We spoke with Seth Kauffman of Floating Action about his latest record Hold Your Fire and his career of impressive musical collaborations.
Your latest record, Hold Your Fire, came out last year. It's a long, 21-song album that plays like a film soundtrack with an array of songs with so many different styles. What was the motivation for this record and what's your process for deciding how long or short a record will be?
I had a bunch of HYF demos building up and started working on them with the intention of making them all shorter and tighter arrangements. But once I started doing that, I started seeing how the cool part about a lot of them was how relaxed and not in a hurry they were. Then a lot of other ideas I had for this didn't really seem that enticing as your typical long 4-minute song and just starting to line all of the songs up. A lot of them seemed custom designed to flow into the next one and I saw how long the total time of the record was looking - impossible to fit on one record. So once that wasn't a possibility, suddenly it was wide open to just put these all together 'the way God intended them' - unfiltered, unhurried, nothing cut off for popular consumption. I also reached a point where I 100% didn't care if the record was successful, or even if anyone else but myself heard it.
You write, record, and produce all of the Floating Action records, correct? Do you work best individually? Do you solicit support from other musicians in the studio or while writing?
Yes, correct. It's just two separate things. It's really fun to work by myself - only one cook in the kitchen and you're able to go in completely uninhibited directions with songs and ideas. It's really good brain exercise. After you've done it for some years, you start to really get to know your own mind and you can be gruelingly efficient - turning on a dime when an idea isn't happening and conversely turning on a dime towards an idea that is happening. But working with other humans in the studio is also totally great and I really enjoy it. A lot of times it feels like you're working with your hands tied behind your back at half-speed because it often takes so long to get everyone on board with a vibe - then when it doesn't totally get there, you give up and say 'oh well, good enough' because everyone has already put so much time into getting there. But then what you don't get with doing it all yourself is that bromanship camaraderie warm feeling that 'we all did something together' which is nice.
Solicit other musicians; not really. I've written with people before with good results, and sometimes mediocre results. Sometimes I get guest vocalists on FA albums just to get away from that weird 'it's all one voice' sound when one person harmonizes with themselves.
You live in Black Mountain, NC just outside of Asheville. How does living there impact your creativity and music? Do you draw inspiration in any way from traditional mountain music famous from the region?
I'm sure I do. Twenty years ago I would play mountain music, sit in with the old guys and improvise on fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer, etc. But then that generation of legit players all died, and the floodgates opened for newgrass and what have you. The vibe changed and I'm now very much repulsed by it. There's a few people around that get it right, but like .05%. I think what does remain from traditional mountain music, in all my music, is this underlying sense of doing it yourself...a.k.a. not having the right tools and gear, but being resourceful with the few things you have, to make something unique and not like anything else. That aspect of my stuff is definitely lost on most people. I've taken a lot of shit for it over the years and felt ashamed to do it 'the poor way,' but nowadays I'm super proud of it because that's what it's all about. Something feels so wrong and evil about Kickstarter. I'm proud that I've rigged up my own ghetto-ass 'wrong' way of recording things. It sounds in many ways inferior to albums with $20-500,000 budgets, but that to me is infinitely more pure, cool, and engaging. I own it, I invented it out of nothing. The only motivation is pure art and love.
It's not uncommon to find you on stage with Jim James or Dr. Dog. How did you get involved with them and do you collaborate in the studio or just for live shows?
They're all good soul brothers - we have similar views in music. I've played bass on some sessions that Jim produces (Basia Bulat, Ray Lamontagne), and now I play in Jim's solo touring band. It's also the kind of thing where when any of them are playing nearby, we'll have a good hang, hike, etc. Years ago, Scott of Dr. Dog got me to do a "Shaking Through" video/single session he produced. Dr. Dog used to be on the same label as Floating Action - the now defunct Park The Van Records so that's how we know each other. I know Jim because the Dr. Dog dudes told me to send my album (Desert Etiquette) to Jim and that he'd dig - and he did. He released the next FA album (Fake Blood) on his Removador label.
How do you maintain such a unique sound across years of albums while still exploring new songwriting concepts and arrangements? Does it have something to do with the production process or songwriting in general?
Well to me they're all starting to sound the same, haha. I started out trying to make every song drastically stylistically different. I hated it when every song on an album sounds virtually the same. But part of that is not doing the same thing twice. So logically once I did it I couldn't do that same thing again. So each album I've tried to sort of vaguely buck themes of the previous one but that happens on all these deep levels of things in my head that probably aren't even noticeable to anyone else. For a while the albums got 'known' as having tons of percussion and tons of parts and tracks happening. So I started trying to strip it down or instead of using cool vintage equipment only using very uncool Guitar Center-style stuff. Lately I'm still obsessed with getting an idea down but just letting it exist as that idea - not crowding it with too much arrangement; having one guitar with no effect, versus six guitars each with tons of effects. There's a type of idea that 'makes the cut' for my songs (not sure if there's a term for it) where it's a completely new riff or melody, doesn't sound like anything anyone else has done and THAT'S what I want to focus on...GOTTA be fresh. I've got a knack for picking out stuff in songs that rips other stuff off (often times a curse), but it allows me to filter mediocre played-out stuff and only seek out the dankest of the dank ideas.
Hold Your Fire had a limited release on a label we love, People In A Position To Know, who you have released several projects with. Those guys seem to do things a bit differently over there. Can you describe how putting a record out with them is different from other labels? And please don't forget the Floating Action record that can be played in a CD player.
Mike Dixon, who runs PIAPTK, is a passionate rare genius maniac - truly does not care about making money (I don't either...often times a curse;) I just wanted to keep it as simple as possible, make 300 records I knew we could sell, instead of 2,000 and owe money for years on them. So we figured out the perfect balance of cost effective and very creative. Mike went above and beyond to make them cool and quality and one-and-done. We released it with no press or pointless publicist and they pretty much sold out the day we released it. A good way to do things: work hard with a couple honest people.
You recorded on Angel Olsen's My Woman and Michael Nau's Mowing, two records we are enthralled by. What was it like working with them? What are the challenges or advantages of being a supporting cast member for someone else's project?
If you're not obsessed with yourself (I'm not), there are no challenges of being a support member. On Nau's record, I just overdubbed strings from my home studio, so never actually worked with him. Angel is my homegirl. She's the coolest. She came to my studio last fall and bounced off her demos to me and we kinda worked them up. Then she got with her regular band and further worked them up - then we all went into a sweet old studio in Hollywood and cut the whole record live - no clicks, not really any overdubs, no overthinking. Super pure, super cool thing to be a part of. I love working like that.
What's next for Floating Action? Are you currently writing or recording? Are you planning to be touring either with your own project or a colleagues?
Yes, I'm 65% done with the next FA album Is It Exquisite? - mondo soul. This record feels GOOD. This could change, but I'm having my good buddy Leon Michels (Dap King horn and keys player who I played on both Dan Auerbach-produced records (Lana Del Rey, Ray Lamontagne)) add horns to some songs and it may even come out on his label Big Crown Records - not sure. I'm excited about it - new vibe.
I just got done with a super long Jim James tour. If he doesn't fire me, I'll still tour with him, but there's nothing in the books as of yet. As for FA, no plans to tour - you can't really do it without a booking agent and that whole team of 'people with money' behind you. You gotta have that TEAM!..supporters. In the old days I'd just go into extreme debt so we could tour - scrapped together myself and not well routed - but nowadays I've grown wise and only go out if I can not lose money - which that scenario does not happen very often ;)