Downtown Boys aren’t here for your “white tears”
Over the past six years, Downtown Boys of Providence, Rhode Island, have criss-crossed America in their tour van, sharing snarling, bilingual punk with the country’s far-flung pockets of DIY counterculture. Over barbed guitars and warm saxophones, Latinx lead singer Victoria Ruiz has sung condemnations of America’s racism, its queerphobia, its stifling wage inequality, its prison industrial complex. They’ve built an enthusiastic fan base and fostered a community of like-minded musicians, earning some impressive honorifics in the process: “America’s most exciting punk band” as Rolling Stone named them in December 2015; “the perfect cure for the great American apathy” Flavorwire wrote in early 2016.
All of this was done in times of relative peace, though — before the gulf between America’s blue and red wings divide became stark enough to earn the country a new nickname, “the Divided States”; before the dawn of the #Resistance; before President Donald Trump took office, embodying more or less every ideal the band fights against.
Trump hasn’t provoked the band to shift its mission in any major ways, but the administration’s penchant for scapegoating minorities and promoting and encouraging violence has brought a new sense of urgency to the quintet’s latest record, Cost of Living, out Aug. 11 via Sub-Pop.
“Recording it was a really intense time. It was right in the first weeks of the administration,” guitarist Joey DeFrancesco said in a recent phone interview. “We were kind of seeing our worst fears of what we were hearing on the campaign trail coming to fruition.”
For one, Trump offered his first version of his executive order aimed at curbing immigration from seven majority Muslim countries while the band was in the recording studio. “We’re in this windowless basement making this record,” DeFrancesco said. “It was just a lot of anxiety in that moment, trying to figure out how to respond, trying to figure out what happened, watching thousands of people flocking to airports to protest. I think there’s a lot [of that] going into the record.”
The result isn’t a significant sonic departure from their previous 10-track dispatch, 2015’s Full Communism. Ruiz’s tireless shouting still carries the songs, which are also propelled by DeFrancesco’s lean riffs and Norland Olivo’s determined, straightforward drumming. The new album’s blunt-force opener, “A Wall,” belittles Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the border of the U.S. and Mexico, before making a broader appeal for peace and understanding: “And when you see her there/ I hope you see yourself.” The largely Spanish-language “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” takes stock of the tools the band can use to combat white supremacy, and is backed by a shuffling syncopated beat. They may not have land or money, Ruiz sings, but they have heads, fingers, veins and tongues. That’s all they need to charge on.
We talked with Ruiz and DeFrancesco over the phone on Thursday, and dug not only into the album’s origins, but also into the ways America’s changed since Trump’s been validated and sent to the White House. They said it’s become more difficult for the band — made up of queer, non-binary, white and brown members — to feel comfortable moving freely from city to city. But that only underlines how important it is that they continue their work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mic: I want to start by talking about an interview you gave right before this album cycle that took issue with this idea that bands always have to be “producing something” or “working the media, playing a show with a band bigger than you.” What sparked that thought? Was that a position you found yourself in recently?
Victoria Ruiz: I did that interview last fall, before we recorded Cost of Living. I was feeling a lot of pressure to finish the songs and make sure we had a huge plan for the record, or a huge plan for the tour. I was looking at a lot of my peers — like Priests and Sheer Mag and Algiers. We all have albums coming out this year. Unfortunately, because you no longer make any money off the actual music, if you’re a band our size, it’s more through touring. It’s like you constantly have to be touring. You constantly have to be in live, physical spaces. And then there’s the expectation for you to still be an artist, and still be yourself and still be a person.
[Audiences] constantly want more, and that demand is really felt by artists, and especially bands our size and musicians like us, where there aren’t that many rock bands fronted by Chicana people. There’s Alice Bagg, but she’s kind of like a goddess-queen. If you don’t keep that space, it can easily be forgotten. Or it can easily be filled by some generic EDM music or something like that. You constantly have to continue to water all the plants that grow your band and your music — and sometimes it does feel like there’s a drought.
Because it seems like you all stay active in the political sphere even when you’re recording, I’d love to pin down a timeline for the making of the record. When did you start? When did you finish?
Joey DeFrancesco: Most of the songs on the record were written between, like, May of 2015 and the winter of 2016, with us making some changes until we recorded in January, early February of this year. It was spanning a big timeline of political events, but the issues we’re talking about on this record are nothing new. This record is not linearly coming out of Trump’s presidency. Most of it was written before Trump’s presidency. It was taking place during the campaign and that increase in hateful rhetoric and the larger realization of the alt-right. That was all in our minds as we were writing.
Let’s talk some of the specifics: I find myself continually returning to the song “Promissory Note.” Where did you come up with that as a metaphor for a pathway to justice? What is its significance to the band?
