Entering darkness can be a terrifying experience, but it can also be a way to confront your fears and explore different aspects of your mortal life. We are all struggling with our own mortality and man’s quest for answers over thousands of years, be it scientifically or spiritually, still leaves us with few or no answers. Covenant is a band that has, over the years, made this exploration of the dark, the ambiguous and the unknown a part of their DNA. Through their elaborate lyrics they make intertwined reflections of their past, present and future, leaving the listener in a state of flux. Instead of producing songs about the obvious Covenant goes at length in letting us in their own ongoing quest of exploring the darkness.
Covenant will be releasing their new studio album “The Blinding Dark” on November 4th, containing no less than 11 new songs for your listening pleasure. Additionally there is a bonus EP called Psychonaut. The bonus EP has actually been produced deep in the forests of Österlöv, Sweden. One may assume the isolation also inspired the band to go all in on their machines as indicatively stated in the booklet that accompanies the new album. So if “The Blinding Dark” has it roots in familiar DAWs and multi-tracking, Psychonaut on the other hand has been recorded directly to 2 channels – all tracks improvised and performed live without the aid of computers. We remember seeing Covenant live for the first time around the turn of the millennium playing at SAMA (Scandinavian Alternative Music Awards) and, although Covenant have roots stretching further back in time, the evolution Covenant has made as a band since then is impressive.
The new album is in our minds the darkest journey yet, and although the dance floor fillers are there, like Cold Reading and Mornings Star, be prepared to enter a new chapter of the Covenant story. We will also find deep explorations into more ambient tunes, duets and compelling down tempo tunes all powered by machines. This does not mean that the soul of the Covenant sound isn’t there. Seasoned listeners of Covenant will surely recognize the hard pumping beats, the exquisite bass lines, the tinkering synths, and above all the characteristic vocals of Eskil.
However, this interview is not primarily about the music but rather focusing on the lyrics side of things. Stereoklang took the time to speak in depth to Joakim Montelius about the lyrics, the song writing process, and the inspirational sources that shape the Covenant universe.
Looking at the artwork of your new album we come to associate with the trinity in Christianity. However there are many triads in mysticism, such as the Qudshu-Astarte-Anat. What interpretations of the triad has been thought of the in the context of the new album?
That’s entirely up to you to decide. Which triad do you want it to be?
We can see that a quote from the Book of Revelation has been the inspiration to one of your songs. How do you think people today relates to Christian symbols in general and the Book of Revelation in particular?
Actually, that’s one of Lee Hazlewood’s possible inspirations when he wrote “A Rider On A White Horse”. The other is “Der Schimmelreiter”, written by Theodor Storm, that we quote from in the corresponding quotation. Because of the US copyright laws we couldn’t print the lyrics for the song, so we did it that way instead. Interestingly it’s fine to make a cover version of a song, but not to reprint the lyrics.
But the Book of Revelation is a fascinating piece of literature. It certainly makes you wonder what sort of drugs the good John was on. But as an apocalypse it’s second to none and I think the imagery and the symbolism is still very much with us. Even if very few people in secular countries like Sweden have actually read it, most will at least recognize the Lamb and the seven seals, the number of the Beast, the trumpets of doom and other passages that are in our cultural backbone. In less secular places, it’s still very much part of tradition.
Looking at symbolism more generally, how do you see symbolism play in contemporary lyrics and perhaps more specifically in the music underground scene that you are a major contributor to?
Symbolism is found in a lot of lyrics, regardless of genre. It’s a convenient way of saying something complicated with a few words or to set a mood. Given that you use symbols that people understand, of course. In the darker regions of electronic music, where we roam, it’s common to use religious symbolism but also anti-religious symbols, which we do as well. The Morning Star, for example, can be a reference to Jesus, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary but also to Lucifer or (more correctly) Nebuchadnezzar II. And that gives the symbolism a nice, ambiguous twist that I like a lot. Depending on your interpretation of the symbol of the Morning Star, the song can mean very different things.
