Buke And Gass: Handcrafted Instruments, Throttling Sound

Originally published on December 27, 2010 5:52 pm

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.' "

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

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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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NPR M: Buke and Gass consists of two musicians, Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR FACE LEFT BEFORE YOU")

ARONE DYER: (Singing) With or without, you decide. We're already up on a level. Lean further on your side. It's heavier than mine. Fess up heart rate, by default. Honest-er the closer we walk. One day, I'll like the truth. Until then I know you'll...

: They don't just make music, they make their instruments too. Aron Sanchez plays kick drum and his creation, the gass - he'll explain that one in a moment - and Arone Dyer sings. She had some percussion - bells actually, with her feet, and above all, she plays the buke.

DYER: Which is the shortened version of baritone ukulele. But it is no longer a baritone ukulele. It is now a six-stringed instrument, basically a guitar, and I call it a buke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYER: And then it also...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYER: ...it can do that. And it can...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYER: ...I could do that and then I can hit it.

: And as you're doing that, you could have the bells on your...

DYER: Yeah, I have...

: ...on your ankle, on your foot.

DYER: On my toe.

: On your toe.

DYER: Yeah. These are - this is the toe-bourine.

: The toe-bourine?

DYER: Yeah, this is a new one, too. I made this one. I made the plate and everything for it, little screws even.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: We appreciate it for the Christmas season that you have.

DYER: Yeah.

: And, Aron Sanchez, you're the gass part of this.

ARON SANCHEZ: The gass. Gass is basically a mash-up between a guitar and a bass, which has two bass strings and four guitar strings on it. And the instrument has separate outputs, so the guitar strings go to a guitar amp and the bass strings go to a bass amp.

: So you don't have all the amplifiers here, so we really can't hear what gass, guitar-bass sounds like.

SANCHEZ: Yeah. It's hard to hear acoustically because it is like playing an electric guitar acoustically, right? I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHORD)

SANCHEZ: That's what it sounds like, but there's...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANCHEZ: ...and (unintelligible) here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANCHEZ: There's bass strings on it. What makes it unusual is that the bass strings, they alternate through the guitar strings.

: So this is a unique instrument?

SANCHEZ: Yeah. I mean, I've never seen one like it, but it's not a totally new idea to put bass strings on a guitar. But I haven't seen it arranged in this way.

: And I should say that the - this particular instrument itself, the general appearance it gives is of something that you might have shielded yourself from a machine gun attack with it, something like that.

SANCHEZ: It could be, yeah. The body is made from an old Volvo.

: There's probably an NPR listener driving that Volvo.

SANCHEZ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SANCHEZ: Although it's from the '60s or - it's pretty old. Pretty old Volvo.

: That's pretty old. That's a pretty old Volvo.

SANCHEZ: Not a 240 as many NPR listeners would drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: These instruments, I mean, this is somewhere between a craft, a hobby, a job, making instruments. You're adapting instruments to the kind of music that you want to play. Do I have that right?

SANCHEZ: As it relates to this project, it's just that we're trying to solve a problem. We're only two people. We want to sound like a bigger band. We want to make a certain kind of noise and music. So the first step was while we can't do it with normal instruments, we need to create something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: Aron and Arone. Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez, or Buke and Gass, thank you very much for talking with us.

DYER: Thank you for having us.

SANCHEZ: Thank you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: Buke and Gass' album is called "Riposte." There's a video of the duo performing at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.