Playing bass for Black Flag (1983-85) was just the start of an impressive and eclectic resume that has found her, most recently, working as dialogue editor on Game of Thrones, and part of the sound editing team that won an Academy Award for Mad Max: Fury Road (2016). Never abandoning her musical pursuits, Kira formed Dos, a bass duo, with ex-husband Mike Watt, among other side projects. She has just released her debut solo album, Kira (Kitten Robot Records) produced by her brother, ex-Screamer Paul. Bob Gourley caught up with Kira for PKM.
Emerging from the West Coast punk and hardcore scenes, Kira [Roessler] may be best known to music fans as Black Flag’s bassist from 1983-1985. She continues to embrace the punk ethos with a unique sounding new self-titled solo album. Driven by Kira’s bass and vocals, the minimalist arrangements are generally slow and atmospheric. Drums are subdued, and violin comes into the forefront of some tracks. But for Kira, the album is very much an extension of her musical past; non-conformist and ‘not trying to be anything for anyone.’
Having initially played piano as a child, Kira picked up the bass with the thought of joining her brother Paul’s prog-rock band. But then punk hit, and the siblings’ musical directions shifted. Paul, who co-produced Kira’s new album, went on to The Screamers while Kira sought her own musical path. After playing in a few other bands, she joined Black Flag to replace founding member Chuck Dukowski. Post-Black Flag musical projects include Dos, a dual bass group with her ex-husband Mike Watt.
While never completely stepping away from music, Kira went on to have a career in computers before shifting to dialog editing for film and television. Over the past two decades, she’s built an extensive resume that includes such projects as Mad Max: Fury Road, Joker, A Star is Born (the 2018 remake), and season 2 of Game of Thrones.
PKM: How did you come to put out a new solo album now?
Kira: That’s a great question. It was not at all my intention to release an album at this time, or really at any time in the last few years. I always have music that I’m writing; I always have songs in the works. I have about 20 songs in the works right now, in various states of completion. That’s just something I’ve been doing for years, for myself. The point being is that expressing myself through music is a lot of where the joy comes from. It comes through the creation. My brother works at Kitten Robot Studio, who also now have a record label. He had asked me in the past, and it never felt right. But this time, this year, he asked and had said that Kitten Robot wanted to put out a solo record. And for whatever reason … maybe because I turned 60 this year, and I just thought, ‘well, it’s a fun time to just break down and put a solo record out.’ Also, there was this set of songs, this particular set of songs that for me tell a story. And it was sort of the right time in that story to tell it. So that helped me make that decision. All the songs were already written. The process is sort of that it starts in my room, and then it gets sent out to a couple of team members in my virtual band. And then, the songs went to Kitten Robot Studio, where my brother and I did some work on them.
PKM: Sound-wise, this is very different from Black Flag and other past projects. To what extent do you feel your punk influences are reflected in it?
Kira: It’s funny because it sort of depends on what you think of as punk rock. But to me, my music is extremely punk rock. It is non-conformist; it is not trying to be anything for anyone, which is exactly what we were trying to do when we started punk rock. And for the last 30 years, I’ve been doing this project Dos with my ex-husband [Mike Watt], and that is a very punk rock thing to my mind. It is also very non-conformist, very strange instrumentation, just being two bases and nothing else. And celebrating in a way, the spaces, like this music does. So it’s kind of been forming for a long time—this part of me.
I came to this realization, that perhaps because of my work in Dos specifically … we do a couple of cover songs on some of the records, like Billie Holiday, who was one of my great loves. And I think probably the experience of singing those songs live and that emptiness in the space and the emotion that can be captured, when things are sort of still and the vulnerability is palpable. I think that really affected me in terms of what I wanted to achieve with some of my songs and songwriting, and my presentation. How much emotion, how much vulnerability can I put into it? It’s an appealing thing to me. I want listeners to feel; I think in punk rock, initially, a lot of what we wanted people to feel was rage and anger, and that’s completely valid and important. But there are other emotions; love and loss and pain, and these things I wanted to explore too. So it’s been coming for a while, this sort of minimalist approach.
PKM: Was using two basses a challenge in Dos?
