August 8, 2014

Interview: Downtown Boys

An interview with Downtown Boys' Victoria Ruiz.

Victoria Ruiz is a badass. The 27-year-old head of political punk band Downtown Boys and raucous “propagandist” electronic dance duo Malportado Kids is without a doubt one of the coolest and most inspirational people in the music world. Victoria and I first crossed paths at a Downtown Boys show at Shea Stadium in June —I had heard wonderful things about Victoria from friends who had hosted shows for Downtown Boys and others who had stayed over at Spark City, the artist/activist colony she founded with some friends in a Providence, RI, warehouse space.

Victoria was raised by her mother and grandmother in Monterrey, California, before moving to New York City to attend Columbia University. She then relocated to Providence where she currently lives in a converted warehouse space with members of Downtown Boys and street-punk brass band What Cheer? Brigade. Victoria met her bandmate Joey DeFrancesco while they both worked shitty jobs at the Renaissance Providence Hotel (more on that later). Ruiz later joined Downtown Boys after attending shows and designing screen prints and posters for them. Victoria and I met after work one day to talk over some pizza in Bushwick.

THE LE SIGH: You all just finished with tour with EMA? How was that? How did people react to you guys on tour with an artist like EMA?

VICTORIA RUIZ: I think that there were different types of people reacting differently. At first a lot of people were really happy for us when they found out that we got this tour because it was right after our album had been released on Sister Polygon and we had just released a music video and then we got this crazy tour offer. And so a lot of musicians who know how hard it is to tour, and how much financial resources it takes and how much cultural capital you need to do it, I think were like, “Wow, you got an awesome tour.” We basically got this two week tour with dates, a guarantee, sometimes we got money for food, so, it was like the most solid thing you could ask for. We’re putting together a basement show DIY tour for this summer and it’s a lot harder. [The EMA tour] was like an agency put it together, so some people were proud of us and were like “Wow, that’s awesome,” and I think other people were kind of like “who’s EMA?”. She’s on Matador records and we were playing venues that were not all ages and venues that were bars or more expensive to get into. That does deserve a critique; it’s like why are you guys playing this place in this city and not the other place? Ultimately it’s like we don’t have the cultural capital that a lot of other bands have. We’re a really pretty nasty band and I don’t think that we’re finessed at all. Even our political message is very active and constantly influenced by what is going on in the status quo. So the tour was just this really crazy thing because we also saw it as an opportunity, and I think a lot of our other friends also saw it as an opportunity for us to go into these four walls and really bring something that maybe these spaces haven’t had before. Like, you have this pretty professional, well known artist who has worked really hard, EMA, that's bringing this dirty punk band, who is saying things about race and classism and surveillance and policing... I think that we saw it as an opportunity to mess with the status quo of these cultural spaces, and an opportunity to create culture in these spaces. So, it was a mix of reactions but ultimately everyone was really supportive. Our first show we played was in D.C. and all of our friends from Priests came to the show and our friends who had seen us from two years back when we first started touring came and it was so special. And we felt like that in lots of different cities. There would be like that person who heard about us from Tumblr or that person who heard about us from Sister Polygon or from Smash It Dead Fest or from zines or from interviews, and they would like find us, and that was like the craziest feeling to just be like, “Wow, people care about us enough to literally find us,” and that was so awesome to meet those people. 

TLS: That’s really cool. How did you get involved with social justice issues? 

VR: I think a good thing about our band is that [social justice] doesn't necessarily feel like an interest or a choice to us. I think its more like this very natural progression of learning and experiencing the world. I think my involvement in political issues very much came from my experiences as a person of color, a woman, an educated person of color coming from a poor family, and realizing that those experiences are part of a greater context. I think that that’s how a lot of the first songs Joe wrote were when he was working in the hotel like 40 to 50 hours a week or zero hours because his manager wouldn't schedule him. He was getting paid really badly and receiving a lot of sexual harassment and being treated really poorly in this hotel....I think that a lot of first songs came out of that anger and desire to create something that shared that anger and hopefully either touched other peoples’ anger or desire to change things. Norlan has a really good read on being a person of color—he was born in the Bronx and grew up in the south side of Providence which is like a Dominican, Latino, black part of Providence, so I think that there’s this sort of “this is our life” type of analysis. Dan had done like prison justice work and does a lot of work with youth of color now and Emmett had always had a strong political analysis, so we've never ever disagreed about the necessity for what we’re doing to have a radical message.

