Mark Klebeck rules the Seattle doughnut scene as the co-founder of Top Pot. But when he's not plotting world dough-mination (he's prepping to open Top Pot store number 11 on Terry Ave. in South Lake Union this August), he plays guitar in his band, King of Hawaii--a sort of surf-city meets cowboy twang vibe. It's a rare chance these days that Klebeck gets to pick up the instrument that called to him like a siren's song when he was in grade school, but it remains such a strong passion that he admits if he ever had to ditch the doughnuts, he could happily make a successful career out of strumming strings.
When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar in 1975 in the 5th grade. I took lessons from a Catholic school nun at St. Francis Cabrini Elementary in Lakewood.
What sort of songs did the nun let you play?
Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley. That was the first song I learned how to play. And then from there, I think we got into playing House of the Rising Sun.
No Zeppelin or Pink Floyd?
No, but Led Zeppelin was my first concert in 1977. July 17th.
So, you were a young kid when you saw them.
I was 12.
Where were they playing?
In the King Dome. I was in the 300 level.
What happened was I really wanted to play because I was such a Zeppelin fanatic. My brother, Jack, saw them like four times and kind of turned me on to them. I saw another band do a cover of Stairway to Heaven and I was instantly drawn to the guitar. I really wanted an electric guitar but my dad wouldn't let me get one until I learned how to play. And so, until I had an electric guitar, I used to take microphones and put them in a reel-to-reel tape-recorder and put them into the hollow body of an acoustic guitar and turn up the volume to where it was completely distorted and play. It was cool and it did the trick. Out of the 35 kids or so who were in the class, I was the only one who stuck with it. My dad took me to a pawn shop and bought me an electric guitar. The strings were like two-inches off the frets and felt impossible to play, but it was an electric guitar and I was so excited.
Were you in a band in high school?
My first band in sixth-grade was called Dry Ice. And there was another band called Misty Moon. I was in a band in junior high and then in high school, I had another band I played in--we played a lot of Rush and Led Zeppelin covers. Eventually, I started venturing into writing some music as well. A woman named Kim Virant, we were classmates with each other, and she went on to be part of Lazy Susan.
What high school is this?
Clover Park. In college, I was in a band that was more kin to INXS. It was pretty painful.
Northgate State, better known as North Seattle Community College. It took me eight years to get my Associates Degree. My advisor one day was like, 'Hey, you know you're only 10 credits away from graduating. Maybe you should really think about getting out of here," and I did.
No, I was always too shy and I had zero self-confidence when it came to trying to pick up chicks, so I definitely did it for the music. I loved the music and I was really into it. From the time I saw that band do a Led Zeppelin cover and seeing my first concert, I was drawn to it.
Tell me about this college band.
It was called, I don't even remember the name of it. I think it was called QED, I have no idea. Stupid name. There's YouTube video of it somewhere. [Ed note: You bet there is! Watch a montage of their greatest hits here.]
When you're in a band like that, what keeps you motivated to keep playing?
I was really into competitive distance running. In addition to that, I was waiting tables three nights a week. My goal was to work as little as possible and have fun doing everything else. I enjoyed running a playing guitar, so I just wanted to find a band to kind of get into it. The more I played, and this was back in the mid-80s, all these great bands started coming out and I started discovering stations like KJET and KCMU before it became KEXP and discovering music like Julian Cope, Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen. I was at a concert where the Beastie Boys opened for Madonna. It just changed my life and the more I'd see these bands my interest in guitar evolved.
What's your most memorable Seattle concert?
The Beastie Boys and Madonna performed at the Paramount and that was really cool. I think that was right around '84-'85. I can't remember. I saw Spinal Tap twice. I saw Spinal Tap at Bumbershoot and then I saw them again at the Paramount with guys from Alice in Chains, Heart and Pearl Jam playing with them on stage. It was amazing.
That wouldn't happen today.
It wouldn't happen today and I loved it! Little things like that were special. I'm trying to think who else I would have seen back in the day. There were just so many great shows that came into town. I saw Julian Cope at the Backstage in Ballard.
I thought the Backstage in Ballard, which is now the Ballard Health Club, was really cool. I really liked that one a lot. And RCKNDY. I saw Lush there and I really loved them--great band from England. Gorilla Gardens and Golden Crown. They were both downtown. There was a place on The Ave which was above where Tower Records used to be. I can't remember the name of it.
What's your favorite Seattle concert venue today that still exists?
It's got to be the Tractor [Tavern]. People like Dan Cowan whose been the proprietor there for years, he just gets it. Anybody who would strictly look at it from a financial side wouldn't make it, but he weathered really tough times with the economy and stuck it out. To this day, whether it's having real small acts or big national acts, it's still a place he's created as an institution in the city. The fact that [King of Hawaii] opened for Neko Case one year  was the coolest thing, and it happened at the Tractor. I'd say that's still my favorite place. I think the Triple Door is an amazing place to see shows and it's a beautiful venue and the acoustics are spot-on.
What was the last show you went to?
I saw Frank Black at the Triple Door which was really cool and the Pixies at the Paramount a month later. But in terms of small acts, I haven't been out to see any in a really long time.
Did King of Hawaii happen before or after Top Pot?
Oh, before. 1996.
What were you doing in 1996?
