In the 1979 thriller The Warriors, based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel of the same name, a New York City street gang must travel nearly 30 miles from the north end of the Bronx to their home turf in south Brooklyn, Coney Island, after being framed for murdering a rival gang’s leader.
In the decades since, the film has become a cult classic, fetishized by upwardly mobile, middle-class suburbanites desperate to identify with systemic inequality, the same systems that benefited their mommies and daddies, a mentality that exists with each generation, like a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” shirt purchased at Walmart and passed down, brother to brother. Naturally, re-creating and referencing the film for a photo shoot with Special Interest, the NOLA no-wave-industrial-art-punk-disco band that is equal parts nihilistic and future-seeking, doesn’t really resonate with them. But they’re into amusement park treats, there’s a lot of bullshit to eat at Coney Island, and they’re down for the adventure.
“We made our tummies hurt because we kept eating candy for the shots,” Special Interest singer Alii Logout says of this photo shoot. “Conspicuous consumption,” synth savant Ruth Mascelli jokes, accidentally (or much more likely absolutely purposefully) naming sociologist and anti-capitalist hunk Thorstein Veblen’s economic theory that investigates the impulse behind purchasing luxury goods to display power and wealth. In two words, they’ve confirmed fears that I am too dumb to be talking to this band, and God help the rest of the idiots tasked with doing the same when their third and best album, Endure, drops on major indie label Rough Trade Records in November. (More on that later.)
Special Interest—frontperson Logout (they/them), guitarist Maria Elena (she/her), bassist Nathan Cassiani (he/him), and synthesizer/drum machinist Mascelli (he/him)—tattooed and free of their onstage latex, are snuggled on a paisley couch somewhere in Athens, Greece. (If there were a more fitting European city for them, I’ve yet to hear of it. Athens is a place where history is inescapable, ruins simultaneously represent democracy and collapse, and economic protesters in sinister Guy Fawkes masks are frequently found on the steps of parliament.) We’re speaking over Zoom smack-dab in the middle of their day off. They’ve just played weekend 2 at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound music festival, the “biggest crowd” they’ve ever performed for, says Cassiani, but they’re mostly keen to talk about their musical discoveries (Gabber Modus Operandi from Indonesia, and Duma, harsh noise electronics and black metal vocals from Kenya). Nearly 500,000 people attended Primavera this year; any fraction of that would eclipse the dozen or so spectators at a backyard show in their hometown of New Orleans, powered by a generator, so hot Logout doses their body with a frozen daiquiri.
It’s also a far cry from their last New York City show, days before the Coney Island shoot—in a vacuous, industrial performance space in Bushwick, opening for lo-fi dream-pop band Beach Fossils and America’s hardcore sweethearts, Turnstile. At the oppressively early hour of 7:30 p.m., the sun set high in the sky, the band blasts through a tight 30-minute set on a poorly lit stage, Logout introducing them with a bellowing “Newwwww York,” in the style of Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” dropping the last syllable and contorting the “k” into a tight growl. “All this high tech,” they muse, twirling their mic cable, “and we’re sooo Iooowbrooow.”
The sound cuts out. It cuts out again. A group of baby gays dance their way to the front of the crowd, avoiding the arms-folded, basketball-shorts-wearing skate punks who litter the crowd. At least one is wearing a freshly purchased “SPECIAL INTEREST DYKE” shirt. I wonder if they also bought the most interesting and telling merch item—nail clippers with the band’s name etched on the top. So much is said about the band’s political aspirations, very little is made of their overwhelming horniness, their ability to turn an industrial-art-punk-techno detour into the animated distillation of a good, fun fuck. And yet, the sound continues to cut out.
“Of course they would do that to us. Shit like that happens all the time,” Logout says of the venue slicing their soundcheck in half, forcing them to speed through a set in less-than-ideal conditions. “They just didn’t care. I feel like we were put on that lineup to make it more relevant. ” Relevant, of course, means more diverse, queerer, a reductive take on representation valued in 2022 only because it’s marketable. And value, honey, is money.
