Glam rock band
Cobra Verde define themselves as an “avant-glam” experiment, according to their official website, that explores and spans a wide range of sounds and styles. Drawing from music both old and new and often using lofi production techniques, Cobra Verde successfully combined the classic style of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Who with the contemporary drama of David Bowie, Pere Ubu, and Birthday Party into a fresh, modern sound. “I think one thing that was great about music in the ‘70s was that rock had hit a certain point where you could imagine equal doses of loud guitars, doo-wop, pop, harmonies, driving backbeat, avant-garde stylings on a synth, some guitar-noise feedback chaos and throw on some sappy strings at the end,” lead singer and guitarist John Petkovic explained to Fred Mills of Magnet magazine. “It all seemed like there was some sort of conglomeration that rock hadn’t rejected but accumulated. I wanted music with that large sound, an expansive sound, not one that’s limiting things.”
Petkovic was born around 1966 to Serbian immigrant parents who had escaped Yugoslavia and settled in middle-class Cleveland, Ohio. During a family vacation to Europe, Petkovic was exposed to many things that his peers in Cleveland had only read about. As a result, he explained to Mills, “I was drawn to weird shit, to punk rock, to absolute concepts in art and politics.” Like other 1970s Cleveland bands, such as Pere Ubu, Devo, and the Dead Boys, Cobra Verde was influenced by the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, and Alex Harvey, as well as lo-fi production. But unlike many who are drawn to lo-fi because elaborate equipment is not necessary, Petkovic said he was inspired for other reasons. After hearing bands such as the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and Alice Cooper, Petkovic recalled, “I was inspired by the greatness of the music, the other-worldliness,” as quoted by Mills.
In 1984, Petkovic formed his first band, a theatrical rock group called Death Of Samantha. Along with friends Doug Gillard on guitar, Dave Swanson on bass, and Steve-O on drums, vocalist Petkovic released four records as Death of Samantha for the Homestead Records label before the band dissolved five years later. Throughout their time together, Death of Samantha won favorable criticism for their music and gained a following of fans in their hometown. Robert Griffin, a veteran Cleveland-area musician and owner of Scat Records, attended the group’s shows numerous times and recalled, as quoted by Mills, “They always came on strong, completely in overdrive. Rock ‘n’ roll chaos at its best.” Incidentally, Griffin would later persuade Petkovic to return to music.
After Death of Samantha disbanded, Petkovic spent the next five years in a self-imposed absence from the music scene, but kept productive with other interests. During this time, he served as an aide to the exiled Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, hosted a political panel show for National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, worked as a correspondent for a Bosnian-Serb news agency, and started writing an entertainment column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, his hometown’s daily newspaper, where he continued to work full-time after resurrecting his music career. His column centers not only on music, but also on area exhibitions, books, and film. “It’s a strange way to moonlight,” Petkovic acknowledged to Kieran Grant of the Toronto Sun. “I’ll read reviews of my records and catch myself going, ‘Ah, what do you know, you’re just some hack… hey, wait a minute, so am I.’”
However, music beckoned, and Griffin eventually convinced Petkovic to record some songs at a local studio, promising to release the results on his label. By mid-1994, Petkovic’s new band, Cobra Verde, came into existence. The group’s lineup initially consisted of Petkovic on guitar and vocals, Gillard on guitar, Swanson, who switched from bass to drums, and the studio’s owner and engineer, Don Depew on bass. That same year, Scat issued Cobra Verde’s debut album, Viva La Muerte, a collection of literate songs reflecting various eras of rock influence, from the melodious “Was It Good”
Members include Don Depew , bass, engineering; Doug Gillard (left band in 1997; former member of Death Of Samantha; member of Gem and Guided By Voices), guitar; Dave Hill (joined band in 1999; former member of Sons of Elvis; member of Upton Sinclair), bass; Mark Klein (joined band in 1997; member of Ether Net), drums; John Petkovic (born c. 1966; son of Serbian immigrant parents; former member of Death Of Samantha; member of Einstein’s Secret Orchestra), guitar, vocals; Chas Smith (joined band in 1997; member of Einstein’s Secret Orchestra), theremin, synthesizer; Ched Stanisic (joined band in 1997), keyboards; Dave Swanson (left band in 1997; former member of Death Of Samantha), drums; Frank Vazzano (joined band in 1999; member of Quazi Modo), guitar.
Formed band, signed with Scat Records, released debut album Viva La Muerte, 1994; collaborated with Guided By Voices on Mag Earwhig! album, 1997; signed with Motel Records, released Nightlife, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Motel Records, 210 E. 49th St., New York City, NY 10017, phone (888) 755-6347, fax (212) 755-6092. Management —Autotonic, phone (901) 276-2225, fax (901) 276-6554, email, [email protected]. Email —[email protected]. Website —Official Cobra Verde Website: http://www.cobraverde.com.
to the guitar-riffed “Gimmie Your Heart,” that made a lasting impression on the music press. According to the band’s official website, Rolling Stone picked Viva La Muerte as one of the year’s best releases. Highlights from the album also included expansive tracks such as “Montenegro,” “Already Dead,” and the epic”! Thought You Knew (What Pleasure Was),” in addition to energized songs like “Until the Killing Time” and “Cease to Exist” (not the Charles Manson song). Cobra Verde spent the summer of 1994 supporting their debut, joining the Scat-sponsored “Insects Of Rock” tour headlined by the Dayton, Ohio, band Guided By Voices, led by songwriter Robert Pollard.