Covenant obviously have higher ambitions than most when it comes to writing lyrics, and the inspiration appears to be gathered from many sources; Goethe, Iggy Pop, Mikhail Bulgakov, and many more. What would you say are the common denominators in your lyrics, and would you agree that the dark and the mysticism are more intriguing fields for explorations?
Absolutely. The dark and the unknown, the scary and the uncomfortable tend to be more inspiring to write about than the mundane or the pleasant things in life. And we’re certainly not alone in that aspect. Personally, I’m definitely obsessed with certain themes that tend to recur over and over in my texts. I feel, and have always felt, a huge and fundamental loneliness that separates people. I’m a father of two wonderful daughters and in a fantastic relationship. I have friends all over the world and lots of people that I care deeply about, who also care deeply about me. But still I can’t escape the feeling that I’m fundamentally alone. We all are.
And Time. Time bothers me a lot. Not so much that I’m getting older, which is perfectly fine, or that I’ll eventually die. That’s fine too, we’re all going to die. It’s more about how incredibly difficult it is to stop worrying about the future or milling the past over and over, and just be in the present. Right here, right now. Nope, already gone. It’s not an easy thing to “seize the day” or at least live in the moment. It’s bloody hard.
So I write about that sort of stuff as a way to figure out how I really feel about life. And to get it off my chest in a way that I hope is interesting for others to explore as well, just as I’m exploring the things that inspire me.
In your lyrics, both on this album and on previous releases, you often come back to something close to an apocalypse, or even Armageddon, with its roots in our fear of our own mortality, to us it is quite clear that Covenant also finds its energy and passion in this, would you agree?
Yes. I think that this “apocalyptomania” is a consequence of growing up in the Cold War era. We knew for a fact that the world we lived in would go under before we even reached adulthood. My greatest fear as a child, as far back as I can remember, was the atomic winter. And I could never decide if I would prefer to die in the nuclear fires rather than surviving to struggle through the wasteland of the aftermath. The idea that it wouldn’t happen didn’t occur to me. It was just a matter of time. I know that Eskil felt the same. And many, many others of our generation. There is no doubt in my mind that that’s where this obsession comes from. And that’s certainly nothing new. All generations have worried about Armageddon. But we were the first ones who lived in a time when it could actually happen. Or rather, we were lucky to make it, given the number of times it almost did. And that’s why we’re still dancing with tears in our eyes, to quote that awfully cheesy song.
The inspiration around this track can be traced back to an old psalm called Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) a requiem often performed at funerals, which in turn has links to the Book of Revelation, actually parts of the refrain on the song is taken from this. Additionally there is an interesting article by Michael Moyer that also addresses the apocalypse called “The End” in the Scientific American, that has been added as a commentary inside the 48 page album booklet. “Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special. Our fears of the apocalypse may in the end mirror the most fundamental fear of all: fear of our own mortality. It is all of a piece—death, the dissolution of our people, the extinction of our species. Regardless of how we feel about it, flux is the nature of the world, and endings are an inescapable—and often overlooked—part of life.”
In an age of machines, and being a machine intense band, where is the connection with Peter J. Carrol and the search for occultism, one may assume that Covenant would be more forward looking and perhaps in the search for Kurzweil´s Singularity instead?
I don’t see the contradiction? We plan to upload into the Singularity. The sooner, the better! But technology, as great at it is as a tool for expression and imagination, isn’t of much help when it comes to exploring the spiritual aspects of our minds. And there is no best-before-date for tips on how to become a more enlightened human being. Peter Carroll is also a pretty futuristic kind of guy, actually. And funny, which is an epithet I wouldn’t use for Ray Kurzweil. You should check his musings on games and quantum physics out: http://www.specularium.org/
One of the main tracks on Covenant’s new album is dubbed Sound Mirrors, and as it turns out to be this is most likely the first political statement from a band that has always described themselves as apolitical. Sound mirrors are forerunners of radars. Acoustic mirrors were built on the south and northeast coasts of England between about 1916 and the 1930s. The ‘listening ears’ were intended to provide early warning of incoming enemy aircraft. In a statement from the band we get some good insights into why this song has made its way into the new album: “Sound Mirrors” is a one-off. Covenant is an explicitly apolitical band. For the single, we made an exception to that rule, simply because we just couldn’t silently stand by and watch. Joakim states: “My personal opinion is that I refuse to stand by and watch as the disgusting, brown ghost of our recent past spreads its filthy hands over the world again.”
