Jail Break

It took a stay in a Dutch prison to show John Petrik the path to ambient electronica

John Petrik believes he received divine intervention in 1996. "Someone up there said, "You should not be doing this [with your life],' and took me aside to find my path." Such a statement sounds like a chess player's rationalization of destiny, especially given that Petrik's "aside" was a 10-month stay in a Dutch jail on a narcotics charge.

Anyone else might be bitter about having to share cell space with some of Europe's biggest drug offenders, but not Petrik. In fact, he's surprisingly serene -- almost thankful even -- when he recounts the experience during an interview in his outwardly nondescript Mission District residence.

In 1996, Petrik was a 26-year-old Cleveland native living a gilded life in Florida. Holding a cushy job at PricewaterhouseCoopers as a tech consultant, he spent his weekends playing guitar on his boat in Miami Beach Marina and his nights hanging with his coke-supplying Cuban friends in the city's hedonistic clubs.

When those friends offered to pay him to protect a mutual acquaintance while she delivered Ecstasy to German traffickers in Rotterdam, he didn't think twice. Petrik had never been to Holland, he had a one-week break from an assignment in Toronto, and, he says, "The whole time I felt separated from [risk] since they weren't my drugs."

As luck -- or, in Petrik's mind, destiny -- would have it, his friend purchased 17,000 pills, the "magic number" that the local authorities considered prosecutable. When the two were approached by a group of men in a train station outside Zwolle, Petrik's friend was noticeably upset, but Petrik, who couldn't decipher their Dutch, just assumed the men were cab drivers. The cops then turned to him and demanded in English to see his passport. Ten minutes later, he was in jail.

On the surface, Petrik's tale appears to be tragic -- a story that wouldn't be rehashed for the grandkids, let alone reporters. But over the course of Petrik's imprisonment, he discovered a newfound appreciation of freedom and began to re-evaluate his existence. Today, nearly four years later, he lives a decidedly different life, creating music for his recording project Jhana (Petrik's pseudonym, a Buddhist meditation term) and his live electronica outfit Live (rhymes with "give"), while throwing elaborate underground parties at his spacious hub, the Palace. Prison, it seems, set Petrik free.


"In jail, I began to explore my imaginative and creative sides," says Petrik, a handsome man with a bleached buzz-cut and a chiseled face. "Before jail, I had pushed them aside and wasn't taking any risks in incorporating creativity into the things I'd do daily."

Without access to his first love -- the guitar -- he learned to channel his energy into new forms, meditating and working his thoughts into poems, lyrics, and short stories. To pass the time, he also kept regular records of his mental state, did countless push-ups, and flossed his teeth up to eight times a day -- "little things to make myself feel like I was getting along OK."

When not teaching gin to his hard-core inmates -- a Chilean man arrested with 2 million pills of Ecstasy, several Turkish and Lebanese heroin dealers, a Norwegian gangster caught distributing 800 kilos of coke -- he imagined how he'd like his life to be and how he could get "there," a place he describes as being so special that it must be shared with others.

"I promised myself that when I got out, I'd sell my boat, save money, move to San Francisco, and get the Palace," he says matter-of-factly. "I admit I wanted to do it for selfish reasons, to surround myself with people who could help take me "there.' But I didn't want it to be totally selfish. I knew the Palace could be a place where I could share my music with others and help them to get "there' too."

Upon his release in February 1998, he immediately began carrying out the goals he had established during lockup. After leaving Miami, Petrik drove to San Francisco, a city he'd imagined to be both beautiful and progressive. "San Francisco is like New York in that people go there to follow their dreams," Petrik says. "But in New York, people have on blinders. I always felt that San Francisco would be more open, with greater integration. Since I've been here, I've sensed it's a place filled with a lot of good."

Within a few days of Petrik's arrival, fate struck again. At the height of the rental crunch, Petrik found a vacancy online that had a misprinted price tag, and he quickly snatched up the 1,200-square-foot raw space.

"I wanted to find a completely open space, one that wouldn't make it easy for the occupants to find privacy," he says, raising a glass of chardonnay to the Eden he's shared with all sorts of roommates, including DJs, programmers, and a synchronized swimmer. "I wanted everyone to have to intermingle and work together."

At the Palace's corners are four small bedrooms. The bulk of the space is comprised of four airy living rooms, each sectioned off by a distinct décor: Day-Glo Goa, St. Thomas tropical bungalow, urban decay, and living jungle. There's a greenhouse's worth of flora scattered about, including a vine plant that has grown half the length of the building in three years, climbing nearly 20 feet to reach the Palace's central skylight.

The other main component of the building is its studio, a small, soundproof corner room overflowing with keyboards, guitars, and computer equipment. "In the studio, it's easy to feel closed in," Petrik says, "so I like to project my speakers outside and walk around the Palace with my guitar for inspiration."

Petrik's guitar-based ambient music matches the serene confines of the Palace. In creating his solo debut, Jhana, which he self-released in September, he married subtly delivered lyrics with live sax, flute, bass, and guitars, all of which he recorded though his keyboards. The result is a dreamy collage of organic and processed parts, pitched halfway between New Age and ambient electronic music. In the next several months, Petrik hopes to adapt his solo sounds to his clubby, house-oriented live project Live -- ignoring the fact that clubgoers are oftentimes fickle to the six-string.

"One trance DJ told me he liked the album, but that he hates guitar," explains a relentlessly positive Petrik. "I could see how a buzzer on a washing machine or a doorbell could be annoying, but how could anyone just single out one instrument? So it was a challenge to overcome some of those obstacles live."

For Live shows, Petrik will be joined by a singer, a DJ, a keyboardist, and several MIDI players, all of whom will perform in a custom-built, UFO-like case. There will also be a series of microphones secretly placed throughout the audience for the purpose of sampling the crowd's vocals. "It's like what [French downtempo act] St. Germain could do if it could go two more steps. We're going to be able to affect all the musicians' outputs, having an engineer grab the sound right before it hits the listener's ear."

Petrik's goals are ambitious, but it's that energy -- along with his open-mindedness and messiahlike spirituality -- that draws so many people to him.

"[Petrik's] music makes you think of the moments when you're most alive, happy, and satisfied," says Angela Saval, 24, Live's co-writer, co-engineer, and vocalist. "It asks, "Have you reached that [place in your life]?' That question is the undertone of the music. It's confirmation for those who answer, "Yes,' and inspiration to those who answer, "No.'"

The same message seems to resonate with Petrik's audience. Following the release of Jhana, the postings to his Web site (www.middlemarz.com) approached a cultlike fervor. One person wrote, "John Petrik is the man. His generosity, vision, and talent are truly inspirational," while another added, "John Petrik could start his own religion."

Petrik approaches these postings from a sensible distance. "I don't think I know anything," he laughs. "Maybe it stems from the whole freedom thing, but once you say you know [everything], you've locked yourself in." And while Jhanafulfills the goals he established in jail and Live brings him exciting new ones, Petrik still believes that "some people attach themselves too much to their art. Even if you've made the ultimate chicken dish, you can always make it better."

As imprisonment taught him, he'd rather know true happiness within himself than be bound by want -- even if that means putting an end to his music. "There are South Americans who spend five years carving detailed objects out of wood, then they burn them to show that they're not slaves to their possessions. I would like to get to a point where I could do that."

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