A spiel with Devin Hoff and Kira from AwkWard
The punk rock cred of bassist Kira in the American independent underground and the L.A. scene is off the proverbial charts.
Back in the 1980’s heyday of SST Records, Kira took the bass mantle previously held by Chuck Dukowski in the hardcore juggernaut Black Flag, and with her melodic bottom-end fury, she helped provide the rock-solid rhythmic foundation on earth-scorching classics like Slip It In, Loose Nut, Family Man and In My Head, along with Live ’84, Who’s Got The 10 1/2? plus the hugely influential, all-instrumental prog-jazz rager, The Process of Weeding Out.
Eventually, Kira and Black Flag parted ways and dos, her two-bass band with Mike Watt of the Minutemen, was birthed. A string of albums of elastic and knotty jazz-leaning DIY punk followed on labels like New Alliance and Kill Rock Stars featuring covers of Sonic Youth, Billie Holiday and Selena and early songs that would later be reinvented by Watt in fIREHOSE.
In 2011, dos—after being M.I.A. music-wise since 1996’s Justamente Tres—made an improbable and welcome return with Dos y Dos. Since then, Kira has been busy with a successful career in film editing. But in late December, Kira and avant-jazz bassist Devin Hoff (Nels Cline, Ches Smith, Xiu Xiu) dropped their own electric bass/double bass-driven maelstrom, In Progress, as AwkWard.
The Globe had the pleasure of speaking to both Kira and Hoff about all things bass and dos, how their new project came together, recollections of Lorna Doom of Germs and more.
Kira, first off, you and Watt have been doing dos on and off for over thirty years. Now you have this new two-bass duo project with Devin Hoff. What is it about the dynamic of having a two-bass band with some singing that works for you and that you find appealing?
Kira: Well, it is about having the space to explore what bass does in the song. Once you add other instruments, it becomes somewhat natural to change the role of the bass in the song to create space rather than occupy it. We still use space in the two bass format, but it is for more bass!! It forces the songwriting to be thoughtful of this and build in this dynamic.
You and Watt started dos in 1985 and I think that time coincided with your leaving Black Flag. Now Black Flag was, of course, super-intense live and on record. How do you recall the transition was for you, going from the insanity of Black Flag to this low-key’ish and minimal jazz-punk project? After BF, were you ready to go another direction sound-wise?
Kira: Well it only is low-key’ish in terms of instrumentation (loud drums and guitars). It never felt that low key in terms of difficulty or intensity during gigs. I got to be more creative in writing my songs and bass lines. I mean it’s not like other bands were calling me up to join their punk bands … and starting something new myself definitely did make me more interested in variation and not repetition. Driving bass lines would sound funny by themselves, but it took time to find the niche. An early song example would be “Taking Away the Fire.”
You’ve sung on a bunch of dos songs, covering Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline and more, as well as your own originals. Were there lots of standards playing in your house when you were growing up and that’s how you got turned on to Billie and Patsy?
Kira: The only music in my house from my parents was classical from my dad. Paul (my older brother) also influenced me. But my Billie fixation started in junior high through a friend. The Patsy song was Mike’s idea. The Selena song was mine.
Let’s talk about your beginnings with dos and its origins. I recall the story of Watt having bass riffs where some ultimately became the foundation for fIREHOSE tunes. Can you recall how the two-bass duo with Watt started?
Kira: I used to make bedtime story cassettes for my nephews when they were very young. I would read the story and overdub two bass “duos” to play underneath because I thought of it as soothing. After D Boon died, Mike and I stayed around his house and jammed on several of those and jammed up some new songs which became the first record. Some of those were then interpreted by Mike for fIREHOSE.
Let’s talk AwkWard with Devin. I know he’s moved around a bunch (East and West coasts) and has played in The Nels Cline Singers, with Carla Bozulich and so many more in the avant-jazz and indie worlds. How and when did your paths originally cross?
Kira: We probably met before this but the first time he just blew me away was at a gig (I think in San Francisco) where he did bass lines from the Black Flag record, The Process of Weeding Out. I was honored but also floored by his ability on the monster standup bass that I have always been intimidated by. Then he opened with a solo performance when dos played this coffee shop in Pedro and we discussed doing our own two bass band.
Devin, can you recall the first time you heard Kira, live or on a Black Flag or dos record? What is it about her bass chops that blows your mind?
