It’s not surprising that indie-rock powerhouse Petrov pairs careening post-punk guitars and soaring pop melodies with a passion and professionalism on par with established national acts. Nor is it astonishing that the Charlotte five-piece’s intricate yet muscular tunes have garnered multiple accolades, including Queen City Nerve’s Best in the Nest 2020 award for best pop-punk band.
Even Riot Grrrl-inspired frontwoman and lyricist Mary Grace McKusick’s uncanny ability to unlock multiple emotions with haunting imagery and scalpel-sharp phrasing is not entirely astounding. Instead, the revelation that McKusick, who fearlessly tackles challenging topics like manipulation, sexual assault, personal growth and more, once felt too self-conscious to join the band, is kind of a shock.
It turns out, McKusick didn’t want to take advantage of personal relationships. She already knew Petrov drummer Garrett Herzfeld, a longtime friend of her older brother, she remembers. The band had been searching for a distinctive vocalist, who could bring individuality, gravitas and vulnerability to Petrov’s multifaceted sound.
Several singers had tried out by the time McKusick saw the band’s Facebook post.
“I was apprehensive because I didn’t want to be like the lame little sister that wants to be a part of everything,” she remembers.
It was daunting to audition because McKusick had never been in a band before, although she had experience performing before a live audience.
“Growing up I was in the church choir and in school plays, but this is my first time [onstage] outside of school or church.”
McKusick’s initial reticence seems particularly surprising given Petrov’s electrifying stage presence. As dual guitars corkscrew over galloping drums and percolating bass, McKusick flails and whirls as if consumed by the music. Fans and newcomers can witness Petrov’s propulsive power on Jan. 6 when the band performs a live-streamed set at Neighborhood Theatre as part of the venue’s Queen City Streams series.
Petrov is born
The band, which burst upon the Charlotte music scene in late-2018, takes its name from Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, a Russian army officer who averted worldwide nuclear annihilation in 1983 when he chose to disbelieve a faulty early warning message that U.S.-launched missiles were headed his way.
Like its namesake, Petrov also began with a message, albeit a more prosaic one — a Craigslist ad looking for musicians. Syd Little and Michael Backlund, who had perfected their seesawing give-and-take on guitars in Boone-based band Borrowed Arts, wanted to continue making music after their group splintered.
Little placed the ad, soliciting a drummer for two projects, an indie-rock outfit inspired by Bloc Party, and a heavy metal outfit patterned after Mastodon. The indie-rock project became Petrov, while the heavy-metal proposal remains a side project currently on the back burner.
Herzfeld, who had manned the kit for Charlotte bands including Rnie, Alright and Cabron, answered, impressed by the music samples Little had sent. Herzfeld was already acquainted with Backlund and Little; having seen them play at Borrowed Arts shows in Boone and Charlotte.
Bassist Matt McConomy, who had previously played with Queen City band Cuzco, also answered the ad. The idea initially was to split vocals between the four members of the newly-formed band, but another plan gained traction.
“At a certain point we realized that singing was not our forte,” Little says with a chuckle.
Luckily, McKusick overcame her qualms that she would be interrupting her brother’s friends while they were trying to get their act together.
“Eventually, I decided to message [Herzfeld] and ask him [to audition], and here we are now.”
Petrov started solidifying its sound remarkably fast — creating a roiling, chiming, often labyrinthine weave of sunny pop and serpentine post-punk, the rock genre descended from the late 1970s-early-1980s template forged by Factory Records and Joy Division.
Instead of the sepulchral vocals favored by Joy Division’s tragic and suicidal singer Ian Curtis, McKusick brings a sparkling sense of melody to the table, coupled with deeply personal musings on insecurity, identity and defiance.
In her care, these private preoccupations cut to the heart, thereby catapulting to the universal.
When the band recorded their debut EP, Sleep Year, in early 2019, McKusick turned to her private journals for inspiration.
“I [went] into my old journals to see if I said anything that was not too cringe-y to put into a song,” she says. It was an act of emotional archaeology, as McKusick accessed the thoughts and feelings she experienced when she wrote those past entries on the page.
