Interview with the Downtown Boys
No One Is Free Until We’re All Free
The Downtown Boys’ "Full Communism" was one of the most talked-about punk albums of 2015. NME called it the best debut album of the year. It also happens to be one of the most subversive albums made in any genre in recent years. With songs like “100% Inheritance Tax,” the group isn’t shy about putting radical politics on the table. We spoke with bandmembers Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco about organizing hotel workers, file sharing, and dismantling the capitalist system.
January 12, 2016
Downtown Boys, "Wave of History" (Official Video)
How did you form the band and come up with your sound?
Victoria Ruiz: Joey started the band with members of What Cheer? Brigade, which is a brass marching band in Providence. Then he and I were working together at the Renaissance Providence hotel. We were both involved in an organizing campaign there, and got to know each other through that. The songs have always been written from personal, political experiences and things that are going on around us–from feeling compelled to say something and to do something.
Tell us about your organizing campaign at the Renaissance Providence Hotel. Who were you organizing and what were the results?
Joey DeFrancesco: I started working there 7 years ago. Victoria was there for a year or so. I needed to pay for school and later got involved trying to better the conditions. Like a lot of service jobs, it sucks. I was in room service making about $5.50 an hour and was supposed to be making up the rest in tips. But our managers and a lot of the corporate-level staff were stealing our tips.
You’re working these crazy hours, like 5am to whenever the hell the night shift is. And it’s worse for other departments at the hotel; the housekeepers clean sixteen, seventeen rooms a day–it may be hard to think about what that means if you haven’t seen or done it before, but these are big, fancy hotel rooms with heavy duvets. People have to be on their hands and knees with nasty chemicals and get all sorts of chemical burns, lung illnesses–from machines that rid the rooms of cigarette smoke–all sorts of nasty things happening there. So organizing was happening amongst us at the hotel, pushing back against managers and different actions.
Recently, the housekeeping department won a union election, but that doesn’t mean the fight is done in any capacity. They still have to get a contract and the hotel’s going to muck this up for possibly years, depending on how hard we can fight them. So right now, the hotel is under a boycott called by workers.
Why did you name your album "Full Communism"?
VR: We really believe in this idea that we can win freedom and justice, but also that no one is free until we’re all free. We’re not just fighting for some paradise. We actually want to dismantle the root causes of things like hotel workers with chronic pain at the age of 28 and we want to dismantle the system that’s creating police who shoot people and get away with it. We really want to tear this apart. When that happens, it’ll be when we achieve full communism.
You’re an unabashedly political group and it seems there has been a resurgence in political rock and hip hop in recent years. In fact, you created an online magazine dedicated to politics and music. What explains the rise of political music?
JD: I think about this a lot. I don’t know if there’s a resurgence. I feel like it’s always been there, it’s just a question of whether we’re getting people to pay attention to it or not. Right now there is very politicized music, and people try to de-politicize it.
The audience that is in charge of making and consuming most music are commonly called "Millennials." We’re in a really nasty position. The economy sucks right now. The current extremely violent expressions of racism and white supremacy that have always been there are really nasty right now. So I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment with the world. That, of course, is going to come out in the music.
Because of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past few years we’ve learned the names of dozens and dozens of black people and people of color who’ve been killed by the police. With the immigrant rights movement, we’re learning about massive deportations that have taken place and actually increased under Obama. Have these movements shaped you as activists and as musicians?
JD: A lot of the record is definitely in conversation with the issues that are behind those movements. If you look at the liner notes, you’ll see that we’re very explicitly talking about Ferguson. So definitely coming out of all these things.
As musicians and activists, what do you think about the debate around music piracy and how it relates to artists, like trying to get your message out to the broadest audience, but at the same time trying to make a living.
JD: It’s a good question and something I struggle with. When I was younger, I was all for file-sharing and still do a lot of it, so I’m not hating on anyone who does it. But trying to make this more sustainable for ourselves, it’s like: it would be really cool if people paid us for these things we create, so I think there’s a role for file sharing, that can be a cool thing in terms of taking down a corporate music industry. But I am conflicted about what it means to steal songs from people who are not making money doing this. I would encourage people to buy our music and buy other people’s music if you want those artists to continue making music.
VR: I totally agree. I think the real issue is that the remedy to piracy isn’t illegality. Our magazine, Spark, was founded by Joey and Demand Progress, which is an organization that fights exactly this. They fight the criminality of the internet and its users, and it was actually started by Aaron Swartz who was facing decades in prison for attempting to make very classist online documents public and free. And right now in my activism work, I wish those documents were free. I would love to read about police brutality cases and use those in press releases. So he was trying to do this, he was trying to make information that’s only available to people in academia free and he got criminalized for it. And of course, the police were criminalizing him because he was part of this organization that’s working against the intersectionality of the criminal justice system and surveillance and recognizing that the police state and surveillance is one and the same. So of course that’s why they criminalize him and it most likely urged him to commit suicide, which he did. The solutions are so awful right now that you can’t help but be on the other side.
Similarly, what are your thoughts on licensing music? Some artists feel that as much as they’re opposed to these corporations, licensing their music for advertisements and such is the only way that they get make money from their music. Is that something you guys would ever consider?
JD: It’s really hard to say. Ideally, no, you don’t have to do that. But unfortunately we live in this country where the arts aren’t supported. There’s no assistance to artists. It’s hard to get health care. It’s not valued as a cultural norm. It would be naive of us to just say, “No, we’re not going to do that.”
I can’t imagine any company wanting to use our music for anything and it’s never come up before, but I’m not going to outright condemn an artist for making a decision like that. You have to think of musicians as workers and having to exist within this system.
VR: I am sure that if we did have something like a musician’s union and we were paid way better–if we were recognized as a profession more, we could come together and put out a demand. We could say, “Hey, let’s not license our stuff to evil companies.” I’m sure that a lot of us would sign on to that. But it has to be put in the context where we’re at and the market we’re in.
What are your plans for 2016 as a band and as activists?
JD: We put out the record in May. We’re starting to write more songs now. We’ve got a lot of stuff in progress. We’ll be touring a lot. We’ll be going down to SXSW and other fun corporate entities (laughs) and then we’re touring in Europe in May and June, which is very exciting. We’ve never done that before.
VR: I would like to continue to, hopefully, talk to more people like you guys. I would like to make it so that we are a band that’s going into other people’s spaces as well as creating spaces that people come into. We’re starting to see that we have more of a platform outside of music sites or people who only write about music. And recognizing that the same things that happen in music are happening in the outside world.
Interviewed by Robert Belano
Downtown Boys Upcoming 2016 Tour Dates
1/16: Providence, RI @ Aurora
2/26: Washington, DC @ Black Cat w/ Pissed Jeans
2/27: Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right
3/4: Baltimore, MD @ Windup Space *
3/5: Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter *
3/6: Raleigh, NC @ Kings *
3/7: Asheville, NC @ Mothlight *
3/9: Memphis, TN @ Hi-Tone *
3/10: Oklahoma City, OK @ Everything Is Not O.K. Fest, 89th Street Collective *
3/11: Dallas, TX @ Crown & Harp
* w/ Sheer Mag