The Plight of Deafheaven
Published Sep 23, 2015George Clarke is not exactly the esoteric or brooding metal frontman you'd expect. Though he bellows existential shrieks into a microphone that he often clutches in a single leather glove, he's relaxed and straightforward on the phone, exuding a laid-back, Bay Area charm between bites of a sandwich.
Despite his calm demeanour, however, he's brimming with nervous excitement. Deafheaven — the band he co-founded with guitarist Kerry McCoy in 2010 — are gearing up to release a new album called New Bermuda, and while it's their third full-length, it has all the pressures of a sophomore release. After all, 2013's Sunbather was at once a remarkably divisive and career-defining record.
Lately, Clarke has found plenty of time to sweat over New Bermuda's many details. "Whenever we first record something, I'm obsessive," he says. "I'll listen to it on every pair of speakers and headphones and everything else I can get my hands on. If we get close to premiering a track, I'll listen to that track over and over again like, 'Is this good? Is this what I want?' I'm pretty neurotic.
"I'm still pretty nervous about people hearing it," he adds. "When reviews and stuff start rolling in, I'm pretty curious to see what people think. I'm ready to get things underway and fully start this new chapter of the band."
It seemed like everyone had an opinion when Sunbather came out in 2013. Though it still offered the same brain-pummelling blast beats, otherworldly screams and tablature-worthy riffs as Deafheaven's 2011 debut Roads to Judah, it also found them an enormous non-metal audience thanks to its diverse sonic palette. There were cascading octave chords, triumphant Friday Night Lights post-rock, enormous half-time breakdowns and transcendent, shoegazing pop melodies woven into the cacophony.
International tours and year-end daps from practically every publication followed, proving Sunbather was a hit. Outside of their own making, Deafheaven were a hype band.
Clarke admits the indie world hyperbole was occasionally hard to swallow. "Even on the positive side, when we'd get a review or a write-up or something and people were like, you know, 'this album is amazing' and 'it's breaking so much ground' and all this kind of stuff — that's almost harder to read than the negative stuff sometimes. Because we always feel like, you know what? It's just a band, and it's just songs."
We're living with ridiculously easy access to recorded music, not to mention a pervasive cultural obsession with personalization and curation, so subgenres often seem like relics of the past. In a handful of niches, however, subgenres are everything. Metal fans in particular get up in arms when the "wrong" terminology is used.
For Clarke, an obsession with metal started as a child. "I'm in fifth or sixth grade, I'm in elementary school, and I'm seeing Korn on TV," he recalls. "For my brain it's edgy, and it's dark, and it's very emotional. It definitely drew me in."
Thankfully, he didn't stick with nü-metal for too long. At age 12 he saw Pantera perform with Slayer and Morbid Angel, then he spent his teenage years buying anything with "the gnarliest-looking album cover." Soon, he was obsessing over death metal and grindcore.
Before Deafheaven, Clarke and McCoy combined those influences in a band called Rise of Caligula. Existing from 2006 to 2010, the band's crowning achievement was their Parading From Heaven's Descent album. After they called it quits, Clarke and McCoy wanted to combine their mutual love of black metal and shoegaze, and Deafheaven were born.
"I never expected people's reaction to us to be so strong," Clarke says. "Deafheaven's early incarnation, when we were still figuring ourselves out and writing the demo and things like that, I called us 'experimental black metal.' That was our angle. We were into a lot of the French progressive black metal scene, and we were into a lot of atmospheric black metal. Our whole idea was just to sort of expand on those ideas, so I considered us to be a part of that family."
Hardly just a metal chancer, Clarke is a disciple of the culture, though he sees many problems with rigid genre constraints. Black metal is, in fact, rather grey, with the subgenre divided between the raw aggression of Mayhem or Darkthrone and the ethereal ambience of Ulver or Alcest.
Instead of larger-than-life corpse paint, however, Deafheaven are relatively clean cut. In place of an illegible logo, they've got a clean, sturdy typeface that'd probably look great on a resume. Rather than play sets at Eistnaflug or Wacken Open Air, they've performed at Primavera, Pitchfork Fest and Bonnaroo.
Despite their best intentions as black metal disciples, it makes sense that Sunbather had a little more mass appeal than Norwegian church-burners or Parisian bedroom geeks tweaking guitar pedals. It sounds like a blast of raw adrenalin on blogger playlists consisting of acoustic folk-pop and chilled-out hype bands, but it also riles up the subgenre purists who can't see outside of their own rules and restrictions.
Still, Clarke is interested in the conversation. While he admits he doesn't read comment sections anymore, he takes the time to read reviews.
"I can understand," he says of the black metal enthusiasts who don't like his band. "Here's the thing: If we have a negative review, and it's from someone that is well-versed in what they're talking about and they go into detail, that's totally fine, and I appreciate that because I appreciate anyone that takes the time to really sit down with our music."
More often than not, however, protecting a culture becomes too entrenched in superficial elements. "If it comes to the whole 'these guys are just hipsters' or 'they're impure' or anything like that, no, I don't understand or sympathize. I think that that argument, especially after all these years, to me is just so boring."
So are Deafheaven a black metal band? "After playing for a few years and finding our voice and releasing Sunbather and touring on that and everything else, I don't think that we are," Clarke admits. "It's all convoluted. We've had so many things lobbed at us that I just refuse to adhere to any of them, whether it be 'post-black metal' or 'black-gaze.' At a certain point, it's reaching so hard that it's really better just to abandon the idea altogether. I would consider us a metal band, absolutely."
