By NEIL FERGUSON // "I know that when we were playing live in Portland quite a bit, we always tried our best and we always brought a certain level of honesty that was completely 100% the best we could do.) -- Pete Krebs
Pete Krebs has a lot on his plate. On October 2nd he will take part in a reunion of his seminal grunge-pop band Hazel with two back-to-back shows at Mississippi Studios, one all ages early show and one late. These shows will coincide with the September 30th release of Live in Portland via Cavity Search Records and Voodoo Doughnut Recordings, a full-length vinyl LP, CD, and digital album, as captured on 8-track analog during the band’s golden-era prime in 1993. Oh yeah, and there will be a special Hazel tribute doughnut courtesy of Voodoo. Right after that Krebs will be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame once again, this time as a solo artist, and will play the induction ceremony on October 8th at the Aladdin Theater alongside Duffy Bishop, Fernando with Paul Brainard, and 3 Leg Torso.
Before the dust clears, Krebs will have also seen the October 7th release of Hey Pete Krebs! on Cavity Search Records. The album is a collection of Kreb’s songs taken from each of his first six solo records. These records originally released between 1995 and 2002 consist of greats like Western Electric, Sweet Ona Rose, and Pete’s debut record Brigadier. In between all of this you can find him playing regular gigs around Portland as Pete Krebs and the Portland Playboys, his traditional country project that keeps a faithful focus on Ernest Tubb.
All of this for a musician and songwriter who rarely tours outside of Oregon, or really Portland for that matter. Not too shabby. Recently Pete Krebs took a break from his busy schedule to chat about Hazel, the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, his love of country music, upcoming projects, and the growth of Portland.
What was you reaction to being named to the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for the second time, and do you have anything special planned for the induction in October?
Well, I was really flattered to be inducted this year. I'm stoked to be considered alongside guys like Brian Berg and Paul Brainard and Fernando, and certainly Sleater-Kinney. I was definitely surprised when I first heard about it, but yeah, totally stoked.
Do you have anything special planned for the induction?
Fernando and Paul Brainard are going to play one of Brian Berg's songs because he passed away last year, so we're going to do one of his tunes kind of as a tribute to him. Aside from that, I'm going to try and find a suit that fits. I might wear a wet suit or a swimsuit.
You have an upcoming Hazel release and reunion. Can you talk a little bit about what Portland’s scene was like back in the 90’s?
Portland was a pretty small town back then in a lot of ways. It was very blue collar. It was a much different place back then and it was a much smaller music scene; I'm referring to the alternative/punk rock scene. The bands at that time primarily were just playing for themselves, their friends, for the love of the music, so the vibe was really different. It was an exciting time to be here in Portland in the late 80's early 90's when you're in your twenties.
Did you ever at the time have the sense that you were getting overshadowed by everything happening in Seattle, or did you even care?
I don't think we really cared all that much. It was kind of like this: you had San Francisco and you had Seattle, and bands when they were on tour invariably stopped in Portland just to fill up the night in between to break up the drive. As a result, we always had a really great music scene in terms of the touring bands that were coming through and stuff. But Portland in and of itself, at least in the 80's and early 90's, was a musical backwater. We were just given the room to develop culturally and artistically without a lot of outside influence. So back then, I don't think the primary feeling was, oh yeah, you play in a band, go on tour, and get signed. That was just so far out of the realm of reality [laughs]. People would just play in rock and roll bands because that's what you did because you loved it.
So I think some of the larger cities like Seattle, maybe they didn't necessarily have that same attitude when they were putting bands together and playing gigs. There were plenty of musicians in San Francisco and Seattle that were just doing it for the love of music, but I think it just took Portland a bit longer to get to the point where being in a band was something other than something you did because it was fun and because it was a product of the community that you were from.
When you go back and listen to those live Hazel recordings from '93, do you think they hold up? What's your reaction to hearing them?
