John Petkovic of Cobra Verde and The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney come together to pay homage to the hometown that raised them
“I just landed here, but it feels like a year ago.”
That opening line of Sad Planets’ new debut album, Akron, Ohio (Tee Pee Records), perfectly represents how this is indeed a debut, concocted by two Akron natives who definitely landed much more than a year ago. Drummer Patrick Carney has attained fame over nearly two decades as drummer for neo-blues stomp stars, the Black Keys; while singer/guitarist, John Petkovic, has a miles-deep musical past going back to the immeasurably underrated Cleveland glam-punk bands, Death of Samantha and Cobra Verde; and has spent most of the last decade-plus working with everyone from J Mascis to Mike Watt, while mostly fronting the riff rock classicists, Sweet Apple. Not to mention he is a daily reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
It’s a miracle these two found time to whip up a loose band plan and finish one of the more intriguing rock debuts of the last few years. Starting slowly then rising and falling as it goes, the album mashes together bits of synth-prog affect, trashy energy, encyclopedic riffing, and ghostly nods to the noisey proto-punk bands of northeast Ohio’s influential early-70s era. And there’s just enough simmering melancholy throughout to not only evoke the industrial destitution of their hometown, but also mirrors a kind of now-times unease.
No longer Akronites, the two men are frequently pulled back to the Rubber Capital, usually for artistic reasons. We checked in with both about their surprisingly inspiring hometown and more.
I believe the idea of this project came up a while ago, no? Anyway, can you give me the basic genesis of the project?
John Petkovic: It came out the blue: Patrick and I were emailing one another about records we’d just finished – his band the Black Keys had just wrapped up an album and a tour and I had just finished the first Sweet Apple and we were planning a tour. And we both happened to have some free time, and he suggested I come down to Akron and jam with him. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had parts of songs here and there. When we got in the room he asked me to play some song ideas. It ended up being a very on-the-spot process.
What was the basic recording process?
JP: We started at Audio Eagle, a studio that Patrick owned and ran in Akron. It was around the time the first Sweet Apple album came out. Basically, I had a 50-minute drive from Cleveland to Akron and during that time would think of some ideas, parts, pieces and would bring them up to the studio. The whole project came together pretty easily.
John, you were born in Akron. When did your family move to Parma, Ohio?
JP: I was born there and lived there until I was about two years old. And then I lived there again, for a year, when I was 18. I went to Akron regularly – usually to take photos, because I loved and still love the look of the city. It’s feels like it’s frozen in early 1960s.
What are some early memories of Akron — either as a child and/or when you started going there to play shows with Death of Samantha?
JP: Being 18 in Akron was one of the strangest times in my life. I had a few friends there, but spent most of the time wandering the city by myself. Akron was a ghost town – I couldn’t even find a panhandler most days. It was really depressing personally, but somehow exhilarating, because the city was so empty, like I was in some Twilight Zone episode.
Patrick Carney: One of my earliest memories of Akron was all these porn halls in downtown. The only thing for a family to do was to go to the main library. My dad would take me and my two brothers – we were 6, 7, and 8 – to the library to check out records and CDs and VHS tapes. And we would stop at the barber college where we would get our hair buzzed for a dollar. But I always remember these family outings in Akron full of these porn halls, and then they’d end at Hamburger Station – this old Akron chain that had these burgers that made me kind of sick, but I really loved them. And the burgers come with this “special sauce,” which is basically grease.
You mention part of your personal inspiration to make this record was wanting to reconnect with Akron. Do you not get out to Akron much?
JP: I went to Akron fairly often, but I usually went by myself to drive around and take photos. It made going to Akron to make music and hang out with Patrick, who knows Akron inside out, really special. Given my experience, Akron was like this place that had been frozen in time in the 1960s and all the people had disappeared. Working on the album – and doing something with humans – gave the city a new life to me.
I think it’s kind of interesting that the story of Sad Planets is one of two rust belt friends kind of coming together over a love of lots of music that came out of the rust belt at the end of the industrial revolution (proto-punk, classic rock, punk). But from the band name to lots of the lyrical themes and sometimes ethereal vocals, there’s a lot of floating in space. So is that how it is – we’ve destroyed the planet, and we’re going to have to start finding inspiration from elsewhere?
