Bassist Kira Roessler on Her Time in Black Flag, Early LA Punk + More

Black Flag photographed in 1985 by Naomi Peterson (taken from Kira Roessler's personal collection)

Lots of people have a lot of different opinions and questions about Black Flag: which singer was best, should the records be re-mastered, what was up with those shorts? And on and on. And, while the lineup of Black Flag with Chuck Dukowski on bass was certainly an entirely different beast, pretty much everyone loves Kira’s bass playing too. So, without further ado, I bring you my interview with punk rock OG, Kira Roessler, the latest installment of my A Hardcore Conversation interview series.

You are Kira Roessler, bass player of Black Flag and Dos, correct?

Yes. I generally go by just Kira. And there were a few other bands along the way. 

You lived in Connecticut the first 8 years of your life then your family moved to the Caribbean. What was the story there? And how did you all finally end up in LA?

So as with many families, my dad decided our whereabouts when I was young. He worked a corporate job in computers in Connecticut and then decided to “get out of the rat race” and move us to the Caribbean. He wanted to be an underwater photographer and chose the island of Curacao, which has a Dutch colonial background (Dutch schools, etc). Then we lived in Northern California when he teamed up with a guy running scuba diving trips all over the world. My mom and my brother and I moved to LA after a divorce.

You were around pretty early in the LA punk scene. How’d you get into all that crazy punk stuff?

I was always influenced by my older brother and this was no exception. He had friends from high school who had started a punk rock band and we started to go to shows. 

Photo: Alice Bag

What was your band Waxx like and who else was in started the band?

Again, my brother Paul and his friends started the band. They let me play the bass.

You were at the last Sex Pistols show, in San Francisco in ‘78. Any memories of that? Did you all stay over and hang out with SF punks? What about the Pistols, did you meet any of them?

It was a tough show. The floor where we were all standing just had a sea of people pushing forward. The bouncers were peeling the front row off as they just smashed into the stage. I finally just escaped, somewhat fearing for my life. But I did see them. We stayed over at someone’s house and were at a party that I think Sid showed up at, but I’ve never been that social really. I was probably just watching it all. 

You also met Stiv Bators, how’d that happen?

I made a habit of showing up early to shows (sound check time) because I couldn’t really afford to go to them. I would help with gear or hang around. I was also trying to meet people who played so I might join bands. I can’t remember specifically a first meeting, and we were not close. We just hung out a few times when they were in LA. 

What was your opinion about hardcore punk as opposed to regular punk [laughs] when hardcore took over?

I have always found this idea baffling. I mean this was a construct after the fact, you know? At the time, what I would say happened is that more bands from the South Bay and Orange County would come up and play so the folks in Hollywood heard them. And we in turn would go down there. People started interpreting pogoing as slam dancing and there started to be more males than females. This resulted in things being a little rougher in the audience. But no-one was putting their “hardcore” or “punk rock” badge on. 

I know a lot of early punk people dropped out when hardcore came in but obviously you did not. Were you a fan of any hardcore bands in particular?

I do not know a lot of punk people that dropped out. There were certain clubs that I avoided because they were kind of rough, but I also was in school and at practice in whatever band I was in all the time. So, going to gigs couldn’t happen all the time. But when I had a chance Middle Class and The Crowd were bands I would go see. And all I can say there, is which were hardcore? Black Flag would certainly have never called themselves that, but have been called that by many. 

Flyer found here

Was Dez Cadena bummed when you left DC3 to join Black Flag?

The only saving grace there was that I hadn’t been playing with Dez very long.  He knew that I admired the work ethic of Black Flag and that I would see it as an opportunity that DC3 would not be able to offer. And that’s not to say that there was money or prestige to be had. But there was a small following around the country and a commitment to head out to play for those people. My wonderful idea was that my brother Paul could play bass on keyboards for DC3 but that wasn’t exactly what panned out. 

You’ve said that Greg Ginn was very specific about how and what he wanted you to play in each song. Is it safe to say that for you Black Flag wasn’t so much an artistic pursuit but more a test of your mental and physical strength? Like the Misfits once said: "let’s test your threshold of pain and let’s see how long you last..."

Not even sure it was much mental. Physically, I was at my absolute limit pretty much the whole time. I guess, mentally the challenge was to put up with my physical challenges as well as the challenges of studying applied math between tours. Greg’s focus in practice seemed to be about making sure we played the songs correctly and we were strong enough to survive a 2-hour show. On tour, he tried to make sure there was time at sound check to do more than check sound, but to jam for a while. 

