Dialogue: Matt Reber & Joey La Neve DeFrancesco

Matt Reber

Mar 05, 2020

Color head and shoulders image of Joey DeFrancesco, frontwoman for the band La Neve

La Neve, the creation of dynamic Providence-based performer Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, is the next act lined up for our series of concerts in conjunction with the exhibition Sadie Benning: Pain Thing. Before La Neve's March 12 performance in the galleries, Wex Store Manager and New Bomb Turks member Matt Reber shares a virtual conversation he had over the course of several messages with DeFrancesco on subjects ranging from musical styles and activism to the artist's other band, Downtown Boys.

MR: As this is going to be a blog post, I should probably let readers know how we briefly met in real life at a weird Robin Hood/Crusades-themed water park/campground/resort in Benidorm, Spain at the Fuzzville festival where my band (New Bomb Turks) and your band (Downtown Boys) performed.

I had gone back to my cabin to rest, feeling ill/jetlagged (hungover). Our set time was I think midnight. Anyway, I got a text from NBT guitarist Jim Weber at the beginning of your set and that I needed to come down right away and check out Downtown Boys. He sensed it was something I’d dig. What do you remember about that weekend? We all or some shared a cab to the airport I believe?

JLND: Yes, Fuzzville was a wonderful weird time. Spain is one of our favorite places to play, and we were really excited to get there and get to Magic Robin Hood, which as you said is a medieval-themed resort near Ibiza. It’s a bizarre combination of regular resort stuff—swimming pools, nice hotel rooms—with medieval stuff. All the staff had to dress up, the food halls were made to look like castles, etc. And then the organizers somehow get hundreds of punks to travel out here to attend this rock 'n’ roll festival. It seems unimaginable in the USA.

You all were also amazing that night! It was my first time seeing NBT. Some of my band hung out with you all and shared a cab the next day, but Victoria [Ruiz] and I had to leave the morning after we all played. So I mostly remember performing then partying all night then getting on a shuttle to the airport at 6 AM on zero sleep and having a miserable, dehydrated flight home. But it was definitely worth it! A very memorable 30 hours or so in Spain.

I do remember leaving for the airport at 6 AM with you and Victoria. It was crazy watching the venue empty out just as we were getting into the shuttle. I think Arish (King Khan) and his wife were with us as well.

Oh right sorry! I was clearly in a haze but I remember that van ride now. I was jealous of the members of both of our bands that got to hang out and eat by the beach for an extra day.

Eric and Sam (New Bomb Turks' vocalist and drummer, respectively) stayed back and hung out by the pool for the afternoon soiree or whatever. Weak!

Needless to say you were amazing and I (then 48 and a little outside the punk scene for a few years) was struck by several things, Victoria Ruiz’s Spanish/English vocals/lyrics, the covers (Springsteen’s "Dancing in the Dark" and Selena’s "Fotos Y Recuerdos." which I thought at the time was a Pretenders cover until Victoria set me straight), A Wall, and lastly the political manifestos delivered between songs, especially the intro to 100% Inheritance Tax. What’s it like being in a band with a record called Full Communism?

From the beginning, the intention was to make the band both fun and engaging and also explicitly a political tool. Victoria and I first met because we worked at the same hotel and were getting involved in organizing a union there, and we started the band during that labor fight, so lots of our earliest songs were written in that context. Then it kept going from there. Like most punk bands, at first we just wanted to make some angry music to play for our friends, but then we kept working and got lucky and some other people started to care. Having a larger platform now, we try to use every opportunity we have to keep spreading the message. La Neve is coming from a different place aesthetically, but has similar social concerns.

From your perspective, how does dance music compare to punk as a vehicle for a political message? How much crossover is there between Downtown Boys fans and LaNeve fans? Do you think what LaNeve does aesthetically gets you into different spaces where rock/punk doesn’t play? Is it too early to tell? 

There’s a lot of crossover because I still exist in similar music communities that I’ve been part of for the last almost-decade. But La Neve can play more drag shows, queer dance parties, and that sort of world that Downtown Boys would touch upon but never be featured in. La Neve can be a weird space: sometimes it feels too punk for the dance or drag worlds, but too dance and weird for punk shows. In the best case, it can fit in both, but sometimes it feels like it doesn’t belong anywhere. Sometimes with new projects you simply have to create an audience if it doesn’t already exist.

What’s the process for La Neve, is it just you in a studio at home? Anybody else play with you?

When I was younger I used to do more conventional drag performance—lip synching and such—but then put it down for a while when Downtown Boys and other projects started. I wanted to get back into it, but wanted to pair it with my own music and politics, and so the project started around 2017. It’s always developing, and I put the first LP The Vital Cord in late 2019. When I write and produce, it’s largely just me at home, but for the live performance I have been playing with a drummer, Karna Ray from the great band The Kominas. Having the live instrumentation really makes it a lot more fun to perform, and I imagine to watch. 

Are you in drag in Downtown Boys or as LaNeve? Both? Neither?

I used to resist the label drag because it is sometimes so heavily associated with cis men doing a very particular kind of feminine performance. But lots of queens have been fighting for many years to push the definition to also include genderqueer people, trans people, and people of all genders and sexual identities. So while some people might misinterpret “drag,” I think it’s also important to claim it.

