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Aug Stone - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 20 / 3 / 2023

Aug Stone - Interview

Aug Stone is an American writer, musician and stand-up comedian, who has just published his debut novel, ‘The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’. It follows on from his 2020 memoir, ‘Nick Cave’s Bar’, which tells of recent college graduates Stone and his best friend Andy’s trip in the early 1990s to Berlin to find a bar allegedly owned by Nick Cave, with no proof that it actually existed. An eulogy to both long-term friendship and the naivety and the bravado of youth, it became a ten-day drunken bender which found them stuck with little money and no accommodation hundreds of miles from Berlin in Prague. The best fictional account of indie rock since John Andrew Fredrick’s remarkable but under-rated ‘The King of Good Intentions’ and ‘The King of Good Intention II’, ‘The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’ tells of an unnamed narrator and his friend Trig’s quest to find the lost only album by short-lived band, Buttery Cake Ass. As hilarious as it is poignant, the pair start to piece together through encounters with friends and hangers-on what happened to Buttery Cake Ass. Stone’s wise but compassionate novel captures the endless debates that happens in indie bands, the long and sometimes heated discussions about what to call yourself or what to put as a slogan on the groove of your vinyl single, the occasional euphoria of being in a group and the potential for greatness, and the sometimes bizarre circumstances that can lead to its break-up. In our third interview with him, we spoke to Aug Stone about ‘The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’. PB: In ‘Nick’s Cave Bar’ you and your best friend Andy go on a quest to Berlin to find Nick Cave’s bar, which turns out not to exist. In ‘The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’ Trig and the narrator go looking for another Holy Grail, the lost album by obscure band Buttery Cake Ass They get close but they never find it. Were you very conscious when you were writing ‘The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’ that both books shared twin themes? Why do you think you wanted to write two books about trying to find something unobtainable? AS: This is a great question. And one I’m still trying to figure out. There’s a theory that writers really only write one book over and over again. This isn’t something I agree with, and actually I was just reading the new comic, ‘Slava’, by Pierre-Henry Gomont whose work reinforces that that isn’t true. One can obviously write varied books. But this theme seems to be very strong with me. I only became conscious of it towards the end of writing ‘The Ballad Of Buttery Cake Ass’. I think it does echo the fact that growing up I had incredibly romantic ideas about how life should be. I wanted it to be filled with all the wonder I experienced through art, especially when listening to music. The hardest part of growing up was learning to live in reality. I’ve spent so much of my life just in my own head. And one of the big dangers in that is not knowing exactly how much it takes to achieve certain things, to make them happen. I’m working on the next book now, an idea I had years ago. And most of it was in my head, or so I thought. I had a few chapters written, but now that I’ve gotten down to the real business of writing it, I see just how much commitment it’s going to take. But also on a practical level, for Buttery Cake Ass, planning out the plot, if they ever actually found the record I thought it would be anti-climactic, and then I’d have to define what the record actually sounds like. I wanted to capture that feeling you have before you actually hear something, which was especially true back in the good old pre-internet days, how exciting and wondrous it all was, what made you want to go buy an album by a band you’ve never heard – the artwork and stories behind them. And of course I’ve gone on some epic record shopping quests myself, and in order to portray that, their search had to take a long time. On the other hand, ‘Nick Cave’s Bar’ was pure memoir so it seems unobtainable quests are just part of my life. Ha! PB: You are admirably honest about yourself in ‘Nick Cave’s Bar’. What do you make of the young post-college Aug Stone? He seems lost and out of control, travelling to Berlin looking for something without doing the proper research to see if it is really there, drinking massive amounts and once there chasing across European countries after girls he has only met briefly and then not finding them. AS: Very much so. But as it always as with youth, you don’t realize that at the time. Back then I think I felt I knew exactly what I wanted but it was the world that was keeping me from getting it. Nevermind that the things I went after didn’t actually exist. Ha! I think I was often deceived by the surface beauty of things. I mean how cool would it have been if that bar did actually exist or if those two girls turned out to be the loves of our lives. What a great story to tell! The story of our lives that was being written, however, took a long time to grasp. For a long time I felt great disappointment, maybe even shame, for having gone so full throttle into things and then had nothing but misery to show for it. It was only later I realized how special it was to have a best friend like that who shared my interests, could make me laugh when the chips were down, and who was up for going on such grand adventures with me. The drinking part is a bit more complex. It's easy to see that it numbed the pain of all those disappointments, the ones in everyday life too. But also at the same time, it helped a very shy young man come out of his shell and engage with a world he was scared would hurt him. Which of course it did. But that’s better than hiding out in your room alone with your books and records all your life. Those things are meant to be shared as well as personally resonate with you. Despite all that, thinking back on it, I do feel a lot of affection for myself at that