Seth Kauffman, the frontman of Black Mountain band Floating Action, is on the horn to discuss his fresh collection of homespun relics, Desert Etiquette. I'm prepped for a conversation that, like his songs and their stories, could cover a good part of the globe, recorded history and modern music.
Kauffman writes each lyric and melody, records and produces every note and plays nearly everything on Floating Action's two LPs. Right now, though, he's not looking to talk about that: He has an early-'80s Rod Stewart song stuck in his head, and he can't name it. With his fetching falsetto, he hums a few bars. It's "Young Turks."
Away we go. In the next hour, we talk about roots rocker Tom Petty and The Strokes, as Desert Etiquette's "Modern Gunslinger" pays tribute to Petty's "Two Gunslingers," and the song's chugging garage rock echoes Is This It? There's Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin (name-checked in "Rincon" as a reminder of reggae's roots in American R&B), and '70s pop icons Fleetwood Mac (Kauffman pilfered the drumbeat from Rumours' "Dreams" for one half of "Ambientador"). He mentions Devendra Banhart, whose What Will We Be Kauffman admired—and emulated—for its spacious production.
What's more, we stop at Big Sur (whose striking, fog-swept coast is one of the record's inspirations), Cape Horn (the setting for "Ambientador," a circumnavigating sailor's tale whose romantic Spanish name actually comes off a can of air freshener) and revolutionary France (the setting for the superb relationship parable "Robespierre"). There's Africa (Kauffman wrote the melody to one song using a kalimba) and The Netherlands (a Dutch drug-store chain has licensed one of his songs).
If Kauffman and Floating Action sound like an impossible mashup of styles, inspirations and experiences—well, that's the 34-year-old Kauffman's musical gift. But if you're unfamiliar with Floating Action and expect some high-brow/ hook-free/ experimental music based on that data decoupage, you couldn't be more wrong. Rather, these are stripped-down, infectious songs that ooze enough soul to sound paradoxically fresh and vintage.
Contrast is what fuels Kauffman's music. Here, after all, is a soft-spoken, balding white dude who's tapped directly into the greasy funk of Memphis and Detroit soul, Caribbean island riddims and Tropicalia beats, and African and Middle Eastern accents. In that alchemy, he's come up with a distinct sound he's dubbed "lo-fi North Carolina funk."
So what accounts for Kauffman's unique vision? Unlike nearly every other songwriter in Western music, the bones of Kauffman's songs begin with beats—not melodies, riffs or lyrics. The band is even named after a Gretsch kick-drum pedal so outdated most percussionists would reject it out of hand. But vintage gear, and quirky writing and recording techniques, are only the manifestations of an aesthetic that ripples all the way back to his upbringing.
Kauffman grew up in a religious household outside of Greensboro, where rock music was banned and violin lessons were mandatory for Seth and his two sisters. He played in the school orchestra at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, clandestinely learning to play along with Sam Cooke and early Rolling Stones records after picking up the guitar at age 15.
Kauffman soon formed a bond with fellow blues-rock enthusiast Bryan Cates, and the duo eschewed all of the mid-'90s musical fronts—alt-rock, jam bands, Brit pop, indie rock—that suburban kids were supposed to love. They eventually formed a four-piece called The Choosy Beggars and self-released their eponymous debut in 2002 (now available again online at choosybeggars.bandcamp.com).
But the two fell out after a show at The Cave in Chapel Hill when Kauffman learned through a third party that Cates had been ignoring calls from Audley Freed of the Black Crowes. He wanted to produce the next Choosy Beggars record, but Cates wouldn't take his calls.
Cates' lukewarm commitment didn't come as a complete surprise, though, and the incident turned out to be a boon for Kauffman. He'd already begun writing his own material before the Choosy Beggars imploded, inspired by mission trips to the ghettos of Kingston in 1997 and Angola's high desert in 1999 while he was a student at Montreat College. Those experiences permeated the extra lo-fi grooves of both Powder and Ting (named after a Jamaican soft drink), which California-based High Tone Records released in 2005. But it wasn't until Research that Kauffman really hit his stride.
That record's slipcover photo of a stark, generic office building struck an architectural contrast to the loose-limbed, warm and colorful music inside. It reveled in the musical contrasts that would come to define Kauffman, as did its follow-up, Floating Action. Kauffman thought nothing of running an airy bossa nova melody over a booty-shaking bass line or playing turntable scratches off African prayer chants. He delivered it all in a near-deadpan voice brightened with harmonies and occasional falsettos.
"There are infinite levels where you can apply that idea of contrast, whether it's one song's different styles or album to album," says Kauffman, whose myriad interests belie his laid-back demeanor, balancing inherent shyness and thoughtful patience in the silences before he speaks.
"Before, I would try and combine a weird gospel harmony with something reggae or whatever within one song. With [Desert Etiquette], I specifically tried not to do that, and really tried to make it focus on the song itself and the songwriting."
Kauffman wrote nine of Desert Etiquette's 10 songs over two days in November of 2009 while laid up with the flu. He'd originally booked time to record at Echo Mountain, where mixing engineer, friend and Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds works. But after putting down some basic tracks that first night and fretting the ticking-meter costs, he brought in bandmate and long-time confidante Brian Landrum (bassist Michael Libramento and drummer Josh Carpenter round out the live Floating Action) to confirm what he heard: There was little difference between these expensive versions and the cheapies he made at home.
So Kauffman returned to his Black Mountain house. Over a concentrated 48-hour stretch, he knocked out almost all of the parts himself, using some of the same rudimentary recording techniques that highlighted his solo forays and the first Floating Action LP.
In fact, the vinyl crackle of those albums enthralled other musicians and landed Floating Action opening slots on Dr. Dog and Band of Horses tours, as well as various profile-raising production gigs for Kauffman. In addition to producing a new record by Australia's Georgia Fair, that roster now also includes Lissie, Paste's Best New Solo Artist of 2010; country singer Courtney Jaye; and fellow Asheville musicians Angie West and Mary Ellen Bush, among others.
They all stand as testament to Kauffman's instincts, given that until he sat in on Park the Van's professional remixing of Floating Action in 2009, he had no idea what he was doing recording-wise. All he knew was the sound he wanted, and so what if he'd broken all rules to get there? Amid a home-studio jumble of vintage guitars, keyboards, drums, violins and a sitar, Kauffman placed mics as far as possible from instruments, cranked "gain" buttons to 10 and mashed everything through his beloved Full Tone Tube Tape Echoplex to take the digital sheen off it when it hit a computer.
As a result, these fresh concoctions manage to echo the golden eras of Memphis, Trenchtown and Motown without sounding like exercises in nostalgia. "It could have been recorded yesterday or 50 years ago," Jaye told me in 2009, when Kauffman produced her 2010 release, The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye. "It was brilliant, raw and spiritual."
But over the course of his recent production work, he's picked up new techniques, and that's been one impetus for change on Desert Etiquette. He limited the number of layers and textures he could use on each song. Kauffman didn't want to make another "summer-sounding" album, either. And though the record is still awash in warm melodies and funky rhythms, that's why, with the Big Sur vibe in mind, Kauffman laughingly refers to this one as the "hypothermia record."
"These people that have asked me to produce for them, it's because they've heard the old records and they want it to sound like that," he says. "Where I am right now is what made my new record sound the way it does—each record I just want to try new things. I've done the lo-lo-fi thing sufficiently, and I just wanted to try something new."