| An interview with Norlan Olivo and Victoria Ruiz of Downtown Boys |
When did Downtown Boys first form? And how did each of you guys get involved?
Norlan: It’s funny, because Victoria wasn’t actually in the original formation of the band. It started about three years ago, almost. Which is crazy, that it’s been—
Victoria: Two and a half years, I think, because my second year will be in August.
N: So it’s been a while, but I feel like for all the stuff we’ve done, it feels like we’ve been at it for longer. And it was basically just me, Dan, and Joey, who are members of What Cheer? Brigade, which is another local band in Providence. So Downtown Boys is Joey’s main idea. And Vicky was our biggest fan. We thought she had so much energy, so she just became our frontwoman. It was interesting how that worked out.
V: And it’s cool to play Foo Fest, because my very first show with Downtown Boys was at AS220 where we were asked to play to play in the photo lottery.
How would you guys describe your involvement as artists and musicians in Providence?
N: Well, I play drums in this band. I live at the Mercantile. But I feel like I’ve been a part of AS220 for five or six years. Living, working, plus I went through the Youth Program.
V: That’s what’s been cool about Downtown Boys, too, is that it’s a mix of people who are involved in lots of different things in Providence. The photo lottery was awesome because Norlan’s involved in the Photo program at AS220, and that’s how we got connected to that. And we’ve played at New Urban Arts, a high school art program, a couple times for teenagers. A bunch of us have mentored there. Dan, our bass player works there. And then we’ll get invited to certain shows because people know folks from What Cheer?. So it’s this really cool thing where we play a diverse amount of shows. We sing in Spanish and we have Latino members in our band. And got invited to play LadyFest, which was a festival of shows that have women in the bands. It’s awesome because we’re a motley crew; when we’re together people are like, “Woah, how did they all meet each other?” But it really works out. Dan and Joe and Norlan knew each other from What Cheer? And Joe, Emmett and Will had played in a Bruce Springsteen cover band in college. I had designed the logo for Downtown Boys.
We want to push back on police brutality and the idea of policing in general, on the idea that people can’t do what’s in their heart.
How did you come up with that logo?
Joe and I did labor organizing together and it was the logo of one of the first unions in Rhode Island that we learned about at the Woonsocket Labor Museum. And after we visited the museum, I made the drawings for Downtown Boys even though I wasn’t in the band. But the logo was just a mindmeld of our interests. It’s felt pretty cool because it’s really inclusive and we can do different ideas that we want or combines our interests. It’s not forced.
N: It’s funny talking about the melding of the interests and about being a motley crew. I think it’s crazy the amount of the Latinos there are in Providence and how not a lot of those Latinos are part of the music or art scene. It is nice to break that ice and barrier to entry. Spread that Latino love, or whatever you want to call it.
Do you guys draw a larger Latino crowd at your shows?
V: We have more people of color in the scene than before…if that makes sense. It’s not like there’s a mass of them.
N: We don’t necessarily draw the entire Latino community to come to our shows. But I think just by having Spanish lyrics and singing in Spanish engages the audience in this way that’s interesting and gets them thinking about these sorts of things. Like, “Why aren’t there more Latinos or people of color here?” I think that in itself draws people. Plus we’ve been asked to do certain shows and certain things based on our lyrics and what we stand for. Our Latino-ness.
What other interests inspire your writing?
V: Yeah, it’s been really interesting to talk about that more. At first we wanted to talk about things that get us angry. We want to push back on police brutality and the idea of policing in general: the idea that people can’t do what’s in their heart, and what they want to do. How policing has really contributed to killing of a lot of punk spaces. We’re constantly trying to push back on that. And there’s also worker rights, that’s something that we’re all really interested in. Writing lyrics about what is really important.
A lot of it comes from slogans! I remember when I said I wanted to be in a band—I didn’t necessarily say Downtown Boys, I just said I wanted to be in a band—Joe told me, “You should just write some lyrics, and then I can help you find people put your stuff to music.” And I remember writing really, really long poems. Joe was like “This is a good idea, but punk lyrics are just two or three words that really stick it to something”. So then we talked about slogans, things that make you just go, “Yeah, there it is.” So that’s been really fun to think about. One of our songs is about getting bed bugs. We got them from this slumlord who sells cheap apartments in a bad area of Providence. And we had heard from other tenants that yeah, a lot of the apartments are bedbug infested. So the lyric is just “Fuck your bugs/You’re fucking through/Fuck your store [because he owns a liquor store]/And fuck you too.”
