Deafheaven: Cats, Blankets & Black Metal
Talking to Deafheaven's frontman about hipsters, Mayhem and the future
“You've got some band selling booty shorts over here and another band's printing a line of dildos shaped like their lead singer. But you get mad at the blanket man?”
Deafheaven screamer George Clarke has got a point there. Not only is the blanket a stylish and practical addition to any metalhead's home décor – “It was winter. It seemed appropriate,” – but, for a band that actually wants to scrape a living, woven goods are hardly a sin. Given that this blanketed blasphemy was conceived by Touché Amoré's Nick Steinhardt and wasn't even, strictly speaking, Deafheaven merchandise, the tidal wave of hatred aimed at the band was a teensy overreaction. Then again, that's become the norm for Deafheaven.
Formed in 2010 and having gone from strength to bicep-flexing strength, the American black metallers have, for the past two years, been surfing on the success of their second record, Sunbather. Plaguing innumerable End Of Year lists in 2013 and receiving ridiculous amounts of coverage from every media outlet you can think of, Deafheaven's sophomore opus kicked them from the underground with an unforgiving, steel-toe-capped boot.
“I remember this Rolling Stone interview we did, and I was just like, 'What the fuck does Rolling Stone want to do with our band?'” says Clarke, trying to contextualise the madness. Perched backstage and preparing for a packed-out headliner at London's Scala, he's more than aware of the esteemed position he's attained. “But there's two sides to it,” he elaborates. “You meet these writers and these editors, and they're just people. It's not Rolling Stone, it's a guy who likes your band who happens to work for Rolling Stone, and he's somehow convinced the magazine to cover us. I don't know what we were doing to make all these people interested in us!”
Clarke might not know, but legions of fans are suitably clued up. Deafheaven exude a racket that has as much in common with Ihsahn as it does My Bloody Valentine; soaring, unashamedly uplifting guitar lines clash with blast beats and screeched vocals, blending the unsettling ambience of Swans and suchlike with slithers of hope. Like Wolves In The Throne Room, Agalloch and Ghost Bath at a birthday party, Sunbather is a gem, hailed by many members of the media as a metal album for people who don't like metal.
“For your first metal band to be – if I were to put a tag on us – a black metal-influenced, avant-garde, yelling barrage of noise... For that to be the first thing you like seems a bit silly,” reasons Clarke, proclaiming that statement a load of old toss. “I think people typically use that 'metal band for people who don't like metal' statement to invalidate what we do, because for some reason it's considered sacrilege to be a 'gateway band', which I've never agreed with. A lot of people use that as a way to say, 'Oh, you're just a metal band for those guys', which I just find so backwards! Even if we were the metal band for people who don't listen to metal, then what's wrong with that? The music I grew up on shaped my friendship group, my personality and all these other things. Why would it be considered negative for someone to experience that?”
While the musical merits of Sunbather are undeniable, it's obviously not to everyone's taste. If everyone likes what you're doing, you're probably doing it wrong. This being said, countless Deafheaven detractors insist on criticising several of the band's attributes. Deafheaven don't come from Scandinavia. Deafheaven don't come on stage looking like badgers. Deafheaven don't sound like they recorded their albums inside a punctured colostomy bag. Therefore, somehow, they're 'hipsters'.
“The whole thing seems kinda closeted,” admits Clarke, unfazed by the topic. “A lot of those tags are unfounded and it's just talking shit to talk shit. I have a thick skin. If people just want to listen to tinny, thin-sounding Norwegian black metal from the '90s, then that's cool. I'm with you, I'm listening to it too! And people talk about this 'hipster black metal' thing, and it'll be a photo of a guy in a scarf with black-framed glasses and a weird haircut and skinny jeans, and it'll say: 'LISTENS TO DEAFHEAVEN'. That's fine – look however you like – but I don't really know where they got the picture from. If you're gonna make it a personal matter, I don't think I particularly look that weird.” He stops, innocently adding: “I don't have a scarf.”
But this is just the fans – and a small portion of them, at that. The proof is most definitely in the putrid pudding for Deafheaven; countless musical legends whom we may refer to as 'kvlt as fvck' have given the stamp of approval. And that, it seems, holds more weight than any basement-dwelling internet troll or snobby music critic.
“One of the most intimidating things we've ever done was touring Japan with Godflesh,” Clarke utters, an indicative tone of pride making itself all too obvious. “I've been into all of Justin's [Broadrick, Godflesh] projects, so getting to meet him... Those guys are like OGs, y'know? But they loved the band and him and Ben [Green, Godflesh] were raving about Sunbather, which was crazy. We've played with Sunn O))) and Mayhem, and we were hanging out with Attila [Csihar, Mayhem]; he was side-stage for our whole set!
“I never really cared before, but if these guys are down with us then I feel extra validated. It's like they almost see it as a torch being passed down or something. Just the conversations we've had, with them saying like, 'Yeah, you're the new generation of this thing,' and I was just like, 'Tell me Skinny Puppy stories! Tell me Napalm Death stories!'"
