I’m not sure I ever equated “raging politically-charged hardcore-punk” with Providence, RI, at least that is until I saw all six of the Downtown Boys simultaneously seizuring and levitating during a live performance (that includes the drummer). Musically, they’re like an X-Ray Spex album played on 45, or The Contortions covering Los Crudos, a whirlwind of too-fast punk riffs and blaring saxophones, led by the powerful presence of vocalist Victoria Ruiz. They’ve got a lot to say for themselves, which is more than I can say for most current punk bands, and they manage to say it without compromising any of the joyous and chaotic release that comes from a live punk show. A debut album and full US tour are planned for 2015, don’t miss it!
Let’s cut to the chase: were you punk in high school?
Victoria (vocals): I was a super nerd with highwater bell-bottoms, lunches made by my grandma, constantly studying with the few other people of color in my Catholic private high school, never been kissed, Rage Against The Machine CD from Target, tour shows, dying to live to find the punk scene I am apart of now. I knew it was out there. I knew the truth was out there, as my high school self. Yeah, I went to Hot Topic, but none of the clothes fit me and I didn’t know what to buy anyways. And, I didn’t know who Sleater-Kinney was, but I wanted to know. I was an angel ready to be an alien.
Joey (guitar): I hated everything and was depressed and did weird stuff, so in that sense it was kind of punk. Didn’t have a spiked jacket or any of that, if that’s what you mean. There were a few of us in high school who would get a car and drive really far to get to shows cause there wasn’t anything in our town. Because of that I still really like playing smaller cities because even if there isn’t a huge crowd there’s going to be a few weird young kids there who are having a truly important experience.
Emmett (tenor sax): I was the furthest thing from punk: baggy jeans, sports, jazz-band shit for real. I’m still not that punk, but I believe in this band!
Dan (bass): I was weird. I was starting to flirt with radical politics, and I listened to some classic punk bands, but I wasn’t punk.
Do you think the mystery and difficulty entering into punk and underground music helped you form such a bond with it? Like, if you were a 13 year-old kid now and just Googled and Spotified every band you heard about, would it end up meaning less to you?
Joey: I don’t really know if it’s any more or less mysterious now than when I was a teenager. I grew up when most bands were online already on Myspace or Purevolume or whatever, so that’s intensified, but hasn’t changed that much. I didn’t live near a big city or know any hip people, so the internet was useful to me to be able to find out that people were making exciting work. The more we can reach those kids who are more isolated or don’t have access to cultural capital the better. Making the music and message accessible is far more important than creating mysterious romance for a select few. That underground aspect will always be there anyway because the legit world doesn’t want our stuff out there.
Dan: In my work life, I interact with a lot of young people, and I’m so lucky to get to watch them discover underground music and sometimes, to recommend music to them, and I think that this process can still be mind-blowing. A lot of my youth don’t have home internet access, and if they do, it’s on a shared computer that they can’t spend a lot of time on, so it’s important to remember that a lot of thirteen year-olds still don’t have easy access to Google and Spotify.
I am more worried about young people’s sense of cultural access and empowerment than how meaningful they might find the process of discovering new music. Consistent with national trends, Providence has very limited music and art education in its public schools, especially at the high school level. I fear that a lot of young people who feel inspired by punk or other underground music don’t know how to take this inspiration and use it to make the art or music that they want to make.
How difficult is it to go crazy while playing a brass instrument versus a guitar? Do you ever worry about your teeth?
Emmett: It’s definitely a challenge to play the saxophone while your face in careening around, and I’m constantly weighing whether to prioritize playing the notes right or going as wild as possible. I hope I err on the side of chaos, but I haven’t broken any teeth yet.
Joey: This band has somehow run over not one but two of our own saxophones and totally destroyed them. It’s never happened with any of our other gear, just saxophones. Those were probably the most extreme sax disasters.
Are you interested in trying to reach well-meaning but otherwise clueless middle-class white dudes with feminist and “Bros Fall Back” philosophies? Or is whether or not they “get it” not something you’re concerned with?
Victoria: This is a super interesting question. The answer is yes, we are very interested in reaching people who are well-meaning with feminist and “Bros Fall Back” philosophies. It’s not our responsibility to make sure they understand hegemony; that’s on them. It’s pretty awesome actually that they even wanna listen to me, and if it is genuine they are probably more than “otherwise clueless.” Our band is a mess of race / class / critiques and analysis! At some point in time our analysis was not so formed.
I was pretty clueless before being really radicalized in high school by my grandma and mom, then in college and after through a lot of relationships with femme punks. But, I am probably also clueless in some ways! It is not about a white man, it is about white supremacy; this is structural and outside of guerrilla critiques of individuals. Also, I am from a fairly big suburb of San Francisco called San Jose, where the populous wants us to be otherwise clueless. It is riddled with average and brainwashing US pop culture and techies. It also has mad Chicana families like mine who are hustling and scraping away imperialism from our beauty daily. It’s really annoying and not okay when white people reject other white people, or men reject other men, or women reject other women, or people of color reject other people of color right off the bat! This is not actually helping us take power from white supremacy or white masculinity. We are a school of fish, dawgs! We gotta find a way to swim together like one big fish to get away from the shark! It’s like we need to actually find a point of contact, a point of the possibility of trusting each other or a legit reason why trust is not in the cards, and that will truly break our cluelessness! The amount of times we will fail will undoubtedly outnumber how many times this works. But the more we fail, then the more we will “get it” at times. It’s very discreet and important math. It’s that whole Audre Lorde idea, “if I speak to you in anger at least I have spoken to you. I have not put a gun to your head and shot you down in the street; I have not looked at your bleeding sister’s body and asked, ‘What did she do to deserve it?’” And yes, I have a lot of anger and while I am more than happy to speak to the well-meaning but otherwise clueless middle-class white dude, it’s not my job to explain why their race and class hold a violent history, and yes they should probably go speak to other white and middle-class dudes and with other Latina upper-lower-class women, and so on and so forth after (and before) they speak with me or they see a Downtown Boys set. We are never at our 100% best and we are never at our 100% worst… which is kinda scary, but really really real.
