Special Interest dances on the edge of collapse
"The end of the world is just a destination." Special Interest, the dance-punk band from New Orleans, repeats that line at the end of its new album, a record that illustrates the resistance and escapism necessary in a society hurtling toward its breaking point. An invigorating sonic playground of discordant guitar squalls, disco basslines and thumping beats pushes the listener into sweaty nightclubs, rat-infested apartments and burning warzones; the band observe brutal capitalist conditions, cruelty and oppression, and the urgent freedoms and pleasures that we seek within them. The record is titled one encapsulating word: Endure.
"There's so much to endure, and more endurance is to come," explains vocalist Alli Logout. "But I think that's also why I like the word. When I think of it, I hear future within it. We can hold all these really intense and painful things, but there is also this future that we're all pushing towards."
The band — Logout, guitarist Maria Elena, synth and drum programmer Ruth Mascelli and bassist Nathan Cassiani — formed in 2015; its previous albums, 2018's Spiraling and 2020's The Passion Of, feature claustrophobic, politically incensed no-wave experiments with abrasiveness and noise. Collectively, the band members come from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Texas, and their early gateways to music include Nirvana (Cassiani), Nine Inch Nails (Mascelli), Erykah Badu (Logout) and David Bowie (Elena). The diversity of these backgrounds feeds a shrugged-shoulders approach to claiming a genre and sound. "We were just f****** around," says Logout of the band's beginnings, "and we have continued f****** around to this day."
Work on Endure began in summer 2020; the band was fortunate to have a practice space large enough for physical distancing, and writing sessions became one of the few sources of any social contact for the four members. As a natural reaction to the strange creative circumstances, the music that resulted treads exciting new ground. Instead of using drum machines and electronics to create chaos as they had previously, they were using them to craft danceable, often playful tunes.
"I was interested in our sound developing — I didn't wanna make the same record again — and I've always been interested in pop production and the way things are layered," explains Cassiani. "Mostly, the way I engage with music in a live setting is going to clubs, and I really missed that during the pandemic, like a lot of people did. So when we were writing, trying to experience that feeling in some way was important for me."
Music is like a spell. It has the power to push you to name all the things you feel like sometimes you can't say.
Also new was that the band couldn't use the sounding board of a live audience to help define the shape and feel of songs. Instead, there was a feeling of mutation and mystery during the process. "It was terrifying to not test any of the songs [live], 'cause it got weird pretty quick. But then it just got loose, [and] it kept showing itself," says Elena.
"A lot of songs took really different turns than I thought they would," Mascelli adds. "I feel like we follow them where they take us, so it's unexpected." The epic closing track "LA Blues," on which Logout delivers an intense, multifaceted vocal performance across eight minutes, was one example of a song that was thrillingly unpredictable, according to Mascelli. "When I heard the vocals for the first time I was completely blown away. We had been playing it as this long instrumental dirge for months, and I had no idea it was gonna go that hard."
Lyrically, Endure is unflinching in its assessment of an inhumane society. "Foul" exposes the physical and mental degradation of working under capitalism — back pain, sleep deprivation, UTIs — via nervy, frenzied punk. The droning, dread-infused "Kurdish Radio" connects the dots between imperialism and domestic white supremacy. "Concerning Peace" is a manifesto for violent resistance: "Violence in its complexity is the only tool against indignity." Yet it isn't all dark; groovy lead single "(Herman's) House" is an ode to hope and liberation via the story of the late Black activist Herman Wallace, on which Logout promises, "Won't lose myself in this world that wants my end." And tracks like the ecstatic "Cherry Blue Intention" and the sensual "Midnight Legend" explore visceral, personal sources of joy too — dancing, sex, community.
"Those are the two things that we're all holding at once — [one is] our own experience and personal growth, and the other is all the things you can't change that are going on outside of you." says Logout. "Joy is this quite fleeting emotion, but there is so much joy in literally just the little things. If we don't have that or don't find it, then what do we have? A life without joy is a life that's not worth living, in my opinion."
Anger, and knowing how to wield it, is an important tool in Special Interest's arsenal too, Logout goes on to explain. "When thinking of songs like 'Concerning Peace,' I was trying to name all the injustice that I feel like needed to be named, and the deeply maddening effect of this respectability politics situation here in America with Blackness," they say. "I am watching daily the devastating effects of anti-Blackness within this country — it's unreal and it's otherworldly."
There's deeply palpable anger as well on tracks like "Foul," where it's directed at a system that demands a worker's entire life and spirit, and "Impulse Control," where Logout spits rage toward "nepotistic dumb f****." "I think anger has been really useful in my life in a lot of ways to move through things in a way that I don't think I could have once upon a time," Logout says. "I've also found that living too much in anger for me has been destructive. But I think I just know now how to experience that in a way that is more useful."
"Music is like a spell," they add. "It has the power to push you to name all the things you feel like sometimes you can't say, and be able to sit with them and feel them, and also to move you forward."
It's tough not to feel moved by Endure, in the figurative and literal sense of the word. "It's something for your mind and something for your body," opines Mascelli. "We're trying to make something that moves us physically on a level beyond having to put it into words. And I think it makes the message more impactful, when it connects to you on that level where you can feel the beat."
That musical dynamism and fluidity also keeps things fun while performing, which is crucial during a set that can undoubtedly become heavy in subject matter. "Some songs, I feel a little bit too much sometimes, and it can send me there in an unpleasant way," says Logout. "I feel like over time I've learned how to separate that, but also be able to channel it when I need it." All four band members ease that burden through their personal friendship, too; tours are punctuated by clubbing excursions and karaoke nights, for example.
Endure is an album marked by juxtaposition and contrasts. It presents the circumstances we must endure, and the tools we have with which to do so; the pain and yearning of feeling beaten down, and a resolve to fight back. It puts words and music to a personal set of challenges, yet with an encouraging assertion of communality. And all the while, it provides a host of sounds that alternately energize, challenge and soothe, to create a map for figuring out how to endure together.
"It's kind of like you're walking down the street and there's music playing from a store on one side, and then there's a car accident over here and people laughing up ahead," Mascelli says. "All this stuff is going on all at once, [and we're] trying to capture the feeling of vertigo between it all."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.