IT'S SOUL TIME!
An EXCLUSIVE interview
Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Many music fans compare Daptone Records to legendary labels like Motown and Stax because of their dedication to the deep and moving sounds of Soul music. And while those comparisons are accurate, it also makes sense to compare them to record labels like 2-Tone, Sarah and Stiff Records because of their adherence to quality – when you see the Daptone logo on a release, that is literally a seal of approval. Even if the only artist you’ve ever heard on Daptone is Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, then you know what to expect – real Soul music played from the heart. A Daptone release guarantees stirring performances that will lift your spirit to the heavens and force a river of tears down your cheeks. A Daptone release is not one you want to own; it is one you need to own!
Daptone set up shop in 2001 when musician Neal Sugarman joined forces with former Desco Records label owner Gabriel Roth. They formed a new label focused on releasing records with the same feeling as the classic Soul sides that inspired them to become musicians. Most indie labels at the time were happy to travel the Alt-Rock route, but Sugarman and Roth followed their instincts and released their first album by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings in 2002 (The Dap Kings – featuring both Neal and Gabriel – were Daptone’s house band). The album became a critical success and musicians and music lovers were blown away by the album’s soulful qualities. Then came releases by The Sugarman 3, The Budos Band, The Poets Of Rhythm and others. By 2006, The Dap Kings’ dedication to Soul reached a new audience when British vocalist Amy Winehouse used them on nearly half of her breakthrough album Back To Black. Nearly a decade since the release of Amy’s album, Daptone Records continues to release top quality platters by artists such as Charles Bradley, Menahan Street Band, Saun & Starr and many others. Their most recognizable artist remains Sharon Jones, but every release on the label is a sure-fire winner. Music from the heart to the heart…but don’t be surprised if your feet want to get into the action as well!
With the release of their second label sampler, Daptone Gold II, Neal Sugarman and Gabriel Roth sat down and discussed Daptone with Stephen SPAZ Schnee.
SPAZ: Daptone Gold II is just about to be released. Looking at your back catalog and all the work you’ve done throughout the years, how are you feeling about the Daptone journey so far?
GABRIEL ROTH: I feel good about it. We’ve made some good records and brought together some great people. We’ve been able to support ourselves and all of the other people that work with us. We’ve been able to make music that we are proud of and that we enjoy. So far, it’s been a pretty successful journey.
NEAL SUGARMAN: When we started out, I’m not sure we had these long term goals. It still surprises me when hearing from fans who ask to come to the studios and want to see where we’ve been making these records that have been a part of their lives for the past ten years.
SPAZ: You guys started the label in 2001, years before the ‘Retro Soul’ movement became successful. Did you initially feel completely out of step with the industry back then?
NEAL: For me, to find a bunch of like-minded musicians that wanted to play the same kind of music that we did was real fresh to me – even if it was music that had its heyday 30 years before that. To find this group of musicians and Gabe as a producer and label owner, it just felt really fresh. Fortunately for us, people liked it and bought our records. Whether we were selling 300 records, 3,000 records or 300,000 records, I can’t imagine us making any different type of music. There seemed to have been a movement where people got back into this kind of music, but I think we were working outside of it the whole time.
SPAZ: There are many artists and producers that attempt to make ‘retro’ sounding albums, but they really just do it ‘cosmetically’ while Daptone approaches it from the inside out and really explores what made Soul music great. Do you agree with that assessment?
GABRIEL: I think that the problem with a lot of these Soul or R&B bands that half-stylize themselves to be retro sounding are just picking up on the superficial clichés – lyrics, tambourines, wah-wah guitars or whatever it may be – to stylistically emulate something. For us, we never made records like that. We were always about writing original songs with artists who really put their heart into them. When you have bands live in the studio playing soulful, rhythmic music from their hearts, that’s what that sound is. That is the big difference in what we are doing.