Does it make you feel good to make a generic audience of hardcore dudes uncomfortable? It totally must, right?
Dan: I think about the people who love punk, but don’t often feel at home at a punk show; it feels good to make them comfortable.
Victoria: Haha, I like Dan’s Answer. Making people feel uncomfortable is a really complex one. I feel really uncomfortable a lot actually. It seems like I must have like all this energy and that should lead to confidence. But, as long as the status quo looks the way it does, where we are still taking the streets to fight white supremacy, I will feel pretty uncomfortable. So when we make others feel uncomfortable, in a way I am like, “Well, someone had to do it.” But also, that is not the end goal. What is inspiration without a next or new step? Nothing. So what is discomfort without transforming that feeling as part of a greater analysis… kinda nothing. I think that when we can use our shows to push through that discomfort and get to that moment of asking, “What do we do about it?” Why are we feeling uncomfortable, what does it mean to our relationship to race, gender, capital, sexuality, structures of the state? If that discomfort becomes questioning, then it feels good. Otherwise, it is just kind of awkward because people look at you in a like, “man, why you gotta be a downer?” way after the show and they like don’t ask you to play shows and they don’t come to the shows you book, and their discomfort becomes fear. We run this risk every time we play a show. We are at great risk, but so are a lot of people and that doesn’t mean we resort to anything less.
How do you summon your live show energy? Does it simply come from the sound of the music, or are you thinking about your lyrics and the specific songs you’re singing, or is it something else entirely?
Victoria:Oh my god, recently live show energy is coming from tears and anger of what is happening with the terror by the U.S. Criminal Justice System, racism, and trying to figure out my participation and necessity to fight. I read this quote by Frantz Fanon very recently before a show: “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” I relate to this so much because I have the rot on me, I don’t just get to see it from outside. I’m really pissed that more Latinos aren’t making the Black and Brown connection right now, it’s related to this disease of imperialism and therefore policing. This anger and desperation to scratch this rot away from our minds is what gives me energy. It really doesn’t matter what kind of day I have had, what mood me or the band is in, it is like my subconscious meets my conscious for twenty minutes. And it is messed up. The music and the lyrics completely hold hands. Our lyrics are a mix of wails and protest chants and the music is like something from so deep in the brain and sometimes during songs I hear certain parts of songs and I literally don’t know what the earth even looks like, only what it feels like. The energy comes from the fact that we have to be expressive or we will only be silenced, we have to be deep or we will only be dead.
Where did the concept come for your “Slumlord Sal” video come from?
Victoria: The nuances of the police like totally racially profiling teens, using local policing tactics as a way to criminalize migrants that were forced to come here because of racist economic policies in their home countries, and just realizing that policing is also used to keep expressive political spaces like punk shows down, really inspired a lot of this video. Joey really helped us connect the importance of the “sexy cop” as this deeper identity in it all. And it was really awesome to think of slapping cops into a state where they can unblind their eyes and minds.
Joey: We know we need to be entertaining in order to get people to listen, though I do think if we made that video right now we would do it a little less silly and more direct. I mean, the issues it addresses are still very serious and the fantasy in the video comes out of the intense fear and desperation around these issues. We had joked for a while about this idea of a superhero who would show up and destroy cops by slapping them. Then when making the video we thought it would be tight if instead of destroying them the slap just totally transformed their ideology, made them an inverse cop. We worked on this with our friend Casey Coleman who has done a lot of amazing video work for Big Freedia and others and we were like, “Casey, you think you could make an effect where a person dressed up as a cop gets slapped and transforms into a sexy cop?” and he said “yes, I have some ideas” and then we got to it.
Your 7″ was mentioned in Rolling Stone‘s 2014 wrap-up. How does that make you feel?
Victoria: The Rolling Stone thing was cool because it is such an iconic symbol of like, “Oh wow, they must be doing something right.” It also relates to your earlier questions about making incisions in the thoughts of bros. It’s like, “You can’t hide from media about racism and classism, we are gonna find you!”
Joey: It’s wonderful when we’re able to get the message out there through slightly larger media channels. As a kid you seek out the most exciting culture within the outlets you have access to. So for me seeing radical Rage Against the Machine videos on MTV was super influential. Those videos wouldn’t be allowed on TV anymore. It’s exciting when we’re able to make even a small incision into that broader world. That kind of mainstream validation isn’t everything but I’m not gonna pretend like it’s not nice.
What’s next for Downtown Boys, record-wise? Has anything changed in your songwriting since the debut?
Joey: We’ve got a new LP coming out in the later Spring with Don Giovanni Records and will be touring a bunch once that’s out. We’ll have a solid release date soon. We recorded this past November at Electrical Audio in Chicago and I think it sounds really powerful. I don’t know if our songwriting has fundamentally changed. It’s gotten better, but we haven’t moved linearly toward being more expansive or mature or anything. There’s a bit of that, but we also have some very simple songs on there because we’ll always appreciate that energy. We’re adding to our language but we’re erasing what’s already there.
Victoria: I have noticed our lyrics getting crazier and crazier – more stuff about straight-up socialism, freedom, necessity in the struggle. Fewer typical curse words. These days we use words like “skin, bank, inheritance, and freedom,” to speak more directly to white supremacy.