Electronic originators about to celebrate three decades as a band: Covenant interviewed

In one of the leading DJ magazines, an article on the “return of electro” last year claims that long-time advocates of the techno scene, including DJ’s as Nina Kraviz and Helena Hauff, are finding increasingly widespread success combining techno and electro with the “industrial clatter” of electronic body music, and continues to blabber about the originality of such a mix. The contemporary dance music scenes’ many attempts and successful marriages between musical movements have given rise to many new genres that bravely explore uncharted musical territories. However bold and new it may sound and whatever claims they have on its originality, it has been done in the past – but in a time when it wasn’t allowed to cross genres.

Swedish electronic music pioneers Covenant officially set off for a long journey in what was commonly named “the synth scene” when they released “The Replicant” on a compilation album in 1992. Being bored with the sound of the scene at the time while sharing creative quarters with DJ’s in the burgeoning techno scene in Sweden, the band started an experimental period of fusing the sound of the synth scene with techno beats – Synth Music 2.0 – thus shaping the sound of a scene yet to be invented. But being a pioneering band at the beginning of the 90s when music scenes were closed to extraneous influences also came with challenges, especially how fans would receive their music – and a challenge it was.

Fast forward thirty years and Covenant can claim their right for a position as one of the most successful bands ever in the scene, a band with a massive global fanbase and many headliner slots at the major electronic festivals on their resume.

As part of our series of interviewing bands and artists with long careers in the music scene, and bands having anniversaries coming up in the near future, Messed!Up headed off to Helsingborg and met up with one of the founding members of Covenant, Joachim Montelius, and chat about being in a band that is about to celebrate their 30th anniversary and the challenges they had to face while reinventing the sound of the scene. And he reveals that there will be new music coming out, but just don’t know when.

A story of being lucky

It’s always a bit more exciting to meet up with bands having long careers in the music scene, especially a band that pulled through the massive changes that plagued the music industry at the mid-2000s. Covenant celebrates thirty years in the scene next year and I’m sure many fans out there are interested to learn if you have any plans for some sort of celebration?
That’s a very long time, isn’t it (laugh). But we were already a band way before we officially started in 1992. Eskil and I have been doing this together since ’86.

But I’m sorry to say that we don’t have any plans on how to celebrate our anniversary, at least not yet and it starts to get kind of late. We’re not good at celebrating anniversaries at all. Someone says “Hey, we have an anniversary coming up this year, what to do about it?” and then it just slips from our minds (laugh). But what we actually should celebrate is that the Sequencer album turns twenty-five this year. We have talked about a re-release but haven’t even collected the old tapes yet and we’re eight months into 2021. I don’t know if we’ll make it before the end of the year, we’re just not good at anniversaries (laugh).

I remember your hometown Helsingborg as a very vibrant and creative place at the beginning of the 90s with a reputation for its techno parties at a club called TipTop, and on the way here today I read that you shared premises with the club and many other creative people in the scene in Helsingborg. How much did the trance and techno scene back then influence your sound?
More than you can imagine. Many of TipTop’s DJs were good friends of ours and we used them for feedback on our music, like “What do you think about this? Is it good enough?”. That feedback is behind much of our early club sound and helped us to create a sound that was different at the time.

When the techno scene was on the rise in Sweden and started to gain attention in Helsingborg at the end of the 80s, many of our synthpop friends joined the movement and morphed into the new scene and became techno DJ’s. I thought that it sounded like Synth Music 2.0 and that it was much better than the synth scene in Sweden at the time. I was also quite tired of Depeche Mode and the whole synthpop scene and wanted something different and cooler. But we were just lucky to be in that context at the right time and could build on the influences of the music in the techno scene. It helped us to create the sound of Covenant.

It was a sort of experimental period for us at the beginning and maybe we were a bit too early with that type of fusion, people didn’t understand what we wanted to do or what scene we belonged to. And it was very important to belong to one scene (laugh).

When we did our debut album Dreams of a Cryotank, we listened a lot to gabber music which was some sort of industrial music combined with techno beats. On that album, we basically just added verse, chorus and vocals on top of gabber songs and stole the whole melodic concept from the Eurodance scene (laugh). Club music at the time was a bit monotone and dull, but we fused together the best pieces of different genres to create our own melodic sound.