Hoff: The first time I heard Kira was on Loose Nut I believe. But it was The Process of Weeding Out that really influenced my thinking. I grew up surrounded by my Dad’s jazz musician friends but was drawn to punks and punk rock in my own generation, and not sure how to reconcile these things. Process blew my mind and helped me understand how avant-garde jazz and punk rock are coming similar perspectives in terms of being about energy and rebellion. I loved also how driving and solid at the same time Kira sounded, which is my ideal for punk rock bass playing. Later when I heard dos and then got to know Kira better as a person and a musician, I realized how strong her senses of melody and counterpoint are, and that as great as she sounded in Black Flag she was actually being under-utilized as a writer and player.
Devin, Kira has been doing dos with Watt for decades. How intimidating was it for you to step into the legendary Watt’s shoes and be in a two-bass band with Kira?
Hoff: Well, to be honest I never thought about stepping into Mike’s shoes. I have been a fan of both Kira and Mike–and thus dos–for decades now. But I think of playing music with people as ideally being different individuals collaborating as individuals, rather than as extensions of their instruments, if that makes any sense. And although I have been inspired and undoubtedly influenced by both Kira’s and Watt’s playing and writing, our approached are so different, especially with me only playing the upright in AwkWard.
The AwkWard record was dropped out of the blue. How did the project with Devin come together? Were you itching to do a new dos record and maybe Watt wasn’t available so you decided to do this new band and record with Devin?
Kira: Watt has been incredibly busy the whole time we have done dos. I haven’t made any decisions based on that. Devin and I developed some songs for fun and recorded them at my brother’s studio Kitten Robot years ago. We just decided to let people hear if they wanted to. Devin has also been really busy. I have also been really busy. So in the big picture I guess that is why there isn’t more AwkWard available.
How, in your mind, is AwkWard different from dos?
Kira: SO MANY WAYS! Devin is just so different than Mike, and in the context of these to bass bands chemistry is so vital. Mike and I have a complicated and dramatic chemistry. Devin and I are more analytical, playful, and calculating ways to make it good.
How did it work songwriting-wise with Devin? Did you two get together and jam on some bass riffs or you had these lines/songs in the pipeline already and just hit record?
Kira: Devin and I each brought some ideas to the table and then we collaborated in a practice environment to hash out the structures. I am not big on freeform jamming so my parts are all worked out while he lets loose in a few places.
Devin, On In Progress, it sounds like you’re coming from a more free / improvised approach, and of course you come from that world, having played with Nels, Ches Smith and so many avant-garde jazz heads. Are you on both double bass and electric on the record? And are your parts all-improvised? What was your approach?
Hoff: Yeah, I just play double bass in this band. It’s nice having the option of playing with the bow. My parts are mostly written on this record, either by Kira or myself. I try to keep the improvising to a minimum these days. But I guess it sounds like I’m improvising anyway. Haha 🙂
Do you and Devin have any plans to play live together?
Kira: Devin and I did play a gig together years ago. I think Mike had booked it and couldn’t make the show (vague memory) so Devin and I played.
Devin, can you touch on the cover art of the record by Teev?
Hoff: Teev is a multi-disciplinary artist who works with many mediums. She made the logo that appears on the banner on the band camp page, and the cover art for the record, which in her words: “integrates the energy and duality of the two forms of the bass as an instrument [contrabass and bass guitar] and was informed by the parallels each musician brought to pieces on the record. The photos used were each taken by the respective bassists, integrating their respective perspectives.”
The last dos record (Dos y Dos) came out back in 2011. Any plans for a new one?
Kira: Mike and I have not been working together in recent years. We don’t have plans, but I never say never. I always have some songs in my personal pipeline and two bass formats are all over my ideas. I have some solo material that my brother and I have recorded that I don’t have plans to release, but again, never say never.
Kira, you’ve also had an incredible career as a sound effects editor in film and you won an Oscar in 2016 for Mad Max: Fury Road. What have you worked on recently?
Kira: As for movie work, that has been pretty constant which is very cool. 2018 was chock full of A Star is Born and Aquaman. And I am starting next week on my next big movie…so more to come!!!
Finally, in light of the untimely passing of Lorna Doom of Germs, I was wondering if you can give any recollections of her and what she brought to the scene.
Hoff: I had an in-store at Amoeba the other day with another band, and borrowed the tour manager’s sharpie to scribble LORNA DOOM on my bass, as I had just heard about her passing. I came around too late to have known her in that scene, so all I know is that she was an under-rated musician and, in my mind, quite a presence on the instrument. The Germs were a band that influenced far more people than ever heard them live, and I think Lorna’s contribution lives on in that way.
Kira: I can’t tell you how hard this one was for me. There has been a lot of loss lately but she was a peer – I went to so many Germs shows sitting on the side of the stage. It does seem sometimes that the best of us are being lost.