Interview

New Orleans noise-punks Special Interest: “People are learning how to handle conflict – to engage in actual action”

With their intoxicating blend of industrial techno, discordant punk, leftfield pop and emancipatory politics, there’s nobody more challenging and exciting in independent music right now than Special Interest. Over two days in Los Angeles as they prepare to release their most ferocious, exhilarating record yet, we get to know a radical new force

Order the print edition of Issue 156, featuring cover stars Special Interest, here

The plates keep coming. Pad see ew, calamari, tom yum broth, sticky rice; scattered peanuts, fragrant lime slices, piles of noodles, scrambled eggs and deep-fried meat, lathered in glistening sauce and pungent garnish. The restaurant’s matriarch, a gregarious woman in her 60s, is gently mocking the choices we’ve made from the menu. But this is a real feast: tasty, generous, nourishing – and cheap. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really – on the drive here from central Los Angeles, the people I’m dining with scoured the internet for the best place to eat around here. “We read so many reviews,” says Alli Logout. “We take tour food very seriously.”

Double Delicious Thai Cuisine is somewhere in the endless suburban sprawl south of LA, five minutes away from the venue Special Interest are playing tonight as part of a short Californian tour. I’m joining them for a couple of shows to meet a band in transition: from local legends to an international concern, from dive bars to festival stages, from the intersection of radical culture and the experimental underground to the alternative music big time. 

It’s arguable that they’ve been ready for this for years. Their various projects first coalesced into Special Interest in 2015 in New Orleans; by the time the pandemic halted everything in 2020, they’d released two albums and several singles and EPs, from the scorched-earth noise-techno of 2016’s Trust No Wave to 2020’s more expansive (but no more compromising) The Passion Of. From the start, they stood out, Alli’s gale-force vocals crowning the glorious squall of Maria Elena’s spidery guitars, Ruth Mascelli’s feral drum machine and Nathan Cassiani’s explorative, syncopated bass. In Alli, they’ve got a genuine star-quality frontperson, oozing charisma and wit, but it’s not just about them: the whole band lock together perfectly, their disparate energies complementing one another on and offstage. All the elements are there, and now that they’ve signed to indie giant Rough Trade, Special Interest appear limitless.

Their new album, and first for Rough Trade, is called Endure. It’s their most complete work yet: full of the same venom that made their early releases so invigorating, but with more tenderness and subtlety underpinning the familiar skronk and sizzle of their industrial melodicism. Lead single ‘(Herman’s) House’ encapsulates this perfectly: a four-minute death disco banger, complete with a massive hook, four-to-the-floor pound, inside-out rave piano and lyrics about Herman Wallace of the Angola Three (so called due to their incarceration at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison), a revolutionary and member of the Black Panthers, who was imprisoned for 41 years in brutal conditions, largely in solitary confinement. 

Wallace’s treatment was based on charges that were dubious even on the inhumane terms of the US penal system and exacerbated by the state’s opposition to his radical politics; accordingly, it was protested by activists the world over, from grassroots organisers to Amnesty International. The house in the song title emerged from Wallace’s ongoing correspondence with multidisciplinary artist Jackie Sumell, who asked him to describe his dream home to her while he was incarcerated and turned the results into The House That Herman Built, a collaborative art project that has been exhibited the world over. Doing such a story any kind of justice – inextricable as it is from the ongoing violence of the American state, its carceral system and what Cedric J. Robinson famously termed racial capitalism – in the space of a concise pop track sounds functionally impossible; somehow, Special Interest have managed it.

A lot of people have been commenting on the ‘poppier’ sound of tracks like ‘(Herman’s) House’, the band tell me without much enthusiasm. They seem tired of such remarks already. Maria is most forthcoming, preferring to reframe this idea rather than dismiss it out of hand: “I think ‘romantic’ is a better term for it. It’s not more pop, it’s more romantic. I think this whole pop thing is really weird – to me, that’s the stuff you hear at Forever 21, but that’s not melodic music. And is punk not pop music too?” 

It might be tempting to connect this slightly more accessible sound to their signing to a big international label, but that’s not correct either. The vast majority of Endure was written before Rough Trade got involved – and the label’s initial interest was based more on the aggression of their early work than the crossover potential of their melodies.