I had gotten out of restaurants and I was working with my brother Michael doing construction on the side and basically learning my way around cabinetry and woodworking. At the tail-end of 1995, Michael and another brother had opened a place called Kid Mohair on Pine Street, which is now the Baltic Room. So, we spent six months building out that location and opening that. From there, I pretty much was just picking up side work here-and-there and learning more about being self-employed. A girl broke up with me and I was devastated, so I had my guitar and I started playing more and more of these surfy kind of tunes. My brother was like, "That sounds pretty cool," so Michael really encouraged me to keep playing. In late 1995 through the beginning of '96, I set up in my mom's basement and wrote the first King of Hawaii record.
Yeah. I didn't know what I wanted for a name, I was sitting around with my brother and my mom and my sister-in-law and we were bouncing around names and my sister-in-law said something like, 'You're the king of Hawaii," and it stuck.
Have you ever been to Hawaii?
Yes. I love it.
Had you been to Hawaii before you named your band King of Hawaii?
I was there in 1985 and I hated it. I had just been to Australia for six months and I just wanted to get home, but a friend I had gone over with wanted to stop in Honolulu and it was the day after Christmas and I was homesick. I love Hawaii now, don't get me wrong, but I would have been better off being in a remote part of Hawaii. Instead I was in the dead center of Honolulu and it was like being in Vegas. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. It was a recipe for disaster.
So, you name your band King of Hawaii even though you hate Hawaii...
I don't hate Hawaii. I do not hate Hawaii. I love Hawaii! I've gone back since, my wife took me to Maui, and it's the most beautiful place on earth!
You just liked the sound of King of Hawaii.
It's not Hawaiian music. It has elements of country twang, if anything. I think it has a Spanish kind of flare to it in a lot of ways and then it has a lot of hybrids of surf music.
Still to this day, is that how you'd describe your music?
Yeah, it's gone through incarnations of sound, but I would say for the most part, it's a fusion of those three musical stylings. So, [King of Hawaii] was just a name that seemed very catchy and I love it. It still cracks me up when people say Kings of Hawaii.
No, I have a friend who is like 6'7"-- a really tall, lanky drummer. He's an engineer now at Boeing. I called him up and he brought his drums over. So, it was just the two of us. When it came time to lay down tracks for a CD, I played the keyboard, bass, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. The drums were the only thing I didn't play.
Eventually you had to bring on other members, right?
Once we started getting booked for live shows. I had to find a bass player and a rhythm guitar player to play the parts I played on the CD. So, I put an ad in The Rocket and two guys answered it. One guy, Steve Davis, had just graduated from high school and showed up in this big Cadillac and I gave him the gig. The other guy, also named Steve, the rhythm guitar player, was an IRS agent. Steve Davis went on to play in a couple of different bands, including Brent Amaker and the Rodeo. He's an amazing lead guitarist!
We started playing more radio gigs and then we put out Henry, Call Home, our second CD, and had great success with that and sold a lot of copies, booked more tours. And then the two Steves left the band. At that time, I was starting to get more and more into construction with my brother Michael. And about two weeks before they left the band, I got a call to see if we wanted to open for the Beach Boys down at the Pier.
What year was this?
2000. I had to scramble because those guys had already taken off and so the current band that I have now is Dave [Dysart]--who's the guy who engineered both of our records--who plays rhythm guitar guitar, his wife Dana who plays keyboards, and another woman named Lauren Hendrix who is our bass player. There's a guy by the name of John Bishop who owns the largest jazz label in the country and he's our drummer. He's this amazing, accomplished jazz drummer.
Bumbershoot in '97 was huge. And then I'd say the Beach Boys at the Pier was big. I can't remember how many thousands of people were there, but that was huge; opening for Link Wray, who's now dead, at the Backstage was a bid deal because he's a legend; and Neko Case. Those might not be the biggest as far as attendance, but they were so packed in these small venues that those were memorable shows.
How often do you play shows these days?
Why do you think all of these people, as busy as they are, agreed to be in your band?
I think they enjoy it. I would hope they do. It's not for money. For instance, if we get a gig at the Tractor, especially if it's opening for a national act, I'm happy to play it. We might get paid $200 and everybody takes $20 for gas, but we play because we enjoy it. I think they like the music. I think they love the ability to get out and play. It's therapeutic in so many ways.
How has your nearly 20-year King of Hawaii history helped Top Pot?
Most of the marketing strategy I use at Top Pot today stems from all the footwork and grassroots marketing I did for the band. I read this article one time that said, 'Make yourself seem bigger than you are' and put it out there because people don't know you. It's like even with Top Pot, I still think of it as a small company. We may have roots in Seattle and people may identify with it, but there are still a lot of people who don't know about it. I never let my guard down. I go out and do everything I can to continue marketing Top Pot and putting it out there, whether it's a book or television or articles. You've got to put yourself out there in front of people.
I was still playing pretty actively, even after the first Top Pot opened. Before the 5th Avenue location opened, the second location, I was playing a lot of shows but I was busy. Financially, I was in a position where I had to work. I loved the music and I would play the occasional show, but I didn't want to make a paying gig out of it. I don't think I made a subconscious choice between music and business. With Top Pot, it became apparent that there were just so many players getting involved, friends and family and employees, and it became a lucrative thing. All of the sudden, I could pay bills. Then I got married and had kids and the responsibility just sort of came with that. As the company evolves, it's just more and more responsibility.
If you were to make a King of Hawaii doughnut, what would it taste like?
The perfect King of Hawaii doughnut would be--I'm going to be really radical here--mango, toasted crab meat...I'm serious.
Hey! Don't knock it 'til you try it! And avocado.
Mango, toasted crab meat and avocado?
On a yeast-raised doughnut, sliced down the center.