On Thursday, Portland, Oregon’s Pete Krebs premiered the first single from his first original album in 20 years. Entitled “All My Friends Are Ghosts,” the song comes ahead of a new record by the same name which is due on August 29. Featuring a variety of old and new songs (all previously unreleased) as well as performances by musicians from The Decemberists and Richmond Fontaine, the record almost serves as a testament to the past 20 years of Krebs’ life.
Krebs first rose to notoriety as a co-founder, songwriter and vocalist for the alternative rock band Hazel, who were an essential part of SubPop’s early catalog (they were also notable for having a full-time dancer). During the band’s initial run, Krebs became ingrained in the music scene of the Pacific Northwest — he’s done everything from share a stage with Nirvana to release a split single with Elliott Smith (1994’s Shytown / No Confidence Man). After Hazel broke up in 1997, Krebs did a few years of solo work before taking a deep dive into the world of being a working musician.
Then, for the proceeding twenty years, Krebs explored a variety of different genres with a historian-esque approach. Digging into everything from jazz to country to Western swing, he learned the stories and subtle nuances of these unique and fading styles. He was also faced with significant challenges such as a cancer diagnosis in 2013. Yet, all of the ups and downs serendipitously worked out and brought Krebs to where he is today, gearing up to release All My Friends Are Ghosts.
Krebs’ various adventures in different genres has musically opened him up to tap into a much deeper tradition of songcraft. With acoustic instrumentation and a candid delivery style, Krebs’ poeticism is almost reminiscent of the way Townes Van Zandt could nonchalantly present pure lyrical brilliance without a trace of the immense effort it took to write. In this regard, Krebs’ work is genuinely an extension of a long lineage of American music-making; it speaks to a certain romanticism of what it means to be a musician. Earlier this week, American Songwriter caught up with Krebs via a phone call and dug into that lineage and the journey that the past two decades have taken him on.
This is your first album of original material in 20 years — give us an overview of what those decades have looked like for you.
Well, the past 20 years have been a pretty awesome stretch of time. I’ve had an opportunity to focus on some of the musical directions that interested me outside of playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands and writing original stuff. I was able to really dig into playing older styles of jazz, swing, country, Western-swing. I basically learned how to be a ‘working musician’ — I think the course I’ve taken over the past 20 years was predicated on reaching the point where I was questioning how tenable it was to move forward professionally as a songwriter. There was a lot of practicality in the decision. It was like ‘well, what am I into and what is going to help me stay employed as a musician?’ That guided my direction and I went after it.
How did exploring those different styles impact your musicianship?
Any time I go down a rabbit hole I end up back where I started. That’s the great thing about music — as a curious musician, you explore various genres. At first, it’s a little disorienting and you’re not sure where to begin. But then you start to find familiar threads from other directions you’ve gone in. All roads lead back to where you started. That’s what’s really cool about it, at least in my experience.
When I get into a new genre I’m kind of like a method actor. I’m like the Daniel Day-Lewis of musicians — I get super obsessed with it, I immerse myself in it. I think that there’s a lot of benefit to doing it that way. You pick up a much broader understanding of the genre when you take the time to look into the history of the genre and understand it in a cultural context. I love history. In a lot of ways, I approach things kind of like ‘musical archeology.’ I like being out in the dirt with a spade and a brush, seeing what I come up with.
I can’t help it, I’ve always been that way. When I was a kid, I would do chores and odd jobs so that every couple of weeks I could go to the record store. It was the late ‘70s in California and I would buy something like a punk rock record, a roots record of some sort — usually old country or blues — and a jazz record. Even when I was really young I had a wide musical interest.
You highlight that throughout various different styles you always find familiar threads — do you feel that recognizing these similarities allows you to realize a deeper element of what makes music special to you?
Yeah, I think that’s part of the transition of being able to make a genre ‘your own.’ When you can interpret it in a way that’s not a slavish costume drama, then you can begin to really breathe life into it. If it’s not in you, you can’t breathe that life into it. The feeling I get when I play a Django Reinhardt or Bob Wills tune is the same feeling I remember from playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The energy at that juncture is very pure. I seek it out like a drug. It’s something that’s familiar to me, but it’s elusive until I can get inside of it. It happens very organically and mysteriously — I don’t know when I cross that bridge, but when I cross it, I know it.
The past 20 years have included ups and downs for you — how did your cancer diagnosis in 2013 change your life?
It happened really suddenly. At that time, I was just a working musician. When I got the diagnosis, I probably had about 25 gigs booked that month alone. So, on a real immediate level, everything came to a full stop… honestly, very similar to the way that everything’s happened over the past few months with COVID-19.
