Providence, Rhode Island quartet carves a brighter path on nuanced, cathartic 'Cost of Living'
On Downtown Boys' 2017 full-length, Cost of Living (Sub Pop), the fiery Providence, Rhode Island quartet adopts a more nuanced musical approach, balancing on-the-edge punk screeds with comparatively rhythmic cuts where bassist Mary Regalado's pliant instrument takes the lead. One person who refuses to pull back, however, is singer and songwriter Victoria Ruiz, who still belts each line on the record as if existence itself hinged on her words.
“Growing up as someone who identifies as a Chicana … you never quite know English perfectly. You never quite know Spanish perfectly. You never quite know how to communicate with white people perfectly. You never quite know how to communicate with brown people perfectly,” said Ruiz, who vacillates between English and Spanish on the record, her chosen language dictated by rhyme scheme and/or feel. “So what you do is figure out a way so that when you write or you create art, you are also being written, and you are also being created. When you are putting something out into the world, you're also putting yourself out into the world. I think that the singing style, and even the way I just project my voice, is to get that across.”
Throughout Cost of Living, Ruiz and Co. lash out at the status quo, tearing down barriers (“A Wall”), stressing the need to engage in the fight at a cellular level (“Heroes”) and defining victory, in one form, as continued existence. “We just need to live,” guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco recites in a rare tender moment on the album-closing “Bulletproof.” “Keep breathing and succeeding.”
While songs are tinged with a political and social awareness, they're not locked into a specific place or time. Indeed, while it's easy to tie tracks like “A Wall” to President Donald Trump, who generated significant campaign momentum with a promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, all of the tracks were written prior to the election.
“We really, really take a long time writing, and we are trying to find a timelessness to our mortality,” said Ruiz, who joins her bandmates in concert at Rumba Cafe on Monday, Aug. 28. “I think we're constantly trying to write thinking ahead of ourselves, and in a way that makes it really cathartic and therapeutic. I think then it becomes something where we could have made this song 10 years ago and it would have meant something, and we can sing it 10 years from now and it will still mean something.”
Onstage, though, the band members more directly embrace the present, discussing Trump's planned border wall prior to playing “A Wall” and taking time out to ponder current events. In concert over the past two weeks, the musicians have been compelled to examine actions in Charlottesville, where an August white supremacist rally resulted in the deaths of three individuals, including two police officers who died in a helicopter accident, and protester Heather Heyer, who was killed after a car crashed into demonstrators, injuring 34.
“In many ways, we have to be very literal [talking about current events onstage]. We don't have the privilege to be vague. We don't have the privilege to talk about things in a highly poetic, esoteric way,” Ruiz said. “If you have five people or 100 people in front of you, the more we put these messages into the consciousness, the more it adds up.”
Going into recording sessions for Cost of Living with producer Guy Picciotto, perhaps best known as guitarist for on-hiatus Washington, D.C. DIY stalwarts Fugazi, the Downtown mates were forced to adapt to the brighter spotlight focused on them following the success of Full Communism (Don Giovanni), from 2015, which propelled the group from the underground rock scene and introduced it to a growing audience.
“We didn't think going from a DIY band on Don Giovanni to a band that has a platform that stretches outside of punk was something that was ever going to happen,” Ruiz said. “We constantly saw that [platform] as a tool, and I think all tools are neutral when you get them. It's up to you to determine how they're used and what side of history they stand on.”
Unlike past efforts, which tended to be more one-dimensional, fueled by an unyielding anger, the musicians allowed for greater nuance both musically and thematically this time around, expressing sentiments that stand like hopeful, flickering candles amid the growing dark. “There's always a way out!” Ruiz howls on the snarling “Lips That Bite.” Likewise, on “A Wall,” the singer notes that “a wall is just a wall,” the implication being that these barriers can always be scaled or torn down.
“Some people who only want to see us as this punk band … might see it as less frantic or less intense, when in fact the music and lyrics are much more about being more,” Ruiz said. “It can be really easy to think, ‘There's only a wall at the end of the road.' But ultimately we have to consider real human history, and throughout human history there have always been groups of people that are fighting every system of injustice and that believe in freedom. I think seeing that and knowing that … why would we not continue to have that desirous outlook?”