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Cleveland icons Death of Samantha return for double-live "Memory" album

Memory served Death of Samantha's John Petkovic well on "new" album.
Memory served Death of Samantha's John Petkovic well on "new" album.
Death of Samantha / St. Valentine

It’s been said (by Emerson and others) that life’s a journey, not a destination. Accordingly, our most visceral experiences typically derive from our getting wherever it is we’re going—from our travels, not our arrivals.

Because once you’ve reached Disney World in Orlando and checked into your room at Pop Century Resort, what comes next? A series of shuttle buses to the myriad mouse parks, where you hoof it for hours on end in sweltering heat.

More traveling!

Which goes to show no one truly gets anywhere; we’re always on the move—and it’s these sights and sounds we automatically file in our mental rolodex.

I digress.

Death of Samantha’s new double-album (one compact disc) If Memory Serves Us Well represents a journey more than the musical “destination” most bands hope to preserve after plunking down big cash and sequestering themselves in their swanky studios. A compilation of updated, reworked, and barely-remembered songs written and previously recorded by Cleveland’s acclaimed underground quartet in the mid-to-late ‘80s, Memory is a 100% organic archive, a half “greatest-hits-now,” half “best-of-live” project whose song sequence (whether by accident or design) results in an intriguing sonic story arc, a nocturnal narrative that lures and seduces listeners for seventy-some minutes before the climactic release-and-exhale following its ragged doo-doo-doo “Blood Creek” coda.

The disc (out today on St. Valentine Records) also embodies a journey in its necessitation of a harmonic convergence of all original Death of Samantha members after an extended hiatus. It only took a day or two to track and mix Memory—but it took the band twenty-five years to get back in a room together with guns a’ blazin’.

Formed as a fluke by Parma singer / guitarist John Petkovic—who was a Ground Round janitor back then—the band embraced the punk esthetic of earlier Cleveland outfits like Pagans and Rocket From the Tombs. But they also adopted the experimental approach of Dave Thomas’s Pere Ubu and Mark Mothersbaugh’s Devo while honoring the guitar-driven blues rock styling of early Rolling Stones. As if to underscore their philosophy, they named themselves after a deep cut on Yoko Ono’s 1973 album Approximately Infinite Universe.

Death of Samantha issued a series of well-regarded albums (on vinyl and cassette) on Homestead from 1986-1989 and cultivated a considerable local following on the strength—and weirdness—of live performances at joints like The Pop Shop and The Phantasy. They toured with The Replacements, Nirvana, and The Smashing Pumpkins and completed run of dates along the west coast in ’89. But the group couldn’t break mainstream during its first incarnation, even though contemporary “college” acts like U2 (The Unforgettable Fire) and REM (Green) managed to do just that by updating / compromising their sounds. But DOS never wanted to be everything to everyone.
The group splintered after ‘89’s Come All Ye Faithless. Lead guitarist Doug Gillard dabbled in other bands throughout the Nineties (Nada Surf, Guided By Voices). Drummer Steve-O Eierdam and bassist David James did their own things, too. Petkovic eventually became a Plain Dealer music reporter—but also kept turning up in subsequent bands, with the glam-inspired Cobra Verde achieving the most success.

Two decades passed. Hair metal, grunge, and alternative rock came and went. Yet the ghost of DOM loomed: Petkovic politely brushed off requests for “reunion” shows long after he’d stopped thinking about the eighties, but separate serendipitous encounters with Doug and Dave set gears spinning for a one-off at Beachland Ballroom on December 23, 2011. And when the old guard assembled for rehearsals mere days before the show, someone was mindful enough to thumb the “record” button.

The eighteen selections on Memory constitute the best (or most interesting) takes from the practice December 22nd session. Given that the old DOS albums aren’t readily available anymore (except on Ebay), new spins on classics like “Coca Cola and Licorice,” “Bed of Fire,” and “Savior City” will become definitive versions for many, including Petkovic—for whom the old stuff is, well, old.