“I’d known Ryan [Rough Trade A&R] for a while,” says Nathan, “and he hit me up about The Passion Of. We were going to play [legendary UK hardcore festival] Static Shock, and he said he could send some Rough Trade people down, but we were already sending off the masters – it was a bit late. But then, a year later, he started sniffing around again.”

“That Static Shock was the first time I realised people were listening to us,” says Ruth. “[It felt like] what are all these people doing here?!”

“‘(Herman’s) House’ was one of the first songs we wrote for it,” recalls Maria. “It was when we could take off our masks after we got vaccinated and we wrote it immediately.”

“‘Midnight Legend’ was like ‘Disco III’ [from The Passion Of] – it just felt good,” picks up Ruth. “The vibe was already there – we just had to bring it in, let it land.” He pauses over a steaming bowl of egg-fried rice. “But also we learned to play better together as a unit, which might make things more accessible – we’re not just turning everything up at the same time, we’re listening to each other a bit more. It just felt more natural.”

The sheer scale and atmosphere of Los Angeles is disorientating, particularly for a first-time visitor, particularly one from the UK. This city has been romanticised to death by proud locals and misty-eyed dilettantes, so there’s little point in providing yet more material for the Californian tourist board here, but the grandiose, over-familiar reputation of the place is not completely unfounded. The thick, syrupy light; the arcing palms cascading over the endless streams of traffic; the flowing contours of the San Gabriel foothills, gradually cresting up into the watercolour traces of the mountains beyond. It’s a strange, liquid place: fluid, serene, unknowable, with danger somewhere below the surface. At least that’s how it seems to someone more used to the anxious density of European cities, thrown together by necessity over the course of centuries, a far more improvisational, precarious urbanism, smaller in breadth but no less intense. 

It’s the night before our conversation in the Thai restaurant, and Special Interest are playing at The Echo on the western end of Sunset Boulevard. It’s a no-frills venue in a neatly fashionable part of town; the lush Echo Park is nearby, with the patchwork neighbourhoods of Silver Lake eventually morphing into East Hollywood a couple of miles in the other direction. Yet its back-to-basics appeal is undercut somewhat by the airport-style security I have to go through on the way in. As I put everything back in my pockets having been thoroughly scanned and patted down, the band’s US publicist, Melanie, and her LA lifer friends bring me up to speed with the inevitable story of gentrification and paranoia that precipitated the venue’s recent scaling up of security. A little while ago, it was bought out by a multinational corporate promoter. In came a stripping-back and reorganisation of the interior (my companions seem a little dismayed that the room they remember from so many happy nights out has been altered so clinically), an intimidating surveillance system and, as we’re about to find out, price hikes behind the bar. 

It’s not that it’s an unpleasant or ill-fitting venue – it does the job perfectly well. But its story is indicative of the same cycles of gentrification, displacement and dislocation that are just as familiar in the UK as the US. Those cycles haunt LA as they have done for decades, its international cultural prestige constantly in the process of ripening for co-option and commodification, with any inconvenient contradictions or obstacles – any inconvenient people or communities – cast aside like old peel. Earlier that day I’d wandered around the city for a few hours, a typical outsider who doesn’t realise that that’s not really the done thing here, and witnessed for myself the way in which the desperate poverty of this place is in a continuous dialectic with its fabulous wealth, the mini-metropolises of tents and squats cowering in the shadows of its celebrity mansions and dynastic film studios. Of course, that’s the nature of capital accumulation – mass deprivation doesn’t proliferate in spite of the flourishing of private luxury, but because of it. And I live in London – I’m used to seeing privilege and squalor coexisting, the elevation of the former constantly prioritised at the expense of the alleviation of the latter; but like everything in LA, it’s just bigger and more visible here. It’d be crass to suggest something along the lines of the fate of DIY music venues being the thin end of the wedge – these issues are deeper, older, international in scope – but it’s telling that even in this bohemian, not-yet-entirely gentrified corner of the city, tonight playing generous host to an emancipatory punk band, the processes of dispossession which form and reform the character of so much contemporary urban life are clearly, inescapably visible. 

