Behind the “scene” with Daptone Records founder Gabe Roth
"It’s a bit of a myth that the sky is falling on the music industry. I mean, with the Internet, it’s kind of the best time ever for independent artists and independent labels. The artists weren’t making money off record sales anyway."
Behind two of the most important R&B singers to emerge in the last ten years, there’s a pair of shades and a Fu Manchu mustache. These belong to Gabe Roth, the bassist, engineer, and chief songwriter behind Brooklyn’s Daptone Records; the singers, of course, are Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse.
Originally from Southern California but based in New York City since the early ’90s, Roth has left a still-evolving mark on the world of soul music. With Daptone—the label responsible for acts like the Budos Band, Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, and Roth’s brainchild, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—he’s established himself as a true mover and shaker on the independent music scene. And with 2006’s Back to Black, Winehouse’s multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning (Roth scored one himself, for engineering) second album, Roth and the Dap-Kings rose to prominence as a highly sought-after backing band; the Dap-Kings (sans Roth, actually, as he was behind the board on this one) appear on six tracks on that album, including the singles “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.”
From Desco and the Soul Providers to Daptone and the Dap-Kings, Roth has stuck to his guns, only making the music he wants to make, the way he wants to make it. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ fourth album, I Learned the Hard Way, dropped on April 6.
Originally published on April 6, 2010
You were never content to be just a bass player. You were always writing the tunes, producing, engineering, mixing. Can you talk a little bit about that? About wanting to do everything?
I was never really that ambitious with the music stuff. We were just trying to make good records for fun. And me and my friend Phillip [Lehman], and my friend Mike Wagner, we were just messing around, man. Just like a lot of people, we were in a basement or in a friend’s studio or something. Just recording, just kind of doing it ourselves. It came out of that. We weren’t really taking anything that seriously. It wasn’t like we were gonna hire engineers or producers or arrangers or anything. We were just jammin’, just making up songs and recording them ourselves and stuff like that.
You weren’t trying to take over the world just yet?
Nah. Not at that point. [laughs]
So your first label, Desco, starts in ’97?
Probably ’96, I think. My partner Phillip had Pure Records with a guy named Aldo [Rosati]. And he’s putting records out from Paris. A lot of compilations and reissues and stuff. And I was a big fan of his label. And when he moved to New York, he wanted to start producing new records, and he didn’t really know a lot about recording and arranging and stuff. But he knew a lot about old funk records and stuff like that. He’s a real heavy collector. Me and Mike Wagner met him one night and kinda hit it off. We couldn’t believe the records he had, and the depth of knowledge he had about music. And also he was really a huge inspiration on me. He had a real rebellious, do-it-yourself attitude. He clearly didn’t care about anything. He just kind of wanted to make whatever record he wanted to make. Partly, it came from coming from a little bit of money, probably, and not having to worry about certain things. But also it just came from his own spirit, man. He’s just a real creative, strong-minded person. So I think he was a big influence on me, just getting started with him, ’cause he didn’t care about anything. You know, one day he’d wake up and say, “Hey, we should do a sitar record and just play a bunch of James Brown songs and Meters songs on sitar.” Everybody else would kinda say, “Oh yeah, that would be cool if we did that.” He would actually do it! That afternoon, he’d go find a sitar and rent it and book some time in a studio, and he would actually make it happen. A lot of his kind of eccentric energy really drove things, kind of kick-started the whole thing for me. I wasn’t some kind of a conservative homebody or something, but I was just kind of contributing in practical ways. He would come up with these strange ideas, and I had to figure out how to play the sitar, or how to record drums. How to make the stuff kind of fit together. That was how it started. When I met up with him, it was probably ’95 or ’96, and we just started doing a few 45s. And then we did that Revenge of Mister Mopoji album, which was like a soundtrack to a movie that never happened. [laughs] And he put it out on his Pure label as a reissue. That was kind of how we got started. I mean, it was real strange. We were just having fun, and he already had this kind of reissue label, so we were using that.
