Covenant – interview by Mike Peaslee
Synthpop crept up out of the late-70s and early-80s as the dark alternative to both R&B and Glam (I’m referring to both hair-metal and new wave punk). Propelled by Canadian and European acts like Front 242, Depeche Mode and Throbbing Gristle, depressed electronic dance music went mainstream. After peaking in the mid 90s, the love faded stateside. This is not to suggest that the style died out. It simply stopped crossing the Atlantic. We like our like our trends like our crack – hard, overwhelming and short-lived. With a drop in airplay and sales, a shortage of US releases and slim touring schedules sent it back into the underground. It’s gradual resurfacing might be attributed to the rise of darker techno, electro and 80’s retro, along with the recent wave of punk pop and hardcore metal and the over-saturation of lighter dance music on the market. There’s also the fact that EBM’s influence on Synthpop has made it about as DJ fri!endly as house.
The Swedish group Covenant has paid their dues with steady touring and a stream of releases through German and US labels, while remaining independent. Joakim Montelius, 31, lyricist and keyboard player, says he, fellow keyboardist Clas Nachmanson, 34, and vocalist Eskil Simonsson, 31, got their start in high school.
Joakim says they first hatched the idea to pursue music following a Front 242 concert at around 14-years-old. “On the train back, we just started talking to each other. Everybody had a couple of synths at home. We were seven people trying to make a band. We had 10 or 15 different bands. The three core members of all these bands were the three we are now. We just decided to get serious.”
In 1989, they solidified into Covenant and released “ The Replicant,” a single on the 1992 compilation Autumn Leaves on the Swedish label Memento Materia. Since then, they’ve turned out 4 studio albums, live albums and numerous remixes.
Their current album, United States of Mind is a turn toward more dynamic production and dance-oriented, yet compact song structure. “Pop is a very important element in our music. We stick to the classic formula of verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-verse to the end. It’s a very good working formula. It’s also a frame in which you can put your ideas. If you don’t have any structure, it’s difficult to pin your ideas down. It’s a way of filtering out unnecessary elements. If you have to stick to a certain timeframe and a certain pattern in the song, you also have to concentrate what you’re trying to say and what you’re trying to achieve. Poets for example – they have rhythms and patterns for how they write lines – they use Beat. We try to do the same. That’s why we stick to the pop formula.”
The single “Dead Stars” has a darkly subdued, melodic house feel with cold, detached vocals. “Then again, you can’t be too poppy. If you have pure melody, it gets kind of boring. You have to put it in a soundscape and rhythmic environment that makes sense. Really good pop music is almost always unhappy,
because without emotion, music is meaningless – just another science.”
Live performance is what they’re known best for, honed by years of fairly constant touring. Their first show was for an audience of four. “It wasn’t even a concert. It was a catastrophe. We didn’t even have a PA. We played on a stereo system at a private party. We blew the amplifier eight times and had to replace the fuse every time. We took like four hours to play three songs. Shit happens. We never thought anyone would be interested in seeing us play live.”
I was waiting in the checkout line between a girl buying condoms and another with just a pack of gum, looking far too nervous, which means she was also buying condoms. I think the checker believed I was somehow involved. I bought a Homerun pie, the greatest thing out of Livermore since cold fusion research. I arrived at my photographer’s house at four and killed 30 minutes while she dyed her hair red. We were scheduled to meet the tour manager at 5:30pm. I wasn’t worried. I am Zen. We arrived right on time, not that anybody else did.
Maritime Hall looks like the Hall of Justice, only it’s a giant cement slab. Despite it being a sailor’s union hall, Aquaman was nowhere to be found. He was a useless sack of crap anyway – him and the Wonder Twins. You’re wondering what this has to do with the band. Nothing, but it’s keeping me off the subject of bestiality and show tunes, which factored into the show heavily. Actually, there was only brief nudity in the course of the evening and I missed. Glory was only about a foot away, but I kept my eyes forward like a good Boy Scout. That’s how dedicated I am. I gave up seeing breasts to get this story.
We wandered the corridors for weeks, until stumbling into the main hall. A rep from Unspun Records went looking for the band. The label/distributor has made itself the heart of the SF industrial scene and has strong ties to Cipher Productions, the concert’s promoter. Covenant’s gear was being sound checked. There’s something amazing about watching a sound check. You see the fights between crew and management. You smoke indoors openly. You hear little chunks of music you’ve been waiting to hear for days. It’s like watching candles being lit for an orgy you’ve been invited to.
Fernando was serving as the emcee. Recognized as the DJ’s DJ in the SF gothic community, he’s generally behind these events. Neither he, nor any of the staff had a clue of the band’s whereabouts. He told me the interview was pushed back to 7pm, but no worries. I’d swear he was Buddha with a nose ring. I’d have lent him my car keys at that point. The downside was no surprise. Industrial bands love pulling the old press-bitchslap-combo: No flash photography and no shots of the bands off-stage.
And One opened up with plenty of them rock star gyrations for the ladies. Vocalist Steve Naghavi crooned like a Deutsch Tom Jones over a minimal bed of dance beats and clean trebly synths. While sticking to their best-known cuts, “Metalhammer,” “To Get You Closer” and “Technoman,” they delved into full-on pop just far enough to bring a bit of hate from the rivet diehards. Marchetti, who has a taste for obscure Euro, damn near wet her pants. Naghavi wet mine with a bottle of pure mountain spring water. I have to respect a classic rock n’ roll fluid toss, but beer would’ve been nice. At least it wasn’t a bodily fluid. He bopped around with more boy band flair than industrial rage and climbed the PA cabs at least once per song. He never jumped, but there was one stage diver – just one – that nobody caught. Synthpop is still pop, even if it wears black.
Covenant took over. Lead singer Eskil Simonsson loomed over the mic with his eyes closed most of the night, while Joakim strayed from his keyboards to tear across stage with vocal aggression to counter Eskil’s slow burn. The band had the crowd by the nuts, with a strange, casual bedside manner – I can’t think of a better description for it – as if the whole room was thick in hash smoke. They cruised through 10 songs, including “Like Tears in Rain,” “Flux,” “Dead Stars” and “One World One Sky,” before cutting out. Then came encore one – “No Man’s Land” and “Theremin.” The second encore kicked off with Joakim quieting the crowd and calling out the title, off-mic. Simonsson sang in near silence, while the ambient synths of “Wall of Sound” meandered in.
I arrived having only heard a few scattered tracks in clubs and the very little I could dig up online. I walked away as a new fan. They give it up live with the sonic depth and weight of a traditional live rock band They’re closing out their tour in Italy at the moment and are set to begin work on the next studio album next month.
Covenant’s web site is pretty much fucked, but hit their US distributor’s site at: www.metropolis-records.com. Use “nefarious” means to acquire audio samples. I prefer Audiogalaxy (Lars banned me AGAIN), but Joakim is a Napster fan. And One’s site is absolutely fucked up. It’s more or less an ugly wall of randomly colored German text. I did find a decent fan site with plenty of interesting information about them at: user.tninet.se/~lrv954a/ andone.