Of course, Special Interest are more than aware of this stuff. Our conversations during my time with them are peppered with mentions of their involvement in community organising, grassroots culture and industrial action; at one point, they lament the lack of tenants’ rights in the States, and the impact this has on working class communities. And it’s written into their lyrics, from ‘Foul’s call-and-response workplace angst (“Dirty money, dirty boss… I’ll save up for vacay smoke break!”) via the disintegration of ‘Concerning Peace’ (“Who gets offered the American dream to OD on fent in a fascist regime?”) to ‘Midnight Legend’s ode to the fleeting instances of liberation which occasionally make all this shit feel tolerable (Won’t you tell me all about your story, and about the day that you didn’t have to fight? I’m just here to listen, sound board for your visions, all you need to say, you say with your eyes). This is a band painfully attuned to the reality of life in modern America, with all the violence, injustice and all-too-infrequent joy that that implies. 

Anyway, back to the show. Inside The Echo, queer kids in bondage gear and older crusties in ancient denim rub shoulders, a nice reflection of the band’s multi-subcultural appeal. Yet even among these eclectic groups, not to mention the countless annoyingly attractive, well-dressed Angelenos wandering the street outside, Special Interest stand out immediately. They’re a remarkably varied yet cohesive-looking group of people: Alli in red jumpsuit and vampy Julia Fox makeup under their gold-tinted Afro; Ruth in tight T-shirt and waistcoat, a bright pop of eyeshadow complementing his neckerchief; Nathan the erstwhile DIY scene stalwart, bearded, dressed stylishly but pragmatically; Maria with Horses-era Patti Smith fringe and shoulderless top, casual but focused. 

They file onstage one-by-one, Ruth’s pneumatic drum machine heralding the show as Alli emerges last, just in time to reach the mic for the opening lines of ‘Cherry Blue Intention’. Their lips curl into a snarl as they spit the track’s insistent vocal part, the crowd collapsing into a feverish, gyrating mass before them. It’s an entrance.

The set barrels forwards from there, alternating between the jaw-clenching noise-punk of Special Interest’s early releases and the sleeker art-rock of Endure. ‘(Herman’s) House’ becomes a bona-fide anthem in a space like this, bolstered by a meaty soundsystem; the gang vocals of ‘Foul’ bounce around the room like Shopping playing Berghain; ‘Street Pulse Beat’ transcends its recorded atmosphere of Blue Nile-meets-Helena Hauff turbine hall melodrama and becomes something even more cathartic. Alli glowers over the audience imperiously, fully aware of their power. It’s tempting to say Special Interest are like a well-oiled machine live, but quite apart from how clichéd that is, it also fails to capture the specificity of the experience. If this band is a machine, it’s a snowplough, heavy but economical, a purpose-built device to cut through the encroaching cold, carving out a wide path for Alli to dance along and across at their own pace, following a general route without being restrained by their bandmates’ precise line of flight. 

When I say hi after the set, meeting the band for the first time, they’re still catching their breath. Nathan, shy but assured, has made a beeline for his shift on the merch table; Alli lets out a quick hello before dashing off to meet some old friends on the other side of the room; Ruth is giggly and self-effacing; Maria welcoming and keen to catch up with the label people who’ve accompanied me to the gig. After a while, we head to a barely-lit bar across the road, where some friends of the band are performing as part of a drag show. Everyone unwinds, jetlag and alcohol definitely making me even more charming and not even more awkward and weird, and the night meanders to a close a few hours later. 

The four members of Special Interest took circuitous routes to the city that’s now inextricably linked to their work. Alli grew up in small-town Texas, and some of their formative musical experiences played out on the fringes of a local hardcore scene which briefly achieved national notoriety. 

“It was the biggest thing that was happening in American underground music at the time – but I wasn’t in a cool enough band to be part of that situation,” they recall. “I have a lot to say about the 2012 hardcore era, because it was just a bunch of rich white boys who were really elitist. They were really mean to me and they were really mean to the boys in my band, because they didn’t know how to dress the cool way.” A move elsewhere began to appeal.

“Being from Texas, if you’re gay or weird at all, you move to Austin,” they say, “but I already saw through the liberal bullshit of Austin. But New Orleans is a southern city I actually feel like I can be myself in. And it’s a Black city. I was very adamant that I wanted to live in the south: I want to change this place and have southern pride. The first few years there were really special, really messy and really fucked up. I turned 21, which is the legal drinking age, and it was just great. And intense.” 

Nathan is matter-of-fact about his arrival in New Orleans. “It was 2012; I’d been living in Oakland, California and my boyfriend at the time had been back and forth between New Orleans and the Bay Area. And he brought me there. We drove across the country, and we got to New Orleans on Twelfth Night [the first night of carnival season]. I left a little bit after Mardi Gras. I didn’t actually love it at first: I think the transient party culture around carnival that exists there wasn’t really my thing, and still isn’t really. But then he tried to get me to move to Atlanta, and I hated it from the get-go. And so I was just like, ‘I’ll just live in New Orleans.’ It was close enough.” He shrugs. 