After this, Cobra Verde returned to other projects (Gillard also had a band called Gem that released the album Hexed on Restless in 1995) and day jobs, deciding not to make touring a priority for the band. In 1996, Cobra Verde released a six-track EP entitled Vintage Crime, which also received favorable mention for its more accomplished, controlled, and diverse songs. With Vintage Crime, Petkovic also expressed his cynical disgust at public trends in “Media Whore,” performers in “Every God for Himself,” the future in “World Doesn’t End,” and alienation in “Wish I Was Here.” Cobra Verde’s second album, a singles compilation entitled Egomania (Love Songs), hit store shelves in 1997.
That same year, Pollard, who had separated from his previous backing band, invited the members of Cobra Verde to join him in an overhauled Guided By Voices. Thus, Cobra Verde put plans for their forthcoming album on hold to accept Pollard’s offer. Along with Pollard, Cobra Verde co-produced Guided By Voices’ Mag Ear-whig! album and toured. Despite the success of the album, though, the union between Guided By Voices and Cobra Verde was destined to come undone and resulted in unforeseen consequences. First, Pollard unexpectedly dissolved the collaboration in the midst of touring; the members of Cobra Verde initially discovered the news from an online magazine interview given by Pollard. And second, Pollard asked guitarist Gillard to rejoin his band several months later when he started assembling a new Guided By Voices lineup. Although Gillard said he would still contribute to Cobra Verde as time permitted, Petkovic, who was anxious to record Cobra Verde’s next project, declined his offer. “The record was going in a different direction, and at some point, time means something,” Petkovic, remaining diplomatic, explained to Mills. “You just have to allocate more time to one project and get that done.”
For unrelated reasons, Swanson left Cobra Verde as well, and Petkovic continued working with Depew, in addition to new members Ched Stanisic on keyboards, Mark Klein on drums, and Chas Smith on synth and theremin. Saxophonist Ralph Carney, known for his work with Tom Waits and Oranj Symphonette, joined Cobra Verde for a number of sessions, while guitarist Frank Vazzano and bassist Dave Hill joined the band sometime in 1999.
In the fall of that year, after signing a contract with Motel Records, the reconfigured Cobra Verde released their third album, Nightlife. Produced by Petkovic, Klein, and Depew, the album provided further examples of Cobra Verde’s diversity. For the opening track, “One Step Away from Myself,” the band started off with pulsating synthesizers, then merged into a tribute to pop-rock. One of the record’s most noted highlights and one of the five songs that featured Carney on saxophone, “Crashing in a Plane,” showcased the band’s ability to play speed-driven rock, while “$2 Souvenir” provided a taste of glam-rock. Cobra Verde left rock behind altogether for the cabaret-inspired “What Makes a Man a Man” and “Pontius Pilate.” Like the prior releases, Nightlife gathered critical praise. Scott Woods, in a review for the Village Voice concluded, “Pretension and silliness abound all over Nightlife … and with any luck at all aspiring four-track kids across the nation will soon be scouring used bins for Silverhead albums and their mothers’ closets for silver stilettos.”
As for Cobra Verde’s future, Petkovic insisted that the band will perform live more often and that plans for the next album are already underway. “I actually make up songs while driving,” he admitted to Grant. “It’s a half-hour from my house to the studio. It’s kind of like working on deadline.” Petkovic was also contemplating the release of a Death Of Samantha boxed set. In addition to writing his column, Petkovic also created an online magazine in 1999 called “Scamcity 2000: A Journal of American Anti-Culture and a Guide to Millennial Panic,” located at http://www.scamcity2000.com. Likewise, the other members of Cobra Verde pursued other projects and careers as well. Smith taught courses about rock and roll at Cleveland State University and played with Petkovic in a side project called Einstein’s Secret Orchestra; Vazzano played in the band Quazi Modo; Klein continued to work as a studio engineer and played in the band Ether Net; and Hill, a former member of Sons of Elvis, dedicated time to his writing, composing, and art-work. He composed the theme for an HBO show entitled “Reverb,” for which he also writes, and played in the group Upton Sinclair.
“Leather,” Scat, 1996.
“One Step Away From Myself,” Sub Pop, 1996.
Viva La Muerte, Scat, 1994.
Vintage Crime (EP), Scat, 1996.
Egomania (Love Songs), Scat, 1997.
(With others) Why We Came Together (compilation), Yaku-za, 1997.
Nightlife, Motel, 1999.
Boston Globe, October 7, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, June 13, 1997; December 13, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1997.
Magnet, April/May 1999, pp. 39-43.
Toronto Sun, August 26, 1999, p. 61.
Village Voice, November 9, 1999.
Washington Post, July 11, 1997.
Official Cobra Verde Website, http://www.cobraverde.com (January 16, 2000).
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