Interview: George Clarke from Deafheaven

Interview: George Clarke from Deafheaven

deafheavenFormed in 2010 in San Francisco, Deafheaven cultivated their own route through the bleak underground of black metal. Frontman George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy survived an array of lineup changes to record the critically-acclaimed Sunbather, which introduced a new audience to their brutal tones. The band’s sense of beleaguered innocence and penchant for shoegaze ambiance sets the group apart from its heavy music contemporaries.

Currently on the final stretch of a lengthy world tour, Clarke took time to chat with a self-professed metal-newbie while partaking of a few domestic brews in the shadowy green room of Cleveland’s Grog Shop. Although the melodic terminology might have been above this writer’s head, Clarke’s drive was immediately recognizable. The tour has kept Clarke and company away from home for almost an entire year. It’s not just a girlfriend and a comfy bed awaiting the singer in his new LA residence, but the ability to sit down and write new material. The idea of fresh material was on the forefront of Clarke’s mind, but that evening’s performance didn’t lack any the energy that has kept fans packing venues across the globe. While some metal sets bodies flailing, this crowd was basked in waves of angst, Clarke staring right back into their souls.

I admit I came to Deafheaven from outside the metal scene, but your sound welcomes fans from across genre boundaries.

I think people approach what we do from multiple angles and, maybe, appreciate what they weren’t used to or comfortable to in the beginning. We’ve allowed them to bridge over and appreciate other styles.

Were you shocked when publications like Pitchfork ranked Sunbather so high on year-end lists?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I never know what to expect from those sorts of accolades. I really just plan on not seeing us on there, and then last year when the record came out and people seemed to be really responsive, we ended up seeing some surprises along the way.

You’ve seen almost the entire world since releasing that last album. Is the sound appreciated differently by audiences in a place like Norway, where black metal is huge, compared to audiences in the States?

I don’t know about differently, but it has definitely been appreciated no matter where we have toured. It has been crazy, we have played so many places and it has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction for the most part. I know that we can be viewed as somewhat of a controversial band, but we played Norway and it rules, and Singapore is awesome.

Does the artist’s perspective change when you take the stage at a massive international festival?

It is always different playing festivals in general. European to American, not a whole lot of difference. I mean, they model themselves after one another in a lot of instances. Usually they each bring in diverse crowds, but we have done a few strictly metal fests and obviously that is different.

Performance-wise, it is more challenging. I think that it is a lot more challenging than playing a club show. For one, when you headline a club show, you have a lot more control. On top of that, you know how you are going to sound. You have already stepped onto the stage, so you know how the space works, and things like that. Whereas, at a fest, you don’t know how you are going to sound, you have a really quick set-up, and you lack intimacy. So, you have to somehow convey the emotion, the power, of a club show onto 10,000 people, or whatever, with a huge barrier and huge security and photographer pit and all this shit. You end up being like far from the front road. You have to end up being bigger than yourself, you have to be able to control a larger space.

You used to have several roommates and had a much harder lifestyle. Do these extended tour runs make it harder to maintain a balance and a healthy well-being?

Yeah! Some bands do it better than others, I don’t think that our band does it that well. I think that we are very into living in the moment. The road kind of wears on us a little bit, at least on our bodies, definitely… probably everything. It is nice going home now though because we do have quieter lives.

Are you still in the Bay Area?

No, I recently moved to L.A. I got my own apartment, so I don’t have to live with anyone except my girlfriend. I just lock myself in a room essentially for like a couple weeks whenever we get off the road. It has just been a really busy, busy year.

I imagine metal singers have a hard time maintaining their voice. Any tips?

Not particularly, I don’t have like any warm ups or anything. I always tell people, “whiskey and cigarettes.” Touring has taught me control. When we first started and we were doing a major national tour, my voice would blow out every fourth or fifth day. I would end up having silent days and things like that. I wanted to give everything, and I wanted to push my hardest to convey that sense of insane emotion. But you hurt yourself. The road has taught me control and really how to feel it, especially in different ranges. It is all about paying attention to your throat. You definitely won’t see me with honey or tea.

The band recently released a new single, “From The Kettle Onto The Coil.” Was that recorded on tour?

We had six days between tours and we wrote and recorded it [then], essentially. The whole song was done in two days.

Did Adult Swim approach you to record the track?

Yeah, we hadn’t even had plans for writing new material. We did have some ideas, but we figured that we could just wait. They hit us up and gave us the run-down of the singles. We wanted to do it, but at one point we almost backed out because we were doing so much touring and didn’t think that we could find time. We found time, like those five or six days, and we did it then. When we were on tour we mixed it, so we did mix from the road essentially.

Did you record it in L.A.?

No, we recorded it with Jack Shirley [Atomic Garden Recording Studio]. He has done all of our material so far. It ended up being kind of fun and was so much less stressful than having to do an entire album. We go to record a song that we just kind of wrote on the fly. It came out good, I am happy with it, and it is fun to play out live.

What have been some of the better green rooms? Do any stick in your head? The walls here, covered in graffiti, remind me of the service entrance at the Rock Hall of Fame.

