The View From the Throne is a new music feature series we’re stoked to present at Consider Collective. Pete Pulkrabek is a working-class Nashville musician with 13 years spent in Music City. While living in Nashville, Pulkrabek, most notably as a drummer, has performed with numerous bands of all genres, both in the studio and on the road, and has quite a few stories to tell. We’re thrilled to have Pete’s contributions, and we promise there’s no better view than the one from the throne.
Back in the days of my teens, before the dawn of Facebook and Twitter, way before the advent of MySpace and even further, before the appearance of our pseudo-essential beloved internet, I was part of an educational system not like the ones most people are familiar with. It was void of teachers, textbooks, desks and hallways. Unlike regular school, it was a place where we all wanted to be. It was a place where we could take things into our own hands and create something that belonged to us and only us. In this school, we learned things the hard way. We learned to question the ideas we were fed. We learned to be creative and learn things on our own in order to develop our own ideas and voices. Most importantly, we learned the power of community. With our brains and bodies united, we all had a place where we could create, thrive, grow and learn and be ourselves while we did it.
This was the School of Punk Rock. This was my school.
Up until my first orientation, I was a fan of hair bands. I suppose I still am, but being 12 years old, there was something about all that hair and makeup that didn’t seem very tangible. Not to mention, it would be years and years before I could pull off a guitar solo like that, or save up enough money for a drum set that big! I loved the music and the visual style, but I couldn’t relate to it. I couldn’t wear makeup to school. At least not THAT kind, and not yet. I never understood why the music seemed so rough and tough, and yet they all looked like women. I was really young and still didn’t understand that much of popular rock music has always been about sex and drugs. It was all way over my head, but playing in a band looked like the coolest, most fun thing ever. Sneaking MTV behind my parents’ back, and with Adam Curry and Martha Quinn as my teachers, I was given my first assignment, which would prime me for orientation: I was to watch these videos for hours and hours. I was to memorize them and act them out. I was to sing them in the shower and learn all of the guitar and drum parts (as I would ALWAYS fail at learning lyrics). This prepared me for orientation, which oddly enough, came in the form of Nirvana.
The music was loud and straight to the point. It was simple, yet catchy. It was dangerous, yet comfortable. It was something that was tangible. When I first saw the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I had never seen a drum set that small, or such a ratty, greasy and loud lead singer. They looked more like the dirty kids in high school, than the slick, guitar shredding ladyboys of yore. Let’s not forget those hot, tattoo-laden, anarcho-goth cheerleaders with the blood red pom-poms. They not only gave me some of my first “man feelings”, but they freaked the piss out of me, too!
Eventually, I got a real set of drums for Christmas. My parents got fed up with me taking apart all of the radiators in the house to use for my makeshift drum kit (I found out that the ends of radiators slid off easily and each one had a different metallic tone, so I used them as cymbals). A year or so later, my good friend Brian picked up the bass guitar, an urging from his father, who was the bass player in a popular local bluegrass band. We would get together for hours and jam on Nirvana songs in my parents’ basement. We were big fans by then, and the music was something we could understand and perform on our own instruments. Finally in 7th grade, we met Justin, who we heard was a solid guitar player. The truth is, he was just starting out, and he wore black t-shirts and reeked of cigarettes like nobody I had ever met. I called him up one night and he played Black Sabbath‘s “Crazy Train” for me over the phone. Brian and I only knew Nirvana songs, and all he knew was “Crazy Train”, but we let him into our band. Much to his chagrin, Justin began learning Nirvana songs. Soon, we’d play our first gig at a birthday party for a bunch of 10 year olds. We played ten Nirvana songs and made a hundred bucks! Take that, Nirvana!
Eventually we learned songs from all of the grunge era bands: Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Tool…Then Green Day happened and the music got even faster, catchier, simpler and more energetic. We could finally understand the meaning behind the lyrics. We could relate to them. They were about girls, school, masturbation, parents and everyday things. We learned all of those songs, too. Soon we started learning about other current punk rock bands, like NOFX and Screeching Weasel, which made us look into the past, to bands like The Ramones, The Clash and The Misfits. The music was simple and the lyrics honest. Listening to and absorbing this music made us realize that we could write our own songs. Our songs could be the way we wanted them to be, and we could sing about whatever we wanted. We learned to be creative, and with each and every song, we learned to create. And we learned to make our own rules as we did it. Lesson Number 1: Passed.
Other than being a kind of music that we could handle with our limited technique, the lyrics were honest and relatable. We knew we could also write lyrics about the things they were singing about, such as girls, parties and punk rock shows. Additionally, the lyrics were educational. Most of these bands we were listening to were coming out of other parts of the country, far, far away in major cities. These were bands that toured the world and wrote about what they saw. In those lyrics, we learned about city life and life in other parts of the world. We learned about social ideas like anarchism and communism. We were taught to be ourselves and to question what we’re taught from this installed, established upbringing. Lesson Number 2 was a good one, for it was when I learned that I don’t have to be a sheep.
