Tuesday, July 12, 2011

dos y dos

Today marks the release date of dos y dos the fourth album by the two bass guitar duo of Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, etc.) and Kira Roessler (Black Flag). It's the first album Mike and Kira have released together since 1996's Justamente Tres on Kill Rock Stars, and the second since their marriage ended in divorce in 1994.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kira about the new dos album and the collaborative process involved in creating it, while also touching on more intangible topics like the nature of commitment. Kira told me that when she was in Black Flag the band's motto was "whatever you do, do it all the way," and it's clear that Kira still lives by that creed, even if the amount of time she has to dedicate to music is now limited by her busy and successful career as a Hollywood dialog editor.

Kira Roessler and Mike Watt.

Kira was very open and easy to interview, but there were times when I could hear flashes of the fierce competitiveness that no doubt served her well as one of the few women in the macho L.A. hardcore scene of the 1980s. She has also clearly used that fierce competitiveness to her advantage in collaborating with Mike Watt, and to push herself to become a better songwriter and bass player.

It took Kira and Mike a long time to develop the songs on dos y dos, and it is easy to hear how much care, thought and passion was put into the album's exquisite arrangements. As Kira says in our interview "There's love, there's hate, it's all in there." It's the band's finest hour so far, and the album can stand proudly alongside anything either Kira or Mike have done in the past. 

Me: You and Mike have been doing dos for over 25 years now. What is it that keeps the two of you coming back to this configuration of two basses with occasional vocals?
Kira: Well, I think basically the same thing that started it. We are both so much bass players first. Take away dos and we are [still] such bass players through and through. So for us to play together, that’s the instrument. We're not going to suddenly jump instruments. I've been known to say that people who leave the bass and play guitar are traitors. So that's just me.

But you start with that. You start with the fact that we're bass players through and through. We compose on the bass without any real feeling that [the instrument] hampers our ability to compose. And then you have the fact of just our chemistry, if you will, and the relationship, which has gone from a fascination, through a marriage, through a level of commitment that regardless of marriage and the difficulties of that kind of relationship, there is a pretty deep connection that just doesn't quit.

So it keeps coming back to this. You know, a band is like a marriage, and I think our ability to commit to that is the same thing that made us commit to the marriage. And there's no…I almost can't imagine what it would be like without it. It's a lifelong commitment, just like it is to the bass guitar. Dos is a tribute to the bass guitar, and…the best possible way to do what I'm trying to do.

Now there's all this new stuff added on to it, like the fact that I've learned to be so much better at my craft because of dos. And that just reinforces the desire to keep doing it.

Me: In rock music the bass is typically an under-utilized melodically. Why do you think that is?

Kira: [Laughs] I heard Mike say an interesting thing the other day. He almost implied that it was to keep the power of the bass out of the mix. In other words, that the bass can be so powerful that you have to kind of keep it squashed.

But I think that, just like as I was saying, just as there is a chemistry in our band there's a chemistry in all bands, and often times it is closely connected to who composes the songs and who does the writing. And traditionally that is the guitar player. They tend to be the leaders of the band, the ones who are planting the seeds creatively. I would say, for myself, when I'm playing in a rock band with a guitar player who's written a song, I think it's completely inappropriate for me to try to stand out. The best bass line for the song he's written may be one where I am completely understated.

I often say that one of my favorite bass players is Dusty Hill, because he always does what's exactly right for ZZ Top. He's not necessarily showing off his prowess and his technical skill, he's just doing what's right in the context [of the song]. And I think that is what a good bass player does…you know, [acts as] the grout between the tiles.

Now that doesn't mean it's limited to that. It's just that, as you said, traditionally that's what rock has done. You have a guitar player who writes a line and you have a bass player who either can't, or won't, step all over it to show off their skill and prowess. Occasionally you do, and those aren't my favorite bass players.

Me: For me, with any instrument, when I feel like someone is doing something to show off their technical prowess, it's a turn off.

Kira: Yeah! Exactly! To me it comes down to the emotion. There's no emotion in being fancy-pants and playing a bunch of notes. There's emotion in feeling what's right, and that could be very minimal, and very much full of space and holes. So if you're too busy filling up all the space, you're taking away emotion a lot of times.

Me: Yeah, I definitely agree. But on the other hand, there are some notable exceptions. To name the big one, there's Paul McCartney, who obviously tends to contribute a lot melodically through the bass guitar.

Kira: But he writes the songs!

Me: Yes, exactly.

