Deafheaven's George Clark: "It's hard writing a pop song. People underestimate that term"
Deafheaven (due this Sunday, February 16, at the Marquis Theater) formed in San Francisco in 2010. Starting modestly, writing its earliest demos on acoustic guitar, the outfit has since made its mark with a unique sounding hybrid blend of black metal, shoegaze and post-rock. The band's expansive songs deal unflinchingly with the unsavory aspects of life with a startling and inspiring honesty.
Rather than wallowing in melancholy, there is a brightness and defiance to the act's sound that reveals a desire to embrace that honesty as a key to personal liberation and living authentically. Deafheaven's 2013 album Sunbather deservedly made the year-end-best lists of several prominent publications.
In advance of Deafheaven's show this weekend at the Marquis Theater, we had the opportunity to chat with the band's eloquent and candid vocalist, George Clarke about that personal level of honesty in the band's lyrics, the group's love of My Bloody Valentine's "glide guitar" technique and the Deafheaven's seeming crossover appeal well outside of the realm of fans of adventurous metal.
Westword: You and Kerry were in Rise of Caligula, a grindcore band, before Deafheaven. Barney Greenway of Napalm Death has said that My Bloody Valentine influenced his own group. Do you see some kind of connection between grindcore and what you're doing with Deafheaven?
George Clarke: No, not so much. That band, we were just really young. It was more of a local thing than anything else. I mean, we put out a CD but that was about it. At that time, we'd been listening to black metal for a lot of years, but we got more into playing it and figuring out how to make it sound cool, I guess, in our own way. From there, that just became our main interest, and we expanded on that and picked up different influences, and that's what became Deafheaven.
The name of your band is a bit of an homage to Slowdive, which is apparently playing again for the first time in nearly twenty years at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona at the end of May. Why is Slowdive kind of a special band for you guys?
As far as that whole genre is concerned that is, I think, the best band to have come out of it. When we created Deafheaven, that was all I was listening to. I just took the two words and put them together because I liked the way their band name looked. So I guess that was the homage. That's kind of as far as that goes. I still love that band, and I'm so excited that they're playing Primavera. We're playing the same day, and seriously, it's all I've been looking forward to. I guarantee they're going to do something in America. They keep hinting at more dates and they seem they're apt to do a world tour kind of thing.
Was there a particular album you liked a lot?
When I was first getting into them, Souvlaki was my first big one. I love Just For A Day. Pretty much those two records really made it for me. Then I got into Mojave 3, and so on, and so forth. Their textures and their production and their guitar tones and really slight use of synth -- the whole thing is so pretty and elegant, and I've always enjoyed that about them.
Did you really write your early demos on acoustic guitar?
Yeah, the whole demo was all written acoustically originally because we didn't own a guitar or an amp at the time. We were just like, "Well, when we go into the studio, we can borrow gear, and figure it out then." They were recorded, obviously, electrically, but written acoustically. And a lot of our material still is. We live in a small apartment, and it's just better for writing.
Did you have synths and drum machines early on, too, or is that something that came along later?
I remember we had to borrow our roommate's laptop for like an hour every night, and we would use Garageband's little drum programs. For the most part, it was like, "Oh we'll do a one-two here, a fill there, a depressive downbeat here." A lot vocal, drum placements just by ourselves, trying to make a skeleton of the song because we didn't have a drummer. Or I would just tap on my thighs while Kerry played guitar. It was very, very primitive.
Did you try to imagine what it would sound like with the full sound?
I think we always had a vision. I don't think either of us knew exactly what it would end up sounding like, especially for the demo. But I'm happy with the way it came out. It was a total shot in the dark, essentially.
Why did you want to release a live album recorded at Blacktop?
That was just an idea for Deathwish. It's not even an album; it's really just a download. When we first signed with them, we had barely been a band so they were trying to find ways to push out material from us because we didn't, at that point, have a lot to offer, and there wasn't a lot you could search about the band or anything like that. So they put out a free 7-inch at one point with random Deathwish orders.
The second idea was to do that because this guy just recorded the show, and at the time, it was the only decent live recording we had. So Tre [McCarthy] was like, "Hey, why don't we just put this up on the website for download, and if people want to check it out, that's cool. "And we agreed. I don't even know what it sounds like. It probably sounds really bad. I shudder to think. I won't go back and listen to it.
It's probably fine, considering what it is. But it can often make you realize how far you've come when you got back and listen to your old recordings.
Yeah... It took us a while to get into the groove of being a good live band because we hadn't really played shows.
When you started playing out live, what kinds of places did you play, and how did people receive you?
It was kind of mixed. It was mixed when we opened for black metal bands. It was kind of, early on, an easy tag to give us, that I even gave ourselves just because I didn't want to go into the detail of describing it. Now that we are a black metal band, I think we definitely take those influences. But, at the time, we were just opening for Marduk and this band Stonehaven, who is this Viking black metal band. I think that was a little mixed, crowd wise.
People were probably thinking, "What the hell are these guys doing?" But we gravitated toward the punk scene, and we played a lot of basement shows, garages and smaller DIY venues and things like that. In those environments, we started picking up a response, and things went well in that arena. I loved opening for Marduk. It was fun. But it wasn't necessarily enjoyable for the crowd, I don't think.
Did you ever play with Wolves in the Throne Room or anyone like that?
We did. We played with Wolves, I think, at our first show in 2012. We opened for them in Santa Cruz. Those guys were really nice. At that time, I've seen them a few times, they had a larger production, and had a bunch of people going around, and they were really busy. It was good vibes. That crowd was very responsive. I remember that being a good show.
