Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) is the founder, chief engineer, producer and songwriter of Daptone Records, the label that's brought acts like Antibalas, The Budos Band, Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings to the world, to name a few. Roth is one the most sought after producers in the music business due to his knack for capturing that quintessential soul sound. Of course, it helps to have some of the most soul-savvy musicians around in your house band, something Roth would be quick to point out. I had the privilege of speaking with Gabe a couple weeks ago in advance of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings upcoming show in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. SJDK are playing six dates in the Northeast starting tomorrow night in Ithaca, NY. Then beginning the second week in March, they'll be touring through the south. Def keep an eye out for when they come to your hometown as these road warriors are known for their live shows as much as they are their soulful records:
Marc Gabriel Amigone: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, I'm a huge fan of the whole Daptone Family, Budos Band, Antibalas, Lee Fields and what not.
Gabe Roth: Cool, thanks.
Marc Gabriel Amigone: So my first question, is when I reviewed I Learned the Hard Way, I wrote that it represented a progression from previous albums in that it was deeper, more soulful, more emotional, less funky raw grooves. Would you agree with that characterization?
Gabe Roth: Um, I feel like that's true, the direction the studio albums have evolved. I feel like the live show is still based around more of a dance groove, but as far as the songwriting I think Sharon as a singer has really grown a lot. She's gotten stronger and stronger. I think songwriting wise and arrangement wise I think the band is getting more expressive. It's more of a deeper groove, you know?
MGA: Right I feel like the first couple albums were more just dance party records. I Learned the Hard Way is deeper than that, it's just different.
GR: Actually it's funny you say that because we actually recorded a lot of up-tempo and down-tempo stuff that didn't actually make the album so part of it was the sequencing. Part of it was trying to figure out what we wanted to keep, what went well together, and what was going to make it a strong album. There's a song called When I Come Home that we put out on a 45 and didn't put on the album. He Said I Can wasn't on the album, the vocal version of The Reason, there's a lot of up-tempo joints, an instrumental song called Thunder Clap, there's a number of things that actually didn't make the record that were recorded during that session that were kind of up-tempo.
MGA: So you're putting a lot of that stuff out on 45's?
GR: Yea, we've got plans for some of it, some of it we don't. It's almost all really good, it came out great. We worked really hard, that's the hardest record I ever had to pick songs for because usually we record 16 or 17 songs for a record and it's usually pretty obvious which ones are the best. Maybe we'll fight a little bit about it but it's not that hard getting it down to 10 or 12 songs. On that record though, we recorded like 20 songs and every one of them was somebody's favorite.
MGA: That's gotta be tough to leave stuff on the cutting room floor like that.
GR: It's a good problem to have.
MGA: I know you've gotten this question a few times before, but Daptone's motto is putting soul up. What's your definition of Soul?
GR: Oh, that's tough. Man I've gotten that question before, but it never gets any easier to answer. I think soul to me is something that's honest. It touches people in a real way, in a genuine way and reaches them in a genuine way. Sharon always says what comes from the heart reaches the heart, and I think that could be a real heartfelt blues or it could be a really heavy rhythm or it could be anywhere in between. It could be a ballad, it could be a song about the government, it could be anything, but if you're singing it with your heart and you're playing it with your heart, and people are able to feel it that way. Obviously there's always the academics of the genre. Who's going to file stuff where in a record store but beyond that there's some country music that's real soulful. There's music from all over the world that's soulful. There's classical music that's soulful. I think obviously it's subjective, it has to be subjective because not everybody's going to relate to everything. If everyone related to it, it wouldn't be saying much.
MGA: Right, it's whose soul you're reaching.
GR: Yea it's something about the common human experience you gotta brush up against.
MGA: I bought I Learned The Hard Way for my Dad for Xmas. He grew up on Motown, Stax, soul and R&B, so he’s digging Sharon Jones. Have you had other people tell you that?
GR: Yea that's one thing that's helped us be successful is the music has a pretty broad appeal that way. People have different contexts for it. People into hip-hop used to hearing those kind of grooves sampled or people that are into modern R&B hear the roots of it. People who are into punk rock can identify with the way we put the business together and the independent spirit of it, you know? The idea of the individuality of it. But it's definitely real commonplace for us for people that are into Motown and Stax, it's def a real easy connection for them.
MGA: How has your life changed since SJDK has blown up, and started touring the world, playing the late night TV circuit, selling out the apollo, etc.?
GR: Man I started doing this about 15 years ago. So yea, it's changed a lot. In 15 years I've been married and divorced and slept on a lot of different couches. So now I'm doing great, I've got a house and two kids here in California. My personal life is doing great, there's a lot of other factors and stuff. I guess I've changed a lot, I've probably slowed down a bit.
MGA: That's gotta be gratifying to know, to use a played out term, you never sold out, you stayed indy the whole time and you've done it your own way and that's something to really be proud of.
GR: Yea staying indy was real hard. The thing I'm really proud of is not so much my personal gains, but there's a big family of people who have done well and are making an honest living now from making good music. I'm real proud of being able to be fair to them. You know, Sharon was finally able to buy a house down south, she's been trying to that for years, and last year she finally did it, and that's a huge thing for me man, because that's something she's been talking about forever. Living out in the projects out in Far Rockaway, and she never really owned anything. That's huge for me, I'm real happy about that.