In Downtown Boys I do dress up a bit, but it’s not drag. I’m pretty clearly in boy mode still. La Neve is challenging to tour with because it’s hours of makeup, clothes, and body prep for each show, which is hard when you’re driving all day and the clubs and bars often don’t have green rooms or even private bathrooms to get ready in. Downtown Boys is a lot quicker to get ready for. It’s an obvious observation, but what I’m saying is that cis men have it a whole lot easier getting ready to perform. 

I love The Vital Cord. We’ve been playing it in the Store since it came out. My '80s/90s Gen X-er brain is hearing New order, The Cure, and Deee-lite, but also a little Robyn. I realize these are pretty basic references on my part, so what do you feel influences the type of dance music you make/want to make? 

Thank you for playing it! I definitely love all those bands, and especially listen to New Order and Deee-lite way too much. Lady Miss Kier is a particularly big inspiration musically, visually, and politically. I love early '90s house in general. But I’m also heavily inspired by a lot of current electronic artists, producers, and DJs who are pushing the boundaries musically and politically. People like Abdu Ali, Moor Mother, DJ Haram—I know I don’t sound like them, but the energy, adventurousness, and social consciousness they’re bringing is definitely what I strive toward. 

How do you write? On guitar? Laptop?

I generally start with some sort of lyrical or melodic idea, put that down into Logic on guitar or keyboard or bass or voice, then work off of it to add beats and develop the structure. It’s a lot of just putting down layers and layers of paint then chipping away to get a song. I write most of the Downtown Boys' music too, and I composed most of our last record the same way. 

Let’s talk about guillotines?! In the "Stability" video and on your T-shirt. Also read somewhere (i-D) you have earrings? Love it. It’s still a relevant symbol, no? Especially in light of the Bloomberg candidacy and the media establishment types convinced that the Democratic Socialists of America are going to start rounding up folks and shooting them.

Yes, lots of guillotines! I find it useful to be highly explicit at times, as with the guillotine or calling a record Full Communism. It makes it harder to be misunderstood or straight up co-opted. At the live show, when I play Maximum Wage I generally start by condemning Bezos or Bloomberg and billionaires in general. No one should command that much power and resources. As many are saying, billionaires should simply not exist. We’re talking about getting rid of them with policy guillotines now, of course. 

Wex curator Michael Goodson was looking for some kind of connection with Sadie Benning being in Le Tigre and getting some aesthetically similar(ish) musical artists to perform in the galleries. 

For me, after going through the LaToya Ruby Frazier exhibition and recently hearing her in conversation with Julia Reichert (American Factory), I’m seeing other parallels, specifically with your work as a labor activist and historian. Can you talk a little bit about your labor activism and what a tour of the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island led by you would be like?
Yeah, absolutely, I’m very honored to be part of the exhibition. Growing up, Le Tigre was a big favorite, and obviously the mix of dance music, punk, and politics is also what drives La Neve. There were a few months early on when Downtown Boys would play Deceptacon.
As I mentioned earlier, I worked at a hotel where I became a union organizer and did that work for many years.I’ve continued on as an organizer in other capacities, and I think I bring that same focus to whatever I’m involved in. So, right now for example, I’ve been heavily involved in the #NoMusicForICE campaign, which involves organizing other musicians to refuse to work with Amazon until the company cuts their support for ICE. I encourage any musicians reading to go to and join us. And then yeah, my day job for a while has been working at history museums. I started as a regular tour guide, but then began moving into program creation upon seeing how terribly done most of our public history is. So, Slater Mill was the first factory in the US and is now a historic site, and after working there for a couple years I developed a labor history program, and continue running that today along with a host of programs at other museums in Rhode Island. No matter what your job is, you can get organized, you can politicize the work you’re doing.

Seconding musicians joining No Music for ICE. Do you have a sense that things might be changing in the US? I’m not just talking about record numbers in DSA membership and the rise of Democratic Socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, but a new interest of young people in unionizing. In the Reichert/Frazier conversation I referenced above, they talked about this desire of younger folks to unionize but also the need for this new generation to get educated about it and learn from current labor leaders. Any resources you can suggest?

Yes, people in my generation and younger are certainly getting politically involved at a level and a capacity I’ve never seen before. I feel my generation was first brought into politics via the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we all have friends who went over there and didn’t come back, or didn’t come back the same. We saw how we protested those wars with the biggest protests in human history and they still happened. We saw the financial collapse in 2008 and how it destroyed so much of the economic future we were promised. We’ve got a lot of reasons to be disillusioned, and we’re coming together in a big way to make the necessary systemic changes. Young people are figuring out how to unionize, how to run political campaigns, how to work collectively, and it’s really powerful. I don’t think there’s a one-stop resource for how to start a union, but start by talking to your coworkers, by getting people angry and ready to take action. It’s all about coming together. There's a lot to learn from current labor leaders, but there are always a lot of bigger unions that need to be shaken up and democratized. Call a local union office and get information and perhaps a staff organizer to help you. Go to DSA meetings and get hooked up with local organizers. Volunteer with the Bernie campaign and meet organizers there. Just start doing it and you’ll find the path.