To Downtown Boys, punk rock and political dissent are inseparable

Downtown Boys are on an extensive tour behind new album “Cost of Living.”
Miguel Rosario
Downtown Boys are on an extensive tour behind their new album, “Cost of Living.”

For five years, the Providence-born punk collective Downtown Boys have been one of America’s most incendiary bands, their no-nonsense political stances and chaotic songs coming together in messages of personal and societal liberation. On their new album, “Cost of Living,” which comes out Friday, the band has spruced up their sound a bit — but their commitment to speaking out against what they see as injustice remains steadfast.

On “Cost of Living,” the band’s first release on Sub Pop Records, Downtown Boys worked with Guy Picciotto, a member of foundational punk bands like Washington, D.C., DIY heroes Fugazi and hardcore pioneers Rites of Spring. “He was really good at knowing what we wanted,” says lead singer Victoria Ruiz. “He wasn’t at all overbearing or trying to insert what he thought was best — he just brought his tools and skills to the table as a way to help us build out our sound. I was listening to the album yesterday to practice the songs, and I realized that there are a lot of layers that I think are really pretty and beautiful.”

The release of the new album launches Downtown Boys on an extensive tour, including a date Saturday at ONCE Ballroom in Somerville.


The record foregrounds Ruiz’s full-throated bellow and her bandmates’ raucous charisma, with slightly plusher textures giving her performances more gravity. It opens with “A Wall,” a ferocious track where Ruiz and vocalist-guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco trade off call-and-response chants while saxophonist Joe DeGeorge lets off skronky blares. While the song was written before the inauguration, “it wasn’t literally written in response to [President] Trump talking about the border wall,” notes DeFrancesco. “But I think it’s OK for people to read it that way.”

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“I’m really glad that song is being read literally,” adds Ruiz. “There’s a line in it — ‘You can’t pull the plug on us, I won’t let that go, I’ll never let that go.’ There are people trying to silence us, and trying to keep us from crystallizing dissent. It also has to do with breaking through the fear of taking a seat at the table next to someone who doesn’t believe you should be there.”

Downtown Boys formed in 2012, and “Cost of Living” comes out in a markedly different political era than their last album, 2015’s “Full Communism.” But the issues of survival and persistence that the band talks about on songs like the muscular “Lips That Bite” and the spiky “Promissory Note” run along a similar continuum. “The issues we’re dealing with are nothing new. We’ve been talking about them and similar issues on our records since 2012,” says DeFrancesco. “That said, the current manifestation [of them] is particularly dire, and intense, and anxiety-inducing.”

The band hunkered down to record “Cost of Living” last winter. “Most of the songs were written before Trump was elected, but we were recording them during the first days of his administration,” recalls DeFrancesco. “The first [iteration] of the Muslim ban came out while we were in the studio. It was a really heavy time — we’re in there making music, and we’re scrolling through our phones watching people going to the airports [to protest].”

Downtown Boys’ seemingly boundless commitment to activism extends to SparkMag, an online culture magazine that’s a project of the progressive organization Demand Progress. On the site, which is edited by DeFrancesco and features Ruiz as a contributor, artists and writers discuss culture from what DeFrancesco calls “a perspective of it all being inherently political.” This spring, after Downtown Boys played the massive Coachella festival in Indio, Calif., the band posted an open letter to SparkMag that took aspects of the enterprise to task — in particular the wages paid to its workers and donations that a charity foundation run by Philip Anschutz, the founder of the Coachella promoter and entertainment-industry behemoth AEG, gave to anti-LGBTQ causes.


That letter’s genesis came out of the band’s desire to show the paradoxes of being punk while working in the 21st-century culture business, says Ruiz. “[Coachella] was obviously an incredible opportunity, [but it was] mixed with the fact that it’s this giant festival, and anything that big in the United States is going to be coming out of capitalism,” she says. “It’s a festival that represents all the crazy contradictions of the music industry.”

The response to the letter was swift, thanks to the fast-moving nature of the music-news sphere — and it showed why the message offered both within the music and in the extra-musical activities of Downtown Boys resonates widely. “We put it up, and within hours, a lot of music platforms had put it up,” recalls Ruiz. “And I think that speaks to how hungry we are for artists and musicians to organize and crystallize our dissent — in many ways that’s way more exciting, or more necessary, than hearing another track.

“It was inspiring to realize, Oh wow, we live in a really scary time, and no matter who we are or where we’re coming from, we have to figure out how to fight back. And what that means is using our agency as leverage.”

Downtown Boys

At ONCE, Somerville, Aug. 12, 8 p.m. Tickets $14, $13 advance, 617-285-0167,

Maura Johnston can be reached at