DOWNTOWN BOYS: FIGHTING FOR POWER
illustration by juliette toma
When I first saw Downtown Boys, I thought to myself, “Is this what it felt like to see X-Ray Spex?” They exude an commitment and ferocity that is absolutely intoxicating. Victoria Ruiz’s vocals hit hard and the band delivers a rare kind of energy thanks to driving guitars and an slashing horn section. Their newest Cost Of Living is out now on Sub Pop and we spoke only a few days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—so it felt fitting to be talking about the state of our country with a band that fights for the rights of marginalized people every time they perform. They perform at Summer Happenings at the Broad: Jean-Michel Basquiat on Sat., Sept. 23. This interview by Emily Twombly.
Cost of Living was produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and Rites of Spring—how did that influence the way it sounds?
Norlan Olivo (drums): I think for one Guy was really super easy and helpful. By the end of it, we all kinda saw him as a friend of ours, or even like a punk father figure in a lot of ways. Fugazi and definitely a lot of the projects Guy has been involved with have a similar tone to our music, and so someone who’s done this amazing work—especially in the ‘punk genre’ or whatever—it was definitely helpful to have him on board. Just to have an experienced eye. And helping us with things we’d probably have overlooked if he hadn’t had him there—he has a tremendous amount of experience doing this stuff.
Victoria Ruiz (vocals): Mary asked Allison Wolfe about producing us—from Bratmobile—and Allison was unavailable so Mary was like, ‘Who would you recommend?’ And she recommended Guy Picciotto and we asked him. And he said ‘no’ at first! But we pretended like we didn’t know he had said no—that was very late in the game. We’re just very grateful it was Guy.
What are the themes of the record? Obviously it’s heavily influenced by what’s going on in our country right now and our government—but are there artworks or books or something else that inspired you when writing?
VR: There are a lot of things that were inspirational for the record. Obviously, all the songs were written before the election. They’re speaking to the power dynamics and the disease that caused this current symptom of the president. ‘Promissory Note’ has a really big influence a lot from ‘I Won’t Light Myself On Fire To Keep You Warm.’ That’s from a conference about people of color dealing with sexual assault and speaking to this idea about often people of color—and especially women of color—that have power and a platform are deemed to do these impossible tasks of both like fronting the message and being the back end of the movement or a message, something that’s literally impossible. They’re often asked to be like the first responder but also be the last one sitting in the room waiting for the last person to leave. These expectations are put on you by toxic masculinity and by misogyny and capitalism and racism. I think it’s also speaking on having to deal with power and with ability. You are still given these giant demands by white fragility, by white feminism, by white supremacy, and the album has a lot of wanting to break down these types of narratives—wanting to break down any type of narrative that there is one answer, that there is one way to do things, and really speaking to the spectrum of emotions and realities between the perfect and the evil, which is where all of humanity lies. Other influences … ‘A Wall’ is inspired by the poem ‘Affirmation’ by Assata Shakur, and is also inspired by this kind of demand we wanna put on people. Like when they see other people and they’re so quick to judge or so quick to hate on them, we hope that people are seeing themselves as well and thinking about that collective power. And we were inspired to have a pretty literal message against borders. ‘Somos Chulas’ is inspired by Nina Simone’s ‘I Ain’t Got No’ and Gloria E. Anzaldúa—the verses are all about what we fly with and what we can’t seem to secure. And all the things we end up flying with are things like our veins, our head, our heart, our fingers, and the things we can’t seem to secure are things like money and land and ticket.
Did you feel like you needed to compromise anything to put out an album like this on Sub Pop?
VR: Not a single value has been compromised. If anything, Sub Pop Records has been far more supportive in helping us grow as artists and as people with a message than a lot of the gremlins in the punk scene that are mad we are refusing to fit into the punk rock box.
Do you feel your fans’ expectations of you are higher because you put yourself out there as this political band? There are all these ‘rules’ that go along with that in a lot of people’s minds. How do you respond to criticism if they think you ‘sold out’ or whatever?
VR: Remembering that before you can really feel or even be respectful or compassionate to anyone else’s rules, you have to accept them as your own rules. And so the definitions that other people have of selling out or other people have of negotiating our message or our politics … it’s like, ‘Do we agree with those definitions? Or what they’re putting out there?’ As long as you haven’t sold yourself, you’ve never sold out. And we’ve never done that. Really, remembering that we can’t love anyone else til we love ourselves first … in order to do that, we’re gonna have to believe in what we’re doing. And I don’t think we’ve ever not believed in it. And also … we think those rules are coming from the desire that we all have to be able to grasp on to any sort of morality where we can say, ‘This is right! This is wrong! This is good! This is bad!’ We desire that morality so much because then we don’t have to think critically about power—we don’t have to think critically about what’s actually going on in the world. And remembering that we’re not here to prioritize dogmatic principles—we’re here to prioritize fighting for power, and fighting against things that are happening in our status quo.
How do you determine what shows are right for you to play? Is there a time where you’d draw the line—if this fest or this show goes against your values? You did that protest against South By when they were threatening to report musicians to ICE.
Joe DeGeorge (saxophone): It’s like what we were talking about before—it’s getting a different platform for this message. Venues are different tools to reach different people. Bringing our band into different spaces and shaking them up a little bit like we could do at SXSW … by participating in some of these big festivals we get an opportunity to critique them in a way we wouldn’t get if we just abstained. That’s what’s at play in deciding whether or not to play things. I mean at this point we’ve already set a precedent where we play other festivals, like SXSW and Coachella.
