How Buke and Gase built a huge indie rock career—and its own guitars, software

By Sam Machkovech

NEW YORK CITY—The band brings to the stage: two stringed instruments, neither of which look exactly like a bass or a guitar; two grids of foot-triggered effects pedals and switches; two music stands, covered with a smattering of synthesizers, touchscreens, and touch-sensitive pads; two laptops, connected to this variety of inputs in a center console; and two foot-triggered pieces of percussion.

One of those is a compact kick-drum rig, connected to the laptops. The other is a bicycling shoe with tambourine parts welded onto its sides and sole.

This pre-show array of gear usually elicits curious looks from crowds who wonder what kind of noise is about to emerge. But the band Buke and Gase are here for a homecoming show of sorts. They're fresh off a nationwide tour with Shellac, among the esteemed post-punk bands to have ties to the genre's original DIY movement. They've just put the final touches on their new album, titled Scholars, set to launch two months later (as in, January 18). People are here to celebrate.

So the people in the crowd are mostly fans who are familiar with Buke and Gase's unique attributes, who've heard the band's critically acclaimed albums and seen them play concerts with some of indie rock's biggest names. They've seen those custom-built instruments before (a baritone ukulele and fused guitar-bass—hence, the band's name). The fans already know that the duo, Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez, has built their mix of elaborate and junior-sized gear so that they can play their brand of rock in truly DIY fashion; it all fits in a sedan. And the crowd may even know about the band's customized programming rig, used to connect all of the gear for a tone-perfect live setlist.

The result is a concert—and a new album—that see Buke and Gase at their absolute best. The album's new songs deliver on a heady-yet-accessible fusion of genres like post-punk, dub, and (heavily amplified) folk, capped off by the inimitable sheen of Dyer' singing. Whether bouncing through tempo changes or playing with electronics, this show is all smiles, all beauty. As for the gear—it kind of melts away.

A Blue Man, a bike-building woman

"Pink Boots," by Buke and Gase—a song that sounds like an indie version of a really good Nike commercial theme song. I swear that's a compliment.

One day after the show, the band's members (Sanchez on gase, synthesizers, and drum sequencing; Dyer on buke, synthesizers, toe-tambourine, and vocals) meet me at a Brooklyn coffee shop around the corner from their homes in the area to chat about their decade-plus of music making. First off: let's talk about those custom instruments.

Sanchez takes lead on this topic as the proprietor of a custom-gear workshop called Polyphonic Workshop. It's been a formal business for years, but Sanchez can barely remember a time in his life when he wasn't building musical instruments and gear.

Sanchez grew up in a small town in Maine, where his father was an artist, painter, and percussionist. "He had a book on musical-instrument building, like, creating acoustic stuff," Sanchez says. "He got into making a marimba at one point."

Between a basement full of woodworking tools and a town with lots of "wood and boat-building" shops nearby, Sanchez had relatively easy, cheap access to making instruments—which held his interest a bit more than the piano and music lessons he had as a kid. ("It was a lot of hand-cutting," he remarks, since he had to rely on a jigsaw instead of a table saw.) His first creation was a monochord—"blocks of wood with a string on them. Then I realized, 'I could electrify this.' How does that work? Get a microphone. Get pickups. Add electronics."

As he got older, Sanchez's musical interests shifted—in part because he'd visit a grandparent a few times a year in New York City. "That's where I'd get jazzed," he says. "I'd go to Canal Street, get a bunch of parts, bring them back." He began building his first effects pedals in high school via a trial-and-error process of taking electronics apart and gobbling up whatever books he could find at libraries or via special orders. ("I was pretty isolated in Maine," he points out. "Even music magazines—access to those was limited.") Once he got more exposure to new music via college radio, he got into playing, and building, elements of rock music. "Once I started playing bass, I thought, I can build a bass."

