Seth Kauffman outlines
his obsessions with water, Lewis and Clark, and pure artistic vision, plus the
musical minefields of indie labels and hipster media outlets.
BY MARY LEARY
“Named after a vintage Gretsch bass drum pedal, Floating Action is the pseudonym of …musician,
songwriter, and producer Seth Kauffman” (- from the Park the Van website)
The words opening Floating Action’s latest release, Desert Etiquette, are “Keep
it hidden like a secret, hidden like a scar/To be born a transcendental,
brilliant shattered star/Cross-legged knight stays hidden in the dark.” I don’t
hear lyrics that could hold their weight in a poetry competition every day.
Connect them with a fever dream that Steve Miller might have had while making Brave New World, and, presto, a
realization: An enchanting sonic brew is being stirred in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
And its pull is getting stronger.
My path to Seth Kauffman and Floating Action started when a San
Diego music rag editor shared this bread crumb from Daytrotter: “(Kauffman) gives you the jitters and the absolute sway
is all his.” I got a bigger slice from Floating Action’s MySpace audio, which I
found pleasing in ways that are hard to place — a characteristic that, while
possible from the less-than-brilliant, can hint at something noteworthy. I then
landed at a website full of locked doors. Floating Action’s rather chamber-pop
take on a Generationals song played as I peered at a picture of leader/songwriter
Seth Kauffman and attempted to click through to nonexistent pages. Along the
way, I ignored the yada-yada of FA’s Last FM tags (“folk, Indie pop, lo-fi”)
and encountered intriguing quotes from critics: “Motown,” “Classic soul
staples,” and – from the Park the Van label – “Heeding Dylan’s advice that
there’s no better time to write than when sick, Kauffman wrote the lyrics
for Desert Etiquette in two
days, then recorded the album over a concentrated period of 48 hours, with Band
Of Horses’ Bill Reynolds subsequently brought in for mixing duties. The process
was sudden, pure – an explosion of inspiration that dictated being harnessed in
real-time.” Kauffman himself had shared this: “Take away all my normal crutches
and… capture the feeling you get… in Big Sur.”
This chain of teasers was enough to prod me out of the house
on a Sunday night, last March, to catch Floating Action’s pre-SXSW stop at Bar
Pink in San Diego.
The quartet loped through its first couple of numbers like a Beck/Steve Miller
hybrid that had been stuck in some parallel consciousness until manifesting
before us (other than Miller, the perfect bill-sharer might have been FA’s
former PTV labelmate, Dr. Dog).
While Kauffman has, to date, provided all the
instrumentation on his recordings, the trio joining him on stage (Michael
Libramento/bass; Brian Landrum/guitar, keyboards; Josh Carpenter/drums) was
entirely, casually capable of following him, per one of his song titles,
through the “Eye of a needle.” At the show, I scribbled:
“The band’s a damned stealth bomber. Hardly anyone here has
heard of these guys. We’re blown away by the gorgeous (somewhat reminiscent of
Spirit) tones of ‘The Balance’ and the deep, goofy soul of ‘Cinder Cone.’ Time
seems to stop when you’re in the presence of greatness. On this quiet evening,
the profundity of our experience is heightened by the space between bodies:
here is a band that, with any justice, is headed for something much bigger than
20 (albeit rapt) listeners. An ineffable combination of tightness, spontaneity,
and fresh-from-the-ether songwriting prompts groans from several listeners when
Kauffman announces the last two offerings.”
After the show, anxious to procure any available product, I
waited as Kauffman made nice with a fan who’d driven down from Los Angeles. The musician
seemed surprised and pleased by my popping up with the intention of providing
some publicity. As it happened, the San
Diego music rag editor passed on the show review. And
I fell under the spell of Desert
Etiquette. A few weeks later, my father died. A fortnight later, still in a
semi-stupor, I attempted to resume a normal work rhythm. Wanting to make good
on my promise to Kauffman, and feeling he should have a wider audience in any
case, I pitched the idea of this feature to the stoic big cheese here at BLURT.
