ABOVE: SPECIAL EXPLOSION
Seattle-based Special Explosion are having their big bang. When siblings Andy and Lizzy Costello signed up for the after-school musical performance program the School of Rock in 2010, they were intimidated by the other students’ skill and dedication—and motivated. With the addition of fellow students Jacob Winihan on drums and later Sebastian Deramat on guitar, Special Explosion quickly leapt from playing local gigs to opening for Deerhoof and signing to Topshelf Records.
Their EP, The Art of Mothering, with its angular riffs accompanied by tender vocals, manifests as dreamy garage rock ballads. This dichotomy juxtaposes adolescent claustrophobia (see tracks like “Clotheslined,” “Hide,” “Kingdom,” and “If Only”) with a perceptive, even rueful ambiguity about the wider world that culminates in the eponymous two-part song,”The Art of Mothering.”
Though Special Explosion is currently traveling on a nationwide tour, Interview managed to catch up with Andy over the phone to talk about unexpected chemistry, Riot Grrrl bands, and the band’s first foray outside of the Pacific Northwest. We’re also pleased to premiere the entire EP below.
HANNAH GHORASHI: You’re in St. Louis—have you been there before?
ANDY COSTELLO: No, we haven’t. We’d actually never left Seattle or Portland until five days ago.
GHORASHI: Wow, how old is everyone?
COSTELLO: Me and the other guitarist—Sebastian—we’re 19. The drummer is 18, and my sister is 21.
GHORASHI: What makes your explosion so special?
COSTELLO: [laughs] I think that we slowly realized that the people we’re sharing this with make it extremely special. We didn’t know what to expect, coming out here and receiving so much positive feedback from our released songs. Also, we started on this tour four days ago with Caravels—they’re on Topshelf as well—and they’ve given us a lot of confidence at our live shows. They’re a great band to share our first tour with. Last night in Kansas City we met up with Foxing, and they’re a really awesome band too. We actually drove up last night from Kansas City to St. Louis and it’s been a really long night. [laughs] Another five-hour drive.
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GHORASHI: Do you have a tour bus?
COSTELLO: No, we’re actually using an SUV and a trailer.
GHORASHI: Cool. Did you grow up in a musical environment? Were your parents musical people?
COSTELLO: Our parents were definitely music listeners. As cheesy as it is, my dad definitely loved Pearl Jam and my mom really loves bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana. At the same time, they encouraged us to play piano, and that was what Lizzy and I both started on.
GHORASHI: Did both of you always want to be in a band, or did either of you ever want to do something different?
COSTELLO: We definitely both wanted to be some type of artist, whether that was musical, visual, or a writer—something involving music. But we never expected to be in a serious band until a few years ago.
GHORASHI: You’re a vocalist and you play a guitar. Which one came first?
COSTELLO: Guitar. I didn’t know I could sing. I played percussion in wind ensemble and jazz band in school. I didn’t really enjoy playing drums as much as I enjoyed playing mallets, and that really helped tune my ear. Lizzy was in choir for a while, but she did a running start program at a local community college, so she kind of got out of that. Then we started going to the School of Rock, an after-school music program where we all met. That’s when we really got serious about music, when we had the time and the ability.
GHORASHI: I was going to ask you about that—I know a little about it because my friend went to the School of Rock in New York.
COSTELLO: Oh, wow.
GHORASHI: He told me he used to go on tours with Paul Green [the founder] and play at music festivals around the country. Is that what you guys did, too?
COSTELLO: That was definitely a goal of ours. We had a really great mentor at the School of Rock, and he definitely coached Lizzy and me into our voices especially, and how to be comfortable with writing. We were both in the show band, so we were playing a good amount of shows like once or twice a month. That helped us really narrow down our skill set and really hone our craft. We did want to do the All-Star program, but it seemed a little intimidating because of the older kids—they were very shred-y, like into straight rock music. They were way, way more talented at their instruments than we were. But I think our interests drove us in a direction that really helped us. For example, that mentor, he really drove us to writing songs and after he stopped working at School of Rock, he really mentored us in recording music. School of Rock was a really good experience, and I think we wouldn’t all know each other if we hadn’t gone there. But it was really intimidating and it was kind of a different type of thing than we do now.