“Being employed to create this thing that happens means they have zero emotional investment in us,” Elena jumps in, noting the difference between that kind of show and the lifelong conscription of DIY punk. It also proves that this band, despite all the politicking done in their name online and elsewhere, really doesn’t buy into the fallacy of safe spaces. Everywhere is a threat, even in punk. It’s why Logout used to grab members of the audience and shake them.
“I’m particularly pissed about the Turnstile show because nobody did anything to help. But it’s not too often where I feel we’re put on a lineup to be tokenized,” says Logout. “We will turn those things down. At this point, we’re very selective.” But there is a benefit to playing unexpected shows. Elena jumps in: “If I have the courage to look at the audience, you see people staring, gape-mouthed. You can tell they kind of dig it; their shoulders twitch a little.”
“We’ve played a few festivals now and, at first, I had the perspective of ‘We’re just doing this for money,”’ Mascelli says. “And it is weird because there’s something about festivals that is very bureaucratic.” Adds Logout with a laugh: “We’re arena rockers. But [Pitchfork Music Festival] was awful. I had to thrift my look because we were all displaced from Hurricane Ida. We all evacuated to different places. We had to fly to Chicago [where the fest takes place] early because there was no electricity in New Orleans for a week. It was dramatic. And it was so hot.”
There’s so much to be nihilistic about, why the fuck would’t I want to dance?
And the thing about basement generator shows? Those work. "We’re from DIY, that’s not chaotic. That’s been our lives for well over 15 years,” says Logout. “What’s chaotic now is being on a massive stage and having technical difficulties.”
Before European festivals and cosigns from indie rock’s elite tastemakers (cohorts who benefit from an ironclad superstructure of racial capitalism and have decided to work very hard to conceal that reality in the past few years), Special Interest were an avant-punk band with an industrious spirit. First, Logout and Elena met in Denton, Tex., then relocated to New Orleans, starting the band as a two-piece before linking up with Cassiani and Mascelli. Elena wanted the band to sound like the Screamers; what happened, instead, is far more interesting: glam punk via an industrial backbeat, grimy bass, noisy hardcore guitars all sounding like they’re on the verge of collapse—and atop that, Logout’s authoritative voice raging against bigotry, calling for reparations, but mostly, calling for attention. Any kind will do.
First came the ketamine-laced, discordant punk squawk of 2016’s demo tape Trust No Wave, complete with an ambitious cover of Italian new-wave band Chrisma’s 1977 cut “Black Silk Stocking” that sounds like it was recorded in a coffin submerged in the bayou. Then there was their first LP, 2018’s largely improvised Spiraling—inspired by Assata Shakur’s autobiography—which opens with “Young, Gifted, Black, in Leather,” a reference to Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” and a sample of Simone: “I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.” Logout then screams their own band’s mantra, “Young! Gifted! Black! In leather!” connecting the lineage of Simone’s activism with their own. It’s one thing to expose truth in American history, to replace the erasure of Black people from the history and origins of American music; it is another to recognize those injustices, identify your place within that ancestry, and reclaim a future in its destruction. Those ideas, performed by Logout, aligned with Mascelli’s dystopic drum-machine disco and the glam punk of Elena and Cassiani, created a new type of band: unabashedly queer, impossible to categorize (it’s punk, but is it punk-pun/c? It’s techno, but in no traditional sense. Glam? Industrial? House?), and overwhelmingly obsessed with the total collapse of modern society, a nihilistic optimism where something hopeful could be built in the space that an eradication of oppression would create.
Then, in 2020, they released The Passion Of, a blistering evolution of the sounds Spiraling created, with revolutionary cries (“NO,” “Homogenized Milk,”) and BDSM-azing detours (“Kiss Me in Public,” “Disco III”). They became undeniable: a punk band too punk for capital-P Punk circles, the kind of band that would confuse indie-rock elitism and rock ’n’ roll fanatics all at once.
