John Petkovic Talks Sweet Apple, Basketball, And How To Write A Record While Driving

Petkovic's band Sweet Apple also includes Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis and members of Cobra Verde, Witch and more

sweet apple interview john-petkovic

Photo by Andrew Kesin

John Petkovic’s rock and roll supergroup, Sweet Apple, are preparing to release their new record, Sing the Night in Sorrow – and he is still working maniacally. He is driven, every day, to make music. He writes lyrics while driving in his car. And on an empty basketball court, he drives to the hoop to get to the zen place “where you don’t exist in any space.”

There is an actual drive, too, because Sweet Apple’s J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Tim Parnin (Cobra Verde), and Dave Sweetapple (Witch) live in three different states. Still, John says that J and Dave have come to appreciate how Tim and his home town of Cleveland can be the “most awesome place in the world.”

Sing the Night in Sorrow is due on July 28th from Tee Pee Records, with forthcoming videos and a fall tour. The record features Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices), Rachel Haden (Haden Triplets) and Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices). John talked in a phone interview about how to grow a Sweet Apple song with all of these contributions and where he gets the drive to put it all together. Read our John Petkovic interview below.

When rock was dangerous, in his own house:

John Petkovic: I had instinctively always liked to hum and sing. More instinctively than musically, because my parents were like, ‘Man, this guy sucks.’ So they made me play clarinet. I had a guitar pretty quickly after that. But the funny thing is, my parents hated me playing music. … I was probably the only kid where rock and roll was truly dangerous, because my parents thought, ‘He’s a rebel, he has a guitar.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand, everyone has a guitar in the streets.’

My parents were very poor. They came from the former Yugoslavia, Serbia. My dad had a very difficult life. He had finished only fourth grade by the time he was eighteen.  Ended up getting wounded serving in military and was able to get free schooling and got a master’s degree. Didn’t want to join the communist party. Came to America. Didn’t want to join FBI anti-communist groups. This is a guy who didn’t fit in anywhere. He was a rebel. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it have been easier if you were in a band?’

My mom was anti-music. I was in Death of Samantha at 16, 17, playing music in bands and putting out singles. The Village Voice, very prestigious, wanted to me to do an interview, and I was living with my parents. My mom picked up on the line, ‘my Johnny, he don’t play no music, don’t you call here!’ People told me that’s cool, rock and roll is dangerous. I said, ‘Yeah, to my life, not for anyone else.’

On first bands:

I have every instrument. Violins. Piano. Guitars. Bass. Drum kit. All sorts of synthesizers. Saxophone. Clarinet. Flute. I played in orchestra bands, then they dragged me into the marching bands. At practices I’d play the wrong notes. They’d yell ‘Pleasant Valley’, I’d yell, ‘Sucks’. It wasn’t the first band I was kicked out of.

sweet apple interview john petkovic

On convincing a band spread out over three states that your state is the best:

Well, Tim and I are from Cleveland, Dave is from Vermont, J is from Massachusetts. Dave thinks Cleveland is all canned food, that it is a city that exists behind the Iron Curtain. Well, it is the home of Chef Boyardee.

But I take them around, and recently Dave admitted, ‘Cleveland is the most awesome place in the world.’ It’s dirt cheap, easy. A lot of other places have upscaled themselves into oblivion.

How the songs of Sing the Night in Sorrow come together:

I write songs on piano more than guitar. For some songs, we happened to be at J’s house, we had time to record three songs and I had three ideas. Knocked it out real quick.

You have to rebel against your own habits. When I write, I don’t have any expectations, everyone can add what they want. I always think a song is a living breathing thing. A good song writes itself. I’d played with Doug. Robert. Mark, Rachel, they’re super talented. They sing it how they want to. Rachel is so talented, she sings on a few, if we’re recording, playing a take back to her would be an insult.

And you just have to get it out there. The height of narcissism is to think that someone is going to notice some little thing you do when people are bombarded with a million other details.

On Cobra Verde and upcoming projects:

I have a synth pop record coming out in January. I have twenty songs for a new Cobra Verde album. I have four videos to do with Sweet Apple. I have a record with Pat from the Black Keys that’s like desert psychedelic Glen Campbell stuff.

I work for the daily paper, I call it my stipend. I write stories about old places in Cleveland, clubs and architecture. I did a story about Peter Laughner of Pere Ubu, I write about music but not too much. I write about movies. I saw [War for the Planet of the Apes], it was pretty fun.

Driving and the three-headed beast:

I haven’t listened to music, other music, in the car in months. I come up with words while driving. For the synth pop group, all the words are from driving. I had twenty new songs and I would only listen to two or three at a time, driving around Cleveland.

Movies, music and basketball. That’s what I give a shit about on a daily basis. Basketball is important to me because I come up with songs there like I do while driving a car or mowing a lawn. I go to my dad, ‘Hey, let me come over and cut the grass’, he’s like, ‘Why? You’re a lazy bum. Why would you do this?’

Probably all Sweet Apple lyrics come from basketball. I shoot threes by myself, drive to the hoop. I think it’s important to have something where you’re not really thinking about anything. It clears your head, where you don’t exist in any space. It gives you solitude.

I like to make music. Every morning I wake up and I hum songs and come up with ideas. It’s a three-headed beast. Music, movies, and basketball.

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