Rock, like any other music, is one big, ongoing story of evolution. The torch of influence gets passed from the groundbreaking elders to the up-and-coming upstarts, who take what they've learned and do the right thing: They fuck it up, just so. Most often this means someone grabbing one or more time-tested templates and, with a twist or two, reintroducing the energy and passion that had been lost for too long. Say, like, Nirvana or the White Stripes. But every once in a while you get someone who's gone a few extra miles and remade the very rules of rock, and come up with something really unique. An act that has some vague antecedents but still doesn't sound much like whatever else is going on at the time. To these ears, the first act in a long while to do anything approaching such a dramatic rock 'n' roll makeover is the duo Buke and Gase. And a major part of the band's originality lies in the distinctive sound of the instruments for which the group is named, instruments that members Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer built and play with their own hands.
The buke (pronounced "byook"), which is played by Dyer, the lead singer, is a six-string baritone ukulele with a body made from steel reclaimed from a junked automobile and a halved metal pipe as a neck. "I used to play regular baritone ukes that I would modify, but the necks kept snapping because of the heavier strings I use," says Dyer. With her persistently stomping leg, she also plays ankle bells and toe-bourine, a jingling assemblage sourced from a re-appropriated a tambourine. Her partner's axe, the gase ("gayce"), is a guitar-bass hybrid with similar origins to her own: Its scrap-metal components came from a 1960s Volvo. (As with Dyer's voice and the buke, the gase is run through a bevy of effects pedals; the band uses no loop pedals and creates all of its sounds live in real time.) "The gase isn't tuned like a regular guitar or bass," says Sanchez, who also contributes occasional vocals and keeps time with a small, tricked-out bass drum rig. "The tunings I use are ones I came up with my own." And why not, when you've come up with pretty much everything else on your own?
The instant you hear Buke and Gase (formerly Buke and Gass, the change presumably for reasons of pronunciation), the band's novel instrumentation and squat-punk DIY aesthetic become little more than footnotes to the music itself. "You know, 'form follows function,'" says Dyer. "Or maybe it's 'function follows form.'" Topped by her towering, spine-tingling vocals, the duo's artsy songs have a clanking industrial edge and hooks that are near classical in sweep, but are at the same time undeniably pop. "When I first encountered Buke and Gase, I had heard of them but wasn't prepared to be so blown away," says Jim Thirlwell, the legendary avant-rock auteur who records under the names Foetus and Manorexia. "I loved Arone's clear voice, with such commanding pitch and melodies. But another thing that drew me in was their tricky arrangements and time-signature changes and turnarounds. Their melodies were soaring and memorable from the get-go, and they were able to bring a hugely dynamic and nuanced sound from their instruments and simple effects. One of my favorite musical revelations in the last few years."
Sanchez originally hails from Bar Harbor, Maine, where he soaked up music via his father, who had "a ton of classical of records, and a lot of jazz. Especially Mongo Santamaria and other Latin jazz." He started out on drums, or, rather, drum, when he took snare drum lessons in fourth grade. Guitar came next, followed by 10 years of piano studies and eventually bass, which he played in high school cover bands; by the time he'd enrolled at Rhode Island School of Design he was playing upright and electric bass in jazz bands. Dyer grew up in rural, conservative Willmar, Minnesota, where she picked up guitar at age nine. Both her parents sang and enjoyed "Elvis and 'Woodstock-y' stuff," and it was her dad, a guitarist and Bela Fleck fan, who took her to her first concert—King Crimson, clearly portentous—when she was 14. "Being a girl, I had to sing about my 'issues' when I first started writing songs," jokes Dyer, who soon set out for the big smoke of Minneapolis, where she attended the multi-disciplinary Perpich Center for Arts Education. "But later on, hearing bands like Shellac, Blonde Redhead, and Assembly Line People Program was key."