The cancer I was diagnosed with in 2013 was arguably related to the cancer I had when I was younger — I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was 21. This was right at the 25-year mark from that and it was a form of melanoma called desmoplastic melanoma, which is a form of skin cancer that’s difficult to catch. It metastasizes very quickly. I had this painful little bump on the back of my neck and it hadn’t occurred to me that it fell in the area where I received radiation back when I was 21. They biopsied it and a day later I got a phone call saying ‘you need to come in today.’ So, I had that experience that a lot of people have and a lot of people dread where I was sitting across from a doctor and he said “well, I’m going to tell you straight: you’ve got a 50-50 chance. This is going to be dealt with through surgery and we’re either going to get margins or not. If we don’t get our margins, it’s already metastasized and you’ve probably got six to eight months. Also, we can’t get you in for a week and a half.’
So, for a week and a half, I was basically a dead man walking. I got the surgery and there were another two and a half weeks of waiting for the test results. So, if you could imagine going through almost a full month of not knowing whether you had six months to live or not… it really did a number on me.
Fortunately, they were able to get the margins and I’m still here almost eight years later. It’s definitely made me much more aware of taking care of myself and doing healthy things. When it comes to something like cancer, it’s the most terrible thing but also kinda the most fortunate thing that can happen to you, if you’re lucky enough to survive it. It provides you with a perspective that I think is really difficult to obtain without going through something that’s equally traumatic as someone basically saying: ‘well, you might die. This is how it’s going to happen and it’s not going to be nice. Get your affairs in order.’ I don’t know, it afforded me a perspective on living my life and being true to what I wanted to do that I probably would’ve been more apprehensive to otherwise. I’m incredibly thankful for that. It was the scariest, luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me.
How did that change your relationship with music?
One of the reasons I stopped writing is because I felt… well, it’s not that I felt like a poser, it’s more like I didn’t know what I had to back up what I was trying to put out there. Like, I was in my thirties and I had a band here in Portland that had done really well, which kinda allowed me to coast on that band’s reputation. Instead of just going for it, I decided to not cash in on that. If I was going to be a musician, I wanted to become a musician. I wanted to know what I was doing, I wanted to acknowledge all these other areas that were interesting to me.
So, after the cancer diagnosis and this long period of time that I took to explore these other genres and become a better musician, I went back to songwriting. There was a gravity and a directness present in the process that I wasn’t able to access before. I was still pretty emotionally immature when I was writing before. You spend 20 years outside of it and then come back to it, your perspective is fresh. There’s more willingness to grapple with larger, more difficult subjects, not just ‘oh, someone broke up with me’ stuff. I don’t think I would’ve had the capacity to access that stuff so directly had I not gone through what I went through.
Let’s dig in a little bit on the songwriting process for this record — how many of these songs were pre-existing tunes and how many were written new for this project?
I’d say at least a good half of them were songs I had lying around, songs that I had written 20 years ago or whereabouts. They were fully finished and I had performed them live, so I had them in my DNA. Prior to making this record, it felt like I was walking around with orphans hanging onto my coattails saying ‘what are you going to do with us?’ So, if for any other reason, I needed to record them just to be done with them and get them out into the world. I didn’t want to just let them wither away and die on the vine, I felt like there was something there that was valid, that they deserved to be heard. I also just wanted to have a clean slate — I felt the weight of these songs and wanted to be able to get them out there to start fresh again. So, that’s about half the record.
Then I did some writing too. On some of these songs, I was writing literally up to the night before — tweaking them, putting in bridges, working with the language and chords, looking into how well it flowed. It was really nice to go back to a song 15 years after first writing it with 15 additional years of experience under my belt and apply some subtle tweaks. Like ‘hmm, maybe if I voice this chord like that — ah, that’s the sound that I wanted, I just didn’t know it 15 years ago.’
I’m sure the timing of jumping back into the original music game at the height of a pandemic has been interesting — what has your experience been like?
It’s completely different, though I think it’s probably more stressful for the folks at the label and the people trying to help me with the album. 20 years ago when you put out a record you did things much differently than we do them now — the music business has changed dramatically. I know the old business, but the new world is a mystery to me. Honestly, you could argue that I haven’t been too affected by the pandemic because I don’t know any different. I’m used to recording a record and then having someone ship me 2,000 CDs for me to sell on the road. It was about selling as many CDs as possible and getting the word out. With the new digital world being how it is — and I know I sound like an old person now — you can accomplish so much without leaving your town, without even leaving your house. I guess COVID-19 has resulted in a few things. For starters, my awareness of how to do the digital stuff has increased. It’s also sorta forced me to update my way of thinking about how I put music out there so that people can hear it.
Also, as a working musician and a music teacher, my business tanked. I’ve had to figure out ways to stay employed, essentially, online. That has been a really interesting process. People around Portland are really supportive of the local music scene and the musicians, so people have been really, really generous when it comes to my cyber-busking activities.
Everyone I know who is in this livelihood… well, it’s like when you make the decision to jump off a cliff, you can’t change that decision once you jump. So, you work with what you’ve got. I was talking to a buddy the other day and we both agreed that working musicians — like, people who really make a living doing this — are like cockroaches. When things get difficult or challenging, we always find a way to continue doing what we do.
Pete Krebs’ album All My Friends Are Ghosts drops on August 29, 2020 — listen to the title track below: