Gabriel Roth of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings talks vintage vinyl, retro soul and old-school technology
In an era when artists like Gorillaz are creating entire albums on iPads, Gabriel Roth still splices together 8-track tapes with a razorblade.
“We don’t have Command-Z here,” he says, referencing the Apple shortcut for undo. “It’s a different mindset from these people that are recording records, sitting in their basement somewhere, one note at a time, at a computer. There’s no danger there. You’re not on the edge of anything.”
Roth, a.k.a. Bosco Mann, is the bassist, bandleader and principal songwriter for the ultracool retro-soul outfit Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. He’s also co-founder of Daptone Records, whose Brooklyn studio is an imperative stop for any artist looking for an infusion of swingin’ ’60s cool, from Mark Ronson to Michael Buble. An apostle of analog recording technologies, Roth won a Grammy for his engineering on Amy Winehouse’s album Back To Black.
Recording live, and getting each take right in the studio, he said, helps the Dap-Kings succeed where it really matters: On the road.
“It gets your blood really flowing, the same way it does when an artist hits the stage,” he said. “Forget about everybody out there with their cell phones, beaming everything to YouTube. What you play when you hit the stage is for the people in the room. It’s for that moment, and you only have one shot at it. Whatever comes out of your horn or your guitar or your mouth, that’s it. That’s what’s there.”
Before Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings come to the Ritz Ybor on Saturday (tickets are $25; click here for details), Roth talked to tbt* about vintage vinyl, old-school soul and his onstage relationship with Jones.
If a white guy raps, he gets compared to Eminem. If a scruffy singer-songwriter sings with a lot of passion, he gets compared to Bruce Springsteen. And if a big group of musicians plays retro soul music, they always get compared to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. How does it feel to be a cultural touchstone for the style of music you produce?
It’s an honor. There’s a good and bad side to that. It’s cool to be considered some sort of standard, but it also lumps us into a genre with a lot of people who maybe aren’t doing something that great, you know?
You’re the expert here. Explain why analog recording is better than digital.
I don’t think it is. Me personally, I enjoy working on tape, but I don’t think it’s categorically better than digital. Digital’s a lot cheaper and more accessible for people to use, and digital has infinite options. The thing about the analog stuff that I like is that the technical limitations force musicians, producers and engineers to do things right live. If you’re recording live to an M8 track, you have to mix a lot of stuff together live, and that means the musicians and the producer and the engineer have to mix them live, and have to mix them right from the beginning. You can’t go back later and do it.
You seem like a perfectionist kind of a guy.
I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist. But I want stuff to feel good. Part of the problem on the digital recording side of the industry, there’ve been a lot of goals that people have had toward the progress of recording technology in the last bunch of years. Those technological goals are not necessarily best for the music all the time, you know?
If you go back to the beginning, 100 years ago or something, they were just trying to make cleaner and cleaner recordings, and make more accurate and transparent recordings. It was really important for people to hear each other. Once you got to records, and you could hear a band play, that no longer became a priority. But it remained that way for the recording industry. They just kept going in that direction, trying to make everything more isolated and more controlled. To a certain point, they’re missing the point of all that technology in the first place, which is to try to make people feel something, you know? When you start losing out on the live-ness of a performance, you’re not really helping it.
Have you thought about trying to make a modern-sounding Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings record?
I think they are pretty modern-sounding. If you listen to what’s on the radio right now, the most pop stuff you hear, Beyonce or somthing like that — if that’s your standard for modern, you’ve got to listen to how that’s being made. They’re using samples and drum machines and computers and stuff. This is 2011, and they were doing that in 2001, and 10 years before that, in 1991, that’s exactly what R&B was doing. Ten years before that, in 1981, they were starting to do that already. You’re talking about 30 years now, where they haven’t really done nothin’ new. I’m getting fresh musicians and new sounds that I think sound a lot more fresh to people’s ears. By rejecting the paradigm of the formulaic way things are on the radio, and the way they tell you to record stuff, I think we’re doing something a little bolder and a lot fresher than everything you hear on the radio, you know?
Where do you discover new music?
I find records. I have a lot of friends who are into records. Everybody’s constantly playing stuff for each other: “Have you heard this?”
A couple of years ago, you said in the New York Times Magazine you disliked every song that’s been released since 1974. Is that still true?
Nah, that’s not true. There’s some good ones. I like that Umbrella song by Rihanna. “Ella! Ella! Ella!” (laughs) But most of the pop stuff, I’m not really that into.
So you still buy a lot of vinyl, then? I don’t know if you know this, but in St. Petersburg, we have a record store that claims to be the largest vinyl distributor in the world, Bananas Music. Rolling Stone did a list of the top 25 record stores in America, and it was on there.
