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Buke And Gass: Handcrafted Instruments, Throttling Sound

Buke and Gass performs live from the Rock 'n' Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Buke and Gass performs live from the Rock 'n' Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The band Buke and Gass has a throttling yet joyful sound and a handcrafted sensibility that enraptured listeners this year and landed its album Riposte on NPR Music's list of 50 Favorite Albums of 2010. A Brooklyn-based duo, Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez play with customized homemade gear that includes heavy-duty amps, a "toe-bourine," a kick-drum with noisemakers and, of course, the modified baritone ukulele ("buke") and guitar-bass hybrid ("gass") that inspired their name. It's this mix of ingenuity and musical experimentation that makes their metal- and prog-rock-infused music so unusual and unpredictable.

"We're trying to solve a problem," Sanchez tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. "We're only two people and want to sound like a bigger band. We want to make a certain kind of noise and music. So the first step was, 'Well, we can't do it with normal instruments, so we need to create something.' "

Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gass plays the "gass" at the Tiny Desk.
Abby Verbosky / NPR
Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gass plays the "gass" at the Tiny Desk.

For Sanchez, that involved combining a guitar with metal bass strings to make his gass. But it's not just the strings that make the instrument unique; it's also what it's made from -- the body of the gass is formed out of the metal from an old 1960s Volvo. The metal on the gass is grimy and dented, and it resembles less a Volvo than the beaten-up DeLorean in Back to the Future III.

Likewise, Arone Dyer's buke has evolved from a traditional baritone ukulele to an instrument that functionally plays more like a guitar, especially with her deployment of distortion and effects pedals.

Dyer says she chose to transform her baritone ukulele because she was looking for something more portable than a guitar: "I needed something lighter," she says. "It was more about light than small."

Still, Dyer and Sanchez gave themselves a dual challenge: both building the instruments and learning to play what they'd built.

"It's difficult, to say the least," Sanchez says. "It's limiting, but also very interesting, because it brings about things I would not normally come up with."

Ergonomic People

Arone Dyer of Buke and Gass plays a "toe-bourine" at the Tiny Desk.
Abby Verbosky / NPR
Arone Dyer of Buke and Gass plays a "toe-bourine" at the Tiny Desk.

Aside from the buke and the gass, the band has also come up with interesting solutions to make as much noise as possible with every limb at its disposal. As Dyer describes, they're ergonomic people: Half the group's percussion consists of a kick-drum that Sanchez pounds with his right foot, while the other half is the heavy stomping beat of Dyer's "toe-bourine" -- a homemade tambourine made of clinking metal, bells and leather, which she fastens to her left boot.

"I made this one," she says. "I made the plane and everything for it; the little screws even."

Dyer's desire to work with her hands plays an important part in multiple aspects of her life -- not just music, but also in her day job as a bicycle mechanic.

"Working in a shop, you have to be a problem solver," she says. "You can be creative with it."

Still, the pair hasn't actively searched for a new band member to fill the void that a two-person band would leave.

"I played bass for a long time, but I wanted to do more than just play bass," Sanchez says. "I wanted to have other sounds, so instead of having a bunch of loop pedals or other people, maybe I can just take a bass and start adding to it."

Creative Process With Creative Instruments

Like many of Buke and Gass' songs, "Red Hood Came Home" was developed through improvisation, both in the music and the words.

"Whatever I was mumbling while we were improvising, I turned into the words," says Dyer, who writes all of the band's lyrics. " 'Had I saw you got me behind the back and healthy.' I don't know if I want to know what that means."

"We sit down and press record on our tape machine and play for hours," Sanchez adds. "Then we pick out parts that we like. We go back and listen. A lot of our songs go different ways, because one part could be from a different day, you know, mashed up with a different part from today. We never talk about what's happening."

For Buke and Gass, it's better to get the instruments out and see what happens. Although the songwriting process is often unstructured, and the music rarely comes out in traditional verse-chorus form, the same does not apply for playing shows.

"Performance is very structured," Sanchez says. "We're only two people, and if one of us messes up, it's so noticeable, it can just fall apart."

"It's horrible," Dyer says.

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