They’re all a little like this in conversation: invariably friendly and charismatic, but honest and unsentimental at the same time. There’s little in the way of convenient myth or simple categorisation with this band.

“I moved from Pennsylvania to New Orleans in 2009,” says Ruth. “And I never really played music at all; I was in my mid 20s and I really wanted to be in a band. So I started doing a little solo project to try and attract some people, and I was a really big fan of Maria’s band at that time – like, obsessed – and I did a T-shirt design for them. And that’s how I met them, going to the same shows. Maria and Alli were the ones who really started Special Interest.” 

Before New Orleans, Maria had been in Minneapolis, part of an arts collective who brought a series of underground artists to the city. 

“I was part of the post-punk revival thing,” she recalls. “They were the things that I was booking in Minneapolis. There were bands coming out of Texas that were really exciting, and also in the Midwest. And there were all the British bands I booked too – like Rachel Aggs and her pre-Shopping stuff.” She already knew Alli, and they’d spoken about forming a band together before; the plan eventually came to fruition once they were both in New Orleans. Nathan was already there – “You were so established [on the scene],” Maria tells him when this comes up, “I didn’t realise you’d only been there a year” – and Ruth was recruited soon enough, his clattering drum machine and windy synth production favoured over a live drummer.

“We didn’t want a real drummer,” says Alli. “One, because they’re unreliable; two, because of how much space they take up. They have so much stuff to carry around.” Although relying on a drum machine presented its own challenges. “It was like, ‘How do you play these DIY shows and get to hear it?’ We had to carry an extra PA around with us.”  

The practical choice of drum machine over drummer immediately informed the aesthetic direction of the nascent group – after all, machines are “uncompromising, so we just adapted our composition to that, creating angles. Nathan would find the groove [on bass], and it’d take a while to figure out. But we knew something was interesting.” The early shows also featured Alli ‘playing’ the power drill, the band taking ‘industrial music’ quite literally, Einstürzende Neubauten-style. The drill actually makes a welcome return on Endure track ‘LA Blues’. 

“Yeah, I didn’t know how to play anything, but liked playing music and loved performing,” says Alli. “In my first band, I just sang and loved it. Then I started wanting to jam with other people but I didn’t know how really, and I wasn’t interested in, like, learning a chord. So I just took a more noisy approach. This was happening when I was in Denton, Texas, and there were a lot of really great OG noise people there. Being friends with them really encouraged me to be like, ‘Fuck it, make noise, with anything.’

“That’s actually the whole reason my first band went to New Orleans – to play this festival, but our drummer got arrested and our guitarist hated the bassist, so we couldn’t go and I was hanging out with these noise girls at a bar, crying like, ‘I’ve never done anything outside of Texas!’. I hadn’t like travelled at that point in my life – I was like, 19. And they were like, ‘Fuck it, get a toy drum machine and just write a whole new set.’ And that’s what we did. And we went and played in New Orleans.”

Those early shows, in different bands across the South, clearly mean a lot to Alli. But it’s also obvious that like so many queer people of colour in contemporary America, their experiences were far from uniformly positive; they wince a little when recalling them now.

“In my first band I was really adamant about being like ‘We’re a queer band’, but it completely destroyed me. I had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t understand how my blackness was being fetishised, and it killed my soul. One day, the memoir…” Alli lets out a hollow laugh. 

It’s a recurring trauma that continues to this day. At one point in our conversation, I briefly reference an interview with Special Interest from another publication, and their groans come out immediately, in perfect unison. 

“The headline [which caricatured the band’s identities and politics with tabloid crudeness] was so embarrassing, it was one tiny thing Maria said at the end…” Alli is still lamenting as I try to steer the interview in another direction. But it’s clear what the issue is: quite correctly, they’re sick of being pigeonholed and caricatured by the mainly white, heterosexual gaze of the music press, and even in supposedly ‘progressive’ publications (or DIY scenes for that matter), they can’t seem to escape its othering tendencies. 

