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Artist on Artist: Buke & Gase talk to Ian Schneller of Specimen Products

"How do you come up with a new guitar, without it being too nerdy or geeky? It's such a well-worn path."

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Last year Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez changed their duo's name from Buke & Gass to Buke & Gase, mostly to help out phonetically challenged folks who were rhyming "gass" with "ass." But though they're willing to hold your hand when it comes to pronunciation, that's all the coddling you'll get: what makes Buke & Gase so magnetic is their insistence on mutating indie pop into something you've got to bend your brain around to understand. Not only do they both wield sui generis instruments—the gase is a hybrid guitar/bass, the buke a modded baritone ukulele—but they also run their output (and their singing) through a maze of effects pedals and processors. On first listen, the new General Dome (Brassland) delivers minimalist yet colorful guitar-and-vocal melodies woven into a bizarre tapestry and driven by nothing but bass drum and a "toe-bourine"—and once you check under the hood and see how the band's engine works, you can appreciate even better what goes into creating the layers of their sound.

Interviewing Buke & Gase for this week's Artist on Artist is Specimen Products mastermind Ian Schneller. A few decades back, this sculptor and musician (formerly of Shrimp Boat and Falstaff) combined those pursuits and began building his own instruments—he made his first guitar in '87. Since then he's turned Specimen into a formidable institution, emphasizing nuts-and-bolts, hands-on techniques and beautifully whimsical but ruthlessly functional design (see Andrew Bird's live setup for proof). Buke & Gase play Lincoln Hall on Fri 2/8, and Specimen is open every Monday through Saturday. Kevin Warwick

Ian Schneller - JIM ELKINGTON
  • Jim Elkington
  • Ian Schneller

Your music is dense and complex and there's just the two of you. And I imagine you augment your performances. I've seen pictures with a kick drum and other devices, but is it essentially just the two instruments—the buke and the gase?

AD: That's pretty much everything.

AS: It's the buke, the gase, and the bass drum, which has a snare drum inside it or some kind of rattly thing. I'm always trying to figure out ways to make the bass drum sound like more than just a bass drum. And then Arone has on her foot this device that she calls a "toe-bourine" that's made of tambourine jangles on a toe strap from a bike.

AD: That's a toe cage, Aron. [Laughter.]

AS: A toe cage, sorry. My terminology is wrong! The vocals that we do—we do this kind of vocal processing, different effects on her voice. And then we have lots of effects pedals to add pitch shifting, delaying. Different digital techniques to make our instruments do more in real time than they can.

AD: So basically it's everything. We enhance everything.

My old band used to tour with instruments that I made: guitars, upright fretless electric bass, and a giant 32x30-inch kick drum. It helped break the ice with the sound operator at the club. How has the fact that both of you play original instruments affected your touring life?

AS: Well . . . [Laughter.] Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's . . . difficult. It's hard to communicate exactly what we're doing. Because my signal is split into two different sounds, and it's hard to communicate exactly how we want that in the mix. And also we're not a standard—we don't have a drummer. It's just a weird mixing experience for us. I find it's even difficult to mix a recording, because we're trying to fill up a certain dimension of sound with this sort of rock-influenced instrumentation, but it's lacking in some ways but then enhanced in other ways. It's strange. We bring an engineer with us now, and he knows exactly what to do.

I imagine that's essential. You brought it all upon yourself.

AS: Yeah, it's totally our fault!

You made your bed, now you have to lie in it. I think it's a fantastic undertaking.

Buke & Gase's gear - BUKE & GASE
  • Buke & Gase
  • Buke & Gase's gear

AS: Oh, thanks! By the way, I wanted to say I've been to your website many times.

Wonderful!

AS: I've looked at your instruments for inspiration and just kind of like figuring out, you know, what to do. Your work is really great.

I'm flattered. I feel like we're kind of cut from similar cloth. Do you find that the audience is also interested in your creations? Do you get much aftershow flocking around and inquiries and curiosity?

AS: Probably not as much as you might think. Sometimes I don't know how much people are even realizing that there's something—for sure a lot of people come up to me after the show, but . . .

AD: With regard to the instruments?

AS: Yeah, just like geeking out and stuff.

AD: Oh yeah.

AS: I mean, there is a bit of that.

AD: There's a lot of that.

AS: Yeah, but there's a lot of just like, response to the music too, which I'm really happy about.

Yeah, that's great.

AS: Mostly the comments I get are like, "Wow, I walked in the room and I thought it was a full band. And then I came up to the front of the stage and saw it was just two people."

I've found that when you make something completely from scratch, a raw creation, it's almost as if it's camouflaged. People don't expect to see things that have been made from the ground up, so they just assume that somebody picked it up at Wal-Mart or whatever.

AS: Yeah, a lot of people ask, "Where did you get that? Who makes that?"

