Q&A With Sweet Apple’s John Petkovic

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Sweet Apple is more than just a question of Cobra Verde’s John Petkovic and Tim Parnin having some teenage kicks with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and Witch’s Dave Sweetapple. It’s the answer to the heartache, grief and depression that led Petkovic to drive from Cleveland to Vermont, where he rediscovered the healing powers of rock ‘n’ roll with some help from his friends. Love & Desperation (Tee Pee) isn’t a fountain of youth, but it’ll do in a pinch: a combination of stomping ’70s arena-rock riffs, Petkovic’s well-honed T Rex swagger and Mascis’ hard-wired guitar leads servicing lurid tales of sex, drugs and vampires. (Appropriately, the video for Sweet Apple’s “Do You Remember” was conceived as an homage to Porky’s, and the cover of Love & Desperation parodies the art for Roxy Music’s Country Life.) MAGNET spoke to Petkovic about bars, basketball and the chance that this new band might have been named Gong Bag. The members of Sweet Apple will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Do You Remember” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/DoYouRemember.mp3


MAGNET: First of all, I think it’s funny that you are in a band with J Mascis. You’re very talkative, and J is … not.
Petkovic: Yeah, on the surface we’re very different—like the Beauty and the Beast, except that we’re not exactly beautiful or beastly. But we have a lot in common. We both got into music at an early age and for the same reason: because we both just love it, from the sound of guitars to the idea that a good song can take you away from the drab soundtrack of life’s routines. And we both had parents that expected different things out of us in life and, early on, couldn’t grasp how much of a role music played and would play in our lives. But there are similarities beyond that: We like to tease one another—about those differences, especially. As in, me talking too much and him not talking enough. But we’ve also been able to talk about just about anything, the good, the bad and the mundane, and laughing about it all. J has a great sense of humor that gets lost on people sometimes. And he can laugh at himself, which is something I’ve always admired in people.

Last time we talked was around 2008, when Cobra Verde’s Haven’t Slept All Year was coming out. As that album title indicates, you were coming off a year of insomnia and caring for your mother, who passed away from bladder cancer. And one day you started driving east from Cleveland …
It’s crazy, but I had no idea what I was going to do. I just ended up at Dave Sweetapple’s house and, honestly, I felt a little weird there at the time. I was so lost and confused and dead inside that I had no idea what to say or how to express it. My mom had died a really terrible death. It was the culmination of a number of things that had hit me all at once. I felt so alone in the world and totally lost. As a kid, I used to watch these Ingmar Bergman films about people in deep despair and, while I could appreciate them as films, they were just stories, character profiles. And yet I felt like one of those people. Dave was really sweet and so was J—he showed up the next morning and we all hung out. It meant so much to me. We were at the food co-op in Brattleboro, Vt., and I stepped out for a cigarette. (I was smoking three packs a day at the time.) I just started crying uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to say and just had to go. But I also felt this urge to play guitar. I can’t even explain it. When I got back to Cleveland, Tim (Parnin) called to see how I was doing and I told him I was working on some tunes. He said he’d like to getting together to jam. It’s so weird how everything came together.

How did Dave feel about being the namesake of the band? Does it entitle him to special privileges?
Well, I think he’s going to have to change his middle name to “From.” Because it’s really funny hearing him talk to people about this and say he’s “Dave from Sweet Apple.” Especially when they respond, “I thought you were Dave Sweetapple.” As for special privileges, Dave thinks that J wanted to call it “Sweet Apple” to make Dave feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. As Dave says, “J just wants to call it Sweet Apple so he can torture me!” I wasn’t sold on the name at first—that is, until Dave and J started throwing out other band names. J wanted to call it Heavy Blanket or Gong Bag. Then Dave suggested Christ. I’m not trying to sound like John Lennon and I know Sweet Apple will never be “bigger than Christ.” But I can definitely say that “Sweet Apple” is better than “Christ.”

You referred to this Sweet Apple record as a bookend for all the personal grief you went through. And it sounds like you’re getting your rock ‘n’ roll sea legs under you—it’s got some swagger to it.
Tim and Dave and J have a lot to do with that. They all have a deep understanding about rock ‘n’ roll—not just the sound of it, but the attitude. When we recorded it, we all threw out ideas and everyone was open to them. Some people would say that’s being on the same page, but most of the time we didn’t even have to finish what we were going to say. The other person already knew what we were thinking.

