"It's Just All About Change": Pete Krebs Embraces Optimism On 'All My Friends Are Ghosts'

Pete Krebs has been making music since he was a teenager and has been building his musicianship in many musical genres over time. At the moment, he's all in with Jazz guitar. His songwriting chops are equally impressive, but having worked for the better part of the last twenty years on pursuing the life of a professional musician, his first album of new songs in two decades has finally landed with All My Friends Are Ghosts.

Sub Pop fans may remember that Krebs was a mainstay of the Punk band Hazel, and over time he's played alongside a host of remarkable and notorious musicians, but in his hometown of Portland, he's equally well known for the bands he plays live with as part of a thriving music scene. With that live performance aspect mostly shut down right now, Krebs recently performed his first livestream concert, but he also regularly checks in with videos on Facebook.

Pete Krebs recently appeared on our Tower Instagram Live Show, which you can still watch right here, but Tower's PULSE! also spoke to Krebs from Portland, Oregon, a city that always seems to bounce back, even though it's been “remarkably uncomfortable” for a little while there, he admitted. We spoke a great deal about the philosophies and musical passions that have helped determine the direction of his life and the perspective being a cancer survivor has also afforded him.

Hannah Means-Shannon: The meaning of music is definitely in the ear of the beholder, but a lot of the songs and albums coming out right now seem to have such relevance. I know that connected to this new album, you personally had a wake-up call in your life, a “reckoning”. I feel like the entire world is having that or is having the opportunity to have that right now.

Pete Krebs: It’s the duality of all things. To the degree with which we’re having to reckon with really challenging existential things, presumably there has to be an equal and opposite positive thing. I see that manifested in the way that people are responding to music, for example, in terms of value, at least in my little pocket of the tide pool. People are very supportive of local musicians who are still trying to make a living.

I’ve learned the importance of being an optimism. There are always going to be some things that are shitty. As shitty as everything is today, for whatever reason, I’m still walking around and it’s a beautiful day. I always try to look on the bright side and I think that’s a direct result of some of the experiences I’ve had. I believe in the value of a good challenge.

HMS: You would know! I’ll definitely take your word for it. What do you think starting from the point of optimism brings to your life?

PK: I always connect the concept of optimism and pessimism to the idea of time and the limited time that we have on this Earth. The messages are all around us that change is constant. I have gone through several strong cycles in terms of units of time, groups of people, communities that are no longer. I would be naïve to think that’s not the case now, too. Not that I’m going to look back on quarantine fondly, or the fires fondly, or Trump fondly, but it’s still a moment in time.

I’m still, personally speaking, very much alive and vibrant. I have a choice every day whether to get bummed out or not. Taking cancer as a starting point, it taught me how quickly everything can just get wiped. I was bummed out for a while, but that’s exhausting. I’d rather know I made good use of my time by appreciating stuff. I think it does justice to the human experience to be optimistic.

HMS: Thank you. How do these songs on this new album fit in with your history and your life? When the album info says that these songs have been “twenty years in the making”, does that mean in terms of the making of who you are, or have you been writing them that long?

PK: Both, actually. Some of those were written right after the last record I put out. And then I was writing some stuff on the day we recorded. It’s literally twenty years of songs. But I wasn’t sitting in a cave writing songs, I was getting on with my life. For me, it’s a conjoined result. Over the last twenty years I’ve had to learn a bunch of lessons, and some of those lessons include learning to be a better musician, and how to set myself up as a musician to be employed for the rest of my life.

I’ve been dealing with the loss of friends and places, my city changing, the loss of parents and people close to me, dealing with my own mortality. It’s all this big stuff. You deal with it, and when you do, you grow. I think if there was a blanket term to describe this record, I think it’s “change”. It’s just all about change.

HMS: How do you feel about the version of yourself that’s reflected in this record? Do you like that version of yourself?

PK: I do. I don’t see a departure. I think there’s consistency in the sound and songwriting. I feel like it’s very much of me, but it’s older and wiser. It feels balanced. There are always things you want to tweak, but it feels whole. I could have used another couple of days in the studio to fix a couple of things that were bugging me, but the perfect pot doesn’t exist. I like how it came out and I feel close to it, like “This is who I am. This is where I’m at.”

HMS: You can always fix those little mistakes in live performance, if we ever get a chance to do that again.

PK: This is very true. I should make some copious notes whenever I do get back to playing. Or maybe I should just not worry about it because that’s how the song wanted to go, obviously.

HMS: I think the songs on this album are really beautiful and very moving. They are reflective, approachable, and just great. Thanks for putting them out despite the circumstances right now.

Can you tell me about The Gossamer Wings contingent? When did you start playing together?

PK: That’s always been an ad hoc band. I basically have used the band name as an umbrella and there have probably been twenty people in the group. It started around 1998 when I put out a record called Sweet Ona Rose, and they were the backing band. It’s been a revolving group of people. There’s only one person who’s been on everything, John Moen, the drummer, who plays in The Decemberists.

But it’s been everyone from Ben Shepard of Sound Garden, to this guy Billy Kennedy who is now homeless, but he’s one of the most gifted guitar player you’ve ever heard in your life. I work with people who I get along with and who offer their own unusual take on things.

HMS: You have worked with a tremendous amount of people already in your life, and you have performed alongside people from other bands, in different musical roles. What do you think is important to know about learning to get along with different types of people as a musician? How do you get along with so many different people?

