The Ballad of Pete Krebs: One Legendary Musician Unites Decades of Portland Music

Close to fame, close to death, or just playing close to home, the songwriter’s saga ties local music together.

By Ryan White November 23, 2015 Published in the December 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

A decorative shotgun hangs above the fireplace at the Double Barrel Tavern, not far from a taxidermy six-point buck, amid old wood, mirrors, and a nude, tastefully done on black velvet. It’s an Old West illusion, with a New Seasons across the street. One night, the band looks and sounds like part of the décor: cowboy boots and hats, sad songs, drinking songs, sad drinking songs, and never mind it’s only 7 o’clock.

“This was a big hit for Ray Price,” the singer, Pete Krebs, says. He flashes a half-smirk from under his hat. Tattoos peek out from beneath sharp white shirt cuffs as he fidgets with an acoustic guitar. “Sing along if you know it.”

Krebs counts the band into the song. Rusty Blake makes the pedal steel guitar cry as Krebs steps to the microphone: “Now blue ain’t the word for the way that I feel.” Nobody sings along.

“Crazy Arms,” the traditional country tale of a man watching a woman land in the arms of another man, was a big hit—in 1956. Timeless as the sentiment may be, to a 2015 audience the tune’s not so familiar. So the bar crowd goes about its business—complaining about the boss, checking Twitter, texting friends. Krebs knew that would happen. He leans in to the old song of woe anyway.

Krebs has played a thousand of these nights in a thousand different bars. He played the Portland punk dive Satyricon, and he’s played New Orleans jazz shrine Preservation Hall. He’s also played scores of the local bars, cafés, nightclubs, and restaurants that just come and go. He opened for Nirvana, scraped paint with Elliott Smith, and learned gypsy jazz from actual gypsies. For a snap in time, he and one of his many bands, Hazel, teetered on the next-big-thing precipice, until they tipped the other way.

A career that now touches four decades makes Krebs the human thread that ties bygone eras of Portland music to now: the nihilistic and obscure ’80s underground, the ’90s grunge-rock moment, right up to last night, tonight, and tomorrow—when he’s entirely likely to have some gig, somewhere, playing one of the half-dozen genres of music he’s mastered, for audiences old, young, engaged, indifferent, whatever. Krebs was there as Portland’s music scene became a scene, and he’s remained a constant ever since. Today, he might be the most respected musician in town—if you’re talking to other musicians. “He makes you think anything is possible,” John Moen, drummer for the Decemberists, says.

Even on a night at the Double Barrel, where there isn’t a stage, just a spot on the floor and a tip jar on a table. Especially on nights like that.

“I’m originally from Southern California,” Krebs says. “I was born in—hey, guys.”

We’re outside a coffee shop on NE Killingsworth when a trio spots Krebs and interrupts to say hello. This happens a lot with Krebs.

“Are you playing today at the Parish?” a woman asks.

“Doing 4:30 to 6:30,” he says. “Then later at the Double Barrel with the full band. Maybe we’ll see you out.”

“I hope so,” she says.

“I was born in Orange, California,” he continues, the date being August 30, 1966. “But I grew up in Tustin. Our backyard looked out on an asparagus field.”

His father was “one of those old-school, self-made guys,” Krebs says, who grew up in Brooklyn, did some boxing, was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and worked up from steelyard grunt to one step short of company president before he retired early, and comfortably. Krebs was 10 when the family moved to Monterey County. He remembers fire hydrants painted red, white, and blue to celebrate the bicentennial. Olympic fever was in full bloom. And not long after witnessing America scream proudly about America, young Pete Krebs went and got obsessed with British punk rock: loud, aggressive, antiestablishment—it was all he cared about.

“It was the only thing that had any relevance to me,” he says. “It was like culture from outer space.”

Krebs soon upgraded from air guitar to the real thing, and found he had a self-made skill set of his own. “I don’t remember ever fumbling around, trying to figure out how to make music work,” he says. He’d hit a wall here or there, then tear it down and rebuild it to fit his needs. That’s never changed. (“He looks at music from its core source,” in the words of Portland guitarist and producer Jon Neufeld.)

As a kid, Krebs decoded punk, blues, country—he could figure just about anything out, as long as it didn’t pertain to school. “I wasn’t ‘applying’ myself,” Krebs recalls of his academic record. Off to a military school in Pennsylvania he went, where he mostly learned to hang out on South Street in Philadelphia. He applied to Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale—as jokes—and Left Coast standbys like Evergreen State, Oregon, and Oregon State, as a concession to his mother.