The songs still contain traces of Stones and Stooges (Petkovic’s voice often harkens Mick and Iggy), but a reckless punk abandon powers the proceedings, and the mix benefits from the guys’ caution-to-the-wind execution. Guitars dominate the spectrum, panned left and right, with Petkovic’s often ethereal chords augmented by Gillard’s nonstop riffing. James’ bass pulses down the middle, gluing it all together. Steve-O’s drumming provides a temporal framework for the action, but his karate-chops are just as combustive and decorative as they are percussively pragmatic.

Absorbing Memory en masse dilates a hitherto-uncharted rock ‘n’ roll rabbit hole, plopping listeners in alternate dimensions, where Petkovic’s alter-egos brave epiphanies in grocery store express lanes (“Couldn’t Forget About That”), woo Japanese girls into their Chevrolets (“Geisha Girl”), and pass out on Lover’s Lane (“Savior City”). There’s no shortage of straight-on punk bravado, Jim Morrison swagger (“Harlequin Tragedy,” “Sexual Dreaming”) and alt-rock balladry (“Conviction”), but Memory also bouncescow-punk progressions (“Bed of Fire”), smoky jazz-lounge breaks (“Now It’s Your Turn to Be a Martyr”), and Bo Diddley beats (“Monkey Face”).

Mike Seifert captured the jams at Venue Studios in Euclid. Mixer Travis Harrison (Serious Business Music, NYC) and masterer Paul Gold (Salt Mastering, Brooklyn, NY) sprinkle their magic fairy dust without adulterating the band’s spontaneity. Extended jams are kept intact, bum notes go un-tweaked, and other sonic blemishes left exposed. The expert handling (or not handling) benefits the performances; the sound itself develops character and personality (one almost hears the room), and the essence of the Death of Samantha of old reemerges.

The liner notes feature a biography by writer Byron Coley (Forced Exposure, Wire) and testimonials from uber-fans Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age). Memory’s gatefold art is a pastiche of vintage photos and sleeve imagery from the quartet’s Homestead releases, including the lawnchair mannequin from Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man.

We spoke with Petkovic a week outside the record release. Loquacious but articulate—his mouth could barely keep up with his brain—the singer was excited about Memory finally seeing light of day and needed little prompting when it came to discussing DOM’s history, early influences, local impact, and surprising resurrection. Our conversation lasted nearly an hour—and we didn’t even get around to discussing John’s clarinet prowess. What follows are just the highlights.

CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: So how did the Death of Samantha reunion come about after so much time?

JOHN PETKOVIC: It’s funny. There’s no rhyme or reason how the thing came together. Basically, I went out for a cigarette and saw the bass player.

EXAMINER: That’d be David?

PETKOVIC: Yeah, the bass player. I was going out for a cigarette, and I hadn’t seen him in years. Like, years. I just happened to go out one day, and I’d seen Doug three days earlier in Cleveland. He was playing a show at Beachland, but he was living in New York. I hadn’t kept contact with him all the time. Maybe semi-regularly. So I saw Doug, and he’s like, “We should do something!” He suggested getting back together at some point—maybe not as a full band, but just getting together and coming up with ideas for music. Because he plays in a bunch of projects, and I do, too. And I saw Dave, and it’d literally been ten years. He was down the street, and I went over by the gas station, and I was like, “I might as well ask this guy for a cigarette,” and it was him! It was all, “What have you been doing? Oh, I’ve been working on music.” “What have you been doing?” “Oh, I’ve been working on stuff, too.” He’d been doing a lot of electronic-type stuff, and he’s like, “If you ever want to get together and work on music…” I said, “I just saw Doug, and he was saying the same thing.”

EXAMINER: And it all just came together from there.

PETKOVIC: You got so many band projects, and we could all do individual bands with one another, like Doug doing a project with Dave, and me doing a project with Dave, or Steve-O doing a project with Doug. You do the math, and it’s like, fuck it! We just started talking. We should get together and just jam. And the Beachland had been asking us to do a show for a while. People had been asking, too. Not like there’d been this big demand, but over the years it added up. You hear about these bands, and after so many years you hear they’re reuniting. But you don’t usually expect to hear about reunions from people who are done and have passed on. It’s like dating someone who passes on, maybe. Or someone who you were there when they were passing on, and they’re on their death bed, and you’re the one who threw the dirt on the grave. You just don’t think about it. So I don’t think it was in anyone’s minds. Not on mine!

