Downtown Boys Are the Band We Need Right Now
Providence punks fight the power
In these dark and often demoralizing times, it’s crucial that bands like Downtown Boys exist. Coming out of Providence, Rhode Island, the unapologetically political and multi-gendered quintet create songs in both English and Spanish, targeting the injustices and imbalances that rot our country from its inside.
This past Friday, Downtown Boys released Cost of Living, their third full-length, which was produced by Fugazi/Rites of Spring member Guy Picciotto and is their first album on Sub Pop Records. The songs on Cost of Living were written before last November’s presidential election, but they were recorded during the first days of Trump’s morally corrupt, godforsaken administration. And the album itself feels like a vital and righteous response, full of fury and the resolve to never give in.
MASS APPEAL spoke to Downtown Boys lead singer Victoria Ruiz about finding allies, working as a field organizer and the uniting power of Selena.
What brought Downtown Boys together?
We’ve been a band for six years and at the very beginning we obviously had no idea how long we would be a band. We were coming from a music scene in Providence where there were a lot of punk bands and some never even played a show outside of Providence. I don’t think we went into it with any sort of expectations about the band and what its platform should look like or how big the band should be. Butwe did go into it with was the desire to always try and speak about power, and try and talk about different issues that we had in our own lives, and try to think about how to use the band to be relevant. And I don’t think that you need to be a touring band to do that. I don’t think that you need to be a band in the media to do that. You can be relevant even if you just play at home. And that’s what we started out with. We’d just talk about local things going on or if there was some sort of issue, we’d try to turn our shows into a way to talk about it.
We kind of [began during] the advent of Black Lives Matter and also in the midst of all of these wage fights. I think we’re part of a group of lots of bands that are trying to speak about truth and speak about power, and possibly speak truth to power.
I know you guys are also involved in activist movements, but existing in the context of all these political issues, why express your thoughts on them through a punk band?
Joey [La Neve DeFrancesco], our guitar player, he founded the band. I actually wasn’t in the original band. I was just a number one fan. I had never played music before or anything like that. He was coming out of the What Cheer? Brigade, which is this punk brass band. They play marches and protests and they’re part of a legacy of brass band music. He had seen the potential to be in political spaces and was like, I want to do that with a rock band, with a band that has lyrics, that has singing, thinking about Fugazi, Bruce Springsteen, MIA, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, all of these bands that have used their platform to talk about politics, to talk about power and to bring this message.
I was just in a roundtable interview with Tina [Halladay] from Sheer Mag and I think she said it best. She was like, When we’re on stage, when women are on stage, when people who identify as non-binary are on stage, when people of color are on stage, it is taking power because ultimately the music industry is part of capitalism. There’s still a lot of disparity where white men really are treated much differently and have a lot more privilege than anyone else. And so I think the fact that we are speaking about these issues, using the vessel of music and simultaneously taking power and using our agency within the music industry, that combination just has really worked in some ways. In some ways it’s been a complete failure, because you have limitations as a musician. You’re not a community organization, you’re not a labor union, it’s really hard to get a group of people to work to try and change things in the music industry, so there’s been a lot of failures as using music as the vessel, but I think that there’s also been a lot of opportunities that we’ve taken.
In this day and age we have so much information and news coming at us all the time, and a lot of it is bad and a lot of it is dispiriting. What’s your first reaction when trying to process everything?
I was raised in a single-parent household, and my mom and my grandma were like my two main parents, and then my aunts and one uncle helped to raise me. But my grandma, she was a farm worker. She never went to school and she spoke Spanish. That was her native language until she was 14 and a half, when she basically taught herself English from TV and making one white friend and marrying my grandpa, who spoke English. If you talk to her now, it sounds like maybe English is actually the only language she speaks. It has taught me this life-long lesson, which is you can take that approach to many problems where you don’t know what to do, or you don’t know what the solution should be.
“I truly believe in justice, I truly believe in freedom, even though those are dreams that haven’t been realized in thousands of years.”
It’s ultimately a collective opportunity for us to be asking a lot of questions together and it’s a collective effort to find the solution. Most of the news I find out about is from the internet or from news and media platforms, but that is one voice in what’s going on, and there’s ultimately a ton of voices in whatever that issue is. Human history has shown that people, whether it’s a small group of people or a large group of people, always come together at moments of injustice.
We’ve always found ways to confront [injustice] and to make it very relevant to the people most directly affected and figure out ways to fight it. I truly believe in justice, I truly believe in freedom, even though those are dreams that haven’t been realized in thousands of years. But having this trust in the power of the people in the past, and bringing that into the present moment is the thing that pulls my head out of the water from drowning.
How have you found those like-minded people in your life, whether its in activism or music?
I’ve just been really intense about it all. I think as a Latinx woman of color, part of finding the people that are gonna be a part of you half relies on them wanting to find you. You just don’t have access too capital or to resources. It’s being able to put myself out on a limb and look for the other people who are out on the limbs and trying to come together. It’s definitely been a struggle because people still just want you to be their token brown friend, or they still just want you to sit at the table but not actually say anything. Or they still want to judge that because you may have things like a college degree or you speak English that you’re not brown enough. The people that I’m gonna be close to or gonna go to work with also have to be thinking about something beyond themselves too, and I think that mine and Joey’s friendship is very much built on that idea. That’s how I think I’ve been able to survive and then really push myself to exist in the world.
