Updated: Friday, September 1, 2017, 1:50 PM
Before she joined the Downtown Boys, Victoria Ruiz had never been in a band.
“This is my first,” she says.
Ruiz is the ferocious front woman af the politically charged Providence, R.I., rock-and-roll collective who just released the galvanic album Cost of Living. They’re set to take the Budweiser Made in America festival by storm on Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve been an activist and still am,” says the 30-year-old Ruiz, whose “other job” is as a field organizer with the left-leaning advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy. “I saw this as another way to get my message across. People would say to me, ‘I don’t see that many women in bands saying the things you’re saying,’ or, ‘I don’t see that many Latino or Chicano people playing in bands.’ ”
Ruiz talked on the phone this week from her hometown, San Jose, Calif. She was visiting her grandmother while the Downtown Boys were on a break; their saxophone player, Joe DeGeorge, was touring Europe with his Hogwarts-themed, “wizard” rock band Harry and the Potters.
The Downtown Boys’ blistering live shows come alive with Ruiz’s snarling vocals and charismatic presence and a driving punk-inspired sound that gleefully implements saxes as party-starting instruments.
That makes musical sense since the group members — who have called themselves “a bilingual political sax-punk party” — grew out of the Providence brass band What Cheer? Brigade, in which Downtown Boys guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco played tuba. He and Ruiz met while both were working at Providence’s Renaissance Hotel, scene of the take-this-job-and-shove-it viral “Joey Quits” video from 2011 in which DeFrancesco quit his housekeeping job and marched out of the workplace with the 18-member band behind him.
Ruiz joined the Downtown Boys, who are named after a lyric in Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” at DeFrancesco’s invitation.
“I really felt a natural place in the band,” Ruiz says. “I like the idea of using a show space because so many people go to shows to kind of wash off the rest of the day, whether it’s your job or you’re in school, or you’re just dealing with the reality of the status quo and all these power dynamics.
I think it’s just really important to have a space that lets us wash off the difficulties of racism and capitalism. But also to use the space to affirm that it’s OK that you’re going through this outside the show space and we can all be in this together. I really like the collective power of the show. That’s why I really wanted to do it.”
In 2012, Downtown Boys released their first, self-titled album and followed it up in 2015 with the attention-getting Full Communism, which makes its uncompromised working-class politics clear on “100% Inheritance Tax” and “Monstro,” on which Ruiz, a graduate of Columbia University, proudly bellows, “She’s brown! She’s smart.” That record, and the live shows that accompanied it, led Rolling Stone to call Downtown Boys “America’s most exciting punk band.”
On Cost of Living, the band sharpens its activist attack with a collection of songs that — with the exception of the raucous “Lips That Bite” which vows, “I won’t stay down!” — were all written before last year’s presidential election. The album was recorded beginning in January with Guy Picciotto of post-punk standard bearers Fugazi a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“We really looked up to him,” Ruiz says of the producer. “It was a natural fit.” Cost of Living, she says, “is about power and what the payment is for your freedom. How much is the cost of feeling alienated, of feeling repressed, of feeling lost?”
Ruiz cites Washington standouts Fugazi as an influence, as well as Pittsburgh punk protesters Anti-Flag and Latina feminist Alice Bag. The singer, who has a knack for inspiring, combative spoken-song intros, also waxes enthusiastic about Springsteen, whom she loves “for his lyrics and just how he gets at the rawness of having these endless hopes and desires while just being bombarded by the imperfections of ourselves. … And also how hard he works and how he speaks to 17,000 mostly white people at his shows and he’s still talking about power and fighting and winning.”
The singer, who was raised by her accountant mother and farm worker and labor activist grandmother, says Downtown Boys “have never had ambitions about stardom or mainstream success. But we’ve always had ambitions about reach. We want to have a voluminous presence. We want to fill up a room, whether there’s five people there or 500.
“That’s something my family taught me about authenticity and genuineness. Being authentic can take you very far. You see that in Springsteen, you see that in Rage Against the Machine. Fugazi are such an authentic band, and they have so much reach.”
Cost of Living is out on the storied SubPop label — where grunge-era bands like Nirvana got their start. “People are always putting us in a public court about how ‘punk’ we are,” Ruiz says with frustration. As the band gets more attention, they’ve been learning to deal with inevitable internet haters. “One person said, ‘Oh she sounds like a crazy homeless person,’ ” she says with a laugh. “I don’t see how that’s a diss, but OK.”
But the band made a conscious decision to move up from the small Don Giovanni label to SubPop. “That was going to let us be a smaller fish in a bigger ocean, rather than a growing fish in this fishbowl of punk. If we can get in a bigger sea, we’ll actually be able to swim more.”
For Ruiz, being in a band is process of discovery. “I want to do things that I’m not even sure have been been done yet,” she says. “That’s what this band is all about. But if we can walk through that door together, we’re going to get somewhere really great.”
Read full story: Downtown Boys are ready to take Made In America by storm