EXAMINER: How’d you decide which songs to work up and include on the album, and in the show?

PETKOVIC: The term If Memory Serves Us Well was literally my M.O. through this whole thing. Because I pretty much didn’t…I never went back to listen to that old stuff. It was more like, “If I could remember some of this.” I thought it would be a good psychological experiment. When you consider trying to remember stuff you haven’t thought about for twenty-five years it’s like, is it even possible? Is it lodged in your head? I didn’t pick any of the songs. We just kind of threw out songs, whatever we thought of. And it was like, “I remember that one!” For all I know, maybe we missed out on three, or didn’t record three, or should have recorded three others. It was just that we didn’t remember them at that time. That’s as simple as it was. It’s an “old” project, but it became very in-the-moment because we didn’t refer to the past much, you know?

EXAMINER: The tunes sound very loose, very organic. I mean, the performances are great and it’s clear you all know your stuff. But there’s a freeness to it.

PETKOVIC: That’s the thing. We were practicing them as a band. We had the worst equipment. We never practiced. And it’s like, “I hope you sound as good as you did before!” And I was like, “I hope so, too [laughs]!” Because we just never practiced. We were just a very spontaneous band. We always tried to do things where we’d re-record a song, and that would just become the version that was recorded that day. Nothing was really fully-formed. And that was an intentional thing; we were kind of into that. We were all into more experimental music, so we took an experimental approach—but to rock music. So we’d always try things like, have it sound spontaneous by not actually learning the full song. We were never gonna be a perfect-type band, because we were always so loose. But we sounded tighter than ever before.

EXAMINER: Where was all this recorded?

PETKOVIC: It was recorded at a place called Venue Studio. We were just looking for a place to practice, and that place was available. And we were in the studio, and the guy was like, “Hey, I can record you guys!” And we said, “Sure, you may as well record.” The thing was, we just wanted to have something that—well, not even wanted—but something to document the planning of the whole thing. I really like this one record that Rocket From the Tombs did. Their first record. Because it was a practice. And it’s so cool because, you think, people record live albums all the time and it’s like “Oh, you want it to sound spontaneous and live!” But a practice is more spontaneous and live than a studio record or a live record, because it becomes all about the song. You’re not putting on a show. It’s a truer thing. We were like, if we’re gonna get a practice, we can just have the recording running. We didn’t have an album in mind. So it became an in-the-moment approach. That’s why, with this record, I like it—and it’s the most in-the-moment record I’ve been part of. It’s unique in that many records aren’t done that way. There are mistakes in the record. Things go on long, parts here and there. But I like that. That’s what a band sounds like! It doesn’t sound like it does live, because bands rehearse for a live show. But if you just practice… It’s the unedited, unscripted version of a band, and you rarely get that with any band these days. Or at any time, you know?

EXAMINER: You can hear the spontaneity in the way the songs build up, coalesce—and then break down and build again. You hear the count-offs and a little chatter in between, too.

PETKOVIC: Totally! Exactly. That kind of appealed to me. I like some of these, these practices and recordings of The Troggs, where they’d been arguing with one another and swearing at each other. And there’s some versions that are like, hack versions of songs. You listen, and it’s like, “Why is this considered a hack version? Maybe it’s just a song.” For me, it got me excited to do something where there’s this… People can do what they want to do with reunions and stuff. But I thought the whole idea of these reunions, bands do these preconceived things where they appeal to this audience or that audience, or Weezer’s gonna be playing some particular record. The thing that gets me is when they say a band is gonna play a record in its entirety. And it’s like, “But you never did that the first time around. Why not?” Maybe it’s because some of the songs just weren’t good enough to be played from beginning to end. So you have a set of thirty songs, but you’ve got twelve off the one album. And you think, “But tracks 7 and 8 aren’t that good,” you know? I’m in another band, and we got a song called “Reunion.” And the words go: “The band is drunk, the song’s a mess, but we’ll sing along and step in when they forget.” Because it’s all nostalgia. The band doesn’t even have to play the song, because it’s codified in the minds of the audience, who don’t hear the song as the band plays it, but rather as they remember it. And I thought it would be cool to have a record where it’s not codified. It’s not preconceived. I’m not one of those guys who insists on things being so pure, or have the authenticity such that it’s all a big myth. But this is a record I can truly say is as truly as emotive as anything I’ve come across. It’s an in-the-moment record that was recorded on-the-spot.