Were you surprised by who you found out on those limbs?
We have this record coming out and I had been in California with my family, and I came back to Providence and got breakfast with a friend and she’s a community organizer. She’s an indigenous organizer that fights against pipelines being built on stolen indigenous land. And she’s telling me all about this stuff, all about the campaigns and the struggle and everything, and she cares a lot about what I do too, but I’m like, Damn, this is gonna be such a great conversation because it has nothing to do with music. It has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t agree with the Pitchfork review, or we need to find a van because ours is completely broke down.
Those types of relationships have only pushed me harder in my music, because it makes you very humble. But then it also makes you be like, You know what, I have so much rage and anger at white supremacy right now from just talking to my friend about everything I was going through, and I’m gonna use this platform to crystalize that dissent. So, it’s definitely a network of emotions, and then I get to land on music as my main sort of brain node to be on.
What do you feel like you were able to accomplish with this record that you weren’t able to before?
At every layer, every level, there’s just a lot more thoughtfulness. The people who are actually understanding what we’re talking about and understanding what we’re doing are helping us find those nuances a lot more. I’m just really, really proud of that. I am so happy to be in a more nuanced dialogue and conversation about the music and the message.
And then the moment that will always be my proudest is when people are like, Nobody looks like me when I go to shows, and seeing you on stage and seeing you make this record is a big deal for me. And just hearing that from young Latinx women means a lot to me.
Was there anyone that gave you that feeling when you were growing up, where you felt like if you had the opportunity you could have said that to them?
Selena was kind of the person that did that for me. She was kind of my only connection to a lot of the women in my family. A lot of my family still live in Central California and are part of a farm work industry. We really just were always coming from different places but we always loved Selena. That was the thing that brought so many of us from different class and geographical spectrums together.
And then as I began to get more into independent music, Alice Bag. I found her book Violence Girl on my very first tour and that changed my approach to everything. Alice Bag and her book really spoke to how it’s okay to bring the public and the personal together in moments. Her complete genuine conversation about being Chicana, about her parents, and even including photos, that was really powerful. I’ll never forget where she’s talking about being on this pan dulce diet, because when you’re growing up you don’t have this Euro-centrically attractive white woman body (for me, that’s how it was) and you don’t have the nuclear family that’s supposed to make you successful and happy, it’s really hard.
“The same neoliberal institutions that want us to empower girls and women use the concept of violence to automatically equal evil, to automatically equal bad. We have to deal with violence. We have to think about violence as a tactic.”
She really helped put that narrative and that history into words, but then she is also a musician, a punk musician. She’s finally getting to the nucleus of what it means to be a Chicana punk musician and that just really moved me.
And then using the word “violence” in Violence Girl. To put those two words together is so powerful. A lot of the same neoliberal institutions that want us to empower girls and women use the concept of violence to automatically equal evil, to automatically equal bad. We have to deal with violence. We have to think about violence as a tactic. Violence has so many dimensions. Even to just see those words together and a picture of a brown woman… I think about the cover when I’m in the dregs of music a lot.
And then to see what she’s done. She’s been a teacher. She’s spoken on issues going on in Central America. She always uses her music as a platform, as a way to talk about power structures and to find positive future in it, but never giving up on a very critical critique of the past. Her ability to hold the contradiction and use contradiction as something that we can use to push forward in this all is just a massive lesson for me in music and in life.
What’s your approach to songwriting?
Joey writes most of the arrangements, the music. I’ll write the lyrics and the vocal melodies. Sometimes he has some as well and sometimes I have ideas for arrangements. This past album was written over the course of two years, and what would happen is Joey would send me a Midi file with the music and then we would throw together some sort of rough vocal structure. I take notes everywhere. I have notes everywhere—on my phone, on a random piece of paper, on my clothing—all the time. I’ll just kind of go into the zone of thinking about lyric writing and I get really inspired by other things going on in the world.
We don’t write lyrics for what we think people are gonna like. We write music and we write messages and lyrics for where we’re coming from and experiences we know we need to share with people. That’s something that sets us apart from a lot of protest music that is coming at it more from what is going to get people singing the chorus, or things like that.
A lot more protest music is being made that is very vulnerable and personal. When you put it out there, you realize that if you’re just being true to who you are and what you’ve gone through, that is going to be relevant. The world is really a tough place right now and there are a lot of masks and a lot of hot air and a lot of smoke and mirrors, so bringing out your prism of truth is going to be relevant. And that’s in music or in anything.
You still have another job outside of music. At this point is that a necessity or is it a choice?
It’s definitely both. It’s a necessity because music does not pay you enough to survive. And then it’s a choice. I work with the Center for Popular Democracy on a campaign that basically combines federal monetary policy and civil rights. We’re trying to continue Coretta Scott King’s full employment mandate and make sure that the federal government follows through on that. Every time I hear these job numbers, it’s a giant average. White unemployment in this country is always half of black unemployment, and Latino unemployment is in between. There’s just a lot of inequality in the numbers that we get when we think about the economy and our employment, so we work on that.
It’s remote and it’s part-time. I’m a very low level field organizer and I work with other organizers and politics people. So yeah, it’s important to me. It’s definitely hard having two very different jobs. Do I wish music could be my full-time paid job? Yeah, but I would still organize.