“Nathan hit it the other day: queerness isn’t a sound,” says Alli. “We’re just so clearly part of a queer legacy, and that is something that’s really important, but it doesn’t describe what we sound like at all, so being put under that umbrella doesn’t make sense. But we definitely see ourselves as part of that lineage, and a lot of our art is about being queer and the politics of that; but we don’t need to be lumped in with a lot of [corporate queer culture] stuff, we don’t really have anything to do with that. It goes back to branding. It’s just such bullshit.”

“As homosexuals, we love it when we find out people are gay,” says Maria. “That’s cool and it’s nice to interact with them. It is exciting when there’s a band you like and you see that they’re queer – I get it, I would be pumped on that too.”

Alli nods sympathetically. “Even the bands we played with last night, they’re queer, and we had a great time with them, but we’re not marketing our show as a queer show. I know how important that is to people, and I know how important that was to me – if I saw something labelled as queer, I knew that I could go there. It’s just really frustrating when people do that all the time, just talk about literally who we’re fucking – there’s more to everything than who we’re fucking.” 

All four of the band are queer, and they’re visibly tired of their identities being commodified and fetishised in this way. Ruth even fake-protests, “We’re all straight!” as a jokey way of evading the question; yet through their own internal bond, as well as the solidarity they share with other marginalised artists and communities, it seems like they’re finding new ways of at least keeping that shit at arm’s length. 

“I’ve been really wanting to sit and process these feelings [from their early band experiences],” sighs Alli. “It’s also happening in this band, but it’s completely different. But there’s such an intense toll that’s taken on you mentally and physically when you’re being fetishised in this way, and I’m a really sensitive person. I didn’t understand a lot about how my body was being perceived. There was this article about an old band of mine that was like, extra punk, and it described us as ‘soulful’ [obviously, a massive dog whistle] – it just sucks. But wait for the memoir. 

“But it’s rewarding to be in this band, to collaborate with these specific people. This feels good and easy, and it’s literally because of them, and I can hold onto them.” Alli looks up. “And that’s why we’re the best band.” Everyone laughs, partly out of relief.

We return to the album that this best band have made. I’m curious about the title, and what it implies: we’ve already discussed the challenges they’ve faced and continue to wrestle with, but in the specific context of this record, how would Special Interest describe what they’re enduring, and what do they believe awaits them on the other side?

“We wrote this album mid-quarantine – pandemic time,” explains Alli. “That was such a time of reflecting and uncertainty, and there’s also this legacy of enduring and staying true to who you are with songs like ‘Herman’s’ and ‘Concerned with Peace’ – like, we must endure and move into the future. I think enduring is just this thing we have to do to keep going. It sounds heavy, but also if we’re enduring, that means there’s a future.” And that’s a future about which, despite everything, there are some reasons to be hopeful. 

“People are learning how to handle conflict more,” says Maria. “Since the pandemic people are willing to engage in actual action, addressing things that are going wrong. It’s natural to respond with the most negative response when asked to reflect about things, and maybe that’s why interviews always come out weird…” 

“A good thing that’s happening is more labour organising,” adds Ruth brightly. “People becoming more conscious of their working conditions, talking to each other, unionising. Talking about pay discrepancies, that’s really cool – everyone being in a horrible spot because of the pandemic, that’s pushed them into that stuff for sure. It’s inspiring.”

Soon, the band have to run to their soundcheck for tonight’s show, and that’s the focus for the rest of the day. At tonight’s venue, too, the security is pretty full-on; it all feels a bit suspect to me, but maybe I’m being either way too cynical or way too naïve. The show itself is another triumph – the crowd is a little thinner and more timid than last night, which is probably to be expected in this more sparse, suburban area, but the band’s intensity remains undimmed, and everyone in the room looks as thrilled as I feel to be watching them. Again, after they play, they’re back to their unassuming normal selves, making deadpan in-jokes and packing their gear down in workmanlike fashion. 

Eventually, we pile into the people carrier that Special Interest use as a tour van (without a drumkit, they’re able to fit into something more “cosy”, they enthuse), the band having kindly offered me a lift back to central LA. Before long, the downtown skyscrapers rise above the freeway as we leave the hunched suburbs behind, streetlamps and billboards floating and amber. It’s hard to deny that there’s a certain glamour to this place, even if its dark underbelly makes one feel queasy about indulging it. Perhaps ‘romantic’, meant in its fullest dimension – often intoxicating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes painful, both un- and hyper-real – is the right word here too.

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