Music

For Downtown Boys, The Political Is Personal

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In late January, when Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13769 (a/k/a the Muslim Ban), the Rhode Island–based queer punks in Downtown Boys were holed up in the studio, working on Cost of Living, their third album together, and first on seminal indie label Sub Pop. “It was written over the course of the end of the Obama administration and into the election season, and then recorded right as the Trump administration was coming in with all those political crazies,” says guitarist Joey DeFrancesco. “But we’ve been writing about similar things since 2011.”

Few bands in America today combine the political and the personal like Downtown Boys. They’ve been called “the realest punks in America” and “America’s most exciting punk band,” and in concert the five-piece outfit assaults audiences with both visceral hardcore energy and full-throated political invective, often vocalized in frontwoman Victoria Ruiz’s native Spanish. The new album — a follow-up to 2015’s breakout Full Communism — features songs about Trump’s Mexican border wall (“A Wall”), Latin girl pride (“Somos Chulas [No Somos Pendejas]”), and an anthem of unrelenting resistance (“Lips That Bite”). But unlike so many artists who have lately hoisted the banner of wokeness — Katy Perry, Arcade Fire, Lana Del Rey — Ruiz, DeFrancesco, and company are just as comfortable battling on the front lines of the resistance as they are tearing it up in a moshpit, or tearing into the president from the stage.

It’s a responsibility they take seriously. After graduating from Columbia University with a degree in economics and architecture, Ruiz moved to Rhode Island, not because of the killer music scene, but because it was a hotbed of political activism (although the killer music scene was a nice bonus.) She and DeFrancesco met working at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Providence, and both quit to help organize the workers there to fight for higher wages. Soon, DeFrancesco invited Ruiz to join Downtown Boys, whose kinetic, sax-inflected attack provided the perfect backdrop for the singer’s unapologetic evangelizing. “Because we’re not homogeneous, straight, cisgendered white dudes,” says Ruiz, “we’re not going to be bringing the same histories or the same problems or the same colonial histories into the van.”

Given their five-plus years of punk rock activism, Downtown Boys were well positioned to take up the mantle of opposition when Trump was elected. There was just one thing missing. “We were left producer-less less than a month out of recording,” says Ruiz. They had wanted a female producer, but as time was running out, someone suggested Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. “We were like ‘Yeah, he would be great,’ but it just felt like such a pipe dream,” says Ruiz. Fugazi was one of the bands that drew Ruiz to punk when she was a teenager in San Jose, California, shopping for hardcore records at Target. So “it just felt like winning the lotto” when Picciotto said yes. “Coming from a background where he was playing this very politically minded music and kind of crafting the sonic emotions around that, I think, made him really perfect for this project,” says bassist Joe DeGeorge. “It was kind of a dreamy situation, him being there and someone like me who had really grown up loving Fugazi and coming of age around that music.”

On Cost of Living, Downtown Boys continue to explore the questions of identity, gender equality, immigration, police brutality, and workers’ rights that have run through their earlier work. Even the album’s title is a nod to the current social climate. “It carried a literal meaning of course, like the literal cost of living continues to increase beyond wages, but then obviously there’s a larger metaphorical meaning of the continuing difficulties of being alive: the mental and physical tax it takes to survive,” explains DeFrancesco. “When you’re thinking about healthcare, it’s taken a sad, literal meaning of it being very expensive to keep yourself alive.”

While the time seems particularly ripe for a new Downtown Boys album, the expectations can be daunting. Not musically — that talent comes naturally, and will be on display as the band tours the U.S. and Europe through the end of the year. But they feel a sense of political responsibility that can seem disproportionate to their modest record sales or Spotify streams. “As a community we need to think about the expectations that we put on musicians and artists,” says Ruiz. “People just think that we’re some sort of resource for any political issue. It’s something we run into as a political band and it’s just really hard. It’s not like some sort of badge of honor all of the time.”

Of course, the band provides a soapbox that working on a local political campaign never could, and Ruiz and her bandmates appreciate that. “We’re in this music thing to be a touring band,” she concedes. “But when people need to hear something about someone being brown and smart, they can find us. When people [want to] hear a band that has people of color in it and has queer people in it, and has white people in it, they can find us.”

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