Back when we could still go out, the last concert I went to was an EP release show for a small punk band at Lower East Side venue Pianos. That night Meli & The Specs, fronted by Guatemalan-Colombian poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva, channeled the gritty energy this part of New York City was known for when Patti Smith was howling revolutionary verse at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and Richard Hell was making pamphlets with Tom Verlaine. The cover of their independently released debut Break Something Better cover sets the stage for the future of the genre, and the present moment: a mushroom cloud against a stark backdrop, the world in ashes, the band singing at the core of the chaos.
The EP maintains that DIY chutzpah of the past and grounds it, songs about breakups exist side-by-side with apocalyptic hymns. Lozada-Oliva’s snarling lilt of a voice and aggressive pop punk delivery guiding Eduardo Rivera Pichardo’s chugging bass, Eduardo Palma Díaz’s hyperactive riffs and Alejandro Torres Viera’s urgent drumming through the wasteland. The group has a proclivity for biting humor but never loses it’s pointed vitriol, whether it’s against an ex on “Purple Dinosaur” or against white feminist performativity in “The News.” It poses bold questions about the heart as the setting of the apocalypse, and like all great punk bands, takes aim at the oppressive powers-that-be.
A particularly reflective moment comes in “End of the World” where Lozada-Oliva sings “The poet was wrong all along / We’re just a machine / Beeping and moaning and shortaging.” If humans are machines, the punks are real humans, and as necessary as ever. They maintain this same warm energy bouncing answers off each other on Zoom during our quarantined interview, where we spoke about the lineage of Latinx punk, the Puerto Rican punk scene where Rivera Pichardo and Torres Viera cut their teeth and the poetics of rock.
How did the idea for the band come about?
Alejandro Torres Viera: When Eduardo [Rivera Pichardo] moved to New York permanently, he wanted to create a band. Me and Eduardo [Palma] were rehearsing very start-and-stop. Eduardo was that final push we needed to get serious. That’s when we met Melissa.
Eduardo Palma: We had already done a couple of instrumentals including “Purple Dinosaur”, the first song we did as a group from scratch. Meli came up with the lyrics on the spot.
Melissa, do you write the lyrics mostly? Or is it more collaborative?
Melissa Lozada-Oliva: I write the lyrics. I feel like there are some songs that have been directly pulled from poems, but most of them I’ve made up. It’s a very different experience; I wanted to be in a band for a while, but I was really shy despite performing in front of people all the time. A band is the first time I’m not exactly myself onstage.
Punk and poetry very much go hand-in-hand.
MLO: I learned Kim Gordon started Sonic Youth when she was a writer! Music is super important to writing. A lot of people can’t listen to it while they’re writing, but I do. I don’t know what the process is necessarily; I listen to the recording over and over and write it again in my head. I’m really bad at rhyming, but things don’t need to rhyme. A lot of our songs are about apocalyptic creepy dead dogs, which I feel more freedom to write about when I’m singing.
The music is very much angry, angsty and apocalyptic but imbued with a sense of freedom. I love “The End of the World”, where you’re making plans to go see a movie but it has these apocalyptic overtones.
Eduardo Palma: When Meli came on, she brought a humor to the darker undertones of the stuff that we were doing and she really liked to be satirical. With everything that’s going on, it’s a coincidence that we were thinking apocalyptically. The cover at the EP is a mushroom cloud, and now we’re in a lockdown.
MLO: That song is about my friend John that killed himself in 2016. As I’ve been getting older and thought about all these things he’s missing, I wondered about his reactions. With the pandemic, I’m thinking about what he would have to say.
Do you guys see yourself in the lineage of Latinx punk bands ?
MLO: I feel like it’s a beautiful happenstance that we are Latinx and Latin American. Maybe the most specifically, Latinx thing about our band is our name, which initially was “Alejandro Got Mugged” and then we changed it to Meli and the Specs, which I did not like at all for a long time.
ATV: Ever since I came to New York my dream was to be in a punk band that was called The Specs, so I think that was a good compromise.
EP: It’s interesting to see the way we all relate to our roots. Meli relates to being Latina in a totally different way; I’m from Colombia, Alejandro and Eduardo are from Puerto Rico. Even the way we communicate differs because we’ll be speaking Spanish and Meli’s spanish is basura.
EP: In terms of the music I think it’s at different levels for each of us. I like alternative rock en español and those bands are a huge influence on me, but I don’t see that as a reaffirmation of my identity.
ERP: Alejandro was in another punk band called Gio y los Policias back in Puerto Rico so the punk theme and that alternative scene back in Puerto Rico was more Spanish new wave with movida madrileña-type sounds. It still has a very specific Caribbean touch to it, but at the end of the day it’s punk. Growing up in Puerto Rico where your identity is not questioned (by fellow Puerto Ricans), we never made music thinking about what it meant to be a Puerto Rican doing punk because I grew up with Puerto Ricans making punk everywhere. Here, I feel like a fish out of water.
ATV: We all just feel more comfortable being amongst each other. In terms of sonic influences, we borrow from punk bands, but our attitude and influence in the broader sense is more spread out. Palma get his influence from bossa nova and cumbia in his riffs… I like trap and reggaeton. I don’t know how that influences my music, but at a certain point it does influence what we do as musicians.
ERP: For me it was just like, having fun with friends and figuring stuff that we like, trying to be a little better every day.
MLO: As much as I wanna be a grown up living in the world, I also am always turning back to things that I listened to as a teenager. I was very much the only Latina in my neighborhood like angry-listening to rock music. It’s fun to come back to that.
What are you all most looking forward to once we’re all free?
EP: Going back home to Colombia for a couple of days, hang out and have a wholesome moment.
MLO: I wanna do a show again! I’ve been hosting workshops via Zoom and after I was like, “I wanna be around people. I wanna feed off of energy in an audience.” It was really fun to do that at our show. I wanna like, touch people. I just want to touch someone on the shoulder.
ATV: I’m gonna be paranoid to touch people like six months after this shit’s over.
EP: I fancy myself as an introvert, but I notice how much I miss people. I hate people, but now I kinda don’t.
ERP: As Meli said, doing some more shows and keep working on recording some of our newer songs.
Break Something Better EP is out now.