By Steve Hyden   Published Aug 28, 2006 at 5:19 AM
Justin Perkins is fast becoming one of Wisconsin's most in-demand studio engineers.

Currently working at Smart Studios in Madison, Perkins has helped several Wisconsin bands secure deals with major record labels, including Appleton's Number One Fan and Fond du Lac's Verona Grove. He's also a respected a musician whose resume includes founding two of the state's most important indie punk bands from the past 10 years, Yesterday's Kids and The Obsoletes.

Oh, and if you have a polka band, Perkins is free to record you.

"They just play live and they don't screw up. It's pretty solid," the soft-spoken 25-year-old says shortly after recording a bunch of jolly old gents play oompah oompah oompah for a whole afternoon at a Green Bay studio last month.

"They don't write songs to record. They write songs to dance to so you have to get it right once," Perkins says. "It's a nice change of pace."

No, this isn't some hipster joke. Perkins might work with some of state's hippest bands, who hold the Neenah native in high regard, but the unassuming singer/songwriter and engineer is about the least judgmental guy you will ever meet when it comes to music. This is a guy who lists Hall & Oates and Tears for Fears among his favorite bands on his MySpace page. For Perkins, the song is king. And admit it: "I Can't Go For That" is a GREAT song.

"I'm pretty open-minded in general," he says. "It wouldn't drive me crazy to record any kind of music."

That open-mindedness translates to the projects Perkins has worked on, which don't have a distinctive, that's-gotta-be-him sameness. Generally his records have a warm, live-in-the-studio naturalness anchored by robust drums. But he's not above lathering on radio-ready gloss if the band warrants it.

Verona Grove, a pop-punk band reminiscent of All-American Rejects and Fall Out Boy, signed in June with Pat's Record Company, a division of Universal Records, based in part on the strength of the Perkins-recorded single, "Small-Town Celebrity," which sounds just as slick and over-processed as anything you will hear at the mall.

Perkins goal is simple: Make the band happy. "I'm successful if everyone is happy with the outcome," he says.

A combination of musical know-how, technical expertise and an ability to ferret out and enhance a band's strengths has made Perkins a popular studio guide for a growing number of bands.

"Some engineers I've worked with have been the kind of people who really want to get their opinions in loud and first, or are very controlling and have some preconceived notion about how a band should sound," says Andy Kavanaugh of Milwaukee rock band The Goodnight Loving. "Justin is great because he lets you talk, and genuinely seems to want to make the music sound how you want it to sound."

Milwaukee emo rockers Molitor also had a great experience with Perkins when the band recorded its self-titled EP last summer at Smart.

"He's a great musician, engineer, and all-around good guy," bassist Erv Tang says. "I wish more people knew about him because he's so good at what he's doing, and he hasn't really been doing it that long either. The level that he's at already is just astonishing, and I think as soon as he works on a record for a band that blows up or whatever, he'll end up being one of the names to watch in the recording industry."

Perkins got into recording somewhat against his will. He was in the ninth grade and his band the Screwballs (which included future Yesterday's Kids and Obsoletes bandmate Tim Schweiger) wanted to make a CD, so the guys rented an eight-track and got a crash course lesson in recording.

"I didn't really want to be the recorder guy but I was only one who paid close enough attention," he says. "Before I knew it I had a set-up in a basement."

Perkins recorded friends and his own bands with the eight-track until he went to a two-month recording workshop in Ohio after high school. "After that, the eight-track didn't seem so cool," he says. The Ohio workshop remains the only formal studio training Perkins has ever had. Otherwise he learned on the fly, working at Simple Studios in Green Bay for three years before landing at Smart in 2005. He still relies mostly on his ear. He can't even read music.

The ear has done right by Perkins when it comes to his own music. Yesterday's Kids was signed to Lookout! Records in the early 2000s and released two well-regarded albums, "Can't Hear Nuthin'" and "Everything Used to be Better."

Right when many people thought Yesterday's Kids was on the verge of breaking, Perkins and Schweiger broke up the band and formed The Obsoletes with former Benjamins drummer Jon Phillip, marking Perkins' entry into the Milwaukee music scene. The group's only album, 2004's "Is This Progress?," is an invigorating collection of Midwestern roots rock.

While his own projects have suffered the usual ups and downs of the record industry, Perkins' work for other groups has consistently garnered national attention. His most successful album as a producer was Number One Fan's "Compromises," which he recorded while working at Simple in 2004. "Compromises" played a primary role in getting Number One Fan signed to Pat's Record Company, and the record's million-dollar sheen stands as a powerful advertisement for Perkins' discount services.

When Number One Fan changed its name to The Robins and ditched emo for Stones-style riff rock, Perkins invited the band to Smart to record demos (which you can hear using the link below). While the band's label initially was wary of such a dramatic change in sound and image, the demos helped convince the suits that the move was a good one, says singer/guitarist Nick Ziemann. The Robins currently are in L.A. recording an album for PRC.

"Anything a band is connected with, Justin knows a lot about," Ziemann says. "He's just a stand-up dude."

Perkins often is asked when The Obsoletes will put out another record. The band actually has a great second record that hasn't been released, and Perkins has several solo demos polished enough to be put out as is, but for now he's focused on recording other bands.

He just worked with another Appleton band, the Coldplay-inspired Ivory, for its debut record for Carbon Copy Media, a label run by JT Woodruff of Hawthorne Heights. His own music will have to wait for now.

"As much recording as I do, I'm not going to go home and write more music," Perkins says. He doesn't even like listening to rock music at the moment, preferring jazz after a long day in the studio. From polka to rock to jazz, Perkins' ear gets it all.