There was something amiss about local musician Seth Kauffman. His March press release was lousy with praise. His first album, the lo-fi Ting, had just made waves on the CMJ chart in March 2006, debuting in the Top 10. The comparisons spilled over the page: “Early Wailers,” “Beck meets the Delta,” and even “Wilson Pickett on Thorazine.” The songs sounded like lost field recordings, a barely audible voice accompanying itself with whatever instrument lay the closest.
But lurking in the press kit was a misprint that better captured Kauffman’s spirit: For him, the meaning is in the mistakes.
“Local Seth Kauffman,” the press kit read, “will team up with pals Tyler Ramsey, Scott Sharpe and Bill Reynolds (aka The Real Mothers) and bring Asheville his unique blend of bluegrass-tinged f••k rock.” (Asterisks are Xpress‘.)
The funky “N” had been replaced by the vulgar “C” — but no matter: Seth’s musical path has been a typo from the get-go.
Luckily, he never thought to white it out.
By age eight, Seth was learning Sam Cooke on the violin. High school in Greensboro saw him divining Rolling Stones songs with his bow during orchestra practice. His interest in soul music peaked in his 20s, inspiring his steady effort to “delearn the classics.”
“The kind of music I’m into is more of a feeling, something that comes from the soul or unknown forces of nature,” said Kauffman in a recent interview. “Reading it from notes on a page tends to strip it of its mysterious, ragged, faulty, spontaneous qualities.”
His early 20s (which included short scholastic stints at Montreat College and UNCA) were devoted to travel, with music playing a decidedly secondary role.
“My traveling was all based around boards: snowboarding crazy places, bombing crazy hills on longboards, surfing, and leafboarding,” he reveals.
His examination of soul music on Ting certainly owes much to his trips through Jamaica and Africa.
“When I was in Jamaica, I wasn’t yet immersed in Jamaican music, mainly because everybody thinks it’s cool to be into reggae. I didn’t go necessarily to check out the music; I was on a mission trip with a small group that included Bryan Cates of my other band, The Choosy Beggars. We played some R&B tunes for the locals, and they said, ‘We like your country-western music.'”
Kauffman wasn’t even the front man for the Beggars, a hugely popular Chapel Hill band. His band mate (and best friend since age five) Bryan Cates was the lead singer. Kauffman felt comfortable in the Keith Richards role. But apparently Cates was no Mick.
“Bryan’s the greatest performer and songwriter I’ve ever seen,” says Kauffman. “More talent than anyone out there, hands down; but I don’t think he has any intention of letting the world know about it. It took me ten years to realize that.”
Success certainly tried to woo the Choosy Beggars. Audley Freed and Brian Gorman (guitarist and drummer respectively for the Black Crowes) were enthralled with the Beggars’ record. They agreed to produce a demo for Kauffman and Cates, and shop it around to labels. The two went to Nashville several times to record the album. Then … nothing. Freed and Gorman got cold feet after Cates, according to Kauffman, stalled too long over the finished product.
Kauffman suggests that the notion of fame spooked his band mate. But ultimately, out of this frustration arose Ting. The album became a one-man proving ground: Who strummed the guitar? Kauffman. Who bowed the violin? Kauffman. Who banged the drums, gongs and trashcan lids? Kauffman. Who remixed and produced? Kauffman and Kauffman. Still, Kauffman had no grandiose plans when he made the album.
“I made Ting with no intentions of it being on the radar, so any blips are just icing. The record leans heavily on rhythm — I like grooves so funky that they pretty much fall apart.”
Kauffman’s new band, the Real Mothers (formed in 2005 with locals Tyler Ramsey and Evan Martin), understands his off-kilter ways.
“Both of these guys are geniuses on every instrument,” says Kauffman. “They also have this unique soul-sympathetic ability to capture the messy swagger-groove that’s crucial to this sound.”
The trio was a hit at Austin’s SXSW festival, and their live reputation (as well as their lineup) continues to ascend. Like many of Kauffman’s earlier achievements, the Real Mothers grew out of a good hunch.
“I kind of had a vague premonition that Tyler Ramsey and Evan Martin might be hip to this groove, so I sort of sought them out,” Kauffman reveals.
Years before his zig-zag success with the Real Mothers, he encountered his totem spirit in the African Bush.
“When I was leaving the bush, driving out in the Land Rover, in the middle of nowhere, we crest a hill and there are three natives walking towards us. Two are wearing traditional animal skins; then the third native has on a women’s lavender leopardskin full-body workout unitard. Randomness defined. If that doesn’t explain the meaning of life, I’m not sure what does.”
That experience is like listening to Ting. Sure, it has the grooves you would expect from a man steeped in the annals of Motown. But lurking underneath that sound is the unforeseen. It’s then that you realize that the best music is always a little f••ked-up.
[Contributing writer Hunter Pope lives in Asheville.]
Seth Kauffman and the Real Mothers play the French Broad Brewery (101-D Fairview Road) on Saturday, June 3. Free. 5:30 p.m. 277-0222. The band will be at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Sunday, June 4. $6. 8:30 p.m. 232-5800.