"That's frickin' sick!"
At the moment when Dan Klein, singer of the retro reggae outfit the Frightnrs, saw the finished cover of his band's first full-length album, Nothing More to Say, he was sitting in his apartment in Windsor Terrace, situated in a narrow strip of blocks between Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery. On the cover, Klein is crouching, all sharp angles: hunched shoulders, bent elbows and knees. His bandmates, Rich Terrana, Chuck Patel and Preet Patel stand in a row to his left, upright, their jackets just as wrinkled at the joints as Klein's, just lived-in enough, the level of worn that comes from breaking them out for special occasions and big gigs. Their frontman's eyes are fixed to the ground, but Terrana and the Patels gaze at the lens, the vibe calmed by the violet rendering of the original photo.
The cover reflects the thought and care the Frightnrs have put into their streamlined, vintage sensibility that emerged as the Jamaica, Queens-based group found its footing in a scene shaped by "years of ska-punk crossover and a lot of fake, white-rasta stage antics," as Klein put it. "We wanted to come across as the Rat Pack," he said of the musicians' aesthetic and penchant for '70s rhythms that distanced them from their peers. "We wanted to be sharp. We wanted to wear suits, be dark, get down to business, all 'This is New York.' We looked like a soul band, and we also enjoy a lot of Motown, doo-wop, blues and gospel music, and I think that comes out in our music."
There's an effortless cool to the cover of Nothing More to Say that matches the music inside, and a discussion of this — of "cool" as a state of being, a vibe, a reflex or an instinct — brought an intense shine to Klein's eyes. "Because of circumstances, this record is particularly significant, because it's going to be our only record," he said. "Everybody wanted to make sure it's just right. It turns out we already had some pictures from last year that were very much appropriate for what we're going for. It didn't even occur to anybody that we'd want to use those. I'm really relieved. Those pictures were the right ones."
That afternoon, Klein, having long since lost the ability to crouch the way he does on the album cover, was sitting upright thanks to the chair he now spent his days in, a position that facilitated breathing with the help of a machine that routinely filled his lungs. As he looked again at the artwork — which Gabe Roth, the founder of Klein's label, Daptone Records, had finalized just a few days before — the comment was made that the guys come off as the epitome of cool, that they don't even look like they're trying to nail the shot.
"Really?" Klein paused. The machine clicked. He breathed. "I'm trying really hard."
Nothing More to Say was supposed to be a collection of triumphant firsts for the Frightnrs, for Daptone, for everyone involved in the project. It is the Frightnrs' first full-length album, and it follows three EPs, the most recent of them being Inna Lover's Quarrel, which Mad Decent put out last September. It is the first reggae album released by Daptone, the first deviation for the Bushwick-based label — best known for championing artists with hard-lived stories to tell, like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley — from its brassy, funk-laden foundation of soul (save for its recently launched rock imprint, Wick Records). It is the first record produced by Victor Axelrod, a.k.a. "Ticklah," for the label, which is a doubly special event considering his close Daptone ties: An organist / piano player / man-on-the-keys of different persuasions and a prolific reggae composer based in Brooklyn, Axelrod has been around since the days before the Dap-Kings and Antibalas, back when members of both outlets played together as the Soul Providers in North Brooklyn in the late '90s.
It is also singular for being the first album Daptone will release following the death of one of the artists who made it.
On June 8, Klein, in spite of the concerns of his family and caregivers, went to Prospect Park to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform. Axelrod, who plays with the Dap-Kings for special occasions, joined them onstage that day, having heard about the difficult year Jones was having; she's in the process of battling cancer for the second time. Klein sent a simple "Nicely done, sir!" text to Axelrod following the gig. He succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease, in the hours following the performance. The illness had first seeped into his muscles, making them feel strained and foreign, in the summer of 2015, just days after he and the Frightnrs began recording Nothing More to Say with Axelrod at Daptone's House of Soul studio.
"Things were moving along and going well, but there was this lingering issue of, 'What the hell is wrong with Dan? Why is he being such a drag?'" Axelrod recalls in a conversation several weeks after Klein's death. "It was during that week in the studio that his symptoms started to manifest to the point where he was really struggling to sing and was complaining about feeling lousy and weak the whole time. This continued for the rest of the summer into the fall, when we were recording his lead vocals, but it wasn't until the end of November that we all learned what was going on with him."
