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Damn the Tangents! Full Speed Ahead!: Searching For A Pulse On The Nation with Cobra Verde's John Petkovic
Lollipop Magazine
By Jon Sarre

An innocent editor's question (well, no one's ever really innocent, especially an editor) along the lines of "anyone out in this big bad world that you wanna interview?", eventually got me sitting by my phone on a sweltering summer's day talkin' cranky with COBRA VERDE frontman/mainstay John Petkovic. Cobra Verde is from Cleveland, which maybe explains why they don't flick on a switch like Barenaked Ladies (who are from Canada, so that explains even less) and plunder the excesses of glam'n'glitter'n'trash with a combination of art rock sensibility and studio rat obsession, or so they say, but like Billy Joel once sung about someone else's music "It's still rock'n'roll to me." All attempts to nail John down on the finer points of Cobra Verde's aesthetic and how it developed from his previous outfit, '80s snotty art punks Death of Samantha, were skillfully evaded because of his finely honed (at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Alternative Press, to name only two) reporter's instincts. Either that or all my hunches were (gasp) horribly wrong.

I wanna talk about Death of Samantha for a second, if ya don't mind. Believe it or not, Death of Samantha was one of my favorite bands of all time...

Yeah, it's weird cuz you guys had a low profile, but one of the things I used to see in DoS that I don't see in Cobra Verde is you guys had this satirical flair and you threw in a lot of in-joke references, like on "Blood Creek," there's that line, I assume you guys ripped it off of [legendary late Cleveland underground rocker] Peter Laughner, from "Dear Richard," the "walk away from the window" line...
JP: Man, I don't know, I mean, maybe... people kinda take certain lines from things, but sometimes you don't even know if you are or not, if it's a conscious thing or not. I mean there's probably rip-offs all over the place.

I always thought with you guys, it seemed more or less intentional, I have this Shonen Knife tribute record [I picked a bad example], you guys do a track ["Redd Kross"] and you throw a bit of the "Turning Japanese" riff [from one-hit New Wavers the Vapors] in the beginning there...
JP: Yeah, well, that was pretty much a... vulgar joke. I always like to throw in little things like that... it's kinda like it happens and it ends up being a routine, you don't really think that much about it.

That kinda screwed up my question...
JP: Well, ya have to acknowledge certain reference points, there's reference points to everything... I think rock'n'roll should have a continuum, don't you think?

Yeah, I don't think you can get away without one, the way things are now, you can spot 'em all over the place, so it's best to kinda tip your hand a little...
v JP: But I think there's still a real trick to how people can sorta combine certain ideas in types of music so it kind of fits in a new context.

But isn't that almost more of a marketing strategy, like fitting into a niche? Like a few years back, after Green Day was very popular and then you had all these bands who were basically ripping off the Buzzcocks...
JP: But I wonder if they were rippin' off the Buzzcocks, cuz that's what I was thinkin', but then I came to realize most of these guys didn't know who the Buzzcocks were... what is the source of the fabrication? It gets pretty mind-boggling after a while.

So who you rippin' off here?
vv JP: I dunno, I don't think... there's definitely some different things in there, all over the place, but, man, I just find things I like... watch a movie on TV and just play along...

You guys [in Cobra Verde versus Death of Samantha] sound a bit world weary. Is that just the simple fact that you've gotten older, or is it... it seems like the playful edge of Death of Samantha is not in the newer band, even though, at least when you first started it, you had essentially the same people.
JP: Yeah, but it's always been a different thing... I just like sounds more, you know? So many people are pullin' cheap jokes it's kinda like... this is an era where everything is irrelevant.

There's detatched irony in everything...
JP: Yeah... I really don't wanna have nothin' to do with it. I don't think [Cobra Verde] is dour, cuz I'm not really into that... I don't really feel like I'm older now, I mean, I'm probably angrier than I've ever been in my life.

How come?
JP: Just a deep resignation to...uh... it's not just the media...[but] how things come and go, things just blow by, things are irrelevant... the culture's been sorta warm and soothing... it's set that way.

Look at Bill Clinton, how he's kinda in the middle there, the middle of the road... okay, I have a history degree, so I'm gonna use it here... look back to the Monroe Administration, it was called the "Era of Good Feelings," he, like Clinton, had two terms, but he didn't get all that much done and it was later on, people realized that the country was really a mess... even if everything [had been] warm and fuzzy...
JP: The problem I'm having is things are perceived as irrelevant, I mean I really fuckin' hate Bill Clinton... he's kinda like the worst kind of music I can imagine.

