Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Big Love for a Little Man: Inside Kira's Solo Debut

Photo by Jack Grisham 

Kira needs no introduction, but here’s one anyway...

Best known to Punk fans around the world as the bassist for Black Flag from late 1983 to late 1985 and one half of the two-bass project dos with Mike Watt, Kira has spent the past several years building an accomplished career as a dialogue editor for television and film. Her many credits include Joker, the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born and the second season of Game of Thrones. Additionally, she’s received two Emmys and was part of the sound team that won an Oscar for its work on Mad Max: Fury Road. Now, at 60, she has a brand-new addition to her extraordinary résumé: Solo music artist.

Out today, Kira’s eponymous 10-song debut solo album offers a considerably more subdued atmosphere than anything she played on during her days with Greg Ginn and company. For a general understanding of its immediate vibe, picture a quaint avant-garde Jazz club rather than, say, the old City Gardens in Trenton, NJ. In addition to showcasing her ever-exquisite bass playing, the album features her soothing (but nonetheless evocative) vocals on all tracks. Guests include the amazing Petra Haden (who you can read more about here), guitarist Glenn Brown and drummer Dave Bach.

The album is Kira’s latest sonic undertaking to also feature her older brother, Paul Roessler, whose life in music has included stints with The Screamers, Nina Hagen, Nervous Gender, 45 Grave, The Gitane DeMone Quartet and a host of others. Paul’s role as co-producer and musical contributor is only fitting when considering he is the one Kira credits for inspiring her to play bass to begin with. Circa 1976, Paul put together a band called Arc2 to play a primitive version of his epic 47-minute, Prog-inspired composition, “The Arc” (finally recorded in proper form and released on limited-edition vinyl in 2013). Kira, who was 15 at the time, wanted in.

Their bass player quit, which is the exact reason that I borrowed a bass and started practicing really hard – I wanted to join Arc2. I was never good enough, and then Paul got into Punk Rock. It all works out like it’s supposed to, I guess.”

Released on Paul’s Kitten Robot label (which he founded in 2019 with singer Josie Cotton), the album was written and recorded over a 13-year period. The track listing tells a chronological 38-minute story of (in Kira’s words) “love and loss.” Many of the songs address the passing of her beloved dog Hombrito (“Little Man”), who died of cancer in 2013 at only eight years old. Fittingly, a portrait of him graces the album’s front cover.

“I kind of had to go through the whole process – the early phases and the actual loss and sort of what happens after and with a little distance from the loss. For me, it was just natural to write about this and write this story. I tend to be extremely personal and try to connect with just raw emotion and then see if I can portray that in a way that someone can connect with. The songs are chronological, but they are not all specifically on the topic of the great love of my life in some ways, which was my dog.

“I never had a child, but I raised this dog from a baby,” she adds. “It was as close as I will ever get to having a child, having that connection and going through that process of him growing ill and dying – and how it feels now afterwards. He was everything; he still is. I love my dogs that I have now, but I didn’t have them as babies; I rescued them as adults. It is different when you start from the beginning.”

Although anyone who’s loved and lost a pet will readily empathize with what Kira is expressing with this album, she insists that the emotions experienced throughout the CD are universal.

“I believe by sharing those deep feelings, others can connect with it – nothing to do with the topic per se, but it’s that raw emotion that people can tap into. For me, that was huge […] Back in the Punk Rock days, we were expressing rage and anger, and [that music] captured that so well. This is really just more of the same: ‘Okay, I’m having this sort of frustration/annoyance feeling. How do I capture that?’
Already a feverishly prolific band, Black Flag experienced its most productive era during the Kira years, recording six albums (four studio/two live) and two EPs from 1983 to 1985. The band also blazed through nearly 300 shows during that same time period. Those facts are amazing on their own, but they become jaw-dropping when considering that Kira was also an active student at UCLA at the time. Not surprisingly, this tough-as-nails work ethic established her as a force within the predominantly male Punk/Hardcore scene and earned the admiration of her fellow musicians.

As former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins noted in a statement sent to this website, “[Kira] was a mere slip of a woman, but physical size really didn't matter. She was in one of the most ferocious bands at the peak of violence in that scene in the '80s. She was as tough as any of us and could stand up to anything.”

Thirty-six years after Kira’s departure from the band, Black Flag remains one of the most lauded contributors to the history of American underground music. Interestingly, she believes that much of the group’s ongoing cultural relevance has little to do with the actual sounds it created.

“A lot of people who’ve heard of Black Flag haven’t necessarily heard Black Flag. It’s a concept; it sort of represents something. It’s sort of like the words ‘Punk Rock;’ what is the actual meaning? In a sense, Black Flag became this set of words that represented something much larger than the band actually was. If you played Black Flag music for a bunch of different people, you wouldn’t necessarily get the kind the impact response than if you just talked about it or showed them the logo. Back then, it was one of the few bands that was touring as extensively as it did, so it was a little more well known than a lot of the local bands that played maybe New York or LA and big cities but didn’t play three gigs in Louisiana or five gigs in Florida. So, that helped, but we were starving; we didn’t make a lot of money. People think now, ‘You guys were so big,’ but we were not big in the commercial scheme of things. We were sleeping on peoples’ floors and living off of $10 day per diems. It was not the glamorous lifestyle. But the big transition really started with bands like Nirvana and the Chili Peppers saying they were hugely inspired by Punk Rock – and maybe the LA Punk scene specifically. Maybe Black Flag was even specifically mentioned, and these bands did get huge. They were saying, ‘Hey, these are our roots.’ I think that made people start diving in. There is this mystique because of the logo, because of the name and because of the spread across the country that allowed it to become something defined. Not all bands could [do that]. People have heard, let’s say, the name ‘The Germs,’ but you can’t quite grab onto it. There was enough to grab onto with Black Flag that it actually stands upright as a thing. But I really don’t think it’s much about the music; I could be wrong. If you asked someone, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite Black Flag song,’ I don’t think there would be one for a lot of people. And that’s okay. It’s like ‘Punk Rock;’ it’s more of a concept than necessarily something you can explain and have a definition of.”

