When Special Explosion dropped its debut EP in 2012, the Seattle band seemed poised to become Pacific Northwest indie rock’s next big thing. Most of its members were still in high school, but the group was already turning industry heads and setting the bar extraordinarily high for young, likeminded punks.
It’s no secret—or at least, it shouldn’t be—that being a young band is an uphill battle. Some adults don’t take you seriously even if you shred, and a nationwide scarcity of dedicated all-ages venues makes playing out an endurance test in bureaucratic horse shit. But over the phone, Special Explosion’s vocalist Lizzy Costello and guitarist Sebastian Deramat explain that being a young band came with benefits they may have taken for granted.
“All the responsibility of real life sort of fell on all of us at the same time,” Costello says. “Being able to balance real life stuff with music, being able to balance this band with the crushing reality of being an adult, and also living in a city that’s really difficult to live in as an artist.
“It got so much more complicated once people stopped handing everything to us. It was like, ‘Mom’s buying me a guitar, mom’s driving me to the gig.’ But now it’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t afford to buy a guitar because I have to pay my rent in Seattle. How do I balance that and not get super depressed?’ It isn’t a teenage rock-star dream anymore.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Special Explosion’s three releases form an arc paralleling these growing pains. On the band’s debut EP, Costello and her brother Andy, who plays guitar and writes much of Special Explosion’s music, sing in immaculate, Everly-esque close harmony over jittery paeans to college rock forebears like Archers of Loaf and Built to Spill. On 2014’s mini-LP The Art of Mothering, the group’s pathos begins to take shape: “You know you’re too big to be a kid/When you can’t fit in your Radio Flyer,” the Costello siblings croon in the title track.
On 2017’s To Infinity, Special Explosion finds that precocity doesn’t amount to much when you’re an adult. Andy spends much of the record squinting through the soiled windshield separating his cloistered adult world from the limitless wonderland of childhood, and yearns for that youthful magic in “Cats.” “Gladiator” oscillates spasmodically between playground fantasy and adult ordinariness, and “Skeleton” almost seems like a eulogy for the teenage rock-star dream Lizzy mentions: “Rockstars don’t die/You’re just not one of them, and that’s alright.”
To Infinity’s wistful, ornate arrangements compliment Andy’s musings on squandered innocence perfectly. Lead single “Fire” even boasts a borderline pop-radio luster similar to that of their Topshelf Records labelmates Wild Ones. Lizzy and Deramat partially attribute this to co-producer Mike Davis, an engineer at the Hall of Justice, Chris Walla’s studio in Seattle.
“I think once we realized we had access to all these cool instruments, it kind of changed what we thought we could do,” says Deramat. “For me it felt like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be around all this nice shit ever again, so we probably have to put vibraphone on this song. It’s here, so why not?”
Despite these textural changes, Special Explosion is still very much the same band. With the exception of a bass player who departed early in the group’s lifespan and an added keyboardist, the lineup hasn’t changed. This is a remarkable accomplishment for any band, but especially for one that formed in high school.
“When you’re 15, the way you talk about bands is very wide-eyed and optimistic, and we bonded a lot on that when we started,” Deramat says. “For us, being able to have those years of genuine enthusiasm was really important.”