The first leg of my conversation with Kauffman proved
disappointing. In the period surrounding SXSW, his label, Park the Van, had
thrown its hands up in the air, which was less-than-optimal timing for the
February launch of Desert Etiquette.
Kauffman’s responses to my questions were perfunctory; disinterested. After
letting the project breathe for a few weeks, I dove back in.
BLURT: Seth, I’ve
decided to start this interview “fresh.” I don’t think we were getting
anywhere fruitful before.
SETH KAUFFMAN: I apologize if I came off negative or
whatever… I just want interviews in general to be more interesting, and get
past the surface – even if they sound awkward.
I got the feeling you
felt most of the questions I asked were… kind of stupid. So what would you like
an interviewer to ask you?
A question like, what question I want you to ask me…
because it makes me ramble about something I think is pertinent. There’s soooo
much music out there now… everything’s been done, redone, re-synthesized,
etc. So anybody you ask from any genre, what their influences are… at least for
me, it’s not going to shed any new light. We’re entering an age where everything
is awesome. We’re just leaving a trend where it was cutting edge to drop ‘80s
sounds in your stuff – the cheesier the better. So now, as part of hipster
culture, one is forced to take it to even-cheesier. Or the next direction may
be just straight-up bad sounds. Bon Iver’s new record is a pioneer of that – I
love it – not dissing it at all. It’s like there’s a collective consciousness
of musical tastes, and everyone’s logic is leading us to these common
To be liked on
Pitchfork, there’s certain ‘80s,
synth references you have to slap into your music – it’s so formulaic. It kills
me to know that you could put a synth or drum machine into my song that doesn’t
have it – and the Pitchfork world
would accept it. I feel like they’ve backed themselves into a corner; I can
tell exactly what records they’re going to love and which ones they’ll hate.
It’s like you’re sitting there watching a car accident happen… nooo! I guess
it hasn’t changed since at least the ‘60s: the Beatles came along, then there
were all these copycat bands – just this formula you can plug into – that’s so not what music is all about. It makes
me want to shrug it off.
Are you getting
impatient with the processes involved in publicity and promotion?
Mmm…yeah, I guess you could say “impatient.” It’s kind of so
many years beyond that, “impatient” may not be the right term. Again, the car
accident reference; I can see how it’s all supposed to unfold, but can’t do
anything about it.
Has Park the Van not doing much for Desert Etiquette made you feel at all
hopeless about your career?
Hope is one of the most amazing concepts ever. I’m so
into it. I have so much hope – it’s this free, unlimited thing that you
control, and can tap into and use to make your life better; which I
do. Constantly getting let down by PTV as soon as there’s momentum, that
certainly causes a blow to hope… but it’s like your appetite: you can lose
it, but it’ll always come back in droves.
I’ve been listening
to Ting (Kauffman’s 2005 solo debut).
Before that I’d just heard the two FA albums. Even when your music isn’t
amazingly effective, I think you’re a genius – do you agree?
I’m not the one to ask about that. There’s songs and sounds
on all my records, where it’s like, “Shit – if I’d waited four years to put
this out, and lived in Williamsburg, it’d be huge.” It’s kind of a curse, but
I’ve distanced myself from thinking about it at all.
unique about the way you synthesize influences with your own ways of
Deep down, I know it, and love it so much. But my loving it
doesn’t seem to be in conjunction with the rest of the world loving it. So,
again, it’s very weird and distancing. I have to ignore the world, put my head
down, and move forward on my own.
For you, are there
other musicians with similar abilities?
Tons of artists do it. The Drifters, Beach House. Beck is
one of the most obvious, direct ones. Where the art takes precedence, jagged
combinations of seemingly contradicting genres and rhythms come together to transcend
and create a statement larger than the sum of its parts.
Of all the recordings
you’ve done, what are your favorites?
Not to be the perfect father, but I love them all equally.
