COVEN bills itself as London's first—and only—occult-themed nightclub. We went down to party with some witches.
COVEN co-founders Foxy (right) and Lucius (left). All photos by Steph Wilson
It's around midnight on a Saturday and I'm in a darkened room under a railway arch in east London, frantically pulling my jacket off the back of my seat and trying to make a dash for the back wall. On stage a man is crouched on all fours with a funnel inserted into his anus, into which water and dishwashing liquid are being poured. The crowd scarpers to the sides before the crescendo spurts out, soaking the now-empty rows of seats to a chorus of screams and laughter.
Our photographer, Steph, turns to me and says solemnly, "I don't think we'll be able to use these pictures."
I'm at COVEN, London's first occult-themed club night, and a self-styled safe space for the LGBT community, the witchcraft community, and anyone at all interested in the stranger side of life. The male ping pong show I'm witnessing, performed by professional dominant Master Dominic, is just one act in a line up that features plenty of nudity, fake blood, and impersonations of David Icke, the professional conspiracy theorist and turquoise tracksuit enthusiast who believes that the Royal family are shapeshifting lizards.
Its founders are Foxy and Lucius, two practicing witches who were growing frustrated with both London's alternative club scene and its occult scene. "There are scary things going on right now with clubs like Madame Jojos shutting and so many people being priced out," explains Foxy. "Everything seems so airbrushed and tame. There's no room for mess, mistakes and experimentation. That's what we felt was missing."
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The pair also deride the current occult scene as "exquisitely boring," and explain that it seemed natural to "take it out of bookstores and onto dancefloors."
"There's nothing live going on, no live rituals... just readings," laments Foxy. "We wanted to bring in the performers who want to try something new, who want to be messy and offensive. That's what witchcraft should be about. We want to create a space where anything can happen."
For the pair, witchcraft and nightlife are natural bedfellows for several reasons. They explain that, for them, magic is about creating the life you want. Which is, arguably, what the best club nights have always been about, too—creating a space for people to come together, embrace freedom of expression, and manifest their ideal world.
The underground nature of nightlife, particularly LGBT and alternative clubs, also fits with the secret lifestyle that witches have been forced into over the years: "Witches were persecuted throughout history," explains Lucius. "A lot of the occult scene merges with the queer scene. There's a parallel between witchcraft and people who feel either persecuted or ostracized. If you belong to a minority, then being more interested in witchcraft goes hand in hand."
The night kicks off with a live ritual performed by the pair, with Foxy playing the character of a Frankenstein-like creature, doused in colored water and brought to life by Lucius. Cabaret fetish performer Marnie Scarlett tears apart her heart onstage, only to staple it—literally—back together. And singer-songwriter She Roccola performs her aptly-titled tune "Burn The Witch."
In contrast to the niche theme, the crowd is beautifully diverse. Stalwarts of the goth and fetish scenes rub shoulders with colorful art students, plus a good deal of plain-clothed civvies who have managed to sneak in. The age range is around 18 to 60—I chat to a mother and daughter duo from the suburbs, who found out about the night on Facebook. "We like finding places that feel a bit spontaneous," the mom explains to me.
While some attendees are just there for a good time rather than to explore the dark arts—"I'm an atheist," one guy replies bluntly as I ask him what he thinks of the theme—others have been in and out of London's occult scene over the years. "It's an area of interest for me," says Fayann Smith, rather cryptically. A veteran London club promoter and musician, she's performing at COVEN with her new band The Naked Grace Missionaries, which consists of two ethereally beautiful girls and one bearded guy singing acoustic songs inspired by The Manson Family and The Wicker Man.
"All the big questions in life boil down to it. This," she gestures at the room, "is a more frivolous, tongue-in-cheek way of exploring those questions. It's harder to find the quirkier places in London these days... but clubs are still so important because they're spaces where people can come together around ideas." Another attendee tells me she used to attend Aleister Crowley-inspired meetings at London's legendary Deveraux pub, but believes a nightclub environment gives it "a more fun side. You don't have to have any knowledge of it, it's more of a celebration."
Back on stage, Foxy tells us that he invited David Icke to appear tonight before letting rip at the tracksuit-clad one for his nasty habit of distorting mythology, plus those questionable reptile theories. So we're treated to the next best thing: cabaret performer Lolo O'Neill's hilarious pastiche involving a lizard suit and the aforementioned tracksuit, set to a pounding techno track sampling Icke's speeches.
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Smith, now sat in front of me, turns around. "You know, it's all just a route to unorthodoxy," she states. "The people here are the nicest people you could ever meet. Satan and the occult are a path to experimentation rather than anything to do with wanting to cause harm."
And it's true. In a world that feels increasingly terrifying, a demonic-themed club night is one of the most comforting places I've been to recently. As venues are closed, artist studios are converted to flats and east London's wild side becomes ever more tamed, it's rare to chance to upon a place within Zone 2 that still manages to feel so anarchic.
As the final band pack away and a DJ takes over, spinning theme-appropriate industrial and metal, the crowd throngs together with the performers, most still in costume and soaked in various substances. Both witchcraft and club culture are about rebellion: a fingers-up to over-glossy blandness and a route through which to embrace your inner freak. At a time when human-shaped dark forces are wielding such power, something traditionally seen as evil can actually begin to look like a saviour.