In 2002, Matt Slessler was a 34-year-old forklift driver with a side gig writing ad copy about indie bands for an obscure yet unexpectedly beloved midwestern beer: Pabst Blue Ribbon. Today, Slessler’s the “national brand ambassador,” and a driving force behind Project Pabst, the four-year-old festival (Aug 26–27) that merged with MusicfestNW last year and has also spread to Denver, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.
How did you get this sweet job?
Between 2002 and 2005, I wrote 133 alt-weekly ads for PBR and didn’t get paid a dime. Pabst didn’t have any money, but they noticed that, for some reason, in Portland people were drinking a lot of PBR. It was this underground dive bar kind of thing—the Lutz Tavern, the Vern, or those kind of punk rock, Satyricon-type places. There’s been this long-standing argument on who was the first to sell Pabst in Portland, between the Lutz Tavern and EJ’s.
What was the first PBR you ever had?
Sometime in the ’90s, at the Jockey Club [on N Killingsworth], which is no longer around. I remember we asked somebody from the distributor how many places in Portland served Pabst, and he told us: seven.
Why did it take?
I’ve always believed that it was a little bit of a backlash towards the craft beer movement. We all loved craft, but it kind of hit the suburbs and started becoming a little pretentious. Pabst filled this void. We were affordable. We were a beer. People who drank it almost liked the fact that people were saying, “That shit? You’re really drinking that?”
Does that kind of “marketing that’s not marketing” still work when everybody knows that’s exactly what it is?
With social media and everything, we live in such a different world. But I think people can see through it if you’re bullshitting them. I think—I hope, at least—that PBR has a track record of being true to itself and true to the people who support us. We’re never going to have Super Bowl commercials.
What does the title “National Brand Ambassador” actually mean?
We’re all still trying to figure that out. I oversee the Project Pabst music festivals. Along with that, there’s a lot of sitting on the same side of the bar as the people who drink PBR. I like to hear what bands they’re into. I like to hear what artists they like to go see. I like to hear what cities they like, and what food they like.
So how did Project Pabst came about?
Obviously there’s a bazillion music festivals around. We would get asked by these kind of ground-floor festivals to come in and be the beer sponsor. And then some other bigger beer company would see that it had been successful and would able to spend more money than us the next year. So that was part of it. We also wanted to book the bands that we wanted to see. I don’t want to sound cheesy but we really just wanted to throw this big, for lack of a better term, a party, for this city that embraced us from the beginning. Last year we had people from 50 states and 10 countries that attended.
In four years, what’s single greatest memory of a set at Project Pabst Portland?
That first year, we’d never done it before. It was a big swing for the fences, and there was a lot of pressure. We didn’t know who our final headliner was going to be, and there were a few of us sitting in the Slammer Tavern and, having more than our share of PBRs, and really kind of stressing. And I put a five in the jukebox and was just playing random songs and I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and the whole bar just kind of started singing. It almost looked like it was a staged beer commercial moment. And I looked at the booker and I just go, “Holy shit, what about Tears for Fears?”
Anything about the job that’s not as glamorous as we’d think?
Yeah. The weight gain.