"People still talk about our blacked-out [drunk] shows," says Drunken Boat drummer David Wuttke of the band's early days. At the foursome's Northeast Portland home, he explains that fans will say, "That show was awesome!" and he'll reply, "Are you kidding me? I puked on my snare drum."
But now—three years after Wuttke and vocalist-guitarist Harrison Rapp decided to jam on some pop-punk in the raspy, lo-fi style of bands like Jawbreaker—things are different. At a show in February, an apparently sober Rapp lovingly sang as much to his bandmates as to the packed house at Satyricon. And the group's tight set stole the show from headliners Strike Anywhere in a rare outside-of-a-basement appearance.
Guitarist Josh Heffernan says the change came on the band's first tour when he saw people he had never met singing along (the band's label, 1234 Go!, does a good job of getting Drunken Boat's full-length debut to kids everywhere). "We love these songs so much and care about what we're singing about," says 29-year-old bassist-vocalist Samia Hentit.
She and Rapp write lyrics separately, but their songs take on a similarly linear, narrative style that may well have been inspired by late-19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud, from which the band borrowed its name. "Stop Everything," the first track on Drunken Boat's self-titled LP, has to be one of the most lucid songs ever written about horrible work conditions. The short, unrhymed sentences depicting a toxic factory where people make "plastic pieces for pennies" and "all the women are losing their hair" are about as far as you can get from the band's early, wasted shows.
But one can see how the punchy chord progression—which resembles the opening to Dillinger Four's Versus God, one of the best pop-punk albums of the last decade—could inspire a riot. The sonic revelry takes on a different character, however, when one learns that Hentit actually worked in the factory she sings about as part of a work-a-day program. It was a few years ago, and she quickly bailed after earning enough to make rent, but having grown up across the street from the factory where her parents worked in Massachusetts, Hentit was familiar with the scenery.
Of factory life, she says, "I feel like finding punk, finding this community, [gives me] an advantage over that," adding, "I learned a lot of healthier ways of living." And in the Portland punk community, Hentit is far from alone. Zach Danko—who booked this weekend's three-day, 14-band benefit for political prisoners in Oaxaca and Anarchists Against the Wall in Israel—says that Drunken Boat, like all the bands he asked to play at the benefit, "harbors a strong desire to liberate [itself] from this culture of fear and exploitation."
In fact, almost every show Drunken Boat plays locally is a benefit—for everything from women's self-defense centers to animal rights. And the band promises that, at Drunken Boat shows these days, only one or two members are blacked out at a time.