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Not so easy listening
Cobra Verde's John Petkovic isn't afraid to rankle rock out of its stultifying slumber
by Eric Davidson
Nov. 26, 2003
To say there's a dearth of critical social/political rankling in pop music these days would be comically understated. But even in the underground arena, where rock music has always dug for its next fearless finger-pointer, the lack of any healthy indignation has been glaring.
John Petkovic, singer for Cleveland glam-rockers Cobra Verde, lives rankled. He's been fronting bands since the late '80s, when his first group, Death of Samantha, collectively thumbed their shnoz against prevailing trends by playing a kind of Rust/Borscht Belt Roxy Music in the burgeoning face of grunge. And through the later '90s to now, as the indie rock landscape has increasingly grasped at the "authenticity" of lo-fi recording or garage "roots," Cobra Verde has constructed gutter arias like German architects, rolling out some of the best rock slabs of the day, their latest being Easy Listening (Muscle Tone).
Along the way, Petkovic's been a freelance writer, journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a frequent political commentator on public radio and even some CNN call-in segments. His Serbian family heritage-and equal respect for Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the New York Dolls-give Cobra Verde a Renaissance aura that's rarely found at any level of pop music. And he never shies from dishing on the hypocritical scam artists that populate the music biz, including himself.
Of course that sort of thing won't get you a three-page spread in Spin. So, despite being around for nearly 10 years, Cobra Verde remain a fringe happening. Which seems fine by Petkovic, who spoke to me from his home up north.
You've been doing this for awhile and, over the history of the band, you've had to deal with frequent line-up changes, working around jobs, dealing with the inadequacies of indie label distribution, etc. What keeps you going?
We just have a lot of fun. Most bands worry too much how this and that will lead to the next career level or whatever. We actually have fun doing what we're doing at the time we're doing it. It's not like we do something because this is going to lead into some greater strategy. Obviously you do things sometimes where they're going to lead to something-like we just did this video, with George Wendt Cheers and Mike Watt in it-but we just had fun working on it. So maybe it'll get played or something, but we're not worrying about it.
This is the longest you've had a steady line-up, right?
Yeah, basically the same line-up since about '99. All the early line-up changes didn't really matter because it was mainly a recording project at first. Once I got Mark [drummer Mark Klein] and Frank [guitarist Frank Vazzano], we did more shows in one month than Cobra Verde had ever done.
Yeah, it does seem like the earlier records are a little more constructed, and with each record it sounds more like a full band.
It is a full band now. We still construct the records, or at least they end up about half done quick and half constructed. I think all great records are as much a matter of construction as inspiration. But we also just did an album of covers in a pretty quick amount of time. Actually, there are three songs on the new record that we wrote in about a day in the studio.
There are two kinds of myths that are always at work it seems. Like this punk rock myth where you go in there and just bash it out. Then there's this singer/songwriter myth where you sit and craft the song. Our songs are neither. My definition of a great song is something that could be covered by everyone. Like the song has its own personality, but the structure has a universality to it. So our songs could always have gone in some different direction. Like when I hear a song on the radio and I start singing along, I sing a harmony to it.
At this stage in your life, with everyone having real jobs and all, is it hard to fit touring in?
No, not at all. It's easy. Everyone really has fun doing this. I think it's harder when a band becomes your full-time gig. It's like if you were approaching a 10-mile run with an attitude of, "I'm gonna knock this out." It's easy. But if it's like, "Oh shit, I've got another 10-mile run to do tomorrow too," your time is going to go way down. We just get shit done very easily. It's not like we're worried about what some label thinks, or are we going to alienate this or that audience.
I think that's one of those myths where people think once you get some big money from a major label, then you can quit jobs and just really focus on the band. But usually they lose focus.
Yeah, because you're caught up in this twisted ball of emotional yarn. Suddenly it puts all this undue pressure on things. We don't have pressure on this band. Sometimes there's pressure; we did a lot of touring this year all over the country, lots of recording and interviews and whatever. And we approach it seriously. But just not with all the emotional baggage.
Well, what about getting everyone together to practice and stuff?
Oh, we never practice. Basically I walk in and show the guys a song, and we figure it out. In general, we don't practice, we don't talk about the band, we don't have band meetings, no emotional crises-none of that shit. I mean if a band has been together for awhile and you need to practice, then that band is in trouble. We know our parts, I guess. Everyone in this band just knows music. We just did a covers record-12 songs in 2 days. We had never even heard all the songs together. I guess everyone in the band is just a good player, and really into music.
I'm always kind of a contrarian. If I'm in a room with a bunch of liberals, I feel like a conservative. And if I'm in a room with a bunch of conservatives, I feel like a liberal. And I feel that same response to our music.