ALS is a brutal and efficient disorder in which fatigue and weakness are eventually followed by loss of motor function and muscular degeneration, but its invasion of the body offers no exact timeline. Immediately following Klein's diagnosis, the Frightnrs, Axelrod and Daptone found themselves challenged on two fronts: by their own stubborn standards for creating a superlative record with Daptone's trademark throwback vibe, and by the mechanics it takes to do that on an intimidating and tragic deadline. From November onward, pressure forged the backbone of Nothing More to Say: The Frightnrs' time with Klein was finite, as was their opportunity to cut the record with Axelrod, and they needed to work through their anguish before Klein lost his ability to breathe, and to sing.
Axelrod says urgency was in the air long before anyone knew Klein was sick: Now that the Frightnrs, Axelrod and Daptone had found each other, they didn't want to wait to get Nothing More to Say out of the House of Soul and onto turntables. "The profound change in the energy surrounding the album was that it went from the normal process of working on music to meet a label deadline to working on the album as quickly as possible in an attempt to have it released before Dan passed away," he says. "It was a horrible feeling to work with. It felt ugly and surreal for all of us in the final months of completing the record. We got through it and did everything we needed to do. I just think it felt like we all had 50-pound weights strapped to our chests while we did it."
Axelrod spent two days snaking wires and finagling mics to zero in on the time-traveling sound of Nothing More to Say. His microscopic approach to the technical minutiae isn't simply the process of a perfectionist: It's both reflective of Axelrod's commitment to a band he's believed in for years and an economical strategy, considering the suffocating deadlines and Klein's declining health. Through the window by the soundboard at the House of Soul, one can see into the recording room, where Klein cut his vocals in the same spot that Amy Winehouse sang her way through some of Back to Black's most beloved tracks and Sharon Jones gave voice to Give the People What They Want just before her own fight against a deadly illness nearly derailed her career.
"It's not uncommon to have very little time to record with a group of people and therefore rush through this initial process, only to have some possibly deep regrets later," Axelrod says of his meticulous preparations. "I went into the studio with the idea that there would be a certain character to the sound of the record, which was to be established up front rather than on the back end. Everyone was patient with me, thankfully. The songs were all pretty new to everyone involved, so it was also a good way to just get settled in — for them to play a lot and go over the songs while I turned knobs."
Axelrod saw the Frightnrs for the first time in 2011 at Otto's Shrunken Head, a tiki bar in the East Village that serves tropical drinks and hosts small shows in its back room. Their idiosyncrasies and instrumental flourishes struck him immediately. "There were subtleties in their playing and the way they sang together that really resonated with me," he recalls. "Dan's energy was simultaneously subdued and manic. He looked so uncomfortable with himself, but there was a sound that came from him that had everyone in the room mesmerized for the whole show."
This sound, which harkens back to the soul-inflected stylings of '60s and '70s reggae, hit Axelrod's ear as informed and appreciative. This was hardly a band participating in musical tourism, but a band that lived and breathed vintage reggae — Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Toots and the Maytals — and studied up on how these Jamaican singers were informed by the soulful hits coming out of Motown a decade prior, a tie that would later lay the foundation of its relationship with Daptone.
"There are all kinds of different rhythmic and textural approaches that are a part of the history of this genre, and it's not all late-'70s Bob Marley," Axelrod says. "I could hear that the Frightnrs were loving and learning from different aspects of reggae that I also love and try to learn from. I can't say that about too many other groups of musicians. They're also a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They know how to play together — with each other."
It's easy to picture Axelrod staring down a stubborn microphone as he coaxes it into position to record Terrana's metallic cymbal hits or Patel's bobbing bass lines: The dual pulses of the rhythm section were stronger as a unit, and stronger still when recorded to the same track, even if it meant hours of additional setup time and a riskier endeavor to tackle in post, if need be. But it was Klein's voice — a resonant, somber tenor that took on the tone of a begging lover ("Gotta Find a Way"), a cheeky fighter ("Trouble In Here") or a frustrated romantic whose best intentions have been defeated ("All My Tears") — that stood out to Axelrod as a vital organ of Nothing More to Say.
"You'll notice there are no Jamaican accents on this record," Klein said in May, his Brooklyn lilt serving as a point of pride that further differentiates the Frightnrs from other like-sounding acts. "I sing in my regular voice; I sing as an American." Some singers belt and wail and give off the impression that these could be the last notes they ever sing. The intensity of Klein's delivery doesn't squander the sad truth that the notes heard on Nothing More To Say are, in fact, the last he would ever lay to tape. "Despite the fact that his symptoms had taken hold by the time we began recording his vocals, I feel like, more than ever, Dan really found his voice as a singer and writer for this album," Axelrod says. "I think the lyrics and melodies that Dan wrote for this album show the depth of his talent like never before."