And here’s the thing about being too early; we thought it was cool and modern, something that would stick out in the scene, but when we played in Germany on the Sequencer tour – the major country for the scene – many people just thought it sounded weird, like “It sounds like techno but this is the synth scene, that’s not good” (laugh). Again, music was still stuck within well-defined territories and you were not allowed to trespass (laugh). But it changed quite soon after we did that tour; more bands turned up with a similar sound. We thought we were alone but discovered early pioneers like Lassigue Bendthaus, and bands doing similar music as us turned up, especially VNV Nation and Apoptygma Berzerk with Stephan Groth. It was something special in the air during those years when this sound, or movement, developed and shaped a new music scene. But we won because we were first out (laugh).

But talking about Helsingborg being a hotspot for creativity at the beginning of the 90s; it wasn’t all about TipTop, it was a common effort of many young people who wanted a place for playing music and doing other creative activities. It started with an old movie theatre that was about to be sold in the 80s by the Helsingborg municipality and many young people got together and left a proposal on taking over the building – but were turned down. But then we organized a huge demonstration downtown Helsingborg and invited politicians and apparently, we were very persuasive because they decided to let us have it.

We rebuilt this old theatre building into rehearsal spaces, a stage, a small movie theatre, and a few more things, and then magic started to happen. Sometimes I reflect on what would’ve happened if we wouldn’t have got it from the municipality. What would Covenant be without it?

But have you ever reflected on being in the same band for thirty years? When you start a band your goal isn’t much bigger than releasing a single or getting a song on a compilation.
Too many times! (laugh) Our ambition was to release an album, and when “The Replicant” was released [in 1992] and was well received by fans in the scene Memento Materia asked us if we wanted to release an album on their label, and we thought we just have to take the chance because it may not turn up again.

We have sent one demo ever to a label, to Energy Rekords, the major label in the scene at the time – and they turned us down (laugh). Everyone wanted to sign with Energy, they had a great roster of bands at the time, the biggest bands in the scene. But when Memento asked us we released our debut album on their label and thought “Ok, that’s it, we have reached what we wanted” (laugh).

A band that has stayed thirty years in the scene tends to get a sort of legendary status, but what impact has such a long career had on the band and on yourself?
To have stayed in the scene such a long time is just amazing, but we haven’t really done anything but releasing music to make it happen. We’ve been through several crises in the band; Clas, the third original band member, left in 2007 because he didn’t have the energy to continue and also have a job career, and I stopped touring when I started a family. All those things are some sort of break-ups because it changes the band’s future.

But I’m not sure I would have been in the band if I hadn’t stopped touring. When you do something for a very long time and hang out with the same people all the time it’s easy to get stuck in routines, but after I left touring there’s still something exciting about making music together because we don’t meet all the time, and then it’s fun to meet up again, just like meeting old friends you haven’t met in a while. It’s natural that life changes, especially when you start families, and our strength has always been that we’re allowed to have different lives. You don’t grow tired of each other in the long run then.

I’m not going to leave the band, it will never happen. I really believe that if you’ve been in a band for more than three years it becomes an addiction and you can’t stop. I get depressed if I won’t have time to work with music, it has shaped my life and is a huge part of who I am, and since the band is still around there’s an outlet for my creativity. Why not continue to release music as long as Covenant exist and people listen to us? The need for being creative has always been important to me.

Covenant skyrocketed in the scene back in the 90s and quite soon after your debut you started to headline the major festivals, festivals like Amphi, M’era Luna, and Wave Gotik Treffen. Have you ever been worried about losing your position in the scene when new bands arrive and want their piece of attention?
Luckily, I left touring before we experienced any type of degradation (laugh), but Eskil has told me a few times that it’s tougher to get headliner gigs today.

On our tour in ’98 we had VNV Nation as a support act but just two or three years later they had passed us and have ever since been the biggest band in the scene by far. They have an audience that we can only dream of, we would never be able to pull such a crowd to our shows, not on our own. I can still remember the feeling when I realized that Ronan [VNV Nation] had grown bigger than us, and that was tough. I didn’t like it at all at the time (laugh). But I’m way past that now. He’s great at what he’s doing and really deserves it.

You have to understand that band life changes just like your normal life does and status quo rarely stays for a long time when you’re in a band, not for most bands at least. You just have to make the best of the years you get in the scene.

But you also had a breakthrough in America quite early in your career, and that’s something few European bands in the scene get to experience.
Exactly, and it was really early and, yet again, quite much luck (laugh).

