Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have a lot of weight behind them. Neal Sugarman’s DIY ethic was embedded in his soul during his Boston high school days playing sax with punk band Boys Life in the early 80s. Founding Daptone Records with Gabe Roth (aka in-house producer Bosco Mann) in 2001, the label remains as independent as possible, churning out high-quality soul on 45rpm singles and full-length albums with vinyl as their number one priority. Based out of their House Of Soul studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Daptone’s sister labels are Ever Soul (reissuing vintage, undiscovered soul) and Dunham (headed up by Dap-Kings, Budos Band and Menahan Street Band guitarist Tommy ‘TNT’ Brenneck). Daptone counts Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Antibalas and more among its roster.

Neal also plays tenor sax in the Dap-Kings, backing Sharon Jones around the world. I caught up with him in the wake of their latest Manchester gig at the Albert Hall.

It was great to see new Daptone faces Saun and Starr get a spot at the top of the show.

Yeah, since we released [the fourth Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album] l Learned The Hard Way, they came on as backing singers because we started using a lot of backup vocals with Sharon. They were all best friends for years, there’s huge history. They were in a wedding band together back in the 80s. We just mastered [Saun and Starr’s album] today. Gabe didn’t come on tour because he was finishing that record. We did about 14 songs and picked the best 11 for the album, and we’re super excited about it.

You still seem so DIY in your approach. How have things changed over the last few years?

For Daptone, the label? It hasn’t changed. It’s weird. As we all know, people digest music differently than they did even two years ago and it’s kept us having to adapt.

And the record shops are disappearing…

Fat City was a classic Manchester record shop. I remember selling them 45s direct when we started out. Although our reputation seems to have grown and the live show’s grown, the label is still a lot of work. It’s blue collar, no-one’s getting rich, but I still make my own hours – well, I work every day, I own my own company and in the end, I’m happy with what I do. It’s still hard work and we’re adapting to streaming income which is real different to selling-CDs income, which doesn’t really exist anymore.

Has there been any interest in the label from majors?

No. I think that for one, they know that we’re pretty fiercely independent. And secondly, I think they’re all scratching their heads anyway. What do you do with a 55-year-old singer whose records are raw? Maybe, even, they don’t want to break up our little thing because they might respect it. It really is, maybe, the last standing purely independent label that is touching a lot of people.

Has sister label Dunham Records set up its own studio now?

They do have their own studio. It’s weird. I was hoping we’d get a lot more records out of them, honestly. So far we’ve got two Charles Bradley records and a Menahan Street Band record. The label started in 2008, so that’s a long time now. The problem is – and what we tried to avoid – is that you can get really caught up in just doing studio stuff. And we’ve done that. Then a year goes by, and we haven’t recorded any of our own music. So it’s a fine line trying to make money, an income from outside of studio stuff. Before you know it you haven’t made your own records and those are the records that really make us all money and keep the doors open.

What are your favourite Daptone singles?

Oh, all the Charles Bradley stuff. We really like everything. Some of the Ever Soul stuff we actually licenced, like we just did this Relatives record (‘Don’t Let Me Fall’ b/w ‘Leave Something Worthwhile’, DAP 1081), somehow getting those old 45s back in print. I didn’t plan on it, but it feels super satisfying, even though it’s a new old record. Ultimately we’re record collector geeks so we love seeing those old records back. That was a record I wanted to get out for a long time.

Have you heard the new Como Mamas? There’s a new 45 with the Menahan Street Band (‘Out Of The Wilderness’ b/w ‘Well, Well, Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’, DAP 1084). It’s a cool record and those voices. It’s not like I want to put out gospel records, the whole religious thing doesn’t matter to me, but the fact that they sing so soulfully and are so dedicated to what they’re singing, that’s the beautiful part. It’s hard to find singers who aren’t influenced by modern pop stuff and modern soul stuff, so the fact that their singing is so pure, and we put this funky track behind them – it came out great.

What about your favourite venue in Manchester? [We’d previously had a chat about other venues the band had played, and Neal remembered Jamaican food at the Mint Lounge in 2008.]

Oh man, the Albert Hall. Was this a church at one time? The acoustics are really hard to wrangle when you have amplifiers in this place. It’s all super boomy and echoey, but I think once you get people in here it sounds good. I thought with the Ritz there’s something real classic about that place. And the sprung dancefloor. The impressive thing tonight is that it’s probably the most people we’ve played for in Manchester, so that we can come back and still grow our audience makes this gig the most exciting. You come a long way; you wanna get people in a room and hear the music.

Plus, playing with Lee Fields. You know how we met Sharon? I think they were cutting a Lee Fields record at [pre-Daptone associated label] Desco, and the saxophone player said, “Oh, bring Sharon, my girlfriend, she can sing back up”. So it’s really because of that Lee Fields record [1998’s Let’s Get A Groove On, DSLP 004] that we met Sharon. Aside from that, he’s such an amazing soul singer. He just kills it. You know, it’s kind of a schism with [defunct labels] Soul Fire, Desco, the way that turned into [Brooklyn soul label and Lee Fields’ home] Truth & Soul. They’re making beautiful records with Lee, but I would love to be involved in them somehow.

Give The People What They Want, the fifth studio album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, is out now on Daptone Records. Look out for a documentary from filmmaker Barbara Kopple, chronicling Sharon’s life and her successful battle with cancer, in 2015.

Tracks by Sharon Jones and other Daptones artists can be heard on Jamie’s mix with this issue.

jamie groovement