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Escape Velocity

Anthems & Legacies: An Interview With Special Interest
Stephanie Phillips , August 25th, 2020 08:53

Following the release of 'The Passion Of', Stephanie Phillips speaks to New Orleans punks Special Interest about the POC punk community and being part of a legacy

When I envision myself in the middle of the pit back in the real world, whenever the real world opens up again, the first band I want to mosh to has to be Special Interest. The New Orleans-based four-piece are known for their high energy shows, and feverish dance punk sound which teeters on the edge of glam rock and industrial trash metal.

Members Alli Logout (vocals), Ruth Mascelli (synth and drum machine), Maria Elena (guitar), and Nathan Cassiani (bass), together manage to make their instruments and vocals sound like a fight for our existence. Logout's vocals leap from raspy gasps to full throated screams echoing socio-political angst, backed up by Cassiani's pummelling bass, Elena's cutting distorted riffs, and Mascelli's driving beat.

Both the band's first album, 2018's Spiraling, and their latest release, The Passion Of, contain an element of chaos, creativity and surprise that is hard to predict, changing genres and making swift left turns with little warning. 'Disco II' opens with a throbbing, gabber-esque beat and siren like cutting riff, while 'All Tomorrow's Carry' slows down the pace slightly and centres its energy around a pulsating beat.

The band all see New Orleans as the inspiration for their no rules approach to music making. Mascelli explains: "When I first came to New Orleans, the scene was really DIY and supportive in a way I'd never experienced anywhere else. It kind of really encouraged me to try things I wouldn't have tried otherwise."

I spoke to Special Interest about why they want to create space for punks of colour, writing punk anthems, and how they want to be defined as a band.

Since you're all from different places, what is your relationship with New Orleans? Is it somewhere you would stay forever?

Alli Logout: Once you live in New Orleans, you're really fucked because there's no place in the whole world like this city. I spend all my time here and I only travel for art stuff. I like creating art here and I have a family here.

Do you mean in terms of kind of like a community?

AL: Yeah, the community. I got drawn here by Black punks, specifically Osa Atoe who does Shotgun Seamstress.

You cover issues of gentrification and displacement in your music. Has this been influenced by New Orleans and the punk scene there?

AL: I just wanted to start having that conversation. I can barely afford to live in some of the places I do live. I'm currently staying in a place where I don't even feel safe. Housing is consistently always going to be an issue all throughout America. Just thinking about the Black diaspora migrating from different places and still being Black doesn't make you not a gentrifier, you know. I want to talk about that because I'm thinking about it a lot.

I'm thinking about the people that I'm affecting. I'm also thinking about myself and my safety. I'm trying to hold all the nuances that come with having those conversations because being an active gentrifier in a place where you didn't grow up. You do have to come to terms with your existence being violent.

I’ve read some of your past interviews and you’ve spoken about not wanting to be defined by your personal identities, so how do you juggle supporting POC and queer punks while also being able to define your own identities?

AL: I don't think we've ever said anything about not wanting to be defined as POC punks. It's always been that we don't want to be defined by being gay because being gay sucks, and also gay music sucks. [Laughs]

In what sense?

Ruth Mascelli: I would say a lot of modern queer music is kind of all over the place and not something we're really into.

AL: I don't want my queerness to be like a defining factor for me. It was really important for me when I was younger because I was like, "I'm like gay – somebody pay attention to me." Now that I've been out, I don't feel like it needs to be as much of a thing. If we had to choose to play with a band that was like people of colour or a band that was gay, we would choose to play with people of colour. That's our priority.

So the band's priorities have changed and you’re interested in creating more space for people of colour in the punk scene?

RM: Part of it too is just that the term queer at this point is just like such a vague buzzword. It's been sucked up by advertising and mass media, I don't even know what it means at this point. To lump us with bands based on something like that, it almost just feels like a consumer identity at this point. It doesn't feel like it's aligned with our principles, or, sonically what we're trying to do.

