Artist Spotlight: Special Interest – Our Culture
Since forming in 2015, Special Interest – the New Orleans no-wave outfit composed of vocalist Alli Logout, guitarist Maria Elena, bassist Nathan Cassiani, and synth and drum programmer Ruth Mascelli – have been pushing their sound in abrasive and thrilling new directions. Fusing various strands of punk, ambient, techno, and industrial music, the band’s first two albums, 2018’s Spiraling and 2020’s The Passion Of, impressed with their visceral, claustrophobic, and at times chaotic sounds, leading to a record deal with Rough Trade. Today, Special Interest are releasing their first LP for the label, the phenomenal Endure, which they began working on in the summer of 2020.
The resulting songs retain the intense physicality that marked the group’s prior work while injecting a whole new dynamism into what was already a radically inventive vision: by further embracing the possibilities of pop and disco, they reveal an even wider canvas of feeling. Endure plunges into sometimes ambiguous but always pure expressions of joy, rage, solance, and grief, wielding them as weapons of resistance against a ruthless capitalist system that feeds on violence; whether it pulses with euphoria or seethes in desperation, that reality remains an inescapable backdrop. But even with the certainty that society is hurtling towards an inevitable collapse, Special Interest are too energized in their communion to stay in one place. “The end of the world is just a destination,” Logout sings on ‘LA Blues’, “I had to grow to love/ Yes and now I know I’m not unworthy of love.”
We caught up with Special Interest for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the making of Endure, their dynamic as a group, storytelling as an act of care, and more.
Like many bands during the pandemic, you found yourselves in a place where you could embrace experimentation more freely. Can you paint a picture of what that experimentation would look like when got together in a room?
Nathan Cassiani: Well, the room was very poorly lit and had no windows. [laughs] We started working on these songs a few months after The Passion Of came out, probably late July or August of 2020, and obviously that was deep COVID time. It was summer in New Orleans, so there wasn’t a lot of social things happening regardless, but when we got together to write music, that was basically almost our only social outlet at that time. I would say that that definitely informed some of the moods for the songwriting.
Ruth Mascelli: We also weren’t playing any shows and didn’t have the back of an audience when we were writing the songs, so I think that allowed us to get a lot weirder, because we were less focused on making something that was just really hard-hitting live and get a little more subtle and go in directions we wouldn’t normally do. It was hard to write like that, but it took us in some cool directions.
What was difficult about it?
RM: Usually in the past, I feel like we were really focused on documenting what we would play live with our recordings, trying to get a picture of that, maybe do a few little overdubs, but really not much. You come up with an idea, then you go and play a half-formed version of it in front of a crowd and see how it goes over, and it helps you to get that immediate feedback from the audience.
Alli Logout: We were really lucky that we had a practice space that was big enough for all of us to feel comfortable and properly social distance.
Maria Elena: Our practice space has always felt like a good place to make stuff. I think we’re also realizing that it might just be our chemistry – we’ve been a band for seven years, so we’ve gotten really comfortable with each other.
There’s a kind of spontaneity to the way you work together, but I’m curious, when an idea comes up, how do you know collectively – first of all that it works, and secondly that you’re all following it along the same path?
AL: There’s no rhyme and reason to it. Songs literally just come out of us – well, not all songs, but a lot of songs would really just come out of us immediately within the first take. It’s really surreal, and really exciting. It’s just something that’s within it’s all four of us – I don’t know, maybe we call the four corners or something [laughs], but that’s how it feels. I don’t think there’s very much any logic other than it’s just something that is happening. God is alive, magic is aloof.
NC: Specifically, I feel like ‘Midnight Legend’, and to some degree ‘LA Blues’ as well – obviously things take a different structure over time but the essential elements of those songs, when they come together, it’s obvious that it’s working.
When the structure does change, is that a part of the process where there’s more of a self-consciousness coming in, when you’re trying to sculpt the song into something that feels complete?
NC: Coming back to what we were saying earlier about working on stuff in the studio versus testing things live, I think ‘Midnight Legend’ a little bit, and also ‘Kurdish Radio’ but in a different way, we were realizing that the way the lyrical structure worked with the music had to play out a bit different once we were actually in the studio. And I think we did that a lot more with this album that took a lot more time in the studio, outside of the practice space when we were actually recording, and that’s when we would flesh out the songs.
AL: ‘Kurdish Radio’ was originally going to be an instrumental, and one day listening to it, it really touched me and I was like, “We need to extend to it, and I need to write lyrics to it.”
