DEAF HEAVEN

Exclaim! - - FRONT PAGE - by JOSIAH HUGHES

RAGE AGAINST the HYPE MA­CHINE

"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? you have to re­ally work to win peo­ple over."

Ge­orge 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 their latest ef­fort, 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 I can get my hands on. If we get close to pre­mier­ing a track, I’ll lis­ten to it 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 brain­pum­melling blast beats, oth­er­worldly screams and tab­la­ture­wor­thy 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 put those in­flu­ences to­gether 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, 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. I con­sid­ered us to be a part of that fam­ily.”

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 adren­a­line 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, that’s to­tally fine. 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. That ar­gu­ment 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 true­blue me­tal in­flu­ence is much more ev­i­dent on New Ber­muda, 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.”

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.”

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. “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 do so. 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, another step fur­ther out­side the me­tal scene.

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.”

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