The result was tracks like the single “Divine Wine,” a dreamy yet insistent rock tune propelled by McKusick’s hard-charging vocals. (Queen City Nerve premiered the song in February.)
The arrival of “Divine Wine” presaged the March 2019 release of Sleep Year by local label Self Aware Records, spearheaded by Herzfeld’s former Alright bandmates and married couple Sarah Blumenthal and Josh Robbins.
Ironically, in contrast to the soul-and-journal searching origins of songs like “By All Means,” where a search for meaning and connection is countered by the heroine’s bed growing “colder every second we blur the line,” McKusick reveals that “Divine Wine” conveys a very different kind of message.
“[With] ‘Divine Wine’ I wrote a bunch of random sentences and put them together,” she says. “That song literally means nothing, and a lot of people have different opinions on what it means.”
Still, McKusick feels gratified that listeners have forged different interpretations of the song, regardless of the songwriter’s intent. “There can be multiple interpretations to any song.”
Petrov’s songwriting process is both specialized and organic, McKusick says, with each member gathering their own influences and working on their specific parts of each song.
“We each bring what we know to the table,” Little says.
“Usually, Syd or Mike comes up with a guitar riff and we just build on it,” McConomy continues. “When we feel we’re at a good point, we’ll send it to Mary Grace to throw some lyrics and vocals in. Then we’ll all get together and mold it into a full song.”
McKusick usually devises melodies before lyrics.
“I’ll be alone and I’ll randomly think of a vocal melody that’s not tied to anything,” she says. She then pulls out her phone and sings into her voice memo app, where she has stored a random collection of melodies recorded in crowded bars, at her job or just before bed.
When McKusick is ready to compose new songs, she checks out the melodies in her phone. Often, she couples those melodic fragments with random lyrics and phrases she’s jotted down. Eventually, these building blocks emerge as a song.
As the band prepared to record the Flower Bed EP, their follow-up to Sleep Year, McKusick dispensed with one building block: her past journal entries.
“[For] Sleep Year I untapped older emotions,” she offers. “But Flower Bed, that was all definitely what was going on currently — things or situations that were stuck in my head.”
Every night before going to sleep, McKusick wrote these thoughts down as a kind of clearinghouse. “It’s as if I used Flower Bed as a way to release the emotions out of my head.”
Those released emotions found a home in the songs collected on the new EP, released by Self-Aware in October. The ethereal anthem “Pink Moon” recalls a night in April when McKusick sat in her backyard staring at the full moon, reflecting upon her life.
The Flower Bed song that packs the most emotional punch is “Keepers,” a #Metoo clarion call that has resonated beyond the band’s growing circle of fans. McKusick remembers she shared the tune with a few of her friends before its release, and they expressed appreciation that a tune about sexual abuse and the culture of sheltering male privilege was coming out.
“‘Keepers’ isn’t about the abusers,” McKusick offers. “It’s about the people who continue to be friends with those abusers. A lot of people will claim that they’re pro-women and anti-rape culture, yet when one of their good friends in an abuser, they sweep that under the rug and continue being friends with them.”
One close friend confided that McKusick was yelling words in the song that she had been yelling in her head for so long. McKusick hopes people find the same catharsis that “Keepers” provides her.
“I wrote this song [because] I know that I’m on a platform,” she says. “I want to use it to speak out about whatever is bothering me and other people. Maybe it will be a wakeup call to some people that the song might be about.”
“Keepers” marks an achievement for McKusick, a woman operating in a rock music scene that, even today, can lapse into a boys’ club.
McKusick wryly recalls an early Petrov show where a bartender counting out the band’s drink tickets simply skipped over her, assuming she could not possibly be a member of a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Equally powerful, but in a manner more understated and under-the-skin than “Keepers,” is the song that closes Flower Bed, “New Routine.” The song was written the day after McKusick suffered an emotional breakdown. The lyrics were honed as she worked through her emotions alone.
“New Routine” represents a stylistic change for the band. While the song builds up a rocking head of steam, it is for most of it, a ballad, which opens with these evocative lyrics: “Somehow my bones drifted apart/And it’s no one’s fault that I lost myself.”
