THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Fire to Release You

A conversation with Providence songwriter La Neve

by Ben Bienstock & Chris Packs

Illustration by Sandra Moore

published November 1, 2019


On “A Pretty Red,” the opening track of her debut LP The Vital Cord, released October 14, La Neve sings over a pulsing electronic groove: “Nothing you see is complete/I’m a fire, to release you/I’m a fire in a pretty red/A fire, to complete you.” These themes of destruction, incompleteness, becoming, and re-becoming capture both the intimacy and political tenacity of The Vital Cord, an introspective album that makes you want to dance the revolution into being. La Neve, who is also a member of the Providence punk band Downtown Boys and a local organizer and historian, channels the urgency and directness of both punk and disco on The Vital Cord. It’s radical, fun, and one of the best albums of the year. 

The day after her LP release concert/Halloween dance party at Pawtucket’s Machines with Magnets, La Neve sat down with the College Hill Independent at White Electric Coffee on the edge of Federal Hill to talk about her new record, the evolution of Providence’s music scenes, the No Music for ICE campaign, and much more. 

 

Ben Bienstock: We had a great time at your LP release party last night. It was cool to see how you brought everything together on stage with pre-recorded and live elements. What was the process of making the album and then translating that to a live performance?

La Neve: When I’m recording, I’m the one playing all the instruments, which I mix with some digital stuff. Live, I’ve always wanted to perform with a full band, but it’s very expensive. For me, the most fun element is to have a live drummer. It’s just more fun for me and, I think, more fun for the audience and makes it more dancy and crazy. Last night I played with Karna [Ray], who plays in a band called The Kominas that the Downtown Boys have played with for a while. So, I do all this stuff when I’m recording myself, but then live, the goal is to keep adding more elements, and maybe if it starts making more money I would keep adding. Because it’s more fun for everyone if you have a live band.

Chris Packs: Last night your concert was at Machines with Magnets, and we were wondering how, since the eviction of so many Providence DIY spaces—Spark City, Fort Thunder, and, most recently, Aurora—your work creating queer-centered spaces in Providence music has changed.

LN: This city has definitely had it a lot harder, and I think as a lot of those centralized zones have shut down, it’s not only had the effect of having fewer spaces, but also the scenes have become more fragmented. This might be happening everywhere because the internet encourages a kind of nicheness in everything and creates specific enclaves, but it’s definitely harder to book and curate spaces and develop a specific personality to them.  

We tried to do some exciting things with this project, with the overlaps that it has with the queer performance world and the punk and dance worlds. I’ve been running a night at Dark Lady downtown called “Highlighter.” Dark Lady always has great stuff, but it’s more conventional drag. So to take that space over and make it more punk, or to take over punk spaces and make them more queer—I don’t know. It’s hard here. And it’s been sad to watch because we were doing Spark City and then Aurora was definitely the center for a while, that was a legit space that was the center. AS220 does great stuff, but it’s hard to book there. So, yeah, Machines is one of the only spots. 

CP: What do you see as the root of that fragmentation? How do you feel like that has influenced the city’s music scenes?

LN: I think there’s a lot of really good developments in Providence’s music scene. Even though it’s more fragmented, even though all these spaces have shut down, it’s gotten way more diverse in terms of performers and in terms of more people from the city curating spaces and performing. When you think about the supposedly ‘legendary’ period of Providence music, like Fort Thunder and Lightning Bolt—all those bands are great, I’m not hating them at all—it’s very, very white, and it’s very, very male. Of course, there were always women and people of color involved, but what’s made into legend and memorialized is a very specific segment of that scene. 

A lot of work and force, including stuff I’ve been doing in Downtown Boys, but also the work a lot of people are doing, have made incisions into that and have made space for a lot of other things. So it almost feels like it’s in this period where people had to fight to build out these other scenes, and it’s obviously a lot harder to build those scenes, there’s not the same institutional support, there’s not as many resources, so people are fighting to get their thing out there and do their thing. 