So when you hear about a good party, you make sure to go to a different one?
Yeah, I get sick of the same thing. I hope we don't do the same record twice.
This new one definitely sounds different, more straight-up catchy, more fluid.
Yeah, you can't control the revulsion for what you just did. That's why with the Death of Samantha stuff, I'd never even re-release it. I just have no interest in that. It kind of creeps me out thinking about our last record, let alone something I did years ago.
Each record has it's own personality, and you should just move on. With us it's easy. I mean every band has some trouble sometimes, but as corny as it sounds, you can never underestimate the power of having fun and enjoying what you're doing. I've been around bands where people just don't seem to have fun with it.
Yeah, when I saw Junior Senior recently, they were just so much fun-not totally silly, but just an exuberant good time. And I wondered if America can ever come up with a band like that again, because bands here are so self-conscious. They come to the band with so many complexes in their head about music, that they can't just make songs and enjoy it.
Part of it is because a lot of these people are the children of yuppie parents who worry about being seen at the right restaurant or the right function. So it's understandable that their children would be as self-conscious about doing the right kind of music. I'm not saying we're naive, but there is a degree of innocence in this band that doesn't exist in a lot of bands. We've never even been approached by a major label. I mean I've received calls and e-mails, but I never responded to them. So we've never even flirted with worrying about making rent or selling out or whatever, it's never gotten to that point.
Well you guys all seem like you have other things you can do beyond the band. Like you look at Liz Phair, or these aging indie rockers who've coasted on being critical darlings for awhile. Then suddenly they're 34 with nothing to show, at least economically, for it. So they go for this brass ring of a bigger label and big-time producer, and end up looking like an idiot, effectively erasing all the previous work.
Yeah, and that thing is going to fail anyway. We don't want to be chumps. We just like music.
Do you think any of that attitude came out of the Guided By Voices experiences? [From 1996 to 1998, Cobra Verde was the back-up band for Bob Pollard in a version of Guided By Voices.]
That was a situation where it's a job for those guys. Now profit margins aren't as lucrative as they once were, so that means cranking out more stuff. We never had to worry about that stuff. You see those guys and, well, whatever. They do what they want to do. That's fine if people want to slog away and kill each other, and get all burned up inside because they didn't get a quarter of that crumb they thought they were going to get. I mean that's chump change.
But you guys do all have other things you can do, steady jobs and that.
But more than that, I honestly think all of us have too much dignity to be chumps. None of us are going to be some asshole in a band. No fucking way. I mean we work hard on the band and care about it. We just worked on that video, and Mark made this poster for it. We get excited about stuff like that, and so many bands don't get excited about any of that. They just pass on that stuff to middlemen-well they usually can't even afford the middlemen-so they pass it on to nobody.
Does "Riot Industry" have anything to do with that?
That's more about how I'm leery of a society where you have to be reminded every day that you are free. It's about wondering how free you really are. People are so burdened by this notion that they are free. It's the same with bands. They're so burdened by this version of what a band is supposed to do that there's no escaping it. In many ways, in a totalitarian society you're much more liberated because you know exactly where you stand and how you are defined.
It's like the Weimar Republic in America these days. Deep down people know everything is going to shit, but they just don't even worry at all anymore. So people just go watch the Girls Gone Wild videos and wait for Rome to burn.
What gets me is you hear all this about "Bush is bad" and "Bush's War." This ain't Bush's war. This is a war about the American empire. Everyone supported this war. The media supported this war; the Democrats and Republicans supported it; Hillary supported this war. Much like Germany needed a de-Nazification process, America needs something similar.
I had some friends visiting from New York, and I was so tired of hearing about how 9/11 affected them. Or columnists writing about how "America will never be innocent again." You've fucking been bombing people. You bombed Yugoslavia without U.N. support- Clinton did that-committed war crimes in Yugoslavia by bombing electrical grids, civilian centers. You never hear about that. I was in Yugoslavia three days before 9/11, and I saw buildings that fucking American planes had bombed. It's disgusting. I'm even sick of all these sad stories from 9/11 because basically it prepared the terrain. It consolidated the public to get behind this war.
You see the way propaganda works. In totalitarian societies people didn't believe all this shit they were being told, and they at least sat around their kitchen tables and expressed their disgust. Here people don't even know what they're being told.
And they've got all these toys to take up their attention, and have to work so much to pay off the toys, they don't have time to sit around a kitchen table and talk.
I was reading Spin magazine, where they think they talk about what's "happening." In this "It" issue, they refer to the Strokes' debut as "culture shifting." There's not one word in the whole issue that there's a war going on. And the bands that they write as "It" bands never even mention this war.
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