I’ll be more proud sonically of Desert
Etiquette than the self-titled record, then go back and listen to the
self-titled one  and get really excited about how good it sounds. I
gravitate towards writing songs that sound like “that deep-cut that’s really
good, and could’ve been a hit.” It’s also kind of a curse on some levels. So
among a catalog of all songs like
that, it’s even more gratifying to rediscover the even deeper ones that I
forget about, like “One More Time,” the last track on [2007 Kauffman solo
I get really excited feeling the
freshness, and harnessing the “moments of creation” of songs. Studios,
computers, etc., are capable of getting amazing sounds and recreating basically
anything. So that path feels tired and unexciting to me now. What I’m way into
is recording a song as you’re writing it – it’s such pure, uncharted territory;
it captures an excitement that’s so human. It’s one thing that (knock on wood) computers will never be
able to do. That’s what I love when I hear, for instance, “Could You Save Me,”
from self-titled. I remember recording the drums first; not knowing what the
song was going to be at all, just being led by some guiding feeling… then a
cool Wurlitzer idea on top of that… still just randomly stabbing in the dark.
Then something clicks, and it’s like a landslide: The organ, upright bass, and
melody all flood into place, and that’s it – a landslide moment caught on tape.
Now that we seem to
have moved past any threat of fisticuffs, I’m going to risk a dumb question: Ideally,
what food and beverages should listeners imbibe as they drink in DE?
Boiled elk meat, and water – that’s a Lewis and Clark
reference. I have a crazy deep obsession with water. It also has to do with the
title “Desert Etiquette,” which is from the Middle Eastern custom of leaving
the goblet for the next desert wanderer to drink water from at an oasis.
When we conversed
before you didn’t respond much to my asking about what I hear as a Southern
feeling or influence in your work. I should probably mention the fact that I
lived in Charleston, South Carolina and in Virginia until I was 12. So
I’m asking from an experiential place. There’s an unhurried, yet oddly
confident quality to what you do that seems fairly uncommon, unless we’re going
to really open the field – in that case, I might mention a lot of classical
music, Gamelan orchestras, and some warmer-sounding British Progressive work,
like Kevin Ayers, and Pink Floyd circa Meddle.
I’m not familiar with Ayers. This is getting into some deep
musical philosophy. I’ve always been fond of soulful, black music, which maybe
means where the beats are laid down. They’re slightly behind, which gives it an
attitude and swagger – seems like it taps into some common human bond of the
sorrows and joys we all share. Hip hop is based on this. I don’t know if living
in hot, humid places close to the equator has an influence – it’s certainly
possible. When you listen to Jamaican music, it sounds humid. I love that, and it’s important to me to have that
element in my songs. The Beastie Boys capture that great laidback-ness, and
they’re from New York. But I guess it does get pretty hot and humid there.
Does my “unhurried,
yet oddly confident” perception make sense to you?
Like, do I think it’s an accurate description? Yes.
Everything in music writing now seems to be about context. The new Dawes album
could be a half-assed Tom Petty Wildflowers rip-off, but if it comes out amongst the right musical climate, it can seem
like a cutting edge, Americana masterpiece (just an example). Sometimes I
feel like being pegged “laidback” is negative, like it writes you off. To me
it’s digging deeper and nailing something beautiful – but again: Context. A
flavor-of-the-month band of hot girls from Brooklyn will release some
super-laidback tune that Pitchfork adores, but because of the context, it will never be seen as laidback.
yet oddly confident,” I think is accurate, but frustrating for me, because my
music often gets dismissed as simply “Southern,” just so they can dismiss it as
something they easily identified, while I see it as something more complex and
not just on the surface; something that takes time to think about.
In our first
conversation, when I mentioned the Band, it wasn’t for the reason you included
in your answer (“white dudes singing three-part harmonies always make people
think…”). On Desert Etiquette, “Please Reveal” has a feeling that, at least in pop
(other than in soul, and Laura Nyro, who was very soul-infused), I tend to
associate with Band songs, especially when it’s knitted with a homespun fabric.
It’s in the Band’s “All La Glory.” “It
Makes No Difference” and “Whispering Pines,” to me, merge despair with sublimity.
