Considering both Reggie Watts and indie duo Buke And Gase come out of the same wacked-out, improv-friendly art and music scene in New York, it should come as no surprise that they know each other. That’s why The A.V. Club decided to ask comedian Watts to interview Buke And Gase’s Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez, whose latest record, General Dome, was released January 29. The threesome discussed Battles, Bulgarian melodies, and whether they’ve ever been shoved into a locker.
Reggie Watts: I’ve been listening to the new record, and it’s dope. It’s recorded really well. It’s kind of, in my humble opinion, a step up production-wise [compared to] the last record. Where do your melody ideas come from? Sometimes they remind me of Turkey, and then they’re Balkan at times. There are also some classical harmonies and melodic counterpoint things like that.
Arone Dyer: I don’t know. I was thinking a lot about vocalists that I admired when I was growing up, what I really liked in vocals. Jeff Buckley has a really interesting way of singing melodically, and I listen to him. Georgia Anne Muldrow, too; I really love the way that she does melodies or jazz. She’s hip-hop, and I think she does all the instruments herself on her earlier albums. Really strange melody compositions.
I also got really into Bulgarian choir singing, and so I decided I’d take classes [from] this lady, who I ended up paying to be her therapist to an extent. But anyway, she taught me like one thing: I’m into Bulgarian women’s choir stuff.
RW: It’s just nice to hear those twists, those melodic twists, where you feel it’s going somewhere familiar. Then it goes somewhere pleasantly alien for moments or pleasantly Aeolian.
Aron Sanchez: Lydian.
RW: I know you’re using some new technology on these songs, like a vocal harmonizer I gave you. How did that change how you approached writing these new songs? Were some songs written already, and then you went back and applied that effect?
AD: We write with improvising, and so when you gave me that TC-Helicon VoiceLive Touch, I had it around. I was just starting to use it, and so we would improvise with that, and I would just be pushing the buttons, trying to go quickly through all the samples of the sounds. And then if I found something that I could work with, with whatever Aron is playing, we’d go with it.
RW: You’ve been splitting instruments into different effects chains, right? Was that something out of necessity done to make a larger sound onstage?
AS: Exactly. We’re just trying to make the instrument do more than one part, basically. So in my case, I’m doing a bass part and I’m doing a guitar part, but then my guitar signals into two chains.
RW: I think it’s good for people to understand that what they’re hearing on the record is pretty much what they’re going to see performed live. I think it makes the music much more interesting when you think about, “Well, these are systems that you guys designed so that you could make the music you wanted to make live.”
I would group you in with live production, that style of performance where there’s a composition that’s happening, but because it’s two people, generally you have to manage the composition a little more than if you were in a four-piece band.
AS: Right. You have to come up with some way of achieving that. The third member of the band is how we’ll deal with the gear.
RW: So you write the songs improvisationally. Do you play them live to test them out on the wild and refine?
AD: No, we don’t really play anything out live until we’re pretty concrete.
AS: There’s a whole process from the improv to being onstage.
AD: We forget about it and then we go back and we listen to stuff. Then we pick out what we like, and we take that stuff and we say, “Okay, this has a feel that I’m into. Maybe we can play that and riff on that and create another part that goes along with it, or maybe we combine it with another improv.” Then the problem is trying to make these two different parts sound like they fit together through having some sort of a transition. Transitions are huge for us.
AS: We’ll spend days on transitions.
RW: In theater, they say a theater piece is only as good as its transitions.
All your songs are pretty much pop-song length. Are you thinking about length when you’re crafting these songs? Are you thinking about your audience?
AD: We bounce back and forth between wanting to fulfill pop predictability as far as the length of the songs, but also, there’s only so much that Aron and I can take within the song as well. We’ll get sick of a part and we just don’t want it to go on any longer.
AS: There’s something to be said for that length. It works in a cultural context. People lose their interest after three and a half minutes. So it’s a process.