Kira: Yes, very much a challenge. We had done something called Minuteflag, when the Minutemen came into the studio when Black Flag was recording. That was sort of the first time that Mike and I actually realized that two basses were a lot to put into one space. I actually had spent a lot of time in my own room recording bedtime stories for my nephews who were very young, and recording little bass duets over the music. Because I thought that was very calming for nighttime listening. So there had been something coming even before Dos. But yes, the challenge in Dos has always been the songwriting and the interplay. We had decided very early that this isn’t about ‘you’re the rhythm and I’m the melody’ or something like that. It very much had to be bass wars. It had to be finding spaces and leaving spaces. And it affected my songwriting a lot, and my bass part writing, to have to have this ear that says, ‘Okay, there’s a space. Okay. There, I’m going to leave a hole like that.’ That’s started to become very much a part of the songwriting, and Dos helped me a lot with that because you just can’t have … I mean. I guess we could just both play right on top of each other, but where’s the fun in that and where’s the creativity in that? The creativity purely comes from trying to find a way to make both basses relevant, but separate.
PKM: You mentioned that for this album you started the songs and sent them to other musicians. Did their input ever shape things in surprising ways?
Kira: Absolutely. I never know quite what to expect when I send a Kira song out into another player’s world, because most of the players I play with have mentioned the difficulty in getting in touch with that space. Especially for a drummer, and Dave [Bach], who plays on the record, is so careful and measured in terms of not just playing over the top of it, but actually finding that way of being so delicate. I never know. He has sometimes started playing a drum thing and sent it back to me. And I feel like he’s literally changed how the rhythm works. It’s like he blows my mind sometimes in his interpretation.
And that happens frequently. Obviously, when they start, it’s a bassline, it’s two basslines and some singing, and they may, to a naked eye, appear somewhat the same. And yet as they evolve, they become quite different depending on what happens with some of the other players. And then my brother and I tend to work together, and we sit and listen and say, ‘Does it need something else?’ And so some of that happens together where we say, you know, it’s almost like a horn kind of thing we’re missing, or string or whatever. And then Petra Hayden plays on a few songs with violin and she is able to connect in a way that I’m not sure who else could. So, I’m extremely lucky to have people who do find ways to add without barreling through. It would be so easy for a drummer or a guitar player to just take charge and say, ‘I need to add this big, heavy thing to this.’ But they know my temperament. I have done basslines for their music, and I try to connect to what they’re trying to say. I think the songwriter does sort of dictate the feel, and they allow me to dictate this vulnerable, spacious style.
PKM: What was it like working with your brother on this album?
Kira: My brother and I, especially if you look at it from the outside, we have completely different styles. My brother’s music is extremely lush, full, and layered. In that way, it’s very helpful to have someone who’s asking the question, ‘Is something else required?” and throws out ideas. I can play editor and say, “No, this is fine the way it is,” or “I like that but do much less of it” or something. He acts as a very good sounding board in terms of, “Is this complete?” “Is there something more that’s needed?” Then as a producer, he’s the experienced producer. Yet, I have this very particular type of perspective, so we work together. He often has me equalize the basses to make them work right or whatever. But when it comes to the drums, that’s something he’s worked with more. So we will trade off in terms of what things we dive into on the production side as well.
PKM: Did you always see bass as your primary instrument?
Kira: Well, I started on piano when I was six and I played classical piano until I was 11. Then, a few years later, my brother’s progressive rock band needed a bass player, so I borrowed a bass and started practicing really hard. When I picked it up, I certainly did not know how to play; It was very much just that there’s a need, so maybe I’ll try to fill it. But for whatever reason, and I can’t explain it, I tried it. Perhaps it’s because I’m left-handed, and on the piano the left-hand plays the baseline of the music. Even though I was ambidextrous and learned to play right-handed. Or just that the warmer tones appeal to me; sometimes the grating high end is not what appeals to me as much. Therefore, it may just be a frequency thing that interests me.
But one thing’s for sure: at some point, I became a bass player. That was all I needed. I don’t feel limited by it. It expresses exactly what I need. I’ve been a bass player longer than I’ve been a woman, so it feels like it’s part of me. I can’t tell you exactly when that happened, but it certainly wasn’t the plan. It was like so much in my life: I sort of fell into it. Then because it felt right, I grabbed hold and took it as far as I could take it — and I’m still going.