EXAMINER: Some of the new versions of the tunes go on longer than the originals. Like “Good Friday” is twice as long. I was wondering if these longer versions were perhaps the result of your having played them live over the years and extrapolated on them, or if they just ended up that way during that one session.

PETKOVIC: It was on the spot. “Good Friday” or “Blood Creek,” yeah. That moment where it’s like, “Aw man!” And the thing is live, that’s the synergy thing about it. We did this one show where it was like, a twelve minute version. And people seemed into it. People dug it because there was this pre-jazz aspect to it. It’s interesting because, you know this film Sympathy for the Devil that Jean-Luc Godard did, about the making of when the Stones made the song “Sympathy for the Devil?”

EXAMINER: Mmmm…no. I know the song, and I read about the film—but I never actually saw it.

PETKOVIC: It’s interesting—just check it out—because in the beginning you hear the song, and it starts in a way that, if The Rolling Stones had recorded the song as it existed one day into the recording, we’d think of the song so very differently. And the unfamiliar one would be the one we heard. Because they’re very different. The other one is just a jam, and has nothing like the familiar one. And had they kept on going, maybe it’d been more of a punk rock-sounding song, you know? You get to think, this is the one version from one particular date. And we thought, hey, we could draw this thing out a bit. And sometimes we don’t think about it, because we enjoy playing off each other. That’s how jazz records are. Or like a John Coltrane record. You hear him perform it live, and it’s like, “That’s not the song I heard!”

EXAMINER: There’s a lot of musical interplay going on. I haven’t heard all the original recordings, but I imagine a lot of the little riffs and nuances are fresh.

PETKOVIC: That’s kind of the most fun thing about this band, to tell you the truth. Kind of that ability to… On one hand there’s a discipline, and people play off one another. And sometimes you get to do things where people take turns and one person does something while someone else pulls back. That’s the interesting thing about music. We’re a lot of fun, and the audience seems to be…people who see the band seem really into it. We know what we’re doing better than we did before. It’s a different approach. We kind of just don’t give a fuck, you know [laughs]?

EXAMINER: Listening to the album as a whole, there’s this dark kind of cohesiveness. I know it’s not a concept and that the songs aren’t lyrically connected, but played in sequence it’s like there’s a trajectory, an arc, as if all this stuff occurred over the course of a single crazy evening. And when it all ends, after “Blood Creek,” there’s this relief. You exhale, but you’re also a little disappointed that it’s over. Like a drunk who can’t stand seeing the sunlight at dawn. Like that cult gang movie, The Warriors.

PETKOVIC: Yeah, The Warriors! What do you like about that movie?

EXAMINER: Well, I first saw that on VHS as a kid. I was around 12 at the time, so the stylized gangs appealed to me. The gang names like Baseball Furies and Turnbull A.C.’s and the uniforms they wore. As I got older I realized that gangs aren’t like that, that they were stylized. But I always kind of dug how it all happened in one night. Not sure if [director] Walter Hill intended it that way, or if it’s like that in Sol Yurick’s novel.

PETKOVIC: Yeah! That’s an interesting take, yeah. It’s almost like, in a way, do you think it’s set up like a vampire movie? Like it as vampire aspects to it? There’s this Werner Herzog film, Nosferatu the Vampyre, where there’s this weird morning after the night where you have that kind of thing, too.

EXAMINER: I don’t know about vampires, but the album as a whole—the entire hour-plus running time, or whatever it is—has this half-dreamy Kafkaesque quality, as if it were all one overnight misadventure or something.

