It’s pretty magic to walk past a creaky, humdrum house on a residential street in Brooklyn and see the glimmer of the blue and silver Daptone logo shine triumphantly from the mailbox. The logo is the only indicator that this is no ordinary building. Within it is a truly pure and uncompromising label who, since 2001, have been behind some of the most sought-after and beloved funk and soul records put out in this world.
Inside this two-storey structure – which is still basically just a cosy house – artists such as Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, The Sugarman 3, the Menahan Street Band and The Budos Band regularly congregate to write and record their albums, under supervision of some of the best engineers and equipment in the business. Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black was recorded here due to Mark Robson’s fascination with the place and the quality of the recording and sound available inside it.
What sets Daphne apart from other studios is the family-like ethos. Everyone who plays or records in this building is a close friend of its owners Neal Sugarman and Gabriel Roth. Almost every band on its archive and roster has been formed as a branch of the original band, The Dap-Kings (for whom Neal and Gabe still sometimes play sax and bass for). They’re not doing this to make a tonne of money and screw people around to get music out into the world, these records are made purely from love, friendship and soul. Which, if you if you are familiar with almost any record they have ever put out, is audible.
Daptone has just grown a new arm called Wick Records, which sees the label enter the world of recording and releasing modern rock ’n’ roll with all the same values, artistry and recording quality as their funk and soul music. Their first band, psychedelic garage outift The Mystery Lights, have just released an explosive debut LP and you can buy it from Daptone’s store now.
We caught up with one of the studio’s founders Neal Sugarman when we were in New York. He’s really nice. Here he is on the magic of Daptone, and its past, present and future.
Neal Sugarman: It started because me and my partner Gabe are both musicians, and we printed out our own records. We’re equal partners, he’s doing more of the production stuff, I play on records too and am involved in the creative process but I deal more with distribution and stuff, more day to day business. We liked this kind of music and we loved record labels so we started this one. We finally found this house and we’ve been here for a while and all the records are recorded here. That’s the kind of difference between this label and a normal record label: we make all the records here. It’s as much like a production house as it is a record label. I guess it’s more how record labels used to be in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you know?
Rough Trade: So you transformed the building yourselves?
NS: It was already a house, we just did different things like knock the ceiling down and then build an isolation room. So if you close the doors they can be playing drums in here and you wouldn’t you know, or you can play horns or sing in here and vice versa. So it’s not a big studio at all, but all these records were recorded here. Back to Black was recorded here, and a bunch of Mark Ronson records. And different overdubs and you know that Bruno Mars song Laughed out of Heaven. People would never have known that it was recorded here, they probably think it was in some slick studio.
RT: What’s the benefit of being able to record here, in one small space?
NS: We can afford to record as much as we want, without having to pay someone else to do it for us, and recording fees can get very expensive. We can just do our own thing.
RT: Tell us about some of the artists on the label, who did you have at the very beginning?
NS: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. My partner Gabe started the band and he met Sharon thorough different projects he was working on and then you know we just started making records with her. And I had a band called The Sugarman 3 and that was the second record on the label. That was kind of a hand organ, old jazz group and after that what was the third record? Was it the Budos Band? The Budos were another band, so what happened was you have this band, the Dap-Kings and basically all the members of the Dap-Kings also have their own projects. So that’s kind of this house band, so how that’s working is Tommy from The Dap-Kings had the Budos band and I was in The Dap-Kings and I had The Sugarman 3 and the drummer in The Dap-Kings had this band The Mighty Imperials, and then Tommy and Homer started the Menahan Street Band. And then a bunch of the guys in the band also had an Afrobeat band called Antibalas, and its not changed that much since then; its just kind of more records and different singers coming in to work with the bands. It’s never been like, “oh we’re going to look and sign this artist and make them…you know.” Even the artists that we did sign, it was people we knew for a long time before we made records with them.
RT: The music industry seems more and more complex and strange and convoluted and risky and dangerous, but what you just said sounds like a totally different approach.
