Downtown Boys Turn Walls Into Doors On Their New Record
For many bands, the 2016 Election was a return to protest music — for Providence, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys, it was basically business as usual. The band is set to drop their third album, Cost of Living, tomorrow (August 11) and although it’s decidedly current (the opener is called “A Wall”), the subject matter is well-worn for a band showcasing Chicana, queer and Latino voices.
Since their 2011 inception (when the band’s Joey La Neve DeFrancesco met Victoria Ruiz while working in a local hotel), Downtown Boys have been making politically charged music combating racism, queerphobia, capitalism and all manner of modern ills. Punk tinged with saxophone, the band’s live shows are sweaty, cathartic, inclusive affairs — especially considering a large portion of songs are sung in Spanish.
For Cost of Living, Downtown Boys signed with Sub Pop, furthering the reach of their ongoing protest against, well, anything that needs protesting. Guy Picciotto of Fugazi produced the record.
Over the course of the last few months, TIDAL had a few chances to chat with the band (Victoria Ruiz, Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, Norlan Olivo, Mary Regalado) — once over the phone, and once at the 2017 Northside Festival.
What has the move to Sub-Pop meant to you?
Victoria: We didn’t see this as some type of promotion or something like that. It was more just like a new experience. Especially like with music like ours, I think it’s important for us to be constantly generating a renewed pop form, a rejuvenated pop form, because we don’t want to crystallize any of our politics. We don’t want to crystallize any of our principals and make them dogmatic. We want to constantly be flexible, and pushing [our music] to new spaces. Especially as people of color in a rock band.
I know you guys were attending protests leading up to and after the election. Have you been doing so recently with a record on the way?
Victoria: Yeah, we have, and it’s been really great, honestly, to be able to figure out how to do it when your physical schedule is very limited. More often than not, we are sitting in a van on some sort of twelve-hour drive as many of our friends and comrades are out in the streets and fighting the local fights — fighting white supremacy and fighting the police and capitalism all across the country. And that can be super disheartening, especially when so many people know us as this protest band. But we’ve really pushed ourselves to think about ways [to protest].
We organized a protest inauguration show — an anti-inauguration show in Providence. That was really great because we had actually turned down an opportunity to play in D.C. because we felt it was important to do something in Providence. It wasn’t just a ‘fuck Donald Trump’ show. We raised money for two really important small organizations that are fighting white supremacy, day-to-day. We [also] organized this show to fight for the Community Safety Act and anti-racial profiling, an ordinance in Providence that just passed.
That’s one way we’re still protesting, but it is really hard having to deal with the contradiction of being so physically bound to a tour schedule. But we’re constantly trying to figure out how to do it.
You guys have always been political, but having this record come out in this climate…what does that mean to you? What kind of reactions are you getting from people? I guess I’m just wondering what it’s like to be a political band writing political music now.
Norlan: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because a lot of the things that we’re talking about on this album are things we’ve been talking about on our previous albums. We’re kind of talking about the same things in a lot of ways.
A lot of people have been oppressed in this country. We’ve talked a lot about rape issues and power structures. Those are things we’ve always talked about. I guess now it seems as though they’re more relevant given that Trump is our president and all the crazy things that he’s doing, but I think those things have always been part of our system — have always been things that we try to speak against and fight against.
Related to that, I’m curious about your choice to open the record with ‘A Wall.’
Victoria: ‘A Wall,’ I think, is a super-accessible, actually, ‘door’ into the record. I think it’s probably one of the tracks where, if you’ve never heard [our band] before, you can understand the explicit nature of our politics. But then if you have heard Downtown Boys before, you’re ready for a more nuanced vibe into our power analysis. I think it kind of reaches a hand out to both of those people.
I think we’ve also had to deal with a lot of principles and standards that have been put on us. I think it’s really scary when a person of color has power and they’re not perfect, nor are they silent, and that’s very much who we are as a band.
We’re clearly not silent, and I think working against respectability politics that are often put on us by white supremacy is still like building our own chair to be able to sit at the table with people in power. I think it gives us the right to things, and we happen to be doing this with music.
A couple of years ago I was excited every time that we would get an article out, or we would get a song out. Right now, I think I have a little bit of…I hold my breath. Like, ‘Oh, let’s see how the people respond or if people like this.’ I get it. There are definitely growing pains.
What’s the story behind the spoken word parts on the record?
Norlan: One of the spoken word pieces ['Bulletproof'] is by a local poet/rapper/artist and playwright called Vatic Kuumba. He’s someone who’s very heavily involved in the community.
The other quote is a sample from the late Aaron Swartz. He founded the organization Demand Progress, and he fought a lot for civil liberties on the Internet. And if you read his writing or look into him, he really wanted to fight surveillance and the police state on all types of scales. He really believed in the access to knowledge and information not being determined based on your class, and therefore your race — but it being public.
He was given a really hefty prison sentence by the federal government [after breaking into the MIT campus and distributing academic journal articles for free via the Internet] under the Obama administration, and he decided that he no longer wanted to be on this earth — right before he was set to serve prison time.
We felt it was really important to include his voice on the record. He had spoken a lot about the need for music and culture. It’s really interesting that we’re doing this interview with [TIDAL, which is] clued into music streaming and the economy — or the economics of the artist and music streaming — because his whole thing was that, when you listen to a song, like when you stream a song or download a song, you’re sharing it. You’re not taking away the opportunity to buy that song, necessarily, but you’re opening up the opportunity to engage with it to people who wouldn’t buy it but may actually share it or stream it.
Victoria: We had a lot of quotes, and a lot of interludes and sample ideas, and we really wanted to basically make sure that we included voices from all different people. We had so many black people of color, and so we also needed to have other people of color — Aaron’s a white guy on the record.
It seems as though you really delve into Spanish on this record. Any reason why you chose to sing so many songs in Spanish?
Victoria: A lot of the people who support us also speak Spanish — Spanish should be one of the languages that we consider an official language in the U.S. I think we’re constantly just trying to meet people where they’re at.
(Photo credit: Miguel Rosario)
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