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Downtown Boys
Downtown Boys

Pop CultureDecember 5, 2017

Punk is a moving target: Downtown Boys’ 21st century protest music

Downtown Boys
Downtown Boys

Henry Oliver talks to punk band Downtown Boys, who are at the forefront of a new wave of protest music in the US, ahead of their first New Zealand show.

Downtown Boys, a political punk band from Rhode Island, are one the most prominent bands in a growing wave of bands in the US, many fronted by women and people of colour, who are energising rock music at a time when white dudes with guitars seem less culturally relevant than they have at any point since rock music’s emergence. They’re fast and loud, with bluntly political lyrics about cops, labour, white supremacy, deportation, all backed up by the member’s activism and community building. And they bring their ferocious live show (with sax!) to the Whammy Bar in Auckland tonight! Go see them!

The Spinoff: As a band that engages a lot with politics, what is like to feel like to be asked to represent or to speak for things that are happening in your country?

Victoria Ruiz: I read this thing the other day and the writer was talking about how hard it is to feel like you’ll always be an accomplice, but you can fight to not be complicit. And being an American, it really feels that way. Personally, I feel like I’m both oppressed by this country and the hegemony of the United States of America but at the same time I have a lot of the privileges of being an American and a citizen, so it’s figuring out how to accept that I’m an accomplice and of the USA – the imperialism and colonialism that it perpetuates every single day – but then I want to always fight to not be complicit in that. So I’m figuring out how to communicate that because we are from a pretty despicable country.

Your new album was released this year but, I assume, written before the election. Is the reception of the album different than it would have been otherwise if it had come out earlier?

Joey La Neve DeFrancesco: In some capacity, it’s inevitable that people are going to read the cultural product based on when they’re consuming it and not with the knowledge of record release cycles and when things get toured. And that’s fine. We don’t want people to think that what’s on the record is unique to Trump. We put out two other records and these issues are not new but are reaching a different manifestation which, in a lot of cases, is an escalation right now. And if people read it as a protest to that, that’s fine.

There were discussions around the time of the election around how some of the most vibrant times for punk music were during the Reagan administration and then the second Bush administration. Maybe that’s searching for a small bit of solace or something, but do you feel the election’s changed the musical environment you operate in at all?

Victoria Ruiz: It’s definitely influenced the way people read our music and read us because right now you’re dealing with this contradictory time where you’re both terrified and feel so hopeless, but then you’re really driven and angry and really adamant and desirous for seeing a different world. But sometimes it can feel like we’re just psychoanalysing politics instead of talking about our music’s relationship to power and capitalism and to racism and misogyny.

So sometimes it can be frustrating because people want to use anything that they can hold onto in order to try and make a statement but at at the same time it means that anyone who has a platform can leverage that platform to speak about the status quo and the ways in which we simultaneously navigate the status quo while dismantling it. So we really try and focus our energy on the latter. We have this platform so what can we do to use it? And there are really tangible, almost boring, mundane things like we can use our show space for people to table issues in the community where you’re playing, we use our show space in Providence to earn money for very small organisations that are fighting racism and capitalism and police. So you can leverage every part of your platform to the best of your capacity right now in new ways.

I’m also not of the mindset that the most interesting punk came out of times with really bad presidents because Obama was by no means a stellar president to a lot of people. He deported more people than any other president, we’ve seen police killings not reduce at all but actually climb, and we’ve seen inequality grow. So there hasn’t been a pause for reasons to be angry and to crystallise that dissent. So, for us, it’s really important to not ever get comfortable. Right now there are tonnes of articles about protest music, I mean, musicians that I never even considered to be outwardly political are releasing music and talking about how it’s a commentary on our time. And while that’s great, and it’s awesome to feel like we’re part of a bigger community of artists, what ends up happening in those moments throughout history is your music and your art get co-opted and turned into a product that’s used for nothing more than profit. So we’re constantly having to figure out how not to let that happen to our art, how to not let that happen with our interviews, how to not let that happen to us. So it’s constantly figuring out how you don’t settle because we haven’t won yet.

How then do you balance your growth as a band? You’ve released records on incrementally bigger labels and with that has come more opportunities to expand your platform. What’s the tension between that growth and retaining control?

Joey La Neve DeFrancesco: The majority of the tension arises out of a particular ideology that’s focussed on individual security rather than organising and using whatever platforms and positions you have to the greatest of their ability. It may get to a point where we’re asked to compromise something, but that hasn’t happened and I think we’re far from that happening so I don’t feel at all like we’ve compromised our morals at all, but there’s obviously tension and contradiction no matter what your job is under capitalism, because you have to exist as both a worker and consumer and as some kind of moral being in society and those things are in a constant tension. And that’s no different being a musician. So we do as much as we can.

Tell me about making punk music in 2017. To what extent do you feel you need or want to push the genre or innovate within that space?

Victoria Ruiz: There’s a really good book called Punk is a Moving Target by Mimi Thi Nguyen and that title is really moving and I think speaks directly to what it means to be making relevant music in 2017. And those of us that think that punk and ideology are more synonymous than punk and relevancy will always be at odds. So it’s realising that you’re making this music that is going to be read by people that don’t understand you as punk music and that means that you’re part of a scene and part of a home that also hates that you’re on Sub Pop Records or that you still wear a leather jacket. So that part is festering on a personal level  and a political level and what it means at a political level is that you have this tool and the tool is neutral until you use it and you can use it to make the right kind of history and to make incisions into spaces where you would not have otherwise had a voice. And that’s really important, and not just by yourself, it’s doing it collectively and that’s what making this music means right now.

Downtown Boys play Whammy Bar in Auckland tonight, 5 December. Get tickets here.

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