There was this tiny label in San Francisco called 21st Circuitry which released compilation albums, and they had a hit record with one of their new wave compilations with bands doing cover songs, and we had a song on it. The label man liked us and asked Memento Materia about licensing some of our other songs as well and Memento told him that it was fine but only if they licensed the whole Europa album, and he did. And with all our songs on his label, he wanted us to come over for a promotion tour so he helped out to sponsor a tour in America which became a super success. Almost all shows were sold out and we cultivated quite a big fanbase over there.

But like I said, it was all blind luck. 21st Circuitry was new in the scene and wanted new music because the label man was fed up with the American industrial type of music that dominated the scene and we just happened to be on one of his compilations. But I guess you need quite much luck to get a breakthrough, that’s for all bands.

A band career full of challenges

One of the most common trappings in a creative career is that it’s easy to get caught up in expectations, prestige, and comparison, and the biggest problem of them all is to keep up with new music trends. The truth of the matter is, successful bands and artists never stop learning and always keep an open mind and devote their lives to what’s new and exciting.

Covenant’s strength has been to stay in the frontline to shape the sound of the scene, and over the years their sound has changed and diversified. But it hasn’t always been easy, and Montelius tells us the story about facing the challenges of genre territories and how the band were on the verge of a huge breakthrough but were stopped because they came from the “wrong” scene.

Although the synth scene started going downhill about fifteen years ago when new scenes soared up and replaced it, Covenant has always adapted and brought in new influences when changes happened. Has it been a deliberate attempt on your side to follow new movements in electronic music to stay in the scene or did it just happened organically?
We did a few daring attempts to morph into techno music when we realized that the scene we grew up with started to fade away, but doors between some scenes were locked and sealed. Other scenes don’t want bands to cross over into their territory, especially not people from the synth scene (laugh). For me, it’s just a weird way to think because music evolves through crossovers, it has always been like that. I have always liked the techno scene quite much and don’t really see myself as someone belonging to the synth scene like it would be my identity. I’ve never felt comfortable about it.

When we worked on the Northern Light album we were signed to a major label and they spent quite much money on us, especially on promotion, and we did two very expensive videos targeting the German alternative music channel Viva Zwei. While working on the album, we brought in Ellen Allien [Berlin-based techno/electronica artist], she remixed “Bullet” which ended up on one of Felix da Housecat’s compilation albums, but also Christian Morgenstern who was a quite big techno DJ at the time, and he did a remix of ”Call The Ships To Port”.

Viva Zwei really liked our videos, but when they learned that we came from the synth scene they phoned our label and said “We can’t play a band from that scene”, and nothing happened. That’s how weird it was.

But it was a similar problem if you wanted to do something different in the synth scene, it wasn’t allowed to bring in influences from other scenes. Chances would have been better to start your own scene, but that’s too hard to pull off on your own. Let’s say we tried hard but failed (laugh), but it wasn’t on us. Those scenes were just not ready for it.

The reason we’ve stayed at the top for such a long time is because of Germany. If you made yourself a name in Germany, you will always stay in the scene because it’s a very loyal fanbase down there. Just look at a band like Front 242; they haven’t released any new album since the beginning of the 2000s but they’re still the major headliner on many of the big festivals in Germany. What also has helped us is that we grew a global fanbase and have fans from South America to Russia which made tours across the world possible. The only continent we’ve never played on is Africa, but I guess it won’t be easy to pull that off for any band (laugh).

But keeping up with what’s new in the scene usually gets harder with time, especially when you start families and won’t have time to listen to music as much anymore. How have you tackled problems like that? For example, have you worked with a co-producer?
We’ve never worked with co-producers but would have loved to do it, but it’s expensive and we don’t earn the same money on music as we used to do. It’s the digital age now and that has changed a lot in terms of economy.

It’s really hard to keep up with new music and what would work for us. And like you say, it’s even harder when you have a family because you don’t really get the time you need any more – it’s too much children’s music (laugh) – and you lose the type of input you had a few years ago. But what you can do, and what I have done, is to change how you work with music to challenge yourself a bit, it makes it more exciting if you change your work method once in a while. I’ve started to work quite much with Euroracks [modular synthesizer systems] for instance and changed my working method. So far I haven’t made anything good enough for a Covenant release, just a lot of cool and spacey things (laugh), but I’m working on it.

