Interview with Downtown Boys

Interview with Downtown Boys by Graham Caldwell. Their LP Full Communism Out Now on Don Giovanni

Downtown Boys are a band that defines passion and energy. Watch footage of their live shows and you’ll see a band that’s truly about spectacle. With lead singer Victoria Ruiz belting out lyrics like “She’s Brown! She’s smart!” or the sonic force of buzzing guitar and saxophone, it makes perfect sense that Rolling Stone called them “America’s most exciting band”. Originally coming together while working at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, there a pretty great video of guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco quitting with the help of the What Cheer? Brigade, an alternative marching band.

Named after a Bruce Springsteen lyric, the “bi bilingual political dance sax punk party from Providence” are currently touring all over the states. Democratic as ever, I was able to catch them via phone in their van, the phone being passed around allowing each of them to speak. I heard a band that spoke passionately about activism, getting requests from fans, and the occasionally difficult queer-punk community.

Northern Transmissions: What inspired you to get into activism?

Victoria: A lot of us come from backgrounds where you just saw people without certain basic things and you really wanted to fight for it. In my case, I come from a single parent family and even just today I was talking to my mom about how our neighbourhood isn’t the best. We know that we can’t turn to the police to make it happen or something like that. You end having to get a lot of people together and a lot of voices together and I know for me it was just kind of seeing that . Going to college I went o college in New York City, and saw the university buy up a lot of the city and pushed out and displace a lot of people in family that had been in Harlem for decades and decades and It’s mostly poor people and mostly people of colour so I know that got me into activism.

NT: Were there any bands that inspired you to start putting music and activism together?

Victoria: Joey mentions like, Rage Against the Machine a lot, and MIA. Now it’s like watching what Kendrick Lamar is doing is inspiring. We’re on tour with Sheer Mag and their music and lyrics are really inspiring.

Joey: Just seeing all these bands, something we like to talk about a lot is the fact that all bands are political it just depends what politics they’re pushing. We get asked to explain our politics a lot, explain our original story because we’re pushing a particular kind of politics that’s outside the status quo. We’re as much inspired by bands that are being political. MIA once said in a Rolling Stone interview that music has always been political and it’s a fairly new thing to think of it as not being political.

MIA, the Clash, Public Enemy, Kendrick right now. Lots of bands say they’re not political but they’re just pushing a different narrative and trying to take back music from that reactionary narrative.

NT: I know you don’t like to be labeled as a punk band, but there’s a lot of that aesthetic in your music as well as your performance. Do you ever find that you’re pushing up opposing viewpoints in the punk community? Do you find things get confrontational?

Victoria: I think we’re pushing against in the world and the punk community is gonna reflect every other community. So there are the same issues of misogyny and racism in the punk community just like in the rap community. Every community is gonna be a reflection of what’s going on at large. So you end up having to deal with the same sort of power dynamics and confront those power dynamics. If I go to work and I’m confronting my boss over some kind of power dynamic there, it’s gonna be just as much confrontation if I’m in a band and we’re confronting in a space there.

We’re totally down it people want to call us a punk band. I think that’s more to do with like, the expectations. We don’t want nostalgia or some type of like historical hierarchy of punk to determine expectations of what we’re trying to do.

We do confront a lot. Obviously punk music has never ever only been a lot of young white dudes at the front. That doesn’t erase or take away Alice Bag, the Riot Grrrl Movement or people who are using their voice in order to figure out how to use their space. So like, MIA should be considered just as much punk because she’s going against the grain and really trying to break the status quo. That’s the kind stuff that’s really inspiring about music that crystallizes dissent, and whether you want to call that punk or whatever it is, it’s really exciting.

NT: Do you ever get confrontational at shows? I know you’ve said you like to play with bands that have differing opinions of yours. Is that an important thing to have to add to conversation?

Victoria: I think when we say we don’t mind playing on bills that have bands that don’t necessarily agree with us, it’s not like we seek that out. We’re not seeking out confrontation, we’re just fine with the confrontation that’s gonna exist at any show. Any show where we’re not playing is most likely gonna have a lot of stuff going on in it. I don’t think that we necessarily are trying to seek out confrontation, we just don’t mind confrontation that’s just like part of it all. We do want to fight and stand up for safer spaces, so in order for people of colour to feel safe, in order for someone who have a developmental disability to feel safe, you want someone who’s been sexually abused to feel safe, or safer rather, we may have to make other people feel uncomfortable.

I think that as a band we have limitations, sometimes people will write us with requests that are outside of our parameters as a band.

NT: What’s an example?

Victoria: We do get a lot of benefit requests, or: “this person treated me this way a while back and now you guys are playing with them or they may be at the show”. Ok, we can try and figure out what we can do in our 20 minute set, but we can’t come into communities and be some type of judge or policing body. We want to confront power dynamics but we also want to be respectful of the community that we’re going into, and not come like a policing body if that makes sense.

