Music

Downtown Boys Are The Political Band That America Needs Right Now

It’s tempting to want to categorize Downtown Boys. Rolling Stone, for example, dubbed the Providence, Rhode Island-based quintet “America’s most exciting punk band.” Flattering, sure, but inaccurate.

“We don’t really use the word ‘punk’ because it puts us in a position where we’re required to defend or explain a term we didn’t put on ourselves,” Joey DeFrancesco, the band’s guitarist who writes most of their music, retorted when I mentioned the anointment, noting that punk purists would vehemently disagree with that assessment. They’re punk-ish, but sorry, Rolling Stone, Downtown Boys isn’t the shape of punk to come.

They’re also not a Latinx band. For the unfamiliar, the term “Latinx'” is a more inclusive, ungendered version of ‘Latino/Latina” that acknowledges those within the community that don’t conform to the gender binary. “We are Latinx-powered, but we have white membership,” Victoria Ruiz, lead singer and principal songwriter, clarified during our phone interview. “Having Latinx membership is very important to us, and it’s part of our message and who we are as a band, but that results in people putting all of these expectations on us.”

It’s a valid point. Any person of color who’s found themselves in a predominantly white space will tell you that they often become the de facto representative of whatever group they belong to. It’s a wack classification because it suggests that Downtown Boys’ music is chiefly meant for a Latinx audience, which isn’t the case at all. Sure, some of their songs are completely in Spanish (Ruiz: “Spanish is basically a national language and we try to normalize it as much as possible.”) and they’ve been known to play a cover of “Fotos Y Recuerdos”– a well-known song recorded by Selena, the slain Tejano singer and Mexican-American/Latinx icon — at their live shows. But the bulk of their music is in English and their previous album, Full Communism, ended with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark.” You wouldn’t call Rage Against The Machine, an obvious influence on Downtown Boys, a Latinx band simply because frontman Zack de la Rocha is Mexican-American.

So what then is Downtown Boys? For starters, they’re political.

“As a band comprised of people of color, of queer, nonbinary people, it just feels very necessary to be very vocal about the situation we live in, and it just so happens that music became a platform for us to channel all that anger and frustration that we have,” Ruiz explained. When you belong to a marginalized community, merely pointing out that you’re getting the short end of the sticks is inherently a political act.

Cost Of Living, the band’s third full album (out Aug. 11), does more than just chronicle what it’s like to be a non-straight and/or non-white working class person in America. It’s a declaration of war against the status quo. “A Wall,” the album’s opener, is a battering ram — powered by DeFrancesco’s guitar, Norlan Olivo’s drums, Mary Regalado’s bass, and punctuated by Joe DeGeorge’s sax and Ruiz’s banshee-like vocals — that’s used against all types of structures meant to confine and create exclusion, whether it be the wall Donald Trump is proposing to build on our southern border or those imposed on us by society.

The song’s chorus of “A wall is a wall / A wall is just a wall / And nothing more than all” — borrowed from Assata Shakur’s poem “Affirmation” — is a mantra capable of crumbling barriers when repeated. “Lips That Bite,” their most recent single, is a promise that the fight for equality and justice will get feral if need be. “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” and “I’m Enough (I Want More)” are the millennial “Bread And Roses,” a famous political slogan and poem from the turn of the 20th century that demanded fairness and dignity for exploited workers. Cost Of Living feels like a political platform that values people’s humanity over capitalism written out over twelve tracks.

The band is more than just talk, too. Downtown Boys were among the most vocal critics of South by Southwest when it became public knowledge that the festival was requiring bands playing at its festival to sign a contract containing a clause that threatened to contact immigration officials about any foreign act caught playing an unofficial showcase. SXSW’s initial response to the outcry was to downplay the severity of the clause by asserting that it was routine legalese, but they eventually relented to the pressure and issued a boilerplate statement about the importance of inclusivity.

“I think that was just a fantastic example of the music community organizing and taking collective action to win something,” DeFrancesco said of the fiasco. “We won because a bunch of bands basically acted like workers organizing to take action against an employer.”

It wasn’t just SXSW. Prior to playing at this year’s Coachella, arguably the premier summer music festival in America, the band issued a 680-word open letter denouncing Philip Anschutz — owner of AEG, the company that puts the event together — for donations made by his foundation to anti-LGBTQ organizations (a charge Anschutz has denied). After mulling their options, they chose to perform, taking Anschutz’s money and using his platform to give him a resounding middle finger.

Downtown Boys are positioned to blow up in a big way. They’re already popular with the woke crowd — Ruiz was recently a guest on the anti-surveillance podcast, Intercepted, and the band used the release of “Lips That Bite” to raise awareness for net neutrality — and their following is only set to grow. Their recalcitrant and defiant music feels prescient in the wake of Donald Trump, whose six-month presidency has been a nonstop assault on women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and the working class. The Trump Era has forced a lot of Americans to come to grips with the fact that things haven’t been as hunky dory in our country as they once appeared to be. Downtown Boys, comprised of individuals who belong to the very communities under assault, all of a sudden have a massive audience eager to hear what they have to say.

The band’s message hasn’t changed. It’s just that people are now finally ready to listen. “Trump is just a symptom of a bigger disease,” Ruiz told me when I brought up our current political climate, noting that President Obama, adored by the left, deported more people than his predecessors by a long shot, and that the neoliberalism of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), instituted under the Clinton administration, forced millions of Mexicans and Central Americans to come to the United States as undocumented immigrants in order to have a chance at survival. Despite the ugliness of the world they sing about, Downtown Boys are optimists, albeit of the cautious variety.

“It’s become totally fashionable to be nihilistic in music and culture, but I think that kind of nihilism comes from a place of privilege or of just giving up on things,” DeFrancesco posited. “We are confronting these realities head on with the assumption that we can improve them.”

Cost Of Living will no doubt be the band’s most successful album to date. In addition to its on-the-nose timeliness, it’s also their first under Sub Pop Records, which means a hell of a lot. The Seattle label is responsible for releasing some of the greatest indie albums of the last thirty years — The Postal Service’s Give Up, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, Sebadoh’s Bakesale, Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle, just to name a few. “Their records just get into so many different places,” Ruiz told me. “There are kids in the suburbs that get their music through Sub Pop’s Facebook page.”

Being a Sub Pop artist has its advantages outside of large scale distribution. It allowed Downtown Boys to work with Guy Picciotto, producer and former guitarist/vocalist of legendary bands Fugazi and Rites Of Springs. His work is evident; Cost Of Living packs the same powerful punch found in their previous records — Downtown Boys (2012) and Full Communism (2015) — but the music is crisper and more focused. “Having him in the studio, along with [engineer] Greg Norman, the two of them did such a great job at making the universe of sounds that make the record,” DeFrancesco said of Picciotto. The end result is something so good that it’ll no doubt show up on a lot of “Best of 2017” lists.

If the band is conscious of their seemingly inevitable rise to prominence, they haven’t let on. They’ve chosen to focus on their upcoming tour instead, which in itself is a testament of their working class ethos. To promote Cost Of Living, Downtown Boys will be performing 50+ shows in twenty-four states and seven countries over the next three months. But,despite their best efforts to downplay every superlative applied to them, it doesn’t change the fact that Downtown Boys’ latest album is the perfect soundtrack to the Resistance. They might not like it, but they’re the band that America needs right now.

Cost Of Living is out 8/11 via Sub Pop Records. Stream the album now via NPR.

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