What’s also important is to understand what inspires you in music, why some songs get you hooked and others don’t. For example, when I listen to my Discover Weekly list on Spotify and find a real banger song that I can’t stop listening to I try to understand why I like it, “Why is this better than that?”. It could the chorus, but also a tiny detail in the beats. And when I understand what it is I write it down in my notebook to use for later.

Keeping up with new music is one of the challenges but did you ever ended up in the dilemma of how to meet fans’ expectations when you wanted to move forward and do something different? You said that fans can be a bit picky and don’t want a band’s sound to change too much, especially not bringing in influences from other scenes and Covenant has always been very progressive in terms of changing the sound. It’s almost like a hostage situation music-wise.
Most definitely, it’s a tricky situation, but we never had that type of thought, but are aware of the problem. We just decided to go our own way quite early.

Just like most bands you have all the time in the world to write your first album and for many bands, like us, it trickles down to become too much of everything on your debut album (laugh). A few months after its release we thought “That didn’t really pan out as we wanted” and we decided to take a step in another direction when we did our second album. You know, not repeat what we did on the first just to surprise ourselves – and it turned out really well.

We have two basic rules in the band; one is to never repeat what we just did even if it’s not a massive change, it’s just that something needs to be different on the next release. The second rule is to never listen to what people want from us and keep off the pressure of expectations. The worst you can do as a creative person is to think about what fans expect from you because it never turns out well in the end, and no one will be happy about it, not me nor the fans. Fans want to be surprised, it’s just that they don’t know about it until they are (laugh).

We have deliberately blocked that kind of pressure to avoid ending up in difficult situations, and I believe that’s the reason we’re still here.

Five years have passed since your last album was released, and it’s three years since the Fieldworks Exkursion EP came out. Is there any new record in the works at the moment and any plan for a release in the near future?
Absolutely! We were supposed to have released part two of Fieldworks and then a new album, but we found out that many other bands had the same idea as us and lost the fun in it. Why do something everyone else is doing, that’s not fun (laugh). Again, it’s about originality. Now we’re having lots of unfinished music in the studio that we don’t know what to do with. Maybe we’ll just throw it in the trash and do something else, I don’t know at the moment.

It would have been perfect to work on it during the pandemic, there has certainly been time for it. But while many other bands have been super creative and recorded albums and EP’s we haven’t done anything at all (laugh). But something will happen, I just don’t know when at the moment.

If you look back on Covenant’s overall career, did you reach what you wanted or is it anything you would have hoped to unfold in a different way?
That’s something I have given lots of thought to in the last few years. Like I said before, we were really close to having a bigger breakthrough with Northern Lights when we had a big budget to use and a huge network to put to work, and we – the band – had lots of energy at the time. But then all this crap with the videos being turned down by Viva Zwei happened, and not long after the whole industry crashed. Illegal filesharing killed off the whole industry for a few years and hit us very hard.

Sony Music, the parent label to our label Ka2, did a huge reorganization and dropped 25% of their employees within three months. That’s a huge change. Their business analysts found out how much money Ka2 spent on their bands – they just threw money in the air – and stopped it all. The whole idea was that Ka2 would be a research lab for new bands and music and were given a large budget by Sony, but when the crisis struck the industry everyone had to cut down.

Ka2 was a successful eurotechno label and in their office, they had their walls draped in golden records, and they had worked up a reputation to have fingerspitzgefühl. That’s why Sony gave them a large budget to work with. They picked up us and Yvonne [up-and-coming Swedish band at the end of the 90s] and when Sony put an end to it both bands took a huge hit. However, in retrospect you understand that Ka2 wasn’t really interested in us as a band, they wanted to reach out to our markets and earn money, and when the crisis hit the industry they ended everything almost overnight and didn’t really care about us at all.

That’s the only thing I wish would’ve turned out differently because we were so close. Other than that, I’m just super happy to have been in the scene for such a long time and to have played all over the world. When you have that sort of global fanbase you will automatically headline festivals, and to have played headliner slots at Amphi and Wave Gotik Treffen is just amazing. And the big festivals paid us quite well which made it possible to live off music for quite many years. I did it for at least ten years and Eskil still does. Well, I’ve never owned a Porsche (laugh) but we did quite well for many years, at least until 2010 before the industry changed again to become dominated by streamed music and even less money to the bands. That’s when it started to go faster downhill (laugh).

But there are other things in life as well. I just love that we’re still here after thirty years and want to continue to write music.

Photographers: ©Mandy Privenau (live), Krichan Wihlborg (interview) and Richard Bloom (interview).
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.