Kira: Again, when the bass player is the songwriter, and you do see that…[take] Mike's rock bands [for example]...what he does solo wise is the same thing. His bass lines are much more melodic, and are much more important to the song when he is the songwriter. So I think it comes back to that a lot of the time. If the person has any restraint, he's going to allow the song to be what it is, which means deferring to the songwriter. If the drummer writes the song, it's the same thing as far as I’m concerned.

Me: Can you tell me a little bit about your new album dos y dos? What was its genesis, development process, recording, etc.?

Kira: Sure. This record has been a long, long, long time coming. [Laughs] ... That's for a number of reasons, including the more obvious ones like the fact that Mike is an incredibly busy man, and that I work very full-time for a living. So the amount of time that can be applied to the composition of songs at times is hampered. And the composition is the part that is extremely difficult in the case of dos, because to do it right the spaces and the interplay has to be worked out, and nuanced, and massaged. We can't just pull from our traditional bag of tricks. We have to go iteration after iteration to struggle with how to compose the song in such a way that the interplay is there, and so that the songwriter—whichever of us it is—can get what they are trying to get out of it.

So these songs have been evolving for 15 years, basically. The cover song on there, "No Me Quiero Mas," a Selena song, was one we started playing years and years ago. There are a couple of songs that date back maybe even farther.

Oftentimes, when I'm the composer I will write the seed of Mike's part, and he will modify it and make it his own. And when he writes the song, he typically leaves it open for me to write a part, and then we go around a few times on it. But, to make the point clear, the composition is complicated; the obstacles have been numerous in terms of composition.

Now the cool thing is, the upside has been that in the last few years we both have ProTools in our house. We both have the capacity—and he has a studio in his home—we can record one song at a time. The last record, Justamente Tres, we had to get the whole set together and go in and record it in just a day or two.

Me: That was something that I wanted to ask about specifically because, obviously, so much has changed within the music industry, both on the recording and distribution end since the last time you released a record. The previous records you recorded at [Ethan James' studio] Radio Tokyo. And this one was done in ProTools in Mike's home studio, correct?

Kira: Right. That’s correct. What happens is, in a demo kind of way, we can send the material back and forth...It's kind of like the way we did the first record. When we did the first record I lived in Connecticut. We would send cassette tapes back and forth in the mail to compose the songs. Now we send digital files back and forth, and work on the songs that way. And I can work on the songs at 6:30 in the morning, which is what works for me. And he can work whenever he works, and we can evolve the song. And then I go down to his studio to do the actual recording which, as I was saying, is actually the smallest aspect of it.

This time [the process] took so long that there were songs we had to go back and re-record because the sound on the later songs was so different from the sound on the earlier songs. And we wanted the sound of the record to be consistent from top to bottom, so we went back and re-recorded some of the earliest recordings.

Me: So far I've only heard an MP3 preview of the album, but I was very impressed with the sound quality. And I went back and listened to the first two dos records that were recorded in a proper studio, and I think I actually—and not to put down Ethan James at all—but I liked how the new album sounds better.

Kira: It does [sound better]! And it's interesting that you mention that, because I went back and did the same thing recently. Someone who was doing an interview asked for a couple of our old songs to hear, and I brought some of them up. And I was surprised to hear the same thing. Part of that, as I've said, [is because] a lot has changed for Mike and I since then. We have better tools now. My current bass sounds better than what I was using then. We have very good preamps down there that we're recording through.

You know, people can argue the analog digital world, but there is so much more to it than just that. So you've got this issue of top-to-bottom, how my fingers hit the strings, what kind of strings they are, what kind of bass it is, what kind of preamp it is, etc., etc. So it's not Ethan James per se, but how it went from our hands to Ethan…

Me: Right. I think a lot of times people get hung up on that analog digital divide either because it's something that feel like they can understand, or because it's the kind of binary divide that people seem to be attracted to. But you're right, there really is so much more going on than that.

Kira: Frankly, I don’t think most people could hear the difference. [Laughs] I really don't.

Me: I think you're probably right.

Kira: If you take a good quality recording of both, and give a person some good quality headphones, or speakers, and sit them in front of them, and do a compare and contrast. You know, your audiophile, your top 1% audiophile is going to hear the difference.

Me: Yeah, but…Steve Albini might take issue with both of us on this point.

Kira: [Laughs] He certainly would! And I would be happy to argue with Steve! I've recorded a record with Steve, and I take issue with some of the ways that he does things too…He's a good example of what I'm talking about. His strategy in being an engineer or…producer is very much to let the band hang themselves, if that's what they're going to do. Ethan James let dos sound the way dos sounded, and Albini would do the same. And Mike and I, given that we had this environment, this song by song crafting, had the ability to overcome some of the mistakes that we might not be able to overcome if we were to work through someone like that. Because we have to figure out what's working and not working and hear it back, hear what we're doing right, hear what we're doing wrong, take it away, come back.

Me: I'm intrigued by the title of the album for a couple of reasons. One of the things that the title brings to mind for me is dancing (as in "swing your partner dosey doe.") Was that a connotation you had in mind on any level?

Kira: [Laughs] No. Dos y dos equals quattro, and it's our fourth record. We have this sort of thing going with the records being somewhat titled after the number, and this one is our fourth. Our last record, Justamente Tres, was we thought going to be the last dos album, so we thought it was going to be "just three." So no, the dancing tie in I don't think was really there, but mathematics, the Spanish mathematics, absolutely.

Me: So maybe this is your mathematical background creeping in?

Kira: Well, Mike actually gave it the title, so I take no credit.

Me: The reason that it brings to mind dance for me is because, having listened to the album, there is an almost dance like quality to it. I'm thinking of dancing that involves partnership, and what you have is a similar kind of musical partnership. There's been a conversational quality to all of the dos albums, but with this one, to me, there is almost a dance-like quality to it. Not dancing as in going out clubbing--I'm thinking more along the lines of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers--there is a certain fleetness of foot to this album.

Kira: Well that's kind of what I'm saying about the interplay and composition, and I think Mike and I are getting better at it. You can hear this evolution of us being able to execute what we've been trying to do all along, which is that interplay, that fleetness of foot and lightness without getting bogged down in the fact that we're using these heavy low-end instruments. [We want to] still have the full frequency that the instrument is capable of, but without stepping all over each other. Which is a good dancing analogy too, that's when it doesn't work, if you’re stepping on each others' toes.

So we have to somehow compositionally work around each other, and I think we're both getting better at that. And we fight and struggle with that. You don't know how hard it is! And he's constantly, even more than me, saying, "no that’s too busy, we're stepping on each other." So we're constantly stripping things out of it, and it's weird to keep pulling stuff out until it feels like there's hardly anything left. But that's the exercise from the beginning when we're throwing stuff at each other; it's an editing process, we keep pulling stuff out until it has that sort of lightness to it.

Me: Listening to this, when I close my eyes, it was almost as if I could picture Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the dance floor because of that very quality that you're describing. I think it's remarkably well done from that perspective.

Kira: Well that's cool because that is what we're going for. I think we're getting better at it, and I think it has made me a much better bass player when I write for guitar music, or other music, because I've learned to be better at finding the spaces. I've learned to be better at not stepping on the guitar player's toes. It's also really helped me in my teaching. I do some bass lessons, and when I have students who aren't just starting out, I work really hard with them on not writing just the obvious, traditional, bass lines in their rock music, but actually stretching the limits a little bit and finding spaces and leaving holes. So it's become a big part of how I think, and play bass regardless of dos.

Me: Another thing I noticed about the new album is that it was much harder for me to tell your playing and Mike's playing apart. On the previous albums usually I could listen and say, "okay that's a Mike thing," or "that’s a Kira thing," but here there is a fluidity and seamlessness between the two of you, and the way that you exchange ideas, that seems a bit different this time.
Kira: [Laughs] That's funny, because I think we do play differently. I think one of the things that's better—and I think that is a better thing that you're describing—is that the sound of our basses are better, and they match better, and we're better able to…take care of the sonic qualities, and make sure everything sounds balanced, and that nobody stands out too much one way or another, good or bad. We wanted it to sound more like interplay than competing. But it is in some ways still a duel as well. [Laughs] I mean it's war! I don’t know if you can tell, but it's war!
Kira and Mike go to war!
Me: I can hear that too. But mostly I hear an exchange of ideas...
Kira: There is! There's love, there's hate, it's all in there. But what I meant by that is that we are obviously in really different places in our lives. Mike plays all the time, every day, hours and hours a day he's playing on stage. And I'm fighting and battling all the time to find half and hour before work to play my bass. So I can't slide. Ever since I was 6 and I had a big brother, and we both played piano, there's been this vicious competitive streak in me, that just says that I can't show that I’m not as much. When I joined Black Flag, it was the same thing. I [felt I couldn't] show that because I'm a girl, I'm weak. There's this constant thing of not wanting to show any weakness. It's probably a huge character flaw! But I also try to benefit from it and use it as motivation, because just recognizing it as a character flaw doesn't necessarily make it go away.

Me: Do you know what Ginger Rogers said about dancing with Fred Astaire?

Kira: No.

Me: She said, "I did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels." [Ed. note, I misattributed this quote to Ginger Rogers, it was apparently first used by cartoonist Bob Thaves in his comic strip Frank And Ernest.]

Kira: There you go! And I'll just say with hands half the size of Mike Watt!

Me: Right! But that is something that's interesting. I mean, playing with Mike Watt, you've obviously, despite other demands on your time, you've kept your playing at a very high level. Playing with Mike Watt, that's like stepping onto the tennis court with Pete Sampras or something. You can't be out of practice and hope to keep up.

Kira: It's challenging. It really is. And I of course, my personality is such that I feel the competitive aspect a lot more than Mike does. I think it's hard for Mike to imagine being on the other side of the tennis court. And I don't think he is necessarily enforcing it, or creating it, it's just there. Luckily I have all these years of fighting this battle, so I practice a lot. We have a dos gig coming up and I'm practicing all the time. Mike's hands are in shape already. All he has to do is remember the parts. I have to get my hands stronger and more mobile, as well as remember all those parts, because I don't play dos all the time. It's interesting. We'll get together and practice, and my biggest challenge often is the implementation, and his will be to remember his parts. He has a million other songs in his head that he has to push aside. And I have the problem of just getting my fingers to do what I'm telling them to do.

Me: Well, in my mind, and I'm sure the mind of anyone who's followed your career, you have nothing to prove. But it sounds like you still feel like you do, like that hunger is still there.

Kira: Well, it's like you said, if I'm going to get on the tennis court with whoever…I just can't let up. It's not so much about proving myself as it is that I can't go out on the court without stretching, or not have done as much prep as I can do. I don't want to go out there and look like I'm not even trying. So there's this feeling of I have to do my part. And, yeah, there's a part of me that worries I won't succeed. I literally work 60-hour weeks. I literally have these huge obstacles in the way of just being prepared as best I can to be on the other side of the tennis court.

Me: Your main job is as a film dialog editor, correct?

Kira: Right. Dialog and ADR [automated dialog replacement].

Me: Do you like that?

Kira: I do. I'm paid well. It's something that is sometimes, but not always, creative. I've worked my way up in this field and had some career success, which is affirming. The problem with that is that in the old days I had big breaks between projects, and now those come fewer and further between. The pain of success is that I keep getting offered great work, such great work that I feel I can't turn it down, even if I might like to have a break. So even if I can maybe afford to take a break, I can't turn the work down because it's such a great opportunity. So things are going really well in that way, but that also makes it harder to find those little breaks to do more music stuff. But I do like it, and I've had some success at it, which is that job satisfaction that we all want.

Me: Absolutely, and I've seen some of the projects you've worked on, so it's obvious to me that you've risen to the very top of your field. How hard was it for you to transition into a career away from music?

Kira: Well I've never done music for a living. So maybe that's helped. My last quarter at UCLA was after I was asked to leave Black Flag, so I had to get work right out of school. I was in computers for 11 years, because that's what I studied. This wasn't on my radar at that time. So I was working in the corporate world, and not really enjoying it that much…and then I met someone who was running a really small sound house who my brother was doing some composing for. So in a musical context, because they asked me to do some bass work, I met this guy, and we got to be friends, and I started begging him to hire me at the absolute lowest level. I took a three quarter pay cut just to start at the bottom and work my way up in a new field. But I've always worked, and it's always been a struggle to balance that with playing bass.

Me: It's interesting because back when I was kid in high school and buying independent releases by bands like Black Flag or the Minutemen, I think I had a very unrealistic idea of what the financial situation was like for bands in that position. As far as I was concerned, I was buying these albums at the same record stores where you could buy a Bon Jovi, or whatever, record. I knew those bands weren't making Bon Jovi money, but it wasn't until I read Our Band Could Be Your Life that it fully dawned on me just how financially deprived that lifestyle actually was.

Kira: Yeah. And, you know, it hit me pretty early that I didn't want to be another starving artist because I have an older brother who sort of chose that route.

Me: That's Paul [Roessler]?

Kira: Yeah. And so I had a little sense that that wasn't the life for me. And I had already been doing it. I was at UCLA working my tail off, and then touring. So for me keeping those balls in the air was almost normal. I mean, I was in high school and gigging and staying out all night. I think my brother and I almost have opposite philosophical ideas about this; for me it doesn't take away from my artistic integrity that I go to school or work, and he had this attitude of if you're a true artist you dedicate your life and soul to it, even if you starve. I always believed I still existed in that realm even if I couldn't always be holding my bass.

Me: Not having been blessed with any artistic talent whatsoever, this has never been a dilemma for me, so I suppose it's hard for me to relate to. But there has always been something about the "starving artist" ideal that struck me as...I don't know…adolescent.