MGA: That's awesome.
GR: The guys in the band are starting to have kids and to be able to feed their families that's a really good thing.
MGA: Yea man you guys are really working hard. You're touring all over the world, every dollar make you're working hard for, so you guys deserve all your success.
GR: Thank you.
MGA: In your opinion, what were the moments that allowed for SJDK rise to where they are today? Being featured on the Up in the Air soundtrack? The Back to Black album?
GR: I think being on Fresh Air with Terry Gross was a big thing for us, we got to a lot of people quickly that way. There's a lot of other things along the way like Sharon being in the Great Debaters and the Amy Winehouse Record, being sampled by Kanye West, there's a bunch of things like that that certain people saw and think this has been some kind of overnight success, but it's been very gradual, you know every city we went, we went from 20 people to 50 and 50 to 100 and 100 to 200 to 400, we just kept going back. There's very few places we've been where we've had 1,000 people show up the first time we were there.
MGA: Does the reception to the music vary when you tour to different parts of the world?
GR: Honestly, the short answer is no. It varies from town to town. It varies from night to night and it varies from crowd to crowd. I think you'll find London has more in common with New York than it does with Manchester. You know what I mean, and New York has more in common with London than it does with Buffalo. It's definitely different scenes in every town, the size of the town and how much music is there. And also what the context is. There's plenty of small towns all over the world where some local dj has been throwing a funk party for years and people are into certain music. All along we've been very fortunate to be able to connect with audiences in a pretty consistent way.
MGA: Yea when I think you're playing soulful music, that will be common, everyone can relate to that. I wanted to ask you, the song The Stroll, by Binky Griptite and the Mellomatics, that's one of the funkiest songs I've ever heard.
GR: Aw man that's good to hear, I'll tell him you said that.
MGA: Does Daptone plan to put out an EP/LP of Binky Griptite and the Mellomatics?
GR: Man you know that's a painful question the truth is we tried to record one and it came out no good, so we felt like we could do better, and there was some frustration with it. We ended up putting out a handful of 45's but I would love to put a record out of Binky, Binky needs to have a record out more than anyone in the world.
MGA: With the Antibalas re-issue of Who is this America? coming out last year, what parallels do you draw between when the album first came out and today between the political climate than and now? How it applied to what was going on then, what's going on now...?
GR: I wrote that song Who Is This America? and I think it was relevant but I don't know if it was necessarily timely in that way. The idea was, for a lot of the world and even a lot of Americans, people don't really understand the intensity of the plurality of this country, you talk about America and you talk about some of the most racist people in the world but also some of the most progressive people in the world. Some of the people who are the most conservative and the most liberal. There's so much extremes here and it's all America. I think that's really hard for the world to understand. When Bush was president people looked at us like such a backward nation and being on tour with the band, you'd see that. You'd go to places and during the worst of it you almost had to hit the stage with an apology. It reflected on Americans. What kind of people, what kind of country could elect this guy? By the same token when Obama got elected, Bush was way too conservative and crazy and violent and incompetent, he could never get elected in England or in Germany or in some place like that, but by the same token Barack Obama could never get elected there either. I think it's really hard for people to get around the idea of how plural this country is. So that is still relevant. Obviously the war situation is slightly different, not as different as I'd like it to be. I don't know how much I can really speak to that. I'm not as politically engaged as I should be.
MGA: Well, I definitely hear what you're saying. A lot of what was going on then is going on today, but a lot is changed. It's a different world. It's just the timing of all of it. I think you guys toured in the fall of 2004 when that album came out, and it just got re-issued in 2010 in time for the 2010 election. I found it interesting, the timing of it all. When I listen to that song, I feel like it's like a horror movie soundtrack. Did you have any of that in mind when you wrote the song?
GR: Not really no.
MGA: That was the last album for which you were a full-time member of Antibalas?
MGA: So you stepped away to work on other projects?
GR: Well the thing was, at the beginning there was a lot of guys who were in Antibalas and The Dap-Kings. Binky Griptite, myself, Victor Axelrod, Martin Perna, Fernando Velez there was a lot of us in both bands, Todd Simon. As both bands started touring more and getting more successful you had to start throwing in subs here and there to keep the lineup covered and at a certain point it just became too much. I think everybody kind of went where they were needed most. Victor really needed to go with Antibalas and Martin. Me and Binky needed to go with The Dap-Kings. It was a little painful at the time. I still miss touring with those guys, those were some of the funnest tours I ever did. We played a lot of really great shows, we had a really fun time at a lot of those shows.
MGA: Do you feel like The Daktaris Soul Explosion (the mock 1970's re-issue afrobeat record that came out in 97) was the beginning of the afrobeat revival movement?
GR: It's funny we almost didn't put that record out. We recorded it before Fela died. There weren't a lot of people that were into that kind of music at that time, we're talking like 1996 or something. And everybody we played it for said it sounded messed up, like distorted or something. We weren't really going to put it out, but after Fela died there was some more interest, and we decided to put it out.
