Downtown Boys - Victoria Ruiz and Joey La Neve DeFrancesco on “Cost of Living”

Hard Work is No Work At All

Aug 17, 2017 Web Exclusive
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On tour, it's not unusual for Downtown Boys' frontwoman Victoria Ruiz to wake up at 6 a.m. and field conference calls for the Center for Popular Democracy, all day, until show time. Day jobs are a fact of life for almost anyone in a band, minus pop stars and rock and roll fossils, but vary rarely do they align so purely with a group's philosophy.

For Ruiz, the surprise is not that playing in a successful (by 2017's warped music industry standards) band wasn't a ticket away from regular work. The surprise is that the musical outlet for her politics has grown as large as it has, at all. One gets the sense speaking to Ruiz, and guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancescowho edits and, with Ruiz, co-founded Spark Mag, a project from the grassroots political organization Demand Progressthat the band would exist parallel to their activism efforts regardless of their success in either front.

Now on Sub Pop, Downtown Boys' new record Cost of Living has arrived on a larger stage than the band's first two LPs, and along with it more attention to the band's bilingual strikes against white supremacy, capitalism, and other systemic methods of American prejudice and disenfranchisement. Ruiz shouts the lyrics like a protest call at a rally, pushing the polished production from Fugazi's Guy Picciotto. The band's party saxophone has more room to breathe than on the band's earlier, skronkier albums, and along with an assortment of overdubs and other textures, the new record hints at the range of influences beyond punk that inspire the band. 

Under the Radar caught up with Ruiz and DeFrancesco by phoneboth were away from their current homes in Providence, Rhode IslandRuiz visiting her birth state of California and DeFrancesco in New York following an appointment at Rough Trade NYC.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Ed McMenamin (Under the Radar): Was Cost of Living written while Trump was campaigning, or before?

Joey La Neve DeFrancesco: I began writing it probably sort of in between when Full Communism was recorded and when it came out. So, like, early 2015, and it was written pretty much through the end of 2016, right up until we went into the studio in January early this year. So kind of spanning the gamut from the last days of the Obama administration and into the campaign season, and then recording it literally in the first days of the new administration, the Trump administration. Historically it's spanning this kind of critical period of time, I think, in our country and in our world history. As we tell all the interviewers, the issues that we talk about on this record are very old issues, and expansions of things we were talking about in Full Communism and in our earlier recordings. We've always been talking about the importance of these issues and how to fight back and the importance of fighting back, and collective action, and all of these things.

But, obviously, right now there's a particular intensification, a particular manifestation of those evils we've been talking about for a long time. Of course that's going to inform the record to some extent. You know, as we were recording in the studio, the first Muslim ban was announced, and people were flooding to the airports. And so obviously that's going to have some impact on what comes out and how we're recording it. It's a really intense time to be doing any kind of work, and that includes writing and recording.

Does the Trump presidency discourage you, or does it give you more motivation?

Victoria Ruiz: I think, like, it kind of doesn't do much to discourage us. Because I think ultimately, sometimes I do think we're a bit humbled by it, because a lot of people who come to our shows now kind of see the message more of a catharsis than a call to action, because there are so many calls to action right now. So I think that's really good, and I think we're very open to whatever sort of need we can fill for people being open to doing that.

I think it's a really painful time, and a very difficult time, and I think that what we're experiencing is a heightened symptom of the disease of racism and capitalism and the structure of the United States. Trump is the big symptom of that. I don't think that he, himself, is the disease. The disease is what's allowed him to be elected. And I think it's really scary. Because even if we fight everything that he's doing, as hard as we can, and don't let it happen, where we would land is still Jan. 20, 2017 [inauguration day], which was still not a good moment. Like, Obama wasn't a great president either. So I think what is good about our band, or being able to be an artist, is you can rethink new ways to do things and new ways to try to live, even though you constantly have to engage in the old ways that have hurt you. And so I think that challenge, and that contradiction, is being felt more than ever. And we're ready for that challenge, in art.

You mention the difference between catharsis and call to action. When you're writing music, do you keep that in mind, or do you let people accept the music and what it does for them, anyway they can. Or do you hope they take it in a certain way?

DeFrancesco: For me, at least, writing things, I don't think it's quite that intentional when it's actually coming out. I think in the case of a lot of people writing music or creating any kind of art, you make the thing and then you kind of look back and analyze it, but you're maybe not entirely sure where it's coming from when you're in the process. For me at least, writing music is a slow process, and you're coming up with different parts and you're piecing them together, and so even a single song can take two months to put together. And there's going to be so much happening in the broader world and in your personal life in those two months, and sometimes the patchwork that becomes the song can feel more like it's a slogan, and something that's directly trying to inspire to like get out and do shit. And sometimes it can feel like a cathartic thing and it's an emotional release, and how it comes out, I dunno, is part of the beauty of it. And we're also working collaboratively, if I'm doing music and Victoria's singing the words and we're shooting it back and forth, we end up getting a lot of different experiences and emotions built into it. So it can be a lot of things, and I think different songs can be either calls to action or cathartic at different moments in times, and different performances, whatever it is.