Phillip is from Paris?
Yeah, he’s from Paris. He’s actually a real famous graffiti artist. He went by “Bando.” He’s still real respected and stuff. They have exhibitions in museums of his work. But, yeah, he was living in Paris for a long time before that.
And he’s related to the Lehman Brothers?
I think so. His father actually made a lot of really cool documentaries. Like National Geographic and things like that. Really cool films. [Phillip’s family are] real high-cultured people, you know what I mean? I think his father had a lot of art stored over at the Met and stuff like that. His sister is a great painter. [Phillip] came from a real interesting family and interesting background.
Let’s talk about the Soul Providers, who were kind of the house band at Desco and the precursor to the Dap-Kings. Who was in the Soul Providers?
Well, originally Phillip was playing drums, I was playing bass, and our great friend Mike Wagner was playing guitar, and also trombone. And Fernando [Velez] came in and started playing congas. It started out we were just making records, so it was kind of like whoever we could pull together, you know? It was mostly studio projects. So at the very beginning, it wasn’t even really a real band. The name the Soul Providers was just something we came up with on a lark when we were doing that Revenge of Mister Mopoji thing. It was kind of like, almost a fictional band, really. It was “Mike Jackson and the Soul Providers.” And at the time, the saxophone player was a guy named Joe Hrbek, who later introduced us to Sharon [Jones]. He was Sharon’s boyfriend at the time. So him, and his buddy Neal Pawley was playing trombone. And within a few years, we met Binky [Griptite], and Binky came in and started playing guitar. And my roommate at the time, Martín Perna, who’s in Antibalas, he was playing baritone and tambourine. And El Michels, Leon, was playing tenor. And we had a number of different trumpet players. Paul Brandenburg was playing on some of the first record. But later, Anda Szilagyi started to play with us; she toured with us for a while. And then after that, Todd Simon, who later moved out West and started Connie and the Keystones and that whole scene, he was our trumpet player for a while. Victor Axelrod of course, aka Ticklah, Earl Maxton. All these guys have got a lot of names and a lot of projects. You’re familiar with that scene. It was the Soul Providers and Antibalas and the Mighty Imperials and the Sugarman Three. It was all kind of a big family of us, working together in different ways. At that point, there weren’t really as many official rosters as there are now. It wasn’t as much about touring; it was more about just making a bunch of weird records. We were all kind of playing on each other’s records and puttin’ it together.
All these records, were they only on vinyl?
Yeah, for the first couple of years, everything was just on vinyl. It wasn’t until probably ’99 or so when Phillip and I hooked up with this woman and she kinda half agreed to half join our team and help us with some marketing and promotion. ’Cause we started selling more records, you know? And we were making more records. And it was starting to get almost like a legitimate business. So we brought her in, and she was the one who finally told us, “Look, if you guys ever wanna get this going at all, you’re going to have to make CDs.” She talked us into it, for better or for worse. And at that point, we started putting CDs out. We put some of the first records back out on CD. But, yeah, the beginning was all 45s and LPs.
When you started making records, which records in particular were big inspirations to you?
Well, at the beginning, at the very beginning I would say, it’s real different than now. Like everybody, I went through a lot of different phases listening to different kinds of music. When I first started making records, me and Phillip and Mike Wagner, we were real into James Brown. It’s weird, because the context for it is so different now than it was then. It kind of came and went, but the sound that we were super into was that real hard James Brown sound. And a lot of those real obscure funk 45s. [Phillip] is a crazy collector. I had some records, but he had crazy records. We were listening to a lot of just real hard, rare funk 45s. And there’s some albums too, Matata’s Independence album and things like that were heavy influences on us. And then we got into Fela too, around that time, maybe a little before I met Phillip. Fela and James Brown were the big ones. Fela, James Brown, the Meters. They seem real obvious now, but at the time it wasn’t like there was a lot of funk bands that were into that. All the funk bands were into P-Funk and that kind of sound, you know? So at the time, it was a little rebellious and raw even though it may seem a little tired right now. But there were a lot of just little, local, rare funk 45s. That was the stuff that was really pushing us. You know, Hank Carbo and Eddie Bo and those kinds of records.