age. I had so much energy and huge ideas. I just had no idea how to use them to create the things I wanted. But looking back on that vitality, even with it being spent on bizarre schemes that rarely worked out, I’m at least thankful I had it, and that I was reaching for something rather than being complacent. PB: The other main themes of both books is long-term male friendships, yourself and Andy, the Buttery Cake Ass members, and Trig and the narrator. Would you agree? AS: Completely. The narrator was originally going to be my Young Southpaw character, and the first draft was written that way. But then I decided I didn’t want it to be that ‘out there’. Of course some it still is quite absurd, but it probably seems more so to others than to me, as a lot of the details were inspired by real life events in my first bands. Embellished, of course. But this book is a tribute to the humour that my best friend growing up, Brian, and I shared. It was hearing him once ask a record store clerk if they ‘had anything by Buttery Cake Ass?’ that inspired the whole thing. Still one of the funniest moments of my life. The humour back then was very special and I remember us really striving to make it unique and new, inspired by our love of ‘Monty Python’ and ‘Kids In The Hall’. Then around 1994 a heavy sense of irony seemed to set into culture all around and it became the goal to make people groan instead of eliciting full-on joyous laughter. Those early days of say 1990-1993, where ecstatic comedy was the goal, is really what I was trying to capture with ‘The Ballad Of Buttery Cake Ass’. Music and comedy are really great unifying forces. And you get that being in bands with people too. The sheer amount of time spent together, working towards (hopefully) a common goal. There’s a real bond. Which is why how I love at the end of the book there’s a mention of (bassist) Davey Down and (guitarist) Blish Billings not seeing each other for five years and then finding themselves with their new bands on the same bill in Bratislava – none of them ever do get to Hungary, though they come close – and they decide to cover an old Buttery Cake Ass song together that night. PB: Do you see the character of indie record label owner Brouce as a wide boy who brings about the downfall of the band by his lies and exaggerations, or a committed fan who finds himself out of his depth, or both? AS: I see Brouce as much more of the latter. Yes, he does bring about the downfall of the band and he is quite shifty, but there’s not any malice in it. He genuinely loves music and wants to be a part of it, he just has no idea what he’s doing. There are plenty of people like this in real life, where their heart’s in the right place, but they easily get caught up in the glamour of it all whilst at the same time having no idea how things work. And sometimes, brilliant stuff can happen that way. Of course it’s far more likely to go really wrong. My experience in my early bands was definitely us all having this tremendous energy and passion but having no idea how to go about doing anything with it. My first real band, Inbetween - and by ‘real’ I mean where we recorded stuff in the studio and went out and played a bunch of shows - when we would just play, it was amazing. We were all rabid music collectors and were listening to stuff like Joy Division and New Order, Julian Cope had just put out ‘Krautrocksampler ‘and we were getting heavily into all that stuff, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and when we’d just jam, it was this great melodic space rock. But then we started booking shows, we panicked. Despite also loving a lot of jazz, especially electric period Miles, it never occurred to us that we could just improvise on stage. So we wrote a bunch of two minute punk songs as we also really loved The Ramones and The Misfits. And this was what we went on to record. So I feel what we presented to the world (heh, read ‘a few hundred people in southern Connecticut) was miles away from what we could achieve. This was on my mind a lot while writing the book. PB: Guitarist Hans Floral Anderson seems to be a Syd Barrett type of musician, disappearing after the release of Buttery Cake Ass’s first single ‘Formaldehyde Hydro’ and then reappearing later only to vanish again. Was he based upon anyone in particular? AS: I’m not sure if I should answer this because it’s bizarre and a bit crass, ha ha, but you did ask. Yes, he’s a Syd Barrett type figure, and I always find musicians like that intriguing. Though he also has a bit of a dictatorial/prima donna streak to him, inspired by stuff like Captain Beefheart locking everyone in the house to rehearse constantly when making ‘Trout Mask Replica’. But the real life inspiration comes from when I toured Sweden as rock stone in 2003. One of the best weeks of my life. It was so much fun, and everyone I met was so into music, and we had such great conversations. But we had been warned ahead of time about something the students were then doing in Gothenburg. And sure enough, almost immediately upon our arrival in that city we were introduced to ‘Ta på penis’ (to tap the penis). A sort of handshake between the male members of the community. It was alarming at first, but after a couple days, strangely, you got used to people giving your junk a quick shake as a means of saying hello. Anyway, I inquired further about how this ever got going as a thing and was told that the man who invented it had since ‘disappeared from society and would spend days on end at home watching his giant aquarium’. Something you’ll notice in the text. What’s hilarious is that in order to get the Swedish spelling right, I just messaged Joel Karlsson from the band Air France who was one of the promoters of that tour. I haven’t been in touch with him for over a decade. So that must’ve been a strange message to get. Ha! But yeah, obviously such a thing would leave an impression on me, even still decades later. PB: You are never quite sure what kind of band Buttery Ass Cake are, a prog rock outfit, an indie guitar band, a metal outfit. Why did you keep things so elusive? Was it to heighten the mystery? AS: I thought it was funny to keep on repeating the phrase “not that they ever sounded anything like...” But. yes, definitely to heighten the mystery and encapsulate that sense of wonder that you get from holding a record cover in your hands and thinking ‘what does this sound like?’ Also being so stylistically all over the place with Inbetween like I mentioned above was obviously a factor. PB: The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’ is set for the main part in the 1980s and Trig and the narrator would be unlikely to have quite the same problems finding ‘Live in Hungaria’, the Buttery Cake Ass album nowadays. Do you feel today’s young generation have lost as well as gained something in not having to search to the same depths for records? AS: OMG, YES! Everything that went with looking for a Holy Grail was just so special. That anticipation was nothing short of delicious. And I’ve always found record shopping to be so much more than about the records. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I would take my parents’ mini-van and pick up five or so of my friends and at least once a month we’d drive all over Connecticut to all the great shops we had in the 90s. They were such bonding experiences, talking about our lives, and of course what records we were looking for, and learning a hell of a lot about music from each other, and from the record store owners who were always cool to us, turning us on to a ton of new music. And back then it was tapes and CDS, so we could listen to stuff on the ride to the next shop and everyone could enjoy it, or argue about its worth, as was sometimes the case. You don’t get all that when you can just click a mouse and have the music play immediately. Some say that it makes things easier but to me that’s at the cost of a lot of human interaction. PB: You also work as a stand-up comedian under the moniker of Young Southpaw doing surreal and absurd stories. A couple of the scenes in ‘The Ballad of Buttery Cake Ass’ fall into similar territory, such as the passage in which the group go through about 25 name changes before settling on Buttery Cake Ass and arguing at length about what they are going to etch on the side of the record. Were those scenes originally improvised as comedy sketches? AS: Most of the first draft of the book was written with Southpaw being the narrator, then I decided to tone that down a bit. It could’ve gotten way more bizarre and filled with a heck of a lot more digression, but since I was putting so much of my real life into it – and who would’ve ever thought that with a book called ‘The Ballad Of Buttery Cake Ass’? – I decided to rein it in a little. The 25 name changes comes from the fact that the 26th would then be Buttery Cake Ass, and since I go on a lot about the alphabet, I thought 26 would reference the number of letters in the alphabet. Coming up with the right band name though is hugely important and takes a lot of time. It’s always such a ‘Eureka!’ moment when you find it, seeming like you’re snatching something elusive out of the ether. And the etchings in the run-out groove, I just love that part of musical lore. Like how on ‘Send Me A Lullaby’, The Go-Betweens’ inscribed ‘love from two wimps and a witch’. Debating about such minor points at the expense of doing things that might advance your career is a large part of being in a band. PB: Most of the main characters go on to work in other bands. You have created a massive discography for them at the end. Why did you decide to do that? It must have taken you ages to come up with all those track listings. AS: It took almost a whole additional month to write that discography but it was so worth it! I had so much fun doing that. And there’s some things to pick up on too for the close observer, regarding jazzman Nigel Dinks’ release dates and track titles compared to other, more famous, records. Making up fake bands is something I’ve loved doing my whole life really. I would be able to speak Spanish a lot better if I hadn’t spent all my time during high school Spanish class sitting in the back row creating fake Top 10 charts, filled with all sorts of absurd band names. For the discography in the book, I got so into that there’s now bands and albums that I really wish existed. I’ve become obsessed with the band Clown Damage. I might even write their story next. And I really want to hear Superb Photos Of Lions’ ‘Far-Out Scene’ and Wry Otto’s ‘They Say I’m A Riot’ LPs. PB: You have recently formed a new electro pop outfit Foxxmachine with Sean Drinkwater of Freezepop. How did you know Sean? When do you hope to release material? AS: I’ve known Sean for over twenty years now. I used to play guitar in and manage his band Lifestyle in the early 2000s, and would often rejoin them onstage when I moved back from London ten years later. Though in all that time, we never really wrote together. Then one day in 2021, as lockdown continued, Sean sent me a text that read ‘Send me twenty demos’. I have hundreds of song ideas on my phone and computer and thought ‘why not?’ I honestly thought I was done with music at that point as I had been focusing on Young Southpaw full-throttle for a couple of years. But then, at Sean’s prompting, I came up with a bunch more newer ideas too. And a lot of songs were coming out of this. There weren’t any big plans for it, though I thought it would be a good thing for us to make an album as the songs were really good. A good thing for us to do as friends, as well. But then when we started recording them, it really took things to another level. We realized we have something special going on and it should be more than just a one-off album. There’s over 30 songs now that we’re pleased with. The plan is to start putting stuff out this year, hopefully soon-ish. Ideally we’d like to find a label to help us release it, as right now we’re on a strong creative streak and would like to continue focusing on writing and recording. We’re hoping to start playing live soon too. PB: Thank you.

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Aug Stone - Interview

Aug Stone - Interview

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