TLS: Yeah, I can totally see that in the songs. When and how did you form Malportado Kids with Joey?

VR: Malportado Kids formed last year, it actually is a little under a year old. It formed under a couple of things. We had just started Spark City, we knew we wanted to start a show space—me and Joe and our friend Hannah Zoll and Will from Downtown Boys. So we kind of wanted another band in the mix from Providence. There are a lot of political punk bands, like a lot of political garage punk bands, and I think it’s really wonderful and meaningful when you’re compared to Fugazi or Bikini Kill or something like that, because it’s like, “Damn, it’s a genre”. But with Malportado Kids there was a mess of all these different questions and leftovers from different types of music that we like and this like desire to make this new thing. We used to call it “new music” before we had a name for the band, because it’s like a lot of different mixes like its often genre’d as like “cumbia,” or like “electro cumbia,” but we don’t actually use that many cumbia beats. It's genre-less but it’s made up of these really strong things that we wanted to put together and it was also formed out of an economic need. It’s a lot easier to have a band with two people. We made the music on a laptop—the first songs we made on Garageband. Now we have a Logic torrent so we sound better but it’s made very cheaply, like very, very cheaply. With Downtown Boys, we’ve spent a lot of money on equipment. You’re constantly getting a different amp or you’re needing drum stuff or whatever. And with two people you can tour in a small car. So there were the economic reasons for it to happen, and then I think there was the messaging, I think Malportado Kids sort of goes to this intergalactic level of interpersonal relationships and the politics that are there that are part of these structural hegemonies, like sexuality and gender and race and classism. But I think our message can get super specific and I think that that was something we both really wanted to do that Downtown Boys wasn’t, isn’t, doing. So it’s really crazy at how it has felt so natural to have two different bands. I look at other peers of mine that have multiple bands, and I’m always really impressed when they’re in like two very separate bands. Like Sean Nieves from Crabapple and No Babies and Watercolor Paintings, he manages to be in these different styles of music. It’s been really natural to have the two spaces. 

TLS: It’s funny that you pointed that out about the lyrics and the concepts behind both bands, because I was just going to ask you about that. The lyrics with Malportado Kids are more like dealing with socially ingrained factors and with Downtown Boys I saw that it was more issues that are created and kind of sustained by the government, like police brutality and workers rights, so it’s funny that you mentioned that as being a very intentional thing.

VR: Yeah! I guess an example is like in immigrant rights organizing that I’ve participated in, and labor organizing too that Joe and I have participated in. There is so much queer-phobia, classism and interracial politics. You’ll be in a meeting and like Guatemalans and Dominicans will not be getting along—or like someone will say something very queer-phobic and it’s very upsetting, because we’re in this movement for justice. I think a really good example is the Dream Act or comprehensive immigration reform because both of those things are super classist. The poorest of the poor immigrants who were forced to come here out of imperialist policies in their countries aren't going to be covered by those things. The Dream Act is going to be supporting college educated undocumented people, or people who have the potential to become college educated undocumented people. That’s a huge thing in the migrant community—and it’s still a very small pool of people. I think with Downtown Boys we get at these wider issues of migrant justice, but with Malportado Kids we can talk about the experiences of queer-phobia or interracial racism within those bigger movements and that is really important to talk about.

TLS: I was just wondering, because I see that a lot of very Catholic countries have a pretty general sense of queer-phobia and a general touchiness around sexuality, and y’all approach that in some of your songs. Is that what the song “Maldito” is about?

VR: Oh wow! That’s very interesting—that’s a great read on "Maldito"! It's a cover, it’s a Jessy Bulbo song and she’s a Mexican punk singer. The music for it is really really crazy, because it’s like lots and lots of people in Mexico City going crazy and dancing and the architecture in Mexico City is portrayed in this crazy way and they’re like running up buildings and she’s like jumping up and down on top of buildings. Yeah, I think it’s totally about shaking up the concepts of control, the concepts of thinking we know everything, and we don’t. I feel like I really love that song and believe in that song so much, and what it means to me changes with whatever I’m going through. But "Maldito" could be about that, it’s kind of about everything that means breaking apart the structures that were already formed.

TLS: You were raised by your mom and your grandma?

VR: Yes!

TLS: How did they contribute and impact your life as a social activist and what are their thoughts now on your life as a musician and also social activist? 

