Collective Power: Downtown Boys interviewed

Downtown Boys' Joey DeFrancesco and Victoria Ruiz give us a mid-tour report on pushing punk boundaries, funnelling political frustrations, and fighting the powers that be

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 05 Oct 2017

For Downtown Boys, there’s no such thing as opting out. We’re all in this fucked up global system together and either you’re working to dismantle systemic inequality, or you’re probably benefitting from it. Rolling Stone dubbed them “America’s Most Exciting Punk Band” back in 2015, but Downtown Boys have been leading the charge for far longer than that.

The Providence, Rhode Island band formed in 2012, just a year after co-founder Joey DeFrancesco became temporarily internet famous. Under the moniker Joey Quits, he publicly handed in his notice to a shady employer, backed up by a full brass band. Re-watch the video, and you’ll spot his now-bandmate Victoria Ruiz leaping delightedly amid the chaos. They met while working at the Renaissance Providence Hotel, where they discovered a shared politics as part of a movement towards unionisation among the hotel’s (poorly paid, poorly treated) employees.

This spirit of communal protest remains central to the band’s ethos: Downtown Boys continue to organise and galvanise against injustices in the United States, through their bilingual, queer, Latinx and eloquently urgent protest anthems, and through their choices. Ruiz explains: “It has always been really natural to integrate activism and fighting for social justice with everything that I’ve done in my professional life – because I believe in it, and I’m directly affected by it, and I’m directly participating in a lot of these structures just by being US American.”

The Skinny catches up with Ruiz and DeFrancesco while the band are in Seattle, the city home to their new label Sub Pop, and where they've just wrapped a session for legendary radio station KEXP. Alongside Mary Regalado (bass) and Joe DeGeorge (sax), they’re touring with new drummer Joey Doubek, who’s replacing co-founder Norlan Olivo. “Touring this much can be difficult for people's schedules and personal lives,” explains DeFrancesco – the first of many reminders that operating a successful and politically outspoken, ethically sound punk band takes an emotional, physical and financial toll.

Although Downtown Boys have the trappings of indie-level success – a long international tour, a famous producer (Fugazi’s Guy Piccioto) and a deal with a famous label for their recent, critically acclaimed second album Cost of Living – they’re quick to stress that really, little has changed in comparison to working with DIY labels like Sister Polygon or Don Giovanni. DeFrancesco explains: “Sometimes people have these ideas about working with larger labels, particularly if you’re a band with a message like ours. But in our experience [Sub Pop] have just given us slightly more resources to do what we’ve already been doing – they’re able to get the distribution out there in a way that a smaller label maybe couldn’t. And, yeah, we had nine days to record, instead of three [for our previous album Full Communism]. But we still do everything ourselves. We manage ourselves, we drive ourselves everywhere, we advance every show ourselves. It’s not that different from anything we’ve ever done before, to be honest! But [it helps] to make this a sustainable thing for us to keep doing.”

Ruiz weighs in with a similar verdict: “None of us make enough money to survive off of music. All of us are doing this because we believe in it, and because we feel the urgency to do it.” Their testimonies are similar to those by Emma Pollock, Law Holt, Sharleen Spiteri and Be Charlotte from our May cover feature: there’s little money left in music, and what little there is, it sure isn’t trickling down to the artists. “Trying to redistribute resources [in the music industry] is really, really, painfully hard,” Ruiz says, matter-of-fact.

The band have form in confronting heavyweight corporations in the industry. Conflicts with Coachella and SxSW – the former for owner Philip Anschutz’s financial support of anti-LGBT and far right groups, and the latter for contract terminology that had a sinister suggestion of targeted immigration enforcement and deportation – were well-publicised, and gained Downtown Boys plenty of fans, as well as some vocal enemies.

