In late August, on a perfectly mild night in the downtown valley of the Raleigh Amphitheater, Kentucky rock lords My Morning Jacket had just entered the third hour of their headlining set when they invited some friends on stage. Band of Horses, the bigger act's clear stylistic descendants and the night's opener, ambled toward the spotlights, as did a rather lanky, bearded man wearing a baseball cap and an accessory that looked like a hybrid between his own parka and his mother's muumuu.
As the band ramped up after the first verse of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," the man in the curious coat launched a Frisbee toward the cheap seats. Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell beckoned him toward a microphone, where they shared the second verse. For the next five minutes, the stranger innocently traipsed about the stage, banging together a few pieces of percussion and sometimes stepping up to sing. He was the unknown quantity, the extra dude on stage.
He was Seth Kauffman, the embodiment of one-man rock 'n' soul band Floating Action. Although I'd seen the fellow perform a half-dozen times, I still had trouble picking him out on such a large stage. When the seven-minute song ended and My Morning Jacket's Jim James yelled "That's Seth from Floating Action," audience members seemed more concerned that it might be the band's last number, not necessarily delighted over the special guest. That is, in an instant, the story of Seth Kauffman's career.
The song was a promotional appearance of sorts for Kauffman: Two weeks later, Removador, the tiny label owned and operated by James, released Fake Blood, Kauffman's latest and best-yet dispatch from Black Mountain, N.C. Fake Blood is an endearing and often brilliant 12-song set, comprising pop songs that are subversive in their apparent simplicity. Around hooks that set deep upon first listen, Kauffman pinwheels influences of Jamaican dub and Detroit soul, stateside rock and African rhythms, as if creating a map of his well-listened mind as an audio canvas for the songs themselves. It's entrancing, the sort of album you want playing both when you fall asleep and when you awake.
But to date, very few people seem to have had such an experience with Kauffman's music. Though he's now released five solo albums of steady intrigue and intricacy, Kauffman has yet to find the inlet toward mainstream success enjoyed by many of his contemporaries and champions. Not only did James release the new Floating Action LP, but the very popular if much less interesting Dr. Dog issued a split single with Kauffman. Blues rock bros The Black Keys and crass-mouthed actor Jonah Hill have both served as boosters for Kauffman in the press. Bands that vouch for Floating Action play Madison Square Garden and make concert films directed by I'm Not There and Safe filmmaker Todd Haynes, but Kauffman remains obscure and outstanding, a shoo-in for cult status two decades from now.
Those future fans will have to search hard for anything more than the very broad narrative: To wit, one of the only sources to call the mystery man on stage that night in Raleigh by name is a bootleg tape of the show that's so fastidious it also lists the type of microphones used to capture the night and the seat from which it was taped. (Seat 12 of Row U of Section 2, if you were curious.) Though surrounded by stars, Kauffman clearly wasn't one.
Several weeks before he found himself on Raleigh's biggest downtown stage, Kauffman had sent me a mid-morning email about his band, his new record and his feeling that he would always be a musician making records mostly enjoyed by other musicians. He wasn't kvetching so much as inquiring about his music's lack of popularity or sustainability, in spite of fervent endorsements from leaders of bands whose fans should love Floating Action. He just wanted to know his place.
"In an effort to help me see things maybe the way they truly are, how do you see this?" he asked. "I know how to make records that sound like what's hot and about to be hot, and I purposefully don't follow those trends. I do my own thing, and it feels like I'm paying the price for doing something that doesn't fit into a niche."
Actually, the problem might be that each Floating Action record creates its own niche or microenvironment, a small little world of sound that feels very much like an invitation to simply sit still. It's immersive music that doesn't seem busy, even though a dozen different styles and genres are always at work. If at first Floating Action feels boring, turn it up, and pay closer attention.
In that way, Floating Action suggests the best drone music or, in a more populist analogy, the music of British trio The xx. That group sings lovelorn duets in a near whisper above muted house beats, making big music seem very quiet, submissive and inviting. At first, their second album, this month's Coexist, seems almost listless, as though they forgot to mix certain parts of the music. But there's a busy underworld to those songs, teeming with ideas and restraint and nuance. The xx thrive upon the same impulse at work in Fake Blood—make people come into the song, never vice versa.
But The xx is an enormous act. In early September, at Bestival on the Isle of Wight, they played in front of the largest crowd ever at the British festival. They launched Coexist through a partnership with Internet Explorer. Floating Action barely has a Wikipedia page.
The difference in attention paid to The xx and Floating Action stems more from style than substance: The xx's music is mannered, graceful and attractive, suggesting the clean lines and implicit ingeniousness of Ikea furniture. It's fashionable and modern, with the work hidden beneath a veneer of cool. Kauffman's songs, on the other hand, feel more like hulking antiques buried in the corners of roadside stores—grand, forgotten pieces where the craftsmanship still shows at every edge. There's nothing streamlined about it.
"I've accepted this position that our band is this underground thing that no one is ever going to acknowledge," Kauffman told me in his email. "We make classic albums that get heralded by famous bands like Jim James, Band of Horses, Black Keys and Dr. Dog. I'm making a career out of the 'overlooked-rock' genre, as well as 'perception-questioning rock.'"
In time, I suspect a lot more listeners might agree with Kauffman's self-descriptions. Maybe those future fans will regret not finding his stuff sooner, too. It's the kind of music that, once you've heard it, makes you wonder how you ever got along without it in the first place. Maybe that's what Jim James thought, too, when he gave Kauffman his first shot at the outdoor masses.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stop sinking."