Local musician/producer Seth Kauffman was going to call his just-released (Feb. 22) album Fake Blood because "it kind of juxtaposed the music, which is mellow and simple." But, he says, when his sister told him the story of a certain cup that has remained by an oasis in Tunisia for centuries, always left for the next user because that's the "desert etiquette," Kauffman knew he'd found his title. That and, "there is an etiquette to the album. Real respectful.”
At first listen, a lot of what's so intriguing about Desert Etiquette is what it's not. Gone, for the most part, are the breezy Caribbean tones of the previous, self-titled Floating Action record. Everything is up front as if Kauffman decided to show his whole hand — lyrics paint images, drums thump in booming 4/4 time, melodies rise to the top, hand claps keep a brisk beat.
Worth noting: Kauffman played all the parts on the record. He does have a crack live band: Michael Libramento on bass, Brian Landrum on guitar and organ and Josh Carpenter on drums. But when it comes to recording, “I've got some theories about music in general, like when a song idea comes to you and get it down right away,” says Kauffman. He says a musician can end up “chasing a demo,” trying to recapture a song’s initial energy. “I know exactly what the idea is when I have it and I can do it for every instrument right then. It's an idea from a pure source,” he says.
Kauffman also believes that an artist should always try to make something different, even if it's bad. “My first three albums are, in my mind, mixed, weird styles and are kind of tropical, summer-y. I wanted to try to not do that," he says. Still, he couldn't resist a sitar sound here, a thumb piano there. The latter, on "Modern Gunslinger," not only opens the rocked-out, Beck-esque song, but serves as its backbone. "I was playing that thumb piano for some other reason and came up with that riff," says Kauffman. "I remember thinking, I don't want it to sound African, so I tried to do the opposite, make it kind of a Strokes-garage-y rock song." He says he's always liked trying to make disparate sounds work together, but with Etiquette he worked against that inclination. "You can get in that mindset of thinking outside of the box, but then outside of the box becomes inside the box," he says.
Recently, Kauffman spent time in Nashville recording Tyler Ramsey's forthcoming solo album with Ramsey and Band of Horses' bassist Bill Reynolds. The trio left Asheville with a van full of "every toy and gadget" and the studio, too, had "an overabundance of that stuff — super-weird little gadget-things. We were like, 'We gotta get that on something' and then we ended up not using any of it," says Kauffman. In the end, Ramsey's album came to same conclusion as Kauffman's Etiquette: "Really basic and quick. Get the concept out there, unmolested."
Not that Kauffman's songs are, by any stretch, easily digestible pop morsels. "A warm jacket is all I need, if we leave tonight. I heard you talking about Madrid and how the city opened your eyes. This is more important than that, if you could make a compromise. If you approach it with dignity, you can make it back alive," he sings on the bouncy "Rogue River," the vintage organ burbles and crunchy guitar belying references to emotional scars.
And: "Refusal of bribes, saboteur's false hope. You're hungry for more, just like Robespierre," from the song named for the infamous force behind the French Revolution's Reign of Terror.
Unlike previous albums, Kauffman wrote most of Etiquette's lyrics prior to entering the studio. Lyrics, he says, "can still be just right if you come up with them on the spot, but if you're really going to get that statement that just nails you when you hear it, sometimes you have to have that ready ahead of time."
Which is not to say that Kauffman considers himself a singer/songwriter (though his songs, dating back to his days as half of the duo Choosy Beggars, often manage to be both hooky and off-handedly poetic). Nor does he consider himself any sort of virtuoso. "I don't think I really play any instrument that well," says Kauffman. "I have this belief that songs are just kind of out there and if you can be in the right state of mind, you can harness then." He compares songwriting to surfing, where one day you seem to master all the tricks and the next day you can't catch a single wave. "It's all about not thinking at all," says Kauffman.
Before heading out west to play Colorado, California, and, eventually, South By Southwest shows in Texas, Floating Action celebrates the release of Etiquette in Asheville. Bryan Cates (Kauffman's former collaborator from Choosy Beggars, who has been touring with Band of Horses) opens.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Floating Action
what: CD release party for Desert Etiquette; Bryan Cates of Choosy Beggars opens
where: Emerald Lounge
when: Friday, Feb. 25 (10 p.m. floatingaction.com)