“We rarely get asked, ‘Do you wish you didn’t do it?’” sighs Ruiz. “Really, every day, I’m like oh man, [maybe] we should have not made it a big thing, or told people about it. Maybe it would have been easier to keep my mouth shut. The cost of it is high, and that’s something that people don’t see. There are a lot of haters out there, and I think I probably get the brunt of it. I mean, it makes sense.” Unfortunately, it kind of does; threatening a capitalist, white and patriarchal status quo is doubly tough if you’re a woman of colour.

Both DeFrancesco and Ruiz remain politically engaged outside of the group, too – the pair co-founded a site called Spark Mag which connects radical musicians with like-minded fans, as well as pointing to protests and petitions instigated by the Demand Progress organisation, and Ruiz works for the Center for Popular Democracy.

It’s easy to describe an anti-establishment band as punk, and particularly easy when they play as fast and as furiously as Downtown Boys. But since the word’s become a branding opportunity for IPA brews, and a lazy catch-all to describe a specific sound, it’s harder for a band like this to identify with it. “It’s wild!” Ruiz laughs. “In the punk scene we also have to deal with a lot of shitty power dynamics, and a lot of puritanical punk politics that actually feel more oppressive. But then, in the more corporate festival scene you’re dealing with being sponsored by big corporations…”

So, the band focus on what they do best: using an album or a show as a platform for discussion, as well as a moment for catharsis. Renowned for being explosive, joyful, frantic affairs with an emphasis on sax, spit and togetherness, a Downtown Boys gig isn’t for the faint of heart. That said, this is music designed to unite a room: Cost of Living is their most nuanced record yet, both lyrically and musically, but it’s crammed with catchy, confrontational singalongs.

The majority of the album was written well before Trump was sworn in, but it’s not hard to see why the album’s been received as a direct confrontation to his administration. The record’s title feels ever more prescient as the Graham-Cassidy bill designed to replace Obamacare hangs in the balance, and the opening track’s chant 'A wall is a wall! And nothing more at all' is easily reconciled with certain Trumpian campaign promises.

Still, as DeFrancesco urges, it’s important to remember that these problems aren’t isolated to 2017. “With each consecutive record, people say ‘timely’ – and yeah, with Trump it’s an intensification of these things. But it’s a continuation of issues we’ve always had in the US, going back to the founding of the country based on the genocide of indigenous people. These things, and the kinds of resistance that we’re talking about, are very old.

“But yes, white supremacists see in Trump a way to realise their ideals – which we’ve already seen happen with so many of his policies,” he says, referring to the current threat to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) – the programme which allows unauthorised young adult immigrants to stay in the US. “They want to deport people which is absolute insanity. So you see it in policy and in these demonstrations where you have Nazis driving and killing people in the streets.

“We were in Europe last year during election season, and I remember thinking, will people give us a lot of shit? Or ask us to explain what’s going on in our country? But it was more that people said, 'Oh, yeah there’s a big conservative movement here as well'. It seems like there’s a global wave of these right wing politics, and a lot of people feel solidarity across countries in trying to fight this.”

On Cost of Living, there are two spoken word interludes – one from the late Aaron Swartz, an internet activist, and the other from a Providence-based poet named Vatic Kuumba, who writes: 'We just need to live, keep breathing, and succeeding throughout the decades.' It sounds a gentle respite in comparison to the rollercoaster ride of the rest of the record; is it a reminder to take time for personal self-care? Ruiz rejects this hypothesis: “Honestly, it’s hard to feel the space for that. So much of this is about figuring out a way to keep going – and I wouldn’t call that self-care, I would call it survival. It’s important to acknowledge our individual experiences, and then to find a collective power and a history in that.

“The world is really tough right now, and it’s about figuring out a way to integrate whatever it is you’re doing into a bigger context. It keeps you from sweating those smaller attacks to your ego – there are bigger things to put in our energy and heart. I could be doing anything for a job, and I feel I would be urged to be part of some kind of mobilising collective movement, because that’s where I feel the most empowered – when I’m with other people, working together.”

Cost of Living is out now via Sub Pop
Downtown Boys play Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 13 Oct; Stereo, Glasgow, 14 Oct