You said you go through phases. What are you listening to these days?
Personally, I listen to a lot of gospel records now, a lot of old rhythm and blues records. You know, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Ray Charles, Little Willie John, old Bobby Bland records. That kind of stuff. Old Tina Turner records. Old rhythm and blues records, that’s what really gets my goat right now. I love those records.
And what bass players were you big on when you were starting out?
I mean, really, the reason I started playing bass was ’cause I wasn’t real big on bass players. I was a drummer, and every time I tried to start a band, all the bass players were into, you know, Jaco Pastorius and these assholes that played a million notes. Just guys that played lots of notes and chords and these virtuoso bass players. To me, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. All the records I loved had very simple bass parts. I mean, one of my great heroes at the beginning was Fred Thomas, James Brown’s bass player. Because, I think, with all James Brown’s bass players, I thought he kind of fit into the picture the best. I mean, Bootsy was bad, man. Bootsy sounded great on that gig. But Fred Thomas had this real sense of discipline. He could’ve been in Fela’s band, you know? He’d play “Escape-Ism” or “Hot Pants” or something like those, or “Think,” or any of those records, man. And he had these bass lines, just two notes. One or two. Just, “Doo-doom. Doo-doom. Dome-ba-doom-doom. Doom-doom. Doom-doom.” They seem so simple, and lots of people said, “Oh, well that’s easy, anybody could do that.” But anybody didn’t do that. He did that. He was the one who could lay it down like that, man. And I think he really made so many of those records happen by the minimalism of how he played. So really, for me, I think there’s a lot of great bass players that I admire. Willie Dixon. Fred Thomas. Obviously James Jamerson, nobody can really touch him. But as far as inspiring me, it was more about what bass players weren’t playing. I never really saw myself as a bass player. I was just kind of playing the bass ’cause that’s what needed to be done. It was just like, “Doom-dum-doom.” Just playin’ simple.
Can you tell me how you hooked up with some of the Daptone singers? How did you hook up with Lee Fields?
Well, Lee Fields, again, that was Phillip. We knew his old records, and we were big fans of his. We all thought he was one of the greatest voices of all time even though he was never a big celebrity. He kind of had this handful of funk 45s and one album in the ’70s. We were out at this heavy metal recording studio on Long Island called Dare, out in Deer Park, and we were out there just recording a bunch of tracks. We were talkin’, just bullshittin’, like, “Oh man, who could we get to sing on this tune?” And Phillip was like, “Oh, we should get Lee Fields to sing on this tune. We should get Lee Fields, it would be amazing.” It was just like, “Yeah, great,” you know? That’s a perfect example of something like…anybody would’ve said that, but Phillip, he just got on the phone—I mean, this is before the Internet, you know—Phillip got on the phone and called BMI or something, and tracked down Lee Fields. Like a private detective, tracked him down. It turned out he’s right here in Plainfield, New Jersey. And that was probably one of the biggest phone calls that ever happened for me, ’cause hooking up with Lee Fields is amazing, man. That guy’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. He’s unbelievable. He called him up and said, “Hey, will you come sing on this track?” I don’t know what Lee wanted, a few hundred bucks. He came down and he sang, and that was that. I’m still real proud of that record. That was really the first 45 I ever made. It was “Steam Train” and “Let a Man Do What He Wanna Do.” And Sharon came in to sing backgrounds on that. That’s how I met Sharon. We needed backgrounds. Lee sang, “Baby, why dontcha let your man do what he wanna do?” And then we needed the backgrounds: “Do what he wanna do.” That was what we called Sharon for. Joe Hrbek, her boyfriend, said, “My girlfriend can sing. She’ll come in and do all three parts if you got the money.” We said alright. She came in, and we hit it off and recorded “Switchblade” and a bunch of other stuff. “The Landlord.” And we’ve been working together ever since. So that was how I met Lee, and that’s how I met Sharon.