The energy in punk rock was something that was an addiction for me. The music was loud, fast and passionate. The songs were often angry, while other times they were joyful and full of humor. Either way, when performing live, we couldn’t resist but jump around, bang our heads and break into a sweat. It was this music that gave us a space to process our teenage angst and aggressions, be it in the form of lyrics or performance. Often times our performances were in nasty, bad-sounding clubs or sometimes we played in basements. The sound was never good. A lot of the time, the bands weren’t even that good, but they were passionate about their songs and performances. Often the bands had to rely solely on their physical performances to pull off a decent show. We never had the high dollar production of good sound systems and lights. We learned how to put on a good show by using our bodies and instruments. We also learned that we don’t have to perform to feel this high. We could also have a great time in the audience by watching and supporting our peers in other bands. Lesson Number 3 got me comfortable at being on the stage AND in the crowd.
Speaking of being in the crowd, that was what it was all about! We supported each other. We had fans, and we were fans of other bands, who were also fans of ours. We put on shows together and got all of our friends to come out. Soon enough, we were putting on bigger shows and spending a lot of time promoting them. We would design our own flyers and put them up on telephone poles, store fronts or anywhere else they could be seen. We were still too young to play in bars, so we would find places to play, such as schools, community centers or skate parks. I remember putting on Sunday shows at a strip club because they were closed on Sundays, and the owner was nice/crazy enough to let us trash the place. We did this all by ourselves. Before we knew it, we had created a scene. More and more bands were forming, and we were all on the same team, networking and playing together. We would network with bands in other cities and trade shows, widening our reach and fan base. This was Lesson Number 4, and within this lesson we learned a whole lot of mini-lessons: How to book and promote a show. How to make a show flyer. How to build a scene. How to network. However most importantly, we learned about community.
Lesson Number 5 might be the most important of them all, and it has been mentioned a few times already. It started the very first day we picked up our instruments, and continues to this very day. In this lesson we learned how to take things into our own hands and do things ourselves. We learned our instruments on our own. We wrote our own songs and paid for our own recordings. On our own, one at a time, we dubbed cassettes and sold them for $2 apiece. We drew our own album covers and copied, cut and folded them hundreds of times over. We put on our own shows and promoted them through our own labor. We made shit happen for ourselves. If you want to do something in life, you have to make it happen. Period.
Finally, punk rock taught me how to be in a band. In today’s professional world of hired-gun musicians, where I find myself behind the drums, backing up many different artists and musicians of all different genres, I never feel like a hired gun. I’m comfortable with my role as a drummer and a member that has to hold up their end of non-musical duties, such as driving the van, moving equipment or promoting shows. In a band, we have each other’s backs. We take care of each other and protect each other like a family. We form a deep bond that we can’t describe, but we know it’s there when we rock out together on stage. After all, music is the universal language of the soul and you can’t create it with just anybody. Being in the company of this kind of creative energy is truly unique and special. It’s a gift that you can’t find just anywhere. Being in a band is awesome.
Living in Nashville, I’m consistently an observer to the most amazingly talented musicians. Players so talented and schooled that they can play any piece of music in any genre at any speed at any volume and often times on many different instruments. Many of these musicians spent their entire upbringing inside of practice rooms, laboring over intense lessons and instruction, often times not because they wanted to, but because someone else wanted them to. I didn’t go to the same school they attended. As a result, I can’t play a million notes. Maybe I could fake my way through a jazz piece, but I’m certainly not a master of every genre of music. I lack some basic skills that I would have learned had I taken private lessons or in school. However on the flip side, I learned how to be in a band when I was just a kid, and I’ve been in at least one band every day of my life since then. I learned how to rock at a very young age. Young enough for it to be ingrained into my fabric.
The punk rock scene traditionally being full of outcasts, I’ve met an amazing amount of different people that came from different walks of life and experiences. By the time I had moved to Nashville in my early 20’s. I had already experienced all kinds of musical situations. I knew how to talk and relate to other musicians. I knew how to hang out with weirdos. It didn’t take much effort for me to contribute in a band. I had been doing all of this for years already. Most importantly, I had already learned how to get things done on my own.
The School Of Punk Rock had been good to me, and it gave me the knowledge to move up to higher education. Soon I would be building my own recording studio and recording and producing records, or booking tours and taking on the role of band manager, even though I’m just the drummer! I’m glad I didn’t spend all of my formidable musical years inside of a practice room. I wouldn’t change that for anything. These days I don’t own a recording studio anymore, but I’ve built myself a pretty bad-ass room to practice in, where I think I’m going to spend the rest of the day.