Since the mid-'80s, John Petkovic has played in local bands like Death of Samantha and Cobra Verde. He's also a longtime entertainment writer for The Plain Dealer. But the skinny, curly-topped leader of Sweet Apple needs no introduction. Mainly because there's no time for one. His gruff, nicotine-stained voice races forward breathlessly, like a chase scene kicking off a Bourne movie.
But in late 2008, everything came crashing down. Within three months he lost two close friends to illness and his mother died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Even music had abandoned Petkovic, thanks to lingering ligament damage in his hand, which prevented him from finding his usual release. "I had a million problems all at once," he recalls. "It was just a disaster all the way around. I couldn't play guitar. I couldn't really do much of anything."
Chain-smoking his way through three packs a day, Petkovic took off like a character from a Springsteen song, chewing up miles of asphalt with no direction or destination. "Some people use the word 'transcend,' others use the word 'escape,'" he says. "By and large, none of us can transcend, so we better settle for escape. Driving is a great form of engaging in the world as an observer, because you have a windshield, and you can see ahead of you and behind you, yet you're also isolated."
About 400 miles into the ride, friend Dave Sweetapple called, asking how things were in Cleveland. "I'm not in Cleveland," Petkovic told him, and soon he was on his way to Vermont, where Sweetapple and another friend, Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis, consoled their grieving buddy. Stumped about what to say to this broken, smoke-breathing faucet, they offered the only succor people like them truly know: "Let's start a band," they told him.
"I came up with three songs on the way home," recalls Petkovic. He'd write 22 more in the next three weeks with Cobra Verde guitarist (and Sweet Apple bandmate) Tim Parnin. It was a lot, even by his prolific standards. "I just pick up a guitar, and it's like I have brains in my fingers, because I'm not even thinking, and my fingers are just doing it for me. I came up with almost all the tunes in about as long as the songs are."
Petkovic reconnected a few months later, with Mascis on drums and Sweetapple (who plays in the band Witch with Mascis) on bass, recording their debut album, Love & Desperation, with few expectations. They didn't even have a name when a label expressed interest, forcing them to come up with something. Mascis initially suggested Heavy Blanket; Sweetapple offered Christ. They settled on Sweet Apple. "J. thought it would make Dave feel uncomfortable," recalls Petkovic. "He'll say, 'Hi, I'm Dave from Sweet Apple and they'll be, 'What? I thought you said your name was Dave Sweetapple.'"
Their efforts resulted in a blast of classic-rock boogie hewn by '80s alt-rock concision. Nearly every song on Love & Desperation stops short of three and a half minutes, propelled by indefatigable energy. The greasy grooves and brawny riffs stake out territory ranging from chunky Vanilla Fudge-flavored blues-psych ("Flying Up a Mountain") and Dolls'ed-up glam ("Somebody Else's Problem") to Foo Fighters-style anthems ("Do You Remember") and jangly college rock ("Goodnight"). Despite the moribund titles ("Hold Me, I'm Dying," "Dead Moon," "Crawling Over Bodies"), it's not a downbeat album so much as a vehicle roaring toward the light at the tunnel's end.
Petkovic is surprised by the attention the project has attracted. Since its release a couple of months ago, the band has received positive buzz and solid gigs, including a Brooklyn show at Rachael Ray's house. (And, yes, the food was great.) There have been offers to tour in Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Petkovic is keeping busy. He's now finishing the mixing on a new project with Black Keys drummer Pat Carney, tentatively titled Sad Planets. Cobra Verde are also still active (they just played a local show two weeks ago). Petkovic has no patience for artists who complain about the music biz's downturn. He remembers the '80s, when most bands started without expectations of making money. "You hear people crying the blues about how this is so tough, and yet you have millions of bands," he says. "Maybe it should get tougher. Maybe we need some Darwinism to come down on the ass of all these bands to separate the wheat from the chaff."
Toward the end of our interview, Petkovic pauses for a moment to reflect on the events of the past 18 months. "Maybe everything is a trial in life," he says. "I guess it's wrong calling it a trial. That's just how life is."
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