We are sincere, but now we’re kind of known for being an anti-police band and anti-racism band. And it gets harder to go deeper. One of the most annoying things to me is when people come up to me after a show, drunk, not wearing a shirt, and being like, “Yeah, fuck the cops!” And they just don’t get it. That’s not it! It makes me angry, but in practice, it’s like, well, maybe we do need to go a little deeper, a little further. That also falls on us. So it’s interesting because now that we’ve been around for a while, we have to constantly think about how to make sure that it’s always from the heart, packing a punch where it hurts.
How do you find a slogan that doesn’t generalize but is also concise?
N: Right. There has to be a balance. Like Vicky said, it’s hard to have a driving or responsible message about cops, where people don’t think it’s just “Fuck cops!” We’re sort of in this battle; we’re trying to send that message out in a way with the reasons why, instead of just saying that in general. There’s always a balance when you write lyrics in any band, but more so in a punk band, where that formula is more angry and fighting back. It’s that whole punk aesthetic.
Norlan, you’re in What Cheer?. In addition to that, what other musical projects are you involved in?
N: I’m in a third band that plays once or twice a year called Predator Drone. It’s with people that live in different places. One of the members, Danny Floyd, lives in Chicago. And the other member Krystal lives in New York. And these are both people who used to be really driving forces in AS220’s adult photo program. That’s where we all met. And we played at the photo lottery fundraiser. Vicky’s in a new band!
V: Yeah, Joe and I from the band are in this new band called Malportado Kids, which translates to “Delinquent Kids”. It’s like…a baile funk band. How would you describe it, Norlan?
N: It’s very dance-y. A lot of energy.
V: Yeah, it’s like really angry Spanish M.I.A.
What inspires you to pursue these different projects?
N: I think for me, music and art are really important. But also…I’m Latino, and I used to live in South Providence, and before that, in the Bronx. And I feel like it’s been changing every five years; people listen to more and more music, and people in those communities become more diverse. But I would definitely get laughed at if I walked through South Providence with these shorts. They’re really short shorts! You know, people wear shorts past their knees there! So I feel like I’m in this weird spot where I can relate to people in these poor neighborhoods because I lived there for so long and have friends there. It’s a different way of living and thinking. But then I can relate to so many people in this art community that I live with and make art with, collaborate with. To me, it’s more about reinforcing that diversity. I play in a metal band, I play in a marching band, I play in a punk band, I’m Latino. That might be crazy and different, but maybe it’s not. Maybe this is the beginning of something.
At the end of the day, it’s just fun. I want to start a band in every scene. Just to have a band in every scene and experience it. Doing different music projects is always a challenge. I had never played in a punk band before I joined Downtown Boys. There was a learning curve of learning how to drum in this specific style. That’s been really interesting and challenging.
V: I definitely think we are a band of challenges in every possible way. Putting us together, just having us in the same room, there’s a learning curve because we’re all coming from different backgrounds. But it’s real. It’s real, real life. It’s also a dream for me, it’s everything. I went to college and we talked about Latinos in art, and yeah, that was interesting. But now I get to live it! Now I get to actually be a punk singer in this community. That’s really awesome.
It’s really cool to be this weapon of breaking things down.
How does your background influence who you are as a musician?
V: I grew up in California in a suburb. There were shows sometimes, and I would go to as many as I could find out about. But I didn’t necessarily look like the people there. They were tall, skinny, blond girls, and if they were dudes, they were white skater boys. And I was a pretty portly Latina girl in there. But I loved it! It was awesome and fun and good, and I wasn’t about to be scared of it or walk away from it. So it’s really crazy now to be in this spot where you’re playing the show.
When we play we’re often on these bills with really heavy bands. It’s really funny because when we go up there, all the female-bodied people tend to come to the front. And we try to break down the big metal dudes who are like, “Punk is dumb.” But we’ll wear them down. We often get this comment that’s like ,”I haven’t danced at a show for so long, and you made me dance!” It’s really cool to be this weapon of breaking things down. It’s awesome to be able to grow a space by breaking those things in your mind that keep you from having fun or being open-minded, or from thinking about the things that we’re singing about. It’s really special.
With Malportado Kids it’s really interesting because we were asking, “How do we talk about injustices; how do we talk about how we treat each other in fucked up ways?” There’s one lyric that goes, “Little ass, little hands, give me back my fucking land.” It’s basically about white people giving back the land. And then there’s this song about the color of vaginas. It’s all different, but all important stuff. As long as you think about the stuff that gets you angry, and then the stuff that makes you happy, you can go for it. And I’ve always felt that it’s a pretty natural thing in Latino culture. I think we pack something.
You mentioned “breaking down spaces.” I’ve seen some of your music videos and I saw people getting so into it. I can totally see how that energy would electrify that space, but have you ever played a show where people aren’t really feeling it? And what do you do in that situation?