Now, in preparation for their third LP, they’ve signed to Rough Trade Records. “When we signed to them, we signed over Zoom and it kept freezing,” Logout says, laughing. “[Founder Geoff Travis] said, ‘We haven’t done this since the Strokes!’ We were like, ‘What? We’ll never be the Strokes.’ That’s not a goal. That’s not my idea of success.”
Signing to Rough Trade as a punk band might be as daunting as signing to Geffen in the early ’90s—the stench of selling out endures in the DIY scene, and so the move will likely be inhaled and interrogated by keyboard warriors ad nauseam. “We were planning on putting out the last record with Night School [Records again], but [Rough Trade] kept pursuing us,” says Cassiani. “Other people reached out to us, and they were nice, but there wasn’t a real connection.”
“That’s where the real tokenism came into play,” says Logout. “We could really tell with the labels that tried to court us. One in particular just got one Black person on their label. They were all sketch, like they were trying to capitalize on our image; it had nothing to do with the music we’re making.” They roll their eyes. “Identity, identity, identity... We don’t want to be a TikTok band. What feels right and good changes every day for us. I don’t think we have ideas of success.”
And they see the benefit of working with such an established label. “You can’t manufacture credibility very easily on your own,” says Elena. “That’s like what most artists and musicians are trying to do, manufacture credibility so people treat you with a modicum of respect.” Rough Trade opens those doors.
“Support and advice and kind of mentoring that happens, too,” Mascelli jumps in. “And there’s just a certain audience, too, we could never reach on our own. We’re really interested in teenagers hearing our music. ” It makes sense: Talking about Special Interest is often talking around them, imagining a confrontational future of their design, one for the young to age into.
Recorded largely in their hometown of New Orleans with a few vocal takes cut in CDMX (“I was in Mexico City for just a few months taking a Spanish class,” Logout says. “I had some vocal regrets on the last album that just bugged me to no end, so I was like, ‘If we have time, I want to fix something,”’) and written right after The Passion Of dropped in 2020, Endure is the band’s most definitive work, built from pieces of their past. (“Things are so intense and uncertain,” Logout says of the album title. “We need to endure it all. It won’t be quick. It won’t be easy. Endure isn't stagnant. It's movement.”) Socially distanced in their large practice space in NOLA, Endure became their only release. “Nobody could work, nobody could hang out, so we would just bring some wine and write [a song like] ‘Midnight Legend,’” recalls Logout. And, ideally, score a free Telfar bag, the most popular Black-owned fashion accessory of the past few years, which they namecheck in the song.
It’s remarkable none of us hate each other
“I feel like we’ve finally actualized the potential that we’ve always had since the beginning,” Mascelli says of Endure. “We haven't known it and it’s been not a direct route, but we’ve been kind of edging towards this the entire time. It feels amazing to be like, ‘Whoa, I feel like we made the record we wanted to make.’ And it’s the first time it fully feels like that. ”
“And all of it is just very us,” Elena jumps in. “There’s nothing that seems like it’s left-field in it. Even on the subdued, popular songs, it’s still us: noisy in a way, a little bit off. I’m in the band and I had this experience of listening to Alii do melodies when it came time to record and go through this whole emotional gamut. ” It’s good to be a fan of your own band. “It’s funny, people read us as nihilistic,” Elena adds. “But there’s such a thing as being so nihilistic we want to have fun.”
“There’s so much to be nihilistic about, why the fuck wouldn’t I want to dance?” says Logout. “That’s the thing about Special Interest. It’s like, ‘Let’s bring complexity to the table.’ I can have a song where I'm like, ‘Sodomy, LSD, hell, I am in hell,’ but then I’m like, ‘Let’s burn it down and remember to dream, too.’”