Well, I have to kind of adjust the way that I'm listening to them because since those were recorded I've gotten 23 years of playing music and making records in a variety of genres. So when I hear them I can be really hypercritical about whether I'm singing in key or whether the guitar is out of tune. But once I get rid of all the self-critical stuff and think of it in terms of time and place, the energy behind it, I think they totally stand up because I know that when we were playing live in Portland quite a bit, we always tried our best and we always brought a certain level of honesty that was completely 100% the best we could do. For better or worse, it's more of a document then anything else. If the energy of the band and the honesty that we were putting out there comes through, then yeah I think it absolutely [holds up].
Since you've been through so much and, like you said, you've been involved in so many different kinds of music, would you say your approach to songwriting has changed?
Oh absolutely it's changed. In my life I didn't just play in Hazel and then stop and move on to another career. I basically transitioned into becoming a professional musician, and the route that I took wasn't necessarily all about creating music, it was about learning different styles and genres. All of that kind of comes full circle, so when I write music I'm able to draw on a far broader set of influences confidently then when I was writing songs for Hazel. I don't think at that time - in 1993 or whatever - I would be able to write a song in a jazz context, or like an older, more roots context, or in a way that has different voicings on the chords, different rhythmic feels or whatever. That's just because I hadn't really messed around with those things enough to feel confident to put them in the palette that I was drawing from as a songwriter. When I was writing those Hazel tunes I was listening to a lot of different styles of music, but really my creative touchstones were bands like the Clash, Ramones, the Minutemen, the Replacements, Husker Du and bands like that. So that's what I felt comfortable trying to emulate and be inspired by.
That's interesting because somehow after all of those things you were into at the time, now here you are playing Ernest Tubb and other country songs. Was there a point when something clicked and you fell in love with country music and you wanted to play it?
All along, even when I was a little kid in the 70's, I was buying records that covered a pretty broad spectrum. You know, I would do chores for my allowance and I would go to Recycled Records in Monterrey, CA and I would buy albums. Typically, if I had enough money to buy four records, it would be, say, a Stiff Little Fingers record, a Mississippi John Hurt record, a Bob Wells record, and [some other] record. Specifically with regards to country music, I had been exposed to it for a long time ever since I was a kid, but I didn't feel able to properly perform it or write in that style. It took me a really long time to just get comfortable with it. I didn't really feel like doing a disservice to the legacy of that music by trying to half-ass it, and when I found myself not really doing it justice, I had to be honest with myself and call myself on my bullshit. So I just got back to listening, and eventually I kind of got the transmission and it made sense, and I felt that I was able to both create and cover songs in that genre confidently, and feeling like I was not putting on airs.
I don't really have like an ah-ha moment, I think it was just sort of like one day I felt confident playing country music and was bringing 100% to the music in a way that was respectful of the legacy of that music. That's always been kind of my spark, whether it's with jazz, folk music or whatever - I can tell when I'm bullshitting and I don't like that. I don't want to just show up and not know what I'm talking about and what I'm doing. All of these different genres are so meaningful to people - the people who made them, the history - I take that very seriously and I don't want to create this pastiche. That's why I haven't made my long-awaited dub record yet [laughs].
Well, especially if you're playing Ernest Tubb - you can't mess around with that stuff.
The thing about country music is that, to my mind and at least with the styles of music that I'm attracted to, it's the one style of music that is the most reductive. So I think it's fundamentally the most difficult style of music to write in because if I'm writing a tune that has aspects of swing music or folk music to it, I have a certain amount of latitude, but with country music there's the old saying; three chords and the truth. And so you strip away the chords and the harmony, you strip away a lot of the words, and you're essentially trying to convey really deeply personal, complicated interpersonal ideas in the simplest most inclusive way possible. That's what I think the trick of country music is, that you're trying to take something incredibly complex and meaningful and emotional and deep, and put it in the most inclusive space possible, and that's really fucking hard to do.
You also have a best of album coming out. With so much material, how did you even begin approaching a best of?