BB: Through all those changes and fragmentations, and then also the changes in the music that you’re making, have you found that your relationship with the city is evolving in any particular ways?

LN: Definitely. Doing La Neve is hard to do in conventional drag spaces like the Dark Lady. I can’t get booked on that stuff because it’s ‘too weird,’ but then it’s often a little bit ‘too weird’ for punk shows and more conventional dance parties. So it’s hard to find where La Neve fits into all that, and I keep trying to fit it into different spaces, to some success, but it feels very much like when we were starting with Downtown Boys. You have to carve out this space, and if it doesn’t exist yet, or it exists but isn’t big enough for you to fit in yet—which is, I think, true of any queer musicians—it’s an uphill battle.

BB: Have you found that it’s an uphill battle with audiences too, or are they more receptive than the spaces have been?

LN: Every show we’ve done on this tour has been great. You saw last night, everyone was dancing. In New York and Philly and DC, everyone’s dancing. But they’re not huge audiences, and it’s hard to find your community within this when you’re doing something that’s maybe not as recognizable to people. But that’s the work. Anytime you’re doing anything probably really worthwhile, you gotta find and push and fight for that space. I’m really appreciative of anyone paying attention to any of this shit. 

 

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CP: When your first project as La Neve came out in 2017, a lot of its coverage in the press framed it in the context of post-inauguration anxiety and rage. How has the changing landscape of political resistance influenced the music you’ve made since then?

LN: [The first EP] came out in early 2017, which is also when Cost of Living, the last Downtown Boys record, came out. Doing press on both of those things, in every interview you do, people are like, “So, you wrote this about Trump, right?” And it’s funny because Cost of Living and the La Neve tape came out in 2017, but that means it was entirely written before the election, more or less. Which is what we kept repeating in interviews: This fits what just happened, but it’s about the larger systemic things in America that have been going on for a long time. There’s this song “A Wall,” for instance. People are like, you wrote it about Trump, it’s a border wall. Well, that’s fine if you want to interpret it that way, but we didn’t write it in that context—it fits the larger discourse and reality in the country.  

This new record is coming out of both the larger systems and reality of this country since its founding and the Trump-reality of the last two years. Even the title, The Vital Cord, is taken from a history book and speaks to deep economic connections going from colonization through industrialization and into today. The vital cord of capital connects all of these things. Most of the songs speak to that either on a larger systemic level or a more personal level. “Stability,” for instance, speaks to the experience of those systems on a more personal level, feeling disrupted because capital is constantly making your life very precarious. 

BB: One of the things I love about both La Neve and Downtown Boys is how directly the politics are communicated. I’m thinking particularly of “Maximum Wage” and “100% Inheritance Tax” in the way the title functions as a sort of policy manifesto and political imagining.

LN: “Maximum Wage” is a perfect example of the more systemic song. I wrote all of “Maximum Wage” and the title for “100% Inheritance Tax,” and Victoria [Ruiz] wrote some of the other lyrics to it. I like that they’re both, like, policy songs, kind of nerdy but also kind of fun. “Maximum Wage” I put out as a single earlier this year because it seemed important to get out quickly because billionaires and wealth inequality were being talked about in a more serious way than I have ever seen in my lifetime. It’s also a running theme through the record in a lot of the imagery. The guillotines in the video and on the shirt, for example. I use a lot of guillotine imagery, talk a lot about eviscerating the one-percent, the billionaire class, both literally and metaphorically.

 

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CP: You mentioned last night the new No Music for ICE campaign. How did that campaign come about and how did you reach out to other musicians?

LN: Like every industry, the music industry atomizes and individualizes its workers, and so what’s presented to you as a musician is that your political possibilities are either ‘do the thing or don’t do the thing.’ When Downtown Boys got some backlash for playing bigger festivals, it was very much framed in that way. It's like ‘buy the thing or don’t buy the thing’—a very individualistic, consumer-centric, and, I think, neoliberal way of approaching politics. So when the news of the Amazon festival came out last week, some people were focused on yelling at the bands playing it, but some of us decided to take another route and actually begin to organize.  

