Downtown Boys make music that is fully alive. Each chorus of gang vocals, each bright saxophone melody, each catchy bass riff has its own heartbeat. It forms an army of sound that encourages resistance and unapologetic living.
The band is based in Providence, R.I. It came out of the What Cheer? Brigade side of the punk scene, but vocalist Victoria Ruiz explains on the phone that the band has never quite been a part of either the punk or indie scene.
“We’ve never been part of a scene fully in Providence, but one thing we were able to do was support a lot of upcoming artists, young people, people of color from Providence,” says Ruiz.
“We were always intentional of being part of that change, and we got the pressure and the pushback from the men who have been holding on to the industrial-noise and warehouse scene for over a decade. They are afraid to give up space, especially to women and people of color.”
The band’s latest effort, Cost of Living, is an honest, vulnerable record. It’s one that leans into the battle for self-love in a systemically hateful world, a work that pushes back against misogyny, bigotry, racism and rampant nationalism. Cost of Living is a rallying cry into battle against the system and the way that system makes you feel.
It feels especially pertinent right now, as the KKK and neo-Nazis march in the streets, as Donald Trump continues his reign of terror and ignorance, and as immigrants feel less secure.
“The songs were all written before the inauguration, before the election. They took about two years to write,” explains Ruiz.
In the current political climate, the songs on Cost of Living, which contains tracks in both English and Spanish, feel even more raw.
“The temperature and climate right now, people are in the midst of a storm of everything going on with white supremacy, capitalism and racism,” says Ruiz. “The songs were written throughout the build-up, so it’s very intense to be coming out with this record, and all of the [negative] ways of the world are coming out too.”
Downtown Boys is a political band, obviously. But to leave it at that would do a great disservice to a band whose politics are very important in the volatile period we’re living through.
“The thing that ends up happening is writers act like we’re obsessed with politics, but they ignore the nuance and don’t dig deep,” explains Ruiz on the phone with CP. “They try to box you in, especially if you’re a person of color or woman.”
There are many political bands. When one gets a lot of attention, some major publications have a tendency to push a hero narrative about a particular political act, or an artist who exists and succeeds outside of the white-males-making-rock sphere. But singling out a particular artist as a leader in a movement, especially without that artist’s consult or approval, has a tendency to erase the larger message and activism an artist stands for.
“I’m part of a history,” says Ruiz. “There are always people working on the same political goals in different ways.”
Ruiz and guitarist Joey DeFrancesco co-run a website called Spark Mag, an online publication in partnership with Demand Progress.
Demand Progress fights for civil liberties, runs anti-surveillance campaigns and advocates for net neutrality. It was started by Aaron Swartz, an activist who ended up taking his own life after he was sentenced to decades in prison for planning to make thousands of academic documents available to the public online for free.
Spark Mag’s purpose is simple. It’s an alternate platform for artists whose art is political from the get-go.
“It’s not so baseline. It’s not, ‘Are you a political band?’ Spark Mag is actually asking about the politics,” says Ruiz. “Asking if a band is political is such a tired question, and so many artists don’t get asked about their connection to the status quo. It’s a higher baseline and a place to showcase artists who maybe don’t have a platform elsewhere.”
On Cost of Living, Ruiz’s lyrics dig deep into complex personal feelings alongside the political. “Instead of picking one emotion to write about, I try holding all the feelings about my personal world and public self, having to be a leader but also be directly affected by the systemic problems while being in the back doing the grunt work,” she says. “It’s a really cathartic process, and a way to process being part of the spectrum of emotions and experiences that don’t always make sense together.”
This shines on “Somos Chulas,” a song that radiates intelligence and elegance, a song the band explains is about decolonizing your mind from the effects of white supremacy. “I Am Enough (I Want More)” is about loving yourself at your best and worst, working with what you’ve got, and never being afraid to demand a better world.
Although the band is currently signed to Sub Pop, Downtown Boys continues to hustle with the fervor and intensity it did when the acts were signed to Sister Polygon and Don Giovanni.
“Anyone who thinks we’re not still constantly grinding? It’s still a constant hustle, and we love it,” says Ruiz. “When we’re in front of a room of people we don’t know, I try subconsciously harder because it’s still about building a meaningful relationship.”