Jessica Hopper and Arone Dyer Talk the Art of the Music Doc

On Buke & Gase’s new film, Chaka Khan’s magic scepter, and much more.

Jessica Hopper is a director, producer, and author based in Chicago, who most recently directed and executive produced the Epix docuseries Women Who Rock; Arone Dyer is a vocalist, musician, composer, and a founding member of the experimental indie rock duo Buke & Gase. A full-length concert film-slash-documentary about Buke & Gase just premiered yesterday, so to celebrate, the two friends got on a Zoom call to catch up about their respective work in music filmmaking, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Jessica Hopper: Congratulations on your documentary. I just watched it.

Arone Dyer: Oh, thank you! It’s sort of embarrassing to me. [Laughs.] 

Jessica: How come it’s embarrassing?

Arone: Oh, I don’t know. I just keep thinking about the chainsaw section. I asked a friend of mine, and she was like, “No, that should have been seven minutes longer.”

Jessica: Yeah, No, I really liked all the interstitial parts. I really think it fits into the very sort of workmanlike, and very DIY aspects of your band. The fact that you’re being shown to us as borderline a homesteader, back-to-the-land, absolutely makes sense. I would expect nothing less than you being like Arone the woodsman.

Arone: [Laughs.] Yeah, right.

Jessica: I’m going to ask you kind of trad questions. 

Arone: I have questions for you, too, because I watched Women Who Rock.

Jessica: OK, well, let’s start with you. How did this project come about? Was this your idea?

Arone: The documentary part of it was.

Jessica: Well, what other part of it is there in a documentary that’s not the documentary part?

Arone: The guys at Framework Productions wanted to just do a COVID performance video and put it out real quick. You know, just an hour long performance, no interviews, no nothing. Just bang, bang, bang, performance, no audience. And there was something about that — I had watched some others and it just made me so… I don’t know. The whole point of performing for me is to be interactive. It’s a give and take. And with that style of film, I couldn’t feel the take or the give or anything. It felt really stale and empty to me. So I was like, “How about I just interview some people and we turn it into a documentary?”

Jessica: How did you decide who was gonna be in it? How did you decide whose opinions were authoritative enough to put in here?

Arone: I tried to get a lot of people! A lot of what I wanted was people who have — I mean, everybody who’s on there has really pretty deeply supported Buke & Gase, and we look up to them and we are fans of theirs. I wish I would have mentioned that more in the documentary, honestly, because if it’s not clear: these are people who supported us really early on, or kept supporting us during some dark times, or are new fans, and then there are people we are just awestruck by in a lot of ways.

Jessica: How did you decide what to, as a director — which I know you kind of itch at that word, and we can get into that because I have some thoughts. As a director, when you were interviewing them, what were you asking them about?

Arone: I’ve never done anything like this before, so I was kind of—

Jessica: But you have! Because I think making songs and producing records and stuff like that really lends itself to making something like this. Not to be like, “give yourself credit!” But give yourself credit, dude. This is not the work of someone who is a novice. Do you know what I mean? Your artistry really lends itself to putting together a thing into a cohesive whole.

Arone: I appreciate that. In asking questions to these people, I was really trying to… it baffles me sometimes why people like our music. And if they do like it, how come it’s not more popular? And what is it about the band and the music that either attracts or pushes away people? That was part of the questioning: “What did you find interesting? Why did you want to work with us? Why did you want to support us? What made this work?” Maybe that’s like self-research. [Laughs.] 

Jessica: Yeah. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to understand when our work leaves us, what it becomes in the context of other people’s lives. That part can be a very maddening sort of question to entertain. “If it’s good, why isn’t it more popular,” I think is kind of an easy one to tangle yourself up in. 

There was one question I thought was almost kind of funny — or, the answers were kind of funny. When they’re talking about the lyrics, and you’re explaining your lyrics and they’re very artful and considered. And then you have like three people who are like, “I don’t know what she’s talking about.” “I just stopped paying attention.” “I think they just, like, come out!” I was like, This is really a funny juxtaposition, because you’re clearly talking about the art of your art, and they’re like, “This is complicated…” I just thought it was a funny dichotomy. How was that for you, to get these answers? When you’re gathering all of these interviews, was it important to have people whose understanding or context of what you’re doing might not be entirely in accordance with how you view your own work?