PKM: You mentioned your brother’s progressive rock band. Do you think you would have been as into the music, or was it punk that really drove you to want to play?
Kira: I never was good enough to be in his progressive rock band, by the way. I never actually made it. He switched to punk rock before I was any good at bass at all. The level of musicianship wasn’t quite as high of a requirement in punk rock. But very early, as a piano player in my childhood, my brother and I both had this attraction to music. The only reason I quit [piano] really is because he’s my older brother, he’s better than me, and I’m super competitive. I felt I was falling behind, and I quit literally out of frustration. So when there was a need for a bass player initially, there was this idea that “Oh, if I pick up the bass, I can play with him.”
I was always tagging along behind him, so I don’t know that it really came from inside. It may totally have been that I’ve always just sort of followed in his footsteps in a lot of ways. He started going to punk rock gigs, and I tagged along, so it took a long time before music became something for me that didn’t have anything to do with him. I guess around the time he joined the Screamers, he was going to do his thing, clearly. I had to now break off and work with this guitar player and have a band of my own. That was when it first started to be something where I would think, am I going to go to practice every day, go to school, and write songs? So there was a deciding moment probably around 17 or 18 years old where I would have lost music, probably, if I hadn’t then been connected enough to it to say, “No, I have to keep doing this regardless.”
PKM: Was there any hesitation in joining Black Flag due to it being an established band and not your own thing?
Kira: I had already been in bands and didn’t think of bands as democracies, really. I had been in bands where there was a clear leader. I was in my brother’s band. He was the clear leader. I was in this guitar player’s band. He was the clear leader. I think as a bass player, I sort of assumed that I was a team member as opposed to a leader pretty early on. Black Flag was my favorite band when I joined them. So it felt not just easy to make the decision to be a team member, but it felt lucky to have this break to join a band that I admired a great deal, not just in their music but in their approach to doing it in such a complete way.
Black Flag live in Detroit, 1985, Kira on bass:
We’re going to tour. We’re going to attack this in a very — the word is wrong, but it’s sort of like professional. We’re not taking this as a little hobby that we do on the side. This is everything. You have to be in with both feet and both hands. So they already appealed to me as a band to be in without me thinking that was ever a possibility. So when they asked, I didn’t think twice other than to say, “Hey, I’m three years into my UCLA degree, and I want to finish. I’ll take time off to go on tour, but I do want to finish.” They worked around — agreed to work around my schedule a little bit.
PKM: Was it a challenge being in Black Flag while finishing college?
Kira: It was. There were some real challenges, obviously from my end. To be able to think about applied math and stuff like that, and play very loud music was a challenge. But also because of my schedule, some very bad things happened. Scheduling-wise, we ended up on a winter tour in 1984, literally in central Canada in winter when it was 65 below Fahrenheit, wind chill factor, and your coffee was literally freezing in your cup while you were driving, and the equipment was frozen solid. It was bad. And it was because they were working around my schedule. So there were challenges, both scheduling-wise and thinking-wise at school. I probably leaned to the music and the band more, and school may have suffered, if I had to do the juggling act. In 1984, the Olympics were in LA. So the school had a three-week break in it. So we did this three-week tour on the East Coast. And I flew out, we did this three-week tour. I flew back. They were just crazy to work around it, but they supported me finishing, which was amazing.
PKM: After it ended, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do next?
Kira: Well, they kicked me out right before my final quarter of UCLA. And so one thing was, again, clear; I was going to finish that [college]. And when I finished that, the next thing was clear was that I guess I’m going to have to earn a living. And I never really expected … I hoped that music would be a way to earn a living, but my whole reasoning for going to school was to have a computer career possible if I needed to earn a living. So after college, I think I knew that the quickest, easiest way to proceed was just to get a job. And so I did. I had kind of already made that decision by being so focused at UCLA. So I was disappointed to not have a full-time band, but that was the logical next step, to get a job and [continue to] do music. Again, just like in school, music had to be something I juggled, next to my work then.
PKM: With punk music gaining new generations of fans, and various media documenting, are there any ways that you feel current perception differs from your experiences being part of the scene at the time?
