Floating Action’s Seth Kauffman spills some ‘Fake Blood’
The Shuffle clan converted to Seth Kauffman’s music mere minutes after his 2007 solo LP Research landed in our mailboxes back in the day when music still took corporeal form. With its raw, outsider art-production values, and its musical echoes of Memphis, Trenchtown and Motown, there was a lot to recommend what Kauffman called “lo-fi Carolina funk.” The arrangements were loose and the riddims tight, and with Kauffman’s creaky falsetto and just opaque-enough lyrics you knew immediately you were listening to the work of a true iconoclast.
Now, as leader of Floating Action, Kauffman’s turned out three full-lengths and captured the imaginations of some heavy hitters, including Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell (who helped name one Floating Action LP) and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. The latter’s boutique label, Removador Recordings & Solutions, will team up with Asheville-based Harvest Records to release Kauffman’s latest, Fake Blood (release date TBD), now that Kauffman has severed ties with Park the Van, his label home for the first two Floating Action LPs.
Kauffman’s honored to have his peers believe in his music to that degree, but bristles at the unspoken “musician’s musician” tag that comes with it. In fact, Fake Blood is, in part, a lament about a risk-averse industry that concentrates on flash-in-the-pan trends in the hopes of striking it big. It’s also a Floating Action record through-and-through, done almost exclusively by Kauffman in his home studio. Shuffle Managing Editor John Schacht exchanged emails with Kauffman about the genesis of his new LP and some of its themes, his unique (and lonely) recording process, and what he’s learned not to do after his years on Park the Van Records.
Shuffle: Fake Blood — didn’t the last record, Desert Etiquette, have this title briefly? What’s the story behind that?
Seth Kauffman: Yes, I was like, ‘Fake Blood is going to be the next album title’ even before I made Desert Etiquette. I’d been using a lot of face paint, and even drew up the album art (which we didn’t end up using) using red face paint. But none of the songs pre-date Desert Etiquette. That title came up, and I liked both of them equally. (Band of Horses frontman) Ben Bridwell ultimately made the call on using Desert Etiquette. Then for the new one, I started to ponder titles, and Scott McMicken from Dr. Dog would always say how he missed the Fake Blood title and that he wanted to use it if I wasn’t going to (jokingly). So basically that title had to get used, and fits this album well.
Shuffle: What’s the genesis of the title in any case? What kind of faux blood are we talking about here, anyway?
SK: There’s the Wayne Coyne side of fake blood, tapping into whatever that primal feeling is that it conjures when people see a bunch of blood, then using fake blood to easily get the same primal emotion. A lot of the subject matter in these songs has to do with my frustrations about making things that are pure and original (real blood), and no one seems to get it. Then there are a lot of Sleigh Bells type bands, where there’s little soul and real content (fake blood), that blow up and a lot of people pay a lot of money to see them. So the title Fake Blood is kind of sarcastic, like a joke idea that it takes branding your legitimate art as non-legitimate gimmickry to get people to see it as legitimate.
Shuffle: Did you record this one similarly to the records you’d done in the past, where you did virtually all of it at home on your own? Or did you go to a studio, and if so, which one? Anything notably different about the recording this time? Is that a synth I hear on “Ensnarement”?
SK: Yes, I recorded this one at home, it’s just me on everything. Then I got Brian Landrum to add keys on a couple songs, and bolstered my own faux black woman background vocals using my friend, the great Maxine Gwynn, of Winston-Salem. “Ensnarement” is real strings, violin and bowed bass. That interlude was improvised on lap steel, with no meter, kind of leading the way, and everything kind of following it. It’s funny, ‘real strings/fake strings confusion’ has plagued me for years. I remember when Tom Petty’s Wildflowers came out, I thought he used synth strings, but they were real. And every record I’ve made, I always actually take the time to play the damn instrument, and everybody thinks it’s fake! Maybe we’re uncovering all these secret hidden meanings to Fake Blood!
I’ve always been a staunch supporter of capturing ideas right when they happen, on previous records; but I’d say on Fake Blood, that’s notably different. Like a way stronger presence of that. Records are often boring to me when it took months and months in the studio, and everything has been smoothed out to perfection. I think there’s a special magic that shines through, and is extremely exciting, the rare occurrences when someone actually hits ‘record’ for that first pure moment of a song being made up. Snatched out of the heavens. The fearlessness and vulnerability that you expose when you’re stepping out on a limb and trying something that may not work. The track “Not What I Came For,” what you hear on the record is this actual MOMENT, it’s the moment of creation, captured on tape, and it’s wild and uncertain. In my mind at least. You can probably tell that I’m obsessed with it.
Shuffle: Are there any themes you touch on here that tie the songs together, either implicitly or directly?
SK: Yes. Tons of themes. The thing that’s great about a song is you can write one line that takes two seconds to say, yet if you actually explained it in normal language, you’re looking at an eight-page dissertation. That’s the mystery of it that I love, you can jump around and it doesn’t have meaning on a surface level, but it clicks and explains all of life on this transcendental level.
Shuffle: Tell us something we don’t know about a couple songs….
SK: “Matador” does have a ribbon synth in it. The classic scenario of, it was just a weird off-the-cuff jam, no melody or words. But I found myself drawn to it, wanting to listen to it a lot — so I made the executive decision to manhandle it into a ‘real’ song. I’m a sucker for rhythms that push and pull so hard they’re basically off.