He's the Spice Girls of politics...
JP: It's horrible, man... I would prefer the turbulent Italian Parliament to this big warm and fuzzy nothin'. This may seem trivial bullshit, for [Clinton's] inauguration, the song he had piping was "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow." The most kitsch sentiment you can imagine. It's like when those two security guards got killed by that guy in the Capital, remember that? It's another side of American kitsch. Newt Gingrich is like, "They died defending democracy." They weren't defending democracy, they were doing there jobs. The schmaltz and the kitsch it fuckin' drives you crazy!

Even if you say something, you sorta get crashed under the weight of the inertia, or people think you're joking, or you're nuts, you're a crank. We're in a situation where people don't care about anything.
JP: Maybe that answers the question of why I'm not being so ironic or funny. It's not world weariness, it's matter of fact.

So... uh... how's the new record [Nightlife] doin'? It took forever to come out. I first read about it in Flipside back in '97.
JP: Well, the Guided by Voices thing came up.

Tell me a little about that. Bob [Pollard of GBV] has this click of people who are like fallin' all over themselves to praise everything he does. So, did you talk to people like that? What'd they think?
JP: I think it was mixed. Yeah, there's this core of people who are real fanatical.

Really annoying.
JP: Well, fanaticism is like the inside stuff. It was fun to do for a while.

He [Pollard] seemed like he was havin' a good time at the Portland show. Do you think that touring as part of GBV turned some people on to your band? Do you think it helped at all?
JP: I dunno... I had to get back and finish this record... it sounds corny, but I just wanted to put out a record I liked, not that I don't care if people like it or not, but it's really irrelevant.

So Doug [Gillard DoS/CV/GBV guitarist] and Dave [Swanson, former bass player/drummer for DoS/CV] don't play on this record?
JP: Some of it, but this thing was always more of a thing with me and Don [Depew, Cobra Verde producer/bassist] and his studio... it was always me and Don working on it. We'd just mess around with sound, to me that's more fun, doin' a record like that then everyone coming in and trying to create a "moment."

The sound's really full. It feels really thought out, to again compare to Death of Samantha, which was always more...
JP: Chaotic?

Yeah, thrown together and then you guys would layer in some extra instrumentation like the incredibly cheesy string arrangements on "Sylvia Plath"...
JP: I didn't think that was cheesy at the time.

I always thought it was more of a joke, Peter Laughner's original is sorta stripped down. You guys almost do it lounge.
JP: I kinda like that.

I do too, people have two reactions, it's either completely unlistenable or "this is brilliant." Most people I talk to like Cobra Verde better than Death of Samantha, though.
JP: I like it better, I have more fun... I'm making the music I really like to make. I mess with these analogs and you can never get those sounds again.

It's almost jazz that way, y'know?
JP: It's more spontaneous than a band goin' in there... I don't think bands play [in the studio] like they do in a club...

I think a band's more tense in the studio... there's all this pressure and everyone gets mad during the mixing.
JP: I know, it's totally true...

You been out playing and putting out records since about '85?
JP: Yeah, '85 or 86...

Ever feel like it's gonna go anywhere?
JP: If it goes anywhere or not, I don't care. I've come to realize that if it goes anywhere it would be for a short period of time. It's better to do what you wanna do... The worst thing about indie rock was when it had carrots dangled in front of it and those carrots never materialized... I mean I'd rather have Brian Adams of the radio, I'd rather have Sting on the radio...

When that stuff was really goin' on... I mean, I think the pinnacle of American indie rock was Homestead [Records] around 1985-87... you had all these great bands... Big Black, Naked Raygun, the Reactions... Great Plains... Volcano Suns, Dinosaur Jr [forgot Live Skull, Big Dipper, Breaking Circus Antietam and Sonic Youth], blah, blah, blah... I noticed you look where the bands are from, there's a lot from the MidWest, more than a couple from Massachusetts, Louisville, Ky... places that aren't New York or LA...
JP: The thing is, there's a lot of horrible bands out there too... they're like clueless idiots, they say, "How can I get big?" Tryin' to be mini-Alice in Chains...

vv Ever look at a "Musicians Wanted" classified, everybody's "professional attitude"... "major label interest."
JP: You know, I had some major labels callin' me and shit for this thing... I told 'em, and this sounds stupid, I asked "If I signed to your label, would I have to quit my job?" They were kinda like, "Are you crazy?" I still wanna do other things, makin' money off of music that'd be okay... but I don't wanna be like those guys who make a career out of it, you know those guys who all talk about their heroin problems?

It's like a resume for rock'n'roll, drug addiction, suicide attempts, 87 sidemen, 12 drummers, fucked Courtney Love.
JP:Yeah, like you kinda wish they'd get different jobs to learn somethin' else to inform their music.

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