“I remember I had the first one or two lines written down in my notes,” McKusick offers. “I looked at the line and thought, ‘I don’t remember writing that. I must have been being drunk and sad, but it makes for a cool lyric.”
Little had come up with a guitar riff for the tune, McKusick remembers, and he stared playing it slowly because he was trying to remember it.
“Then I said, ‘Wait, I like the way that sounds slowed down rather than the original tempo,” she says.
“I enjoy playing pretty stuff just as much as I like upbeat punky stuff,” Little says. “It was a fun way to explore that side of songwriting.”
The tune, he continues, is also simpler than what Petrov usually does. “‘New Routine’ is just a four-chord progression, and it’s more about dynamics than cool chord changes.”
Slowing the song down also changed McKusick’s vocal approach. She acknowledges it was a challenge singing the melody in a lower register, and softening her voice.
“When you slow down a song, you have a lot more focus on the lyric. It’s kind of intimidating.”
McKusick, who normally listens to upbeat, up-tempo punk songs, had to find inspiration and get in the zone to write a tune with a ballad’s tempo. “I tried to be as soft and ethereal as I can, instead of screaming my head off.”
Flower Bed was recorded by Kenny McWilliams at Archer Avenue studios in Columbia, South Carolina. The band cites the facility and particularly McWilliams’ contribution as a big factor in the new EP’s sonic sheen. While Sleep Year, recorded at Charlotte’s Old House Studio and engineered by Daniel Hodges a year before, percolates with rock energy, the songs sound fairly lo-fi in comparison to Archer Avenue.
Petrov decided to go with McWilliams because he had worked on recent great-sounding albums by Charlotte bands Pullover and Modern Moxie, Herzfeld says.
“Mike and Syd and Matt, more so than me, are really into sound quality and production,” he says. “The level of production right off the bat is one of the main reasons why [Flower Bed] sounds so good.”
Herzfeld adds that McWilliams, acted as a producer on the EP, although he’s not credited as such. “He was involved in creating harmonies and doing synths and other things beyond just facilitating the recording,” he says.
Backlund notes that Flower Bed is a also a leap forward in quality from Sleep Year because the songs are more mature.
“It’s more of a snapshot of who we are now; how we’ve grown in the last year or two,” Backlund says. “It’s a culmination of us going through different experiences. We’ve all evolved [and] it shows.”
The band’s current evolution includes coping with the coronavirus pandemic. While Petrov is excited to play a virtual show at the Neighborhood Theatre, one where they rock out onstage without benefit of an audience, they still look forward to the day they can play live.
McConomy says he thrives on the live feeling that’s absent in a streaming show.
“For me the weirdest thing is prioritizing the stream sound over the in-house sound,” McConomy says. “You really don’t know what it’s going to end up sounding like. [You’re] trusting that the sound guy is on point.”
Herzfeld says the socially-distanced streaming gig that came closest to simulating real life was a drive-in show at the now-shuttered Abari Game Bar, where musicians on the roof received “applause” via honking car horns.
McKusick says she misses the audience interactions that come with a live show
“I gain a lot of my energy and stage presence from seeing how the audience is reacting,” she says. “[As] I dance and flail all over the stage, it’s a lot more motivating with a crowd in front of me.”
With all the challenges and adjustments 2020 has brought the band, Petrov is enthusiastically looking forward to 2021. Little hopes the band can inspire others to make music and art
“I want to be taking art forward,” he says. “Like the stuff that inspired me to make music, I want to push that on to other people.”
“Our message is ‘just make music.’” Herzfeld offers. “There are a lot of people who are intimidated [to do it], like Mary Grace was, and yet here she is.”
As for McKusick, she hopes Petrov’s listeners will take away personal meaning from the band’s lyrics. She says she wrote “Keepers,” a song that might not have been written by a band that has a male vocalist, to help people know that their emotions are valid.
“It [might] make them understand that they’re not the only ones thinking and feeling a certain way.”
Become part of the Nerve: Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and join thousands of Charlotteans by subscribing to our newsletter. And if you’re looking for the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of our local scene.