Are there things you're trying to accomplish on the new record that you weren't able to accomplish on Full Communism? What did you set out to do?

Ruiz: I think with this record, like musically, Joey writes a lot of the music. I think with this one we were going for a wider range of sounds and velocities and rhythms. We played with a metronome a lot in practice to kind of figure out the speed of the songs, and I think thinking about that is tied to the delivery and the method as well. Everything you end up about putting on top of those lyric-wise and delivery-wise is going to look different when you have that wider range. So I think we were trying to do that more with this album. Full Communism, of course, we thought about those things but I think we were more "let's just get this out and press it onto something." It had a lot more just run to it. And this one I think has more room for all kinds of different transit, there's a feeling of running to it, there's a feeling of crying to it, sometimes, you know, a feeling of having to crawl the walk, instead of walk or run the walk. So I think we're going for that musically and also message-wise. Also, with this record, because we had more resources like having [Fugazi's] Guy Picciotto on as a producer, and then having nine days at Electrical Audio instead of doing half, we were able to kind of explore more depth with the songs. So there are some songs that have a piano overdubbed and that have really beautiful little shaker overdubs and we were able to really think through synth sounds and stuff like that. And so it's cool, it's kind of like we had more tools that we knew about. And I think we constantly have to deal with not only being labeled as a punk band. I don't think we ever set out to only be a punk band. And so this record we really wanted to realize that yeah, you know, punk is one of the roots to our tree but it's not the soil in which we're planted. And I think that's a really big challenge musically. So I think we set out to think about all the other sounds and genres that we believe in.

What other genres were influential on the making of the record?

Ruiz: I think, and Joey can add too, I think from the onset, experimental jazz was an influence. And especially thinking about lyrics and delivery or performance, like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra. And then I think really honest and true rock and roll like Bruce Springsteen. And then I think political protest messages that have been put into warped, bended sounds like MIA or Kendrick Lamar. Those have been influences, and I think bands like Algiers and Sheer Mag, who we are fortunate to be playing with at the same time. They're kind of like our peers; they have provided a lot of influence.

Speaking of Sheer Mag, it's an exciting time for punk. I know you don't want to be labeled solely as punk rock. But the last thing we need is another kind of navel-gazing white man punk band. I don't know if there's much left for them to say. I wish I spoke Spanish, and I do a lot of Googling to find out what all your lyrics mean. It must be important for your band to sing bilingually, as well, for representation. But don't let me put words in your mouth, why is it important for Downtown Boys to have bilingual lyrics?

Ruiz: Yeah, the word representation is definitely part of why we think it's important. In this country, definitely, Spanish is one of our national languages. Millions and millions of people speak it in this country. So it's not a foreign language, I don't think, in the United States, even though we try to treat it like one because of racism and xenophobia. And I think it's the creator of opportunity to think about a different language to express the same feeling, especially when you're tired of English and people being able to read things way more literally in English in the music world that we're in. Because most of the people who are reviewing us and are writing about us are white or English is their first language. So it's sort of this new creative opportunity. And then the history of Spanish protest slogans and protest chants being really special to us is why I think we still do it.

Are there certain emotions, messages or thoughts that better expressed in Spanish?

Ruiz: I feel like a broken record, but I realize that everyone is a different interviewer, and no one has yet to put this in an interview yet. But "Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)" is an idea that I can't think of a way to get across in English. In fact, there's not really a good English translation for it that we have cracked yet. And you know, literally, "somos chulas/no somos pendejas" means like "we're precious badasses/were not stupid." And I think it's a way of fighting back against condescension by respectability politics and capitalism. And if you're brown, and if you're queer, and if you're fat, "there's that Chicana in the front," sometimes people do kind of treat us condescending, or treat us as kind of dumb. And we're not. And I think a lot of people might be able to feel that. We all do other things. Sometimes, even like in organizing or in the political worlds where we get involved, I just feel the way that people treat us is because of the way that we look or the way that we talk, or the way that we don't talk. It's like, man, these people are actually doing real stuff and why are you judging so hard. And it's because of these like colonized respectability politics. And there's a Franz Fanon quote where he says "decolonizing the mind means having to vomit up all of the ways colonialism teaches you to affirm or not affirm yourself. And I think "Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)" is something we were only able to get across with a Spanish lyric. And then we have a song also on the record that we haven't been playing live that much, called "Clara Rancia." It's half English and half Spanish. But there's a line that uses the word "funciona" which in Spanish means a "function" or "work." But I think in the song it's able to imply the blood that flows through veins, and I don't think we would have been able to communicate that. But being able to use a code, it's cool. It's almost like emotions, we find all these codes in the world for that, whether its wages or class or land and language. So it's cool to use a new code for some of these feelings.

I think a lot of people out there would be surprised to find out that bands that are on big indies like Sub Pop have day jobs, and how tough the music industry is for artists. If you were conceptualizing your current success five years ago, would you have thought that this was the case?

