Downtown Boys: Meet America’s Most Exciting Punk Band
Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco, lead singer and guitarist of the most exciting punk band in America today, Downtown Boys, are eating pizza before a show in their hometown of Providence and discussing the finer points of Internet policy. “We really need to connect on-the-ground policing with Internet surveillance and the criminalization of the Internet and think of it all as the police state, and state violence,” Ruiz says as The X-Files plays on the TV overhead.
For those tired of living in a country where it’s OK to give equal weight to #AllLivesMatter and to consider abortion a crime, where hourly workers are expected to be grateful for the scraps they get and never ask for more, and where xenophobia and gun culture have blurred together with patriotism, you’ve got two choices for public events: a Bernie Sanders rally or a Downtown Boys show, and Victoria Ruiz is a better public speaker. The Providence band’s two LPs, a 2012 self-titled effort and this year’s Full Communisim, are galvanizing blasts, but seeing Downtown Boys live electrifies every nerve.
There are a few elements at play here: the abrasive horn section of Adrienne Berry and Emmett Fitzgerald, drummer Norlan Olivo’s manic abilities, which often lead to his standing on his drum kit as the crowd lifts the two of them together. But chief among them are Ruiz’s introductions to songs, which feel like Amy Goodman channelling X-Ray Spex’ Poly Styrene, Ta-Nehisi Coates meeting Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye. She talks about the slave trade, pointing out the markers and businesses that made up the transactional components of America’s original sin, connects these corporations to modern-day landlords and the police, draws these institutions into whatever room they’re playing, and then encourages their destruction through song. The crowd inevitably explodes into a physical manifestation of these anthems, slamming against each other in the type of solidarity where they know, they truly know, that in the fight against invisible and violent superstructures, they’re the ones who will win.
An easy critique of ideologues is that they don’t dirty their pure visions with details, facts and figures. Yet here are Ruiz and DeFrancesco, eating pizza, drawing a direct line from the late Aaron Swartz’s work on the Stop Online Piracy Act of 2012 to their performances. The three met in 2010, united by the failed run for Congress by Swartz’s friend David Segal. Ruiz had just moved to Providence from California, intrigued by its arts scene and cheaper rent than New York, and had taken a job at the Renaissance Providence Hotel, where she met DeFranceso. A full-fledged member of that scene, he was part of a radical brass band named after Providence’s official motto, the What Cheer? Brigade. From there, he had also formed a band named after an early Springsteen lyric: “And them downtown boys sure talk gritty/It’s so hard to be a saint in the city” (“It sounded tough and fun but also queer,” he elaborates). Ruiz quickly joined the band, and when she heard about Segal’s work for hotel workers, joined his Congressional campaign doing Spanish language outreach. She now works as a part-time organizer with the group Segal and Swartz founded together, Demand Progress.
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