In “A Wall,” the opening track for Downtown Boys’ recently released third album, Cost of Living, frontwoman Victoria Ruiz sings, “You can’t pull the plug on us. I won’t hide.” This indomitable sentiment exemplifies the band, who have earned a reputation for politically charged punk songs and spirited live performances. Formed in Providence, Rhode Island in 2011, Downtown Boys possess an urgency lacking in many of their contemporaries. The confrontational nature of the band seems apt for these times, where the sidelines are dissolving and the option to sit out grows increasingly untenable. Prior to taking off on their U.S. tour, I talked with Ruiz and fellow bandmate Joey DeFrancesco about media representations of the band and their experiences traveling the country as musicians.
Downtown Boys were interviewed for this magazine three years ago by Osa Atoe [ANTIGRAVITY #120]. Do y’all remember?
Victoria Ruiz: Of course. That was one of our first interviews, I think.
The band’s level of exposure has increased a lot since then. I’m thinking of Democracy Now!, NPR, Rolling Stone. Outside of the band, you’re also both writers and co-founders of Spark Mag, so you’re regularly on the other end of media as well. With that in mind, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how media has represented the band and what it’s been like to receive so much attention.
VR: I think that some of the media platforms that have reached out are very genuine. I think they read us for who we are, for what we’re actually saying and doing. Remezcla is a great example. Or even when we were featured in Rolling Stone, that interviewer came to Providence and he worked really, really hard to talk about what we’re actually doing and saying. I think that piece got edited a lot and the only takeaway that a lot of people remember is “America’s Greatest Punk Band,” but it’s actually way more nuanced than that and was probably even more nuanced before it hit editors. For us, it’s really about using media as another seat at the table when we’re thinking about how to use culture and art to decolonize our imperialized minds. Like you said, we receive attention, and there’s not always this reciprocal relationship and I think that’s perhaps because people are trying to tokenize me as a Xicana front person or trying to tokenize our band as a band that has queer people or people of color, trying to put into us a message of their own instead of actually reading us for actually who we are. I think that can get very dangerous. I think that happens when we don’t realize that writers and musicians and bookers, people that run venues, we’re all on the same level. We’re all in it together and as soon as we try to create this hierarchy like “I report on you” or “I make music and therefore the person putting on the show is doing this for me,” that’s when it can really fall apart. And instead of a relationship where we’re actually trying to further what’s being said, it becomes this giving or receiving of attention and I think that’s just smoke and mirrors and it’s dangerous. So I think the media coverage has been really incredible when done genuinely and authentically and then I think it’s been very tough and put us in a very vulnerable position when it’s not done genuinely.
What steps do y’all take to mitigate these less genuine portrayals of the band?
Joey DeFrancesco: I think there’s only so much you can do to control how the media presents your band or whatever kind of project you’re doing. I wish people would maybe be more thoughtful or knowledgeable about how that works, like if there’s some weird social media clip that some editor put up on Twitter about your band. The band is not writing that, you know what I mean? That’s someone else’s interpretation and the band in most cases has very little control and I do wish people would sort of understand those positions and how they occur. But I think our band has known from the beginning that we had to fight an uphill battle and that we had to use the press to whatever extent that we can to get our music and our message out there. So that means doing a lot of interviews… I think at some level, that’s what you can do—speak sincerely, speak genuinely, and push as much as you can to try and get the message through as clearly as you can.
For us, it’s really about using media as another seat at the table when we’re thinking about how to use culture and art to decolonize our imperialized minds
Do you have concerns about mainstream exposure neutralizing your message?
VC: I don’t think that’s really in our control. There’s a difference between power and control, and as soon as we try to control that, that’s bordering on some sort of censorship, I think. And that’s the whole thing, right? Whatever we’re talking about and whatever we’re doing, we’re not doing it alone. We’re part of a much greater context and so if it becomes vulnerable for people who are just looking for a reason to attack or looking for a reason to be upset, that was long before us. If our message is somehow being co-opted or used in a certain way that isn’t true, that’s because of our greater media context. The only way I think that we’re ever going to be able to change that is if we are taking that space and figuring out how to navigate that system that we simultaneously critique and work to dismantle. Ultimately, all of the power dynamics that are happening with our band are reflective of the greater world and if we don’t try to be a part of saturating some of these pages and some of these spaces with something different, with an alternative, then the status quo will remain. So I think that’s really scary for some and that’s because we are a threat to the status quo. Of course we get co-opted, of course our message gets tangled. Again, that’s not because of us… And I think outside of the band we’re both constantly also trying to detangle that, to unravel and dismantle that, so it’s holding that contradiction of having to fight the structures that created capitalism and racism while simultaneously having to survive, exist, and navigate within them. Isolating ourselves, I think, would narrow what we’re trying to do. It would narrow our art and our message, it would narrow our ability. I think that’s why we don’t isolate or separate or alienate ourselves. And we are all people—especially Joey, Norlan, Mary, and myself—who aren’t able to do that in our everyday lives. Like when we walk into a store, or when we walk into a restaurant or any space in this country, we don’t get to choose to isolate ourselves. We don’t get to choose to not be a woman of color. We don’t get to choose to not be queer. We don’t get to choose to not be giving into gender binaries. So why would we choose to do that with our band?