Ruiz: Yeah that's actually a really good [question]...the thing is that I started to meet other musicians, like I interviewed Matt Korvette of Pissed Jeans maybe like two years ago. So this was before we were on Sub Pop, and he told me about working for an insurance company 40 hours a week. We didn't really get much further. But I'm like wow, his band is probably as big as Downtown Boys could ever envision being. And he is still working 40 hours a week. So I think I always knew I would have to probably always do other side gigs, and then the other things is...I really believe in like so many different political campaigns. And so like my pay job right now is I work for the Center for Popular Democracy. And it's a remote job...so I can do it from away, and me and my boss have figured something out where, when I'm not on tour I basically do a lot, and then when I'm on tour he understands that I'm on the road, but I still have a lot of expectations. So I wake up at 6 a.m. when we're on tour, I'll be on conference calls all day long in the van, sometimes I'm literally still working up until show time, and I can't warm up and things like that, and it's really crazy. And it's not so much that I never thought I wouldn't have to have another job, it's that I never thought I'd get to be doing music like this. So, yeah, and Joey is the same way. He runs Spark Mag, and he'll be in the van, and we're all exhausted, and he is putting articles up, or he's working on emails. And Norlan [Olivio] has done all kinds of jobs from like third shift Old Navy warehouse packing jobs, to working at a photochemical plant, that's been his most recent thing. So it's kind of crazy, it's been kind of crazy. And honestly, I don't really see an end to us having to have other income. We really don't make enough money at all, to live. It's pretty crazy though. It sucks, too, man. If I could be a musician full-time and then just work on political stuff unpaid when I could, and maybe babysit here and there or something like that, I feel like Downtown Boys would be a better band. Honestly, I don't even give as much as I want to give to the band. There are so many things I want to do that I don't do.

The underpayment of the artist is definitely reflective of a lot of the larger class and capitalist issues that your band talks about. You are the ones doing the work, but the money gets sucked up elsewhere in a funnel to an advertising agency in New York or wherever the money vacuum takes it.

Ruiz: Yeah, it really, really does. And the other thing, too, in a good way media and press has always existed, and so people think "because I read about these bands where people made money-Rolling Stone features so many millionaires-so if they're mentioning Downtown Boys, we must somehow be financially successful." But that's not true. That's not true. You can still get press and still be totally broke. But it's also a trip being on the road and meeting musicians like Screaming Females, like [drummer] Jarrett [Dougherty]. We went on tour with them two years ago, and they're Screaming Females and he was still doing shifts at a cafe on downtime, and things like that.

www.downtownboys.bandcamp.com

www.twitter.com/DowntownBoys

www.facebook.com/DowntownBoys/

Downtown Boys 2017 Tour Dates:

8/17: Detroit, MI @ Marble Bar
8/18: Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
8/19: Omaha, NE @ MAHA Festival
8/20: Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge
8/21: Lawrence, KS @ White Schoolhouse
8/22: St Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
8/23: Nashville, TN @ DRKMTTR
8/24: Birmingham, AL @ Syndicate Lounge
8/25: Knoxville, TN @ Pilot Light
8/26: Louisville, KY @ Zanzabar
8/27: Cincinnati, OH @ Northside Yacht Club
8/28: Columbus, OH @ Rumba Cafe
8/29: Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Roboto
9/2-9/3: Philadelphia, PA @ Made In America Festival
9/4: Washington, DC @ DC9
9/5: Durham, NC @ Pinhook
9/6: Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade - Purgatory
9/7: New Orleans, LA @ Gasa Gasa
9/8: Houston, TX @ Walters
9/9: McAllen, TX @ Yerberia Cultura
9/10: Austin, TX @ Hotel Vegas
9/11: San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
9/12: Dallas, TX @ Dirty 30
9/13: Springfield, MO @ Outland Ballroom
9/14: Iowa City, IA @ The Mill
9/15: Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock
9/16-9/17: Chicago, IL @ Riot Fest
9/19: Vancouver, BC @ Fox Cabaret
9/20: Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
9/21: Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
9/22: San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill
9/23: Los Angeles, CA @ Summer Happenings at The Broad
9/24: Oakland, CA @ Starline Social Club
10/9: Leffinge, Belgium @Cafe De Zwerver
10/10: Paris, France @ Le Point Ephemere
10/11: Brighton, UK @ The Haunt
10/12: Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
10/13: Edinburgh, UK @ Sneaky Pete's
10/14: Glasgow, UK @ Stereo
10/16: Dublin, Ireland @ The Workman's Club
10/17: Liverpool, UK @ The Shipping Forecast
10/18: London, UK @ Dome Tufnell Park
10/19: Sheffield, UK @ Picture House Social Club
10/20: Manchester, UK @ Deaf Institute
10/21: Bristol, UK @ Simple Things Festival
10/22: Birmingham, UK @ All Years Leaving Festival
10/24: Cologne, Germany @ Tsunami Club
10/25: Berlin, Germany @ Urban Spree
10/26: Hamburg, Germany @ Hafenklang
10/27: Amsterdam, Netherlands @ London Calling Festival
11/15: Baltimore, MD @ Windup Space
11/16: Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts - Black Box
11/17: Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Night Bazaar

Follow Ed McMenamin on Twitter at @EdMcMenamin.

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