“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
–St. Francis of Assisi
I cried a lot in second grade, but two instances stand out in my memory. One was when I mixed up “meet” and “meat” on a February spelling test, my first misspelled word of the school year. (Hey, a nerd has to derive his self worth somewhere.) The other was when our class was assigned to invent something to present at a creativity fair in the cafeteria. I’m pretty sure my original prototype involved draping plastic wrap around a wire coat hanger with the intent of putting it in the microwave for some purpose I’ve long since repressed. There would be no fireworks in the DeVille household, though, just tears. My parents poo-pooed that plan and sent me to bed red-eyed, thinking I wouldn’t have anything to present the next day. I woke up to discover they had constructed a primitive musical instrument for me that involved rubber bands strung across a small box. It wasn’t much, but compared to my microwave explosion machine, this was a genius contraption. I cried some more at school because I was so ashamed to be fronting like I built this thing.
That was my first clue that I am not handy, a lesson reinforced time and again by fumbling attempts to help with construction projects, aborted bike co-op volunteer shifts, and helpless roadside hours waiting for AAA. I sometimes worry about what would happen to me in a post-apocalyptic society; I resonate deeply with the dude on Revolution who got on the cover of Wired for his work at Google but finds himself especially powerless in a world without electricity. (Another thing to cry about: publicly admitting I watch Revolution.) As much as my spirit might romanticize the concept of DIY, my body vehemently disagrees.
That’s why Buke & Gase seem like superheroes to me. Whereas I needed my parents’ help to conceive and construct a rubber band guitar, Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez used their own ingenuity and bare hands to build amps, effects pedals and entirely new electrified instruments called a buke (a baritone ukulele) and a gase (a guitar-bass hybrid). They also direct their own music videos, stamp their own vinyl, and communicate in their own coded alphabet. They are mascots for the crafty, hands-on, so-called “artisanal” creative class. And with General Dome, the album they released this week on Brassland, they’ve done that demographic proud.
If music is truly great, you shouldn’t need context to enjoy it, and General Dome absolutely passes that test. (So does last autumn’s Function Falls EP.) It’s a fabulous ride whether you know the first thing about Buke & Gase’s extreme DIY approach or the life experience that fed into it, from Dyer’s career as a bike mechanic to Sanchez’s stint building instruments for the Blue Man Group. Still, some music gets better the deeper you dig into it, and General Dome passes that test too. The longer I ponder the why and the how behind Buke & Gase’s music, the more I appreciate the what — which is especially notable since it would be so easy for their shtick to become an insufferable gimmick.
Think about it: Brooklyn guy-girl duo builds homemade instruments to write unorthodox songs against apathy and government conspiracies. Oh, and they’re both named Aaron, but he spells it “Aron” and she spells it “Arone.” The Portlandia sketch is already written. Yet General Dome is remarkably level-headed music; it doesn’t reek of the lunatic fringe. Nor does it reek of pizza, though “artisan” has become such a buzzword that even Dominos is using it. By necessity or affluent fascination, from homebrews to hot rods, micro-scale personalized production is all the rage. At a time when artful, adroit craftsmanship has captured the imagination of Zuccotti Park protesters and their skyscraper-inhabiting adversaries alike, this band seems especially prescient. They’re embodying a cultural moment without kowtowing to anybody’s movement or marketing campaign.
So: Why the cultural moment? Why has doing it yourself permeated such a broad sector of society? A refreshingly frank Buke & Gase segment from New York’s NBC4 speaks directly to that question. Yes, the word “oligarchy” gets tossed around, but Sanchez explains the duo’s motivations in relatable terms: “We like to do things so we’re not spending a lot of money, and we like to do things in a slightly unique way, and we like to be in control. Thus we are DIY.” He lists three separate impulses: the economic, the expressive and the desire for control. Each one rings true in 2013 America.
There is certainly financial appeal to substituting sweat for dollars. It’s no coincidence that this band sprung up in the wake of the 2008 recession. Even in a recovering economy, money is tight and crafty solutions are welcome. A friend of mine recently tried to convert a cardboard box into a makeshift scanner that would dangle his smartphone above documents to photograph them. That’s hilarious, but his motives are understandable, and he could probably make his janky invention work if he kept tinkering with it. Case in point: Another friend built himself a waterproof messenger bag because he was biking to class to save money. It wasn’t perfect, but it kept his homework dry better than anything he’d purchased, and his friends started requesting bags of their own. Within a few years he was an expert bag-maker running an internationally known company. I’m sure a lot of trial and error went into Buke & Gase’s instruments too, but here they are spearheading their own international expansion on the cheap.
Sanchez also talks about the appeal of being unique. The desire to express oneself creatively has never been nurtured more than it is now. Legions of would-be (and quite a few shouldn’t-be) photographers are clogging Instagram feeds with their best stabs at sunsets and food porn. Etsy is garnering 1.4 billion page views per month. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr — all populated by beautiful snowflakes seeking a megaphone for their very important ideas, opinions and tastes. So of course this has spilled over into musicians building their own instruments. Maybe you’re not going to come up with the highest quality product, but at least it’s yours. Plus, building new tools of the trade inevitably stirs up the creative juices, just as jumping from guitar to piano or drum set to 808 opens up new avenues of communication. That music’s most exciting innovations are coming in genres steeped in electronics suggests that we may have reached the point when inventing new instruments is the best route to innovative sounds. And regardless of the pioneer factor, I have to imagine there is a deeper sense of self-expression when you’re playing a song you wrote on an instrument you built. Every instrument was revolutionary at one point; by building your own gear, you launch your own revolution.
There is the question of control too. As someone who struggles to translate mental creativity into the physical realm, I find great appeal in the prospect of manipulating the physical world to fit my purposes. I’m guessing Sanchez was referring to creative freedom when he talked about wanting to be in control, but his point could just as easily be applied to questions of dominion and the thrill of exerting your will on your environment. We long to express ourselves to the world, but also to dominate it. There is deep satisfaction in making nature your bitch. Skills that were a way of life for our ancestors seem exotic to a generation reared in a service economy in the richest nation in human history, but these lessons ring true whether we’re rediscovering them as a luxury or a financial necessity.
With those ideas in mind, what I hear in General Dome is a band enthralled with its own powers and in love with its own inventions — “I am a force to be decreed!” — but never to the point of self-indulgence. Buke & Gase are masters of a domain they built themselves. The record suggests there are new sounds left to be tapped in pop, even if we have to tap them by finding new paths to timeless sensations. Behind the wonky rhythms and strange sounds, there is familiarity. I hear shades of Karen O’s ferocity, Elizabeth Powell’s ability to channel heartfelt longings into pop constructs, the untamed spasmodics of Merrill Garbus and Marnie Stern — yet it’s all channeled into a voice entirely their own. General Dome is less than full-scale upheaval, yet somehow more than just a quirky way to repackage pre-existing sounds. There’s a reason people have trouble pinning down this kinetic clatter, yet it never comes off as willfully weird or crazy for crazy’s sake. If you saw a man in a straightjacket twisting and flailing erratically, you would assume he was out of his mind. If you saw LeBron James wildly contorting his body in pursuit of a basket, you wouldn’t think he was out of his mind; you’d think he was playing out of his mind. That’s Buke & Gase on General Dome: They are playing out of their minds. And I have to believe their self-made approach had a lot to do with it.