Alli, you also experiment and push your voice in new ways on this record, and I’m wondering if, for you personally, there was an element of intentionality to that particular kind of growth.
AL: I think just like with any general growth as a person, things to change and things need to grow, but I never really set out to sing specifically on songs. It’s just what made sense while we were jamming things. I did get a bit of confidence from our last album with the only song that I sing on, and I was like, “Maybe I should explore this.” I’m really happy that I did. It’s scary, because I’m not a trained singer. I’m literally watching TikTok [laughs] – I saw TikToks this morning, even. But it’s really exciting to push myself as a vocalist in this new realm. I’m learning a lot about what I can do and what I can’t do, my limits, and really looking at other artists. It’s a new journey and it’s a scary one, but also, it’s really lovely to do with these people, because they know that even if we’re like professional musicians now, it’s all very new. And there’s a lot of care with that.
Listening back to the record, is there anything that still feels surprising about what came out of that exploration?
NC: I was surprised. [laughs] When we were working on ‘LA Blues’, I could hear some of the vocal melodies, but I didn’t really know the lyrics, and I couldn’t really fully hear the vocals until we heard the recording. And that was really surprising. I’m still very impressed by that song, how it all came together.
ME: As we were recording, every time someone did something different, but especially with the vocal melodies and lyrics, for me, I was just like, “What? What? Huh? Yeah!” [laughs] Everyone did these little additions, like Nathan would do a little acoustic guitar overdub on something and then Ruth would do a new piano thing, and I’d be like, “Whaaat?” It was just so exciting. It was super fun. Everyone’s a genius.
Part of the reason the songs resonated with me has to do with how real and vivid the storytelling feels. I think you encapsulate it perfectly on ‘Midnight Legend’, where you sing, “Won’t you tell me all about your story/ And about the day that you didn’t have to fight?/ Im just here to listen/ Sound board for your visions.” Also, is that the role you feel like you’re taking on as a writer and artist, that’s reflected in the band as a whole?
AL: Great question. As a filmmaker, storytelling is very much a part of my practice as a whole. And I think what also makes a good storyteller is somebody who’s really good at observing and listening – listening, the actual practice, is something I feel I’ve learned in the past two years. ‘Midnight Legend’, I had so many friends in mind, but also myself in mind. I think that’s within every single one of the little narratives that are within each song, different perspectives and looks at things and people.
I think what really goes into it too, for at least us as a band, like, I’m not a professional singer, we didn’t know too well how to play our instruments in the beginning. There was a lot of trial and error and listening and practice, and I think that that’s just what kind of goes into this band and us as people, as listeners and storytellers, to tell these stories with a lot of care. Like in ‘Midnight Legend’, being able to just see somebody and listen to them, I think that’s very much a part of our practice as a band, as people who didn’t come from a professional music background or studied music. It’s a part of us in that way, too.
Does everyone else feel that in themselves? Do you feel like being in the band has made you more attentive as people and better listeners?
RM: I feel like it’s definitely something I strive for in my life to be a better listener, I don’t know if I’m always succeeding at that. But being in a band, definitely, you have to practice communication a lot, and there’s a lot of group dynamics you have to navigate. So I think that does in a lot of ways prepare you to interact with people better.
ME: I can think about performances where things go wrong, no one ever is like, “Hey, that went wrong,” because we just move forward ‘cause that’s all you can do. There’ll be peaks and valleys, insane, surreal moments of what seems like pinnacles of artistic achievement, and then crevices of humiliation. [all laugh] Deep, deep cracks in the earth. And I think we naturally have the ability to be open to each other’s ideas and not be overly critical. Because I think everyone very personally probably has a lot of self-criticism stuff, we’re all overcoming inner monologues.
AL: Now impostor syndrome.
ME: [laughs] Yeah.
‘LA Blues’ feels like a natural extension of what we were talking about in terms of each song containing these little stories, and you’re sort of collecting them and distilling the core emotion out of it in the end. Tell me more about putting that one together.
NC: It’s funny, because that was one of the first ones we started writing, but also maybe one of the last ones we finished in the studio. And I think that, from the beginning, I intentionally kept things very simple, which I think kind of made it open to build on easier.