Klein was a part of the process up until his passing, checking in with Daptone to see about a confirmed release date and offering his insight on the tracks in mastering when he could bring himself to do so. "I would check my emails sometimes, listen to things," he said. "There were things that Victor would hear that I wouldn't; certain guys in my band would hear things. I don't have the same amazing ear for details. I was so desperate for the thing to be completed that I'd be more inclined to be like, 'That's awesome, let's go, let's go!' Half of me was overexcited and maybe not critical enough, and then the other half of me didn't want to listen to it because I didn't want to cry. There are songs on this album that I never got to sing in front of an audience. That's a bummer, you know? I'm really proud of it. I think we did a good job. We had the best help we could get."
"I think everybody feels a certain onus as far as making this record happen," Roth says, sitting on the couch behind the engineer's chair at the House of Soul. He lives in Riverside, Calif., but was in New York in July on Daptone business, checking in with his staff, working on tracks for the forthcoming Sharon Jones album and surveying the pieces of the Nothing More to Say puzzle that had started coming together. On the morning of the Dap-Kings' Brooklyn gig five weeks prior, Roth had visited Klein in Windsor Terrace and told him that the album's release was confirmed for early September — later than they'd hoped, a result of overwhelmed vinyl pressing plants. "I had to tell him that the record was coming out on Sept. 2," Roth says. "He was a little disappointed by that. It was rough." The announcement of the release date, the drop of the first song, the all-too-aptly named title track, the building buzz in the press — all are facets of the experience Klein missed, unfolding barely a month after his passing. "I think that everyone top to bottom here feels like a certain sense of duty with that record," Roth continues. "It's not just because Dan is gone; it's because it's such a beautiful record, and everybody feels like it's so important to get that record out to people. Obviously that task becomes a little more solemn. It feels a little more important. Mostly, it's very sad. But it's a great record, man."
For Roth, the Frightnrs' commitment to the real deal is what made them a perfect addition to the label's roster. Klein, the Patels and Terrana looked to many of the same soul singers of the '60s and '70s for inspiration that Roth, Jones, the Dap-Kings and the Daptone roster at large have while building their reputation, and that kinship is rooted in more than old-school appreciation and well-worn suits.
"The way they're making music is the way we make music," Roth says. "It's the same kind of love and respect, and soulful, not in the way of aping some style or trying to co-opt something that's not yours, but in the way of just being honest and making music that feels good and raw, stripping all the bulls*** out of the process, just systematically dismantling something until the only thing that's left is the real part of it. That, to me, is what that their record has. It has this real raw, naked kind of soul to it, which is what we aspire to as far as Daptone and the way we try to make records. The way that Victor recorded it, the way it's put together, it was just a lot of balls and a lot of heart, and not a lot of bulls***."
Speaking to Klein in his final days, it was apparent he'd been thinking about what the album meant to him, especially now that he likely wouldn't live to see its release.
"The songs that I wrote were my personal stories of relationships and personal growth, and what I was going through before I knew I was sick," he said. "I wish my relationship to the songs was that I can't wait to go sing them live on tour, opening for other Daptone acts. But now it's more what I'm leaving behind. It makes it more significant in that way."
This is where a first chapter turns to a final one, where a debut becomes a legacy. The swift loss of life is devastating enough, but to extinguish the Frightnrs' run just as the flame of their success was beginning to spark feels especially, needlessly cruel on the part of fate. And yet, from the most difficult challenges one can face, Nothing More to Say emerged as a polished, seemingly effortless work of art. Though Klein's passing is deeply felt by those who knew him and the artists he counted as friends and family, the strength of the album, and knowledge of the superhuman determination it required to make it at such a breakneck pace, comfort in the wake of grief. Nothing More to Say is not just a premiere, not just a meticulously crafted and ruthlessly good record of unique reggae that could only be created by crate-digging kids that call the Queens County Jamaica home instead of the Caribbean one. It's an uppercut straight to the chin of mortality, thrown by some of the best musicians in the business.
Klein may have been trying really hard — during his cover photo shoot, during the vocal sessions he tracked with the clock running out — for the big break he didn't get to fully realize. But he wasn't alone.