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Q&A: HotChaCha's Jovana Batkovic On Breaking The "Indie Pop Fourth Wall," The Cleveland Scene, And New York Being Exhausting

Q&A: HotChaCha's Jovana Batkovic On Breaking The "Indie Pop Fourth Wall," The Cleveland Scene, And New York Being Exhausting

Cleveland's HotChaCha fall (often quite inebriatedly) into the fine northeast Ohio tradition of music history-obsessed oddballs whose sound is hard to easily categorize. They stumble out of the Pere Ubu avant garage, then go slithering down alleys of mucked-up punk debris, art school dropout poverty blues, and no-future fear via broken chorus pedal guitar chug/chime, then top it with a surprisingly pugnacious engine, courtesy of singer Jovana Batkovic.

When they got together in 2007, initially got a wee bit of blog blah blah from being a nu-wave-ish grou with women. Since, they've swapped a few members, released an album, a few EPs... though all of those releases paled in comparison to last year's great split 12-inch with Binghamton, NY's Summer People on Exit Stencil, Do It. The reconstituted band wrung together all their woes and wild sides into a spooky, oddly catchy goth-itch rock for the Now, bathed not in mascara-covered preening but desperate determination.

Admission of horrible stage fright belies the fact that Batkovic is one of the more dynamic frontpeople currently decimating monitors. She will wither inward, wrapping herself around a mic stand, before instantaneously flinging her frame high into the crowd, and landing hard, laughing her ass off. And for someone with pit stains that daunting, her shabby sex appeal never wavers—even while running outside mid-tune, spitting out her dinner, and darting back in to finish off another song-shard of Cleveland broke-ass bluster.

So, give me a basic history of the band, and your personal history—where you're from, when you landed in Cleveland.

HotChaCha was started by myself and Mandy Aramouni in Cleveland, Ohio, about five years ago. We just sort of wanted to do something for fun. We asked Lisa Pulovcin to join us on the drums. So it was Mandy guitar, Lisa drums, and me vocals. This was I think in April, I had just come back from Bosnia after visting my family, after not seeing them for 12 years. I was super depressed, so the band was just the perfect distraction. We didn't really intend to do much. But two months later, while at practice, another band asked us if we wanted to play this benefit [show]. We were just drunk enough to agree, having a set of only five songs. The show was super nerve-wracking for me as I have serious anxiety before every show (to this day). But we got through it, and people were really into it. Heather Gmucs saw the show and really fell in love with the band. Within a week she joined on the bass. We started touring and recording and sort of taking things more seriously.

It was in that process that we realized that if we were to do this, everyone has to be committed and ready to just do it. Lisa was the first one to go as she really wanted to pursue her art. She was replaced by Roseanna Safos, who has since then and always and forever will be the drummer of HotChaCha. We got busier, kept touring, lost jobs, lost relationships. Next one to leave was Heather. She was tired of doing the life anymore. Totally understood. She was replaced by Greg Gebhard, first boy to join this band—wooo! Eventually Mandy quit as well. Greg replaced her on guitar. To summarize, it's me on vocals, Roseanna on drums, and Greg on guitar. We currently do not have a bass player. Instead we write all the parts and record them, then we ask different people to join us on tour and such.

As far as me, I was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Once the war started, my family moved to Mainz, Germany. We lived there for about five horrible years as refugees. I haven't since been back. After that, we moved to Cleveland, and it was the best thing to ever happen to me!

How is Cleveland for bands these days—places to play, appreciative crowds, and so on?

Cleveland is the perfect place for a band who wants to tour and just really do the work. Reason being that Cleveland is super cheap and it's in a great location—you can get anywhere within a few hours. As far as places to play, it's still sort of the same. Now That's Class is awesome to play. Another place that's awesome is Happy Dog. And of course Grog Shop and Beachland are still around, as well as Pats in the Flats. These places hold a ton of nostalgia. It's what makes Cleveland what it is. As far as crowds in Cleveland, it can be tricky. It seems as though people used to go to shows more often. I feel like even just six years ago there was something happening every night, and people would actually go to shows. I mean, we are lucky to still pack the house and so are a few other bands in Cleveland, but majority of shows are not as well attended. The scene is definitely different. Also, there is a Cleveland "old school" and "new school" thing going on. It's a new generation of bands as well as audiences, and they rarely mix.

You guys tour a good amount. I think we've talked about Cleveland bands sometimes getting stuck in their ways a bit, not really getting out of Ohio much.