JP: You make a very interesting and thought-provoking correlation. In a lot of ways, I felt that I was floating in space when I was in Akron recording the album, because my familiarity with it was based on memories of it more than an actual interaction with the place. I get that feeling in much of the Midwest, even new places I don’t have any personal memories of. You drive down these left-for-dead streets, past these empty buildings and abandoned houses, and imagine what was once there. A lot of times parts of the Midwest feel like another planet! It isn’t like driving in the dessert where there are vast expanses of areas where no one ever was. It’s different, because you know there was once activity and people and smoke and cars. The interesting thing about Akron is that the architecture – outside of the strip-malls – is largely of another era, You see the early 20th century, then it runs up until about the mid-1960s, and then it seems to stop there. There are so many old signs and buildings. It’s almost like floating in space, but it’s more akin to time travel. So while we were working on the record, I imagined how alienation is seen as a negative thing. “Oh, you’re alienated; let me help you doing society.” But alienation is a natural part of life, because so much of what is around us is alien to us.
Have we sapped all the inspiration we can from the crumbling edifice of the rust belt, especially since much of it has been cleaned away and the ubiquitous, gentrifying “mixed use” buildings are moving in?
JP: I think that’s true, especially on the East Coast, and even in cities such as Cleveland, in areas filled with these shiny but cheap-looking (and very expensive) townhouses and new “upscale” urban developments with shitty architecture. But you can still drive around Cleveland and Akron and find a lot of old places. Some are still going and some have been closed for a long time, with the building just sitting there. These are still poor cities, and there’s good and bad to that. The good thing about being in a poor city is you don’t see crazy rents and gentrification obliterating entire blocks of the city.
PC: I live in Nashville and it’s a city with infinite growth, and people are tearing down all the old places so they can build some shit. I know every little street in Akron, and I’ll drive around and see all these cool, underrated little spots – they’re underappreciated places in an underappreciated part of the country. You can drive around and see them and it’s really inspiring, because you feel that these places are your’s, because they haven’t been discovered. There’s a lot decay in Akron, just like in many places in the Midwest, but the city has an underdog spirit and a lot of cool, interesting people that are doing unique things, even if they might not get recognition or attention for it.
John, over the years, you’ve done a great job, via the Plain Dealer, documenting the lost musical spots of northeast Ohio, showing how so many original rock’n’roll venues, record stores, radio stations, etc. are now gone. Did any of that reporting work inspire the Sad Planets album?
JP: It gave me a new appreciation for the environment and how it informed the bands that came out of these industrial cities, places that had a glorious rise, and then experienced a nasty decline. You have bands with ambitious concepts and low-rent sensibilities. They could be dark and full of dread, yet have a sense of humor.
PC: I love Akron, and I always want to highlight it because I’m from there. But when I try to make my point, it’s clear to people who aren’t from Akron that they don’t understand it. It’s the ultimate underdog environment, and it inspires you to be funny. And it’s a place where you do things because you feel close to your friends that live in that city. You start a band to play for your other friends, and you do it with a kind of modesty. A lot of can things can happen and grow in that kind of environment, but you’re not trying to be the next Motley Crue. You’re thinking more in terms of underground music, like, say, Sonic Youth.
Is there a place that’s gone that particularly hits you in the gut?
JP: I’ve gone to Akron a number of times to take photos of the Akron Rubber Bowl – this football stadium that opened in 1940 and closed in 2008. Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead all played there in the 1970s and ’80. It also hosted a number football games and sporting events. I actually never attended a game or a concert at the Rubber Bowl, but I went there often when it was empty and falling apart. The city is in the process of demolishing it and there’s less and less of it with every trip. I find it very sad, not just because it’s such an old and storied place. There’s something thrilling about being alone in a such a structure.
PC: There are quite a few places that have closed, a lot of them are bars I would hang out in as a kid. The first bar I used to frequent was in a part of Akron called North Hill. I would hang out with these guys in high school and we’d go to a place called Tommy’s. It was in a house – a juke joint for all these old Italian guys, where bands would play jazz and you could drink Blatz for 85 cents. There was Mitches Lounge, by the University of Akron, and the Southern Taproom, where you could drink that one kind of beer, Hamm’s.
