You can trace the rock 'n' roll circus back to London in the '60s, where the Rolling Stones staged a series of shows under a big tent. That's not exactly what locals Cobra Verde have in mind for the concert they're playing to celebrate the release of their new album, Haven't Slept All Year. The idea, to hear band members tell it, is simply to do something out of the ordinary. As a result, a burlesque troupe, fire breathers, a tap dancer and a stand-up comedian will all perform alongside the band. Gathered together at Noise Floor Studios, a Bedford studio that doubles as a rehearsal space, Cobre Verde discussed the concept.
"Every band does the same thing for a record release party," says the group's gregarious frontman, John Petkovic. "It's more fun this way. It's really for our amusement. People always say it's more show than go in a derogatory way. But I like the show more than the go."
Bassist Ed Sotelo agrees.
"I was talking to Tony [Vorell] from Expecting Rain, and they didn't have anyone else play at their release party, and they did this champagne toast," he says. "He and I had this conversation, and if you say it's a CD release party, it's usually just another show. That's fine, but it's just another show. We didn't want to make it another show."
In a way, the circus theme is fitting since clowning around comes naturally to the band.
"None of us are really crazy or anything, but people do think we're weirder than we really are," says Petkovic, recalling a story about a recent visit to New York. While Petkovic was parking the van, film director Jim Jarmusch walked by and stopped to talk to the guys. He walked by again a little later and was surprised to see the guys still hadn't left the van.
"We were just sitting around," recalls Petkovic. "I said, 'You think we're stalking you, but in reality you're stalking us.' We started talking, and I told him our perfect tour would be to book a tour but not do any shows. We would just park the van and hang out, smoke cigarettes and drink a little bit. He wrote me a week later and said he was so inspired, he called Tom Waits and told him what I said, and said that he and Tom wanted to make a movie based on that concept. I'm sure they'll never get around to it, but the point is that you can't take yourselves too seriously. Tours are always a means to an end, but for us, this is the end."
All joking aside, Cobra Verde has done its share of touring and hard work since forming 15 years ago out of the ashes of local post-punk favorites Death of Samantha. Playing something akin to glam rock on its first few albums, the group embarked on a well-received tour with Guided by Voices in the late '90s, serving as GBV's backing band and opening the show with its own set.
Though it lost guitarist Doug Gillard to GBV and subsequently went through a series of guitarists before settling on Frank Vazzano and Tim Parnin, the current line-up - which is rounded out by powerhouse drummer Mark Klein (who also does time with local metal vets Breaker) - solidified by the time of 2005's Copycat Killers, a disc of cover tunes featuring imaginative remakes of everything from the Rolling Stones to New Order and even pop star Pink. In expanding its musical horizons for that album, the group learned a lesson it carried with it to Haven't Slept All Year, which at times evokes everything from the dark tones of Nick Cave ("Wasted Again") to the Americana impulses of Wilco ("Free Ride"), with eclectic instrumentation that includes mandolin, horns and a toy raygun (which Sotelo plays on "Riot in the Foodcourt").
"On the covers record, we tried a lot of different things," explains Petkovic. "While making this record, we referred to things we had done on that record. For example, on 'Riot in the Foodcourt,' the guitars are different throughout the song. Frank [Vazzano] added these clean-sounding ones and then some that sound like jangly Byrds guitars. It's unlike anything we've ever done before. I think if it wasn't for the covers record, we wouldn't had done it that way. I don't know how a band does six records in a row that all sound the same."
Because Cobra Verde worked so hard on tweaking the songs, the album took an inordinate amount of time to finish. Then, when his mom passed away last year, Petkovic doubted it would ever come out, since he took time off to deal with his loss.
"I was happy that this record came in the mail, because I never thought it would," he says.
Even if Cobra Verde has made inroads toward national success (in 2006, it appeared on The O.C. and its music has recently been featured in the HBO hit True Blood and the popular FX show Rescue Me), that's not really the ultimate goal, says Petkovic.
"These bands all want to get on a label and tour and become a famous," he says. "It's a delusion if you think that way. We had fun while we were recording. It was pure fun because you're responding to other songs and other ideas. There's always been a lot of fluidity to this. I don't even remember who played what on this thing. People always say they have these visions [for their albums], but I think rock 'n' roll is often just art by accident."