In a sense, Death of Samantha is the quintessential Cleveland band. After self-releasing its first single in 1985, the band, which originally consisted of lead vocalist/guitarist John Petkovic, lead guitarist Doug Gillard, bassist David James, and drummer Steve-O, began generating significant buzz in underground rock circles. In 1986, the group released its debut LP, Strungout on Jargon, on Homestead Records, the label that also put out early efforts by bands like Sonic Youth, Swans, Big Black, and Dinosaur Jr. Much like the quartet’s Cleveland forefathers (Electric Eels, Pere Ubu, Dead Boys, et. al) Death of Samantha had quickly developed a unique, almost unclassifiable sound by combining elements of punk, classic rock, and glam with an infectious, nervous energy and a keen sense for the dramatic.
Two more albums and an EP followed, but just as the band seemed poised to take another step forward amid the alternative rock explosion of the early ’90s, the members decided to pull the plug and break up. Petkovic and Gillard soon regrouped as Cobra Verde and also spent some time as members of Guided By Voices, but the legend of Death of Samantha continued to grow amongst those in the know over the subsequent decades.
In December 2011, the band reunited almost as abruptly as they had broken up. They’ve performed occasional shows since then, and this week they will release a new album, If Memory Serves Us Well, on St. Valentine Records, a banner under which many important Cleveland records of the ’80s were released. While the band’s recent live performances have proven that Death of Samantha maintains its strong sense of showmanship—for instance, Steve-O was brought to the stage in a casket on the occasion of their first reunion show—If Memory Serves Us Well, which was recorded live in-studio in 2011 and features the band performing material from its first incarnation, proves that it still delivers the goods sonically. Rather than simply going through the motions of playing through old favorites, the record finds the band breathing new life into its material and serves as an important reminder of just how good these guys sound together.
To mark the occasion of the album’s release, I recently caught up with Petkovic on the phone to discuss the reunion, the record, and Cleveland.
Ever since I first started listening to Death of Samantha, way back when I was in high school in Northeastern Ohio in the ’90s, I was always under the impression that it was one band that would never reunite. What were the circumstances behind you guys getting back together?
John Petkovic: What would give you that impression?
I guess people always just said, “They’ll never get together. They’re all busy doing other stuff.”
JP: That’s the thing. Everyone was doing other things. I never even thought about getting back together, ever. Not once. It never crossed my mind.
The funny thing is, it’s kind of like a pack of cigarettes brought everyone back together. I went down for a pack of cigarettes, and I happened to find that the bass player was working on the same street. I was walking toward the gas station, and this guy turned around, and it’s David James. I hadn’t seen the guy in years, and he’s kind of like the glue that kept the whole thing together the first time around. He really helped to get the band going, and the same thing this time around. It’s almost like, I might have run into him later that afternoon or the next day, you never can tell, but if I wouldn’t have run into him then we never would’ve even got back together. No way.
How has playing with the band now differed from when you were originally together?
JP: I think before I always wanted to make sure that things were right. If someone was having a problem, it was like, “Oh here, I’ll step in.” I think in my mind I saw it as maybe being diplomatic. I think it might have been overbearing in some ways, and so this time, if something happens, I’m like, “Fuck it, I don’t really need to be involved.” And then someone else will step up. Doug will step up and do something, or Dave James, who is fucking amazing. He’s a great musician, and he’s hard working. So I’ve pulled back a lot now. Obviously, I’m involved, but I’ve kind of pulled back.
I was just telling this to a friend of mine. It’s kind of like I’ve got this one cat, who just likes to come to me. He won’t come to anyone else. People always try to chase the cat and try to play with it, and I go, “You have to understand, you’ll never catch that cat. You must let the cat come to you.” And that’s kind of the same attitude I have now with this band. Whereas in the past, I would try to catch the cat, now I just let it happen. And if it doesn’t happen, fine. The fact that I’d be willing to walk away from it, maybe will mean someone else says, “Hey, we don’t want to stop doing this.” I don’t mean to say that in a negative way or anything. I just think if it doesn’t happen, no big deal. So in that regard, it’s a lot easier now. It’s not even “with time, with age”—it has nothing to do with that. I think it’s more of a different, maybe, mental attitude more than anything else.
