LAST MONTH WE LOOKED AT SOME different ways to marry the organic power of arco double bass with the monstrous electric power of heavy metal. This month we look in a different, but somewhat complementary direction: punk rock.
As D. Boon of the Minutemen famously said, “Punk is whatever we made it to be.” This seemed especially true of the generation of American iconoclasts associated with independent labels such as SST and Discord in the 1980s. Not unlike prog-rock or fusion of the time, these bands experimented with song structure, lyrical content, improvisation, and even crowd control. But unlike their more “respectable” counterparts, the punks sought to disrupt the complacent social order they inherited.
The defiant excitement of punk rock captivated me as a teenager as much as metal, but for different musical and social reasons. Those two influences, combined with my budding love for free jazz, meant I was one confused bass player, not quite knowing where to focus my musical energy. Enter The Process of Weeding Out, Black Flag’s 1985 instrumental record, on which those young, self-taught punks tried to harness the energy and freedom of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, musicians they were digging at the time. Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone, and was led to the realization that music is not about picking a team and sticking to it—it’s about finding things that resonate with you as an individual and diving into them without regard for rules.
This piece is a punk rock etude I wrote for solo double bass, inspired by not only the music of Black Flag and their comrades, but their ethos as well. It is named after Kira Roessler, the great bassist of Black Flag and Dos (with fellow So-Cal punk bass legend Mike Watt). Her feel grounded Black Flag in this period, and her sound and playing were clean, full, and propulsive.
The fun begins with a busy pizzicato (plucked) riff, in the tradition of late-era Black Flag, No Means No, or Fugazi. It is kind of fast and should probably be played with the first two fingers of the right hand (and with either fingers or a pick if you’re playing bass guitar). Try to get as much meat on the string as you can to get a full yet clear sound.
Don’t be disconcerted by the time signature— the odd number of beats is intended to rock in an angular way, but rock nonetheless. It is a simple composite of 5/4 and 6/4, and feels natural once you let yourself hear it that way. Hit the triple stops hard in bars 3–8, strumming through the strings with the meat of the right thumb; this will sting at first if you haven’t done it before, but as with all finger-skin, it will callous quickly. Think of these hits as Black Flag/Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson pounding his toms and kick drum in unison with all his might.
The last bar of the piece is a repeating bass figure, a simpler take on the business of the first line, and a possible jumping off point for some liberating improvising of your own. Don’t worry too much about key center or scales here—just follow your ear where it leads after playing the written material. Have fun, and get ready for the next exploration: an etude celebrating the singularly melodic approach of punk bassist Mike Watt.