Bitter Allegiance Drummer Russ Covner Quit the Scene For 16 Years Before His (Semi-) Triumphant Return
As a musician working the local club scene, Russ Covner has tasted his fair share of failure. So, when it looked as if his 48th birthday gig was about to be canceled, he was disappointed but not shocked.
The story: His band, Bitter Allegiance, had been booked for a show at the Blooze Bar in north Phoenix with The Earps, planned as a combination birthday bash for Covner and a going-away party for former Earps guitarist Aaron "Ump" McCollum. The night had been inadvertently double-booked by the bar's owner, putting a pair of touring bands from Texas into the mix and Bitter Allegiance's status on the bill in jeopardy.
"I thought, 'We're dead,'" Covner says. "Even up to the showtime, there were [questions about] what time do we play, whether we were on the bill or not on the bill."
Ultimately, the lineup issues were resolved and the show came off without a hitch, with all four bands playing to a raucous crowd of bikers, metalheads, and cowpunks.
"The pleasantry to it all was, by the time we got off the stage, it was nice to have the owner come up to you and say, 'Where the hell have you guys been?'" Covner says. "That was the nicest thing anybody's ever said to us. I was floored."
If Covner seems a little too excited by a passing compliment from the owner of a local dive bar, it's only because he doesn't take anything for granted. Missing out on a 16-year stretch at the potential peak of your music career will do that.
Like so many aspiring musicians, Covner started playing drums in cover bands as a teenager. At one early gig, at Greasewood Flat in Mesa, Covner says, his band was forced to play an hour-long rendition of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by a slurring, switchblade-wielding biker who demanded to sing lead vocals on the song. The gig netted the band members $7 apiece, which, at the time, was just enough to fill up the tank in his station wagon. Ultimately, though, Covner's early career wasn't derailed by drunken bikers or low-paying gigs. Like many an aspiring rocker before him, he got hitched, and his band died.
From 1983 until his divorce in 1999, Covner watched from the sidelines as the Valley music scene took shape. He watched '70s hard-rockers The Schoolboys morph into '80s hair-metal band Icon and land a deal with Capitol Records. He watched thrash pioneers Flotsam & Jetsam and Sacred Reich rise to national prominence in the late '80s. He watched the Gin Blossoms and Meat Puppets earn international praise when the Mill Avenue scene exploded in the early '90s.
For a decade and a half, Covner did a lot of watching but very little playing. A longtime metal fan, he was particularly disappointed in missing out on that genre's peak of popularity.
"I watched a bunch of my friends play, and they'd let me sit in for a song or two," Covner says. "So at least I kept myself going during it, but as far as physically playing out, I missed the whole section of it. I really did. But I'm trying to make up for it now."
After his divorce, Covner rededicated himself to music, but there would be one more stop on the way to forming Bitter Allegiance. A chance encounter with punk rocker Jeff Dahl at Joe's Grotto led to Covner's most unlikely gig to date: playing drums in a punk band.
Covner was already friends with Dahl's then-bassist (and current Earps member) Jason "Buckshot George" Smith and knew that Dahl was looking for a drummer. Ironically, Covner was wearing a Jeff Dahl T-shirt that night, and when Dahl's wife commented on it, Covner decided to go for broke.
"I don't know what was going through my mind, 'cause I've always been into the metal and the rock and stuff," Covner says. "I just looked at him point blank and said, 'If you consider a drummer, give me a call sometime. I'll sit in and see what we can do.'"
Smith made Covner a cassette of Dahl's songs and told him he had a week to learn them.
"I thought I'd bit off more than I could chew, 'cause it was all this very fast, 32nd-beat punk stuff," Covner says. "I'm used to this good, groovin' rock and I thought, 'Oh, God, I'm dead.'"
Covner nailed the audition and spent the next five years playing and recording with Dahl's band. Covner played drums on Dahl's latest release, Back to Monkey City, which was mastered by legendary producer Jack Endino and garnered a glowing review in Rolling Stone from senior editor David Fricke.
Still, Covner couldn't shake his metal urges. So in 2006, he formed Bitter Allegiance with guitarist Larry Merry. The pair hired session musicians to record a self-titled, three-song EP in 2007. The music is a simple-yet-infectious combination of crunchy metal riffs and in-your-face punk attitude.
After Dahl's move to Hawaii late last year, Bitter Allegiance suddenly went from side-project status to Covner's main focus, and Covner readily admits that his experience with Dahl has shaped Bitter Allegiance's sound.
"I like that three-minute, get-in-the-door, kick-'em-out, and walk-away (style), so that you have to go back and listen to that song again," Covner explains. "I don't want us to become a Dream Theater, drawing out 15-minute tunes (like) Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I like getting in your face for a few minutes and then walking away from it. I think that stems from my days with Jeff playing punk. It was a lot more fun. There was no crap in between, no garbage."
Covner is also making the transition from backing musician to bandleader. After several lineup changes, Covner and Merry believe they've found the right personnel in singer Joe Guy, bassist Jon Rohrbach, and lead guitarist Joe Bartley. While he has no intention of stepping out from behind the drum kit to front a band — "I'm no Dave Grohl," he laughs — Covner says he enjoys being in charge for a change.
"I've been trying to prove (myself) to people for a long time and get in different bands," he says. "You know, 'Hey, would you mind if I write a song in there?' I always get, 'Well, you're in this project and here's what we do.' So it's my turn to say that now."
Now the band is working on a full-length album with the aim of an early 2010 release and Covner is hoping to book a West Coast tour in the near future. The band is also gaining fans with every gig. After his birthday show, Covner was surprised to see that one of his heroes from the Valley metal scene, Icon guitarist Dave Henzerling, was in attendance and had kind words for the band.
"That, to me, came full circle, from seeing him years ago," Covner says. "For me, that was an all-time high, for him to come up to the stage after the show. He thought the energy was amazing. He had a compliment for everybody in the band."
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