Well, you’re gonna see me in there, I’ll tell you that much. That’s actually where I buy most of my records, on the road, because in New York and California, it’s not great. Everything seems to be overpriced and overpicked. But when we go down south, or to the midwest, we always find lots of great records. I don’t spend a lot of money on records, because you can get 'em cheap if you’re in the middle of the country. And I’m not necessarily looking for the ones everybody’s looking for.
I think the bigger point to me is that, if you say I don’t like any music on the radio, they look at me like I’m closed-minded or something. My wife, she’ll tell you I’ve got too many records. It’s not like I like one kind of music. I like a lot of music from Cuba and South Africa and West Africa and East Africa and from the south, all kinds of music. Old music, New music. I like Louis Armstrong. I like Celia Cruz. I like a lot of pop music, too. I think the Kinks are cool. I like Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin. There’s thousands and thousands of records I love, and I listen to them, look for them and tell people about them.
If you look at how much music that’s been recorded, if you look at the whole planet and go back in time, you could be a fan of anything. You could be a fan of Celtic music or Mozart or music from the Indies. There’s so much music out there, if you really looked at all that stuff, and you thought your favorite song was the new Justin Timberlake song on the radio, that’s kind of closed-minded to me. There’s just too much music out there to like some real crap-beat radio s--- that’s out right now. There’s just not that much good stuff right now.
I’ve read a few interviews with you where writers will say you have a fetish for old-school soul. Is “fetish” the right word?
Fetish? No, I don’t think so. I think there’s a lot of fetishism in the music industry, especially the recording industry, the way people talk about gear, or vintage microphones or stuff like that. Same with records – people get really into super-rare records and hard-to-find records, and I think no matter how rare a record is, chances are it’s probably not better than (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay. If you can extract yourself from that mindset, you can really enjoy a lot of great music without pre-judging it by how hard it is to find.
Let’s say you go to a record store. Where do you go first? What are you looking for? Do you have a shopping list? Do you go to a particular section?
Depends. Big record stores tend to be organized a little differently. Sometimes the ones where you find the most stuff are the ones that aren’t organized at all. The first place I probably go is new arrivals. You gotta get there before the rest of the band; that’s when you really find something. And then blues, gospel, if they’ve got R&B and soul. A lot of times, they’ll have lesser-known stuff under the letters. Sometimes you’ll find cooler stuff there. I look at all kinds of stuff.
Given your eclectic tastes and your desire to shift through crates of records, it seems like you could probably put together a dozen hook-ready hip-hop samples at the drop of a hat. Have you thought about trying that?
No. Not really. I don’t think that would be hard to do, but it’s not something I’m terribly into. My brother’s a rapper, actually. Grand Torino. Have you heard of him? That’s my brother. He’s always trying to make beats for him and stuff. I don’t really do it. There’s plenty of people that do that.
You mentioned Justin Timberlake. What if someone like that wanted to create a Daptone album?
We’ve done that stuff. We’ve done hip-hop records there. Mark Ronson came and produced stuff with us, the Amy Winehouse record. Daniel Merriweather. And then Bob Rock, the heavy metal guy, brought Michael Buble in there. We’ve done all kinds of stuff, you know?
The thing with me is, I’m really not that much of a purist as I think people sometimes think I am. I don’t mind making music with people if they know what they’re doing. Both Bob Rock and Mark Ronson came into the studio, and they knew what they were trying to do. It was easy to work with them. It was easy to hook them up. I don’t mind doing those things if the business side of it’s right — but the business side of it’s rarely right, when you’re dealing with majors. So we don’t do a lot of it. But we do a little here and there.
Are you the house band when somebody like Buble comes in? Do you follow the whims of the producer, or are you a bandleader in any capacity when that happens?
The thing is, when they come to us, it’s because they want our sound, really. So we really end up doing the arranging most of the time. But 99 percent of what we do all day long is, I do stuff exactly how I want it, exactly the way I want it. I don’t have to answer to anybody else. So if somebody like that comes in, I don’t mind stepping aside and saying, “Hey man, you’re the producer, you tell me what you want. Do you want it fast, or do you want it slow?”
The frustration is only when you have people that either don’t know what they want, or don’t know how to communicate it. There’s a lot of that in this business. There’s a lot of producers, people that have their names on big records — and I’m not gonna name any names on that — but they come into the studio and you’re surprised that they have absolutely no musical vocabulary. They don’t have ideas, or if they do, they can’t communicate them. Ad agencies tend to be like that. Those guys come in, and they have no idea how to talk about music. They don’t seem to even be albe to tell you if they even want something faster or slower. They’ll say something like, “I feel like it’s beautiful, but I’m not sure if it’s sweet.” I don’t know what to do with that information. You want me to put that in a different key? You want to do it faster? You want an acoustic guitar? What do you want? And they can’t give you anything.
