Meet Benjamin Buttice, and you’ve just met dozens.
Wrapped in the music of Sour Boy, Bitter Girl are Buttice’s characters, fictionalized versions of himself. There’s Alexander Appleton, who “was stillborn on a Sunday in the spring in 1983, but decided he would carry on anyway.” There’s Louise, who Buttice says he’s connected to out of sympathy. And yes, there are the wolves.
“I have a tendency in writing and in novels to enjoy stories that are left relatively unfinished,” he says. “That helps from my standpoint of performing the songs: The possibility of infinite futures helps them stay lively.”
On the music video for “Dancing Shoes,” Buttice paints the picture of himself further, though, as he inscribes and reveals his tattooed mantras: “ruthless” and “bring me to the sea.” These are phrases that walk with him as reminders of the neglected or forgotten sides of himself. With the letters of “ruthless,” Buttice inked himself and defined the word as “all of the ambition and fearlessness that comes along with the idea of ruthlessness without all the backstabbery implied.”
Plus, he says, “I gave myself a tattoo to remind myself to always do what it took to get the job done.”
The job: recording albums and going on tour. Now, after six tours in less than 12 months, Buttice’s ruthlessness is working. Along with bassist/backing vocalist Alex Bailey and drummer Mitch Keller (A.M. Pleasure Assassins), Buttice will play the third stop of Sour Boy, Bitter Girl’s current tour in Omaha on Thursday at O’Leaver’s. RSVP here.
But first, the Fort Collins musician with a college art education spoke with Hear Nebraska about how moving to Portland won’t change anything, how he writes songs like screenplays and how there are no plot holes in paintings.
Hear Nebraska: I’d like to start by talking about the video for “Dancing Shoes.” What is the story behind your “ruthless” tattoo?
Benjamin Buttice: I guess it’s based on my personal misdefinition of the word “ruthless.” The reason we decided to correlate the two was because the word is used in the song as well in the way I meant it in the tattoo, which is, basically, all of the ambition and fearlessness that comes along with the idea of ruthlessness without all the backstabbery implied.
The phrase “being ruthlessly oneself” comes to mind: being unapologetic without the implication that there are reasons to apologize.
HN: OK. How did you come to take on that definition?
BB: Basically, a person I’m talking about in that song, parts of that song, called me ruthless. In the conversation, we went on to talk about exactly what she meant by that. Well, what she had said to me was that she preferred me when I was ruthless, when I was not afraid to take the chances and when I was willing to put myself on the line, and in doing so, to be a liability, I guess is a way of looking at it. To be driven enough to be driven enough to be dangerous, not in any real threatening way, but sort of a danger to the status quo. And I gave myself the tattoo.
There had been sort of a lull with Sour Boy, Bitter Girl. There had been some lineup issues and some social issues that had kept us from touring as much as I thought we should, from being as productive as I thought we should. I gave myself a tattoo to remind myself to always do what it took to get the job done. My job is supposed to be recording albums and going on tour. I have ways of making that happen, and I shouldn’t be too shy.
HN: What’s the timeline then of writing the song, giving yourself the tattoo. How does that relate to the records?
BB: The song was written considerably before the tattoo happened. The idea to do the music video came from the fact that I was going to give myself the tattoo. I was going to give myself the tattoo. From a timeline standpoint, I wrote the song about a conversation I had had easily two years before I wrote the song.
I came back to it and was contemplating what all that meant to me in a brand-new context, and then wrote the song. The contemplation on the word and a sort of reclaiming of the word carried on for quite some time after that. That album ended up — for a lot of the same reasons I was talking about — taking us a year to release. The music video was made and released before the album, but it was still a good six months after the album was done being recorded, so it was conversation, album, tattoo and the video was a response to the tattoo.
HN: You said you hoped the tattoo was meant to remind you to be productive. Has that proven to work?
BB: Actually, yeah. This trip we’re about to leave on that’s bringing us through Nebraska is going to be the sixth tour of one scale or another that we’ve taken since last October. That’ll be six in under year. We’re already working on future projects and planning things out.
I’ve done a lot of work within the infrastructure of the band to make the band a constant possibility. At any given point, if I have the opportunity to play a good show, I can do so. I don’t have to wait around for outside influences. I’ve been much more proactive, not waiting for opportunity as much as making opportunity and seizing the opportunities that do come along without hesitation.
HN: You have another tattoo that says, “Bring Me To The Sea.” “The Days After The Fire” has a story about the wolf out to sea. What draws you to the image of the sea, and what does it mean to you?
BB: The sea started becoming a prevalent metaphor for me on our last album. And in the process of as it’s moved through different songs, the meaning’s shifted and it’s pointed at a lot of different things, but it’s kind of the idea of home and the idea of that golden city.
You know, some people just want to move to Portland so bad. We all know it’s going to be the same once you move to Portland, but for some reason you still want to do it: It’s that place you can go that would fix it all. Then it’s also, the sea in itself is a good metaphor for the soul or human psychology, its vastness and turbulence and extreme calm.
