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Labor of love
February 6, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

If he's not the hardest-working man in show business -- it would be wrong to take that title away from James Brown, especially during his current troubles -- then Cobra Verde's John Petkovic comes in a close second.

In addition to leading the underground buzz band, which delivers a melodic, hard-hitting mix of glam-rock and garage punk, 38-year-old Petkovic is a full-time reporter who covers nightlife and the bar scene for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A Serbian-American, he also serves as a commentator for a show about politics in the Balkans on WVIZ-FM, the city's National Public Radio affiliate.

"I think there's some Jewish proverb that says if you want to get something done, find the busiest guy in the room," Petkovic says, laughing. "Because if you've got eight things going, then adding another two things isn't that much. It's not that hard. I kind of thrive on things being chaotic and schizophrenic."

And Petkovic isn't the only member of the quartet who is an expert juggler -- literally.

"Frank [Vazzano], our guitar player, teaches a couple of classes at the university here on the history of soul music and roots music, and he also performs as a juggler," Petkovic says. "Ed [bassist Edward Angel Sotelo] works at clubs and does voiceover acting and stuff.

"Often times I think when you do a lot of different things, it gives you a different perspective on whatever else you're doing. It's almost like going out with six people at the same time; you kind of can compare notes and say, 'Well, I like this about one person and I don't like this about her.' "

Petkovic first made his mark on the music scene in the indie-rock '80s as the leader of noisy art-rockers Death of Samantha. He has been fronting and writing most of the songs for Cobra Verde since 1994. Various band members have come and gone in the years since, but since the band's 2000 album, "Nightlife," the group has coalesced into a hard-rocking touring machine.

"For the first five years, it was more of a studio project than anything else," Petkovic says. "It's only really been a fully functioning band since 1999 or 2000.

"When bands say they're just in it to have fun, people think they're frivolous about it. We're serious about our band and work really hard on it, but no one really has anything riding on it or is worrying about it career-wise, and I think that's why it works."

The group, which is completed by drummer Mark Klein, has released three full albums, including last year's "Easy Listening," its strongest effort to date, issued on former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer's Muscle Tone label.

Now the quartet has unleashed an ambitious video for the disc's lead track, "Riot Industry," which finds punk-rock legend Mike Watt (the Minutemen, Firehose) starring as an "idle American" who discovers that his TV has been taken over by "a band of rock 'n' roll terrorists," Cobra Verde. The absurdly entertaining clip also features cameos by "Cheers" barfly George Wendt, an internationally renowned belly dancer named Danielle and Blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore, better known as Dolemite.

"We did this footage for the channel that Paul Allen does, a cable network called Tech TV; they came into Cleveland and wanted to film us for some advertisements," Petkovic says. "They said, 'We can pay you this rate,' and I said, 'Just give us the footage.' So I basically had all this footage and I was trying to figure out how to reconcile that with this other video we wanted to do. It was going to be hard to match it up, so I came up with this idea that the Tech TV footage could be playing on a TV, and we could use that as a comment about how videos can be so annoying when they get really popular and you can't escape them on any channel you turn to.

"Mike Watt really hates TV -- when anybody watches TV in the room, he literally gets hives and starts yelling and stuff like that," Petkovic continues in his hyper-enthusiastic, rapid-fire manner. "So I thought, 'If I could get him to dress up in a flannel bathrobe and eat a bowl of cereal and just watch TV, he'd be getting [ticked] off.' And as we were filming, he actually was watching TV -- these afternoon programs with Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael -- and he was getting [ticked], and it was great."

The band plans to release not one but two albums in 2004. The first is a collection of covers, which finds the group performing songs by a diverse set of artists -- including Donna Summer, Pink, New Order, Hawkwind, the Troggs and the Fall -- rendered in totally unlikely musical styles. (Summer meets Can and Led Zeppelin, Pink meets Jethro Tull, etc.)

"We went in to start recording new stuff, but I wanted to start by first recording a bunch of covers," Petkovic says. "I've always wanted every record to be different, and everyone seems to have really fallen in love with our last record, ourselves included. When we play live, we always say we want to play this or that song [from 'Easy Listening'] again, and it's hard for us to cut those songs out of the set list. Our fear was that going into the next record, we might like this record too much and we might want to just redo it. So then I was thinking, 'Instead of going out and recording a new record, let's do a bunch of covers.'

"Since it's other people's music, you're not as emotionally attached to it. You almost see a song like a lump of clay and you can play around with it, like, 'Let's see what we can do with the production, the arrangement, the instrumentation, the guitar sounds and everything else.' This way, I could then apply that later to our own new stuff."

The covers album is due in May; Cobra Verde also expects to issue an album of new material before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the group is on tour once again (and Petkovic may well be filing his columns from the van, as he has in the past), including a stop at Subterranean tonight.

Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at jimdero@jimdero.com or visit him on the Web at www.jimdero.com.

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