PK: I don’t think that I orchestrated it, but I’ve never felt particularly like my ego is wrapped up in what I’m doing. I will always try to make my decisions based on my truth and not based on what would be popular or get me more followers on social media. That fake side of music has always really repulsed me. It’s like small talk at a party. Why? What’s the point? There’s that.

Also, I’ve always made a point of being open to the fac that there were way better musicians than me and knew more about stuff that I liked. I’ve tried to have humility about the fact that the world surrounds you with teachers, you just have to have the wherewithal to see them when they show up. A lot of my bands have been multi-generational.

Hazel had a guy who was 25 years older than us. Billy Kennedy, who I was just talking about, was an older generation. I love old American music and the people who got the direct transmission from the older musicians, from the 20s and 30s. I really love music of the 20s, 30s, and 40s and a lot of the people I got to play alongside sat at the feet of these people. I’ve always felt like the world was too filled with music to say, “No, don’t do that. No, don’t play with that person.”

I’ve kind of made a career of making bad decision and it’s worked out. I feel better for it, I don’t have a guilty conscience. I don’t have to say, “Wow, in the late 90s, I was such a dick because I was trying to be this fucking Rock Star guy.” In the late 90s, I was playing washboards with a bunch of 40-year-olds who were trying to play old Blues and Jazz.

HMS: That is the coolest thing I have heard in a while. That is very cool. I love that. That plays into what I thought about you, you’re quite an omnivore in terms of music genres. When did that start for you?

PK: I’ve always been inclined that way. When I was really young, and I first noticed music, I was probably 12, around 1978. The thing that got my attention was Punk Rock. At that time in California where I grew up, you’d see news stories, and there was this one summer where programs would have stories about Punk Rock, saying, “What is our world coming to?”

There were all these weird looking kids, and there would be films of them slam-dancing to some band. I remember very vividly watching that and thinking, “I’ve found my tribe.” I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo and I never fit in. From that point forward, I started buying records that interested me, and early on, the sound of Country and Blues records from the 1930s appealed to me, and also Swing, Jazz, Django Reinhardt.

I would go to the local record store, Recycled Records in Monterey, California, and I would buy an Avengers record, a Sleepy John Estes record, and maybe a Benny Goodman record, because Charlie Christian was playing. I remember when playing in Rock ‘n Roll bands that I felt like there was this sea of music that I wanted to get at. It took a while to figure it out and create the opportunity to move in that direction. That’s why I ended up playing washboard. That was really the beginning of it. Growing up in 1970s California, there wasn’t a deep musical tradition, unless you count The Eagles or something.

I’ve joked with other musicians about this, but I’m kind of like the Daniel Day Lewis of musicians because I’m a total method actor. When I got really into Django Reinhardt, I sold my house and moved to Europe, and squatted at a building over there that was built in 1617. I took a train out to the countryside every day and hung out with gypsy guys. I mainly just drank, but I feel like I got some first-hand education. That’s how I do that stuff. Then the poor people of Portland have to sit through two years of my bands playing whatever kind of music it is.

HMS: Whatever you’re most obsessed with at the time?

PK: Exactly. It’s very much an obsessive thing. I love it. I love being consumed by music. To me, it’s the best feeling ever.

HMS: That’s awesome. I get on music reading binges. I’ll read books around a certain musician or a certain period and whatever I can get. At some point, something changes, and then it’s another focus.

PK: I do that, too. With biographies, I’ve been on a real Charlie Parker kick.

HMS: It’s a good time to do that.

I heard that this record connects to doing thing “how you used to do” them. What does that refer to? Is it about songwriting methods, ways of thinking, or something different?

PK: Probably all of those. At any given point in my life, I think that I’m some kind of Zen master dude, then life comes along and slaps me upside the head, and I realize that I’m not. There might be some continuation there. I still like the same sounds. I still like to mix in The Clash, Elvis Costello, Townes Van Zandt, and some of these disparate influences that I like. I think there’s a continuum but I think I’m a little better at focusing than I was. I think it’s more focused now. But it’s still the same thing to me

HMS: How does songwriting fit into the process of your life?

PK: My current thing right now is working on playing Jazz guitar. I’ve been writing songs since I was 12 or 13 and I feel like it’s something I could do at the drop of a hat. But I don’t really feel compelled to keep up with the discipline like some people do. But that follows along with how I think about songwriting. I feel like I’m more of a conduit than anything else. So the work I do around songwriting is the work of receptivity. I’m not going out to the shed and putting 5000 words a day into the novel.

It’s just that I know when it feels like when the inspiration hits, and I know how to arrange my environment to be in that space. I would love to continue to make records, but a lot of it has to do with whether there’s a good response to this record. If there’s a really good response, then I want to put more music out there. I don’t mean that in opportunistic way. But this record was very much just for me. I do think that when there’s more of a two-sided conversation, when I hear from people, that’s going to inspire me, probably, to write more frequently than I do. To me, music is music, whether I’m writing songs or learning some old Jazz tunes from the 30s. It’s all the same, it’s just a matter of how I spend my time. We only have so much time in this world so I’m careful about how I focus my energy.

HMS: It sounds like the music goes on for you regardless. In whatever way it does, it does. So it’s more a matter of which aspect is your focus right now.

PK: That’s absolutely the case.

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