Popular with indie bloggers and hated by a sect of the metal scene that birthed them, Deafheaven are caught between indie rock and a hard place. Still, Clarke explains that they're often the only aggressive band performing at an indie fest, and that comes with its own unique set of challenges. "I saw a couple of people being like, 'Oh if you're in Deafheaven, you can make money because you just play whatever and you appeal to everyone.' Basically remarking that being in this 'indie,' Pitchfork world was the easy way of going about being in an extreme band. But for me, I found the opportunities very challenging.
"I mean it's not like we cater to these people," he continues. "We took advantage of opportunities that were given to us, and I found the opportunities to be pretty challenging. It's not the easiest thing in the world to play at two p.m. in the middle of the sun at a festival that's being headlined by Drake and the Strokes, you know? Sometimes we'll get put on a bigger stage and play earlier in the day, and you have to really work to win people over."
Since Sunbather, Clarke and McCoy have moved to Los Angeles — in part because it's cheaper, but also so they can have a "physical presence" with their manager and label. "When you start dealing with money, and you become an LLC and there's taxes and all of the un-fun financial aspects — yeah, it can feel like a job," Clarke admits. "But one that we worked really hard to get."
Now the question is whether or not the non-metal fans will stick around for what comes next. After all, Deafheaven's true-blue metal influence is much more evident on New Bermuda, resulting in an album that may not be as instantly accessible.
"I think for this record, we definitely accessed different influences that we'd be listening to the whole time, but maybe just wanted to focus on certain things," Clarke explains. The point was to avoid writing what he calls Sunbather Part 2. "In fact, that was the biggest pressure of the whole record: To retain our sound, but push it in a way that was fresh-sounding but remained interesting."
That push also came from switching up their approach. On Sunbather, Deafheaven worked as a two-piece, with Clarke writing the lyrics and McCoy writing all of the music. Since then, however, they've been touring with the same backing band — drummer Daniel Tracy, bassist Stephen Clark and guitarist Shiv Mehra.
As with Roads to Judah (albeit with different members), the songs on New Bermuda were written in more of a group dynamic and recorded live off the floor. "Initially, we all kind of stayed in this house for a couple of weeks and tried to focus on writing the album," Clarke says. "It was very democratic, and if there was something that even [McCoy] wrote that we weren't really feeling, it would be discussed. We threw some stuff away. It's all part of the process. But I think that we're fortunate that everyone is kind of on the same page. We wrote this record after touring with each other for close to three years."
That said, the musical side of Deafheaven is still very much McCoy's vision. "It's always been kind of understood that Kerry is the main writer of the band," Clarke says. "While everyone else puts forth ideas, it's easier to work with Kerry sort of being the band leader. And I think everyone understands that, and because of that the writing process was more fluid."
"Brought to the Water" opens New Bermuda with a sinister grating noise before dark chords and evil church bells pummel the brain. "Baby Blue" features noir-ish rain patters and ominous synths, eventually climaxing with a blues solo; "Come Back" features an incredibly heavy, thrash-indebted breakdown.
Throughout, Clarke's screams are relentlessly vicious. "I think that the vocals have improved a lot in the last couple years," he correctly observes. "I felt, this time around, much stronger and much more confident in myself and I think that kind of shows on the record."
Certainly, New Bermuda is noticeably more aggressive, and perhaps less accessible than Sunbather. But there's plenty of the other stuff going on too — "Come Back" also opens with a riff not unlike Godspeed You! Black Emperor's "Monheim," and closes out with some Britpop acoustics; "Gifts for the Earth" delivers driven pop bass like a fucked up Cure song; "Luna" has as life-affirming a post-hardcore breakdown as anything they've ever done.
Aside from McCoy's final say, Clarke asserts that there are "absolutely not" any explicit rules for a Deafheaven song. "I think, especially on this newer record, we kind of expanded into unfamiliar territory," he says. "And I think we'll continue to do things like that. As long as it fits and it's not terribly awkward and it goes with a certain kind of flow, I don't think we should inhibit ourselves to anything."
That sort of commitment to innovation means Deafheaven will most likely have ideas for many years to come. "I think that in theory, it is possible for a band that is influenced by so many different things to shift in many different ways and to continue like that," Clarke says.
They'll most likely be encouraged to spread out and try different things, too. After two albums on Deathwish Inc., New Bermuda marks Deafheaven's first LP for Anti-, making them label-mates with Tom Waits, Daniel Lanois, Wilco, Simian Mobile Disco and Kronos Quartet. It's potentially another step further outside the metal scene, sure, but it also doesn't look like a label that's against new musical ideas.
Still, despite rejecting any hardline rules for the band's sound, Clarke says they'll draw the line somewhere before they lose the plot completely. "Kerry and I discussed this early on — I do think we have a sound, and I do think we're able to expand on the sound and shift, but there is a core. If we were to completely lose that core we would just bow out and start something new. I don't have a problem with that.
"Every band has a shelf life, even if they continue to make music," he concludes. "But I think everyone kind of recognizes that there's a certain creative spark that happens in a small group of people that truthfully doesn't last forever.... So yeah, when that time comes I'll be very comfortable. But for now, I think Deafheaven has a lot of room to move around and evolve."