Arone: Yeah. Was it important to me to have them agree with me in a bubble? No. [Laughs.] 

Well, it has always been really strange to me why there hasn’t been more emphasis and inquiry to lyrics of my band’s music. And I guess maybe I’m being egotistical here!

Jessica: No, not at all.

Arone: But [the lyrics] are a significant part of the project. You’re hearing it, you’re going to sing along with it. What does it mean? I also don’t want to put so much emphasis on lyrics and the importance of them in that, I don’t want to make anybody feel bad for not getting it or not having an opinion, because you take what you’re going to take from lyrics. So I think I even told them to ask me questions about lyrics.

Jessica: One of the things that I thought was really interesting is that it was really about the craft of the band, and the structure of the band and the inventiveness of the band. There’s obviously the story of your band, but iIt was really a portrait of the craft of the band. And in the performance, we see the virtuosity, we see some of this inventiveness, and then the veil comes off a little bit and we see a little bit of this background. 

Lots of times people think a good band documentary has to be very Behind the Music, you know, like, “We had this terrible fight and we spent 1,000 nights on the road!” But this was really about the sort of creative mechanics of the band. Was that something that, when you were pulling it together, just felt an extension of how Buke & Gase works? How did that come to you as a director? I’m going to keep calling you a director, whether you like it or not.

Arone: So, the labeled director — the director — Steven Pierce, is a huge fan of the band, and I feel like a lot of his inquiry was just based on his personal curiosity about what makes this band, how the craft happens. For my part, I didn’t want there to be any drama. There’s no drama between Aron [Sanchez] and I. I mean, there has been. [Laughs.] But I’ve seen a lot of really amazing documentaries of bands where it’s like, “Oh, and then this person was really depressed and they nearly lost their lives — there was this element of darkness that’s the reason why the music is this way.” And it’s not like that with Aron and I. I also don’t feel like we need to create that kind of energy to make us seem cooler or whatever. That’s not what we do. We disagree on some things, and agree on a lot of things, and this is how it happens. 

Jessica: Mhm. What’s a music documentary that has continued to shape or change your approach to what you do?

Arone: I don’t know if anything changes or shapes my approach. I mean, I listened to Björk’s podcast recently — when I learned that she did all of her arrangements, I was like, I need to do better. I need to take a little more control and I need to be a little bit more up front with what I want. 

Jessica: Björk is a high bar for any of us to try to clear. [Laughs.] Or even match. I mean, this is not to say that either of us have the capacity to be any less visionary than Björk, but she’s such a special case. 

Arone: Yeah. But she’s human!

Jessica: Is she, though? 

Arone: [Laughs.] 

Jessica: I forget who said it, but somebody said about Nina Simone on Women Who Rock that they think of her as an alien. And not that I’m trying to dehumanize her work, but it’s so beyond. It’s so next level. It seems so evolved. And I really think about that with Björk. One of the things that I think you really see, even in her more recent career, is her straining at the limits of technology and language and what we have the capacity to reproduce on a record. I just think her and Nina Simone are both in that category of, how are you operating on the same 24 hours that the rest of us have? 

Arone: Yeah. I guess I was going to say something to the effect of curiosity, and the freedom to be curious is a privilege. I’m not sure that Nina Simone had that privilege. I’m not even sure that Björk did, honestly. But I do know that other countries care about their artists.

Jessica: [Laughs.] In a different way. 

Arone: Yes. At least Nina Simone, it was out of necessity. It needed to be spoken of, and if no one else was going to talk about it, she had to. And it is curiosity of, how do we talk about this? How do I say this and how do I get my point across? And how deep can we go, how much further can we go with this? In Björk, her curiosity brought her education. She learned new ways to create, and that was a part of her expansion.

Jessica: I assume you’ve watched [your documentary] a few times. 

Arone: Yeah. 

Jessica: How do you feel when you watch it?

Arone: I have to fast forward through the music. 

