SOUNDS LIKE: Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westerberg took over as the house band at a blue-collar bar somewhere in the Rust Belt—then robbed the bar, ran from the cops and wrote songs while on the lam.
It's a breezy night in late April, and Divers are about to take the stage at a basement Mexican joint on the campus of Portland State University—or, rather, the floor adjacent to the stage.
With cheap tacos, tiny plastic cups of watery salsa and a sprawling 68-item menu, Loco Locos is not the kind of establishment you'll find popping up alongside a Little Big Burger and the newest Salt & Straw location anytime soon. Nor is it the type of place where you'd typically expect to find Portland's Best New Band playing a show. But "typical" is no longer an option in the city's music scene, not when dedicated music venues closed as often as they did the past year. Divers play like a band on the run, even if all they're running from is the metaphorical chasm that's slowly swallowing the scene whole.
Regardless of the setting, the careening urgency with which Divers tear through their half-hour set of earnest, shout-along punk anthems lights up the small but sincerely amped gathering of scenesters and students. When frontman Harrison Rapp isn't thrashing his Telecaster or unleashing an embattled yawp that's equal parts Springsteen and Westerberg, he shambles stage left to give his Fender amp a good kick or two. The violent equipment-bashing isn't some cheap put-on to look punk as fuck: He found the thing abandoned along Northeast Ainsworth Street a few years back, and its signal has been spotty ever since. When Rapp charges back to the mic to resume his plaintive wailing, you'd think his landlord would evict him if he failed to raise the hair of everyone within earshot. What's really at stake is unclear, but one thing is immediately obvious: Divers are at war with apathy.
"You spend a lot of time doing this shit, and you act like it's no big deal," Rapp says later from a bench on the patio of Radio Room on Northeast Alberta Street. "But of course it's a big deal. You spend all your time doing it. We spend all of our money doing this! We pretty much work just to do this."
"It's stupid to act like you don't give a fuck when clearly you do," adds bassist James Deegan. "What are you even doing there? It's like, 'Oh, I took a day off work to stand here and look disinterested.' That's dumb."
Considering the thrilling, brokenhearted abandon with which they play and the prevailing themes of their debut record, Hello Hello—there's a narrative thread involving bank robbers on the lam across state lines—describing Divers as "heartland punk" feels appropriate. But aside from the members' meager finances, lumping Divers in with the rest of the denim-clad Midwestern kids who worship at the throne of fuck-up forefathers the Replacements would be inaccurate. Both Deegan, 29, and Rapp, 35, work the kind of go-nowhere food-service jobs endemic to Portland's creative class that are close-enough analogs to the blue-collar drudgery the Boss used to romanticize. But Rapp isn't keen on the homogenous "lovable loser" construct tied to that particular sound.
"We love punk rock, but we're definitely not trying to be fuck-ups," Rapp says. "The bands we get compared to the most didn't necessarily have just one sound. What do the Replacements even sound like? What about the Clash? They're all over the place. You can't say they sound like one specific thing after listening to their catalogs."
Further confounding the comparison are the group's origins. With the exception of Deegan, who's from across the river in Vancouver, Harrison and his guitarist brother, Seth, as well as drummer Colby Hulsey, all grew up in the suburbs of Las Vegas. The group was thrown together at the last minute by Rapp and Deegan to fill an opening on the bill of a show in Deegan's basement, a punk house once known as "Fucketts," so named for its proximity to the North Portland pub Ducketts.
Drawn together by their mutual love of the '90s skate-punk compilations that most teenagers received with their first pair of Vans, the foursome spent the next five years playing anywhere that would have them: skateboard shops, pizza parlors, pinball palaces, "a phony-ass vampire bar in Providence." The release party for Hello Hello was held at the High Water Mark, a cavernous metal bar located in a drab section of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—an area that will soon be the hot spot for underground music in Portland by default, as it's one of the last bastions of cheap rent for dudes like Deegan and Rapp.
Having come here more than 15 years ago, Rapp has witnessed the slow wave of gentrification that's forced important punk venues like Slabtown, Laughing Horse Books and Backspace to close. It's fitting that Rapp also runs sound at the Know, whose future will probably be up in the air when its lease ends in less than two years. The venerable Alberta Street dive is home for now, but like the members' actual homes, nothing is guaranteed.
"No one is gonna know how rad that place is until it's gone," Rapp says. "It's our CBGB. I mean, look at the neighborhood. They're out of place."
"But the Oregon Theatre is still on Division!" Deegan interjects. "If they can hold out, the Know can hold out. It's a good home base for us, but every new place we play is our favorite place."
If there's any band that's built to handle the tectonic shifts in Portland's musical landscape, though, it's Divers. You can feel it in the jagged riffs and fist-pumping choruses of Hello Hello, and you'd have to be a corpse not to feel it at whatever strange, off-the-cuff venue you have the chance to see Divers live—though you won't find them playing Loco Locos again, as it closed just a few days after the band metaphorically blew the roof off the place. "At this point," Rapp says, "'weird' is playing some of the clubs with nice sound systems." If keeping momentum in spite of the circumstances seems like a challenge, Divers don't appear ready to give up yet.
"Portland is a really easy place to be a band," Rapp says. "It's not necessarily easy to be a poor person. It seems like a paradox, but there's a lot of support for the band and there's a lot of musicians. I think it'll stay that way for a while, but you know, rent's going up. There are reasons why people who just moved here now are already looking at the door. I've lived here so long that I can make it work. We do get evicted from houses all the time. There's a lot of moving and suitcases, but it's all right. I like it here.
"But," he adds, "we might start blowing up condos soon."
Portland's Best New Band Poll Winners
Finalists: No. 2 | No. 3 | No. 4/5 | No. 4/5 (tied) | No. 6/7
No. 6/7 (tied) | No. 8 | No. 9/10 | No. 9/10 (tied)
SEE IT: Willamette Week's Best New Band Showcase, featuring Divers, The Domestics and MÃ¡scaras, is Friday, May 15, at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave. 9 pm. Free. 21 and up.