There’s an AFROPUNK.com interview from last year where Norlan Olivo, the band’s drummer, said, “It’s interesting that when you speak out, that you’re supposed to be a spokesperson for political action, but no one’s holding these other bands accountable for not being political at all.” What are your thoughts on being labeled as a political band and the expectations that come along with that categorization?
JD: Obviously we talk a lot about politics. We talk about what’s happening in our own lives and in the society around us, and so that’s what comes out in the music. Our band has been doing that since the beginning, describing our experiences. As that gained some kind of momentum, there became this broader expectation that people can just attach to the band any sort of belief they have and if that, for some reason, is not perfectly met in their minds they freak out about it and want to throw accusations at us that we’re not living up to exactly what they’re imagining. Whereas bands who are also maybe speaking about their experiences in the world and what surrounds them but maybe because of who they are, where they’re coming from, or their analytical lens, that comes off as much safer. People simply don’t care as much about what they do and what they say and how they navigate the world. They’re often given a pass and aren’t put under the microscope in the same way, whereas if you stand up in any context you get constantly attacked and people try to knock you down and that’s obviously amplified by racism and homophobia and misogyny.
VC: Our country is in a civil war right now and we have an incredibly high emergency of racism and capitalism making inequality bigger than it’s been in human history. We have a homelessness emergency. We’re fighting wars all around the world. We could all be asking “Why this and not this?” but I think rather we should just be open about why we’re doing what we’re doing. And I think when it comes to a lot of bands that aren’t going to say that overtly or directly, we don’t even ask them who they are. A lot of these white artists get to make really great, personal music and people say, “Oh thank god, finally something to just help me think through my emotions and recalibrate me.” And I’m just like, “Oh my god!” [laughs] Meanwhile, the fact of the matter is that people are coming to our shows for a form of catharsis. And as far as the music I listen to, I think Joey and I are both obsessed with the Algiers album The Underside Of Power, and yesterday I found myself watching their music videos. They’re all very, very intense videos with Black Panther imagery and imagery about power relations in this country and I found it so cathartic. I found it allowed for more of a meditative moment than listening to bedroom pop music, which is awesome and great; but we have to realize there’s a spectrum of music that can be there for our emotions and be there to meet us where we’re at and help push us through the day, and we need to not just give that space to white people. And perhaps we need to start asking all artists what it means to be an artist in 2017, considering who you are and your power and privilege, which I think is what your interview questions are getting at.
JD: I do pay very close attention to how social media editors write things on Twitter and Facebook. And because we do Spark Mag and write that stuff also, and like Victoria is saying, the complexity given to mostly white bands, even if they’re playing music that has now become politicized, the difference between that and bands that are mostly people of color, like our band, is pretty astounding. Like with the white band, somewhere in there there’s something about politics but the headline will say something like, “They have these great riffs” or they talk about the music itself in relation to emotional relief. And with our band we’re mostly talked about in the same vein as political stuff, which is fine but I think there is a marked difference, especially in expectations, and I think that’s been the case in music forever. Like reading old interviews with M.I.A. in her early days and the questions she gets asked and the kind of scrutiny that she was put under for being a woman of color making politicized music, compared to other artists at the same time, like the Strokes or whatever, who were not being asked the same questions, and that’s continued to intensify today.
Generally speaking, how do you make decisions as a band?
JD: It kind of depends. At this point, we have so much shit going on that there’s some things that we sort of delegate out and then with bigger decisions we’ll vote on it and go with a majority decision, which can be hard. At this moment, we haven’t really seen each other in two months because we’ve been on a little bit of a break, at least from practicing, before starting this massive tour, so it’s a lot of hunting people down to get their votes on text or email but I think that’s the only way a band like ours can operate. Victoria, Norlan, and me are kind of like the founding members and we all value very much having a democratic process. When we’re able to make money everything is shared amongst all the members in equal shares. There’s some political intentions behind it, I think, but also it’s really the only way to run our band. I don’t know how else we would do it.
Your upcoming U.S. tour is six weeks long, then there’s a short break and then you tour Europe. How important is live performance to the band and what’s your survival strategy for touring?
VC: I don’t want to speak for Joey, but we probably feel similarly. The live shows are what we do it for; they’re incredible opportunities to be around other people. Sometimes we don’t know what to do before we play. It’s always such a wild range of emotion, like sometimes we’ll just get real tired and be like, “How are we going to do this?” And sometimes we’re really excited. You would think that after five years of this we would have some kind of mode or routine. I see younger bands who don’t tour as much and they have really cool routines and I’m like, “Man, I wish I could remember to do all those things!” [laughs] So it’s still pretty crazy and I think we’re always working on our athleticism and trying to figure out that, you know, discipline, but the actual showtime is what’s the best. Being in the van and waiting for that is a constant struggle. With touring, there’s a lot of high-highs and low-lows, but for me it’s why I do the interviews or why I want to record. The shows are really special, whether there’s ten people or a ton of people there.
JD: Everyone has their things that they do to stay sane or manage losing their mind a little bit. I think at this point we’ve been doing it so long that we understand when people need space and that’s OK. We understand each other’s eccentricities that need to be indulged in order for us to all get along. That’s touring and that’s being in a relationship, and it is a pretty intimate relationship to be in with a group of people where you’re traveling and performing together, eating together and making money together and sleeping next to each other. It’s an intense relationship and not really one you have often in the modern world, where we all live kind of individualistic lives and don’t even have these types of relationships with our family. It requires a lot of unlearning to be able to survive with a group of people in that tight of a situation. You just don’t do that in 2017 really anywhere else in your life other than maybe a romantic relationship, but even that you usually get more of a break than in this situation. I don’t know if there’s a specific thing we do to cope. Like Victoria was saying, I think we go into tour with an intention to have these routines, like do a little exercise every day. But then you show up and you’re exhausted and you just want to have a drink and sit there until you play.
How have your experiences traveling across the U.S. altered your perspectives of the country?
VC: I think we’ve gotten to see a lot of the country. I had dinner with my mom and one of her best friends who was really influential in my childhood. She’s a woman of color who gave me and my mom a lot of advice. She was also a single mom and her and my mom kind of raised their kids to venture. And we were talking and, you know, she’s older, and she said, “My dream is to go to every single state and learn about history.” And I thought, “Wow, here’s a woman who has really done it.” She raised children on her own and has been so influential in the lives of other women of color and her dream isn’t to have money or anything like that. She just wants to go to every state. And my mom was like, “Yeah, you know, Victoria has kind of done that.” We haven’t been to every state but we’ve been to a lot of them. It’s truly a blessing to have that experience. When you’re a musician, a lot of people will wonder “What are you doing with yourself?” or “Why aren’t you a lawyer or a doctor?” So when you get those little moments when people realize what it means to actually physically do that, and to do that with intention, it’s really intense. When we go from place to place we do that with the intention to play. We’re not just tourists. And that’s really heavy, because you want to make sure you’re not just parachuting in but we also need to realize we’re not going to really have time to understand that land where we’re at. So it’s a constant balance of trying to figure out how to be in the space and to make sure to be really intentional about why we’re there. It’s really changed my entire view of the country that I’m from. I have more questions about this country than answers after being a touring musician, and I’m so grateful for that.
We understand each other’s eccentricities that need to be indulged in order for us to all get along.
I was looking at the upcoming tour dates. The city names are easily recognizable, except for one: McAllen, Texas. Can you talk about your relationship with this city?
JC: We’ve been going to McAllen for a few years. Our first time was when we were touring with Screaming Females. We also didn’t know what it was in regards to seeing it on the tour route. I think we had a ridiculous drive there. It was the day after New Orleans and we had to get down there and we’re like, “Why the fuck are we driving 13 hours to the bottom of Texas?” But I remember getting there after that huge drive and seeing what the city was about and being blown away before we even played. It’s a majority Mexican city and the music scene reflects that, which is not a common thing to see in a lot of places in the United States. As we’ve played there more, we’ve learned more about the city and the political and cultural world there. In a way, there’s similarities to what our band has tried to do. There’s people who are booking shows, who are in bands, who are also very actively engaged in the political struggle there more broadly. They also fight for their own scene. This past year the city council was trying to put noise restrictions in the downtown area where a lot of the venues were. The music community responded in a very organized way to fight the city council on that and actually won and saved their venue and their music scene. It’s such a rare thing to see a music community act in that kind of collective, organized way. Sadly, it isn’t really something you see too often. But they were able to do that and win, and I think that sort of spirit is what we strive for as artists and as people booking shows and operating in this world. So McAllen remains a place we have to go on tour. It’s become a priority for us.
I imagine that for younger people, finding out about your band could create a major impact, in the same way that bands like Fugazi and At The Drive-In affected me when I was younger. How do you feel about potentially influencing people in this way?
VC: Hopefully the influence would come from us being part of a greater context, but I think it’s kind of nerve-wracking to think about it. A hero is a hard thing, you know? And we’re not heroes.
Downtown Boys play Gasa Gasa on Thursday, September 7 with Special Interest opening. For more info, visit downtownboys.bandcamp.com.
photos ADRIENNE BATTISTELLA