Jessica: Why? 

Arone: Just because I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. [Laughs.] I know that stuff. So I fast forward through it, and then I get to the parts where Aron and I are talking, and I’m like a little cringey. But I don’t know why.

Jessica: It’s always weird to hear a recording of your voice, even if you sing for a living. Sometimes when I watch stuff, I go through phases where I see it with other people’s eyes before I see it with my own.

Arone: That’s cool. I have a hard time doing that with this. It’s been really hard for me to separate myself from this and just look at it as a piece of work.

Anyways, I wanna talk about Women Who Rock because I feel like this docuseries has needed to come out for a long time. It’s a very good cross-section, I thought, of rock & roll, [and] a little pop, but it’s also a little country, but it’s also a little gospel, and it’s also a little punk. 

Jessica: We had some great punks. We also got some great new wavers. 

Arone: Yeah. I’m blown away with how many amazing women you were able to get into that.

Jessica: 41 — in terms of living people interviews, and not pulled from [the archives].

Arone: How long was the process of getting it all?

Jessica: Start-to-finish — I got hired as a director [in] August 2021. Like, just totally out of the fucking blue, an email like, “Can we talk to you about writing this thing?” And I was like, “Sure.” And then they called me like, “Actually, we want you to direct.” I was like, “Fucking cool. Into it. Hope the money’s good, because I just said fucking yes to it.” It was like the universe meant it for me, you know? 

Arone: You’re the perfect person for the job.

Jessica: Yeah. 

Arone: How amazing was it being in the room with Chaka Khan and Pat Benatar?

Jessica: Pat Benatar is so Pat Benatar — and not that that surprised me, because she’s just has always been such an unapologetic feminist. She’s always been unabashed. But you wouldn’t think that for somebody who’s sold, whatever, 40 million records and was an absolute colossal superstar of her age — she’s exactly who her music would lead you to think she is. Even though she’s like, “I’m a persona on stage!” I was like, “But you are a total fucking badass.” She swore a lot; she did not mince words. There was no sense that she was coming in with any kind of agenda. She was just like, “I’m Pat Benatar-ing all over this Pat Benatar situation.” So she was amazing. She looked fucking phenomenal. 

She just doesn’t… I don’t want to say “doesn’t give a fuck.” But sometimes when you interview people who are of an earlier generation, who grew up really deep in a time of having to play along with the patriarchal paradigm of music stardom, they are still very deferential and you can still kind of see the mechanics in their head, where they’re maybe more apologetic for being feminist or they have to qualify. Like, “I loved riot grrrl. But I also loved men!” Which, we’ve all had to fucking do that dance at some point — or reject that dance, or reckon with that dance.

OK, Chaka Khan. Chaka fucking Khan. Like, literally the most nervous I’ve been, aside from giving birth. 

Arone: [Laughs.]

Jessica: That was the only interview that we did in anybody’s house — everybody else is in a recording studio, in part because we wanted to show everybody as working musicians. [But] Chaka Khan — it has to be in her house. Because it’s COVID protocols, we can only have four people in there. And I didn’t have too many recent interviews of her to be like, what is her temperament? Because Ms. Khan suffers zero fools; hopefully I’m not going to be a fool. I wore my little flak jacket to cover up my other outfit, because I was like, I need something that’s going to cover up how much I am fucking sweating

Arone: I’m sweating now!

Jessica: Me too. OK, so we roll up to her house — she lives in beautiful part of Los Angeles. They’re like, “She’s gonna be ready in an hour and a half,” or something. It was a little delay, but we’re in her house, we know it wasn’t like she wasn’t going to show. So in this time, I’m sitting in her backyard, smelling her huge lavender bushes, and I picked up in her side yard a pinecone. And I was like, This is going to be my thing to remember — my Chaka Cone

She’s fucking incredible, dude. There was a lot of stops and starts, because someone in her house kept opening a window and it would set off her alarm system, and then there was a hailstorm, so we had to stop because all of our shit — cables, lights, and everything — was running through the backyard. I was like, Oh my fucking god. After all these interruptions, she tells her assistant, “Bring me my wand.” The assistant brings in this scepter — you know, like if you’ve ever been to a really heavy duty witch shit store, it’s this. It is a crystal wand that is, I’m going to say, 2.5ft, with all this encrusted pink quartz. And she goes, “I need this. I sleep with this next to me and I charge it in the moonlight, and it wards off my bad dreams.” I was like, “I feel you.” And she just kind of tucks it behind her in the chair, and the energy of everything shifts.