Kira: Well, obviously with the way punk is perceived now, people may not realize just how tiny it was, just how poor we all were, just how much everyone struggled just to survive in that context. We were basically underground, if you will. Society at large had no idea this was going on and didn’t want to know. And I think that today, that’s hard to imagine because it is practically mainstream. So that’s one thing that I think people don’t get. I think the other big thing, and we touched on it just a little bit, is this thing about people think they know what punk rock is and how it should sound. And what kind of music is punk rock. They want to put rules to it.
I mean, the fact that there were no rules was so fundamental to what punk rock was. To do things that don’t sound like anybody else and look ways that don’t look like anyone else. So I think some of that got lost in the translation. It became this … there’s this uniform, and there’s this uniform type of sound. And in that way, you know, people might listen to my record and go, ‘Well, that’s not punk rock. This thing over here is punk rock.’ So I think that that’s probably the biggest thing that’s hard for people today. To imagine how underground and how ‘break all the rules’ mentality it was.
PKM: How did you get into dialog editing for film and TV?
Kira: I was in computers for 11 years, working in the corporate world and kind of hating—kind of feeling like a square peg in a round hole. I was good at the work, but presenting myself as a corporate professional was hard, and I felt like an odd duck. I met someone who had just come out of USC film school and was doing sound on a student film. My brother was composing music for it, and they had me play the bass on it. Then I met this guy, and there was sort of this light bulb. Computers were being used, the sound was happening, and he was marrying these two things that I felt I was really good at.
So, I basically twisted the guy’s arm, and I said, “Look, I’ll come work for you for eight dollars an hour. I’ll answer your phones. I’ll do your invoicing. I’ll do administrative work until I’m good enough to do some kind of sound work and contribute to your tiny little company. I understand business because I’ve been working in business, and I can help you manage some of the administrative stuff until I learn a skill.” And then a funny thing happened. It was a four-person company, and the boys all preferred to do sound effects like bombs and cars and guns. They liked doing those types of things, and the dialogue side was not something that appealed to them as much. So, again, this opening happened, and I jumped in and started really focusing on that. The funny thing is that in the industry, the dialogue arena tends to skew female.
And it’s true—not completely, obviously, but there’s something about it that does seem to appeal to women. And it suits me so well. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s kind of like a puzzle. How many things can I fix before the mix? This is very detailed work, and somehow, it just works for me. Even though there’s a corporate element, as there’s money involved, of course, you’re working with creative people. Therefore, I felt a little less like an outsider and weirdo to them. The director would wear blue jeans. Even though there’s a hierarchy, it’s not a manufactured hierarchy for the purpose of controlling how you do it. There’s got to be a hierarchy; there’s got to be a person who’s calling the shots, but it just suits me better in terms of not being so corporate-feeling.
PKM: Are there particular projects that stand out for you?
Kira: Absolutely. Well, I loved getting to work on Mad Max: Fury Road. I was invited to go to Sydney, Australia. I would have never gotten to go to Australia had it not been that someone was willing to pay for the ticket for me to go over there and work. And so I not only got to work on a really cool project with an amazing director and very cool people in Australia, but I got to see Sydney a little bit. I worked a lot of days; I think I had four days off in ten weeks. But I did go whale watching, and I did go to the zoo and stand near a koala bear. I got to experience what it was like to live there a little bit. And the food is really good.
So that was great, on multiple levels. I’m super proud of the work itself and thrilled that people enjoyed it the way I did. The thing is, just because I like a movie, that doesn’t mean anybody else will. I got to work on A Star Is Born, the 2018 version, which was an interesting project. The dialogue especially was a challenge on that. And then, more recently, there was Joker, which was a really cool experience for me. The darkness of that movie and the sensibility about it just felt completely familiar and close. And actually, that director had done a documentary about a punk rock person and had some awareness of the scene. We had one conversation about all of Henry’s various interests, so he had knowledge about that. So, every once in a while, you even make a connection to the music stuff. And Game of Thrones season two—that was a show I already loved when I got to join it. So that was another really good experience. Hard work, but very rewarding. And again, people connected to it, so that’s an extra bonus.