Every year a handful of acts come out from the underground and release an incredible album that catches the attention of every thirsty journalist under the sun. Leading the charge this year are Providence political dance punks Downtown Boys. Ever since their sophomore album Full Communism dropped in May, there’s been a hard-to-ignore buzz latched onto their raw and emphatic sound — a sound that got them signed to New Jersey independent label Don Giovanni Records, added to stacked music festival lineups across the country, and inspired label-mate Mitski to suggest that Blur frontman Damon Albarn should give them a listen.
This Friday, November 20, Downtown Boys will be performing at New Urban Arts at a benefit for the Providence-based interdisciplinary arts studio alongside indie-pop trio Roz and the Rice Cakes, electro punk phenoms Math The Band The Band, alt-punk whizkids Lovesick, and Amanda Salemi from gypsy blues act Consuelo’s Revenge. Ahead of this all-PVD show in a unique spot for a good cause, Vanyaland had a chat with frontwoman Victoria Ruiz and guitarist Joey DeFrancesco about bringing a Latin influence into punk rock, joining up with Don Giovanni (home to Screaming Females, Laura Stevenson, California X and others), combating the issues of today, and the importance of places like New Urban Arts to Providence’s cultural identity.
Rob Duguay: In a lot of Downtown Boys’ songs, Victoria, you present a mix of incorporating Spanish and English lyrics. Musically what were you brought up with? Were you exposed to a lot of Latin sounds?
Victoria Ruiz: I did listen to a lot of Mexican music growing up with Mariachi music along with Selena being a big influence on me. I listened to a lot of oldies like Motown, R&B, and soul which was popular in the Bay Area and it’s what my mom listens to. Also a lot of ’90s rock music that you would hear on the radio but also some other alternative music that you couldn’t get on CDs easily like Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, and stuff like that. I’ve always loved punk music ever since the first time I heard it. I had some cousins that were really into it but I definitely didn’t know how to access it so now I’m happy that I can easily check out more traditional punk music nowadays.
You can hear that Mexican influence coming through from the way you deliver on the mic. It gives a lot of diversity to the band’s sound. Downtown Boys released Full Communism in May, shortly after the band got signed to Don Giovanni Records out of New Jersey. How did that all come about? Who talked to whom?
Ruiz: Well, we tour a lot and we do get out there a lot. I think it came about because we put ourselves out there a ton and have been able to catch some steam. We also released a 7-inch off of Sister Polygon Records out of Washington, D.C., and Don Giovanni is a close ally of that label. Joe Steinhardt at Don Giovanni got a hold of our 7-inch, then he emailed us saying how much he liked it and we said to him how we wanted to put out a full-length and that’s how it all developed.
I remember when Downtown Boys first started playing at the old Building 16 and doing a lot of DIY shows. Now it seems that ever since Full Communism came out everyone is talking about the band, and print and online publications are raving about you guys. Do you feel that anything has changed for the band since the band’s inception or have you not thought about that at all?
Joey DeFrancesco: Not that much changes. I mean you can build up some kind of legitimacy where there are certain opportunities that kind of make playing music more sustainable. Playing some mid-sized festival and being able to get bigger guarantees at certain venues. We still play a ton of DIY shows like the New Urban Arts benefit on Friday. Depending on the city we’re in, we’re still playing a lot of those same venues. It certainly opens up this kind of next level of opportunities to be able to make the thing more financially sustainable which is one of the biggest benefits. With all of that I don’t think it’s changed so dramatically that anything about our music or our mission begins to change even a little bit.
A lot more people who a couple years ago never even heard of Downtown Boys now are getting into your music.
DeFrancesco: It’s definitely great to be able to play for more people especially for our band and our focus on getting our message across. Obviously it’s great to be in these venues where we can reach more people literally in a live experience, via our music online or with selling records. That’s definitely has changed where that gets ratcheted up to a greater degree when before those channels in the media weren’t open to us until we were able to put the new record out.
How vital do you think arts organizations like New Urban Arts are when it comes to Providence’s culture and creativity?
Ruiz: I think with New Urban Arts the students that I’ve seen there are very vital to Providence. The students and the work that the students do is more vital to Providence than the organization itself. The organization of course plays a role in educating those students, it’s a chicken and egg situation but it’s the students that make New Urban Arts and that’s what’s so amazing about the place. It would not be what it is if not for all the youth of color that go there. I don’t think people would work so hard to make New Urban Arts such a great organization if it weren’t for all the youth of color and low-income youth that go there.
I’ve mentored at New Urban Arts for four years and, going on five years, Joey and I have volunteered there. Downtown Boys have played numerous shows at New Urban Arts for the students there so our band has a relationship with the organization. Since I’ve been a part of New Urban Arts I’ve seen these students making the best visual art in Providence and they’re also the same students who are working at Rite Aid or Dunkin’ Donuts and having these very working class Rhode Island jobs. You don’t see that happening with artists coming out of other institutions like RISD and that’s another reason why it’s so important. I’m also very excited to play with Lovesick, I think they’re the greatest band in Providence right now. I think they’re really good and they’re hungry for it and it’s very inspiring.
Downtown Boys are never afraid to be political with their songs. Victoria sings about a wide range of issues including sexism, racism, fascism, gentrification and wealth inequality just to name a few. For any young kid who’s reading this and is passionate about combating the issues facing our generation today, what’s your advice?
Ruiz: One of the first songs Downtown Boys wrote is called “Haz Algo” and I translated the lyrics from a song that Joey had written called “Pick A Side.” Whatever language the song is in, the message is the same — it’s to do something, it’s to say something. Say what you think and how you feel and choose it and stand by it and don’t be worried about people liking you or disliking you. It may hurt or it may not be easy and it may not be fun in the short term but in the long term it really does make an impact and it does shift power.
With that in mind, what does it mean to be a punk in 2015?
DeFrancesco: I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily mean that much. I think the word punk has been taken in so many different directions that I wouldn’t just go and say “I am a punk.” What it should mean is people doing what you see all these kids at New Urban Arts are doing. Living the lives that they want to live and being the people they want to be. Making this really cool art but at the same time caring a lot about building a better world. It’s not about this kind of nihilistic, I don’t give a fuck about anything kind of attitude that certain sides of the punk world make it out to be. It’s in fact about giving a fuck very hard about a lot of different things and trying really hard to be yourself and helping to build a better world at the same time.
Ruiz: That’s exactly what I think being a punk is about as well.
New Urban Arts Benefit with Downtown Boys + Roz And The Rice Cakes + Math The Band The Band + Lovesick + Amanda Salemi :: Friday, November 20 at New Urban Arts, 705 Westminster St. in Providence, RI :: 6:30 p.m., all ages, $5 to $10 suggested donation :: Facebook event page