VR: “Promissory Note” is one of our favorites. That beginning line — “I have come to cash a check/ It’s a promissory note” — is actually inspired by an MLK quote that Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar used during their  BET performance. Before they come onstage, MLK’s voice fills the room. It’s from a speech where he says: “We all have a promissory note, and when we cash it it’s going to be worth the bounty of freedom and the riches of justice.” (Editor’s note: The quote comes from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and actually reads as follows: “And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”)
We’ve always had this idea of an open-door policy: Downtown Boys, communist-culture style. We really wanted to open up — that’s where we’re coming from. But the song is really getting into white fragility and white tears. And how much of an impediment they can be to collective power. Because so much of [the fight] relies on queer people, non-binary people having to make white supremacy feel OK — because we’ve somehow made it feel sad, or we’ve somehow offended it.
Not only is that a huge block in the road, but it makes it hard to cash in that check, because we end up having to take on our own experiences for having to fight for freedom — which is a constant struggle — but also having to deal with white supremacy’s tears about it. That song was hoping to get at that dichotomy.
“In D.C. there was someone who came to our show and she was like: ‘This is the only thing I’ve done all week in public. Because I can’t be outside right now.’ That happens a lot. That happens too often.” — Victoria Ruiz
I read your interview with fellow Latinx musician Helado Negro, talking about touring in Trump’s America. I wanted to give you the opportunity to answer one of your questions to him: “What is it like being a bilingual musician, who is a person of color touring the country, and being places where the majority of people have voted for or stand for values that go against some of the themes in your music?”
VR: I didn’t realize how hard that question was until I was asked it. *laughs*
Being in Corpus Christie, Texas, or being in Omaha, Nebraska, being in these different places knowing I have certain connections to the land there, to maybe the experience of other Chicanos and Chicanas — for that, I’m willing to be a little bit on edge. If we go to a gas station, we should all watch out for each other. If we see a police officer, we should definitely all watch out for each other. That’s what’s on my mind. What’s not on my mind is how shiny our gear is going to be, or if we’ll have time to do a full run-through or soundcheck. It’s like, we have to carry these very, very personal experiences, into these very public spaces. Having to work through that show by show, is both a blessing and, at moments, it can be a curse.
Like, Norland [Olivo, the band’s drummer,] and I clearly got racially profiled in Virginia. We got a ticket for having a rubber toy spider hanging for our mirror, and that violation has made my auto insurance go up. So I have to work extra hours. It’s just the domino effect happens really, really quickly when you’re trying to tour and share live music. Being a bilingual artist, an artist of color, we constantly need to be pushed to do it, and we constantly need to break down those walls between our personal selves and our public selves, and simultaneously protect our energy even though we rely on making that energy vulnerable to other people. What that means is being able to hold that contradiction in a country that is founded on contradiction.
“Some people are going to be upset that our music is not for them ... I think that’s what happens with music that has a political message. It’s not going to make everyone feel good. But maybe that’s not why we do it.” — Victoria Ruiz
I haven’t got a chance to travel much since the election, but do you feel that your experience touring has changed much since Trump took office? Or is it like what some critics were saying after the election, that this outcome is only surprising to people who weren’t seeing the signs?
JD: I think both things are true. Those issues, those fears, those experiences existed under the Obama administration, existed for years. And some of those things are always there. Certainly given those caveats, Trump and his policies and the people he’s emboldened through his existence has of course created an amplification of fear, of anxiety, of real material misfortune, and loss for so many people.
I think playing shows this year has felt like it’s come with some kind of intensification, where it’s perhaps not as much of a joyful coming together to maybe celebrate a resistance. It feels a bit heavier and maybe a bit more cathartic, but I think that’s true whatever job you’re doing.
VR: We can’t just think that it’s timely, when we’re just experiencing a much heavier and stronger symptom for as long as any of us have been alive.
I think that also realizing that [when] people of color come to our shows they’re coming and bringing in this weight of having to live under white supremacy and capitalism. So when people call our shows “mosh pit, sweaty times,” it’s like, yeah, there’s hopefully that element and that’s great, but there are also people who are coming to shows who aren’t in that “get drunk and mosh” mindset.
In D.C. there was someone who came to our show and she was like, “This is the only thing I’ve done all week in public. Because I can’t be outside right now.”
That happens a lot. That happens too often. So we have to constantly think about the context that we’re in.
The things that music has done for me has basically been to provide a landing dock for my feelings and my emotions. And for people who are involved in the struggle there are going to be so many emotions that come out of that involvement — our hope is like that we can provide that cathartic space. Some type of landing pad for others.
At the same time, our music is not going to be for everybody. Some people are going to be upset that our music is not for them. I think that’s what happens with music that has a political message. It’s not going to make everyone feel good. But maybe that’s not why we do it.
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