“Only poetry or madness can do justice to noise”, is attributed to H.P. Lovecraft, son of Providence, Rhode Island. The city built on seven hills, like Rome, with the most active LGBT community in the northeast of the United States, and the home of the Downtown Boys.
Why do I speak of poetry or madness? Because contemporary society is experiencing one of the most severe moments in its history, and it is only the poets, the owners of words and music, who are capable of doing justice and giving voice to so much noise.
What Cheer?, the official greeting of Providence, take us back to 2011 when Victoria Ruiz and Joey La Neve DeFrancesco met in the fight and decided to make it music. Eight years later, they are back in Spain. Their last visit was in 2016 as part of the Primavera Sound festival.
This time they will introduce the songs from their latest album, Cost of Living (Sub Pop Records, 2017). As a prelude to his concert in Barcelona, I had the opportunity to talk with the group. What follows is a review of the primary edges that make up the conscience of this musical project.
From Full Communism to Cost of Living. The musical path of the band (and the titles of your albums), seem to tell the story of the current society: revolution, the neo-liberal agenda, late capitalism. Do you think there is something else that needs to be said?
DeFrancesco: Both albums were written throughout a couple of years, and they were built together in various ways. It’s not that we set up a platform and then we try to write songs about it. We write about what happens in our lives and the world at that moment. I imagine that we will continue writing about similar situations. I suppose so, which results in telling the story of contemporary society. I think it’s something that most bands are doing. Be aware of or not of it.
For Cost of Living, you worked with Guy Picciotto (Fugazi) as a producer, and he imprinted his stamp on the sound of the album. How was the interaction and exchange between musicians?
DeGeorge: It was great to work with Guy Picciotto. He understood our vision and helped bring our best performances to light. For example, he insisted that I keep my saxophone solos in the live shows. He did a great job selecting and polishing vocal shots. I think it helped us to get a loud sound. Besides, every morning we put at full speed to prepare for the recording of the day.
How is the relationship with Sub Pop? Do you feel that you have had to compromise part of what you are to meet the expectations of the label?
DeFrancesco: Sub Pop has helped us to do what we wanted to do musically and artistically, as well as to help us obtain a little more resources to achieve it. We all work in other areas, and I think we have zero dollars in the band’s bank account at the moment. Despite being a struggle, music and cultural work exist within a capitalist system. As a band, the label has helped us although there are other severe obstacles to real sustainability and freedom in this industry.
Downtown Boys and the political organisation
Could you tell us more about Spark Mag and the work with the Demand Progress?
DeFrancesco: We are all involved in politics in various ways, and Spark Mag was one of the ideas. It came from an excellent grassroots organisation called Demand Progress, which does all kinds of political work in the United States. We met its director, David Segal, and he proposed to Victoria and me to create a website to introduce artists and talk about politics and culture. I still work for Demand Progress, although at this moment Spark Mag is in a pause due to changes in priorities, we hope to recover it.
Angela Davis linked the defeat of racism and inequality with the failure of imperialism and oppression abroad. And you, as a band, are bilingual, mixed genre, and your lyrics address issues of race, class and sexuality in the United States. How do they feel about what is happening around the world and the rise of the extreme right?
Ruiz: I do not feel that I can speak on behalf of any group of people. My personal opinion is that we are in global solidarity as workers and people of the diaspora perpetuated by colonialism. We are against global capitalism. I believe that one of the only successful methods to face this is a combination of the struggle for individual and collective autonomy through the use of the power of our work and our communities.
Without intersectionality, there is no feminism.
Audre Lorde argues that “liberation can only occur when all voices are included, and when differences are embraced and analysed, they are not simply ‘tolerated‘.” What does Downtown Boys think about it? To have a congress full of women, but at the same time to have someone like Pelosi applauding the fact that the United States “will never be a socialist.”
Doubek: While there has been an increase in women of colour with a vision of the future in the US Congress, The United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are still very old and very white, and aim to defend the status quo and white supremacy. Pelosi is also part of the problem.
Quoting Lorde again: “If the white feminist theory does not need to deal with differences between women, making these differences oppress women of colour” What is behind racist feminism? Because many white women are not aware of this problem.
DeFrancesco: Regardless of their gender or sexuality, we, as white people, have a deeply rooted structural position. It’s a position that configures everything, from our relationships to our economic, cultural and social life. That position is rooted in hundreds of years of expropriation, exploitation and racially violent colonisation – horribly violent – as well as a continuous and continuously evolving capitalist oppression. Talking about gender or sexuality relationships as something outside or beyond these structures is false. It contributes to white supremacy. Of course, all these relationships interact and combine in a complicated way.
How do you think these same feminists deal with the fact that women who clean their homes and care for their children – while they attend lectures on feminist theory – are mostly poor women, immigrants and people of colour?
Ruiz: None of us in the band is living this reality. I think we are supportive of women doing this. I come from a single-parent family where my mother exhausted all aspects of her life to be a fantastic mother. I consider that their struggle is much more important and integral than that of any white capitalist man.
Downtown Boys sings “Somos chulas, no somos pendejas.”
What do you think are the reasons behind this new “Latin Explosion”? Is it a recognition forced by circumstances? On the one hand, is the empowerment associated with the celebration of the race, but on the other, there are people surprised to see Yelitza Aparicio (Rome), on the cover of a magazine.
Regalado: It is fantastic that Latin American women are recognised worldwide for their work and art. That said, as a Mexican-American woman, it is necessary to realise that nationalism, colourism, machismo, classism and the struggle against blackness still prevail in our culture. We must examine and dismantle that. I am thrilled and proud of Yalitza Aparicio. Seeing an indigenous Mexican woman occupying space in the media is not something we have seen. It feels extraordinary.
Ruiz: Seeing Yalitza taking this well-deserved space has been inspiring and incredible because it speaks of a long and deep history. It is also beautiful to see so many other people inspired by their representation. I think it’s part of a broader cultural moment and movement. Indeed, we still have many power structures to dismantle, even against black and neoliberalism.
In addition to Los Prisioneros, is there any other Latino artist who influenced the Downtown Boys to sound or who they think deserves to be known at this time?
Regalado: There are so many great Latinx artists at the moment! We are very admirers of Sister Mantos of Los Angeles and Helado Negro. We also love Cardi B!
Assata Shakur: A wall is just a wall and nothing more than that
Just to finish…How do we knock down the wall? Because it is a question beyond the physical. It’s a moral problem; it’s about racism and deep-rooted prejudice.
Ruiz: I would not even call it moral because then we will be stuck thinking about the good and the bad, the incorrect and the just. I think it’s a matter of survival. People are dying for borders and capitalism. It’s a crisis that we can not romanticise. Music can’t face it alone. If we do not fight the borders from our minds to our lands, we will leave many people in danger of death by global capitalism.