Had you practiced much together before recording If Memory Serves Us Well?
We practiced a handful of times, maybe three times, before that. The thing is, what I liked about it was we just happened to be in a studio. It was like, “Okay, well why don’t we just record this thing?” There’s a live recording that Rocket from the Tombs did in their practice spot that became kind of their legendary first album—it never really was an album, it later came out—it essentially was a live recording. I kind of like that it’s a live recording. I don’t really like the way live records sound, but I like live bands, you know what I mean? The problem that people oftentimes have is they record a show live, and they think, “We’re going to capture this band live.” It never sounds that good to me. Live records kind of suck. But I was thinking, here you’ve got a live band, but it’s in the studio. It was the third practice within a week. Fuck, in the past, it’d take us like 12 months to do two or three practices. Death of Samantha was a band that never practiced. We might as well record this one on the third practice, since we’re probably never going to practice again.
I feel like there’s a kind of freshness to the record where it doesn’t sound like it’s a road-tested live band, but at the same time people aren’t messing up left and right. It’s kind of that right moment, early on, where it’s fresh and not slick yet.
Well, that’s the thing. A lot of times, bands record these live records, but they don’t even sound like a live band. It’s like, what did you guys do? Did you guys run it through some effects to fix everything? With us, the band was always kind of a loose band. In the past, I’d find it frustrating, now I kind of embrace it. At times, I think we’re kind of free jazz–sounding. We’ve got this jammy thing going. There was this private show we did about three months ago. We had a song go on for about 12 minutes, but it sounded fucking killer. I like the Velvet Underground, and that’s kind of how they did it a lot of times. This band doesn’t sound like the Velvet Underground, but on some of these recordings, the one time you hear a song, it’s like 12 minutes, and the next time you hear it, it’s like five minutes, and the next time it’s like 16 minutes. We try to have dynamics and try to have some sort of improvisational quality about it like that. Live, I think I see that more now than we ever did. I think we were just like a band of weirdos back then.
What was the impetus for putting this out at this point?
We wanted to put this record out because we liked how it sounded. We were like, “You know what? We wish people could hear these songs this way instead of just the other way.” I’m not saying we’re looking for expertise or trying to be real professional. Obviously, you can tell it’s still kind of a ragged band. I enjoy how this stuff sounds more than I like how the other stuff sounds, the old stuff. Not because I’m trying to hide that. There’s kind of a vibe where I play off Doug instead of competing with him. I don’t think there are really any competitive aspects to this, whereas in the past I think there might have been.
We were thinking, “We really enjoy how this sounds.” And we’re also like, “Fuck it. Why don’t we play with one another?” Doug had talked to me and was like, “We need to do a project. We’ll call it something else. We don’t even have to call it Death of Samantha or anything.” And then Dave James goes, “Hey, we should do a project together.” It was like fuck it. We’ll do a band and call it Death of Samantha. Do those songs, and maybe we’ll start recording a new record. That’s how we’re thinking, so this summer we’re going to start recording a new album. It’s not a long-term strategy. The band never had a long-term strategy. It’s just a kind just like, “Hey, let’s do this. This is fun.”
As someone who could probably be classified as a Cleveland rock nerd, I found it pretty cool to see the St. Valentine’s logo on If Memory Serves Us Well. Do you have any idea what the last record released on the label was?
JP: Dude, no. You know what the thing is that’s funny, though? There actually was a St. Valentine record number 30. I think the catalog number went up to 38. I didn’t know 38 records came out on that label so we picked number 30, but someone else had number 30 way back. Still, no one’s going to tell the difference. It was so funny because I had no idea there had been that many records. It’s kind of hard to keep track.