RW: The melodies may not be as challenging for you because you know where they’re going, but sometimes I don’t know. I remember playing in bands and writing, “This melody’s going to be so dope.” Then we’re playing it live, and I’m like, “Why did I write this melody?” Does that ever happen to you?
AD: Yeah, you have to psych yourself up to play something that you were totally stoked about.
RW: Yeah, or sometimes you’re like, “Wow, I wrote something pretty intense.”
AD: There are a bunch of songs I think about in that way. “Tending The Talk” for me is challenging because I feel like I need to put so much effort into the emotion of it. And it’s technically difficult, to an extent. It’s kind of like R&B, but I don’t know if I can always pull that off all the time. I’m trying, though.
RW: One of my favorites is “Hiccup.” It’s slightly evocative of The Pixies in certain places. I like the approach: rhythms that are constantly shifting and playing against each other, and then you disarm them with these beautiful melodies that also are unpredictable, which I think is a hard thing to chew on, because essentially it’s challenging music. When you listen to it, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to get into this.” You’ve got to get into the framework. And once you’re in it, you start to unravel the logic of it or where it’s coming from. You enter the world, and it’s great to hear these kinds of rhythms and textures that are bouncing you around, almost like being a tormentee of the ocean.
And there’s always a siren song that unifies the whole experience. Obviously the music moves to different dynamics, but in general that’s how I think of it. It’s got this almost hardcore vibe to it, but it doesn’t go all the way there. It’s got that spirit and then this beautiful vocal on top of it. Did that come together naturally, like, when you first met?
AD: That song in particular came almost entirely out of an improv. It does happen naturally. I don’t know what it is. Aaron and I have always gotten along musically. We don’t have the same backgrounds in music. The things that we listened to when we were growing up and probably what influenced us musically have very little to do with each other.
RW: We’ve had a few conversations, but I don’t know where Aron came from, other than you make kinetic, pneumatic instruments for a group of people that all look the same color.
AS: Thanks. I’m kind of all over the place. I grew up listening to a lot of classical music at home, and I still do.
AD: It’s his home music. It’s also in his car.
AS: I have this baroque station I just have on my computer all day. I’m sure that’s an influence somehow, but it’s just my background to life, basically. Other than that, I don’t know; I’ve been through a lot of periods of different kinds of music. Like in high school, I was way into electronic music and then got into jazz and funk, and then hip-hop, then Fugazi and The Pixies later on. I’m all over the map. These days I get inspiration from things like West African stuff, this Nigerian music. I think that had an influence on our rhythms and our strange times. We don’t really think about it. They just kind of happen.
RW: What kind of an audience tends to enjoy what you do? Is it an intellectual audience? Are they music lovers? Is it jam-band cats, indie-rock cats, or is it everybody?
AS: It’s been an interesting mix. I think we’re still trying to figure that out.
AD: A lot of people from NPR seem to like it.
AS: There is the NPR connection. A lot of people have heard of us through NPR, so there’s definitely that crowd, but then there’s a lot of music-school kids. We played a bunch of shows in the U.K. recently, and there was this little group of kids from music halls that kept following us around in different shirts. We’ve had kids from Berklee College of Music. We’ve had some fans that have transcribed our music and sent it to us.
AD: Just as a side note, we’re totally geeks as well. There’s nothing wrong with being a geek.
RW: Have you ever been on the inside of a locker?
AD: Actually, I think I have.
AS: What kind of locker?
AD: A high-school locker?
RW: What part?
AD: The part that they can shove me in.
RW: “She’s small. Put her in there. Put them both in there!”
I can see you guys opening or sharing a bill with Battles or Explosions In The Sky, which are bands that also play challenging music but kind of put themselves in this indie-rock/music-nerd category. Not that they put themselves there, but that’s just where they ended up being. I can even imagine you playing at TED, which you guys should play because the music there is terrible. One in every five things musically presented there is actually interesting.