There are a few bands in Cleveland that are seriously amazing, and I always wonder why they don't get out of Ohio, because if they did they would seriously blow up. From what I have gathered it has to do with the fact that people in general fear that sense of insecurity that comes from being on tour—leaving your job, leaving people behind for perhaps no rewarding reason. We are very fortunate to have jobs that will let us go on tour. I feel as though we have inspired some, as I keep getting email from bands asking for tips, routings, contacts, and such.

I think we talked about this too, how in Cleveland, where clubs are located and spread out, and where the artists kind of end up living, you have to do a lot of driving around, which inhibits proper drinking fun!

Ha, yes! That is why I don't have a car! Cleveland is super spread out, and a lot of cool places for hanging out are destination places, and you really have to do a lot of driving around. Especially as you mentioned, where people end up living. It really sucks when you don't even feel comfortable walking down the street because your neighborhood sucks so bad, but those are the areas where most artists and musicians live because you can get huge lofts for super cheap. For example, there are a couple of buildings off of St. Clair where you can get a space the size of a gym for $500 bucks. So you can live there, practice, work, whatever! Of course, you wouldn't want to take a walk at night. Our band practice spot is in a building that is basically just practice spaces for about $200 a month with 24/7 access which rules. The neighborhood is sort of shady, a bit removed.

To me, musically, you guys are a classic Cleveland band that has a number of different, kind of cult influences, and you can't easily be put into any genre—you know what I mean? I love that about Cleveland bands since back to Pere Ubu. But then, it might be hard to find bands to play with that you really click with, right?

I think the "Cleveland" that I like the most is that dark, tawdry, punk-rock Cleveland. This city has definitely shifted my taste in music toward the darker stuff. I don't know if its the industrial feel, blue collar mentality of the dive bars, or perhaps the cold, but something about it is just so bad ass and tough.

 

You've told me before that you weren't totally happy with some of the band's early recordings, and it's just on the last couple of releases that you feel you're finding your sound. Do you still feel that way?

I am not super happy with our early songs because I feel as though we were just learning everything and trying to find our sound. I think also that we were all listening to different things at that time. I have always wanted to be heavier, harder, faster; [while] other members were more into pop—so the outcome was this weird Frankenstein. It was a learning process for sure, though I am glad it happened.

Is (Clevelander-led, Brooklyn-based) Exit Stencil putting out the next record? What are the next releases that are coming from the band?

We just released [that] split with Summer People on Exit Stencil that came out last year. The next release is a 7" single that is being released by Die Slaughterhaus Records from Atlanta, GA. They have released stuff by bands such as Black Lips, Coathangers, and other sweet Atlanta bands. We are super excited! I think we'll have the vinyl in a couple of weeks!

You guys have been around a few years now. Do you find once you tour more, you kind of lose touch with the local "scene?"

I think you definitely lose touch because when you first start of as a band, you play anything you are offered. We played so much it was crazy. Cleveland is too small to play as often as we did! Ha! Now we try to play only a few times a year because at some level you have to try and save up that energy and use it to make some money, right? Ha! I still get to see shows though, as I work at the Happy Dog. Also, as you are familiar, on tour you can end up seeing 200-plus bands. So once you get home, you are showed out! So once I'm home, it's really hard to get me to go anywhere venue related.

You're one of my favorite frontmen, frontperson, whatever the fuck. Please tell our readers a quintessentially "Jovana" stage kookiness story. And no being modest!!!

Aw man! You are the sweetest, but you are killing me. Ha! Lets see, what makes my presence... ? I think it has to do that I am actually really nervous, so I compensate by being totally over the top. Also, I have this thing that I want people to actually have a good time at our shows, because in reality it is not about us, it is about them. They paid and they want to be entertained. It is not about me posing with my scarf on stage. I want the fourth wall that was created with the whole indie pop [scene] to be broken. I want people to feel something. Maybe fear, maybe just excitement. I love [seeing] shows where I don't even want to leave to pee or have a smoke out of fear I might miss something. That is what a live show should be, otherwise you can just sit at home and listen to the record.

You guys seem to get good crowds in NYC. Do you like playing here?

NYC is where we are about to head, and it freaks me out! Honestly I have had the most anxiety attacks in that city. I have no idea how people can live there. It's just like time and place seize to exist and I exhaust myself so much that after we leave, I just want to cry for days. Ha! We used to play at Death by Audio a lot and would crash there. There are no windows in the living area, and we would camp out for days not knowing whether it's day or night. I do love playing there though.

Do you ever think about moving out of Cleveland?

Not at the moment. As I mentioned above, Cleveland is perfect for a touring band. Also, my family lives there, and foreigners never leave their parents. Ha! Maybe one day, but not right now.

HotChaCha play Cake Shop on Sunday.

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