Here's one for you: How long do you think microprocessors and chips in today's appliances and such will function? I'm alluding to our musical devices that contain them, but also on a larger scale—kitchen appliances, everything. A rice cooker with an electronic brain.

AS: Like how long it will last, you mean?

Years, decades? I'm kinda hung up on that stuff.

AS: In my experience, a couple decades probably. I mean things seem to break down pretty easily. And I'm always curious why.

I've been repairing stuff for so long. I get frustrated seeing a lot of solid-state processing components go belly-up prematurely.

AS: Right. And a lot of older tube stuff lasts forever.

I noticed you make tube amps, and it's, you know, turret-board and point-to-point construction versus etched circuit boards. Do you have a preference?

AS: I think both. Sometimes one is easier than the other, depending on what you're doing. The point-to-point stuff I just did because I wanted to learn how it was originally done, and it's also a very flexible method of construction. You change things out, try different capacitors and stuff. So in that way it's more robust.

That's the stuff that gives me a warm cozy feeling—the point-to-point. I feel in my heart it's gonna outlast me. Creating stuff using that method is my own stab at immortality, in a sense, whereas the etched stuff and the solid-state stuff—I just feel like it's fleeting ephemera.

AS: Well, it's disposable. It's mass production. Also if you think about the connections—point-to-point is just a really solid connection. Each wire going to each point, you know? It's just gonna last longer.

When you think about all the Fender tweed amps from the 50s and the blackface stuff from the 60s, they're all still out in the field in service. You hardly ever see a Blues De­Ville that's still operating after a decade. Anyway, I'm a bit of a curmudgeon, and I like to kvetch about this whenever I get an opportunity. Thank you for listening.

AS: I kind of straddle both worlds, because I do also appreciate a lot of the digital technology—these devices can be very small and do a lot and be very flexible in terms of programming. It might not last as long, but at least for us, being a small band, it's nice to have gear that's not so heavy and can be packed up into a small suitcase.

I was looking at the plate reverb you made on your website, and it occurred to me the different ways we use the word "modeling." When I was young, modeling meant making something. Today the average musician thinks of modeling as clicking a mouse or flipping a switch to emulate a certain style or rig. Obviously this represents some sort of a disconnection.

AS: It's almost kind of a similar disconnection. For example, if you take the plate reverb, that's trying to model a physical state that's much larger than the plate itself, right?

Sure.

AS: It's a very different technique to get there, but yeah, it's a similar disconnect in a way. We've developed these extreme technologies that can get us to a point where we're looking at a screen and calling up a program to digitally model a reverb or something. It's just the way we're going with our technology—digital techniques. In a way the plate reverb is also a digital technique.

Right, but it's big and heavy and you made it, and you probably—you may have cut yourself on the plate or something. You have a physical intimacy with that.

AS: Right.

So you're heavily invested in it because you made it. Sometimes I worry that, you know, "these kids today," they have it all so easy, they think that robots are going to do everything for them. All they have to do is reach out with their pinkie and tickle something, and there it is. It's a mountainside reverb at their disposal. I don't mean to assume that it's a problem; I'm just always struck by the disconnect.

AS: I appreciate that I have the experience of actually building a plate reverb before going into my recording software and calling up a plate-reverb algorithm. I have some knowledge of why it sounds that way and why that's a pleasing sound or something that works in a mix.

I think it makes you a better person! [Laughter.] I think it makes you a more capable designer and artist to have a tactile intimacy with the medium.

AS: I think that speaks to how we're creating our music too, and why we're using instruments that we have to make ourselves to achieve a particular sound. We're operating in a similar world, where we appreciate being very hands-on with everything, even though we get into doing some extreme processing with our instruments. We're starting from scratch in a way.

I think that a person's artistic output, whatever the medium, is their repertoire of craft and how close their tactile interface with the materials is—for instance, using a hand-crank drill instead of a Milwaukee hole shooter. It gives you a whole different intimacy. You can feel the drill bit breaking the chip as it goes through. I teach students—I have a dozen old Stanley hand-crank drills, and everybody laughs when they realize that they're gonna have to make a fuzzbox with a crank drill. There's this big look of surprise on their faces. And then they look at one another and they're like, "He's serious. He's gonna make us do this." Anyway—I'm rambling. Let's see.

Rotating the pickup bobbins 90 degrees, so that the bobbin runs parallel to the string, is a pretty cool idea. What do you notice about the output versus ordinary configurations?

AS: Well, that was something I was trying early on. I don't do that anymore, but—

Did it work?

AS: You get some phasing issues because you're separating a large part of the string. I was doing that because my instrument alternates in the way it's strung—there's a bass string, then a guitar string, and then another bass string, and then a guitar string. And I was trying to separate the bass-string output. So I was 90-ing some pickups to arrange it in a different way. Now I'm winding my own pickups that are situated so that they're only picking up the bass string or the guitar string.

