Punk Activists Downtown Boys on Colin Kaepernick, Trump's Wall & 'Toxic Masculinity'

Downtown Boys
Kenneth Bachor

Downtown Boys’ Cost of Living will be their first release on Sub Pop.

Welcome to the gospel of Downtown Boys. Since 2012, they've been battling racism, sexism, homophobia and capitalistic greed with bilingual, saxophone-laced political rock music. Their 2015 album, Full Communism, focused on unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Cost of Living (out Aug. 11) is the multiracial, mixed-gender Providence, R.I., quintet’s first LP with Donald Trump in the White House. Arriving on indie mainstay Sub Pop Records, Downtown Boys' platform with which to fight the power is greater than ever: "In this political moment, we need to feel urgency," says vocalist Victoria Ruiz. 

The Ferguson unrest was a driving force behind your last album. What specific events were you thinking about when writing this one?

JOEY LA NEVE DEFRANCESCO, guitarist: The writing for this record began around the time [Full Communism] came out. Ferguson and Black Lives Matter were still happening and continue to have an influence. The majority of the record was probably written during campaign season, while we witnessed an increase of more explicit public white supremacy that we’re seeing now in this administration.

We recorded it in late January and early February, so the Muslim ban, which had been talked about lot during the campaign, first came to realization while we were in the studio. It was a very heavy context.

What was it like working with Guy Picciotto as a producer?

JOE DEGEORGE, saxophonist and keyboardist: His experience in Fugazi was more than appropriate for what we were trying to do with this record. It’s a dream getting to work with one of your heroes. He was really good with getting great vocal takes and guitar sounds.

RUIZ: I had a tough time recording vocals and doing a lot of takes. I went back to the studio to listen and he sat down in front of me and looked me in the eye and said, “No one can do this but you. You’re amazing. No one else can do this.” I just was like, “Oh my god. There is someone who can do it. Thank you, Guy Picciotto!” [Laughs]

Victoria, being Chicana, what does it mean to you to have numerous songs sung completely in Spanish?

RUIZ: Sometimes writing songs in Spanish, for me, is a lot more fulfilling. My favorite song on the record is “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)” [“Because I'm elegant / intelligent, I'm not dumb!”] because of the ability to be anthemic in a different language.

Can you tell me more about the message of that song?

RUIZ: In order to decolonize ourselves and decolonize our minds, we have to purge so much of what we’ve been conditioned to think is meaningful. A lot of us are working to decolonize ourselves in various ways, but because of white supremacy, only certain ways are seen as important enough.

Our priorities right now are really messed up. Like, the Democratic Party and the whole regime is so obsessed with Russia. It’s like, “Russia, Russia, Russia.” Meanwhile, we are fighting wars in multiple countries right now in the Middle East and Mexico and here. We had U.S. military in North Dakota. Our homeless populations are so high right now. Our worker power and our wage power are decreasing constantly.

Then there’s lead single "A Wall," which seems self-explanatory.

DEFRANCESCO: It comes from the Assata Shakur poem "Affirmation": "A wall is just a wall." Right now, it carries the more literal meaning of Trump’s border wall. That needs to be fought and organized against, but the metaphorical meaning is any wall inside your own mind, between different parts of yourself, you and your family, you and your community. They can, and have to be, torn down.

Performing live recently, have you had any particularly memorable or moving experiences?

RUIZ: When we played Coachella [in April 2017], we got to play in a lot of [other] cities in California. That was really moving because there were so many Chicanos and Chicano people came to the shows. I am Chicana and from California and it just felt like we had reached something. Sometimes I feel like what I do with music is so disconnected from Chicana struggle, but if you keep working at it, you can break through together. My family came to the Oakland and San Francisco shows and at one point, Joey’s family was at the same one. He and I are such close friends and we have really different relationships to our families. That was really, really special for me. 

Victoria, what inspired you to perform in a Colin Kaepernick jersey recently? 

RUIZ: [Kaepernick] took such direct action against racism and has allowed the public to see him become more and more radical. His paycheck is coming from a sport that promotes toxic masculinity and supports men of color getting concussions and dying. That’s brutal and football sucks, but Kaepernick is saying and doing something. He doesn’t have a job because of it anymore, but he has himself.

Have you noticed other artists becoming more politicized since January?

DEGEORGE: When SXSW had that immigration clause and a lot of musicians organized against it… We might not have seen so much enthusiasm if the political discourse wasn’t centered around these horrible xenophobic ideas, but that’s where we’re at now.

RUIZ: It’s clear that so many bands do have something to say. People think of us as this "protest music" band, but that doesn’t make us unique. Major-label musicians like Beyoncé or Solange are putting out protest messages, and so are bands like us. It’s really inspiring to see Sheer Mag and Priests and so many others that are super relevant right now. Like, I still deal with meeting people who want to be musicians and they truly think that being a successful musician means being able to play a guitar perfectly and write dozens and dozens of songs. No, dude -- you need to feel it before you can make it. In this current political moment, we need to feel urgency.

Downtown Boys’ Cost of Living will be their first release on Sub Pop.

A condensed version of this article originally appeared in the August 19 issue of Billboard.