That particular record comes out about a week after the Hazel shows on October 7th. When I was originally contacted about it by Denny from Cavity Search Records, his initial question to me was, ‘what songs do you want to have on the record?’ It's a fairly large body of work; there are four full lengths and an EP that they're drawing from. That's close to 60 songs to choose from. It's really difficult because I’m honestly too close to it. I don't have a perspective that I feel comfortable with of songs that I really like. I really left it up to other people to choose the songs that they felt nailed it on the head in terms of lyrical content and the quality of the music with the caveat that I wanted the songs to be meaningful and the stuff that kind of got close to pushing the button for people. So I'm really flattered that people want to do this in the first place, I'm really thankful for the work people do on my behalf, and I think the songs are really good and I hope they stand up to whatever new scrutiny comes along.
Are you working on any new projects these days, or doing anything that might surprise people?
Yeah, the two primary projects are a brand new solo record of original material, which will be my first in 15 years. So I've been writing for other projects and genres, but in terms of just pure straight up songwriting, this is the first one in 15 years. There's that, and then my friend Mike Midlo who lives out in the Wallowas has been talking about writing a batch of tunes that relate to Oregon history, county by county. We're sort of in the conceptual portion of figuring that one out, but with so many people moving to Oregon and with our deep connection to this place and our interest in history, it seems like a pretty cool project writing topical songs that I haven't done a great deal of. In terms of songwriting and the creative side of things, it seems like a pretty great opportunity, so we're going to flesh out the idea as best we can and see if we can get some support to help us do it and basically head out to every county in Oregon and collect some stories, learn some history, investigate some history we already know, and write some songs about it. It'll be a record by a couple of songwriters about a place they love, directly engaging with the rich history of our state.
That reminds me of Sufjan Stevens when he said he was going to make an album for every state. I think you guys have a more attainable goal here.
[Laughs] 50 is tough. I think there are around thirty counties in Oregon, but it's still going to be a rather daunting project. Mike is an incredibly creative person and we get along great, so I think we can probably come up with some cool stuff. As soon as I get through all this Hazel stuff, the greatest hits, the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, the next step is the new record of original material and this thing with Mike Midlo.
So you have a lot on your plate.
The final thing I want to ask you is, with Portland's growth happening so fast, do you think the growth is a positive or negative force for the local scene here?
I don't really get out to see rock and roll shows anymore, and if I do go out it's to see a band I'm already familiar with. My opinion on this is subjective, but anytime you live in a town whose growth has been gradual and whose artistic scene has always developed somewhat gradually with [not much] outside influence - a scene that was allowed to gestate a little more because we weren't prime real estate for decades - you get a much different vibe than you get here nowadays. I'm not going to say what's happening in Portland is good or bad, it's just different. I personally prefer the way things were because it was a little more insular. The scenes that overlapped were very friendly and smart and funny and inspiring. There were a lot of really inspiring people doing cool things, and I know that there are a lot of inspiring people doing cool things now. But it's sort of like, if you like camping and you find a really cool campsite by the river every Christmas for seven years straight and then someone else discovers the campsite and they tell a bunch of their friends and it ends up in a guidebook and then you can't really go and enjoy the campsite in the same way. It's not like the beauty of the place is changed, it's just the overall vibe is different. That's kind of what Portland is like for people who have been here for a long time. We're not used to things taking 20 minutes longer to get to when we drive, we're not used to things being hip around here. That's all well and good and I'm sure it builds community and creates a lot of interest and revenue for the city, but it's not like you can keep what you had and have this new thing too.
The city and the culture here have to give up something in order to be this new thing. People that have been here for a long time I think would understand what I'm talking about. It's not good, it's not bad, it's just that the reality has changed. Sometimes I wish I could just have like a weekend in the old Portland and wander around, go to some of the old places I liked to go, and do some of the things that I liked to do that don't exist anymore. But that's something that happened once, it was a time and a place. You can't wish for your city to not change and you can't wish for the cultural touchstones, the people that are important to you like the David Bowies of the world, you can't wish that they stayed 40 years old for the rest of your life. That's just the way it goes.
For all things Pete Krebs visit heypetekrebs.com.