NEAL: People’s impression of funky music is that the drums are loud. If you listen to a James Brown record, that’s clearly not the case – the whole band is making the rhythm. That is the difference between our records and many of the new records coming out in the style of old Soul records.
GABRIEL: Over the years, after doing the Dap Kings, Sharon and Amy Winehouse stuff, all of us have worked in a lot in studios on other people’s projects and the studio vibe in those places is very different to what we have at Daptone. They record everything real quick and then you leave. There’s no real feeling of anybody in there trying that hard to make it better. They’re all just patting each other on the back and figuring they’ll just fix it in the computer later. It’s never like that here. Everybody will call you on your bullshit. There’s no tolerance for ego. It all has to do with what is going to make the songs feel the best. Everybody’s quick to check each other.
SPAZ: Even though Soul music is considered a genre, Daptone understands that Soul is an emotional music connection that lives within the music – it is joy, heartache, love, loss, celebration and grieving. What is your true definition of Soul?
NEAL: There’s a certain honesty that has to be there. A certain compassion, a certain understanding of the music at that moment. If someone does something soulful then they are doing it with their heart first and not necessarily thinking of the consequences. But honesty is the core of that. I use the word soulful a lot to describe certain things…
GABRIEL: There’s courage in there, too. I feel that good soulful music never comes out of fear. It has to come out of the heart. I think you brought up a good point – being soulful is not a genre specific thing. It doesn’t matter if it is Stax or Motown, from Nashville or if it’s Ravi Shankar. Being soulful goes across all genres. It is important to understand the soulful quality of any music.
SPAZ: Vinyl has made a huge comeback. Which format is best for new listeners to get the full Daptone experience?
GABRIEL: Streaming on Instagram – that’s the best way! (laughs) Everybody who works at Daptone doesn’t just have a record player; everybody here is a DJ! The heart and soul of Daptone is a bunch of people that love records – the whole experience. It was a small compromise to go from LP to CD but once it went from CD to download and download to stream, music just started getting more disposable.
NEAL: From a business perspective, I want to see everyone subscribing to Spotify because it’s really the only way we’re going to stay in business. Regardless of that, the LP is great. The format of having five songs per side is the way I grew up listening to music. I could sing every note of a record back to you because I could listen to one side of a record while doing stuff around the house. And then I could go and come home later and listen to the same side of the record again. And then I could flip to the other side of the record. But now, I don’t know if people are really sitting down and listening to a whole record. With streaming, no one is invested in music. They might just be listening to a playlist and not a whole album. It’s a real drag. Yet, we are not compromising – we are making albums. The goal is trying to make that real deep album that is going to take a couple of listens. It’s a real shame. I wouldn’t want to be a young guy getting into music now with that technology. I can’t imagine having the same experience that I had with not being able to hold the record, play half the record, not like the record but listen to it two or three more times and have it become my favorite record of all time.
SPAZ: is there a particular record on the label that you think best represents the Daptone sound?
NEAL: “100 Days, 100 Nights” was a real breakthrough record for the label and for Sharon. It’s a great record. If you were to listen to that record and then listen to the other stuff on the label, you’d see how everything made sense and the lineage of one record to another. Everyone I talk to has a different favorite Sharon record, but that record was a game changer.
GABRIEL: It’s hard. That’s kind of like one of those “Which is your favorite child?” questions – you ask a question like that and every record I don’t mention, I’m like, “That’s the song I should have mentioned!” I guess there’s just not a good answer. The point it proves is that all the records we’ve ever put out are things we put our hearts into and are records we believe in and are very proud of.
SPAZ: What’s next for Daptone?
NEAL: A bunch of records!
GABRIEL: Right now, we’re having serious talks about how we’re going to handle next year – we actually have three times the number of records slated than we’ve ever had before. We’ve made so many records this year.
SPAZ: Is there any artist out there that you’d like to sign to Daptone?
GABRIEL: What’s Tina Turner doing? (Laughs)
Thanks to Neal Sugarman and Gabriel Roth
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Nick Kominitsky