It's evidenced from Endure s first track, “Cherry Blue Intention”: Mascelli writes something for the drum machine, and then they build from there. “On the new record, I made a lot of the drum sounds on synthesizers and then put them in a sampler,” Mascelli explains. “[The opener] is drum and bass and has this weird ’60s, Paisley Underground vibe going on. It’s like a Brit-pop thing. We don't intend to combine these things.”
“It’s remarkable none of us hate each other,” Elena laughs, interrupting. “Even though we engage in these collaborative ways.” Logout agrees: “I keep saying, I think Special Interest is the final band. A lot of the [contemporary] artists I really like, it’s a solo person being backed by a band. It’s somebody’s curated vision. Special Interest is a collaboration. I don’t know. I feel like ‘the band’ is happening less. It’s more about somebody orchestrating their particular vision.”
On Oct. 1, 2013, Herman Wallace, one of the “Angola 3,” was released from solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, an 18,000-acre prison farm on the site of a former plantation. The Angola 3 were three Black men—Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Wallace—held for decades in solitary confinement at the prison colloquially dubbed “the farm," a direct reference to its slave past. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted of killing a correctional officer and spent the longest period in solitary confinement in American prison history—more than 40 years. But on that day in 2013, a federal judge found Wallace’s original indictment to be unconstitutional. He and Woodfox were innocent. He died three years later of cancer, after spending 41 years in a 6' x 9' prison cell for a crime he did not commit. The first song Special Interest released from Endure was “Herman’s House,” a scorched-earth house-punk disco banger centered on Wallace, the injustice of his reality, and the lightning rod his story became for prison abolitionists everywhere.
“I was thinking about house music, how that is Black music, and I was thinking about houses and homes—the places we feel safe in. I was thinking about incarceration and safety. What is home? What is a house?” says Logout. “The album is called Endure, and he did just that.”
In 2001, the artist Jackie Sumell asked Wallace what kind of house he dreamed of—and over a decade of letter correspondence, they envisioned a practical home with a pool embossed with the Black Panther logo. “That’s what’s beautiful about Herman Wallace’s story,” Logout says. “He continued to dream even in that space. And I find it hard to dream. Even when I fall asleep, I find it hard to think that there is something more, that there is a next step, that I will live another day. And all our dreams are compromised from our own indoctrination and white supremacy. ”
That idea exists throughout the album: on the Afropessimism anthem “Concerning Peace,” a direct reference to “Concerning Violence,” an essay by Frantz Fanon on the anti-colonization African movements in the 1960s and 1970s, written at the height of protests following the murder of George Hoyd in the summer of 2020. (“[At this vigil in NOLA,] people were like, ‘Now we’re going to silently walk to the river and stare out where the slave ships came,”’ says Logout. “And I was like, ‘Hell, no! I do that every day.’ It was such an intense time.”) Or on the Ennio Morricone-esque “Interlude,” or the closer “LA Blues” (Louisiana, not the Stooges’ beloved Los Angeles), which Cassiani refers to as a “dirge,” where Logout plays a guitar solo with a power drill—and still manages to evoke tears.
Special Interest write songs about these injustices—it is indicative of their worldview, which shifts from “despair in one song and hope in another,” as Mascelli describes it. “It doesn’t do anyone any service to ignore either one. It’s slippery.”
Logout plays devil’s advocate: “That’s also the commodification—why we’re really annoyed. Everyone’s all about ‘identity, identity.’ We’re about complexities.”
The overwhelming majority of people who listen to Endure, or any of Special Interest’s output, will attempt to flatten their music and messaging into some conversation of identity politics. It's much easier to label something than to imagine the possibilities that fluidity in genre and activism allow for. But they will dance. They may go to a show and embrace the violence of a pit, or imagine liberation and uncompromised resistance in a way they hadn't before. Who’s to say?
“I’m tired of peace,” says Logout. “Peace isn’t real. But also, peace and love! La-la-la.”