AS: I know you did a presentation there. What else do they have?
RW: I’ve done a bunch of TEDx’s, but [at] TED Long Beach, I think just had a different vision of what the music should be and the curatorial process for music was just not very fresh. There’s only so much classical that you can hear and so much robotic-instrument glove-controller music that you can see. It starts to bleed the line between what’s interesting technologically or what just represents a possibility as opposed to what is a real expression of a world or an identity.
I think one of the reasons why places like NPR are so interested in your music is because it is intellectual and because it comes from a place that’s not familiar, but it is technically amazing at the same time. You can also just listen to it.
It’s hard to create your own thing, but also have that relevance. One of the earliest examples of that would be Primus for me. When I heard them, I was like, “What?”
AS: And it was totally catchy and awesome-sounding.
RW: When I hear your music—especially this record—to me in my mind, I think, “Oh yeah, that’s a hit. That’s a top-10 hit for sure.”
AS: With this record, we’re trying to be more accessible. This is our best—as of now—attempt at being accessible. We’re trying to stay on one groove. The last record, each song would go five different places. We tried to pare it down to one or two or three things that happened within the song, and we’re trying to keep each song in a world in its own.
AD: We want it to be a calm world within itself. Every world is totally happy being the way it is.
AS: It’s its own story.
AD: And it’s fine and it’s not fighting with itself.
RW: When I hear what you guys do, I hear hooks. The whole thing is a hook to me. When I hear the rhythmic patterns, when I hear the textures that are chosen, when I hear the melody lines, when I hear the breaks or the spaces or the shift of the transitions into different states, it all sounds like a hook to me. Nothing sounds extraneous, but also nothing sounds tedious to me. That’s amazing. I can’t wait to play this for people.
AS: I think you kind of nailed it. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re only interested in playing hooks. And we’re just trying to string them together. We always cut out parts that we’re just bored of.
AD: Yeah, and those that don’t interest us or don’t excite us in some form or another. We get rid of those parts and then we’re done.
RW: Where did the title General Dome come from? As opposed to, obviously, “Lieutenant Dome”?
AD: It came from a song, but the title of the song came from just fucking up a lyric of the song.
AS: There’s one lyric in there where she says, “General Doom.”
AD: I didn’t want to call the song “General Doom” because that would be silly, so I changed it to “General Dome.” Then when we were mixing the songs, I started going through, just trying to figure out how to name everything, how to title all the songs, and I went through and searched Google for all of these phrases. All of the titles are phrases that, if you search on Google, bring [up] either something specific or absolutely nothing.
RW: When you’re writing lyrics, are you thinking poetically or are you thinking the way that you create songs, which is improvisation, and clarifying from there?
AD: Yes and yes. Sometimes it comes out in improvisation. Literally I’m babbling nonsense along with our playing, and then when we listen back, if we pick a part and if there’s babbling in there, then I’ll kind of try to hear what it sounds like I’m singing. I’ll try to decipher the complete bullshit that’s going on and make sense out of it. And usually I’m not actually saying words at all, but it’ll end up making some sort of sense, whatever I write.
I think that the songs that I write are always an exaggeration of life. They’re not true to my life or true to anybody’s life. I generally don’t worry too much about making sense of things, but I did a lot of that on this album because it was a good challenge to have.
AS: To make more of a story?
AD: To make more of a story or more of an actual situation.
AS: How many lyrics come out of your writing?
AD: I have a journal, and sometimes I’ll just read out of that. I didn’t do that so much with this album, though.
AD: No, because we were just improvising, and I didn’t have my book with me. I miss that kind of writing.
RW: That’s essentially how the band I was in the longest, that’s how we came up with all of our sets. [They were] just jams, and then I just rambled. “You’ve got some butter. Help me on the streets. Get off these streets.”
There’s this refinement process where I’d go through the gibberish and the chaos, and it’s almost like it’s an out-of-focus thing. It’s how to focus an image.