Spirit of Black Mountain College lives in Seth Kauffman

J.P. Kennedy
Special to The Black Mountain News

This is what I have learned in my search for Black Mountain College – that there is a desire deep inside us to express what it means to be alive. And those who get closest to expressing this make the finest art. This is the reason that art continues to move forward. Because copying, repeating, following a movement are not ways to express this truth.

I read books and search the Internet to find out more, tracking down art by Ray Johnson, following the timeline of John Cage and his influence on Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, the Fluxus movement and the New York City avant-garde. It’s a strange head trip, because of how life connects and creates circles.

In 1992 in New York City, I was assistant to Philip Pearlstein, an older painter who lived with his wife in an enormous industrial loft in the Fashion District. Pearlstein was Andy Warhol’s roommate when they both moved to the city. I framed canvases, made Turkish coffee and worked on Pearlstein’s prints.

Mainly, I painted and drew. Phillip was kind, generous – and the hardest working artist. He painted each day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., working with models, so there was always a group of us in his studio. He was the first person ready at the beginning of the day, the first of us to return to his work after lunch. At the end of the day, it saddened him to stop painting.

Pearlstein was Andy Warhol’s roommate also at Carnegie Tech. Together they went to hear Cage’s early work at the Outlines Gallery in Pittsburgh, because they wanted to see this new composer’s search for something new.

After working for Pearlstein, I knew I couldn’t be a painter. I didn’t have the same dedication. I liked live music. I liked bad live music, and I liked good live music – and I loved the musicians who were trying to be different.

These days, the bass player in my band (Egg Eaters) also plays with a band called Lord King. Lord King is lead by Seth Kauffman, creator of the band Floating Action. This winter, Lord King played a set of dub versions of ’80s hits at Pisgah Brewery. After one set, Kauffman and his band played a set as Floating Action.

Kauffman is the most ordinary rock star, with a ginger beard and thinning hair. But there is magic to his music. Floating Action uses recorded dance beats and drums and fuses them with a songwriter’s sense of words and melody. As Floating Action played its set at Pisgah, Kauffman grew taller and looked cooler, prettier, dangerous. I sat there and thought, this is it, this is the next step in music.

In late May, I drove down an ordinary street in Black Mountain and parked my car before an ordinary house. Kauffman opened the door. He enjoys being “hidden” in Black Mountain. As well as leading Lord King and Floating Action, he also does studio work for some of the most interesting musicians alive today - Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Lana Del Rey, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, among them.

In his basement studio, Kauffman was working on his latest album. The room was set up with drums, guitars, bass guitars, mics, his computer, some vintage equipment.

“A new piece of gear can be a catalyst,” Kauffman said. “If I mess around for a minute, some idea will come to me. A small little thing, but knowing my process, I’ll record it real quick.”

I have his songs “Matador” and “Marie Claire” in heavy rotation on my iPhone. As he played his new tracks for me, I tried not to show I’m such a fan, but I love the bass and drums and guitar. They’re simple and compelling, one song rolling directly into the next, like this is all a huge creative thought.

I asked him about moving music forward, about moving art forward.

“I get weighed down thinking about that,” he answered. “All the other bands and artists out there, it’s up to us to push forward. There’s a new concept I’m trying. On the last record (that) I played with Jim James, it was just bass, piano and guitar. There’s good space to it.

“The human ear can’t detect too much information. With pop songs there’s too much happening. I’m trying to dial it back to a few ideas happening, and then it’s gone.”

Hoping the listener catches that one simple idea, that’s a pretty trusting and hopeful concept for a composer to have. Kauffman stood there waiting while I listened to his newest work. I wanted to express to him how important his work is and how much I enjoyed his music, but words seem insufficient. I fumbled to say something and instead talked about Black Mountain College and how the area seemed to be supportive of artists.

“When I first moved here I thought that Black Mountain was very small,” Kauffman said. “But now I think it gives me the space to work.”

I nodded in agreement. Part of Black Mountain College’s success was it allowed artists to create without being in the spotlight. I could have stayed in Kauffman’s studio all day, but I’d infringed enough on his quiet and privacy.

This is the latest in a series of stories by local resident and documentary filmmaker J.P. Kennedy about his ongoing search for expressions of Black Mountain College.