We’ve done a couple campaigns like this in the past, like with South by Southwest (SXSW). They had a clause that said they would collaborate with ICE to deport foreign artists if they broke the rules, and all these artists banded together, mounted pressure, and won—because it was organized. If just one or two bands decided not to play, it wouldn’t have done anything. We had a similar victory last week, actually, with facial recognition at festivals. No Music for ICE is obviously a bigger battle because it’s not just the music industry here: it’s the biggest companies in the world, the richest people in the world. And it’s only doable in coalition with other groups. There’s an organization called Mijente that’s been doing the NoTechForICE campaign that we're trying to act in solidarity with. But this seemed like a space where we as cultural workers could join in that effort and organize to have an impact rather than just make the consumer choice whether or not to associate with Amazon. 

CP: It reminds me in certain ways of the Super Bowl last year, when a bunch of big artists dropped out or refused to play the halftime show because of the NFL's reactionary crackdown on player activism.             

LN: Those big artists dropping out was good, but I feel like making change on a deeper level requires actual organizing. And you see where the fault lines in the music industry are. We have some big names signing the letter, but it’s mostly middle and smaller bands...big artists are probably not going to sign because they’ll have to go through their manager, go through their label, which obviously doesn’t want them to do this because there are consequences. There’s an excitement and even a social capital to being involved in these things to a certain extent, but then there's real power in the music industry that's going to push back in a more severe way and that’s going to be some of the next steps in the organizing. It’s exciting to see how the larger understanding of the need for institutional changes and not just individual consumer decisions is transferring to some thinking with cultural workers. I feel like this campaign would have been very difficult to do even just two or three years ago because people have such an individualistic understanding of things. I remember doing the SXSW letter—which of course was successful and a lot of people signed on to that—but so many people on the internet were like ‘why are you organizing this letter, just don’t fucking play SXSW’ and that accomplishes exactly nothing. 

  

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BB: How do your roles as an organizer, musician, and historian fit together? Particularly considering that we are in Providence, a historical nexus of American capitalism, in the slave trade and Slater Mill, for example.

LN: It connects in a lot of ways. Thematically on the record, I’m talking about historically rooted things, about organizing. So there’s that role in terms of the content of the music, then there’s more literal ways they intersect. For example, Downtown Boys, when we have shows we’ll have organizers on stage or we’ll be fundraising. Having solidarity and building community is really important. We’ve had shows at Slater Mill where we’ve done history tours and had people perform in the factory. We’ve had noise musicians come and sample machinery and do ambient interpretations of being in the factory. That’s where it intersects in literal ways, but it is all kind of the same broader liberatory thing I’m trying to fit all this work into that’s hard to define, but I feel like it's somehow coherent ideologically even if it’s not very literally and visibly happening at the same time. 

CP: In terms of your side-projects within that larger liberatory one, is there anything else you’re working on right now besides No Music for ICE as a historian, organizer and/or musician?

LN: There’s always so many fucking things going on. I feel like everyone in their 20s or 30s has like eight different jobs. I’ve also been working on a campaign to get the United States to stop funding the war in Yemen, because I work with Demand Progress, whose executive director David Segal is based out of Providence. Senator Reed is very important to this whole thing because he’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, so he has a lot of power to negotiate the National Defense Authorization Act, which would allow us to cut funding to the Saudi war on Yemen. So I’ve been working with some Yemeni-American folks to pressure him on that. 

BB: Are there any up-and-coming or new artists in Providence that you’re excited about?

LN: My friend Aura Moreno, who used to go by Creamer, is an emcee and producer in Providence who’s doing really great work. Kurt Fowl, who played last night, has been around for a while, but I feel like doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Wolf’s Milk is another one to shout out. I’ll just say those for now, but we need more bands in Providence, so people should start bands. 

 

BEN BIENSTOCK B’20 and CHRIS PACKS B’20 need that sound.