Interview conducted by Elyse Lankford / October 24th, 2015
Joe Kaufman is a junior at Seattle Pacific University studying music therapy while writing and recording music under the name Joe August. Inspired by musicians like James Mercer of the Shins, Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, and the Beatles, the simple melodies and guitar solos layered with carefully placed harmonies and a relaxed tempo make Joe’s debut EP, Up to Now, an easy and completely enjoyable listening experience. During my conversation with Joe, he explained that this EP is quite literally a mix of everything he’s done “up to now,” including two songs he wrote with his old high school band while growing up in LA and two that he wrote in his last couple years in Seattle. Joe talked about his start in music, his songwriting process, and his sixteen-year-old glory days with the band, so here are some bits of the interview:
Elyse: What got you started in music and what made you start making your own?
Joe: It’s actually kind of a funny story.
Good! Great way to start off!
Yeah, so I started on a bunch of different instruments like cello and trumpet and nothing really got me… when I was about 12 I got super into Guitar Hero. Like, unhealthily into Guitar Hero and so I played guitar everyday.
You played Guitar Hero everyday.
Guitar Hero everyday, let’s clarify, Guitar Hero every single day for about an hour. Before I talked to anyone, before I ate, before I took a shower, just sitting in my underwear, playing Guitar Hero. Normal. One day, when we were out, this is the sad part of the story, our house got broken into. And one of the few things they took was my Guitar Hero. So obviously I was devastated. So when I woke up the next morning, my dad had put out a real guitar with a little note that said something like “Why don’t you start playing real guitar?” and that is literally the day that I was like “I’m going to start playing the guitar.” And I never took any lessons, I just learned from YouTube and would try to figure songs out by their chords, so to this day I haven’t had a guitar lesson. Yeah, that’s how I began.
That is a great story.
Yeah, the songwriting part is a little bit more lame. I had a girlfriend at thirteen so I had been playing guitar for about a year, and I think for her birthday I wrote her a song.
Oh that’s sweet.
It was awful. It was so bad. And I found it! I found the song and it’s just really bad.
Did you record it for her?
I recorded it, yeah.
What did you record it on?
On GarageBand with, I’m not even joking, a Rock Band microphone, so it was rough to say the least but that’s when I decided to write songs.
And how long did that relationship last?
Like two weeks after that. No, I’m just kidding—it actually lasted two years which for a seventh grader is pretty damn good.
So sob story to start off with: Guitar Hero got stolen. You got a real guitar.
Yep. Got a guitar, started playing.
Can you tell me about the SPU music community? And how do you go about writing a song?
Okay so the first question, the SPU community is great. I think all the musicians at SPU support each other and that’s one of the things that’s really great about SPU in general. This sense of community and the sense of a large family is awesome. Especially the music department, people are always promoting their friends or they want to give feedback or be a part somehow so I think that’s really cool. Everybody’s always willing and ready to help out. In that sense, I think the SPU music community is great. There’s not a lot of big bands, there were last year, so I feel like SPU kind of needs a band right now to really steal the stage.
Yeah, there was a band someone mentioned to me that was here last year, who was it?
Yes, Coldwater Theater, they were awesome. They were great and they were the classic party band, sounded great live, just a wall of sound. They were cool, but again they graduated and have moved on to bigger and better things, hopefully. And what was the second question?
Your songwriting process.
Oh, usually… it depends. Sometimes, but rarely, I’m like “I’m going to sit down and write a song right now.” Usually it’s when I have something else to do, like I have a huge essay and then all the sudden I’m like “Wait… I’m getting something right now.” And I just have to sit down and play it. And those are the times when it’s just genuine inspiration and it all just comes out. A lot of times when I sit down to write a song I can only get a verse and a chorus, but when I’m feeling it, it just all—the verse, the chorus, the bridge—it all comes out. And it flows so nicely.
So do you usually start with the lyrics or the melody when writing a song?
It really depends. Sometimes I’ll just be playing guitar and find a cool riff and that turns into something. Sometimes I’ll come up with a bunch of words and puzzle them into a song.
Okay, tell me about your band from high school. Is there stuff on YouTube or something?
Yeah there’s stuff on SoundCloud it’s super… are you like ready to go?
I’m so ready.
It’s under Joe August Music. You just have to scroll down far enough to where you can find it. But they’re really rough recordings, again I was sixteen so my voice is super high. But it was cool, we played a lot of shows. Our last show was a battle of the bands at the House of Blues which was a really legendary place on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. It actually just closed down which is really sad but I’m really happy that we got to play there. We ended up winning that battle of the bands; it was a bunch of LA high school bands so that was really fun. Everybody in that band had their own role, you know what I mean? One guy was the keyboard player but he was The Style of the band. He was the guy rocking like, bolo ties—we were sixteen so we thought this guy was awesome. But even if he wasn’t great at keyboard, he looked great on stage.
Therefore he was great at keyboard.
Exactly, and my friend Matt Jones he was The Brains. He was so smart, he was one of those kids that had a 5.0 GPA and just happened to be insanely good at electric guitar. He was the technical side. He knew all of the plugins and how to get everything running. I was the frontman, you know, the classic, engaging the crowd, singing, getting people to clap. And I did everything else, booked the shows, organized the practices, ran the rehearsals, wrote the music, so The Heart is what I was called. And the bass player was the crazy… The Danger, he was The Danger.
Oh wait! You all had actual names.
Yeah! He was The Danger this guy was just like…
And you were The Heart and then The Brains, The Style, and the drummer?
The drummer was just The Rhythm, he had a rhythm in a real sense but he also had the rhythm of the band. He just knew how to get all of us going and in our zone. Before shows he was the one talking us up.
I’m picturing a movie trailer with a snapshot of all you guys with “The Brains” and all your names flashing across the screen.
Yeah, “The Danger!” “The Style!”
Do you have plans for the future? What do you want to do with your music now?
I’m majoring in music therapy, which is super interesting and I’ve grown to love it. I didn’t really know a lot about it when I first started, but it’s definitely something that I feel amazing about and I’ll hold by every time I do it. I feel like I’m taking part in something that changes somebody or makes a positive impact on somebody’s life and that’s always the greatest feeling for me. So I don’t know how exactly, but I want to tie in my solo songwriting, Joe August, with music therapy. Whether I start my own business or I start a school, I’m going to do something to tie them together. It’s the type of industry where you want to be involved with multiple different aspects. So this summer I interned for a publishing label in LA called Big Deal Music, and they’re based out of LA, Nashville, and New York, so I got a lot of experience in the publishing side of it, and with music therapy I’m doing my own composing and songwriting. So I just want to be involved in as much as I can in the music industry, because even if one thing hits and takes off that’ll be a really great thing for my career.