VR: I think that they both have really influenced my taste and my different tendencies in art because both of them have such crazy taste. My grandma is actually illiterate, she can’t read or write in either English or Spanish but she can speak both languages perfectly. I think a big part of that her knowledge of music is so vast. Like, she can listen to Jim Croce or Vicente Fernandez all on the same tape. She doesn’t even really have a Spanish accent and she’ll tell you it’s because of TV and music, it’s because of media, which I just think is super interesting because now in the age of the internet and with so much media stimuli, I think it would be a lot harder for her to literally learn to speak English from music and TV. I think she has definitely influenced my tastes and stuff for music and how I think about it. My mom too, my mom loves R&B and disco, so it’s really funny, I actually didn’t grow up listening to much rock n’ roll or Americana. My mom really likes Bruce Springsteen, ya know? It’s not like I had a parent listening to The Clash or Seeger, but I really like both of their artistic tastes because they totally come out of their political and social realities. My grandma was a farm worker and I have family members who were very involved in different farm worker movements. My grandma met my grandpa because he was going around to different farms and reading insurance forms to people in Spanish and explaining documents for them and stuff in his spare time. I think I’ve always kind of had an analysis stemming from her experience and also seeing my mom’s necessity to believe so much in a college education and believe so much in being a single parent mom and doing whatever she needed to do to provide me with the opportunities. I couldn’t get over how we were constantly living in the future, like when I was ten I was thinking about college. I think that that is like a really political reality for a lot of people that don’t grow up with privilege and economic comfort or nuclear family comfort. They both definitely push that idea, and I think that it’s an idea that should be politicized—the concept of the nuclear family—because it’s an idea that is so ingrained in classism and whiteness and privilege. I think they’re both really supportive, though, of what I’m doing. I don’t know if they entirely get it, to be perfectly honest. Like when I quit my job at the public defender, which was like the best job I’ve ever had in many ways, my mom was pretty appalled. But it is totally because there is really nothing for me to fall back on. It’s not like I have a trust fund to pay for my rent or something like that.

TLS: What were you doing for a public defender? 

VR: I was a social caseworker. Public defenders have a really interesting role in this country in my opinion because the concept of legal defense for people who have criminal allegations is still a relatively new thing. Public defenders are people who are left defending people who are accused of criminal behavior. In the United States, we’ve used concepts and the imaginations of criminal activity to really push forward mass incarceration, and mass incarceration really is the new Jim Crow, and Jim Crow is the product of the transatlantic slave trade. So in short, the transatlantic slave trade and mass incarceration hold hands, and the public defenders role is to push back against that. So, my job was basically like if a lawyer was defending someone and thought, "This person should not be going to prison— they have a mental health issue, or a substance abuse dependency, or they’re a throwaway from [the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families] and foster care, or they come from a really bad neighborhood, or a family that was never able to provide for them,” I would look for other alternatives to either lessen their jail time or argue for no jail time. So we would do a lot of mitigation reports and a lot of investigation to the person, who they are and where they are coming from. I was a part of their defense.

TLS: One of your biggest investments is with the workers rights movement, hotel workers specifically. How did you get involved with that? 

VR: I think that a lot of my extended family are still working in retail or working as like, cleaners. I feel like the archetypeof a middle-aged brown Latina woman is like a housekeeper or a custodian or something like that, which is so crazy to think about because white heteronormative women get models or actresses as their archetype. I was always interested in why the service industry seeks out black and brown people—especially Latino people—and how hotels are sort of these very violent spaces where there’s this intersection between capitalism’s desire to create profit, like labor hierarchy, and emotion. A hotel is like a theatrical experience, it’s where someone is meant to feel hospitality, someone is meant to feel like their room is magically cleaned or magically being served and there is this invisible hand that’s doing it. That invisible hand is workers, and there are workers that are by and large treated really poorly and unjustly. I think that I first got interested in it because I thought it was related to money, but after being involved in it [I realized] it’s related to respect and dignity. I think that if it were related to money then corporations who own hotels would just give workers more money and wash their hands of all the people power that is being used to fight back against them. But it has to do with power, because it’s like if you have a housekeeper that’s only making minimum wage they’re going to break their backs and work 40 hours a week and be very subservient to the boss because that is survival. I think that that just made me really interested in it, more than interested in it. It made me feel like I needed to be involved in it and [in] Providence there is a really strong union, Unite Here, that works with hotel workers. I worked at a hotel for nine months and that’s where I met Joey. Just meeting so many people that worked in the hotel that were coming from like, Dominican Republic with high degrees in engineering and working as a housekeeper, and seeing the role of race hierarchies and class hierarchies. Like, I worked at the front desk but I never actually got to go to the front desk, I worked in a windowless room in the back called “Delighted to Serve” and that’s where the other brown people worked and all the white workers got to work at the front and actually interact with customers, but I was like ten times smarter than any of those people that were actually interacting with customers. I was ten times nicer than any of those people, that was just so frustrating and so clear what was going on.