But she was incredibly generous with her time. We talked for four hours. It was like running a marathon, having to keep all the threads together. It was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a director.

Arone: Everyone that you interviewed seemed so laid back and relaxed and ready to talk about everything. It’s palpable.

Jessica: More than a handful of those women, I’d interviewed before. I mean, Annie Clark, Saint Vincent — I did her first interview, in SPIN magazine. She was basically an infant. And very fortunately, some of the women knew who I was. Some of the women knew my book. Some of the women knew I had written about them a lot, or even deeply — that I had regarded their work with great reverence and intention. So I think there was a little bit of a trust there. We also paid women for their time, which is super important to me. 

But then I think the other part of it was that, I think I tried to come at them with questions sometimes one or two up top, that showed this wasn’t this wasn’t going to be like a typical doc interview — that I really wanted to know about what motivated them as artists, and that I had done my research. I wanted them to feel safe and revered — because I know that’s kind of the only way that we’re going to get what we need out of this. But also, there were so many things about these women’s lives and work that have never… You know, I couldn’t find an interview where anybody in LaBelle was asked ever about their recording process, or about producing their own work. Certainly there’s been some great interviews about what motivated them, but some of these things I just needed to know. 

And about maybe about an hour into interviewing Chaka — for a lot of folks, they asked we submit questions, if anything was off limits. And we were never trying to get into that off-limits shit, really. But maybe an hour in, she said, “I see what you’re doing.” I was like, [whispers] “What am I doing?” She said, “You’re kind of going off from the questions a little bit. And I like that. I trust you. I don’t give a shit, you can ask me anything.” So I sat down my little notebook and I’m just like, “Tell me about this — tell me about Fred Hampton — talk to me about motherhood — when you look at the fucking Rolling Stones, what do you see?”

Arone: [Laughs.] That’s great. How did you settle on Mavis [Staples] being pretty much the main character in the first episode? 

Jessica: I mean, Mavis is kind of the alpha and the omega. [And] one, Mavis was already attached. Mavis was like my “yes” — I was like, This is it. And I was really grateful that they had Mavis, because I think there’s very few artists where their songs are fueling change and change is fueling their songs. Social strife and love and rising consciousness and Black power and women’s liberation and all these things show up in their music, and back and forth — I don’t know if there’s other artists that have quite that who are living, but also just generally have such a rich dialogue with how American culture is changing. So being able to start there was so rich of a backbone. 

The other thing, too, is there was no one that we talked to that didn’t have a relationship with her music. That was the fun part, asking all these women about each other and playing each other their music. And Rickie Lee Jones herself getting up and — Rickie Lee sang every single song she mentioned. She’d be talking about Van Morrison, and she starts singing “Cypress Avenue” and crying. Just the outtakes on this are their own show…

Arone: Give us the outtakes! [Laughs.] 

Jessica: Director’s cut. But why did we just start with Mavis? Mavis gets at what my bigger point was the whole time we were working on this. I still insist that if you talk about the nature of women’s lives, the nature of women’s work, what’s important to them — by virtue of telling that story, you tell the story of how America is changing. We’re not talking about music in a bubble. We’re talking about these women’s lives and the times and how it shows up in their work, and what it means when we hear that on the radio. You know, the pill becoming legal, that women couldn’t have their own credit cards — what did that mean at that time? How did that shape what we heard and what people thought about this music — why it seemed bold or necessary or invigorating? So, that was kind of the gist.

(Photo Credit: right, Lucy Bohnsack)

Arone Dyer produces sound as a vocalist, musician, composer & founding member of duos Buke & Gase and Mistresses, and the producer of Dronechoir.

(Photo Credit: Lucy Bohnsack)