Pete Krebs has been a fixture of the Portland music scene since the 1990s. He was first known in Thrillhammer and then Hazel, a band that helped define the Portland response to the early 90’s flannel and guitar scene, undermining the macho grunge aesthetic, their ramshackle live shows blazing with poppy but angular songs. Pete and Jody Bleyle singing like a new John Doe/Exene Cervenka duo, Brady Payne Smith’s lanky frame curling back from his bass, and of course, Fred Nemo, the dancer, balancing atop a chair with a water pitcher and cinder block. Fortunately, Hazel re-emerges periodically to play some shows — last emerging with a pair of sold out nights just before the 2016 election.
Pete’s subsequent early solo work, with delicate and melodic songs, seemed a departure from the raucous sounds of Hazel. But even back in the days of the band, signs of Pete’s future troubadour status were evident, often playing a song alone during the band’s shows. Pete recorded and toured with the late Elliott Smith, who traveled a similar musical trajectory in the 1990’s.
In following years, Pete has roamed through a variety of musical styles, including bluegrass with the great Golden Delicious. Since then, Pete has continue to move among western swing, and gypsy jazz, alone and with a series of bands: Kung Pao Chickens, Gossamer Wings, the Stolen Sweets, and the Portland Playboys
Before the current viral pandemic, you could see Pete playing all over town on any given night, either alone or with various companions, depending on the genre and setting. It’s always seemed to me, there’s a risk Portland music fans would take this local treasure’s presence for granted, given he plays out so much. Twice named to the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, and twice having overcome cancer, Pete is an accomplished and resilient guy, who comes across as low-key and friendly.
With the complete shutdown of live music this spring, I thought it’d be interesting to get Pete’s perspective on life as a working musician when the music halls are closed.
First, how are you holding up with the current situation? Any new hobbies?
I am trying to learn how to bake, and have a sourdough start on top of the fridge. I’ve also resumed running, and am trying to hit four miles a day. I’m also working on a bunch of tunes each week for the Sunday Nite Swing Session that I’m putting out on facebook every Sunday at 7pm.
You have always seemed to me one of the hardest working musicians in the Portland area, with a busy gig schedule, not to mention giving lessons to students as well. I can’t imagine how it is to suddenly have the landscape shift under your feet in this way. How are you responding to the change? Are you still able to do lessons?
I basically lost my entire business within a few days; I could no longer meet with students directly, my college class at PNCA was canceled, as well as 20+ gigs per month. I’ve been able to put together a partial teaching schedule online, and with the aforementioned Sunday gig, I’m bringing in a bit of income.
I listen to a lot of music, but it’s a challenge not to be able to go out and share in the live music experience — there’s nothing that quite replaces the experience of being in the moment as music is made. As someone out playing so much, do your fingers get itchy to play? Is your dog getting a regular show?
My girlfriend (who’s staying with me for the duration) and my dog, Dixie, are enjoying regular performances of obscure Western swing and jazz from the 30’s and 40’s. No complaints so far!
I identify you as very rooted in Portland, but I don’t think you’re from these parts. Where did you grow up? When did you come to Portland?
I’m originally from California, but moved to Oregon in 1984 to go to Oregon State. I’ve been here ever since, aside from 8 months that I spent living in Europe trying to learn Gypsy music in Holland.
Your career in music spans a number of stages, from the early local scene days; to the days of the big record companies swooping in looking for indie rock gold; to the ups and downs of vinyl, then CDs, then digital, and now some resurgence of vinyl culture — recently, it seems so many musicians can only keep ahead by playing shows, selling merch, etc. Now we’re in another period where musicians need to figure out how to keep going again. What is your sense of what it means to be an independent musician when everyone is avoiding one another?
I think that a certain type of musician can thrive in this new atmosphere, as long as they’re able to adapt to the technology that allows connection to the outside world with some sort of reasonable sonic fidelity. As a working musician, I’m used to having to live with financial uncertainty and consequently that side of things doesn’t scare me as much as it might some. I also see this (in some ways) as a wonderful opportunity to grow as a musician through wood shedding, but in also having the opportunity to present music for the sole purpose of raising other people’s spirits.
Perhaps I’m just getting old enough to see my musical idols age, but it seems like recent years have seen the deaths of a number of important musicians — the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the loss, with the recent deaths of John Prine, Manu Dibango, among others. Are there particular artists, whose loss you lament? Anyone you wish you could’ve seen live, but didn’t get to?
I was saddened by Bucky Pizzarelli’s death especially. He was one of the last links to a style of jazz guitar playing that is all but gone. I never had a chance to meet him, but I’m indebted to him and his memory.
You’re a remarkable polymath when it comes to music, having covered a wide range of styles and genres. Like many, I imagine, i first knew of your work with Hazel, with the band’s legendary live shows, then followed you through a more country sound, gypsy jazz, and swing — even now it seems you find an outlet for these different genres, depending on your setting and your companions on stage. Do you prefer this eclectic approach or is there one single style that you’d really prefer to pursue, given the opportunity?
I like being able to play in a variety of styles, and to keep reconnecting with each as the spirit moves me. When I re-focus on one thing, the time I spent away generally serves to illuminate new perspectives which always invigorate me and teach me new things. Sometimes the lessons are very simple and basic, sometimes a bit more complex. But it’s all the same music to me after awhile, just sounding a little different from week to week, month to month.
There have been some nice re-issues of some of your older material. Any new recording projects on the horizon?
I do have a new album of originals coming out in June, and will be debuting a few tunes off the record this coming week!
Until your local music venue opens up again, you’ll have to look online to find Pete Krebs:
But let’s hope he’s back out behind a microphone soon.