“Only Oregon State accepted me,” Krebs says, “and I think they were just hurting for students at the time.” In Corvallis, Krebs tried on journalism, geology, and English. He really gravitated to the preferred double major of all-male military school alumni everywhere: drinking and women. And of course he was in a band. That’s where he was when, not long after his 21st birthday, Pete Krebs was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Cancer brought Krebs to Portland. It folded him into the corner of an apartment at Northwest 19th and Johnson, and it blurred the weeks that followed.

His parents had moved to Bend by then, so California wasn’t an option. He doesn’t remember them visiting him here. He remembers the trips to St. Vincent. He remembers the oak apartment floor, the ugly moss green stucco hallway. Both his roommates smoked. In autumn’s damp and cold, the windows remained shut and the whole place smelled like last week’s ashtray.

Krebs doesn’t remember writing novella-length letters to friends, though they tell him he did. Twice a week he’d go to the hospital, absorb the radiation, and return to the apartment to suffer the side effects. One day he sat in front of a mirror pulling hair from the back of his head.

“I still have some of that hair,” he says. “I dated it: Nov. 15, 1987. I keep it on my bookshelf at home.”

That was the first time Pete Krebs didn’t die.

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Image: Aaron Hewitt

Four years earlier, a club called Satyricon opened in Old Town. It became a crossroads of Portland’s tiny music scene: a clubhouse for misfits, chaotic and dirty and essential. Hardened faces still get wistful when Satyricon comes up.

“It was really dark, and there were black lights everywhere,” Krebs says, “and the jukebox was always playing ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motörhead. You learned not to drink the tap beer—they never cleaned the taps. You’d see the same people there every week, doing drugs. It was just a magical little place.”

Portland wasn’t on anyone’s cultural radar in 1987: no New York Times features, no one cared about the airport carpet. The small local crop of off-kilter musicians had few places to play. The Wipers, the city’s first punk heroes, dubbed Portland “Doom Town,” and no one could really disagree. The music scene was underground. The people who loved that congregated together, worked with each other, and worked off of each other.

“I painted myself as an outsider,” Krebs says. “I chose that, and then I went searching for other outsiders, and I found them at Satyricon.”

He beat cancer, then started forming bands. HairBedPeace wore psychotic John Lennon and Yoko Ono masks on stage. Grind came next. Grind turned into Thrillhammer. “That band was pretty aggressive,” he says—aggressive enough to open for Nirvana, just before Nirvana changed the world. Predictably, Thrillhammer dissolved just as the shows were getting good.

After that, and after chasing a woman to Europe—as one does in one’s 20s— Krebs landed a job in a frame shop alongside Brady Smith, fellow musician and like-minded soul, and started hanging out at Smith’s Southeast Portland home. They wrote a record. Around that time, Krebs also frequented the LaurelThirst Public House in Northeast. Like Satyricon, the LaurelThirst was a hangout, but for hippies into folk and jazz. “There were plenty of misfits and raconteurs and scam artists,” Krebs says. The characters included Fred Nemo, a wiry, bearded creature who exuded a beatnik, performance-art kind of kookiness. He and Krebs played pool, and Nemo would sometimes dance among the tables. Soon, Krebs also met drummer and singer Jody Bleyle. With Smith on bass, the four became a band.

On Valentine’s Day 1992, Hazel played its first show at a screen-printing shop in Southeast. Nemo dressed as Cupid and shot toy arrows at the crowd. The rest of the group wrapped themselves in Christmas lights, plugged in (lights and gear) and let rip. So Hazel arrived fully formed: a stormy, noisy, post-punk band with a dancer as a full-fledged member. Word spread. Crowds got bigger. Shows got better. One day a call came from a promoter who needed someone to open for Cracker at La Luna. Cracker was, if you don’t remember, a pretty big band in the early ’90s. “All of a sudden we’re in front of 1,000 people,” Krebs says. “That changed everything.”

In 1993 Sub Pop, the Seattle label, released Hazel’s Toreador of Love. It was of the era, with ragged guitars ripping across big drums and manic bass lines, but also distinctly Portland: funny, fast, mischievous. The album cover showed the whole band topless, and the video for “Comet” includes a Magic 8 Ball, yo-yo tricks, light filters, live footage, and Krebs and Bleyle shouting, “I’ll be the comet that crashes to the ground.” (Foreshadowing!)

