The Buke & Gass duo, featuring Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez, highlights precisely what's frustrating about small scene independent sound these days from New York to Portland – they always leave us wanting more.
At their recent homecoming show at the Mercury Lounge, the packed room was collectively craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, creating a lasting impression that went well beyond the music, and ultimately proving themselves essential viewing for anyone looking for what it means to be a Brooklyn band today.
The appeal of the live act (video below), which includes two seated musicians playing two homemade instruments – Dyer's buke (pronounced "byook"), a self-modified six-string former baritone ukulele and Sanchez's gass (pronounced "gace"), a guitar-bass hybrid of his own creation – is that neither of these hybrids are played with kid gloves. The instruments are filtered through various pedals — no loops are used, however — and amplifiers with multiple outputs, grounded only with a simple kick drum from Sanchez or ankle-fastened percussion elements from Dyer.
On paper this either sounds like Spinal Tap or a soundman's worst nightmare, but the results produced, from violent sonic bursts to hyper controlled, melodic are complex and often unexpected, with Dyer adding long-note vocals that hover just above the chaos. Close your eyes and there's a full band at play, complete with a female singer channeling her best Beth Gibbons from Portishead. Open your eyes and the duo could be mocking the audience with two matching amplifiers situated between them, ironically looking like a double-kick drum where a hired gun might sit in the hands of any less capable group.
Sanchez and Dyer glance at each only when necessary and the chemistry is obvious. The duo first played together in Brooklyn's post-punk noisemakers Hominid before disbanding in 2004 following a tour with Mark E. Smith's The Fall. Sanchez went on to form Proton Proton (which opened for Deerhoof and Les Savy Fav), while Dyer took a three year hiatus to concentrate on building custom bikes, jewelry and her own clothes and shoes in true DIY or Etsy fashion. A RISD graduate, Sanchez found a job working in the production department for Blue Man Group, designing and building instruments for the long-running rhythm showcase while recording other locals like Japanther in his basement studio in Red Hook. This is hardly your barista meets bartender jam session and it shows.
Buke & Gass does for indie music what Sleigh Bells – another breakout band from the Borough with an early endorsement from rapper MIA – did for live hip-hop sampling. Both duos unplug the triggers and laptops in the live setting, produce their sounds organically to heroic, sub-tone ends, and pull back the curtain on a decade of guitar-based rock bands reaching for the same stadium heights in an endless stream of genre re-appropriations.
Unfortunately – and strangely – much will be made of the gimmick of how these synthetic noises are produced so naturally, but anyone willing to take a closer look will easily recognize just how special and timely the expression. It's simply not enough anymore to play guitar over a series of looped sounds in the vein of Animal Collective circa 2000; nor stand silent over a circuit of switches and knobs hoping the cross fades are mistaken for complexity. Laptop music done live is inherently boring and those hunched over a table are inherently non-performers unless, of course, you're Greg Gills of Girl Talk with the help of a lifetime's worth of top ten samples and a toilet paper canon.
What makes Buke & Gass such a pleasure to watch is the rare combination of seeing what Brooklyn’s musicians have learned over a decade of sample-based, synthetic sounds and watching those lessons applied to a woodshed craft, all while showcasing the musicianship that inspired a generation of fret-watching boys at any math rock show. This stuff is truly of the moment with cross-generational appeal, and it's no surprise to see Lou Reed appreciating the performance, along with a room full of pea coats and dreadlocks nodding in kind. Crowds aren't afraid to move anymore, but getting a room to do so, least of all in New York these days, takes more than a hype man or steady four-four beat by a live drummer.
The Buke & Gass record is a fine souvenir and serviceable complement to the whole experience, but it doesn't hold a candle to seeing these songs performed in the flesh – the highest compliment of all in our digital age. The acclaimed and self-produced Riposte was released by Brassland – the local label owned by The National brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner – last September after a buzzed-about 2009 debut E/P called +/- that is currently available via the band's Bandcamp site and as a hand-stamped limited edition CD.
Both releases, though faithfully and expertly recorded by Sanchez in his Polyphonic Workshop studio, are almost like experiencing the duo through a keyhole. Few bands, whether on record or through sheer existence, sound so thoroughly like a time and place as Buke & Gass does, at the close of this digital decade. In the same way Grizzly Bear personified Brooklyn as something of a live version of New York Magazine when Veckatimest was released to much praise last year, Buke & Gass is the Brooklyn Flea Market on any given weekend this winter.
The duo's artisanal approach, obvious talent and longstanding efforts spread across our local scene is everything we’ve come to expect from a borough obsessed with slow foods and documentation before the proverbial word gets out. If you've ever tried telling a friend about the hyper local market experience you'll understand how this band works in all of its charms.
Check out Sanchez and Dyer performing on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series below for a small sample of what you can expect from the duo next year.