The key to music production is being on the inside of it and the outside of it at the same time. Once you know about recording or music theory, it’s easy to get distracted by what technically seems like a good idea, or theoretically seems like a good idea. Like, maybe you have some bridge that has some clever chords that on paper look really nice, but it may feel better just to cut that whole thing out. So you need to be outside it enough to feel how it feels. The only thing a record has to do is feel good. That’s all it has to do. It has no practical use other than that. I think that’s the difference between the good producers and the bad producers. Good producers are knowledgeable and skillful enough to manipulate all the details technically and theory-wise, musically, all the details of sound. But at the same time, they have enough perspective to get out of the way, you know? And to step outside of it, and just feel without thinking about it.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Exactly. And that’s what I was saying, as far as your initial question — analog or digital – that’s why I love recording analog to 8-tracks. I can’t say it’s a superior tool for everybody, but for me, why it’s so much better is because of those limitations, It forces you to make decisions while you’re recording. Right then, you have to decide, “The baritone shouldn’t pay that part; that part should just be tenor and trumpet.” Or “The trumpet’s too loud on that part.” Or whatever it is. And that puts you in a different whole different mindspace than if everybody’s just blowing notes independently, completely isolated, into a computer, and each note can be manipulated later.
The last Sharon Jones album, The Hard Way, there’s a lot of orchestra on that record. It was like four violins and two cellos and timpanis and glockenspiel and flute, and all that stuff, we recorded live to one track in one day. Me and Anton Silverman, one of the violinists, spent weeks trying to get all of that stuff right before we went into the studio. And then as they were rehearsing their parts down, we had to listen and get the balances right, and know live, going to tape, “Okay, we need a little more timpani on the bridge, so we gotta turn this knob a little bit when the bridge comes.” I was up all night trying to figure out this glockenspiel thing for the second verse, and it’s very cool, and my music teacher would be very proud of me, but when I listen to it, it’s getting in the way of the vocals. So I gotta tell him not to do that, and I gotta tell him right then. I can’t decide that later, during the mix, because he’s on the same track as the violins. It forces you to record it in a different way.
Does going through that experience when you make a record in the studio, does that translate to any benefit when you play live, out on tour?
It’s hard to say. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is a live act first. No matter how much studio experience we’ve had, we’ve had much more road experience. Most of us have been sitting in bands, smelling each other, rolling around the country for over 10 years now. Some of us 15 years, in one band or another. There’s really no substitute for that. And the way we feed off of Sharon gives a lot more strength to the studio sessions.
I think each record for us has been stronger, and the biggest reason to me is that the band is stronger. The rhythm’s stronger. The chemistry is stronger. And the discipline, you get stronger. You get the perspective from the experience from knowing what not to play. Even just for me personally, if you look into the bass on our records, from the first record to the last one, each record you hear less and less bass. I play less notes every record. (laughs). Like the first record, it’s like, boompa-doompa-doom-poom, boompa-doompa-doom-poom is like the bass line. Record by record, it thins out. On The Hard Way, most of the bass lines are just dum-doom-doom, dum-doom-doom.
Do you take your cues from Sharon, or does she look over to you? Who leads the song when you’re onstage?
I’m the bandleader, so I tend to throw the cues, but that said, it’s Sharon’s show. I’m following her. I’m watching her like a hawk the whole show. Her and the audience. It’s funny, because people always talk about feeding off the audience, but I’ll tell you, if we do a show with an audience that’s sober and flat and bored and tired and sitting down, it’s gonna be a different show than if we do an audience that’s pumped up and sweaty and dancing and screaming. We really feed off the audience. We’re gonna be playing different songs and calling different changes and playing different tempos and having different breakdowns.
Even loosely sticking to a setlist, for me, it’s rough, because I don’t think we can follow Sharon and the crowd as well as normal when we don’t have any subs in the band. We don’t use any setlists or anything. We just kind of go out there and roll, and call it song by song as we go. And the band is unbelieveably tight. You could be in the middle of one song, a completely slow ballad, and I can call out a real fast tune, or something that we’ve never done before, and hit it on the next downbeat, and the whole band will be there, even if they’ve never done it before, never practiced it, never talked about it. I can throw them a cue.
It’s a bad band, you know? And it’s cool for me, because it makes me look real good as a bandleader, but really, with a band like that, it’s not hard to lead 'em. They’re just a bunch of bad motherf-----s. They can hit anything.
Have you ever cut a solo record?
Me? You mean, me, myself?
Yeah. Mark Ronson’s put out solo records.
No. I can’t sing, and I know about it. Lemme tell you, man, I would love to cut a solo album. That would be amazing. If I could sing at all, I wouldn’t talk to anybody anymore. I’d be a conceited asshole, and I’d back myself up, and make a lot of money, and I wouldn’t deal with anybody’s s---. (laughs). Unfortunately, I’m a terrible singer. Nobody likes my singing. My wife doesn’t even like my singing, and she loves me.
You could use Auto-Tune.
It’s way beyond that. Auto-Tune could not save me.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Laura Hanifin.