What happens when a band is difficult—no, make that impossible—to pigeonhole? Some of ‘em get overlooked and even ignored. Others, like this in-demand Brooklyn duo, get invited to everyone’s parties!
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“I don’t know if I would call making things – or fixing things — a lost art,” says Arone Dyer, a sometime bicycle repair professor who constructed and now maintains the “buke” she plays in Buke & Gase.
The buke, a small-sized, six-stringed instrument originally built out of a baritone ukulele, is one of two unusual instruments in the Buke & Gase repertoire. Aron Sanchez, her partner, plays a Gase, which is a sort of bass/guitar hybrid. He got his start in instrument construction making equipment for the Blue Man Group.
“I think that only people who are really, really motivated would fix something that they work on,” Dyer continues. “A particular kind of person is probably more attracted to taking something apart and putting it back together and building something new.”
Buke & Gase is unusual in a lot of ways, from the odd-numbered time signatures that pace their work, to the eccentric, jittery sounds that come out of their hand-fashioned instruments, to the facility with which both principals handle welding tools. But perhaps the most singular thing about this duo is that last characteristic: they are perfectly willing to deconstruct their musical ideas, strip them down to essentials, turn them inside out and then build them back up again. Their latest album, General Dome is as intricate and quixotic as their instruments.
General Dome is the band’s second album. Their first, Riposte, established the band’s unusual aesthetic and drew widespread critical acclaim. (It was released under the slightly different band name Buke & Gass.) Joshua Love, reviewing the debut in Pitchfork, noted that “all this ingenuity and rule-breaking engenders a noise that’s quirky and bracing,” while Dusted’s Tobias Carroll named it, “proof that the marriage of ingenuity, aggression and a push toward musical bliss can still yield unexpected results.” Blurt contributing editor A.D. Amorosi called their spiky, unclassifiable sound “a cross between early Sonic Youth and the Horseflies.”
Structure and improvisation
General Dome continues the band’s restless exploration but adds a layer of discipline. “For Riposte, the songs really came out of improvisation,” says Sanchez. “In making General Dome, we spent more time simplifying and getting to the core of the idea and then fleshing it out. A lot of the ideas and parts came from improvisation, but then we would really work on them and arrange them.”
Sanchez and Dyer recorded General Dome in Hudson, New York, in a large, unused, poorly heated room that belonged to an art gallery. Sanchez describes the band’s process as a kind of composition through improvisation. “What we do is we get together and we improvise for hours and record all of it and then listen back,” he says. “We find songs in the improv and take those ideas that we think could be a song and then try to make it into something either that it already is or that that it could be.” Then when the song is finished, the improvisation stops. By the time they were recorded for the album, the tracks were nailed down, exactly the way the band members want them to sound.
Sanchez explains that even though the songs may sound chaotic, they are rigorously structured. “From our point of view, these songs are probably 98% structured,” he adds. “The chaotic element may come in as we try to hold that structure together — in our failing to succeed in the structure that we’ve laid out for ourselves.”
“We also spent time trying to pare the songs down to the good parts that we really like and not putting as many parts in as possible,” adds Dyer. “That wasn’t necessarily the goal of the first album, but we were more chaotic, I think, in how much we would try to fit into one song.”
Making two sound like more
Buke & Gase is a pure duo, with no guests, no loops, no drummer to fill out their sound (the two of them sometimes play percussion instruments with their feet). One of their challenges, Sanchez says, is to find ways to fill out sonic space with just the two of them.
“Because we’re two people, we try to do more. We’re always attempting to be as full-sounding as possible,” he says. “Whether it’s the notes we’re playing or how we’re making those instruments sound. So I think those two forces are making us sound more complex than we actually look like we are.”
Unusual instruments are critical to this fuller sound. Dyer originally started experimenting with her buke because it was smaller and less prone to exacerbate her carpal tunnel syndrome. She took a four-stringed baritone ukulele as a starting point and replaced the four strings with six.