NS: Yeah it was the only way I would, because I was a musician first: I didn’t have some ambition to run a record label. It was more just about how we are going to make great records, like the records we loved to buy and listen to, and that was how it all started and that’s how we would still like to see it happen. Things get complicated and some of the artists have gone on to have pretty good careers and can sell a reasonable amount of records and can sell a good amount of concert tickets on the road. That’s definitely really great, but it also makes things more complicated for all of us and sometimes you have to reel it back in and say; “this is why I’m doing it.”
RT: Yeah I mean there’s not even many of you that work here? Is it just five of you?
NS: There’s me and my partner, so that would actually be six and he moved back to California so we do this kind of bi-coastal thing; he comes over here for recording sessions and stuff. And you know a lot of labels are smaller than you think because a lot of labels hire out for different projects, like the publicists. If we had a publicist on retainer or in-house, or a radio person in-house, which some of these labels do, then we’re forced to do what every other label does which is put, you know, three records a month out, and how you do that is just kind of doing what possibly killed the music industry which is throwing a whole bunch of shit agains the wall and hoping something sticks. Its more about a business of putting records out than curating great records. There’s still a lot of labels like that, thank god, but few and further between. There’s a lot of artists who might have some success right now and you would never know who the label was. Before when we were buying Stax records, you would pull the sleeve out and be like, “oh man, Stax!” You see the label and it gives you a certain feeling.
RT: It must be wonderful for the artists. Do people send you music and ask for you to record it, or put them out?
NS: Yeah, but there’s never been an artist that we signed because of an email or a phone call. I’ve heard people that are OK. The thing about Daptone I mentioned is that it’s very regional so we don’t put out tonnes of records and we really have to know these people and work with them and know that they’re the right fit. Not only musically but emotionally, I guess, for lack of a better word. What we do all spawns out of this band, The Dap Kings, and everything else is kind of tentacles coming off that band.
RT: Who designs all the posters and record sleeves? They’re incredible.
NS: Different people, but mostly my partner Gabe has been doing a lot of the Sharon records and then the drummer from The Dap Kings, Homer, he does all the Charles Bradley records. Again it’s very artist approval-friendly, it’s not like we’re hiring out different people. There are a lot of conversations about how each record looks, and I guess in that respect it’s artisanal in that way, you know, where we make the records here and we’re working the offices up here, so we hear the bands cutting the tracks – which is sometimes a little too intense and annoys us, you know – but then the records are mixed and everyone who works in the office goes down and checks out the mixes and so yeah, everyone’s involved on every single level.
RT: I heard you guys got burgled pretty badly?
NS: Yeah, twice we’ve gotten broken into, and once was kind of rough, you know. It was just weird because we had been here for five or six years and was running business as usual and never really thought much about it, and that’s why we have the alarm now and all the gates and stuff. It was a drag to have to go through that and realise that people will break into our place, and it could have been a lot worse. They were probably just some guys who lived around here who were able to scout out and break in through the back door. There were a lot of break-ins around that time. Any time you get someone that’s breaking into your place of business and work and home just makes you feel super violated. It was an amazing outreach afterwards though. People heard about it and offered us to replace stuff which was great. I think the guys who broke in didn’t know the actual value of what was here because they took the cheap microphones and left the expensive ones. They also took a couple of amps, and there was this big safe that they spent a lot of time trying to get out of here that had nothing in it. Just some weird stuff like that, it was a real nuisance you know.
RT: So you just carried on as normal? Did you ever think about moving or would you just want to stay where you were?
NS: Every now and then we think about moving, but its so expensive if I was going to move I would almost consider, it would have to be that everyone in this room would want to move out of the city, some place upstate. We could have something killer, you know? But the hard part again is the musicians. It really is so important that we have our own recording studio, so it’s not like moving office, it’s moving a whole recording studio and if we were going to move it would have to be better and bigger. We’re pretty dug in here.