You describe yourself and Covenant as being contrarian, which in popular terms would mean that you reject popular opinions – how would you say that this is reflected in your music and the lyrics you write?
I use the word “contrarian” in the sense of being anti-authoritarian. We want to do things our way and we’re not interested in doing what’s expected from us. And I’m deeply suspicious to what people haphazardly call “common sense”. It’s depressingly close to conformity. We humans have an incredible capacity to invent and imagine things, but there’s a lot of resistance to real progress at the same time. It’s like “hey, we could do this amazing thing if only we…” and then “oh, well, it could have been great, if…” and then “alright, fuck it”, just because it doesn’t fit the current collective mindset. I think we have a duty to the world to push the envelope, to be brave enough to leave our safe zones and break new ground. That’s how we got where we are, right? Every single new idea that took us another step further has been resisted, sabotaged, forbidden, belittled, laughed at or worse. Just imagine how far we could go if there wasn’t all that self-censorship that so many seem to think we need to exercise. I’m not saying that making rather obscure electronic music is the solution to mankind’s problems, but being contrarian is a good start.
Despite all the darkness, we sense that you still share some optimism for the future as you speak of the morning star, is this true, furthermore William Blake also introduces the simple shepherd in the Songs of Innocence is this the role of Covenant or yourself?
Let’s say that we’re cautiously optimistic. It’s never too late until it’s too late. But to put it bluntly, people need to shape up. A lot. We’re all in serious trouble. Question the authorities. Seek the truth. Find out what matters. Work for it. Take responsibility for yourself. Read between the lines. And most importantly: observe the law of reciprocity. That alone will take us a long way.
Being a bit more practical can you let us know the relation between the music (songs) and the lyrics you write, which drives the context and the message you want to convey, and where in the music production process are sounds put into words or vice versa?
That’s always different. Sometimes music is made specifically to fit the lyrics and sometimes the other way around. We don’t really have a fixed modus operandi. The important thing is that we get inspired by something. It can be a noise, a melody, a few words, a great beat or whatever. As long as there is a spark, we start building. It’s not unusual that we make lyrical collages out of several already written texts. “I Close My Eyes” on “The Blinding Dark” is an example: it contains pieces of three different texts and that’s what makes it so dynamic. And I’m not a big fan of trying to convey “messages” as such. I want to plant seeds in your head that will hopefully become something meaningful for you. What that is, is what you make of it yourself.
We know that you are a great fan of Laurie Anderson can you let us know how she came to influence your own adventures into music and if she has had any special effect on how you approach lyrics and song writing?
Like so many others I first heard the haunting Cold War anthem “O’ Superman” and it just painted a picture in my mind that perfectly resonated with me. Later I found “Big Science” and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I heard the absolutely mind-blowing “United States Live” that she became the eye-opener that she is to me.
It’s not exactly difficult listening, but for a teenager in the mid-80s it was challenging for many reasons. First of all, she used an Eventide Harmonizer to change her voice into a man’s voice. You remember how The Knife got a lot of credit for challenging the gender barrier with that trick? Well, Laurie Anderson did it 20 years before. Secondly, the lyrics are utterly bizarre, yet strangely compelling as they begin with a fictional radio show called the Difficult Listening Hour but shifts into a surreal encounter at the protagonist’s house and ends with the William S Burroughs quote “Language is a virus from outer space”. All of that within three and a half minutes or so. There was a LOT of food for thought there. And that’s what she does all the time. Her stories are not just stories and her songs are not just songs, they are much more than the sum of the parts.