PETKOVIC: Cool! Thanks so much. That’s interesting. I love Kafka. Are you a Kafka fan?

EXAMINER: Can’t say I’m a huge fan, but I read the required stuff in high school and college, like The Metamorphosis.

PETKOVIC: I always joke, because my parents are from the former Yugoslavia, and I always joke that the kids would read Humpty-Dumpty and all that shit, and my bedtime reading was Franz Kafka. We read all kinds of crazy shit when I was a kid. I thought, “Wow! A cockroach! That’s kind of cute!” I wanted to be a cockroach as a kid!

EXAMINER: Do you have time for a few song-specific questions?

PETKOVIC: Dude, anytime, Pete! I got all the time you need.

EXAMINER: Your lyrics really evoke images—places and characters in their own little narratives. But you also drop a few historical references and names of popular cultural figures, as in “Rosenberg Summer.”

PETKOVIC: Well, I always liked songs that had…I like songs where you could take the world, and you take some kind of aspect of the world, and then you go back and go to people and see the ultimate larger chaos of the world, and you see how it’s part of an individual chaos. I’ve always liked to start with a premise. The equivalent would be like, you know the movie Dirty Harry?

EXAMINER: Oh yeah. Love Dirty Harry.

PETKOVIC: You know where they’re in the football field? Harry’s stepping on the guy’s leg, right, and the guy’s in shock, and the camera pulls away.

EXAMINER: Yeah, it zooms out and you see the whole stadium, and they’re just a couple small dudes in the middle of the field.

PETKOVIC: I’ve always loved that approach to things, where you take an event. You look at something like a betrayal, like the Rosenbergs—who were seen as betraying the United States and were accused of being spies. You get the “historical” Rosenbergs, but then you think of the world on a larger level of betrayal as opposed to the smaller level. I’ve always been interested in starting with some smaller thing, then pulling focus on it so you see it from far away. Or starting far away and moving in. Not to get too into it, but I’ve always tried that approach. There’s this John Donne poem about a flea, where it starts with like, little things, and it becomes much bigger. It’s a view of the world personalized on a small level. That kind of relationship. It can be a messy thing: There aren’t always these parallels, but I try to find them. And on that one, “Rosenberg Summer,” I looked for ideas of personal betrayal. On a historical level and personal level. You see and hear all these things in the world. You go on the Facebook, and people talk about “This guy did this to that person.” You saw that woman who did the Linked In thing?

EXAMINER: I read about it, sure.

PETKOVIC: This woman didn’t want to befriend someone, right? And all these people ganged up in this mob and attacked this woman. What is more appalling? I mean, if someone doesn’t want to be friends with me, I don’t give a fuck. I’m not going around killing over it. But you find these things that happen, and it’s a totally silly thing. The songs don’t have much to do with that, but you have this idea out there of group mentality, this “mob rules” groupthink, with these strange events, and you try to associate yourself with those. The world’s full of this stuff. We did a show this one time in Huntington Beach in California, and the guy there didn’t want to pay me. We played, but we got there late, and we knew we were late—and it was a fucked-up show. And I’m like, “We had a guarantee, and you’re not going to pay us?” And he pulls out a gun and smacks me in the head with it, you know? Do I go out whining that this guy shouldn’t have done that? To me it’s just, “I think it’s time we never play this club again!” It just seems like I’ve always tried to pull focus, where you focus on one tiny little thing, the microcosm in the macrocosm. That’s what that song has in it.

EXAMINER: I love the imagery and symbolism in “Good Friday,” where the dude gets a fortune cookie lodged in his throat, and it’s as if the doctor can read the fortune with his stethoscope or something: “Today’s your lucky day!”

PETKOVIC: “Good Friday” has this setting where you think of Good Friday, and then this larger setting of the sacrifice in which it takes place. You think of these mundane things that take place, and we see ourselves as these tortured Christ-like figures, when really it’s just our most basic whims that aren’t getting satisfied. We live amidst all sorts of mundane things, like those people making a big deal about the woman not giving a Linked In thing. Give me a break!

