The soul of Motown, the grit of ‘60s rock’n’roll and a modern pop sensibility

Seth Kauffman better watch out the next time he plays in New York: If Wes Anderson sees him, he just might lock him up in his basement and force Kauffman to write the soundtracks to his movies for the rest of eternity.

Laid-back vibe: Kauffman (second from left) with the rest of the Floating Actin band, (from left) Evan Martin, Michael Libramento and Joshua Carpenter. Photos by Sandlin Gaither

Not that it would be the worst fate for the Black Mountain-based singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist.

Like Anderson, the famed director of such postmodern classics as The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums, Kauffman has the remarkable ability to express an eccentric authenticity that cuts through the mundane. The songs on Kauffman's new album, Floating Action (also Kauffman’s latest pseudonym), many of which were written as his wife suffered through a battle with depression, explore love and the struggle for human connection in refreshing ways that would seem to resonate perfectly with the themes and characters of Anderson's films. The two artists' shared perspective isn't lost on Kauffman.

“I'm a big Wes Anderson fan and I know that he and I would be good buddies," Kauffman says. "If he was a musician he'd probably make stuff like my music, and if I made films they'd probably be like his."

Kauffman also shares Anderson's reputation for being the musical equivalent of an auteur — writing, recording and producing every song, singing almost every lead and harmony vocal, and playing almost every instrument on every album he's ever made — all from the sanctuary of his low-fi home studio. His do-it-himself approach involves intensive experimentation with vintage mics and instruments, which he records onto a 4-track tape deck and then imports onto his P.C. with Cakewalk, a far-less-than professional audio program. The result is an organic, distinctive sound that blends the soul of Motown and the grit of '60s rock 'n' roll with more modern pop sensibilities (think One Foot in the Grave-era Beck).

"I don't really know what I'm doing. I learn a little bit more each time," he says. "I think that's what gives it the funk. It's a little bit off, but that's the way I want it to be."

It's a recording style that serves the songs well on Floating Action. Kauffman wove the tunes together one layer at a time, with many first takes making the final cut. "I just kind of start messing around," he says. "I usually record drums first, and then you add a guitar, and still you don't know what you're going to do, and then it kind of reveals itself to you and you're like, 'Oh, I could do this,' and then you start getting ideas. Some of the stuff you do off-the-cuff ends up being cool."

Kauffman digs deep on new songs like "Don't Stop Loving Me Now," "Could You Save Me" and "To Connect," describing the solo writing and recording sessions as providing a much needed therapeutic outlet. "Music really helped me through hard times, for sure. Before that, you always hear Tom Petty or people like that talking about how in the darkest time, music can really help you and you're like, 'Whatever,' but it's true," he says. "When somebody really pours their heart into something, that's what other people identify with, that's what makes you like it, that's a good thing." 

The infusion of tropical, surf and reggae-influenced grooves, souvenirs from Kauffman's travels to Jamaica, Angola and Mexico, help keep the experimental sound accessible. His love of mountain biking, surfing, skating and snowboarding also help sculpt the disc’s laid-back vibe. "The way you navigate and choose your lines and stuff —I think that has a lot to do with the way I want my music to sound," he says. Appropriately, the cover of Floating Action is a photo of the Pacific Ocean that Kauffman took with a waterlogged disposable camera on a surf trip to Baja.

Travel is something Kauffman will be doing a lot more of in the near future, as his homespun creations are starting to gain national recognition. His newly formed band (also called Floating Action) —made up of Asheville musicians Michael Libramento (bass), Evan Martin (drums) and Josh Carpenter (guitar) — is already playing sold-out rooms across the country, opening for Dr. Dog, Band of Horses and Toubab Krewe. The band will continue touring heavily this summer in support of the new disk, all the way to the West Coast.

Rave reviews are starting to pile up on influential blogs like Daytrotter, and Paste Magazine is distributing the new album to its vast legion of subscribers. In July, Floating Action will be released on vinyl by uber-cool indie label Park The Van Records, paired with the release of a digital EP of Kauffman's own dub-reggae remixes of many of the songs.

After years of struggling to pay bills as a working musician, Kauffman is clearly excited about what lies ahead, regardless of whether or not he ever teams up with Anderson.

"With every album, I've slowly chiseled away and built something," he says. "I feel like with this album, the shit I want to happen is within reach, like some stuff is actually starting to make sense."

Jake Frankel is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
who: Seth Kauffman’s Floating Action, with Max Indian and Fox-Teeth
what: low-fi genre-bending catchiness from one of Asheville’s finest songwriters/multi-instrumentalists/producers
where: The Grey Eagle (www.thegreyeagle.com)
when: Saturday, May 30 (9 p.m. $8. )

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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5 thoughts on “The soul of Motown, the grit of ‘60s rock’n’roll and a modern pop sensibility

  1. Warrenfan

    Nice piece, I look forward to checking out the band.
    One comment though, about your comment on his production process. He uses Cakewalk stuff, which you call “less-than-professional.” That’s actually pretty high-end software, surprising since you’re trying to paint him as “old school” Sure, some of their titles are more expensive than others — do you know specifically which package he uses? — but to downplay his recording tech shows you don’t know all that much about it. It’s not like he’s using a Comodore 64 to do his mixing…
    Anyway, nice piece but I wanted to address that one part.

  2. Jake Frankel

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Yes, in my interview with Kauffman, he explained that the particular version of the Cakewalk software he uses to record costs about $40 at Best Buy…. Perhaps I should’ve been more specific. My point in describing it as ‘less-than-professional’ certainly wasn’t meant to downplay or criticize his sound or recording technique…

  3. boatrocker

    Hell yeah I’ve been a fan of Kauffman’s stuff for a long time. i very much enjoyed the interview.

  4. Warrenfan

    Thanks Jake! I had a feeling that was the case, and I appreciate your follow-up. Again, really nice piece overall!

  5. I can’t wait to hear the new stuff — the old Choosy Beggars album has never left my top ten rotation. Still love it.

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