You both played all the instruments on the album, right?
JP: We really tried to make it an open environment, because we didn’t really have expectations for the record. It’s usually like that when a band makes its first album – and more so in our case because we weren’t even a band, just two people getting together to jam for the first time. Patrick played a lot of the synths and drums, also electric piano and glockenspiel. I did the guitars and vocals. But we also had some friends join along – J Mascis happened to stop down to the studio while we were recording and started playing along to “Just Landed,” the first song on the album. Jeff France, who engineered the recordings in Akron, played bass on a song. Steve Clement played drums on a few songs and added a piano and a synth. Michael Seifert, who engineered some sessions in Cleveland, also played bass. We operated as an open-system, which is different from the usual band setting – often a more interesting way of doing things, but it can get a bit confusing at times.
PC: Sad Planets is the first thing I did outside of the Black Keys. For a long time, I had a feeling that I had to put everything I had in the Black Keys. But after Dan did his first solo album, it inspired me to also branch out and do other things. It’s not about just doing one band anymore, and I realized that I can do different bands and kinds of music. I’ve been making music every day on my own every day for a long time, music that I haven’t released. But Sad Planets opened the flood gates for me and made me realize that I don’t have to just do the Black Keys.
John, your voice is pretty distinctive. Some of these songs could be Cobra Verde songs. Is that an awareness you take to a new project, and try to bend your vox accordingly?
JP: I was trying to do some different things, but it mostly had to do with the songs, and it goes back to what you mentioned earlier about “floating in space.” I actually wanted the vocals to “Disappearing” to sound like they were “floating in space.” I wanted something similar with “(Falling Into the Arms of a) Refugee” and wanted the chorus of “Not of This World” to sound like something from another planet.
One of the things I like about this album is you pack a lot of psychedelic edges, spacey synth trips, and otherwise exploratory moves into mostly compact, mostly catchy short songs. Which I appreciate, what with liking punk and all…
JP: Thanks! We had no real plan for “a sound.” It just came out of the blue. It’s probably a common thing when you go into a studio and just start recording with someone you’ve never played with before. But as we worked on the album, we would throw out some music and albums that we both really liked, everything from Captain Beefheart to the Electric Prunes.
VIDEO: Electric Prunes – Instrumental In F Minor
The press bio mentions a couple drives you two had around Akron, and they ended up inspiring songs. Any stories from those rides? Did you guys spend a lot of time around town after recording sessions in general?
JP: Patrick turned me on to all these old hamburger places in Akron. The city calls itself “The Hamburger Capital of the World” because it is said that the hamburger was invented there, in 1885. Anyway, the city has so many of these small, old-style burger joints that feel like a walk into some old movie – Swenson’s, Ido, Louie’s, Windsor, Main Street, Skyway, Bob’s Hamburg, Hamburger Station.
PC: Whenever I give visitors tours around town, I get people telling me, ‘Why the fuck are you showing them this shirt?” But it’s bands like Devo and places like Swenson’s and Hamburger Station that make Akron special. We also checked out some bars, just drove around. We also went to Stan Hywet Hall – a product of the industrial revolution and Akron’s role in it, it is one of the most opulent country estates in American. I like to show people the symbols of extreme wealth that Akron once had, but also abandoned mansions, which symbolize the decline.
Any plans for touring? I assume you’d need to assemble a band, as you’re not going out as a two-piece, though that might be interesting.
JP: We didn’t have any have anything concrete planned, but that’s the best approach for Sad Planets, because we’re actually planning on recording more music and looking at doing shows. We’re all about the casual approach.
If you’re going to stick to city themes, might I suggest Parma for the recording location?
JP: Ha! Yeah, Parma would make sense, especially if we wanted to go in more of a stoner direction.
What’s up next for you, musically?
JP: I just finished a synth-pop album with David James, the bass player in Death of Samantha. And working on albums for Sweet Apple and Cobra Verde. Also a couple other things.
PC: As far as the Black Keys goes, we are energized after taking a three year break. We are looking into lining up some more dates over seas currently and getting excited to get back out on the road.
VIDEO: Sad Planets – Just Landed