“Harshness of the Blow” is about a friend who was sexually abused as a child. Some of it’s to the dude who dished out the abuse, and some of it’s to the abusee. It explores the idea of the extreme amount of power you have, and that you can take away from someone else, and what an enormous, lasting effect it has on that person.
Shuffle: What about “Seized?” How often do you get seized?
SK: “Seized” and “Alpine Shadow” are companion pieces. Part of the same thought. I get seized all the time, little moments, where the sublime beauty of life hits you, and for a second, you fully understand it. Flying down a trail on a mountain bike, and you glance up for a second, and see another mountain range across the valley, and it’s in slow motion, you get seized, almost tear up.
Shuffle: “Complete the Myth” — what’s the myth?
SK: The music industry? The idea of how knowing too much can make you not be able to know. I know what needs to happen, and I know how it happens, but there’s still some piece of the puzzle that you can’t get, that you need to complete it. And you also know that if you didn’t know about what you needed, it would probably come together. Being trapped by having an understanding of reality.
Shuffle: And “Remorse Code” — what’s the most common trait in people’s remorse codes?
SK: That’s kind of a companion piece to “Complete the Myth.” It’s my life on the road, working hard, not taking musical and creative shortcuts even when you could probably be more successful by doing so. Standing by your art, and knowing that most success stories you hear are when people stood by their art. But I’m just confused at how to unscramble it and lay it out clearly. Like an undecipherable Morse code for expressing regret and frustration.
Shuffle: You’ve been at this now pretty hard for the last five or six years — how has your songwriting changed in that time, if it has? How does the positive feedback from your peers and critics help (in lieu of actual gold records!)?
SK: I don’t know if it’s changed. Music is the best thing ever. Nothing gets me more pumped than creating something new and beautiful. I used to make up a song and be like ‘this is what it is, this pure little guy just got pulled down out of the universe, so I don’t give a fuck if anyone else hears it or likes it.’ And now that there’s some ‘reputable giants in the rock world’ that dig it — it doesn’t really change my stance, just maybe gives a little more confidence to be bold, and also some kind of supportive dude camaraderie and hope — that while it’s still a secret and you’re never going to make any money, some part of the population is down with your vision.
Shuffle: You’ve had some personnel changes – Michael Libramento is playing with Grace Potter, and Mark Capon replaced him on bass, and Evan Martin, your old drummer, is back in the fold. How do they fit in with the Floating Action aesthetic?
SK: I just try to capture this weird unique thing, this vibe that happens when I play all the instruments. It’s not a control thing, it just is what it is. If we recorded albums as a band, it’d sound great, but it would just be something else. I’m not necessarily comfortable with that. I really just want to play in someone else’s band. But something weird and unique happens when I do everything myself, so I’m just chasing that, like some uncharted route that might not even lead anywhere, but I have to follow it. Lately I’ve come to grips with that more; to just roll with it, not worry and speculate about other people maybe feeling bad, left out, whatever. Life is short, so just work your ass off and pump out as many jams as you can. Even if it means having to record at home, and never having or making any money.
Shuffle: Finally, how’d the Jim James label connection come about? What did you learn from your time on the Park the Van?
SK: The guys from Dr. Dog were trying to help me come up with label ideas and solutions. They’re buds with Jim, and suggested his tiny label Removador Recordings and Solutions. I sent him Desert Etiquette a lonnnnng time ago; never heard back for at least a year. Then he wrote back and loved it. He’s really stoked on it, believes they’re classic records, and (he’s) bent on doing whatever he can to make the world aware of it, which is extremely above and beyond. He’s dedicated, but also very busy. So with the help of Harvest Records, and me, we’ve kind of got this weird, grassroots team, trying get Floating Action to the masses in this pure honest way – it’s kind of the anti-model of ‘how you should do it’ in the music industry. It’s hilarious. It’s really cool, and really exciting. We’re like explorers, blindly charging forward with only the goal of getting something we believe in out there. Kind of continues the themes of the songs on Fake Blood. Should be interesting.
What did I learn from PTV? Don’t believe anybody, and don’t wait to put records out. My experiences have culminated in our aforementioned ‘anti-model.’ I really don’t have anything negative to say about PTV, they believed in me and took measures to help me out. But it seems like every success story, every band that blows up, is always in some unique way. I think most labels and bands try to borrow a page from those playbooks of what has already worked. In some ways that makes sense. But, if anything, we should be realizing that we don’t know what’s going to work; that there’s no set way to make a band blow up. We have no idea what people are going to latch onto or why. Sometimes quality wins, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Also — don’t promise people money and other things you don’t have or can’t deliver. We got sent out on a lot of death-missions. I’ve gotten wiser about death-missions. A poorly put-together tour that has no strategy, where I end up losing A LOT of money — which is fine, if it’s smart and bolsters the bigger picture. But if it doesn’t, it can actually be worse to do it. The promise of some well-paying gig on the other side of the country that would financially justify the whole tour, only to find out the gig was just kind of a big ‘maybe’ that never really existed? Not good.
Labels and booking agents will often run you into the ground without even a second thought. I’m so dedicated to the cause, I’m gullible and will travel anywhere for negative money. But I’ve learned to step back and recognize when that has no benefit and you shouldn’t do it.