The Angry Saxophone Punks in Downtown Boys Agitate for Change with 'Full Communism'
The bilingual queer punk collective also talk wage theft, power dynamics, and why they hate Vice.
My first experience seeing Downtown Boys was in a cramped space on an unusually humid summer evening in Portland, OR. People clumped on a stained couch, nervously sipping cheap, lukewarm beer and scrolling on their smartphones. Punks were clad in vests with perfectly placed silkscreen patches, their black jeans cut into makeshift shorts to combat the draughts of hot air carrying the stench of body odor, bad weed and beer floating through the small performance space. The room buzzed with anticipation and the floor creaked as a hoard of people crowded into the cramped space to see Downtown Boys. It was meticulously calculated cacophony. Lead singer Victoria Ruiz has an enigmatic energy; despite the boisterous atmosphere fueled by the band's bilingual saxophone-powered punk, she held the audience’s attention as she ruminated on systems of power, police brutality, and surveillance with a sermon-like proficiency, while faces glazed with sweat gazed intently upon the performance.
Providence-based Downtown Boys is garnering national attention after the release of 2015’s Full Communism LP (out now on Don Giovanni Records). Their music is inextricably lined to their provocative and powerful activism. With songs like "Tall Boys," which addresses privilege, and "Wave of History," which concerns the persistence of inequality and contextualization of these inequalities in historical context, their radical anthems aim to dismantle these imperative disparities. The band has even started their own publication, Spark Mag, to amplify the voices of radical and cutting edge artists. We called up Joey and Victoria to talk about it—and got an earful.
Noisey: How did the band first come together?
Joey: A few of us were in a brass band called What Cheer? Brigade. We wanted to create a new band that could be more explicitly political and more maneuverable than an 18-person brass band, so we started a band with rock instruments. Around the same time, I was working with Victoria at the Renaissance Providence Hotel where, like most hotels and service jobs, they were treating workers like shit. I worked in room service where we were getting $5.50 an hour, and we were supposed to be making the rest up in tips, but the hotel and our managers were stealing a lot of our tip money. That kind of tip theft is still legal in most states. In housekeeping, workers were being made to clean 16 or 17 or 18 rooms per shift, which is a lot of work; you have to consider they are lifting incredibly heavy duvets, scrubbing floors with harsh chemicals, and so on. Housekeepers have an incredibly high rate of injuries on the job. Lots of people were getting sick or getting rashes from the chemicals, so we were working to organize a union to better those conditions. The workers there are actually still calling for a boycott of the hotel until they get a fair contract. Victoria and I knew each other through that work and that fight. After Downtown Boys played 2 or 3 shows, we asked her to front the band, and that’s when it really came together to be something special.
Who has influenced your work?
Victoria: So many current musicians that project a vision of the future like Priests, Kendrick Lamar, Bruce Springsteen, Destiny Frasqueri (also known as Princess Nokia), and MIA. Then, it is not so much a “who” as much as “what” that influences us. We are just so influenced by the power dynamics of the status quo. Who has power? This question is key to our influences. We are influenced by being done with useless complaining, being done with adjusting ourselves to injustice, and wanting to continue to stack up potential for infinite futures where we are all free.
What is your history with activism?
Victoria: A lot of us have worked or are still working on campaigns against wage theft, in support of collective bargaining for workers, immigration rights and demanding an end to deportation, police accountability, ending police brutality, and ending racial profiling. Also, some of us are People of Color and some of us are women, and some of us are Queer and that makes our survival an act of resistance.
Why do you think it is important to incorporate politics into your music? What would your response be to people who say that punk and other alternative forms of music have been de-politicized?
Victoria: We’re angry and terrified at what’s happening in the world, to us as individuals. That’s what comes out in our music. Look around, how can it not be what comes out? We get asked this question a lot, and I think it’s important to remember that everyone incorporates politics into their music. What varies is what politics they are pushing. If the music is all nihilistic nonsense, then that’s what you’re pushing. If it’s all macho bullshit, then that’s what you’re pushing. If it just quietly affirms the status quo, that’s politics too. Those bands don’t get asked why they’re political, though, because their perspectives are the default. Just like white artists don’t get asked why we create something “as a white artist.” The media and mainstream society sees it as a default, so it’s just allowed to exist and prosper without analysis.