What about later on when you co-wrote some songs, were things opening up a bit in terms of it being maybe a little more free musically?

At the time it didn’t really seem like things were opening up. But there were times when Bill and I would be playing in the practice pad so I might play these riffs from songs I had written for another band. Henry would sit there while we jammed a lot and he ended up writing words. So it was pretty organic. 

I’ve read some interviews with you talking about the artwork on the Slip It In LP. I always read that quote on the cover (“Nobody knows more than I that the less girls know the better they are likely to be.”) as being the nun talking, not the opinion or “policy” of Black Flag or whatever but that’s not how you saw it right?

There was a moment when I wondered why the first record that a woman played on with them would have that cover.  But very quickly things were more complicated than that. I mean it was Raymond (Pettibon, who is also Greg Ginn’s brother) who made that drawing, so if anyone is expressing himself it is him. And then I started to realize that pushing boundaries and shaking people’s ideas was just part of what we were trying to do anyway. So it didn’t matter.

OG copy of Slip It In from Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

Did you ever talk to Raymond Pettibon about his artwork (that piece or in general)?

I didn’t spend that much time with Raymond while I was in Black Flag. He generally kept a distance. Years later, I got to know him a bit better, but he was never one to break down a piece of art with you. 

Black Flag tour mailer from 1985 from Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

Black Flag had an underlying, almost Nietzschean philosophy. Did you guys ever discuss any of that kind of stuff?

We mostly discussed practice, tours, etc. Again I was always at UCLA or studying when we weren’t practicing in LA. And on tour, you just get so much of each other that there isn’t much philosophizing going on. 

What was smoking weed with Greg Ginn like?

Odd question. What’s it like smoking weed with anyone? I guess I am just saying that it is a sort of a functional act of getting high, not necessarily a social bonding thing. We didn’t then go into more interesting discussions or anything. Just still stayed more practical about it. Maybe just go back to practicing or studying…

[Laughs] I just meant, did he loosen up or anything after smoking, you know? And Greg doesn’t strike me as a particularly “normal” person so I was wondering if he was actually fun to smoke with at all?

Greg did loosen up at times with or without smoking pot. I guess I was just saying he took the practice and gig stuff pretty seriously. But say after a gig, he might smoke with some people who came to the gig and loosen up for sure. 

From Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

What about when Henry started wearing the infamous running shorts? Were you or anyone else in the band like, "oh god!," or whatever or was it just like, "well that’s what he wears now," etc.?

Henry and Bill both wore gym shorts. It just seemed to evolve from the sweat your clothes out sets we were doing. The two of them were always completely soaked. So there was the practicality of rinsing them out and hanging them to dry. Greg and I were both sweating out shirts but that’s not quite as ridiculous on tour. I mean, with very few days off, you cannot plan on having time to do laundry. 

I saw you guys in April of ‘84 at the Reggae Lounge in NYC with Nig Heist and Meat Puppets and I remember you all had to run out the door after each band played because all the bands were double booked up in Connecticut that same night. What was that like and did that sort of thing happen a lot when you were in Black Flag?

Oh no. That was a nightmare! Three gigs in three states in 24 hours. Basically an unusual booking error where we thought we were playing New Haven, CT on the Friday night but when we showed up for sound check we saw on the banner above that we were advertised for the Saturday night. But we were booked in New York on Saturday night. And had an afternoon gig in Boston on Sunday. It was very disappointing for everyone — promoters, fans, and us because nobody got what we wanted to give. And we had a Friday off which you never want on tour. But a rare booking error for sure.

Black Flag at Reggae Lounge, NYC, 1984. (Photo: Cynthia Finch)

Allen Ginsberg was at that Reggae Lounge show, I remember seeing him and there was also a Village Voice review of the show that confirmed it. Were you aware of that and if so, what were your thoughts?

Gosh, I am sure I knew that at the time … but it had slipped my mind. I mean he was a non-conformist, which made him very punk rock. If we widen our ideas about what punk is, there are many who were underground or anti-establishment who would have fit in or did. Not everyone knew what punk rock was though, so it would have been hit or miss. Good for him to have been paying attention to other forms of ‘art’ espousing similar ideas/frustrations. 

RIP Allen — hope it is better wherever you went.

Were you a fan of the Nig Heist? Did you ever play in that band?

Hard to say I was a fan. To me, it was sort of a joke thing and often made fun of women, so not really to my taste. I did play behind an amp once in London and we had some guy stand in front and pose with a bass. 