But Sunbather is behind them now. Expectation is a hefty beast and it piggybacks on Deafheaven's shoulders, resulting in their upcoming third opus: New Bermuda. “It would have been easy to do Sunbather Part Two, especially given how it took off,” notes Clarke, affirming everyone's belief that stupendous success comes at a price. They couldn't risk it. Driving in a straight line is all fun and games on the dual carriageway, but unless you change direction at the roundabout, you're going to crash your car and cause a nasty traffic jam.
“There was a lot of major chording on Sunbather and a lot of big, uplifting crescendos; that's scaled back this time round,” Clarke says of New Bermuda. “The songs are less airy and more riff-focused. More concise. There's a lot more packed into each song than there was on Sunbather, which is more of an open-sounding record. This is more urgent and tight. We decided to go back and start listening to the stuff that got us into metal in the first place: early Metallica, Slayer, Testament, Vio-lence and all that Bay Area thrash stuff. We took a lot of that and threw it back into the record, utilising it in a way that was appropriate for Deafheaven.”
Carved into existence at 25th Street Recording and Atomic Garden Recording Studio – in Oakland and East Pal Alto, respectively – by producer/engineer extraordinaire Jack Shirley, New Bermuda was committed to tape in roughly a week and a half. In the most literal sense; all of Deafheaven's previous output has been recorded via tape, yet a “special request” made on Shirley's behalf has made this fact known.
“We do the guitar, bass and drums in a single take,” confirms Clarke. “We do guitar layering afterwards and edit that in Pro Tools, so it's half and half. Dan [Tracy, drummer] kinda hates it because it makes him pretty tired, but it makes him a better player. It makes us all better players, because you have to really commit to what you're doing. We don't play to a click track, everything's really raw and we record with everyone in the same room.”
While the recording process surrounding New Bermuda has remained unchanged, the actual construction of the songs differs massively. Beforehand, the music was very much Kerry's [McCoy, guitars] responsibility. Having enlisted the aforementioned Dan Tracy alongside Stephen Clark [bass] and Shiv Mehra [guitars], Deafheaven's current line-up has remained stable for the past couple of years. This, it seems, has reaped its rancid rewards.
“It was much more the five of us,” Clarke tells of New Bermuda's gestation. “The best part of this writing experience was that Kerry would write a couple of riffs and bring them to the table. We'd hash it out so many times that Stephen would create a bassline and enhance the song, or Dan would play it so many times his fills would get more interesting and that'd bring extra nuances to it, or Shiv would come up with an extra riff. Sunbather was limited to Kerry's writing style, and even though he presented the New Bermuda songs in a fuller way, everyone’s' brains worked together. The record would have sounded a lot different if it was just Kerry.”
From the sound of things, New Bermuda will be an absolute rager; lead single Brought To The Water couples the sound exhibited on Sunbather with the thrash influences mentioned previously. Not in a cut and paste way – in an omniscient, wise manner of bands much older than Deafheaven. The molten musical output of New Bermuda is somewhat bittersweet, though, with its lyrics and overall atmosphere akin to utter hopelessness.
“Me, Stephen, Kerry and three or four other guys were living in a one bedroom apartment for years,” explains Clarke, laying down the groundwork for New Bermuda's tale. “Kerry and I shared the living room! That's what Sunbather was – longing for something better. The record started getting accolades, it sold better and we became more financially stable. We all moved to Los Angeles. We got apartments. I got a dog. Kerry got a cat. I moved in with my girlfriend. It was this stability I'd wanted and yearned for. For the first time, I was being introduced to adulthood. It was painfully monotonous. I felt trapped. If that was the one thing I wanted for so many years and, now I have it, I'm unhappy, then what does that say about me? What will it take for me to be satisfied with life?
“New Bermuda is Los Angeles. It's where I thought paradise would be and, in the midst of that, the waters of reality swallow you and pull you under. I got really depressed – the band was experiencing all these highs but they were meshing equally with all these lows. While Sunbather has this dreaminess to it, New Bermuda is the reality. Thematically, it's a lot darker. It's angry. Not to say I'm ungrateful, and that's where the personal struggle lies: we're so lucky. It's amazing to live off your music – nobody I knew, until we actually started playing with touring musicians, had been able to reach this point. I'm grateful and I ask myself, 'Why aren't you happy?' You just end up as this bitter asshole. It's an internal struggle.”
As we wrap up the interview, George Clarke does not seem like a 'bitter asshole'. He excitedly fawns over '70s rock/death metal hybrid Tribulation, whom Deafheaven handpicked to tour the States with this Autumn. When quizzed about the inevitable touring cycle that will follow New Bermuda, he pauses for a second. He smiles. “Hit the pavement,” he concludes, grinning the grin of a man content. “Work for it. That's all you can do.”
New Bermuda is out 2nd October, via ANTI-Records.