John Petkovic reflects the bohemian, rebellious and philosophical vibes of the good American musician. His career makes him an icon of American underground music. His mind holds great memories and experiences that have carved a philosophy away from clichés and parallel worlds. John lives with his feet on the ground and is aware of what is happening around him.
After being a fundamental part of several key bands in the alternative environment of the American Midwest scene, such as Sweet Apple, Cobra Verde or Death for Samantha, the paths of music have led him to create an explosive duo with Patrick Carney, the legendary drummer of the Black Keys.
Both in their own way have been architects of the resurgence of forgotten styles and have triumphed widely in their environments. In addition, both come from Akron and have a deep sensitivity to analyze the situation of their hometown and the world in general.
An emotion that hides a breath to whoever listens to it. The world is changing and that’s the way it should be, that’s the underlying message. Sensations of uprooting flow in their ten songs that are born and die in Akron, Ohio, but cross borders of time and space. In times of transformation and hopelessness it is worthwhile to listen to a different philosophy, rude but sincere.
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We talked about all this with John Petkovic in an extensive but unforgettable conversation. The musician of Serbian origin is one of the most interesting conversationalists I have ever met. A guy with culture and an insightful mind capable of guessing the loose lines of history and our society. We begin
John Petkovic: Are you from Spain?
Yes. I’m from Asturias. A spectacular region of northern Spain.
I’ve been on tour four times in Madrid and Barcelona and in the northwest of Madrid at a festival about 20 years ago. There’s a good rock and roll scene there.
It is true. I think there is a special fascination with rock and other genres forbidden during the dictatorship.
Is it true that the king was important in the transition?
At that time, yes. These last years have been complicated for the monarchy with scandals of corruption, girls’ messes … But the opening time to which you refer came with the king. It is a long story.
Everything in life is a long story.
Was it difficult for your family to adapt to the United States?
To a certain extent, yes, although we are always very welcome. Culturally it was not a shock. I started listening to music in Serbia, in the former Yugoslavia, and there, people loved rock and roll. Things like the New York Dolls were very popular.
Did the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s affect you?
It affected me a lot. We were in another country, but we still had family there. I think that in America there are really very good people, but the government gets involved in wars around the world that affect its image from the outside. I do not share their interventionism.
Is the guitar still part of the rebellion?
How were your first years with Death for Samantha, your first band?
I was 16 years old. We toured the United States. It was very crazy and fun. Since then I have played in different bands and I have lived all kinds of experiences but none with the intensity of that tour. I will never forget it.
What problems did the musicians have then for being musicians?
The booking. I met the Sonic Youth guys because they wanted to do a show in Cleveland long before their career exploded. We were looking for places to play and we could only close a Biker bar. We played together and did a little tour together with Sweet Apple. Soon after, they filled stadiums. What I want to say is that more courageous booking agents are needed to promote emerging bands.
Now there are more options for musicians?
Not on the road but they have more options in certain aspects. It is no longer a question of recording discs and making money because everything is streaming. Although, they have more options to create.
How did the idea of recording with Patrick come about?
I’ve known Pat for a long time. We are friends and we had been wanting to record an album for some time. We did not have any songs; they all came up on the fly. It has been a great experience recording with Pat, because we had never played together. It’s interesting, because many times when you start playing with someone it’s complicated, but it was not the case. The sound of Pat is amazing. We started doing things separately. We started with some ideas that later came to light.
What is it like to work with Patrick?
He is always kidding. It has been very exciting to record with him and go through Akron before the recording sessions, take a walk and discover the city again. It is not like the city in which he had lived.
Pat does not need rules about how to do things. Many times, we didn’t think about what we were doing, we simply let ourselves go. It’s exciting because of that, because normally people have a lot of rules. Ours was try this or that and see how it is.
We tried many sounds with Pat on drums, there was a lot of experimentation. About them we were composing the lyrics. Pat is very open minded. Many times, you think about psychedelic music as a pattern to follow, for me it’ s simply to leave your mind blank and let yourself be carried away by music, without established rules.
I like to get to the studio and not worry more than to play what I want. The second song of the disc, Not at this World, contains fourteen different voices, which gives an idea of the work that there is behind. It took us three hours to make the voices. It was very crazy, many guitars and many interactions with the song.
It has been a psychedelic experience, just as you tell it.
Many people see psychedelic music as drug abuse and many bands have been involved in it, but I am not interested in those topics. I wanted to reflect the changes of Akron. When you return to a place you are in the same city, but everything is different. It’s like a psychedelic trip. For example, when you return to Spain, to your city, it is a totally different place, you are there but you are not really there.
It is true. That feeling and the uprooting that it causes all emigrants feel. When you return, it´s never the same. Your memories create a different place, but reality always evolves.
To some extent there is an alignment in all of this. We are never in the same place because the world is constantly changing and there is nothing established.
People are aligned with the idea of a place that doesn’t really exist. Before we talked about Franco. If someone had visited Spain at that time and returned now, it would be two different countries. Time changes everything. My family was from Yugoslavia, but Yugoslavia no longer exists. Your life and identity are transformed.
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It is a bit similar to what has happened to you in the United States and in Akron.
