In an era where nearly every detail about every piece of music recorded in the last couple of decades is widely available, what does it mean when an entire band’s body of work turns elusive? That’s the question at the heart of Aug Stone‘s new novel The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass, the story of the search for the history of a cult early-80s band — and the reasons why their music went unheralded in their day. I spoke with Stone about the making of the novel, creating lengthy discographies for fictional artists, and the challenges of writing convincingly about nonexistent musicians.
Most of the writing I’ve read from you on the subject of music has been nonfiction. What prompted you to write about this era of underground music from a fictional perspective?
One of the funniest moments of my life was one day in 1991 hearing my best friend ask the clerk at Cutler’s Records & Tapes in New Haven, CT if they had anything by ‘Buttery Cake Ass’. The guy behind the counter was puzzled but you could see in his eyes that he wanted to help. He asked ‘Is there particular album you’re looking for?’ Without missing a beat, I said the first thing that popped into my head, ‘Live In Hungaria’. He then seemed even more confused and asked ‘Do you mean ‘Live In Hungary’?’ Bri and I got very serious, shaking our heads ‘no, it’s definitely ‘Live In Hungaria’.’ And as this poor man walked away to go check their stock for this record and band we had made up only seconds earlier, trying to hold in our laughter was a huge feeling of absurd joy. I started doing comedy a few years ago as Young Southpaw and that feeling is what I always strive to recapture. I had the idea to tell the Buttery Cake Ass story and at first it was going to just be an album with me talking over music, the way I did ‘Humpty Dumpty In HD’. Bobby Barry was gonna do the soundtrack again. But once I started writing, it grew incredibly long, much more than would make sense to score music to. I moved the action of the two friends looking for the record to the mid-90s because that was when my record collecting really kicked into high gear, and I love so much of the music from that time. And then I set Buttery Cake Ass themselves in the early 80s because that is another era of music I love and know a heck of a lot about.
I’m curious about the structure of The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass as well — and yes, I realize that written out, that looks a little strange. Did you always plan for there to be a framing narrative working in conjunction with the story of the group?
I’m glad you point this out, because there really needed to be a frame to tell the story within. I wanted to have the quest for the impossible-to-find Live In Hungaria record and to also tell the band’s history. But how to give any details of a band that nobody’s ever heard of? How would the narrator know? So while he and his best friend Trig are tracking down the album, somewhere along the way, after years of trying, they come across Cookie Doone and Reg ‘Baton’ Butler who knew the band when they were still going. Reg was even the engineer on Live In Hungaria. And between these two, they could supply the questers with enough info to put a good amount of the Buttery Cake Ass history together.
To what extent were the fictional bands in this book inspired by actual bands and scenes as opposed to being entirely sui generis?
It’s amazing to think how much of myself went into a book called The Ballad Of Buttery Cake Ass. A lot of it came from exaggerating conversations I had in my first bands, when you’re young and wildly ambitious but you really have no idea how anything works in the music industry. I often think back on the first show I ever set up. No one came and afterwards we went to an Arby’s and one of the other guys said ‘it’s fine, we’ll be signed to Geffen in a few months.’ And I’m sitting there thinking ‘well, how is that going to happen?’
There were inspirations from bands outside my own too. I picture Hans ‘Floral’ Nightingale as a sort of Captain Beefheart-esque dictator, maybe not going that far, but the story about him locking the band in that house while they rehearsed non-stop to make Trout Mask Replica was on my mind. Hans then turns into a Syd Barrett-type recluse. But also plenty of stuff got made up just because I found it funny – things like the idea of a lost Ramones free-jazz album or Brouce Cozzins betting that a bear could act out the semaphore on the cover of The Beatles’ Help album within a 24-hour period, which then funds the record’s release.
One of the big questions – a crux of the story – was what can go wrong with the release of Live In Hungaria. And I was pleased that after coming up with my answer to this, I was reading Peter Hook’s Joy Division book and learned that they had the same problem with the pressing of An Ideal For Living. I can’t recommend Hooky’s book enough, by the way. Especially the audiobook with him reading it. Excellent stuff.