The norms that punk and DIY subcultures aim to deconstruct are in many instances reified within a culture that is supposed to act against the grain of society. As a result of the reproduction of these societal norms, certain identities of race, sex and gender are frequently excluded from the punk and DIY community. How do you think your process of merging of both music and activism challenges this?
Victoria: We challenge this purely by being the band that we are in terms of having a mixed gender and mixed race band. That is just not what mass media wants to believe in as “normal,” even though throughout human history, it has been the case for all people to make music as a noise of resistance and challenging the status quo. But, the more of us who do it and say we are doing it in the face of mainstream media and in spaces that are habited by a lot of White and male bands that don’t want to acknowledge their power and privilege, the more challenge we are bringing to the table. Also, our song lyrics and music are getting at how we think of the world, which is in terms of power.
Joey: VICE itself is a great example of how punk can be co-opted by neoliberal forces. VICE began as part of a welfare program by the Canadian government, but then it got bought out, started publishing lots of gross stuff, and last year destroyed some of the most important DIY venues in the Northeast in order to build their corporate offices in Brooklyn. Among those we lost was Death By Audio, which was a very important place in giving Downtown Boys our start. Punk, then, like anything else, can be made to mean so many different things. If it’s an individualistic lifestyle brand, or a way to repackage traditional power relations, then it means nothing. We want it be mean an effort to build community in order to achieve personal and collective liberation, and build connections with other communities to further spread that message. But we can call that so many things. I personally have no particular attachment to the word “punk.”
What do you recommend people in these communities to do to fix this?
Victoria: We have to stop caring about our own egos and start trying to meet each other where they are at. We must accept what makes ourselves, and others, vulnerable. We are not arguing for a fix. Rather, we are arguing for a dismantling policing. It is in our status quo. It is happening right now and needs to get done with. We don’t really think we need to challenge anyone’s definition of punk. That is not really a priority. We are trying to make what is going on in the world around us relevant.
You recently launched Spark Mag, a platform to “connect artists and fans with their important organizing campaigns, and connect people with new music and independent artists.” Why do you think maintaining a connection between artists and fans is important?
Joey: Victoria and I have been working for a while to create Spark Mag with Demand Progress, which is a nationwide grassroots organization fighting for web freedoms, against surveillance, working in solidarity with whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, and a lot more. Radical cultural work needs to be more directly connected with organizing work, and that’s part of what the site is trying to achieve. Too often, art gets co-opted by the forces of neoliberalism, and we want to more firmly attach it to movements for greater liberation. But a lot of the site is just about signal boosting artists whose work and/or politics are too often ignored or not taken seriously. We feature artists talking about their own work, artists writing about what they care about in the music industry, artists interviewing other artists, and just a lot of politics that goes beyond what’s generally permitted to be discussed in the mainstream press.
What advice do you have for people (especially young people or those of marginalized identities) for participating in activism or creating art?
Victoria: Thanks for doing it and keep on doing it. We all gotta work to make sure it doesn’t get criminalized. We also gotta make sure that landlords and big companies like VICE don’t get us too down when they close our spaces and take our land. We just gotta harvest a new and different space. It is in our history and future to always do so.
What has been your response to the success of Full Communism?
Victoria: It’s great that people like the record and that some people in the media like the record. We still hardly have any resources, and we’re still not getting opportunities in the same way as “safer” bands, but it’s great. We love playing music and we want to get our message out into the world, beyond just radical spaces in the coastal punk scenes. We’ll be touring the US in March, and then again in May. In June we’ll be in Europe. We haven’t done a European tour before so that’s very exciting for us. We’re writing new songs and we’ll keep learning and fighting and making noise.
Emma May is dismantling systems of power on Twitter.