TLS: Wow, I had never really thought about hotels as being such a breeding ground for injustice against workers—a place that you think a union would really be so necessary. 

VR: It’s really crazy because in hotels workers enter through a back, very secret entrance, like your goal is to never be seen. It really is like an organism, there are all these different functions that are creating this generative organism.

TLS: When I saw you at Shea Stadium, it was one of the most lively and energetic crowds I think I’ve ever seen. People were jumping on stage and reciting really powerful things in English and in Spanish. Is that a typical show for you? What are most of your shows like? 

VR: Yeah, it’s taken us three years to get to that point. We work really hard to create that space and break down language barriers and barriers between us and the audience. We want no borders at our show, so we create this blend of emotion, language and reality. That was definitely our best New York show ever. That’s exactly what we want, that’s the kind of show that we work for. It’s almost like a baseball game, like we won that game, but it’s definitely not always like that. It’s really dependent on who’s there, before we play I definitely read the news or if I know who’s coming I’m looking at what they’re writing about on their Facebooks. I try to get some idea of how I should be introducing the songs and how I should be creating that moment so no show is ever duplicated. We tried that - our very first tour we went through each song and said two things and I kind of would repeat that, but it doesn’t create the catalyst to make that entropy at the show. I think that the show at Shea Stadium was really special because the girl who organized it, she’s moving back to Virginia, her name is Caroline, she’s a really nice person, I was really happy to be able to play a show in New York organized by this female person in music. She was really chill and had no ego about her and that was really special and the other bands we played with were really awesome and there were a lot of kids that had seen us from Up Yours Fest at SUNY Purchase who were there. That was really great because they already knew why we were there. They had already seen us in a political space, and so it was almost like they were coming to another meeting, which really felt good because you know everyone is coming in with this intention. That’s the hope for culture -is that we can create spaces where we are going to learn more and question more. It’s not like watching a rerun.

TLS: That was such a cool thing to watch come together—that whole show. What are your goals and hopes for the future of Downtown Boys and Malportado Kids and even Spark City and your job—everything?

VR: I think the goal and the hope is to constantly be reimagining what utopia looks like and what liberation looks like and to keep remembering what it does feel like to be free, which I feel when I’m performing. I feel it for maybe a second and it’s the most wonderful feeling and we’re getting there because we’re fighting together. I think that’s the hope with all those things. With Malportado Kids and Downtown Boys, we want to continue to make connections with those people who like us because they feel something when they hear our music or when they see us live. We build a connection with them because we learn, whether it be from their political identities, their gender identities, whatever they’re working on. I think it’s really important to continue to push both of those projects in ways where we’re constantly coming up with ideas and those ideas are weapons that we can use to fight the status quo. I think that the cultural hegemon wants normativity, it wants homogenous culture, and we can’t have that we need to fight that. That’s really all we have, it’s more than a political space, it’s politics. There’s a reason you can walk into a bar and see a soccer game and see bros yelling and drinking beer, and legality doesn’t really care about that, and for some reason we’re not offended by it. But the shows that we play need to happen underground or need to happen in spaces that people don’t necessarily know about because they’re offensive to the status quo or because they offend legality. That’s just so clear to me - this is why what we’re doing isn’t a hobby, it isn’t an interest, it’s a very direct action to the present moment. Ultimately, we’re never going to see liberation for all people, we’ll be long dead, the planets already half way done so who knows what’s going to happen? I was just talking about this with my friend actually the other day. U.S imperialism is less than 500 years old and it’s so scary that it’s already at this point in less than 500 years. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next 500 years, the next 1000 years, that’s a chilling thing to think about. So it’s like, am I not going to do what I can to change this in this little little moment I have, because the future is out there, ya know?

Listen to Downtown Boys on bandcamp.

Claire Macon, from Atlanta, Georgia currently a student at the University of Vermont. Her hobbies and interests include Kathleen Hanna, eating tacos, and petting dogs on the street. She also has a Tumblr thats mostly consists of some of her own photos and pictures of flowers.