Maybe we’ll put out the next record on the same label, too. We actually started putting out records ourselves. We put out our first two singles on our own. Then it was like, labels were really into it. People thought the band was really cool and everything. I kind of always enjoyed just doing it ourselves, you know? That’s kind of what we did, and I don’t think we’re going to do it any other way.
What was the process for picking out which songs you’ve played at the reunion shows?
JP: We thought those that we remembered first are probably the ones we enjoyed playing the most. That’s kind of our attitude. We’re trying to keep things in a very simple, pure way, and we just rattled off a bunch of songs. Like this one song, “Turquoise Hand,” is on that record. We played it live maybe two, three times. Dave James was like, “Hey, you know, I always thought that was a good song. We should do that one. We should play it live. We never played it the first time.” So then we just ended up doing it.
To me, I don’t think there’s any money to be made out of a Death of Samantha reunion. But with all of these reunions, it seems like everyone’s got to have a story, like “Oh, we get along now,” or “Oh, we had some trauma.” It just seems too packaged for me. It’s just a bunch of bullshit, you know? Most of them, it’s for money, which is fine. I don’t have a problem with that, but they’re making it out like it’s all this other stuff. It’s disingenuous. With us, I happened to run into a guy walking down the street. I was just having a cigarette. And Doug Gillard was in town like three days before that. I happened to see him when he was playing. And I saw the drummer about a week before I saw Doug. So in 10 days I saw all three of these guys. I’m not one of these fate types, but I was like, well fuck it, if you run into everyone from Death of Samantha, you might as well do Death of Samantha.
The first practice, I was like, “Do I really want to do this? This is going to be such a fucking hassle. Who wants to do this? I have a bunch of other new stuff to do.” But the fact is that I’m doing it is because I actually enjoy it and it’s fun. I really just like playing with these people, you know?
You mentioned that you don’t like to go back to listen to the old stuff. We’re kind of in an age where everything gets reissued, and then gets reissued again every five or ten years. Is there any chance that you might reissue any of the old Death of Samantha stuff?
JP: People think I’m fucking crazy. You know what I did? When the band broke up, I bought the back catalog back and took it out of print, so it’d never be reissued.
JP: Yeah, fuckin’ nuts. But I was like, “You know what? Fucking Franz Kafka didn’t want his shit coming out. Why should I want mine?” I’m serious. I have delusions of Franz Kafka every once in a while. I was like, “Fuck that, it’s better to not have it out.” It’d be cool to eliminate any trace of its existence, for whatever reason. It’s nuts, I know. But we all really enjoy this version, so like, let’s get this out, and then we can go back and get the other stuff out. But I never had any plans of that ever coming out, to tell you the truth.
It was fun getting into you guys and trying to find all your records. It was only a couple of years ago that I was able to track down everything.
JP: It’s like people have constantly been asking where they can get our records. I have to tell them, “Nowhere. I’m sorry. I don’t want you to have those records, alright? Do you understand?” It’s a weird quirk. I never listen to any record that has ever been out. I don’t want to hear that, I just want to work on the next one. Steve-O always thought that I didn’t care or I didn’t enjoy it. And I’d go, “Oh, I totally enjoy it, but I just don’t want to look at yesterday’s newspapers.” You know what I mean? It’s not my thing. I don’t know why. I always want to focus on the project that I’m working on. So the fact that I am doing this, someone who took the back catalog out of commission and never listened to those fucking records ever and never thought about reissuing, the fact that I ended up wanting to do something, that just shows you that I really do think that it’s a fun band. I never would have done it otherwise. It’s fun and really musically enjoyable.
