Black Mountain songwriter Seth Kauffman, the creative force behind indie-pop project Floating Action, doesn’t exactly say that he was tricked into playing his upcoming date at The Mothlight on Friday, Sept. 8. But he does say that the performance was originally a favor to Spaceface, a band led by his friend Jake Ingalls of The Flaming Lips. “I don’t even try to book shows in Asheville anymore, but he got me to do it,” Kauffman explains. “And then, a couple of weeks later, he had to bail on the show! Still, I’m thankful that it forced me to do a Floating Action gig.”
Kauffman is no stranger to performing live — he regularly plays bass for the touring band of My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James — but when it comes to fronting his own shows, he’s often reluctant to take the stage. “I just don’t need to be in front of people. It doesn’t make me want to rip my clothes off or scream until I get the attention,” he says. Instead, Kauffman feels most at home in the studio, where he arranges and tracks all of the instruments on Floating Action’s dreamy, intricately constructed tunes.
Friday’s show marks the digital release of Is It Exquisite?, the latest album to result from those efforts. Kaufmann recorded the entire collection of songs over just two weeks, during a rare lull between touring with James and studio work for artists such as Ray LaMontagne and Asheville’s Angel Olsen. “I have this dumb thing that I was brought up with of putting other people first,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh, “so I don’t usually have a concentrated time where I can actually work on my own stuff.”
Despite its short turnaround, Is It Exquisite? shows no signs of being a rush job. Each song creates a unique and carefully layered soundscape, all strung together by Kauffman’s reverb-laden voice. In opener “Don’t Desert Me,” for example, the melody meanders above dub-inspired drums and bass, a style cribbed from a teenage mission trip he took to Kingston, Jamaica. The warbling synth and booming kick of “My Blood Is Bright” recall the psychedelia of Animal Collective, while the warm choral harmonies of “The Silent One” draw from the baroque folk of Fleet Foxes.
Kauffman says he was most surprised by the last song on the album, “Controlled Burn,” an 11-minute instrumental more than twice the length of any other track in the set. “On every album, I try to get weird things to happen,” he says. “All of the instruments are kind of backing off of each other, conversing with each other — it was just one of those spur-of-the-moment jams with one take of everything, but when I listened to it, I couldn’t wait to hear each next little bit.” The result sounds like sheets of guitar and bass riffs billowing from the clothesline of a constant drum machine loop.
As a performing act, Floating Action expands from a solo project into a four-piece band featuring local artists Joshua Carpener, Michael Libramento and Drew Heller. Kauffman admits that he struggles with the inevitable differences that arise between the album and live interpretations of his songs. “When I make albums with me playing everything, there’s a kind of weird chemistry that can’t really be duplicated,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s good; I’m just saying it’s different.” Kauffman is often also disappointed by modern sound systems and their low-bass rumble, which he feels can mask the nuances buried throughout his music.
Nevertheless, Kauffman does enjoy the interactions with other musicians that happen onstage. He says his live shows draw more from the aesthetic of the Grateful Dead than that of Guns N’ Roses: “The Grateful Dead just kind of stood there,” he points out, “but they were playing together.” Improvisation and spontaneity rub against Kauffman’s deliberate songwriting to yield more elastic versions of Floating Action material in performance.
Kauffman plans to continue working on new Floating Action songs whenever he finds the time between touring and recording (as well as caring for his 1 1/2-year-old daughter). But despite his busy schedule, he says that Black Mountain is the ideal town for his creativity. “I travel a lot in big cities all around the country, and it gets to you how people have to exist. You have to carry yourself with all this pretension,” he says. “I think Black Mountain is cool because it’s off of the beaten path — nobody cares at all.”
WHAT: Floating Action with Les Amis
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 8, 9:30 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show