I definitely have some favorites. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel in D.C. has one of the tightest green rooms. It is some like rock star shit, it is like really funny. The room is huge with leather couches, and covered in concert posters… but framed. Tons of food and liquor. Definitely in the top. And Great America Music Hall in San Francisco is three different rooms all put together. It is like a fucking compound.

Most bands find a comfort zone with their track lengths. Deafheaven has tracks that run from two-minutes up to ten. When you and Kerry sit down to write, do you consciously think about developing tracks that run for such epic lengths?

No, never. You just write what feels comfortable. Sometime we joke that we wish we wrote more shorter songs. If it doesn’t feel like it is working and that one riff needs to repeat another time, or something like that, then let it repeat. If you have an aggressive riff that you have been sitting on and three months later you are playing with like a pretty riff, something that is post-rock oriented, and you realize that it is in the same key, then you think to yourself this will fit. It does, and then you have an 11-minute song. That is also the nature of black metal: hypnotic repetition and the use of the blast beat that just goes on forever. I think that kind of plays into it. We like longer form songs, but at the same time, if it’s done at three-and-a-half minutes it is just done. You would be stupid to force anything longer. You just have to go with your gut.

You, Kerry, Daniel, Stephen and Shiv have all been together since the release of the last album. Is that the longest Deafheaven has had the same lineup?

Yeah, Kerry and I started Deafheaven. The others have been with us for a long time… yeah, a long time. God, well over a year. Dan has been with us for like two years, he recorded with us on Sunbather as the drummer. He started jamming with us in November of 2012. I am excited to really sit down for a while and write an album as a full band. We didn’t have that luxury last time. Last time, it was just Kerry and I that had to do most of everything. Luckily, Dan did come in at the last couple weeks and learned drums, made them better, and recorded with us. This is the band, so the plan is definitely to start writing tracks together.

An intense, fierce, dynamic sound is one of the staples of black metal. You said that you moved and have a girlfriend, so as things get better for you, do you find it more of a challenge to continue to write this style of music?

No, I don’t find it a challenge to find inspiration. Although outside influences had a part to play in lyrical content, everything is really written from a personal reaction standpoint. And there will always be things to react to. Unfortunately for myself, I can be a bit of a pessimist. I suppose it works out in my favor because of that. If anything, having things not as bad as they used to be opens up doors.

You don’t feel like you don’t have to fight against the process anymore.

There is time and there is space. Kerry and I used to share a living room floor for over a year. There were always people and always parties; it’s like you can’t sit down to write music because there is always something going on. People want to sit in there and watch T.V., and you don’t want to tell them ‘You are sitting on my bed right now’. If anything, it will allow for more spacious creativity. Which is really fucking exciting.

Because it is so difficult to understand your vocals, is that why you make them so available?

People can enjoy the band on the music level without needing to understand the lyrics; however, I think that if your investment is strong enough, it only can enhance the listening experience. I think that once you delve into the themes of the record, you will enjoy it more. Because of that, we do make them readily available for people who want to invest that kind of time. But, I do understand that not everyone wants to.

It would be interesting for you to drop some type of poetry book in a few years. Fans would really dig that.

That would be awesome. We are actually playing this festival in Illinois, Pygmalion Festival, Sunday. And it is actually a music and literature festival, so I am actually doing a reading during the day with this guy Aaron Burch and a Q&A with the people that come to hear it. Just to talk about our lyrical content and reading new original pieces. Later that evening, I will be playing with the band. I have never done it before, so I am a little nervous.

You can perform in front of 10,000 people, but put you in front of a few dozen for a reading and you get anxious.

Yeah, I am definitely going to stutter on a couple words and definitely sweat my ass off.

You are also about to release the new Creepers album through your own label. Any other plans for All Black Recording Company?

That label was actually started with Derek Prine, who actually used to play bass for Deafheaven originally. We are all still good friends still, he just couldn’t handle the schedule at the time. It’s fun, it’s an opportunity for me to release friends’ music and get them a little exposure.

Creepers is Dan and Shiv, so they have been playing together under that moniker for a long time, and have kind of had to put that on the back burner because of how busy we have been. But because things are freeing up for us, they can go back to that again. The record is great and it comes out on October 28. I am happy to work on it. I take it with a grain of salt. Right now it is really a lot of fun, but it is just our second release, so we will just see where it goes. Derek, who I work with, is really smart about label management and things like that. I mainly just handle the creative and like publicity.

strong>That is great that given the you are able to share in the acclaim and international appeal you have garnered over the last few years. We are definitely cultivating something in Cleveland at the moment, to foster the talent now so they can do the same when they leave the city.

Our whole thing has always been about the team rising. I am happy that we got the opportunity to kick the door down, but there are a ton of artists in our small circle who are creative and great musicians. I feel fortunate that I can provide somewhat of a platform to put them on. It is important to support your own thing.

I know that you have to get ready soon, but what is coming up in the near future?

This tour is nine more dates and then we go to Mexico. Then we have five dates at the end of the year that will be special shows that we will be announcing soon.

Any obligation to release another album any time soon?

Just my own personal obligation! I just don’t want to be bored, I am so afraid of being bored. We will finish this tour, have December and January off, and hopefully we can write then. Record in the spring and have something out in the fall. If everything went right, that would be my plan.

And then start all over again.

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