Right. It's amazing how if you take things into your own hands like that, you can solve problems that were otherwise an incidental side effect of trying to use something for something else.

AS: Yeah, and along the way you totally realize that you're reinventing the wheel. You come across things and you're like, "Oh, that's why people do it that way. OK, let me backtrack and start over."

For signal switching, or even stomp-box switches, I've found that the quality of the hardware over the last 20 years has become a bit of a . . . challenge. I'm thinking about my immortality concept here.

AS: Oh yeah. There are a couple manufacturers making some nice ones, aren't there?

Carling and Switchcraft are still making a pretty good effort, but . . .

I took a trip to Tokyo a couple years ago, and there's a whole neighborhood called Akihabara. I don't know if you've been there, but it's the electronics capital. It's like blocks and blocks of just—you walk into the building and there are just long hallways with electronic parts. You would love it. You can spend like a week there. And I picked up a lot of parts when I was there. They have a lot of older things and a lot of new crafty stuff. It's so much fun. I would highly recommend that you go there.

Sounds like a beautiful smorgasbord! I used to go to Canal Street in New York, and all those—I don't know, they're probably not there anymore, but—

AS: Yeah, none of them are there anymore. It's really sad.

I used to bring an extra suitcase and just fill that thing up with beautiful, old, dirt-cheap hardware.

AS: As a kid, every time I was in the city I'd go there.

Do you do much drawing or computer rendering, or do you just sort of shoot from the hip?

AS: I do a lot of computer rendering. I mean, I went to art school, so I have a whole painting and drawing background, but I haven't done that lately. Why do you ask?

Oh, it's just something that's always on my mind. I'll ask strangers in elevators. I'm curious about people's processes and techniques.

AS: I would love to draw more, but I find that I need to use the computer for a lot of things, like a lot of design-type stuff.

I come from a time where I'm sort of straddling the two universes. I didn't come up with computers around for rendering, so I guess I was a bit challenged in that arena. I tend to gravitate back to the pencil and paper.

AS: If I'm designing a guitar body or something, I'll draw it out on a sheet of paper, but then I'll transfer that to the computer, 'cause you can get like nice curves and . . . I don't know. I use both!

It seems like you've successfully integrated old-world infrastructure with present-tense technology, and I admire that quite a bit. Because as I said, I'm a little bit challenged in the present tense.

Your new album, when I listen, I hear the unstoppable urban machinery we're surrounded by. I feel the inertia of our chaos as a society. I think it may be the first time I've been attracted to vocal processing, because finally the concept seems to make sense: urban chaos, pure machinery, but imbued with a human element. I was gonna ask how you feel about vocal processing. Obviously you enjoy it.

AS: Yeah, we do enjoy it. If there's some guilt in using effects or processing on voice, I really can't justify it, because we do so much with other instruments anyway. The guitar usually doesn't sound anything like an electric guitar, once everyone puts it through different distortions and delays and all kinds of things. I don't see the harm in doing that with the voice at all.

I remember exactly why I made my first instrument from scratch. Do you remember what got you started making instruments?

AS: Let's see. Really I've been obsessed with working with my hands my whole life. I remember my father had a book on instrument making, because he was building a wooden marimba. And he got a book and I absorbed that book and just started making all the projects in it, and then coming up with my own variations or experiments. I was pretty young—probably like eight or nine.

Fantastic. It gets in your blood. It's a blessing and a curse, but I think it's more of a good thing.

AS: It's a really good thing. I have a really hard time buying instruments. It's not something that works for me.

Do you feel that by playing your own creations it's a way of not having to stand in line with everybody else? There are so many Stratocasters out there—do you ever get sick of Stratocasters?

AS: I'm totally sick of all that stuff. [Laughter.] But at the same time, it's difficult to come up with something new, like a guitar. How do you come up with a new guitar? I mean, I'm sure you know all about this. How do you come up with something unique that people are gonna respond to in a positive way without it being too nerdy or geeky? It's such a well-worn path.

Exactly. When I first started building, I would go to vintage guitar shows carrying a couple of my instruments, and I couldn't get anybody to even take them out of my hands because they weren't a Strat or a Les Paul or a Telecaster. It's a narrow-­minded world, and to break it open and create not only a new silhouette, but to create a whole new format of instrument, is a laudable accomplishment.

AS: And also along the way you realize, well, this design is a very good design. There's reasons why it has this shape, and it's something that has been worked out over a long period of time. It also has this mythical place in history now. So it's hard to break that.

I'm curious, are both of you musically academic? Do you read music?

AS: I studied classical piano, and I used to be able to read pretty good when I was—like, I played jazz bass for a long time. But I haven't used it in years. . . . Arone? Musical training?

AD: Not really! [Laughter.]

AS: Arone doesn't have musical training, but she's played music her whole life.

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