The band Dos takes its name from the Spanish word for two. Its members are two legendary Southern California punk rockers, but they feature only one instrument: the electric bass guitar. With just eight strings, Dos creates a diverse sound that ranges from Tejano ballads to modern waltzes — and it all started three decades ago with the sleepless nights of two young boys.
The boys were Kira Roessler's nephews, whom the Black Flag bassist babysat back in the 1980s. One day, she thought of a creative way to help them get to sleep: She recorded herself reading stories, everything from Dr. Seuss to A.A. Milne, and composed original music on her bass to serve as the score.
"I would create one long and repetitive set of riffs, usually three or four parts, and then I'd create a second bass line that interacted with that," Roessler says. "And make eight or 10 or 20 minutes of this. And sometimes you can hear me reading really fast, because I'm trying to make sure that the story finishes."
At the time, Roessler would occasionally jam with another bassist from California's punk scene, Mike Watt. The two shared a fondness for the instrument — even though, as Watt says, other musicians often dismiss it.
"It's like right field in Little League," Watt says. "But we're kind of like glue — we put the things together. We're a little bit drum, we're a little bit guitar, so we're a little bit melody and rhythm mixed together."
Watt started playing bass when he was 13 so he could be in a band with his best friend, a kid named D. Boon. In the small Southern California port town of San Pedro, Boon and Watt went on to form the influential group The Minutemen. The band thrived in Southern California's punk scene for five years, until Boon was killed in a car accident. Roessler says Watt was destroyed by Boon's death, as was his love of music.
"He didn't want to leave the house," Roessler says. "I was worried that he wouldn't pick up the bass. So I would come over and just try to get him to play."
Her plan worked. Watt resumed his musical career — and part of that career was the duo that became Dos. Eventually, Roessler left Southern California for a stint at Yale, but the two kept working together. They'd send four-track cassettes back and forth across the country, fine-tuning the songs that would become their first album in 1986.
Roessler sings on occasion, and Dos has been known to perform covers of Patsy Cline, Selena and Billie Holiday tunes. But most of their songs are originals and feature only the sound of the two basses. Watt says he sees the lineup as the ultimate musical challenge.
"It's small frequency," he says. "We're in the low end, and so you have to be very conscious of your composition. We gotta play like ping-pong — we have to make spaces for each other."
There's another challenge to this band: Composing is done by consensus. That's one of the reasons why Watt and Roessler chose the name Dos.
"Because it's two," Roessler says, "there's no third person to break the tie. So if we disagree, one wins. Dos is a very particular dilemma that way."
This is especially true, considering the two weren't just bandmates: In 1987, they became husband and wife. But the marriage didn't go as smoothly as the music. Roessler says she had an image in her mind of who Watt should be as a husband.
"I really struggled with that in the marriage, frankly," she says. "I really struggled letting Mike just be who Mike was. But in Dos, I didn't have that fixed picture, so there was much more room for us to figure things out."
The marriage only lasted six years, but the band is still going strong — with some breaks. This summer, Dos unveiled Dos y Dos, the band's fourth album and its first in 15 years. Watt says he and Roessler have both come a long way.
"I think we're probably closer now than when we were married," he says. "It shows you some of the amazing fabric music can be between people."
Today, Roessler is a sound editor for film and TV, while Watt tours with a number of different bands. Instead of mailing cassette tapes, the two exchange their musical thoughts online. Their schedules don't allow them much time to perform together, and that's fine by them.
"Being just two little basses, [audiences] can talk over you and stuff," Watt says. "The gigs are interesting. They're kind of what I'd call character-builders."
So while Dos may not be touring with this release, the duo promises it won't be so long before they release their next one. They plan on putting out album numero cinco soon.