Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat: If you’ve read about Downtown Boys before today, you might be under the impression that their latest, Full Communism, is their “debut.” That, and you may already have them cataloged in your brain in the “punk” files, based on what you’ve read. Neither is quite accurate.
That said, if you’re just encountering this Providence, RI-based six-piece for the first time, you can anticipate inspiring ferocity, kinetic catharsis, thought-provoking and conversation-starting lyrics, laced with social commentary, and a whole lotta sax. Sax-punk sounds catchy, but Downtown Boys embody specific elements of rock, punk, funk, even of hip-hop, any genre that arches towards action, insisting, imploring, stoking. Action. Movement. Call it music, or call it a movement. These are anthems, really, treating issues of race, capitalism, wage equality, women’s rights, and more. And I don’t mean hand-clapping, sing along anthems…no, it’s more convulsive or eruptive than that.
But to call it “punk?”
“The punk label is a weird thing,” says DB guitarist Joey L. DeFrancesco. “Just, the type of trolling that comes out in the comments sections is strange. And when you see it, it’s masked as people upholding punk, as if we’re not what punk really is, when that’s just code, I think, for upholding a certain kind of white-supremacy and masculinity in the music that is not inherent to the music and has never been inherent to the music but has become the kind of dominant narrative to a lot of people and the narrative that gets upheld by the media.”
There are “pieces of punk,” says DeFrancesco, which he finds to be beautiful. Downtown Boys are taking those certain beautiful, and particularly more empowering, pieces of punk and utilizing them to redefine the perception of said-genre.
Victoria Ruiz fronts Downtown Boys with a voice that’s maximal in spirit and in expression, immediately commandeering and keeping the attention of any room or of any listener, no matter what language (Spanish or English) she uses for her lyrics. Ruiz sounds valiant, as though she’s ever on the edge of going hoarse, like every proceeding song might be the last she’ll have the ability to belt out tonight, so here goes everything!
The ensemble, meanwhile, churns and discharges with brutal grace. Regardless of tempo, there is always a groove, and regardless of however seething they sound, there is always poignancy, relatability. The band features Adrienne Berry on alto sax, Emmett Fitzgerald on tenor sax, Norlan Olivo on drums, and Mary Regalado on bass.
“Sometimes,” saysRuiz, “there is an expectation on us to be educators, or to be ‘punk,’ or expectations on me to be a woman of color saying something. And I think that these expectations are not necessarily a good thing, because ultimately, what we’re doing is culture, it is art, but it’s very open-ended, and it’s not meant to fill any one void in anyone’s mind.”
Full Communism came out back in May of 2015 via Don Giovanni Records. You can reduce them to the punk genre, as headlines typically suggest, but it’s more useful, according to Ruiz, to appreciate Downtown Boys as simply a group of people trying to do something in a world that needs us all to be trying to do something.
”[Downtown Boys’] purpose is to bring people together to ask questions and to channel anger and to bring our dissent together in hopes to use this space,” says Ruiz. “So that when we leave it, for whatever we’re doing with our lives, whether it be actively organizing on a campaign or just trying to get through the next day, we’ll never give any one person exactly what they need. Because what we all need is so much bigger than our band. What we all need is an aggregation, a culmination. What we need is a revolutionary moment. We want to contribute to that as much as possible, and we want to recognize that we have a space in that – as a band – but that we will never encompass all of that or fill any void.”
Downtown Boys have been up and running since 2011. They have two previous releases before Full Communism, even if this recent record has undoubtedly sparked their breakout moment. DeFrancesco has been in another band that could have similar potential to be “explicitly political,” even if it never had any lyrics: The What Cheer? Brigade is a Providence-based brass band that often takes to the streets with musical demonstrations – they famously helped DeFrancesco quit his job at the Renaissance Providence Hotel. In fact, it was at that same hotel where DeFrancesco first met Ruiz, who had moved to Providence from San Jose, CA, specifically to get involved with the region’s political scene.
“What Cheer? Brigade is great, especially for demonstrations,” DeFrancesco says. “But with Downtown Boys has the ability, with vocals and words, to talk about stuff in a more direct way.”
Ruiz admitted that she sometimes feels something akin to guilt, as though she and the band are still not doing enough or working hard enough or just doing more around their community. It should be noted that Ruiz has mentored at a local community arts studio in Providence for high school students called New Urban Arts. In fact, just like Ruiz, the band members are involved with other projects and causes; DeFrancesco, for example, also helped found SparkMag, a political music platform supporting artists and musicians who are promoting progressive and radical ideals through their work. There is also a local DIY venue called Spark City that Ruiz works with, regularly engaging with younger music fans and upcoming musicians.
The band finds fulfillment through their live shows and tours. “It’s a bit overwhelming seeing how many people of color come out to our shows,” reflects Ruiz. “And the range in ages, too. We get really young people there with their parents, and we’ll get older couples, too. That’s still kind of crazy to me. People coming up to me in tears after a set saying that they can’t believe that a band is talking about these things and having people in the band that look and act the way that we do. Okay. Wow. I have to be doing this, this is doing something. This kind of work can’t be matched through a lot of our other jobs.”
“It definitely feels like something is being built in a way that is more visible,” adds DeFrancesco, going back to the whole ‘punk’ ethos and how its demographics and identity have been changing dramatically over the last decade. “I think punk has always had queer people and people of color and women; they’re often just erased from some of the history, and I think that’s really important to recognize. Those are people to look up to, because they’ve always been there doing it, working so hard. We’re at a point where there is more visibility. I don’t think it’s perfect, yet, and all these bands still get shit thrown at them online and in real life and by their families, sometimes.”
DeFrancesco pauses to reflect on how Downtown Boys were heralded by tastemakers at Pitchfork, along with G.L.O.S.S. as being the next generation of punk, more or less. “It’s not everything, and you shouldn’t need to look to that mainstream validation…but I guess it still means something. That these shows can happen! That PWR BTTM can sell out the Knitting Factory last month; that’s a cool thing! This means something. And (through New Urban Arts/Spark Mag) it’s necessary to build some kind of real community and a real scene.”
And, as we said, most headlines are deeming this their debut. But as Ruiz and DeFrancesco clarify: they’ve been working their asses off for four years now. “Full Communism’s songs were written over the course of a few years, and every single lyric – all the notes in the music – are a response to something, or a call toward seeing what’s going on in the world,” Ruiz explains. “None of this album was created outside of what is happening in our own experiences on this planet. And that’s beautiful, and I think that’s why it’s been able to provide an impactful platform for us.”