In some way, if you look at this period of the ’80s and ’90’s music, I would take this record right now and I’d put it up against any of those fucking records that came out then. I think that some of the Death of Samantha stuff aged better than a lot of those bands that were cool, all these people who had all the taste. Unfortunately, we’ve created this kind of culture where there’s this “indie rock” and “alternative rock.” It’s like, you have a fucking idiot who, when he’s not live tweeting the Super Bowl, is jumping on this bandwagon and jumping on that bandwagon. Well, guess what? That band was not that good. But that person that was so excited about that band has just moved on to the next band because it’s all about self-identity. It’s not about music.
As pretentious as this sounds, I’m an aesthete. I listen to music for the internal aspects, the essence of the thing, not because a bunch of people listen to some shit or they don’t listen to some shit. I don’t give a fuck. You have a lot of people that seem to jump on these bandwagons, and I look back, and a lot of bandwagons ended up in the ditch. I think Death of Samantha is a band that was timeless. The music is timeless. I’m not saying it’s traditional. I think it’s just timeless. It has hooks. It’s a weird take on rock music. A lot of these bands that were trying to do all these things and trying to be so ambitious, they were exposed as being frauds. A lot of these bands that came up in that era, in the ’80s and ’90s, they were as much of a cash grab as anything else, but they created the term “alternative rock” to make it seem like somehow they were better than just “rock.” We never fucking used any of that shit.
You know when grunge came around, you know what we called that? Tarzan rock. Because there were all these shirtless dudes strutting around up there being reluctant rock stars. Well, if you’re a reluctant rock star, why don’t you put a fucking shirt on? It’s funny, right? It’s just so funny, all these fucking Tarzan rockers. They had the “loser” t-shirts and all this shit, but those guys were just angling for a check. That’s careerist. If you ask me, a lot of these bands are just fucking careerists, as much as anybody else. We never had any of that thing. We never had any fucking baggage about being “alternative” or being this or being that.
It’s like, “Keep Austin weird.” What the fuck does that mean? If you keep something weird, then it’s not weird, right? Smokey the Bear says prevent forest fires. Okay, I understand that: prevent forest fires. You don’t want forests to catch on fire. But “keep it weird?” What the fuck does that mean? Cleveland is just fucking weird. You could actually say, “Cleveland: If only it was weird. Instead, it’s psychotic.” But that’s just how it is. A lot of that indie music started at that time when people were trying to be different. I never had any of those tendencies. I never could give a fuck. Death of Samantha, I can tell you, had a pure love for music, without any agenda, without anything else. We weren’t going to be the latest band of the month. We didn’t fucking have any clichés. We just were. We actually were DIY. We came up with it without any outside forces. It wasn’t just some marketing strategy or some attitude. We just wanted to play music.
You did mention it, and there’s been some talk about you guys recording new material in the future. Is that something imminent or farther down the road?
JP: We have some demos and stuff. I’d say in the summertime we’re going to start. Some of the demos, people might think sound like a different band, but we don’t want to be trying to write to spec, like here’s what we can do, and here’s what we can’t do. I know a lot of these reunions are kind of like that. I know firsthand. Some of these reunions, it’s like they really don’t deviate that far because you don’t want to “deviate from the brand.”
You’ve got to put the product out there.
JP: Actually, without sounding like I’m communist, if there’s money to be made, count me out. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care. I just don’t fucking care about money. I never have any, but you know what? Fuck that. Give me a purring cat and a guitar. I could hang out under a bridge. Of course, you’ve got to feed the damn cat or it’s gnawing on your leg.
I’d go anywhere to chase an idea. I’d go down to fucking hell and snatch it from the jaws of the devil and then stab him in the heart, just so I could take it back to earth. It sounds like bravado, but it’s kind of true. I’m obsessed with music, you know? You think I’m crazy, but it’s true. I just really love music. Me, Dave, Doug, and Steve-O all love music. All of these other fucking people are going to fall like flies. They’re going to fall like flies when the reunion tours are done and they move on to whatever the fuck they’re going to be doing. We’re just doing this thing and not even thinking about it, you know?