's centerpiece is an SSL mixing board which used to belong to the late Austrian pop star Falco. Such high-quality pieces let Sawhorse compete with studios in bigger cities — and attract marquee industry talent. Noted producer/mixer John Agnello mixed most of Son Volt's The Search at Sawhorse, while Chris Testa, who has produced the Dixie Chicks and Jimmy Eat World, has been in town working with local act This Is Energy.
"It's not like we don't have things that New York, LA, Nashville and Chicago have — we have them," McEntire says. "We can bring those guys to us, we don't have to go out of town to do it anymore.
"I realize that I'm not the only game in town, I'm not the guy that's going to be cool to do every record. I don't have to be that guy, and I'm fine with that. I don't have to have my thumbprint in everything. I want to have tools that other people can use — or bands can bring in other guys, [and] they can use it."
Indeed, while his is the name most associated with Sawhorse, he's hesitant to take full credit for its reputation. He says he'd rather "be thought of as the guy that's working out of this place" and wants freelance studio engineers to work there and keep the studio humming. It's clear he just loves being at Sawhorse for reasons that have nothing to do with ego or micromanaging: Even when he isn't scheduled for a recording session, he might show up and putter around — adding insights if needed, or staying out of the way if not. It's all a function of what McEntire calls "transparency" — the idea that everybody who works there, from freelance engineers to interns, has a hand in its success — and dislike of hierarchy.
"A lot of times in today's music, a lot of engineers are starting to dip their toe in that pond of production, whether they realize it or not," he says. "There's times when I'm like, 'Have you ever tried shortening this section, or that section?' Technically, that could be construed as that's a producer that's doing it, [I'm] editing the arrangement of the song.
"But [more often] I'm just a guy trying to listen, because the song is too long for me, it's losing my attention, or it's just redundant. I just think of it as, like, I'm just a dude giving you a quick first impression, and you're rolling with it."