This magic moment

Photo by Christopher Wilson

Floating Action on a new year, a new album & how digital distortion became cool

who: Floating Action with Ice Cream and DJ $teel Wheel$ (Matt Schnable from Harvest Records)
where: Jack of the Wood
when: Monday, Dec. 31 (9 p.m., $15. Tickets at Harvest Records and Jack of the Wood. http://www.jackofthewood.com)

“You can get pretty much any sound. Anybody can get cool sounds,” says musician/producer/Floating Action mastermind Seth Kauffman. “But no one’s really figured out a definite way to write great songs.”

Kauffman may not have distilled the process to a foolproof formula, but listen to Floating Action’s latest, Fake Blood (released in September in a collaboration between Harvest Records and and Jim James’ Removador label) and it’s apparent that he’s on to something.

"Alpine Shadow," is almost a meditation, imbued with dusk and an ethereal setting of refracted light. "Matador" jogs and snaps through itchy guitars and humming, driving percussion. Each instrument sounds as if it was recorded not in an isolation booth, but in an underground cave or a darkened swimming pool (the video for the single features the band performing — in alarmingly retro apparel — an aerobics routine). "Not What I Came For" revisits themes of fate, self-deprecation and off-kilter philosophies that are so true to Floating Action. That, and lo-fi production filtered through a dub aesthetic.

Though, as Kauffman tells it, each album that he makes is intended to be more accessible. “To try to have a good beat and a good melody and good lyrics, and have it all come together — that magic moment where it all works — and still be accessible” is the challenge, he says. But, “I tried to make Fake Blood a little more accessible. It’s kind of like an imaginary wrestling match with the world.”

Kauffman adds, “Me saying that I’m making these more accessible and higher-fi, that’s in my world. Some engineer would say it’s still super lo-fi.”

There are plenty of listeners who are just fine with Kauffman sticking to his aesthetic; his is a unique vision set to contagious rhythms. It’s not just a growing fan base that concurs. Kauffman is regularly called on to produce albums for other artists. Most recently he’s worked on Shannon Whitworth’s forthcoming record (Kauffman also plays bass in Whitworth’s band); and on This Is a Future, the solo effort by Benny Yurco of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. (Yurco told Vermont’s alt-weekly Seven Days that “Everything is effortless with Seth.”)

And the muse continues to visit. “I’m recording a new Floating Action album right now,” says Kauffman. “There are those magical, mysterious moments when you’re writing a song. That magical moment is the last thing that no one can manufacture.”

Kauffman plans to track vocals for that record (to be named Body Questions) at the Ojai, Calif. studio of Bill Reynolds (Blue Rags, Band of Horses) in February. Look for it to drop sometime next summer.

Already part of the new album is Bryan Cates, Kauffman’s collaborator from pre-Floating Action band Choosy Beggars. Cates plays keys on Body Questions, but Choosy Beggars showcased his singer-songwriter skills. Kauffman remembers that, years ago, he and Cates were looking to book a Choosy Beggars gig in Asheville and thought, “Jack of the Wood: That’s a place where bands play.” They visited the booking agent with a standup bass in tow and live-auditioned, only to be turned away.

Times have changed. Jack of the Wood now books a wide variety of bands and this New Year’s Eve show will be Floating Action’s second on that stage this year. Expect some special touches: Former Floating Action member Michael Libramento (now in Grace Potter’s band) returns as part of experimental duo Ice Cream. Kauffman says that during Floating Action’s set, Libramento will run the sound board and “dub us out.”

The other half of Ice Cream is Floating Action percussionist Evan Martin who joined Kauffman’s band early on, left, and then returned as a sideman after drummer Josh Carpenter had taken over the kit. Kauffman said it was guitarist Brian Landrum who pointed out not having Martin on percussion was a waste of talent — so these days Floating Action boasts two drummers.

The group has seen its share of changes. What hasn’t changed is what Kauffman is so good at, and what he never seems to tire of reinventing: How to work with muffled layers, varying degrees of delay and sonic density. Of early albums like Ting (a Floating Action precursor), Kauffman says, “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. Analog distortion can be cool, but I had all this digital distortion. It was not cool.” But these days, buzzed-about bands like Tame Impala are making that a key part of their sound.

Kauffman’s not saying he called the digital distortion thing five years ahead of time. But with 2013 just around the corner, Floating Action’s next moves are well worth watching.

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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