I’ve also come to realise that Laurie Anderson really shaped the way I look at music technology. She’s what I think of as a humanist technocrat. She used a lot of cutting edge technology, but the result was always profoundly human. I do that too and I think it’s something I picked up from her without thinking of it. Whenever I sit down with a new piece of technology, regardless of if it’s software or hardware, I tinker with it to find out what it can do. If it gives me an idea or triggers my imagination, then it’s a good one. If it’s just a tool like any other, I lose interest.
But I don’t try to copy what she does. It would sound wrong and dishonest and besides, I couldn’t do it even if I tried. I write with my own “voice” but I wouldn’t have done it in the way I do it without the genius of Laurie Anderson.
One last question – Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, how did you react to this? Is the Swedish Academy taking a necessary step to incorporate contemporary culture or will this potentially be a degradation and an unnecessary mash up of two distinct art forms?
I’m not qualified to judge whether or not Bob Dylan is a “worthy” Nobel laureate, so I won’t speculate in the right or wrong of the choice here. But I’m a big Bob Dylan fan. He’s a lyrical genius. And if you read his stuff, especially the early things from the ‘60s, you will quickly see how “literary” he is. He refers to loads of great books, namedrop poets, recycles characters of fiction and even puts them in literary environments. Folklore and high brow literature in a big mish mash and in a language that’s genuinely his own. If you ask me, which you actually did, it definitely qualifies as literature. Every bit as much as poets like Tomas Tranströmer or Harry Martinson, except that he wrote some pretty nifty tunes to his literature as well.
ABOUT THE NEW ALBUM
„The Blinding Dark“, COVENANTs 9th studio album to be released November 4th, 2016, is exciting not only because of its compelling title, but also since it shows a remarkable development in style, something that COVENANT decidedly wanted to do with this record – and not least thanks to the subject matter they address. The Swedish/German outfit has perhaps just delivered their artistically most ambitious album yet.
“The Blinding Dark” will be available in four editions. Standard CD, 3LP (incl. download code for album and exclusive song material, printed inner sleeve, 180g PVC protection sleeve, limited to 500 copies), Artbook 2CD (hardcover, 48pages, incl. 6 bonus tracks, limited to 1.500 copies) and Complete Box Edition (incl. Artbook 2cd, 3LP, photo prints and signed certificate, limited to 500 copies).
2. I Close My Eyes
3. Morning Star
4. Cold Reading
5. A Rider On A White Horse
7. Dies Irae
8. Sound Mirrors (Fulwell)
10. If I Give My Soul
11. Summon Your Spirit
LINKS AND CREDIT
Image credits: Petter Duvander – Picture of Joakim Montelius / Stefan Alt – Picture of forest
The Blinding Dark Tour (with Special Guests FADERHEAD + ISZOLOSCOPE):
29.10.16 Odense – Klub Golem (DK)
03.11.16 Nürnberg \ Hirsch (DE)
04.11.16 Munich \ Backstage (DE)
05.11.16 Stuttgart – Club Cann (DE) (SOLD OUT)
11.11.16 Hannover \ Musikzentrum (DE)
12.11.16 Hamburg \ Markthalle (DE)
17.11.16 Berlin – Columbia Theater (DE)
18.11.16 Erfurt \ Centrum (DE)
19.11.16 Dresden \ Reithalle (DE)
25.11.16 Frankfurt – Das Bett (DE) (SOLD OUT)
26.11.16 Krefeld \ Kulturfabrik (DE)
01.12.16 Rome – Cube* (IT)
03.12.16 Milan – Serraglio* (IT)
10.12.16 Malmö \ Inkonst (ElectriXmas Festival)* (SE)
16.12.16 Barcelona – Sala Bikini* (ES)
17.12.16 Madrid – Sala Arena* (ES)
18.12.16 Porto – Hard Club* (PT)
28.01.17 Cannes – MJC Picaud* (FR)
25.03.17 Athens – Death Disco* (GR )
01.04.17 Helsinki – Gloria* (FI )
* without FADERHEAD + ISZOLOSCOPE