That’s something that’s not uncommon for you guys? You’ll get messages from fans asking to call out something that’s happening in their community?

Joey: Yeah, we get that al to some of the stuff is really awesome. In Richmond the other day there’s a gas company that’s trying to dump a bunch of pollutants in the river that people get their drinking water from and someone was like: “if you could say something about that that’d be great” and stuff like that. That’s great. So it’s definitely a mix and a balance, but we do get those kinds of requests.

NT: I found that video of Joey quitting his job, which is amazing, but it’s sort of along the same line of how certain bands have done sensationalist performances in public spaces. Do you think you guys would ever do things like that?

Victoria: What kind of shows?

Joey: Like shock things, like Pussy Riot playing in a church or Sex Pistols playing on a boat…

[the phone gets passed to their drummer, Norlan]

Norlan: I’m not sure we’ll do anything like that. I think when bands do those thing it’s cool and interesting to confront people and get a wider audience, and get confronted with a specific issue. I don’t think that we’d play on a boat. I think we’re just really content with the inherent confrontation that comes from being a band that is political or is filled with people of colour and going into spaces that are mostly… white… people.

NT: I saw you crowd surfing with your drums on the Chris Gethard show, that’s something you do a lot, right?

Norlan: Yeah I broke my tom drum so I can’t do it as much anymore, but I’m gonna grab another tom drum and do it.

Victoria: We’re gonna try and get a secret tom drum that’s just for that.

NT: Gotta stay prepared. Are you gonna be doing anything for the upcoming election? Or are you going to stay out a system that’s already skewed and flawed?

Adrienne: I think the election is something that’s very prominent in the media, and on a lot of people’s minds. I think that The President’s general election is just one type of election that’s happening all the time. I think that while it’s important to try and understand and predict the kind of policy and support the kind policy that you want to see happening on a larger level, we’re really working hard for people to see all the different choices. and to analyze and look at the world around them, definitely in their own microcosm and community and just start to elect and make choices. What they want to see, and how they wanna fight for that, whether it’s having conversations with people around them about safe space, about sexual assault about segregation and racism that they see all the time in their day to day lives. I think that we will just continue to talk about those things that are really important but in the grand scheme of a presidential election, they really are the issues that are underlying everything and how capitalism feeds into that and supports a lot of inequality and violence in our society.

NT: One more thing, some people have argued that because safe spaces on College campus, were hurting free speech. You’re a band that want people to feel free and empowered, but at the same time there’s an argument that safe spaces and politically correct language is actually hurting free speech, I was wondering if you have an opinion on that.

Victoria: I do think that there’s always a difference between like, accountability and policing. Language can be used to police people and police ourselves and what we have to say all the time and I think that when people use the whole “free speech” thing, it’s kinda brutal because we have a lot of different rights. I also have a right to free speech I also have the right to not have acts of violence done against me, you can’t just use this free speech thing as some kind cheap excuse which I think it often gets used for. You look at free speech, which comes out of our ability to protest and our ability organize ourselves and protest. When we put up some kind of list of safe space, if theres’ a list like that in a college campus that doesn’t ensure anything. Just like a law or a right doesn’t mean anything unless it’s actually implemented. I think that when people use the “free speech” thing to say “you shouldn’t try and ask people to be respectful of each other”, it’s a cheap excuse and [comes from] a lot of fear of things actually changing. Ultimately, language is just as powerful as silence and silence is hurting a lot of people and a lot of people are being silenced. You have the right to say anything you also have the right now to say anything and I think that its’ kind of a weird libertarian argument against people coming together and saying: “This is what we want. These are our demands”. When people are like: “Oh, I should get to say whatever I want. I should get to say whatever I want about race or sexuality or people’s bodies…” it’s not coming from any kind of collective idea, it’s not coming from any type of responsibility to a community. It’s like, trampling over other people’s abilities and rights to be safe. I don’t agree, and I think there are a lot of people actively fighting that viewpoint and we get stuck into confusing people who are siding for freedom of all people and that feeling that we know when it’s free until we’re all free, that gets confused with people who are just using policing in order to try and achieve what they want. So if we slap these people on the wrist for saying things or for acting a certain way… what’s the next step?

I think that some of us in the bands have felt that. In certain queer punk communities if you don’t look a certain way, act a certain way: you don’t fit in, you aren’t accepted, your voice isn’t heard and you’re silenced. Even though that queer punk community might have the best intentions in mind, you end up getting policed and silenced too.

Any time it turns to these stringent rules and words in order to guide us instead of actually analyzing the power dynamic that’s going on, we’re gonna end up hitting a wall that we’re actually trying to break down.

NT: Ok well, thank you guys so much for your time.

Joey: Thank you.

Victoria: Thank you!

Interview by Graham Caldwell