MGA: Really, that's interesting.
GR: There's an interesting record coming out you'd probably dig, you know Amayo and his side project, The Fu Arkest-Ra?
MGA: Oh yea, I've seen them live a bunch of times.
GR: Well, he's got this whole concept like an epic Kung-Fu-Lion Dancing-African Proverb-Zeus-Opera epic story that's been in his head for years. All of the Fu songs are part of that story. When I had a studio in his basement at the Afro-Spot in Brooklyn where we recorded Dap-Dippin and Pure Cane Sugar and Talkatif and a lot of stuff I started recording with him the Fu Arkest-Ra record. We got through the rhythm section stuff, and we never really finished it and he got evicted and I got evicted and things went sour, not between us, but with the landlords. We always talked about getting back into it and re-recording, but I was always so busy with touring and he was trying to keep bands together. And it never really came together. So recently, he came back to me, actually it was about ten years ago he came to me and he wanted to record again, and I was out of town I didn't really have time, so I recommended him to Tommy Breneck to Dunham Studios to see if he was into it. And I guess he brought some rhythm section there, and it wasn't really happening and Tommy wasn't really sure about it. So Tommy said do you have some tape we can record on, so he said oh yea, we can record on this old blank tape, so the tape he brought on was the rhythm section tape we recorded ten years before. So Tommy put it on and was like wow, this shit is bangin, it's weird but it's been so long its been 10 years, but we forgot about that sound from that time. So Tommy brought in all the original guys, Stuart Bogie and Martin Perna, to do some overdubs, and I went in and mastered it the last time I was in New York. We're trying to put out a 12-inch of it, but it's kind of an interesting story because it was a record that was recorded and then 10 years later the rest of it was put down. Hopefully we'll put that out sometime soon.
MGA: I would love to hear that. The first time I saw Fu I was totally blown away. So do you feel like The Daktaris was the beginning of the afrobeat revival movement along with Antibalas?
GR: The Daktaris was definitely a catalyst, obviously I think Fela was the ultimate catalyst, he architected the whole thing. But in terms of reviving Fela's music I think The Daktaris acted as a catalyst for getting a handful of guys in Brooklyn excited about that sound. The Daktaris wasn't really a touring band, I think we did one show as The Daktaris. That really inspired Martin to get this thing together and get Antibalas going.
MGA: How did you and Martin first meet?
GR: Ah man, I don't even remember. It was the early 90's, we were at NYU, he just moved there from DC or something. He was playing in a ska band called the Defactos when I met him. I was recording for them. Fernando was in that same band. I think I met him around then. Him and Mike Wagner also became the horn section for Cinshango this latin ska band that I toured with first as the sound engineer and then as a guitarist. We were roommates for years, we lived in several different apartments together in New York, 3 or 4 different apartments. We had a really good time. It's always good when I go Austin when I get to see him.
MGA: Yea I was in Austin for ACL. He's a really cool cat. I always like talking to him, he's got a unique perspective on things.
MGA: So there's a growing movement behind vinyl these days, more and more people are buying record players and records. More record labels are putting things out on vinyl. Do you take any credit for the movement behind the growing enthusiasm for vinyl and record players?
GR: I would say we contributed alongside a lot of other people, but we definitely can't take any credit for that. I think that's a natural thing. Especially with CD's disappearing I think people who are active listeners, people who are discerning, people with a real aesthetic concrete connection to music and want to hold something and touch something and want to actually see the artwork for the album bigger than on the screen of their phone or their watch or whatever. People like that, as CD's disappear are going to go more and more to vinyl. The way that people are using mp3's it's getting so far from the experience people used to have with records. I think it's a pretty strong reaction of people who really want to have a personal connection to the music, want to sit down and listen to a record and hear the songs in the order they were supposed to be heard. Listen to them on big speakers, and not listen to them on really crappy audio files. People are going to get back into it. People who like to roll their joints on a record, they're never going to be able to do that on a mp3.
MGA: What 5 pieces of vinyl that you own do you value the most?
GR: Ah man, I'll answer that question different than I will tomorrow morning. It changes from time to time. That's a hard one. Otis Redding Dock of the Bay would probably be up there. Johnny Shines and Little Willie John-Talk to Me. Lately I'm Aware of Love, Jerry Butler. It's hard to say, there's a lot of them.
MGA: Do you have a favorite Fela record?
GR: Let me think about that. That's a good one too. Why Black Man Dey Suffer Today?, that's a good one.
MGA: London Scene has always been my favorite. It's one of the early ones. So what's coming down the pike from Daptone we should be aware of?
GR: The Charles Bradley album is about to drop. That's a great album. I think that's going to do a lot to get his name out there. That's the biggest one. There's an El Rego record that I just mastered yesterday. It's a guy from Benin, a bunch of recordings from the 60's and 70's, you'd probably be really into that It's all kind of Afro-funk, music from Benin. That'll be out in a few months. We're going to try to do another Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens record this year. We're working on a real bluesy R&B Lee Fields record. Like I said there's some more Sharon stuff coming out. There's some more Dunham stuff like Budos IV.