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GHORASHI: I know that they try to introduce you to all decades of rock music. Your music has a definite garage-rock sound, which really has roots in every decade. Did you guys gravitate towards this genre because you’re able to borrow from so many types and decades of music?
COSTELLO: I think that is true. I think it’s maybe something we weren’t conscious of and we still aren’t really, but we love music from Steely Dan to—I don’t know. We love all music, and we do appreciate lower-fidelity recordings and just going at it and not really caring. So that does translate as garage rock, I would say.
GHORASHI: What drew you to the other band members in particular? Were you friends?
COSTELLO: Actually, no. We were really good friends with the first bass player in our band, and then one day Lizzy was like, “We should get this guy [Winihan] to play drums,” and I hated that guy.
COSTELLO: I really didn’t like him. But he has forever been our drummer, and I love him now.
GHORASHI: Why did you hate him?
COSTELLO: I don’t know. I don’t know why I didn’t like him. I guess because he seemed like a typical School of Rock guy to me, just interested in rock or punk music and just wanted to play drums fast. But at this point Lizzy had already told him he was in our band, so it was too late. [laughs] But it turned out to be great, the four of us, and then a couple months later we added Sebastian onto the team, and it started feeling a lot more natural there. We kind of lost that bass player and brought in another one and lost that one too—they both wanted to go to college.
GHORASHI: Do you have plans to go to college?
COSTELLO: I don’t know if I will go to college. I do want to, but I really want to do this, and if one of them takes away from the other—I would feel slightly guilty because of what we’ve been given. We have a lot of opportunities that I’d be scared to miss out on.
GHORASHI: How did you meet the people at Topshelf?
COSTELLO: Last November, we played a show in Seattle, in a venue called El Corazón. We were a little intimidated by them, but after we played they were really excited. That was the first time they were in Seattle, so they were hoping to see some good local bands, and they were really happy with how we played. We were in the process of recording at that point, and that show was really for our upcoming release. One of the guitarists there—Greg, he works at Topshelf—he really loved it. He showed them our stuff and it kind of just went from there. They’ve been really supportive.
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GHORASHI: Are you putting out an album in the near future, then?
COSTELLO: Yeah, first we’re going to finish this tour—it’s 36 days total, and we’re like five days in. Then we’ll get home and we’ll probably see how we can make some money, and then start demoing and probably start recording in the fall or winter. We have a lot of it written, so it’s something we want to get going at because it’s an expected follow-up to this EP. We kept writing after we recorded—we all love writing. That’s something that people get bummed out about, that we don’t play every song in shows. But we do enjoy playing material once we have it, and that’s a big part of how we develop our sound. We’ll probably continue writing the new stuff after playing live, and seeing how that feels.
GHORASHI: Is there someone in particular who writes lyrics?
COSTELLO: I write most of the lyrics, but Lizzy and I bounce ideas off each other a lot. I think she understands me really well, being my sister.
GHORASHI: Were you guys a little worried when you signed to a label?
COSTELLO: We were a little intimidated about that, as a band. I’m actually sitting across from one of the bands that intimidated the hell out of me, Caravels. [laughs] But they’re so awesome, they’re really great guys, and they’ve put a lot of trust in these bands. I think that’s given us a positive outlook on this—just being in a community of good bands that are really good people.
GHORASHI: You guys are from Seattle, which has a really rich tradition of music. You mentioned your mom likes Soundgarden and Nirvana—were you guys inspired by them, or the Riot Grrrl bands?
COSTELLO: I haven’t gotten into that too much. I don’t know what else is Riot Grrrl besides Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney or some of those…
GHORASHI: Heavens to Betsy? That’s the only other one I can think of offhand.
COSTELLO: Heavens to Betsy! Yeah.
GHORASHI: Was it weird when people started writing reviews of the band?
COSTELLO: It was weird, but I think the words have translated our sound well. I think it’s always pretty accurate. It’s really cool to read different writers—you can kind of tell what they listen to and how they perceive us.
GHORASHI: Do you have a dream city where you’d really like to play?
COSTELLO: I think New York, actually. None of us have ever played there. I think Sebastian landed at JFK once, but that was the extent of that. We’ve all wanted to go for a long time, and we’ll be out there for our tour on February 27.
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