1984 flyer from Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

Was Henry noticeably more weird or intense when the band would play DC?

I would have to say no. He would have some friends there and we stayed at his mom’s place so it might have been weird for him, but I never sensed a lot of angst around it.

Did you have any favorite cities to play when you were in Black Flag?

It is all a blur in a way. Towns which you would never expect because they are kind of off the beaten path, but college towns like Omaha or Lincoln. Edmonton. Western Massachusetts. Places where you would pull up to the gig and have no idea if anyone was going to show up at all…but they usually did!

How about favorite Black Flag songs?

Chuck’s songs were the best I thought. "My War," "I Love You," "Modern Man," that stuff had so much raw emotion in it. And you could feed off it as music but also how Henry was feeding off of it. I also loved the songs that Henry wrote words to for the same reason — he seemed to feel them more.

What about seeing Black Flag before you were in the band, any favorite moments from those shows?

When they showed up back in LA as a 5 piece with Henry singing, Dez on rhythm guitar, and Chuck Biscuits on drums I saw them. It was like, “this is my favorite band," right there. Done. I had liked them before, but something had changed.

Black Flag had a very contentious relationship with its audience, particularly during the time when you were a member. Did you notice any difference between American and European audiences in terms of levels of hostility and/or acceptance?

Funny, the contentiousness was rarely actually in our face except in Europe. American audiences might just not come to the shows, but we always felt the audiences were just changing. And to be fair we went to Europe with the promise of Hüsker Dü and a view with Henry as a skinhead. We showed up with Nig Heist and Henry with long hair playing My War side 2. Things had changed a lot and they expressed their displeasure more explicitly it seemed to me. 

Were you in the band yet when My War was recorded? (I know you’re not on the record, just wondering if you’d already started playing with them)

I joined after that record had been recorded but before the tour, so my first tour was the My War tour. 

Were the Black Flag albums you’re on mostly recorded live in the studio?

Not really. I mean Bill and I would lay down the bass and drums with Greg doing scratch guitar. He would overdub his final guitar and Henry would record separately. 

Any interesting or funny stories from the recording sessions you were involved in?

We recorded in 48-hour lockout sessions, which were brutal because you just had to get through so much. And somehow I would always have a midterm at UCLA the Monday after the session or something, so I’d be studying when we did take a rest. The Minutemen came in to record MinuteFlag one of these sessions, which was a hoot. We tried to jam, but Mike and I did not really know how to do a two bass thing until years later….

Do you have a favorite Black Flag singer?

Henry, of course. I loved the band from the start though, don’t get me wrong. 

Black Flag in a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone magazine taken from Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

How did you end up writing songs for the Minutemen?

The Minutemen were on the first week of our long summer ’85 tour. That was when I first really got to know Mike at all. He showed interest in me writing some poems or whatever that he could make songs out of, so during the tour I did some writing for him. 

How did you and Mike Watt end up forming Dos?

Dos started just playing in his apartment using either little jams or these two bass noodles I had recorded under bedtime stories for my nephews. Mike and I were dating and it gave us a way to do bass together. We felt that if there were two basses, we certainly needed no other instruments taking up space…

Dos still plays, right?

Well…we have definitely not “disbanded." But Mike is extremely busy and so am I. We have not actually played together in a while. We do stay in touch from time to time…

From Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

A lot of people are probably unaware of the Gimme Gimme Gimme: Reinterpreting Black Flag album in which you and Dez sing sort of old-school country versions of Black Flag songs that came out in 2010. By the way, I had no idea you could sing like that! What’s the story behind that project?

Totally a thing between Dez and his collaborators. I was just brought in to specifically sing two and play one song. But it is close to my heart as a true reinterpretation.

From Anthony Allen Begnal's personal collection

Are you currently in touch with any other fellow Black Flag members?

I have been in touch with everyone except Greg here and there. 

What do you think of Flag and have you caught any shows?

I was at their first show (I believe) when they played in the South Bay where their Black Flag first gig was. 

What are you currently up to?

I work too many hours in post sound on mostly feature-length movies and occasionally TV. I play bass in my room in the mornings and when I can, go work with my brother making recordings that I won’t ever release…

Kira Roessler in October 2019

Anything else you want to add?

Only that if you feel you need clarification on anything, please ask. Sometimes things seem clear to me, but aren’t to someone else.

Thanks, Kira!


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Tagged: a hardcore conversation, black flag