RM: We would just play that one for really long periods of time, and it felt really good. That’s some of my favourite memories of writing the music, when we were first doing that. It was just super repetitive and really captured the mood of that summer and that moment. But that’s definitely one that, because I couldn’t really hear you, Alli, in the back space, what you were doing, so I didn’t really know what the vocals were going to be until it was time to record and properly see the entire picture. We had to kind of restructure a lot of things around that, but it was just this long dirge at first.
NC: And it’s about Louisiana, not Los Angeles.
There’s a lot to unpack, but I wanted to bring up the final portion of the song, where, Alli, you repeat the word “Why?” That’s just me, but it kind of reminded me of Eddie Vedder –
AL: I love Eddie! Oh my god!
ME: How did you know?
AL: Everybody hates me but I love Eddie Vedder.
ME: We hate that about them.
AL: That’s funny because I actually never put that together, but it is very well-known that Alli loves Eddie Vedder. I never put that together with ‘LA Blues’, that’s so funny.
Specifically the outro to ‘Black’, that song –
AL: That’s the one, I love it! [Maria claps] ‘Black’ is my favourite song.
There’s just a pure desperation and grief in it where it’s like, where can you possibly go from there? I feel like you capture something similar in your own, very powerful way on ‘LA Blues’. But I’m curious what feeling it leaves you with, when you first came up with and every time you sing that part.
AL: Whenever I was writing it, I think we came up with the name ‘LA Blues’ before the lyrics, so I was meditating on the fact that it was called ‘LA Blues’, like Louisiana. I kind of did this inventory of my years in New Orleans. I really did live on top of a Vietnam vet named Johnny. There was a trashy white supremacist dude across the street who was fixing up the house. All these stories are very visceral and intense for me, because it is all real. And then in the “Why?” part – the song was a way to grieve a controlled way.
We haven’t ever done ‘LA Blues’ live, so I don’t really know how I’m gonna react to it live. We did in the studio in the BBC the other day, but I felt so nervous I wasn’t even feeling the song. I was just like, Hit this note, do it right. I haven’t had a chance to like feel it while playing live, but like with ‘Street Pulse Beat’, sometimes I for sure cry or get teary. But ‘LA Blues’, to me now, in my head it plays out like a movie. I see it all very clearly as I’m singing it, I’m seeing the truck drive by, I’m seeing all these things.
It’s also not specifically about one person in general. Where ’Street Pulse Blues’ is pointing towards a romantic interest, ‘LA Blues’ is far more open than that. I was trying to channel this collective grief that I was seeing everybody else also experiencing around me with different people at different times in their life. I don’t think I’ve ever said, but for the record, the grief that I’m primarily talking about is through gun violence. Me and my neighbours and people around me were actively affected by that. It’s kind of a theme on the album; I talk about it in ‘My Displeasure’ too.
Can you each share one thing that inspires you about the rest of the band?
AL: There’s so much about each individual as a person. I’m really overwhelmed and overjoyed by Maria’s silliness – the same with everybody, I feel. But Nathan, your work ethic, you’re just like a powerhouse. And Ruth, you’re an iconic… an iconic ding-dong in the band. [all laugh]
I’m sorry, an iconic what?
NC: Ruth’s progression as a musician has really shaped the sound of this band.
AL: Yeah, absolutely.
ME: Ruth has two instruments, the drums and the synths. And every song starts with Ruth.
AL: The ding-dong in the band.
RM: [laughs] We’re all a piece of the puzzle.
ME: Okay, so, Nathan brings a definitiveness that none of us can provide individually. “This is yes, this is no, you can’t do this, you can do that.” It’s a superpower.
AL: It’s great.
ME: And then, Alli’s the one that brings a vision that I don’t see coming. It’ll be something that I might think, “There’s no way this won’t be embarrassing,” and then it looks good. They’re the kind of “Why not?” in the group. And then… Ruth is a ding-dong [laughs] –
AL: But I think also, what I mean by “ding-dong in the band” is just, you’re so adaptable and moldable, and can get down with any situation. And also, you’re so truly heartfelt and in touch with your emotions. I feel like you’re one of the most in-touch-with-your-emotions people that I’ve ever met.
AL: And you’re actually able to, like, say those things. That’s what I mean by “ding-dong in the band.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
ME: As we were doing this, I was like, our interviews are like couples counseling because we’ve been through so many of these and reflect on us individually, us as artists, as humans, as friends, us as, like, life partners. Especially now that we actually committed to being in the band and signing with Rough Trade, it’s sort of like, “Oh, this really is something that could be a part of our lives forever.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Special Interest’s Endure is out now via Rough Trade.