Naomi [Shelton] I met through Fred Thomas. Because I had a friend Rick Goetz, and this was in the late ’90s, he was working over at Atlantic as an A&R dude. And I guess Fred Thomas’s manager, a guy named Bob Orzo, sent Atlantic this demo, this Fred Thomas record. And of course nobody at Atlantic was interested at all, but Rick thought of me ’cause he knew I was a James Brown fiend. He’s like, “Maybe you’ll appreciate that Fred Thomas is out there making demos.” So he sent it to me, and I was just blown away that Fred Thomas was in New York. He’s in Brooklyn. So I called his manager, and he invited me down to a gig in the Village. I walked in and Fred Thomas was playing bass and singing. Cliff Driver was playing organ, and that’s how I met Cliff Driver. And Naomi was there singing, too. He let her sing a few songs, and he sang some songs, and that was how I met Cliff and Naomi. They sounded amazing. So we brought them into the studio and cut some 45s with them. “Wind Your Clock” and all that stuff. And then a little later, Cliff called me and he asked me to come play bass with him in churches. You know, in the gospel group. So I started playing with them. That’s how I really got to know Cliff and Naomi.
Joseph Henry, rest in peace, I put an ad in the paper. This is probably 1994 or something. It was a long time ago, it was before Desco. I was trying to put a band together, and I put an ad in the Voice or put flyers up on the street or something. Real old school. And I tried out a whole bunch of singers. I tried out some real freak shows. Joseph Henry came in and he sounded amazing, man. He came down, and he told me he used to sing with the Coasters and all this bullshit. I said, “Man, whatever.” And he started singing, man, and he sounded great. And we kind of hit it off, and after that, we had that band together for a minute, it was called Joseph Henry and the East Side Soul Congregation. And we never quite got it together. We maybe did one gig. But later on, we brought Joseph Henry into the studio and recorded “Who’s the King?” and “I Feel Right,” and we brought him in again to record with the Mighty Imperials. I wish we would’ve recorded more with him. Unfortunately, we lost him a couple of years ago. He passed.
Charles Bradley, that was a weird one. One morning I was in my apartment in Brooklyn, and the doorbell rang, and it was Charles Bradley. Swear to God, that’s how it happened! [laughs] He tried to explain it to me at the time, and a few times since. He told me, “Kenny gave me your number.” And I said, “Who’s Kenny?” And he said, “Kenny’s a drummer.” I said, “What? I don’t know no drummer named Kenny.” I couldn’t figure out how he knew me or how he got a hold of me. It wasn’t like I had the word out on the street I was looking for him or anything, or singers. He just showed up at my door! And that was that, man. He sounds amazing. And we started working together. We quickly became friends and started making some records together, and he helped us build the studio. Now, thank God, this year, his first album’s gonna come out. I’m really looking forward to it.
One of my favorite things you guys have ever done is Bradley’s “The World (Is Going Up in Flames).”
Tommy [Brenneck] produced that in his bedroom. That was part of the beginning of his Dunham imprint. He produced that tune in his bedroom, I mixed it for him, and Charles sang on it. Tommy’s got a whole album now that we finished mixing a week ago, and I’m actually standing outside a mastering studio today. When we finish this call, I’m gonna go in there and we’re gonna master the Charles Bradley album. That’s a great record, man. A great record.
What led to Desco’s demise?
Well, Phillip and I just had differences. It was inevitable, man. He’s a real unique individual, and at some point it just couldn’t hold anymore, and he had to shut stuff down. It was what it was, and he started Soul Fire, and eventually I started Daptone, and that was that.
So you and Neal Sugarman start Daptone in 2002?