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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One of Sanchez's first big clients was a remarkable one: Blue Man Group. After joining the performing company as a member of its backing band (meaning, he did not cover himself in blue paint), Sanchez became the lead developer of its musical instruments. He plays it cool about that gig during our chat, but a peek at his portfolio is jaw-dropping. See above for a gallery of his craziest Blue Man Group creations, including a gorgeous 86-string zither—designed not only to offer serious noise-making range but to also look quite handsome—and some wild instruments that revolve around complicated—and wearable—PVC pipe.

During that time, in the late '90s and early '00s, Sanchez vacillated between personal electronic music projects and live-band collaborations. It was during this time that he was introduced to Dyer by mutual music-making friends, because, as she puts it, "we both had the same name!"

That introduction turned out to be serendipitous, because Dyer had a similar cool-as-a-cucumber attitude about working on hardware. Her work was in a different capacity, however, with a day job at a luthier (a stringed-instrument building shop) and an interest in either repairing bikes or building their parts from scratch. She eventually ran a bike-repair shop, which she operated for roughly five years during a music-making hiatus in the '00s.

Before that period, Dyer describes a small-town upbringing in Minnesota "where being different was not appreciated," she says with a laugh. Guitar lessons, school band, and choir filled out some of her spare hours. Being encouraged to "fix things, take them apart, put them back together" was another, though she only describes bike work from that childhood period. And her outsider streak in small-town Minnesota drove her to songwriting and journaling—"complaining in song form"—which expanded once she went to an arts high school in the Twin Cities.

After the duo met in New York, Dyer began butting into Sanchez's musical improv project at the time. ("I was upstairs listening the whole time," Dyer says, then puts on a squeaky affectation. "I have some ideas, if you wanna hear them!") That project turned into a full-blown quartet, and during its two-year run, Dyer and Sanchez had a side project that combined Sanchez's all-electronic, all-computer experiments with Dyer's singing. The latter project stalled out in part because the duo didn't believe the material would be interesting in a live concert setting.

"I don't want to perform with a laptop on a stage—how do we make this exist and be exciting?" Sanchez says.

"To make it an organism, yeah," Dyer continues. "That was also when acts like Portishead and Lamb were happening. That was a fad: a vocalist, some electronic backing stuff. We didn't want to add to that."

"Which is so normal now!" Sanchez adds. "Back then, there was this tension of, 'that's not cool.'"

“Does that make us egotistical?”

While that duo project merely fizzled, their other group, a quartet, "totally exploded apart," Dyer says.

"The drummer got deported," Sanchez says. "We were about to do a tour. We had to find another drummer. Oh, and Arone and I were dating, and we broke up."

Dyer laughs. "We did get another drummer!" Sanchez adds. "Then I left the band!" Dyer continues.

Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer talk to Ars Technica in Brooklyn.
Enlarge / Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer talk to Ars Technica in Brooklyn.

There is no shortage of this when speaking to the duo—of each member completing the other's sentences, speaking for each other, offering clarifications, jokes, and color but never stepping on each other's toes. It's a very good answer to how a duo who have been together in more ways than one can coexist as a band—one that relies very firmly on a DIY philosophy of operating as a duo in cramped quarters.

"[Our history with hardware] was another thing that made it easier for us to communicate," Dyer says. "I know how I would fix this. I could take this apart."

"We're both very self sufficient," Sanchez continues. "We feel like we can do... all aspects of anything." Both involuntarily laugh.

"Does that make us egotistical?" Dyer asks. "Narcissists?"

"It's just a certain level of confidence, at least in a technical way," Sanchez answers. "We can be a band and make the gear and record ourselves. It's an ethic we share, that we respond to. I'm confident you can do many things."

"Likewise," Dyer says with an ear-to-ear grin. "That is so nice to hear. Thank you."

Carpal knowledge

That kinship led to Sanchez reaching out to Dyer around 2007, four years after their prior band's breakup, to see if she might join another band of his that had just gone through some shakeups. She instantly responded, "I was just writing about you in my journal!"

That band had "fizzled out" to be only two members, so Dyer came on to be a singer and "guitar player." But Dyer had resisted making music with a guitar, her preferred instrument, for some time, owing to carpal tunnel that had developed by the time she'd turned 18. (This was why she only sang in Sanchez's earlier projects.) Enter Sanchez's building mentality. We've got a baritone ukulele, he said. That's light and gentle enough for you to focus on melody. Let's just add more strings, then reinforce the neck, then put tension wires on the back... or, heck, let's just build a new, even lighter one from scratch.

That fit perfectly with the instrument Sanchez had already developed, somewhat out of necessity, as the sole string-instrument member in his band for some time. "I had to handle all the harmonic content, and I thought, 'It'd be great if I could play bass and guitar arranged at the same time,'" he says. "I was really into reggae production—the way they double bass lines with guitar lines. I wanted to have that capability in a live instrument."

A trial-and-error process began: where to place electronics and pickups, how to arrange strings, which order do the bass and guitar strings go, how to wind his own single-string pickups, etc. The result was the gase (guitar plus bass, which was originally spelled "gass" but changed for readability). Sanchez has since made 12 distinct gase models for himself.

But in the early days of the buke and the gase, the idea of a duo emerged out of necessity when the new trio's drummer left. What followed was an exciting period in their music-making process and a serendipitous moment in Brooklyn, when every hip concert opportunity seemed to take place at someone's house or loft. Thus, the duo decided to remain a duo and leaned into their maker mentality, building their own foot-operated drum rigs, cabs, pedals, and tube amps. The result: they could indeed fit all their stuff into a single car and be prepared for any junky venue's lack of equipment. The tone-obsessed Sanchez had built the gase to sound a specific way live, and the duo were insistent on not relying on any looped or faked sound effects.

Not so strict anymore

That light load-out mentality persists, though the band have since chilled out on a few of their philosophies. For one, their central computer rig comes with a ton of drum-like samples so that Sanchez can swap out his bulky bass drum with a smaller, electric-trigger pedal. Even this element is seemingly over-engineered, with Sanchez confirming he spent a month building a custom solution to the latency issues found in electronic drum systems.

"I was disappointed with normal MIDI triggers because of latency to the computer," he says. "I wanted a trigger that would be three milliseconds before." His explanation reveals a two-trigger system, combined with an optical sensor, tracking both motions to give the exact response time he seeks. Next to that pedal system is a three-position lever that lets Sanchez swap drum sound effects mid-song with a low-friction click.

This initiative, by the way, came about because the duo's stock had been rising in the indie-rock world. Buke and Gase had signed to the indie label Brassland and opened for critically acclaimed college-radio bands like Mission of Burma, Deerhoof, and Shellac. But they were under pressure to release their next record, which they had nearly completed four years earlier but chose to shelve at the last minute. The reason: the band's songwriting process is the most productive when they jammed out in hours-long improvisation sessions. (Makes sense, what with the finish-each-other's-sentences camaraderie.)

The unfinished album, like others they'd made, was an attempt to recapture their best improv moments. But it didn't sound right, and the duo agreed: let's go back to the drawing board. So they went into Sanchez's self-built studio and connected their improvisation sessions to a full-fledged multitrack recording system, as opposed to piping those jams into one-track and two-track demo tapes.

“Random effects”

What came out of this process was not just an appreciation for how drums could trigger a variety of samples but the band's new "random effects" button.

"This button changes every single sample happening at a given time," Sanchez says. "I don't know what's going to happen. We'll be playing, [and] I'll hit the button, then all the sounds are different. Then we'll respond to that while we're playing. That's really fresh."

And that's all because Sanchez decided to write custom signal-mapping software, using Max and Max MSP, to send customized commands to every single pedal and synthesizer hooked into each musician's pedal boards. "All of our pedals have to be changed for every song, because they each have different parameters," Sanchez says. "We can rig all of our stuff, our pedals, through MIDI, because they're all digital pedals and respond to MIDI commands."