The lyrics on the first song, “Do You Remember,” read like a postcard from a dusty record player: People drift away from listening to music sometimes and need to be reminded how just listening to rock ‘n’ roll transforms you and informs your whole lifestyle.
That’s a great way to sum it up. I came up with that tune in five minutes. And I’m not saying that to make it seem like there was some inspiration or anything behind it. I just started thinking about the idea of a break-up song. Usually, it’s about and between two people. In this case, it started with that premise. And it got me to think about the idea of a “break-up song.” Do we ever really break up with people or places or are they ghosts lodged in our memory? Do we break up with ourselves when something happens to change who we are? Do we ever really break up with some song that was stuck in our heads? I just wanted a simple song that said, “Do you remember.” As in, do you remember the life you had before this all happened? Do you remember the person you were? Do you remember people you cared about, loved and lost? And, yes, do you remember music? The needle in my record player was fucked up, and I just needed a new one. I’d lost my mom and two good friends—all of whom had passed away within three months. I’d lost other people around me and myself. I’d lost music, because I barely even played the guitar, because I had problems with my hand. I just wanted a song that was simple and fun and dealt with breaking up by appreciating the living with a chorus that made you want to sing along.

And the video for “Do You Remember” is great: It has tennis and a locker-room dream sequence in which Dave hooks up with some ladies in towels. Kind of like an old Van Halen video from the ’80s.
Man, we all love films. But seeing some video that aspires to cinema usually makes for the lamest viewing. We just wanted something ridiculous and fun. We thought it would be funny to have a guy getting fired from some boring job because he just “wants to play” and then carrying his guitar case down the street, like the musical extra from The Warriors. Except that he has a tennis racket inside the guitar case, because he wants to play tennis. The locker-room scene was funny to shoot. We shot it in this tennis club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the people there were like, “Wait, we thought they were here to play tennis, not hang out in the ladies’ locker room.” The video directors, Seldon Hunt and Jimmy Hubbard, wanted these fog machines blasting away to give it a “steamy” look. But every time the door would open, all this fog would come out. The people at the club were very confused. But if it makes Dave, the star of the video, into the next David Lee Roth, then it was worth it. It was even funnier listening to Seldon, who’s Australian, speak in dramatic tones about doing an “homage to Porky’s.” Which, in Australia, is considered a foreign film.

You’ve always seemed to have a positive mental attitude (PMA) about being in a rock band. I think a lot of people—even those in the most insignificant of indie-rock bands—look at it as a career and have expectations of success or financial reward or something. What makes you different?
I’ve heard so many people talk about “making it in music.” It’s one of the funniest things you can hear, especially when it comes from some indie-rock elitist. I always thought this kind of music wasn’t supposed to make it! As for me, my parents always made fun of me for even playing music and said I had no talent. So the fact that I could be in a band and just get to play places all over is a treat. Just being in a band with people who want to be in a band with me is a gift. People who can write or paint or play music are lucky. We all have an imagination and we all love to daydream and escape in make-believe worlds. But being able to create something out of that is a gift.

Since this is MAGNET and all, I have to ask you about the time you spent in Guided By Voices. Any regrets? Do you still talk to Bob Pollard or Doug Gillard?
Ha ha ha! I didn’t talk with Bob or Doug for a while, but I keep in contact with both of them regularly. Bob is a really talented singer and songwriter. And Doug is a great guitarist and songwriter. I learned from both of them and I’m lucky that I got to be in bands with them. Now, would I ever want to be in a band with them again? Fuck no! Just kidding. It would be great to play with them again. As long as I don’t have to hang out with them. Again, just kidding.

At one point you were traveling the country, working on a book about the best dive bars you could find. What’s the status of that? Any particularly good adventures come out of that experience?
Yeah, I was basically driving to a different city every night and going to five bars a night in that city. Sometimes more. That is, until my life was put on hold with my mom and a bunch of other things. I’ll revisit the book at some point, but I just have too many things going on now. It was really fun doing that and I definitely wanna get back to it. I almost got my ass kicked in a trucker bar in Atlanta because I was taking photos and some guy thought I was a private investigator that was working for his wife. It was really weird, the guy had a posse that had encircled me. Then he bolted outta there and I ended up partying with the lady he’d been hanging out with—this crazy-looking woman covered in chains and mascara and lipstick, wearing a way-too-tight T-shirt and a huge cowgirl hat, named Georgia Peach. Another time, in Baltimore, at this crazy bar where John Waters had based his characters on for the movie Pecker, I met a bartender who was telling me about her son being popular with the ladies. The reason: He was well-endowed, since the age of 14. (She had been tracking his progress.) I ended up passing out in the bar that night. That’s a long story.

And finally, I know you’re a big Cavs fan, which seems like an agony/ecstasy experience these days. It seems like this is the Cavs’ year, but you always have the LeBron “will he stay or will he go?” thing in the back of your mind. Does that trouble you?
It might bother me if people were saying he’s going somewhere other than NYC. Why would anyone leave Cleveland for New York? It makes no sense.

—Matthew Fritch