I love your live show, and I love that Victoria talks so much about your values. I think that’s wonderful. Do you ever feel—at the smaller shows—that you’re kind of preaching to the choir?
VR: No—I think a lot of white artists that end up getting to play to all-white people who never have to talk about their whiteness are preaching to the choir. I think a lot of white artists that get to talk about political things but never to have to feel it viscerally, and that’s why they talk about it and then get lauded for it and put on pedestals … I think that they preach to the choir. I have never felt that way. I think in moments where I do feel that way … we always push ourselves and our message but then be like, ‘Alright, clearly people get this—let’s move further.’ Honestly, it’s really uncomfortable when someone’s coming to your show and they wanna hear ‘She’s brown! She’s smart!’ and they wanna hear our message against Donald Trump—they get that—but then they hear something else that maybe they weren’t ready for and you can kind of see it in the crowd … and then it’s like, ‘Aw, man, it woulda been so easy just to leave it at that and have a good night and go home.’ But we constantly push ourselves to not preach to the choir. And ‘preaching to the choir’ is also thinking that that group of people is gonna be able to defend you and protect you and you’re able to defend and protect each other, and that’s great now. There are so many attacks from so many different angles—especially right now, even to people who we’re fully on the same page, it becomes a moment of catharsis and a moment of ‘Oh, wow, outside of this show, I don’t feel like getting up in the morning’ or ‘I feel like the giant elephant in the room and simultaneously invisible in spaces’ … hopefully this was a moment of catharsis. I think if we wanted to preach to the choir, if we wanted to feel comfortable and good about ourselves, and if we only ever wanted to feel affirmations from this band, we would be setting a lot of rules for the shows that we play and we’d only play very specific places. We wouldn’t be like putting ourselves out on a limb like we have this spring, and we’d probably be feeling a lot more comfortable than we are right now.
That’s really commendable to be expanding your message out of your comfort zone. It’s probably the only way we’re going to get a message out to a larger audience. Do you have any advice—especially after the events in Charlottesville—for people feeling hopeless or lost or who wanna do something but they don’t know where to start?
Mary Regalado (bass): I just got off of a work call about this with my other job. Remember the other side of white supremacy and fascism, it’s quite monolithic. They are crystal clear in what they believe in and what they want. On our side, we have this blessing and a curse—I think right now more than ever it’s a blessing—of such a diversity of tactics and of so many people from so many places that really felt the impact of Charlottesville and have this incredible desire to think about how to show up. Especially for brown people, we have to remember we’re always gonna get really angry and pissed-off at white people for making this country what it is and making it such a violent place. But we have each other and we can figure out how to support each other. For brown people we can really think about how to support our Black brothers and if we prioritize that, that will be more powerful than trying to give in to the other side’s desire to divide and conquer us. We really have the potential—more futures, more infinite space to try and navigate and fight in than they do. If we can figure out how to pressure them into a bottle and screw it closed and throw them down into the ocean, we can do that. That’s a big one. Also right now more than ever we need to realize that violence is a tactic and we can’t give in to the neoliberal belief that violence is something that should always be a moral issue—that violence can’t be a tactic. And we saw it. We saw people fighting back, taking space, being violent to the white supremacist line and it had an impact.
What are your goals for the next year as a band? As people?
JDG: Our tour’s taking us around the states, going to Europe in October … I hope we get a new van!
Joey DeFrancesco (guitar): It’s hard to think of things too far beyond that. Everyone—ourselves included—are under so many attacks right now that it’s hard to think about surviving what we’re doing. I think we’re trying to just take it a day at a time.
NO: In reference to the Charlottesville situation … it is a fight for people of color to partake in, but this is also a fight that I feel like white people who are supposed to be our allies or who are not quote-unquote racist have to take the lead. And it’s gonna take those white people standing up for the people of color that they quote-unquote love and care about for things to change. That’s gonna take white people using their privilege to fight the precedent that’s in the world and calling out not just the people that are on Facebook or on Twitter or in Charlottesville that are easy to call out—but call out their relatives, or call out their friends and their co-workers who they know are racist, and who they know have these views. It’s gonna be hard but that’s what has to happen. That’s what has to start to happen for things to change. This is not just on people of color or Black people—we’ve been fighting forever. We’re tired. If the majority in this country is white and there are white people in this country who believe we should be treated equally, then those white people have to stand up and fight too! That’s just a reality. If you denounce fascism and denounce these Nazis, get out there and fight and really protect us!
VR: Charlottesville’s everywhere!
JDG: Neutrality’s just not a real thing. Inaction has consequences and is enabling the white supremacist ideology.
NO: If you’re out there and you’re white and you’re seeing a person of color getting fucking absolutely mauled by police like in the streets getting beat up for no apparent reason and you don’t stop them, then you killed that person too! And that’s what white people have to understand. That’s just the reality.
DOWNTOWN BOYS PLAY WITH ZEBRA KATZ, MECCA V A AND THE MOVEMENT MOVEMENT, SHANI CROW, DAMON LOCKS AND MORE ON SAT., SEPT. 23, AT SUMMER HAPPENINGS AT THE BROAD: BASQUIAT AT THE BROAD, 221 S. GRAND AVE., DOWNTOWN. 8:30 PM / $25-$30 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! DOWNTOWN BOYS’ COST OF LIVING IS OUT NOW ON SUB POP. VISIT DOWNTOWN BOYS AT DOWNTOWNBOYS.BANDCAMP.COM.