[Originally appeared on DCist in May 2015]
The charge of Downtown Boys’ new album begins immediately, with a quick military rattle of drums and a low, rhythmic blurt of saxophone. The lyrics burst in, all shout and howl, first from guitarist Joey DeFrancesco and then from Victoria Ruiz, the band’s singer and the owner of an urgent and generational voice: “Coming in on a wave / On a wave of history!” And with that, Downtown Boys announces itself, unveils its motivations and plans.
On “Wave Of History,” the opening track on the band’s debut LP, the band at once damns centuries of oppression while using it as a trebuchet to sling a message at a world they believe needs to hear it.
It only makes sense that an album called Full Communism should open with such a raucous and ringing manifesto. From those first shouted words, Downtown Boys make clear their intention to take generations-worth of wrongs and insult, dump them on a skiff, set them ablaze, and kick them out to sea. Pivoting effortlessly between Spanish and English, Ruiz’s lyrics shred social maladies from racism and queerphobia to police aggression and unchecked male privilege, all woven through a rollicking, horn-infused brand of punk that looms above a sometimes stayed genre.
The band’s captivating combination of music and message has garnered the attention of the wider music press; even a year ago, the band was leagues further underground than it is today. But that newfound attention is understating the reality of the situation: Downtown Boys are the most important band in punk today. And they want to be heard by anyone who cares to listen.
“We definitely don’t believe in some kind of purity of not playing a bigger place,” DeFrancesco says. “We want to get our message out there.”
That message is one of revolution, really—of breaking away from white culture, male culture, capitalist culture. It’s a message delivered with equal parts hope and gravity—and one they’ll have to balance alongside whatever ambitions the messengers may harbor.
DeFrancesco’s life growing up was a lot like everyone else’s, he says—he felt disaffected, stuck in service industry jobs since he was 15 or 16, living in a fairly strict environment. “I think there are a few different artistic outlets that can really function to save your life, to get you out of these things. For some people it’s going to be writing, for some its going to be hip hop, for some it’s going to be punk,” he says.
DeFrancesco says he found solace in discovering the bands and their messages. “[By] finding out about people who were saying things that sort of explained the world around me in some way—I think that very literally saved my life.”
Now, DeFrancesco and Ruiz treat the messages they deliver in Downtown Boys with the respect something that can save lives deserves. It’s no hobby, no social exercise. “It’s much more serious than that,” Ruiz says. “In order for it to be effective, it has to be a priority.”
There’s been an undertone in stories written about the band: that there’s no room for irony, that it’s humorless. That doesn’t strike me as precisely true, but the larger point is: there is a sense of purpose in Ruiz and DeFrancisco. The music saved their lives, so now they want their music to reach people whose lives their music—and its message—could help save.
“I think especially when our time is so tied to a wage, and is so tied to how you’re going to pay rent, how you’re going to pay for your cell phone, it makes it that much more important to take anything that is artistic and creative and has relevancy in fighting the status quo—it becomes that much more important to be committed to it, because it’s going to take a long time before it will ever be able to pay your rent,” Ruiz says.
“Making it relevant is the most important thing.”
Downtown Boys aim to be so many other things—messengers, activists, revolutionaries—it feels like a near-afterthought to say that, as a punk band, they are damn good. They bring a rare set of influences and sensibilities to their music. The band’s dual saxophones, ably played by Adrienne Berry and Emmett FitzGerald, are partially a product of DeFrancesco’s upbringing in political music, the jazz of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane that dovetailed with the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
For her inspiration, Ruiz studied Sun Ra videos, the cries and wails of Mexican mariachi singers.
“I remember my grandma always listening to that music. She would sing it, and she would sound really good. She doesn’t have a great musical voice, but she was singing from her heart.” When Ruiz first joined the band, she hated hearing her own voice. But by channeling singers who relied so heavily on emotion, from Selena to Billie Holiday, she discovered her style.
Punk rock is the medium they’ve chosen to deliver their message, and Ruiz says she understands it has limitations, the same as any art form. “We have all of these conditions and parameters that we have chosen, and with that comes the same limits that are going to exist on any group of people and any artistic medium,” she says.
And while playing punk music to audiences more or less comprised of punk kids is the mission at hand at the moment, Ruiz says their larger mission, as artists and activists, is to do what they can to strip away the barriers of their genre and medium, and have their same revolutionary discussion with a wider world. “We don’t believe in borders, and we believe in the totality of humanity,” she says. “So we seek to break those borders, and we really try to push all of those limits until they bust.”
When the band can deliver their music and message to those outside of the punk community—when a wider cross-section of people turn up at the shows—well, that’s the dream, Ruiz says. “We love seeing people who have never been to a typical punk show, whatever that means anymore, come to our show and love it. That’s one of the biggest things, because we’ve broken a border.”
Ruiz has been exploring this idea that, for movements big and small, good and bad, it’s the specifics that wield the most power. No matter how large a movement or organization gets, it’s those small moments that matter, that keep the whole thing in motion.
Ruiz says there’s a connection there, to Downtown Boys and the band’s direction. “I think that can be applied to our band. It would be great to perform on bigger stages or to tour more, only because that just means that our platform has a wider audience,” she says. But even with a bigger stage, it doesn’t mean everyone is behind you, she says. “You have to think about: what are we saying, what are our tactics like, and are we still looking at that one person’s facebook message and responding about queerphobia at shows or racism at shows. The answer is yes, but still, everything that we’ve ever done to get to that point is just as relevant and just as important.”
DeFrancesco talks about Rage Against The Machine, the activist rap-rock forebearers that balanced scathing social and political criticism with best-selling albums and amphitheater tours. There’s a certain appeal about being on a major label and still getting picketed by police unions because of the message in their songs.
Their ambition raises a time-worn musical question: can they become a bigger band while still being the same band? Can they shield their radical message and politics against the numbing drone of capital and its myriad pressures? Can they speak their personal truths, even if they are speaking to more people by a factor?
There’s no good answer to this and no crystal ball, and, at the end of the day, they still have a message to deliver—one that, to the band, happens both in bombast projected from a stage, and in small moments between people. There’s never a wrong time to talk about oppression in all its forms, Ruiz says. But the weight of this moment in America—in places like Baltimore and New York and Chicago and Ferguson—is not lost on her or the band.
Sure, it’s important to aim for those larger goals, to fight the bigger injustices. But Ruiz says the band’s mission at the moment is to go from town to town and speak the name of the person who was beaten by police or otherwise oppressed there, in that community, and let those audiences hear the sound of a forceful resistance.