AL: That's a lot better put than queer bands suck.

You're known for your energetic performances. How did you all develop your performance style?

AL: I was very influenced by hardcore, rock & roll, and glam. I watched a bunch of early Bad Brains videos of HR losing his shit and I used to love the Dead Kennedys and the way Jello Biafra can be very theatric in that way. I always really enjoyed the silly glammy theatrical stuff of looking really cute. I did base my first stage character on Angelica Houston in The Witches, which is on Netflix right now. That was my favourite as a kid, particularly the moment that always really stuck with me when she’s pointing out the boy, and I was like, ‘Oh, that's like that's who I'm gonna be on stage.'

You all are so amped onstage, what do you do if the crowd isn't giving you that same kind of energy back?

AL: It's just sad.

Maria Elena: Alli and I talk to each other.

AL: I get a lot of energy from the crowd. I believe that the relationship should be one of mutual exchange. I also very strongly believe in moving for bands and being there and watching a band. Anybody who's known me since I was younger knows I'm always the person to start the pit. I think that it's just out of respect for the service that the musicians are doing.

RM: I feel like you do a really good job of scolding people though when they're not participating.

Your music is incredibly energising. How do you want your music to affect people? Is that something you consider?

AL: I want people to be affected. I want to make an album like the ones that carried me through really hard times. I feel that on this album there's so many different emotions, it can really meet people where they're at and hopefully carry them through. The whole reason I've done music is so that Black kids can see me doing what I'm doing.

On that theme, the first song I heard of yours was 'Young, Gifted, Black, In Leather' and it just felt that the POC punk anthem that we need right now? Was there any intention in that song to write it for people to take pride in?

AL: That song was improv in the studio actually. I just had the words 'young', 'gifted', 'Black', and 'leather'. And I just went in the studio and did a few takes until it came through. I just knew I needed to say 'young', 'gifted', 'Black', and 'leather'. I did want it to be an anthem in those ways. And I also think to have a moment of talking about leather; one the legacy of leather and queerness is very major and also the legacy of leather and blackness and black liberation, specifically. It's very powerful. That's one of the only moments where my blackness and my queerness intersect in a song that's literally an anthem.

Could you talk a bit more about how you discovered your sound as a band?

Nathan Cassiani: I think it just kind of evolved with what we were using. In the beginning we were using like this really old 70s drum machine, a Univox. When Ruth got the Electribe it just had a lot more power. Our sound just really grew. We also began to learn more about how we could make it sound better live. We used to carry around our own PA and it just honestly didn't sound very good. And then we just kind of grew naturally. I feel like we were able to make that translate in the studio a bit better when we did the last album.

Did you try anything different in the studio for The Passion Of compared to your first album?

RM: There were a lot of different approaches we took. Some of the songs were ones we had been playing live over and over and had really refined them in a live setting. And then there were other songs that were much more freeform and we had them come together in the studio. The writing process was a little bit different and varied. In the recording process, I tried to think about stuff a lot ahead and put a lot of pre planning into how to approach different things to create different textures.

AL: You snapped on this record. Literally all the way. But where would we be without you and that Electribe bitch.

RM: Also, our song writing really evolved. The songs are way more complex and have more parts. I feel like when we're writing the songs, we don't have to discuss a whole lot. We just are able to fall into a group together.

Occasionally in your music I can hear references to early house or techno. Do you see yourselves as part of the legacy of those genres, which were started predominantly by queer people and people of colour?

RM: I would say we're in conversation with that legacy.

AL: I would say it's more than a conversation. I think we definitely are part of that legacy. I would say that they're our neighbours and we're talking to them every day. The thing about Special Interest is that we are part of this very long line of different legacies across all the boards. And I think that's like what makes it extremely special because we are in conversation with all these legacies and I'm proud to be a part of all them.

Special Interest The Passion Of is out now on Night School