Suddenly, in came publishing money—enough for Krebs to buy a house—plus tour support and publicity. Sub Pop set up a Rolling Stone shoot. But when you’re 25 and self-styled misfits, rigid in your views toward anything remotely recognizable as authority, it’s tough, however briefly, to be a corporate priority. Hazel tried to write hits, tried to make it work, through another album in 1995, and an EP in 1997. And then they faded away.

“In all fairness, we weren’t really cut out to play the game,” Krebs says. “And we were too weird anyway.”

Krebs turned to the LaurelThirst crowd, consulting the old timers who knew how to book and keep gigs. He learned to be the kind of guy who plays everywhere all the time, and how to play the music such a path requires: jazz, folk, old country. He wanted to take new forms apart and put them back together, as he’d always done. He played bluegrass in Golden Delicious, glistening folk-pop with the Gossamer Wings. He made solo records that positioned him alongside Elliott Smith, with whom he’d once scraped paint in Pearl District warehouses.

At one point in 2002 Krebs went deep on 1920s guitar master Django Reinhardt. He sold the house he bought with Hazel’s publishing money, stashed his few possessions with a friend, and set out for Amsterdam. He knew a guitar dealer, a guy he’d done business with online, and the name of one other player, who’d published some gypsy guitar how-to books. He tracked them both down. Through them he fell in with a group of players, and failed until he was better.

That’s the Pete Krebs approach to art: adventurous, curious, rooted, open, vulnerable, a formula that explains why so many musicians in Portland love Krebs. “He’s always got his sails listed for any kind of artistic inspiration,” says Jen Bernard, Krebs’s partner in the booking agency House of Cards Music and cohort in the Stolen Sweets, a group based on the intricate harmonies and rhythms of New Orleans’s Boswell Sisters.

Moen, the Decemberists drummer, emphasizes a story from 1998. Elliott Smith hired him for a European tour that would begin with a stop in New York for Saturday Night Live. Moen never made it across the Atlantic, getting fired the day after SNL and returning home to Portland feeling beaten. He ran into Krebs, who invited him to sit in at the LaurelThirst. Moen didn’t know the songs; he didn’t know the music. But he knew after a couple of sets that he felt better—about everything. “It was really generous of him,” Moen says.

That generosity was repaid in 2013, the second time Pete Krebs didn’t die.  Krebs hues to  meticulous straight-razor cuts from “old man barbers.” A spot on the back of his neck hurt like hell, and he figured he had an ingrown hair. But it continued to hurt, and so he went to the doctor.

The diagnosis was desmoplastic melanoma, prognosis dire. Musicians turned out for fundraisers, and to help cover his many gigs. (The month his diagnosis trickled out to the public, Krebs had 23 shows lined up over one 25-day period alone.) “Not that I needed reminding,” says drummer Ezra Holbrook, who helped organize some of the fundraisers, “but Portland loves Pete Krebs.”

This time, there was no radiation or chemo. 

A surgeon took a chunk from the back of his neck, three inches wide and half an inch high. “And sewed everything back together,” Krebs says. He waited, healed, had time to think, and those thoughts were heavy. “Made big changes and scary jumps,” Krebs says. In the summer of 2014, with a clean bill of health, Krebs met Leslie Beia at Landmark Saloon. “I’m surprised we don’t know each other,” she said, and invited him to sit in with her band.

“And so I responded the way anyone would when a really attractive person asks you to play lead guitar in her band,” Krebs says. He got drunk and overplayed.

The two became a couple soon after, and one more band—the Earnest Lovers—was born. In classic honky-tonk, Krebs unlocked another new genre. With Neufeld producing, the Earnest Lovers made Sing Sad Songs, which came out this spring thanks to more than $22,000 raised on Kickstarter.

Things aren’t perfect. “My esophagus is all scarred up,” Krebs says. “I feel like I’m getting strangled all the time.” He has memory issues, which he used to blame on youthful acid trips but may be the result of punch after punch of radiation, from his breastbone to above his ears, when he was 21 years old. He wonders sometimes how different his daily reality is from everyone else’s.

“After everything that has happened with my health I’ve realized what’s really important to me in my life,” Krebs says. “It’s not money. It’s not anything other than being recognized as, hopefully, a pretty damn good songwriter.” Krebs seems comfortable with how it’s all worked out—with the experience that allows him to appreciate a tip in a jar, another night playing music he loves for people who sometimes love him back. 

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