Kira: [Laughs] Well I understand that, and yet there are people who truly believe that. My brother truly has some, and we know others, painters, where there's a disconnect that almost makes them unable to go and work. And they think of themselves as literally not having the capacity to do that. Now, I agree with you, there are times when I say "Oh come on!" And yet we know that through the ages there have been artists who just bled and sweated all over their art and couldn't do anything else.

Me: Oh yeah, absolutely. And God bless those people, and I believe the world is a better place for having them in it. So what I said wasn't meant to denigrate anyone, it's just that it's a hard mentality for me to understand fully.

Kira: And it is for me too, because it was never how I wanted to live. But, if when I finished school, if I was still in Black Flag, I would not have started to work. That was the only time where I was ready to try that. At the time I considered what I was doing at school as a backup plan.

Me: So when you were in Black Flag, you did see that as a potential lifestyle?

Kira: Well, to give it some context, [the attitude in] Black Flag was "whatever you do, do it all the way." That's what my tattoo means to me. That's what I believed. So I did believe that's what it would take to continue on in Black Flag. And I had made the decision that I was going to give it my all. I didn't think of it, frankly, as a forever thing. I just thought, "I'm going to give this a chance." Because my time at UCLA was killing me. So I liked the idea of finally just getting a break from that, and committing to Black Flag full time without school hanging over all our heads, affecting our tour schedules, which was a pain in the butt.

So giving Black Flag my full effort seemed appropriate and right. Was it how I wanted to live? Not necessarily. But I was at least going to give it a chance, because I hadn't yet. UCLA was sucking me dry. And it was sucking Black Flag dry too, because of our tour schedule. We were doing miserable tours, because to accommodate my schoolwork we could only tour in the winter and summer. And the best time to tour is in the spring and fall. But I had to maintain a certain number of quarters at UCLA to maintain my student status…

Me: What do listen to these days, especially in terms of new music?

Kira: Jeez, new music! I like the new Melvins. I don't even know if it's their newest one anymore, The Bride Screamed Murder. Recently I've been listening to things that have been around for a while, but hadn't been on my radar. So it's kind of embarrassing to admit…

Me: I don't think that's anything to be embarrassed by. That might have embarrassed me at a certain point in my life, but not now.

Kira: Yeah, but some of this stuff has been around for a long time. One of my recent absolute favorites is The Evens, which is Ian MacKaye's band with his wife [Amy Farina]. They've been around forever, but I just hadn't checked them out. I really love some of these smaller bands, which is not surprising since I'm in a two-person band. The Evens are a two-person band, Mates Of State is another two-person band I really like. Although I recently saw video of them on stage, and they had a bunch of other people on stage with them, and I was like, "What the hell? I thought you were a two-person band!" I love them.

I like Latin music. I like Albita, who's a Cubana singer. I listen to her a lot, as well as Shakira when she does not her crossover stuff, but her Columbian roots music. I listen to Spanish radio mostly when I'm driving on my very short commute to work.

I've got a list of things that I'm constantly trying to check out. I have two nephews who are in their 20s, and they're a little more in touch, and they make suggestions all the time. They turned me on to Bright Eyes, who I really like.

Me: Back to the new dos album, I see that you have a vinyl release planned.

Kira: Yes, I have it in hand. We have CDs and vinyl, and there will also be download capability. Everything is being released on July 12th. We have a record release party scheduled in Pedro. We have a video, which will be exclusively premiered at the party, then we'll make it available elsewhere. It's fun because it has been so long, and like you said, because there are all these new technologies, and at the same time there's a resurgence of interest in vinyl. So we're having a good time promoting a new album, we've got a couple of gigs coming up. But we're happy to give this album the love that it deserves, despite the demands on our time. He's in Europe, but he'll be back in time for the record release party...

Me: I should probably let you go, but I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to talk to me...I think you and Mike have created something really special with this new album, and I hope this interview will help bring it some of the attention it deserves.
Kira: Well thank you very much for taking your time out, and I enjoyed the interview.


Mark said...

Great interview with Kira. She is a true music pioneer, staking her claim in the testosterone-fueled world of punk rock. Both she and Mike Watt are musical treasures.
Looking at those photos, though, is Mike really performing in a bathrobe and flip-flops?! When did he start doing that?

Pete Bilderback said...

Thanks Mark!

"...is Mike really performing in a bathrobe and flip-flops?!"

Hey, if it feels good, do it!

These photos were sent to me by Mike And Kira's publicist. I suspect they might have been taken in Mike's home studio, but I don't know.

I notice Mike has a brace on his knee and is seated. I know he sustained a pretty wicked knee injury while on tour with The Stooges in 2010, so it probably has something to do with that.