EXAMINER: Everything gets blown out of proportion, especially with technology, where people can broadcast and do a running commentary as it all transpires.

PETKOVIC: Of course! Yeah. So I always like to take these larger things and break ‘em up. But we have this eccentric lofty rhetoric. And we see in contemporary life, with the Facebook. We’re living in this individualist society, so we gravitate toward these things, you know? Did you find it weird that all these people just went off on this poor woman?

EXAMINER: I’m not familiar with the whole story there, but I know what you mean. You see it all the time. Somebody does something, right or wrong, and larger groups rush to judgment. Or you see the opposite side of the coin, where people come together with positive energy for these crazy flash-mobs and things.

PETKOVIC: Yeah. It’s just weird though, man. I’m like you though. I just don’t get all that stuff.

EXAMINER: Coming back to Death of Samantha after so many years, was there an adjustment for you, given you’re used to playing in Cobra Verde now?

PETKOVIC: It is a bit of an adjustment, but I don’t go into it giving much of a fuck, because you just in and let the project dictate it. The thing is, I found it interesting that in Death of Samantha, I was kind of the guy who’d herd the cats and try to get everything done. But this time around I was like, “If it doesn’t happen, I don’t care.” And I saw that everyone else stepped up. Dave and Doug and Steve-O. Everyone was very proactive.

EXAMINER: That must’ve felt good, to be able to enjoy it and let other people take care of the business end for a change.

PETKOVIC: Oh, totally. The band is actually a lot more fun than it ever was before.

EXAMINER: Was the Beachland show itself recorded?

PETKOVIC: It was, but we never listened to it! Never got around to it!

EXAMINER: You guys did a couple more shows after that gig, like later that summer…

PETKOVIC: We did Columbus and Austin, Texas.

EXAMINER: Will there be other concerts this year?

PETKOVIC: We were gonna do shows this winter, but it’s just been insane. We figure we’re gonna wait until like, spring or summer to do shows.

EXAMINER: There’s some footage from the Beachland gig on your website. I noticed you guys brought a backdrop from the Ground Round. That kind of brings things full circle, no?

PETKOVIC: I worked there, at Ground Round, and the manager said, “You should have your band play here,” as a joke. And this other guy worked there was funny, but he was so serious. And then he sees the band playing, and it’s like, “What the fuck is this?” And people working in the place came out to look, and people and were banging on the popcorn machine and throwing stuff, and the guests thought it was just awful. I’m sure it would have been awful to anybody! But to them it was particularly awful.

EXAMINER: I would’ve liked something unexpected like that. I can imagine going into some restaurant for a burger and fries, and suddenly there’s some amateur rock band. I don’t think I’d mind if they sucked. I’d like to think I’d just appreciate the novelty of it, the out-of-nowhere spontaneity that turns the normalness completely upside-down.

PETKOVIC: But it was funny. It was wing night, and people were throwing chicken. But we can look back now and almost thank that show for being the band’s start-off thing. A one-off thing. We never thought we were ever gonna do anything, and people kept asking about it: “We heard a riot broke out!” It was this performance like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or something. So we thought we might as well do a show. And then we were like, “Oh, shit! Guess we’ll have to learn a couple songs!”

EXAMINER: Will the album be available in digital formats for people who want to download to iTunes and listen on the go?

PETKOVIC: Totally, iTunes and vinyl. And CD.

EXAMINER: I noticed a typo on the back sleeve of the disc, where it gives the address for St. Valentine Records. The “d” comes before the “n” in Cleveland, so it’s Cleveladdddnnnn….

PETKOVIC: Really? Oh no! [Laughs] Are you serious?

EXAMINER: Yeah, I’m looking at it now. With you guys, I thought it might’ve even been a deliberate thing. So now it’s like a limited edition pressing, a collector’s item.

PETKOVIC: Right, limited edition. Like that postage stamp. Didn’t the postal service have some stamp where the plane was printed upside-down, and the thing is worth like, $25,000 or something like that?

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