I’m very interested in Akron. It was a very rich city but after the closing of the factories it will never be any more. The economy transforms these places and makes you not recognize them. I was born in Akron, but it is no longer the city I grew up in. Akron to some extent, has been transformed even more than Yugoslavia did. You spoke of memories, of perception of the physical form of the city, I think that is part of that whole concept.
It’s a very human feeling.
Yes. In the last fifteen years I have visited several small cities where the factories went to produce outside. Those cities are not very different from Akron. They have the same story behind, same unemployment problems.
It is a wreck for the communities and their dreams, their hopes and their future.
Exactly. Although, people desperately want the world to remain the same, and they are not aware of what has changed. It is a process of change from birth until you die. People get depressed with the concept of change and death, but you have to be prepared because the world is death. It is a normal process in life to change, move and observe that nothing remains. The world doesn’t decay, it’s just changing.
When I’m driving, you realize that this city is totally different from what I had lived. And it’s OK. It is the world. Many times, the best way to get inspired is to drive and look around you.
Does that feelings explain the name of the band, Sad Planets?
Yes. We wanted to focus on Akron and that feeling of being tourists in this city. Actually, you are a tourist anywhere. It’s like your case, you are in a country with a different language, different culture and history. There are aspects that shape your life and the way you live. It’s what we wanted to capture.
What is behind those sensations?
Everything depends on the economy. In the United States, the crisis completely changed the wealth and stability of large areas of the country. That shapes your life. The key is always economic. People seek prosperity and stability and when that breaks down, social and political problems arise. The economic collapse ended the middle class. People need work. If they do not have it, there is unemployment, drug problems and despair.
Is Akron a good example of that?
What happens in Akron is that many people have seen how the tire factories closed. Before you saw posters in the Rubber Bowl stadium with people like Grateful Dead or Alice Cooper, all those incredible groups came to Akron, but they are not going to come back anymore. The economy also influences culture and society in a terrible way. Now, we live in a technological era that in certain cases has destroyed the wealth that had been created. Akron is just a city, but it has a reflection around the world.
It’s part of the planet but not of the same planet as 30 years ago.
What is the difference between this project and Death for Samantha, Sweet Apple or Cobra Verde?
The difference is that you have never played or rehearsed with Pat before. Sweet Apple was different because we played together for a long time. With Pat I did’n want preparation or rules, just ideas.
How do you explain the resurgence of Psychedelia in recent years?
I love many old and new Psychedelia bands. It is more a concept or a mantra. We do not try to recreate psychedelia, but we were influenced by groups like Electric Prunes because we love the production of their albums. When we made the record, I thought about those guys. What did you think of the album?
I like it. It seems to me like an interesting revision of the most introspective Psychedelia
We did not pretend to be pigeonholed. I just focused on playing the guitar and taking out those songs that I had in mind. I was playing on the couch and said let’s try.
Have songs been left out of the album?
We have songs that we do not use. Pat and me made ten for the album but there is more.
We love the Yesterday Girls’ video. Where did that catchy song come from?
The idea of that riff arose one day driving towards Akron. It was the first song we recorded. I had no idea how we were going to record an entire album. Pat told me: What songs do you have? I told him none. Suddenly that rhythm came to my head. We were working on it for an hour and a half. Every day we recorded the songs that would arise in my head on the way to Akron.
Do you expect to tour with Pat?
Pat is on tour with his band. I play in several bands and it is difficult to tour. Ralph Carney who participated in the album is no longer with us. He was very talented.
Hip Hop has surpassed Rock as the predominant genre on the US charts. How do you see the future?
It’s funny because people keep buying guitars. But I think times have changed. It’s not that the rock is bigger than it was but it’s still big. Everyone talks about hip hop as a novelty, but he’s 30 years old. Rock is 60-70 years old. Punk rock, 40. He was born only 20 years after Elvis hatched. Everything was an evolution and that’s the way it is. The music is in a continuous transformation. Now the bands have a harder time touring and staying. People use Spotify and it’s more profitable for the musician to produce. It is easier to use the computer to create music. It’s less expensive.
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What was your first guitar?
A ten-dollar guitar in the store. Terrible guitar My first electric was an L6s. But I have played many, only for this album I have used ten different ones.
What is the meaning of success for you?
It’s funny because I see people who are more successful than me but are not happier. I only play music. When I make a record it would be happy if people liked it but it’s not my priority. I prefer not to record thinking about the memory or the future, but to enjoy the moment.
With what musician would you like to have played?
I think with Scott Walker. It is difficult to talk about people with whom you have worked with us. I had never worked with Pat and it was great. If I could make another record with him, I would. You never know if working with another person would be fun. It depends on many factors.
What advice would you give to a musician who starts?
Many musicians think about how their music fits into the world. You do not have to get carried away by that, just do what you want to do. I know it sounds like a cliché, but many people think it’s different but it’s not like that.
What projects do you have for this 2019?
I’m working on an album for Sweet Apple, creating electronic music and working on four projects.
Would you like to continue in music?
I would like to be there all my life. Make 15 more discs. Making pictures or music opens my mind more than anything.
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