In 2000, she moved to Brooklyn ("mainly to get out of Minnesota") and met Sanchez via mutual friends who lived in his building. The two started playing together almost immediately, forming Hominid, a post-punk electronica quartet with Sanchez on standard bass and Dyer on vocals only. The band lasted just over two years, with Sanchez next forming the short-lived Proton Proton and working as a musical instrument designer for Blue Man Group. In addition to immersing herself in bicycle racing, Dyer performed and recorded with Blue Man, the latter experience one she found fun but unfulfilling. "It was cool getting to tour, but [Blue Man] wanted me to sound like something I'm not," she explains. When she and Sanchez resumed playing together in 2007, they found the chemistry was still there. Inspired by the rise of sonically expansive underground duos like Hella, Lightning Bolt, and Pink and Brown, the idea of keeping their act a two-piece was a natural one. Yet besides the stripped-down format, how conscious a move was building in such an individual sound by actually building the band's instrumentation?
"I'd been playing electric guitar again, but I decided I didn't want to keep doing that—it seemed too cumbersome," Dyer says about the lead-up to the buke's development. "I used to make string and percussion instruments in my dad's woodshop, so just making something myself wasn't so unusual." "And in Proton Proton I'd already been using the gace, which covers a whole range of notes on its own," adds Sanchez, whose interest in messing around with electronics was encouraged by his father, a Bell Telephone employee. In 2008, Buke and Gase debuted its minimalist/maximalist M.O. to the world with the appropriately titled +/-, a self-released seven-track EP. When Aaron and Bryce Dessner of acclaimed indie quintet the National caught the duo in a Ditmars Park basement space, the brothers (the latter, coincidentally, another recent Hudson Valley transplant) secured the act a deal with Brassland Records for its first album, 2010's Riposte. The album's release was followed by tours in the US and Europe with Deerhoof, tUnE-yArDs, and Talk Normal.
In 2010, Sanchez and his girlfriend, then a Bard College student, bought a house in Greenport, just outside of Hudson. "I'd come up from Brooklyn to visit her and bring Arone along and we both just fell in love with the area," says Sanchez. "But there was a lot of back-and-forth there for a while." Dyer made the move herself the following year, and, between opening shows for Lou Reed and Tinariwen, the pair rehearsed and recorded in a large rented space on the Hudson waterfront. The new environment significantly impacted Buke and Gase's music, the members maintain. "It was amazing, going from Aron's cramped basement in Red Hook [Brooklyn] to this giant, open room where we didn't have to worry about bumping into each other," Dyer says. "All of a sudden we felt like we could do anything, and the songs definitely started to feel bigger." The big, new sound manifested itself on wax and digitally with another EP, Function Falls (Brassland), released this past September. Opening with the appropriately named "Misshaping Information," which casts Dyer's shape-shifting, octave-hurtling voice over coarse, bent riffs and an insistent backbeat, the four-song set was duly hailed by the leading organs of the indie trade.
As solid as Function Falls is, though, it's scarce preparation for Buke and Gase's new full-length, General Dome (Brassland), which comes out next month. The fullest realization thus far of the twosome's seemingly improbable marriage of singsong-y pop with angular art-punk and proggy constructs, the disc is marked by clashing moods: the clattering, tension-fraught tour de force title track; the mercilessly mechanized march "Hiccup," tapped as a Best New Track by Pitchfork; the soothing-but-unsettling "Hard Times," which the band paired with Function Falls's cover of New Order's "Blue Monday" as a download-only single to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims last month; and, in what is perhaps Dyer's greatest vocal performance yet, the swelling, shuddering "Houdini Crush."
To promote General Dome, this month the group is playing the Shellac-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival and other dates in England; tours in the US (February) and Australia (March, with Danish band Efterklang) await. But as this is being written, Dyer and Sanchez are holed up in Hudson, doing the work that must be done before they hit the road once again. And when she's not busy silkscreening T-shirts to sell on tour, Dyer hits the road locally: Since moving to town, she's graduated from building and racing bicycles to riding motorcycles.
"With the music itself, we're constantly trying to do more but also keep it smaller," says Sanchez. "I guess ever since we started, the way we've always looked at what we do has been, 'Well, what is it that we can do differently?'"
General Dome is out January 29 on Brassland Records. Bukeandgase.com.