As for the records she performed on with Black Flag, she cites 1985’s In My Head as the one that resonates the most with her.

“There’s something about In My Head that people may not necessarily glom onto the way I do, but I was there. That could have well been an instrumental record. We were jamming most of those songs as instrumentals, like we did. We had a lot of instrumental stuff, but Henry started to write lyrics. When Henry is singing his own lyrics, there’s an emotion to it that he doesn’t always capture with other songs. He gets intense, but especially with Greg’s songs, he couldn’t necessarily identify as closely as something he wrote himself or something of course that [former bassist] Chuck Dukowski wrote, because Chuck wrote the most amazing anthems in Black Flag. But Henry was actually sitting down and writing. In a sense, [In My Head] was the most collaborative and the most of Henry expressing his own true feelings. I’ve always had a soft spot for the way those songs became the way they are.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, Kira found herself again recording Black Flag material in the studio – this time for the 2010 release Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie: Reinterpreting Black Flag. As the title suggests, the six-song, worth-seeking-out EP features vastly different arrangements of classic Black Flag tunes. The release boasts appearances by Blondie’s Jimmy Destri, The Plimsouls’ Peter Case, Mike Watt, Saccharine Trust’s Joe Baiza and original Black Flag singer Keith Morris, among many others. Invited by former Black Flag singer/guitarist Dez Cadena to participate in the project, Kira provides lead vocals on a Patsy Cline-tinged cover of “Nervous Breakdown” and plays bass and sings on a rendition of “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” that is absolutely nothing like the original. Kira looks back on the release with great fondness.

“I think [the EP] hangs together as an interpretation as well as anything I’ve heard, and I often point to it as something I’ve done that I’m proud of and thought was a very creative, cool project.”

Although Kira’s profile in the national underground circles grew exponentially upon her arrival in Black Flag, she was already well established in the Los Angeles scene via her time in a variety of bands, including Waxx, The Visitors, Geza X and the Mommymen, The Monsters, Sexsick, Twisted Roots and DC3. This writer’s personal favorite of the lot, the adventurous and brilliant Twisted Roots, formed in 1981 as a way for Paul, former Germs guitarist Pat Smear and the rest of the new band to focus their attention away from grieving the recent death of their friend Darby Crash. Kira, drummer Emil McKown (later of a pre-Kira lineup of Black Flag) and singer Maggie Ehrig completed the band’s original lineup.

“For me, Twisted Roots – especially the first incarnation – was a somewhat unique experience musically. I went to school with Maggie in the 12th grade and met her there. I was telling her about Punk Rock while she was still a hippie girl. I corrupted her into Punk Rock in our cooking class. It was some of the first times my basslines got a certain amount of freedom. Because the structures of the songs were not my own, I started to learn to write basslines that actually complemented the music. I think it was some of the earliest times when I got a little bit free with the bass parts, and Paul gave me a lot of freedom to do that. There were multiple incarnations of Twisted Roots, all of which were very special to me. Even though it wasn’t necessarily known musically for a lot of people, it was very big in my musical life. Obviously, Paul’s a big influence on me, and it was a big chunk of time for him trying to make [Twisted Roots] happen. In a lot of ways, I was just a side player trying to support him; there was a lot of me trying to figure out how to work in his framework. Until I have my own bands, I’m always just trying to find ways of supporting somebody else’s vision. In my own way, that’s what I was trying to do in Twisted Roots. It was a great experience, because sometimes people are more constraining of you, but Paul was not constraining of me.”

In 2011, fourth-fifths of the original band (with later member Gary Jacoby filling in for McKown) reconvened for a live performance at a Los Angeles screening of Dave Travis’ film, A History Lesson: Part 1, which features footage of the 1984 lineup of the band alongside live clips of The Meat Puppets, The Minutemen and Redd Kross.

“I actually said no when they first asked me, but the bass player who agreed to do it couldn’t do it for whatever reason,” Kira recalls. “When Paul and Pat came to me then, I had to do it. Of course, I was enmeshed in a very big work project and felt overwhelmed by trying to practice and get this together, but it was a great experience. I’m so glad we did it!”

(A 2012 feature by this writer on the history of Twisted Roots is available here.)
Although the stage still calls to Kira from time to time, listeners who enjoy her new album shouldn’t expect to see her take this material on the road any time soon.

“The likelihood of me touring is very low. It’s funny; life just kind of keeps moving, and that feels so far away and so difficult. It wouldn’t be the same if I did it again. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. That being said, performing live is one of those experiences that is so particular and rare; I certainly can’t say I don’t miss that and wouldn’t like to do it. So, the answer is I’m hoping to find a way to do something live performance-wise, but I haven’t figured out how. If I do perform live, it won’t be an exact capturing of that record; it will be interpretations of the songs. At this point, it’s a concept but not a reality.”

More than four decades after first picking up the bass, Kira is still creating captivating music drawn from the depths of her core emotions. With 60 years’ worth of experiences under her belt, how would she best describe herself at this point in her life?

“Bass player first and foremost – this is just who I am. Then a sound editor, dog mom, loving wife and loner.”

Order Kira from Kitten Robot Records

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com