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How does one deal with a life changing personal tragedy in their life? For John Petkovic, he writes songs about it and starts a band. It's true that Mr. Petkovic had a substantial history of playing in bands already. Besides the one he fronted (Cobra Verde), he was also an influential member of Guided by Voices as well as playing with legendary Dinosaur Jr frontman J Mascis in one of his side projects - J Mascis and The Fog. After a lengthy illness, John's mother passed away, sending the musician on a cross-country drive in the hope of clearing his head and an attempt to make sense of it all.
What came out of that journey was the genesis for John's latest musical project - Sweet Apple. I was fortunate to have obtained an advanced copy of their album and have spent some quality time listening to it all. The band consists of Mr. Petkovic's Cobra Verde fellow guitarist Tim Parnin, Witch bassist Dave Sweetapple (for whom Mascis also plays drums for) and the indie legend J. Mascis himself (mostly on drums, but also contributing timely and instantly recognizable guitar licks and background vocals). I caught up with John Petkovic in a recent phone interview, in hopes of finding out what the source of these songs were, and what the bands present plans are.
John Petkovic of Sweet Apple – Interview:
Q: "Do You Remember" is the first single off your debut album. Can you break down who does what on this?
John: I play guitar and do the singing. I also wrote the lyrics. J. Mascis plays the drums and also adds a bit of guitar. Dave is on bass and Tim chips in with some guitar parts as well.
Q: "Hello it's me" is a central lyrical hook, just before the title line. Do you know the Todd Rundgren song by the same title?
John: I'm familiar with the song, but it really wasn't a reference point for this composition.
Q: One lyric goes "what happened to the songs you played for me?" - what is this in reference to?
John: It’s not what you might think - that I’m talking to someone else. It’s more along the lines of me having a conversation with myself – referencing the fact that I’m “breaking up” with myself, if you can follow that train of thought.
Q: Sure. Bob Dylan once gave the same explanation for "Like A Rolling Stone." He once said that he was "singing that to himself." OK, the next song on the album - “I’ve Got A Feeling (That Won’t Change)” is quite good. You can really hear the full band’s contributions, and not surprisingly, J Mascis sound is quite apparent on drums, some guitar soloing and background vocals. In particular his drawled response to your “come on, come on” where he then goes, “I got a feeling that won’t change”. Did the two of you sit in a room together and write this song?
John: Actually I wrote, pretty much, most of it. When I wrote that vocal response you mention, I told J ‘I wrote this great part for you. It’s in your own particular style. He said to me ‘I don’t sound anything like that’. [Laughter] But, I was thinking of him when I wrote it.
Q: So, the lyrics are all yours here?
John: Yeah, I pretty much wrote that one right from my home. The opening lines are me just reacting to what’s in front of me. “Staring out the window, watching cars go by” – and then the first part I gave J to sing – “I wish I could drive away”
I also hear keyboard synths. When it comes in its a bit of a surprising texture - you might not expect it on this kind of a song.
John: Yeah, we wanted to add some keyboard textures to our sound. We didn't want it to fall into that grungy alty band cliché, where it can only be noisy guitar, drums and bass.
Q: I understand that a lot of the songs came out of you very quickly. That after you had your initial meeting with Dave and J, that you literally wrote a number of songs on your drive back to Cleveland from Massachusetts.
John: Yeah, the songs "Cant See You," "Crawling Over Bodies” and "Good Night" were all songs I wrote right away after J suggested I should.
Q: The song sounds very 'live in the studio' - like it was literally done in one take. Was it?
John: Well, what I did are, for the most part. Tim and I put the initial tracks together at home in Cleveland. Then I sent these tracks to J in Amherst, and he added his parts there. The same for Dave's bass. So, we've actually never really played together with this band yet. Though J and Dave play together in Witch, Tim and I have played together for a while and I played with J in his band J Mascis and the Fog, and I also contributed to some of his solo albums.
Q: But you're going to be playing together soon.
John: Yes, were playing our first live shows at SXSW and then we'll be coming to New York on April 20 for our record release show.
"Flying Up A Mountain" has got a nice stomping riff. The lyrics appear to be of a somewhat tongue-in-cheek autobiographical sort.
John: It's not even all that tongue-in-cheek. Sure, lines like "I wasn't born I was de-attached" take a bit of artistic license. But it's true that "I popped out way too soon, cause I couldn't stand it inside"
Q: You also mention being a pyromaniac and a baby marxist.
John: I was those things. Growing up Serbian in Croatia, we had Marxist influences in our lives. But I ultimately rebelled against everything at one point or another.
Q: You also sing that you "ran on a broken leg" and "burned down the house." And that your Dad tried to "beat the devil out of " you "but couldn't because "the devil was inside that house". Despite being embedded in a uptempo rock number, these appear to be somewhat revealing lyrics.
John: I didn't really have a great emotional relationship with my Dad - it was more of an intellectual one.
Q: Which brings up to the big hook and the title line stating that even though you are "flying up a mountain" you still feel like you are "crashing down. " Is that how it feels for you these days?
John: Yeah, the song kind of expresses how all of these things that are a part of my past - my life's history - have just flew by me. And how at one point, anyway, it all just feels like everything is crashing down around me. But I think I'm ok now [laughter].
