It’s hard not to discuss politics and activism with members of Downtown Boys. The group, which returns to Walters this Sunday, has been called “the most relevant band in America” and “America’s most exciting punk band.” Those are heavy accolades, especially when levied by the likes of Paper and Rolling Stone magazines. We know we’ll eventually broach confounding and infuriating topics in this interview, but it’s early in the morning. The band is traveling together in a van to a gig in Nashville, jovially passing the phone around to accommodate our questions. Why ruin a good time by bringing up 10-foot border walls? We choose to begin with less heady topics, like what they enjoy about Houston.
“I really love Houston, Texas ‘cause that’s where the last Selena Quintanilla show was!” exclaims vocalist Victoria Ruiz. She proclaimed her loyalty to the Queen of Tejano when Downtown Boys played Houston last spring, even treating us with a vocal warmup to Selena’s “Como La Flor.” Ruiz says she has something akin to an ongoing “GIF in my head of her saying, ‘How you doin’, Houston, Texas!’ because that was the beginning of the Selena movie.”
A lot has changed for the band in a short year. The Rhode Island-based outfit is self-described as “dance punk politics,” and doesn’t skimp on any of these in its dynamic, you-gotta-see-it live show. Downtown Boys formed in 2011, so it’s incorrect to describe their rise to notoriety as “overnight.” That phrase also carries the connotation that they were granted something when, in reality, they earned their present success by hard work, constant touring and interesting output, most critically last year’s Full Communism. We wanted to know how they’ve been able to stay rooted when every show-goer and music journalist they win over is pulling them skyward.
“For me, it feels like you’re so in the weeds. You do the interview for something and it comes out three weeks later so it’s like by that time, you’re onto the next thing,” Ruiz said. “Seeing people who you really love and respect be really excited for you always feels really good, and it feels like that’s happening more and more. But it’s also like you’re in the weeds - we’re on drives or at practices. You feel the burn of it all, too.”
It’s this simple confession about how tiring life as a band can be that veers us toward the inevitable. Downtown Boys is about more than politics. They write songs that incite bursts of human movements that defy physics. People shouldn’t be able to mosh that hard, even over two-minute spans. The reason you ultimately submit to inquiries about police killings and egregious government surveillance is that they’re informed and have interesting takes on these issues. Downtown Boys use their live set as a forum to speak to these matters, in song and in between songs, too.
But isn’t it all exhausting, we wonder? In addition to the grind of making a living in music, the band has willingly chosen to address the polarizing problems of the day. Co-founder and guitarist Joey DeFrancesco says it doesn’t matter if it’s tiring because it’s vital to the band and its audiences.
“The whole time this band has existed, it’s been a very dire political moment," he says. "With everything we do, we try to make it very anti-nostalgic and very much about what’s happening right now. On our record, there’s liner notes and some bits at the end of the record essentially about Ferguson and police killings, and the resistance movement that’s emerged in reaction to those killings.
“I think, because of the immediacy of it, there are a lot of people coming up and being moved by what’s happening in the lyrics or in what Victoria’s talking about because too often it’s not explicitly discussed in these sorts of venues, and it needs to be," he adds.
Adrienne Berry, the band’s saxophonist, says one of the best things the band has been able to accomplish is taking what seem to be global or national issues and homing in on how they affect fans at local levels.
“Victoria takes a lot of time to connect with the people in our community, in the Downtown Boys community everywhere, to understand what’s happening locally," she says. "People and activists that are doing things locally know that when we come to town, Victoria almost always talks about a lot of different issues and movements that are local to that community. [The show] becomes a platform for people to hear what’s happening on a local level. I think that’s really, really important."
“When we were in Richmond [Virginia] most recently, this really amazing activist was saying it’s really refreshing to have a band like ours that comes in and brings this energy that reignites them and gives them a platform to talk about their work and feel validated for all the work they’re doing," Berry continues. "I think that’s really powerful as well, for us to keep on reigniting each other.”
“It’s definitely exhausting, since there’s another element added to it all. We’re touring right now with this band, Sheer Mag. Their lyrics are really powerful and they say a lot of important things about what love means, what being strong looks like, not taking bullshit,” Ruiz says. “They do it a different way. They don’t talk between songs, but their lyrics are super-powerful. We’re not any more or less political than any other band; we just express it differently than a lot of bands.”
That expression is overt in song, in monologues between songs and online, on Spark Mag. DeFrancesco and Ruiz co-founded and co-edit the online publication to focus on like-minded artists and benefit the large national activist organization Demand Progress, founded by their friend David Segal.
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Ruiz says not everyone is attuned to the messages delivered at a Downtown Boys show.
“Every time someone comes up to the merch table and you don’t really know the community, there’s that little thing inside your stomach where you don’t know if someone’s gonna be like, ‘That was really good,’ or ‘Oh, when you talk about white supremacy, are you talking about all white people?’ and they kind of take it very personally and don’t wanna look past themselves," he explains. "You never really know how people are going to respond. Expressing ourselves the way we do, we have to be totally responsible and willing to be open to people responding in different ways. People aren’t always down with our message and the things that we say. And that’s okay, too.”
That’s fighting the good fight, in a nutshell, and Downtown Boys are willing to do it one music venue at a time. In the spirit of their album title, they put us on speakerphone as we close, just so they can sign off communally.
Downtown Boys perform with Shannon and the Clams, Gazebos, Guantanamo Baywatch and The Gooch Palms Sunday, March 13 at Walters Downtown, 1120 Naylor. Doors open at 7 p.m.