“A buke can be very percussive, and it also can be very lush and full,” says Sanchez. “Also the effects that you’re using can do a lot to the tone. You really couldn’t get that tone from a guitar. It’s a different thing.”
Sanchez arrived at his own instrument, the gase, through dissatisfaction with the limitations of the bass and guitar. “I was a bass player for a long time and in a previous band I wanted to do more than just bass parts, so I started adding guitar strings to a bass,” he explains. “That turned into creating something new, which now it has more guitar strings than bass strings on it, and then also figuring out different ways of tuning it and different arrangements of strings, and it’s just become this whole other animal. It’s not a bass and not a guitar. And what it’s offering me is something unique.”
“It’s more versatile, totally, too,” Dyer adds. “It’s got higher strings than a bass and lower strings than a guitar. You can cover a lot more ground with it.”
Yet Sanchez says that the gase is also inherently limiting, and that these limitations have shaped his sound. “What I like about the limitations is that it makes me do things that I would never think of. That I would never think of on a bass or a guitar. It’s giving this very particular flavor to the song.”
I ask the pair to pick out a sound from General Dome that illustrates the uniqueness of this instrument, and Sanchez says, “all of it.” Dyer, however, begins singing the off-kilter opening to “Split Like a Lip, No Blood on the Beard,” which is, indeed, an unusual riff.
Unorthodox time signatures add to Buke & Gase’s musical complexity, too, though in an off-hand, unpremeditated way. “We never really talk about time signatures. We’ll be like ‘What’s the time?’ And then we’ll say, ‘Oh it’s in 9…or 11…or 5/8,’” says Sanchez. “ I think part of us trying to sound bigger than we are, one of the results of that concept is that we naturally do not do four/four, because we want it to see more, not complicated, but more layered.”
Fitting nowhere, belonging everywhere
Buke & Gase’s music is hard to classify, containing elements of punk, noise, rock, pop and jazz, but not really belonging to any genre. (They are not crazy about the “folk” genre tags that still occasionally pop up in Buke & Gase reviews. Says Sanchez, “It’s like you haven’t listened to what we’re doing at all.”)
The two band members listen omnivorously to music; during the course of our interview, they reference baroque classical music, Shellac, West African high life, Ethiopiques, reggae, Art Tatum and the Knife.
Because they’re so difficult to pigeonhole, Buke & Gase gets invited to play with a wide variety of bands. In December 2012, for instance, they were invited to perform at the Shellac-curated Nightmare Before Christmas ATP, alongside bands that included Wire, Scrawl, Mission of Burma and, obviously, Shellac. A week later, they returned to Camber Sands for an ATP curated by the National and showcasing The Kronos Quartet, Owen Pallett, Nico Muhly and Sharon van Etten. “They’re completely different scenes, but somehow we kind of fit,” says Sanchez.
Still, Dyer seems especially psyched about performing alongside Bob Weston of Shellac. (There’s a video of Weston playing bass with the duo on “General Dome” here.) “Shellac is dark and nasty and awesome, and they’re fun and funny. It’s just a trio, so they’re very pared down, very simple, but they’re huge sounding,” she says.
“Also I think we’re influenced by their guitar sound,” Sanchez adds. “The tone of Steve Albini’s guitar is an influence, for sure, for you. Some of the noise elements of their…the way they use distortion, we have definitely been influenced by them.”
Yet even when you can’t draw direct connections between Buke & Gase and the bands it shares stages with, Dyer says that they can often make it work. “Because our music is so hard to categorize, it makes it easier for us to share the stage with other types of music,” she says.
Still, in a world where music takes lots of different forms, Dyer says that the ability to make an emotional connection crosses genres. Asked about her own personal definition of a great song, she says, “Some great songs are the kind of great songs that make you feel really good and you want to dance and move and that’s really fun, because that’s what you’re into,” she says. “I think it’s maybe something that really keys into how you’re feeling. At least that’s what I like about music, in that if I feel a certain way, chances are that there’s going to be a song that can amplify it and make that feeling justified.”
[Photo Credit: Aily Nash]