Q: “It’s Over Now" is one of my favorite songs on the album.. This one kinda reminds of that Ronnie Lane/Ronnie Wood era of the Faces.
John: Ah ,that's great you would say that. We love the Faces from that era. Our bassist Dave is a bit Faces guy and he pushes us to do the song like this.
Q: I think music fans are partial to "heartbreak" songs anyway. It plays to the overemotional needy child in all of us. Along with the great early 70's Faces sound, lyrics like "the glass we drank out of is smashed across the floor" tells the story of a relationship that was once good - but now no more.. "Cause it gone" is the emotional refrain. It's just as much a part of life - that feeling of "gone" - but it seems to have the same impact on you regardless of how old you get.
John: Absolutely. Even though this song may have stemmed from personal things in my life, I think the theme of loss and separation is something that people can always relate to.
Q: "Maybe settling on settling" is a great lyric. So is "I can see in your angry eyes that you want to start again".
John: Hey, thanks. I try to present my thoughts and feelings in the best way I know how. I'm always glad to hear that other people are getting it too.
Q: "Can't See You" is the song where you sing "I drove and drove and drove and drove. And drove and drove and drove and drove."
John: I wrote that one right after the meeting with Dave and J - where J said I should start writing some songs for a new band we could all be in.
Q: The hooky refrain that goes "But I-I-I-I-I-I - can't see you" has the same feel as The Electric Light Orchestra's "but I-I-I-I-I-I never seen nuthin' like you" hook.
John: Ha. Good point of reference. Once again, this wasn't intended, but I see what you mean by that.
Q: Great guitar outtro that sounds like J. Mascis.
John: Yeah, you can't mistake that sound.
Q: "Hold Me I'm Dying" is another fave of mine. A straightforward stomping number. "Smooth as milk and filthy clean." Do you consciously put together words that are opposite in meaning?
John: Not necessarily. I see what you are referring to - filthy and clean are two sides of a spectrum. But in the context of the song you should be able to get the meaning.
Q: Oh, for sure. Moving through the album now, "Blindfold" starts off ominously, with it's rubbery born-on-the-bayou guitar lick, fuzz-buzz bass and jungle-drums tom tom thump. "I see the eyes in your tears," is odd opening lyrical twist. "But can you see the fog in my head?" is the immediate follow-up question. The guitar chords and thumping drums have a Black Sabbath-like power to them. Was this intentional?
John: Yeah, we wanted to go total power-heavy rock on this one. I'm glad you dig it.
"Somebody Else's Problem" is shaped somewhat like the lo-fi recordings Sub Pop released back in their early days of the 1990, when you had to subscribe to their limited edition vinyl singles release club. With much of the output being side projects from people like Thurston Moore and J. Mascis - as well as their producers (who were also musicians as well) like Don Flemming - those records were relatively clean sounding, giving the appearance (most likely correct) that they were recorded quickly. I'm impressed with the diversity of sound on this album. Was that your goal from the start?
John: It seems like it appears that way now. I think an album evolves in the recording - oftentimes well after the songs have been written.
Q: Lyrically, the sentiment is relief at finally being free from a bad relationship. "cause your somebody else's problem - thank God you ain't mine - cause I might be in jail right now, but killing you ain't worth the time," and "I know you feel the same way about me." It's amusing to hear peppy hand claps backing a song surrounding this subject matter.
John: Yeah, its a song that deals with breaking up with someone and not having to deal with their problems anymore. That in itself can be very liberating.
Q: "Dead Moon" has a near "Beach Boys' feel to it. With a percussion track that mimics the beats one of those vintage player-organs that used to also double as a piece of furniture in one of your friends grandmother's house, the vocals are delivered in dreamy Brian Wilson falsetto chorus.
John: We love that sound so wanted to do at least one song that had this kind of feel.
Q: "Crawling Over Bodies" brings back the raspy-throat vocals for the verses, only to return to falsetto sweetness for the chorus which recites the songs title. The guitars are full and crunchy, with proper trash-can-n' thump drums. There is a sweet interlude with sinewy guitar solo. The songs subject matter seems to delve in possible drug abuse and all the pitfalls that come with that.
John: Being in a band for as long as I have, you are bound to run across this sort of thing. When I sing "I gotta leave you, you gotta leave me too" its one of those universal vibes that most people can relate to.
Q: "Never Came" is almost blues-metal-into-progrock in it's approach. Centered around an amped-up blues riff that Jeff Beck might enjoy, the drumming matches the intensity with crisp press rolls and power snare accents. Guitar riffs dual their way through two separate solo areas and you can tell this one could very well be a live show highlight.
John: We certainly would like that. Hopefully our live show can be something that people will enjoy.
Q: "Goodnight" is downright poppy compared to many of the previous songs on the album. The chorus is big sing-along type affair where you could image it pumping out of bar jukeboxes as the well-oiled patrons sing along as they shoot pool and shoot the breeze with each other. The center of this song, however, plays some heavy riffs, just to make sure no one thinks its all radio friendly pop.
John: Thanks. Yeah, we tried to cover a lot of different styles of music on this record and hopefully we achieved that.