So he read up on the mild software-coding experience he'd dabbled with while working full-time with Blue Man Group, which had since ended. That led to Sanchez building his "own standalone piece, talking to Ableton, telling it to do stuff while talking to our pedals."

That's what the laptops are doing on stage, by the way: not queueing up looped tracks (neither band member uses headphones to keep track of a pre-recorded click track) but instead essentially operating as the band's set list. Each song has custom pedal settings and sample triggers loaded into every piece of equipment near the two members' hands and feet.

Dyer prods Sanchez into telling me the name the band has for this laptop-driven system: "The Arx." They don't explain the name.

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"No Land," by Buke and Gase—a song that emphasizes the band's propensity for slow-building epics.

All of this technical chat loses sight of what the duo conjure up as a result. The foundation of their new album Scholars, as with all of Buke and Gase's work up until now, is chunky, "low-rock" thuds of the fused-instrument gase, rumbling beneath the higher-frequency plink of the heavily modified buke—like an Olympic swimmer carving neatly through a stormy sea. Only now, the band's "we do it all live" ethos includes room for more textures, more synthesizer layers, and more tantalizing drum lines. In particular, those drum parts now include a few multi-tap cheats to give the foot-triggered sounds a bit more room to dance and toy with tempo.

Above all this are Dyer's weird, evocative-journal lyrics, all released in equal parts growl and coo. "Is it ever good / enough to say / another time / some other way," she mutters with lower, multi-tracked harmony vocals as the song "Grips" builds its momentum, only to reach her highest register as she admits someone "keeps holding on" to something that doesn't sound all too sturdy. The subject matter may sound vague and insecure, but it's the kind of melodic, soupy sound that I find myself returning to and wanting to "hold onto," since getting the album's preview version months ago.

There's plenty more to come from the band, including a Bandcamp subscription service through which they've begun loosing other "found sounds" and experiments from Scholars' improvised recording sessions. That's also where they've been releasing material from their own respective side projects. Dyer has a "dance music" project called Mistresses and an experimental project called Drone Choir, while Sanchez has soundtrack scoring work, contract gigs with Blue Man Group, a "solo, electronic, hip-hop-based" project, and his continued work at Polyphonic Workshop.

Still building

When Sanchez confirms that Polyphonic is a one-man shop, he clarifies: sometimes, friends will show up to help with odd jobs. "Arone's helped before," he adds.

"It's fun! I'm a good worker."

"Yeah, a good employee."

"I've been asking for raises for eight years," Dyer says, lowering her voice in a faux super-serious tone. "He still hasn't given me one. We have to talk about that."

Sanchez points out that they haven't worked together in a while, and when she immediately blurts, "You haven't asked!" he responds with an offer for a quick gig that very week. "Really?" she says with her trademark oversized grin. "I am so down."

While describing each other's side projects—a relatively common story, given the kind of artistic collaboration that seems to teem all over Brooklyn—Dyer points out that Buke and Gase is the band she considers "most like myself," as opposed to the "costumes" that other projects let her put on. I ask Sanchez how he feels being a part of that, to which he confesses anxiety that the band "might make Arone feel intellectual to a fault, and it'd be my fault!"

After a bit of back-and-forth, Dyer insists she's OK with embracing that side of her personality. "I'm in it with you," she says.

"We have a tendency to overthink and overwork," Sanchez adds, looking back at me. "That's why we've come up with an improvisation process: to get our ego out of it and just have it be something less of our control. We are... we're micro-managers," he says, with Dyer laughing to interrupt. "We easily destroy something by overthinking it."

Dyer points out that this is a reason they get along so well, but it's an interesting premise. In manufacturing their own instruments, gear, tools, and software solutions, Buke and Gase may have had great sounds in mind, but perhaps they did it for a greater purpose: to engineer the tools needed for such an intense working relationship. Albums as remarkable and fully formed as Scholars couldn't emerge from anything less.