N: Yeah, all the time. I feel like every band will always experience a time where you play a show and people aren’t into it, or you’re new in town and people don’t know you. It varies from town to town, as does the dance culture. It’s crazy, in some towns people just don’t move as much. Whenever we play New York, people move—but it’s different. We’ve played at a record store with friends in Willimantic Records—Shout out there—
N: And it was an older crowd, a more chill crowd. So they didn’t move as much. But I think a good message or thing to do is not necessarily gauge by how much people move. Because sometimes people don’t move at your shows, but they’ll come up to you after and say, “That was the best thing I’ve ever seen!” It’s cool because it shows you that people express their feelings differently and just because someone doesn’t dance, doesn’t mean that they don’t like you.
Do you guys have a performance mode that you get into before a show?
N: Nah, we’re mostly all pretty crazy. We’re all just like, “Yeah, let’s play this show!”
V: I love that about our band. Because if there’s a band playing before us that we want to dance to, we’ll all be in the front dancing. And then it’ll be our turn to play and then we’ll just turn around, basically. Some bands do need to get in the zone and chill in the corner before they play—which is totally fine—but not us.
So how do you guys interact with your audience?
N: Well, Vicky interacts with them. She yells at them.
V: Basically. Yeah, we’re a pretty forceful band that way. We try to have some type of dialogue with the audience through our energy. We have some songs where people can interact. For example, we have one song called “Tall Boys” that’s basically about people who take up too much space through masculinity. So we try to teach people the chorus, which is, “Fuck you, tall boys”, and we try to get people to sing along. That’s pretty fun. We try to have those back-and-forths. The way Joe and I sing is like a call-and-response. Which is written in the same style as a rally or a protest, where people are shouting chants. We’ve always had that type of energy, because we do want people to participate.
What’s it like being a Providence-based band?
V: It’s really crazy how supportive our friends are. It’s funny being in this band, with Norlan especially, because you’ll have tall dudes come up and be like “Is Norlan here?” Or you’ll have girls from his photo program be like “Yo, where’s Norlan?” And we have someone in our band who’s a grad student and a whale watcher. Actually. It’s hilarious when people from his bio program come up and say, “Yeah, I know Will from UMASS Dartmouth.” We also try to invite our people, our friends, everywhere we go. That always feels good, because it’s like you’re just throwing a party.
N: And that’s the whole thing about being a motley crew of being artists from different cities. It’s really easy to engage a crowd and have dialogue with them to get them amped up and dancing when you know so many people from so many different communities.
People come up to you…from completely different planets, and there’s an exchange. You meet each other on the same planet for a second. That’s a lot of what we try to do.
Enforcing that diversity, right?
V: Yes. We’re super against homophobia, we believe in queer liberation. In a lot of our songs, we try to talk about things like how it’s not okay when people shout super fucked-up, masculine things to you on the street. So it’s also cool to get people who say, “Oh, somebody shouted something to me on the street today, thanks for calling that out.”
It’s also kind of shocking because I work at the Public Defender and I don’t have a super crust-punk aesthetic to me at all. So it’s mad funny when people come up to you, and you two are from completely different planets and there’s an exchange. You meet each other on the same planet for a second. That’s a lot of what we try to do.
N: Yeah. And you know, we’re talking about all these deep issues, but I think on top of all of that we’re just a fun band. We write songs about these things but we also try to make it fun and enjoyable as well.
V: Definitely. I mean, people can’t even really hear what I’m saying. We can’t take it too seriously because you never know what people are hearing or not hearing. There’s this one song where the lyric is just “Que, que, que,” which just means “What, what, what,” and one of our big fans thought that I was singing, “Gay, gay, gay!” And she was really into that. You just never know.
What’s your favorite track off your new album?
N: I’d probably say one of my favorites is “Consider the Rich”. I like the music and the lyrics: “Consider the rich, and what they’re for.” It pretty much embodies a lot of what we do. Fun music that has a message. It’s one of the perfect songs to describe us.
V: My favorite song…hasn’t been recorded yet! It’s called “Future Police”. It really combines a lot of what we’re about. A ‘future police’ could be your boyfriend or girlfriend, or a drone, or a whistleblower–it could be so many things. Things that you know might try to control you, but then you’re like ‘No. I’ll see you later.’
Where do you guys see Downtown Boys going in the future?
N: I think, for me anyways, it’s just cool to give back to the community, or do a project in the community. Tap into it. Whether we get crazy big or not, it’ll always be fun, something we enjoy doing. We have a lot of cool shows coming up. A 7″ coming out. We’re definitely headed towards a lot of cool things.
What should we be looking towards at Foo Fest?
N: Black Pus!
Well, from you guys!
N: Oh, from us! Such pressure. Well I guess, just look to have fun. Because at the end of the day, if that’s what you get from it, that’s awesome. Just dance. You can look for a lot of energy.
Check out their debut album here on BandCamp!