There’s a naked, vulnerable beauty in these that is very rare. Plus you have that organ or glockenspiel sound
in there – whatever the instrument, it sounds so Garth Hudson to me.
Yeah, I can get behind that. I’m way into naked
vulnerability. I like the Band’s American roots aesthetic. Perhaps I’ve
always felt a little let down by the Band. They look so cool in their pictures,
and on paper it should be amazing, and they’re lauded as the most important
band in American music. But when I listen to their albums…it just doesn’t
quite deliver as much as I want it to. Another reason the Band is a touchy
subject with me: There’s tons of bands out there that garner success on doing
the “Band for Dummies” quick reference. And maybe I’m out there like some
schmuck, reaching it the long way, Lewis and Clark-style, on foot through the
If you could mash
together your favorite elements from your solo recordings, FA, and anything
else you’ve done, would you have the direction you’re headed in now?
Not quite. Early on, I was way ambitious about mashing
contrasting things together… tons of layers. Now it’s more about keeping
it pretty naked, stripping back layers, and forcing myself to rely more on the
quality of the song itself: Trusting myself and basking in the beauty of space.
Can we expect aspects from the two FA
albums on the next one?
in my mind at least, was a little safer and cleaner than the first, self-titled
FA album. On the upcoming one, Fake Blood,
the songwriting quality is bumped up a notch. That’s another thing that’s
lacking in today’s musical climate – good songs. We’re all caught up in
the technology and the getting-great-vintage-sounds department. Sharon Jones
and the Dap Kings sound amazing, but
there’s no songs there. On Fake Blood there’s at least four songs where what you’ll hear is the actual cut of that song
being written… never played before… that Lewis and Clark excitement and
freshness that I think comes through on the recording – this thing that didn’t
exist, and you’re hearing it being called into existence! I don’t know,
maybe that’s not exciting to anybody else, but it’s endlessly endearing to me,
especially if it’s an actually good song.
And maybe even
cleaner sonically, which still isn’t clean by most peoples’ standards. But it
has some of the chance-taking funkiness of the self-titled recording. There are
some beautiful, long, slower songs and some super-short, fast,
barely-hanging-on rockers. Each album I make that doesn’t click with the world,
for the next one I’m consciously like, “Okay, you didn’t like that, how about this? Surely you have to think this is good.” It’s not really a
compromise, more just trying to paint a clearer picture so people can
I think a lot
of times when bands try to achieve this, the route they take is to go into a
studio and make a squeaky-clean album with no rough edges. But then the whole
vision gets kind of gone, or not presented right. I’m taking the long,
ungratifying route by foot; gradually getting to a point where the artistic
vision and magic is still completely pure, but sonically sounds at least as
good as Time Out of Mind or Sticky Fingers – a daunting challenge. It may take a
lifetime, but I cherish it so dearly and hold it so closely. I’m committed, and
it’s worth it.
Anything else you
want to say about your Park the Van experience?
While PTV failed to deliver in many ways, and when we were
penniless out on the road, depending on them the most… they are nice dudes,
genuine music lovers, and they believed in my music enough to put it out. Other
labels I approached always loved it, but not quite enough to put it out – the
common quote is, “You should have no problem finding a label.”
How will you get Fake Blood out?
I don’t know who’s going to release it – we’re finishing it
up. But I have hope, and an odd confidence that something really good is going
to happen with it. Maybe this will be the one that people hear and fully
[Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither]
Floating Action’s next
concert is at Summerstage in NYC on Sept. 24. Go to the band’s Facebook page for a complete itinerary.
Seth Kauffman: Ting – Hightone Records – 2005
Seth-Kauffman: Research – Park the Van – 2007
Floating Action: Floating Action – Park the Van – 2009
Floating Action: Desert Etiquette – Park the Van – 2011
Floating Action: Fake Blood – no label yet – 2012
Recording session with Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog:
“Could You Save Me” (live)
“Eye of a Needle” and “Well Hidden”