You’re writing about an era of music that predates the internet, where the music enthusiasts looking to track down BCA can’t just log on to Discogs and learn everything about the band in question. Do you think anything has been lost by having…every piece of information about every musician easily accessible?
Yes, so much. I think the quest, flawed as it may be by not having all the info available, is one of life’s great gifts. Record shopping to me was about so much more than buying incredible music. The object of a quest could be anything, as long as it’s something you’re passionate about. And by following that, it will lead you to incredible things, the stuff that makes life worth living. Through record shopping that I have met so many great people, discovered parts of cities I wouldn’t have otherwise, and learned so much about music, books, films, art… Learning about bands that way is infinitely more exciting than reading about them online. I must say magazines were huge for me growing up – Select, The Big Takeover, Mojo, Flipside, Punk Planet… – and it was just so much better having something in your hand, something tangible. And again it was about going out and buying the magazine too. Getting out into the world.
You get so much more having in-person conversations with people. It’s much more meaningful, and creates lasting memories. I named the record shop owners in the book Walter and Fred because Walter owned Brass City Records in Waterbury, CT and Fred worked there around 1992-1994. And they hipped me and my friends to such cool stuff, told us stories about seeing bands we were just getting into, and encouraged us to pursue music.
There’s a richness in interacting with people in person. You don’t get any of that by clicking a button and staring at a screen. Conversations go in wonderful and unexpected ways in the moment. The internet leaves us missing out on so much adventure.
The end of The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass features a substantial number of discographies of fictional artists. When in the process of writing this book did you come up with them?
When I was a teenager, The Fourth Edition Of The Trouser Press Record Guide was like my bible. I would scour that thing, making huge lists of stuff I absolutely needed to hear. In the Epilogue I mentioned some of the projects the band members were involved with after the demise of Buttery Cake Ass, and I thought it would be fun to compile something like the Trouser Press Guide for them. It took me an extra month to complete after I’d finished the book itself, but it was totally worth it. So much fun coming up with all those puns. And there’s lots of easter eggs if people want to look for them. Davey Down’s Led Zeppelin obsession pretty much takes over the names of his songs and albums. And Nigel Dinks, the jazzman beloved by the Cake Ass boys, seems to pre-date some famous recordings by other artists, and there’s something funny going on with his final record as well. Coming up with these made me really want to write more fictional band stories. A Clown Damage biography is very tempting. For the Kickstarter for the book, one of the perks was a unique story just for you, and I had a blast writing those. If I could find somewhere to publish them, I would definitely do more.
What’s next for you?
I’m continuing to do readings wherever will have me. Going to Chapel Hill and Atlanta over Memorial Day weekend. Planning a Pacific North West trip for July. I’d love to do events in New York, LA, Chicago, Detroit, and at Two Dollar Radio in Columbus, Ohio. That place is rad. Working on all those. Sporting Moustaches, my collection of tall tales about the role facial hair has played in athletic competition over the years will be published by Sagging Meniscus next April. You published one of its stories, ‘An Early History of The Three-Faced Race’, last December. I’m excited about that. The first time someone else is putting out a book of mine. I’m about halfway done with a first draft of a new novel. I have three long-form Young Southpaw stories I’ll be recording over the next month and looking for collaborators to put to music. I’m hoping to record a solo album at some point this year, I’ve got quite a good collection of songs to draw from. And Sean Drinkwater from Freezepop and I have a new band called FoxxMachine. There’s about 30 songs and we’re looking for a label to put out the record. We’ll start playing live soon as well. I love these songs, very much in line with life-long faves like New Order and Depeche Mode. I’ve also been scribbling down notes for a Young Southpaw hip-hop record. Maybe one day. And I’d also love to make a hip-hop record exclusively about Van Halen’s 1984 album under the name MC MLXXXIV.