The idea of the sea is the idea of returning: returning to something, whether it’s that place you wish you had been, or that place you left and shouldn’t have, or that place within yourself. In a certain way, the sea and the ruthlessness go hand in hand, returning to a side of me that had been neglected or forgotten.
HN: Is the speaker in the song “The Days After The Fire” you, or a character through which you speak?
BB: It’s a little bit of both probably. Originally, when I wrote that song, the fire being spoken of… So the album before The Days After The Fire — Songs About The Landscape… — the first song is called “Refugee Fighters.” It talks about taking over the country by force and burning it down in hopes of building something new.
It’s supposed to be sort of a response to that story, which is clearly a fictional story, but it’s written from my perspective. So it’s a fictionalized me, I suppose.
HN: The most recent EP, Alexander Appleton, I see it’s meant to be the first of a three-part narrative. Tell me how you developed that narrative, and how do you envision it continuing?
BB: The narrative sprung out of the very first line of the EP: "Alexander Appleton was stillborn on a Sunday in the spring in 1983, but decided he would carry on anyway." That line occurred to me as I was falling asleep, and the narrative was built off that.
The next step, which is in the works, follows different characters. Characters who show up in the first episode, kind of Pulp Fiction style, where there’s interaction between characters but you’re following several different storylines. So someone from the first EP, who is mentioned pretty much in passing, the next EP is about him.
HN: Very cool. Of the characters you create, do you treasure any in particular more than others?
BB: I suppose there’s always some that I feel more connected to. Like Louise’s character, out of sympathy, I have a fondness for. When the full story is wrapped up, I feel like that will be hard to let that go. And the character of the wolf in general, or the army of wolves, has been present for several albums now, so I must have some fondness for that.
Alexander Appleton himself is a character I was compelled by when he occurred to me. In the second EP, he plays no part, and I haven’t decided if he’ll pop up again. So I guess there are characters that compel me in different ways, and some of them make me feel like holding on to them, and there are some of them, compelled or not, that I feel it’s best to let them pass.
HN: I’m curious, as a novelist might have to end their characters’ stories on the last page, they don’t have the same performance setting as a musician has. So do you get to rejuvenate these characters when you play them live, or do you feel like their story has ended when you write the song?
BB: It changes here and there. Sometimes, I’ll play a song and it’ll have a brand-new meaning and undertones, or the same thing it meant in the beginning but just rejuvenated. Some of them do feel like the story’s over and I’m just telling it again.
I have a tendency in writing and in novels to enjoy stories that are left relatively unfinished. That helps from my standpoint of performing the songs: The possibility of infinite futures helps them stay lively.
HN: Now, with your background in art, do you visualize the narratives in your songs as you write them?
BB: I would say in the writing process, I’m always seeing the story happen like a movie, like I’m writing a screenplay that happens to be a song. I’m definitely a visually motivated person. But I don’t know, I wouldn’t say I’m a terribly visual writer. There’s not a lot of description, and maybe that’s because I can see the characters, so maybe I don’t feel the need to write them.
I hadn’t thought about the correlation of the visual and the narrative. I do know that a lot of the metaphors go back and forth between my paintings and my songs. Sometimes they show up in a painting first. Sometimes they show up in a song first. There’s definitely a correlation there, but I had never thought too much about exactly how the correlation is structured.
HN: How does the process of making a piece of art compare with writing songs for you?
BB: Painting in certain ways is much harder to communicate through because you have just one still image. You don’t have words, literal language. You have only visual language, so you have 20 inches by 30 inches to communicate a feeling rather than having five minutes to explain the feeling, or to set up a story in which the feeling is quite apparent.
But there are ways in which it’s easier conceptually in that unanswered questions in a painting aren’t as distracting as they are in a narrative. You don’t have plot holes in a painting.
HN: Good point. Is the poster for this tour from a painting of yours?
BB: That is actually not my art. The poster for this tour is made collaboratively by Justin Camilli and Paul Keats, both in Lawrence, Kansas. I’ve known them and done collaborative work with them in the past. They went to art school out here, so I knew them through that.
HN: Was the tour name, the Death of a Gambler tour, your idea?
BB: It wasn’t actually. We discussed the aesthetic that I wanted. I tossed a couple of names at them but told them to basically apply a name to the painting they had made. I would name the tour after that.
HN: Since the poster and the tour name sort of defines the shows you’re doing, how is it different than other tours that you’ve made the art and name for?
BB: It feels different to have someone else’s images and words applied to it in an exciting way to me because I have the constant chance to say what it is I’m saying, but then to have an external interpretation of what it is I make and then to be able to respond to that interpretation, it’s an interesting dynamic.
It feels like a long-term collaboration, like the whole tour will be collaborating with a painting that was made in collaboration by two artists that I know and are very familiar with what I do. It seems more dynamic and less like it was all built in one place at one time then just carried around the country.
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. He doesn’t have freckles. They’re actually millions of tiny tattoos. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.