Roads to Judah has lyrics that reflect your personal experiences, instead of what some people might assume they will hear in the sort of music you're doing. Have you always written directly from your life?
Yeah. That was something Kerry and I talked about early on. And I've always been that way even in older bands. I don't really find it worth it to speak of things that aren't directly from my life experience. We always wanted to have this sort of emotional connect there, and I wanted people to invest themselves in what we had to say. I think that in order to understand the music to the full extent that you have to kind of involve yourself in the lyrics. That was always a goal of ours and something we enjoy about what we do.
"Please Remember" has Stéphane Paut from the band Alcest reading from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and you've said that passage evokes insecurity. What makes it comfortable or rather desirable to project your own fears and demons into your music?
I think it's best to be honest. And I think that people really connect with honesty, and I feel that when I'm on stage and we're playing these songs and I'm delivering these lyrics, I want to be put back in that place where I was when I wrote them. That way the energy of the song is conveyed through physical actions and things like that. I think it's nice when artists are like that. It's music like that that I've always connected to, and that's why I do it.
In "Windows" you have a sample of Kerry dealing drugs. That seems incredibly personal and intimate, in terms of personal detail. Why did you and Kerry want to expose that sort of thing so openly in a song?
Because it's something that he was dealing with a lot during the recording. We were discussing ideas and things to sort of enhance instrumental passages. I brought it up casually, "Hey, I'm not coming at you in a weird way or anything, but you've expressed to me that you don't know how you feel about doing these kinds of things, et cetera. Maybe that would be something to put on the record."
It's a really pure self reflection. It's abrasive in a way. I think that was the riskiest part of the record. Even when we had it recorded and placing it in the song, I was like, "Man, I don't know." It was the thing that we were most uncertain about. But I'm glad that we did it, and I think it brings its own character and just strange energy to the album. And it was scary recording it. He had a recorder in his pocket. I was like, "God, dude, if anyone sees that you have this it's going to be really weird." But it worked out, thankfully.
What does My Bloody Valentine's "glide guitar" technique make you feel that made you want it as part of the sound of Sunbather?
I love it. From the first time we heard that, I was like, "Figure out how to do that." I love how woozy it is. It's sickening sort of. It just reminds me of drugs, truthfully. It's a kind of chaotic space and everything is kind of shifting back and forth. It's fluid and kind of unnerving and psychedelic. I don't know. I just love the way it sounds. When Kerry figured out how to play it, I was like, "Oh man, you've got to do that." I think he was more excited than any of us, and he wanted to throw it in everything, and damn near does.
In 2012 you did a split EP with Bosse-de-Nage and covered "Punk Rock" and "Cody" by Mogwai. Why did you cover Mogwai and those songs in particular?
That has been a band we've listened to for a long time. I bought Mr. Beast when I was fifteen. I think that was a band we've always connected to. It was Kerry's idea, originally. We wanted to cover a song, and he said we should do that. And I said, "Is there a way we can do that to make it our own?"
He said, "Yeah, if we just beef this part up and add this kind of beat to this part and to the whole 'Punk Rock' part, put almost a lo-fi black metal production on it, and add our own sample, and it'll be cool." I loved the idea, and we worked it out. I'm actually really happy with the way that came out. I love that recording. We don't play it live very often, or at all, at this point, but I think it's one of the cooler things that we've taken on.
There seem to be multiple streams of influence into your music, which you hinted at earlier. Did you consciously decide to do something very different form earlier projects when you started this band?
I've listened to American black metal for as long as I can remember, and before that, I was into European black metal, like Nagelfar; that was my introduction at fourteen. That band and Dimmu Borgir and things like that. Then I really got into the French style and the German style, like Cold World or Matmos, and obviously everything Stéphane has been involved in. That was kind of the original idea, to have the American with cool post-punk, French influence they were already playing with. From there, I think we grew on our own.
That was a starting point, and then through touring and playing with other bands, we got into different kinds of music and learned how to play different kinds of music and embracing those influences. That's how we evolved into whatever it is we are today. But, I think, starting out, it was definitely was a blend between the American and French styles. At least that's what we tried for. I don't think we did it just as good as they did, but that was the idea.
For Sunbather you talked about there even being pop elements to the music. Did you go through a time in your life when you may have thought black metal and pop were mutually exclusive concepts? Was there a turning point in your thinking on that subject?
You know what? It's funny because Kerry and I have always enjoyed pop music. When we were fifteen, we were sitting around listening to Cure records and Smith records, and that's pop music. It's awesome, and it's really well done. In that press release, when we refer to pop influences, that's what we were thinking of. That or Oasis -- a huge influence on Deafheaven.
I think as the band was going and we were writing songs, we realized that it's hard writing a pop song. People really underestimate that term. To write something that's catchy but meaningful and not cheesy and just well done? To write something that gets stuck in your head is so much more difficult than writing a dirty, nasty, slow riff, at least for Kerry and myself.
I think we wanted to, consciously or not, present ourselves with a challenge and try to throw different things in there. I think the main one is in "Dream House," the end of it -- that's what we consider our pop ending. It's big, and has a catchy melody. It's something that's always interested us. I think that only now that we've become better musicians that we're able to incorporate more of those elements because it's a difficult thing to pull off with our sound anyway.
It doesn't hurt that there's a bright and joyous quality to your music that seems to connect with a lot of people who might not really consider themselves fans of black metal.
Yeah, the response, overall, has been really crazy. It's been cool. People seem to have found certain things they like about it that maybe they haven't before in similar types of music. That's fun for us and I'm glad we pulled it off in our own way.
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