“For the last two years, whenever I'd see Downtown Boys, I'd be in the front row crying.”
Mary Regalado is on a conference call with three of her now-bandmates in Downtown Boys, a rising political punk band from Providence. (They headline Break the Chains queer dance party at Make Shift in Boston on Friday, Feb. 5.) The band has been chatting about their album, “Full Communism,” released last spring by Don Giovanni Records, and their recent spurt of popularity. In December, the group was dubbed “America’s Most Exciting Punk Band” by Rolling Stone (“seeing Downtown Boys live electrifies every nerve”) and in January they made a widely viewed appearance on the progressive news outlet Democracy Now!
Regalado became the Downtown Boys’ new bassist this past summer, but before that she was a fan. “It's just a very liberating, spiritual experience,” she says of the Downtown Boys’ live shows. She credits the band’s lead singer, Victoria Ruiz, with a special transformative power. “I feel like when she's onstage she has this energy that is otherworldly and it's transferred to everybody there and I just felt ... the only way to manifest that physically is to dance and cry at the same time,” says Regalado, laughing.
Ruiz has a fierce, breathless stage presence, oscillating between head-banging freak-outs and sermon-like speeches. She doesn’t so much sing as rally, and her between-songs patter, sprinkled as it is with post-colonial critical rhetoric, is as integral to her performance as the songs themselves. Sometimes she starts with a political train of thought -- how income inequality could be eliminated by a 100 percent inheritance tax, for example -- and other times her musings spiral outward into emotional, almost poetic exhortations.
Ruiz’s onstage remarks are passionate, not polished, and they can feel a little bit abstract, peppered as they are with theoretical jargon. But she returns again and again to the same themes: how the insidious drip of institutional prejudice leaks poisonously into daily existence. How capitalism exploits its most vulnerable citizens. How her Mexican-Americanness, her difference, is in-and-of-itself a powerful challenge to the status quo. “Why is it that we never have enough with what’s inside of us?” she demands on the track “Monstro” from “Full Communism.” “Today, today we must scream at the top of our lungs that we are brown. We are smart.”
The seeds of Downtown Boys began in 2010, when Ruiz and guitarist Joey DeFrancesco were both employed at the Renaissance Providence Hotel and became involved in a fight to unionize hotel workers that is still ongoing. (When DeFrancesco finally handed in his resignation in 2011 — with raucous accompaniment by the Providence activist marching band What Cheer? Brigade—the event went internet viral in a now-famous video called “Joey Quits.”) Ruiz and DeFrancesco share songwriting duties and are backed by Regalado on bass, Norlan Olivo on drums, and Adrienne Berry on saxophone. DeFrancesco and Ruiz are currently involved with the internet-activist organization Demand Progress, and Ruiz also works for a local reproductive health organization.
Downtown Boys aren’t communists, per se. (“I don't think it's useful to pick out an easily labeled political philosophy,” says DeFrancesco.) The title “Full Communism” is, in one sense, baldly provocative. But it is also aspirational. Broadly, the political causes to which Downtown Boys are linked — labor organizing, women’s reproductive rights, net neutrality, Black Lives Matter, immigration and prison reform, gay and transgender rights — can be connected to an overarching diagnosis of capitalism as the cause of most social ills. Tellingly, Downtown Boys songs evoke the “full” in “Full Communism” — there is no talk of small steps, just grandiose dreams. As long as you’re singing, why not conjure the best world you can imagine?
But the band is perhaps better understood as an act of resistance in itself. As involved as its members are in social justice causes, they view Downtown Boys as a distinct project, an end and not a means.
“For the last eight years, my primary source of activism has been activism through music,” says Regalado. “And creating spaces for voices like mine and for other marginalized people.”
At a Downtown Boys show, outsiders of all stripes -- the queers, the brown kids, the weirdos -- coalesce into a sweaty, exultant mass. When Ruiz attempts to describe the impact of such an event, she invokes space as something with immense literal and metaphorical power. Physical space transmutes into psychic space, a defiant state of mind. “You need to just constantly knock at these walls that we have up all around us, and one big bang isn't going to knock down the wall. It has to come from a lot of things weakening it, making it soft, making it vulnerable,” says Ruiz. “And as we knock on it, it's actually a door, and people come with us and they join us. And they come to the shows and come to the spaces and walk away. And our hope is always [that] people are walking away with a little bit more than they walk in with.”
“Full Communism” is invigorated by Olivo’s sharp, effusive drumming and the confident honk of Berry’s saxophone. “I think that we all really wanted it to sound as live as possible and to really capture the energy that we bring to our live shows,” says Berry. About half of the lyrics are written in Spanish. “A lot of people speak Spanish in this country,” says Ruiz. “So I think it's just putting it out there as a big, flashing reminder.” The songs on “Full Communism” are brazenly blunt. “Tell me off?/ I’ll cut your d--k off/ Touch my hip?/ I’ll cut your c--k off/ F--- you tall boys,” Ruiz sings in “Tall Boys,” her ire directed with bracing vehemence at a group of dance-floor-monopolizing moshers. Songs do not require compromise or diplomacy. Owning rage is owning power.
But it is hope, not despair, that animates Downtown Boys’ fury. “Full Communism” opens with a track called “Wave of History,” which has Ruiz and DeFrancesco bellowing “We are the surge/ Yeah we are the surge.”
“The hotel fight, for example, has been an eight-year fight, but people keep fighting, and they keep winning victories there,” DeFrancesco says. “You know, the chorus on ‘Wave of History’ is the word ‘necessity’ over and over and over again. It's this idea of needing to take action, and when you need to take those actions, you're going to continue to do them -- and in a lot of cases, win.”