Not exactly. In 2000, Desco split up, and I kind of put the Dap-Kings together. I recorded that first record, Dap-Dippin’, in a basement. At the time, I had a deal with another company, an imprint deal that kinda fell through. So we had that record done. And Neal wanted me to make his record, so we made the Pure Cane Sugar record, and he had a different deal that fell through. And the Dap-Kings got an offer to go to Spain, so we went and did this residency in Spain, and we pressed up a bunch of records. It was kinda just off the cuff that we made up the whole Daptone thing. It wasn’t really a label that much. And then at some point in 2001, maybe, Neal and I sat down and he said he wanted to try to do it together, so we put the business together and, you know, formed a partnership and started going at it, started selling 45s and stuff. That’s when it really became… It wasn’t like a record company, but it was us trying to sell records and using the Daptone name, so it was probably around 2001.
In contrast with some of the older records, I Learned the Hard Way has a bigger sound, it’s more symphonic. Can you tell me about some of those arrangements, and if that was a conscious decision?
I don’t think we came into it like, “Let’s make a real orchestrated record.” It’s just always been, for us, pretty natural, just kind of based on what records sound good to us and what we’re listening to and what we’re into at the time. So as far as orchestration and stuff, we kinda got into that. It was fun, man. We recorded the whole orchestra in one day, to one track on a tape machine. Just live to one track. I had a real good time doing it, just, like, writing arrangements for strings and tympani and stuff like that. And those guys played the shit out of it. It came out real nice.
Is “The Reason” the first instrumental on a Sharon Jones album?
No, there’s an instrumental on the first album, “Casella Walk.” Neal wrote [“The Reason”], we were playing it as an instrumental, and we dug it. For [I Learned the Hard Way], we recorded, like, maybe twenty-one, twenty-two songs. There’s a lot of stuff we just didn’t put on the record, just as far as what would fit and what sounded good together. We thought about it a lot. There’s some other instrumentals and stuff, too. There’s also a vocal version of that song that has a whole different part to it that we didn’t put out. But I think it sounds good; we’ll probably put it on a 45 or put it on another album.
“Mama Don’t Like My Man” is pretty atypical for a Sharon Jones album, too. Just guitar, Sharon, and backup vocals.
I wrote that for a Naomi Shelton session, and we tried to cut it and we couldn’t really get it to feel right. And then for this session, I didn’t give up on it; I kinda felt like we should try to get the music right, and try to do it simple. The day we were there with the background singers, we finished all the backgrounds for the record late at night. I said, “You guys wanna try this song real quick?” And they were into it, and Sharon was into it. We sat in the control room and worked it out and learned it, then went back and cut it live real quick and it was cool, you know? I didn’t really think it was stuff we were gonna use. I was thinking it was gonna be some weird bonus track. But everybody dug it, you know? So it was like, “Fuck it, we’re puttin’ it on the record.”
Did you guys end up working with Syl Johnson?
We did do some recordings with Syl Johnson; we still haven’t finished them. He came up to New York and we cut about three songs. It never completely came together, man, we were going back and forth. I was supposed to cut some horn charts for him, but he wanted to re-cut the vocals. We gotta figure it out. He’s one of my idols, man. He’s a great singer and producer.
And what’s the story with Rod Stewart?
Oh, that was something that they hired us to do, and it didn’t really come together right. There was some confusion about what they wanted or what they didn’t want. There were different producers involved. Clive Davis and Rod Stewart’s manager. The whole thing got a little cocked up. We recorded maybe four songs for them, and about halfway into the process, like most things in the music industry, it just kind of fell apart. The whole thing fell apart, and somebody else ended up producing the album. And I think it sounded good; I heard it. But we didn’t end up doing it.
Rod never came down to your studio or anything?
Nah, he didn’t come down. I think that was really part of the problem. I mean, they got all these producers and stuff involved, but really what they needed was for the artists to sit down and make music together. Not even that he had to sing live with us, but we could’ve had a conversation with him, he could’ve told us what it was he was trying to do. As opposed to him talking to his manager talking to Clive Davis talking to another producer talking to me. It was kind of a mess. It’s just a very disconnected way to approach making a record. It’s very hard to hit the target if you’re playing telephone like that.
And have you guys recovered from the burglary last year?
Yeah, yeah. You know, it was a rough break. They stole a bunch of microphones and guitars and amplifiers, and they stole [label manager Nydia Davila’s] computer. They stole a lot of stuff. But on the other hand, it was, in the big picture, kind of uplifting. There was an outpouring of support. Like, people from all over the world were contacting us in the next couple of days. You know, mad that we got robbed, and sending their support, asking what they could do. People were trying to donate money and stuff, we had to put a stop to that. [laughs] A lot of people lent us a lot of equipment. I mean, at the end of it, really, I didn’t realize there were that many people out there that cared about what we were doing. That even knew about the studio. So, to have that reaction, it was kind of inspiring. It did more to help us make records than any of those mics ever could’ve. It’s just equipment.
Why is Daptone going strong while other areas of the music industry are falling apart?
It’s a bit of a myth that the sky is falling on the music industry. I mean, with the Internet, it’s kind of the best time ever for independent artists and independent labels. The artists weren’t making money off record sales anyway. Whether a major label is selling CDs or not, I could really give a shit, man. I hope they all fall apart. They all deserve to, you know? They’ve been eatin’ their tail for a long time, and good riddance if they fall apart. They weren’t really contributing that much anyway. There’s obviously some smaller imprints and stuff under those labels that might’ve been making some quality music, but as far as the meat and potatoes of those major labels, they’re just trying to put out these formulaic pop records, and they put all their money and all their energy into trying to market them. All their money into: “Well, how can we get a thirteen-year-old kid to buy this along with a soda pop and a Disney DVD?” It has nothing to do with music anymore. And it was their own inability to connect with people musically that led to that. So, they’ve had it a long time coming as far as I’m concerned. And as far as the rest of the industry, bands and venues and stuff are suffering along with everybody else with the economy. But short of that, I don’t really think there’s any trouble in the music industry.
I think musicians, for once, are starting to have something closer to equal footing and equal opportunity because of the Internet. Because of iTunes and CDBaby and people being able to make their own websites and directly download music to people. Or directly ship music to people. That direct connection to consumers, to fans, it’s much stronger, and I think it’s better for the listener, too. People have access to more music. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, if you’re into Celtic punk music, you can go on your computer and you can track down the most obscure band in any corner of the world, and I think that connection is amazing for the music. It’s great for artists and it’s great for people listening to music. I think the other thing that’s real rough is Live Nation. Clear Channel. Taking over all the radio stations and all the venues. That’s obviously just a terrible, terrible monopoly. I wouldn’t say it’s the downfall of the industry, but it’s definitely detrimental as far as the way things have gone the last few years. Short of that, I think the changes that have happened in the way that people access music and the way it’s distributed and copied and shared, I think it’s been great for everybody. I think the only people that suffer are the major labels, and I think that’s fine. I have no problem with that.
One last question: how do you define soul? As far as your music, and what it takes to make this kind of music?
Well, I mean, to be fair, there’s a little weight behind that question. Sometimes I’m doing interviews and stuff and people talk about me being a White kid trying to make soul music, or Black music, and stuff like this. I really, personally, never tried to be somebody I’m not. Or tried to emulate some music, or tried to steal some history or tradition that I’m not a part of. What I try to do is make records that sound good to me and make honest records. I really try to write with my heart and play with my heart. I think the reason why we’ve been successful is that I’ve really been able to surround myself with a lot of singers and musicians that are able to play from the heart and play with some sincerity. Whether it’s Otis Redding, or Fela, or Mavis Staples, in any of its many forms, I think soul music is just music that comes from the heart. It’s pure music. I think the way Sharon usually puts it is, “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.” I think that’s what soul music is about, really.
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