In Conversation: Deafheaven

George Clark on their past, present, and exciting future...

One of the surprise critical hits of 2013, Deafheaven’s ‘Sunbather’ LP (review) positioned the San Francisco (now) five-piece as rather more than what was expected of any act previously branded black metal. The record was a hit with reviewers from well beyond rock-centric circles, its expansive soundscapes and extended periods of aggression-balancing ambience evoking comparisons to acts such as Isis and Japan’s Envy.

Used to playing after dark rather than during the height of the day’s sun, the band nevertheless produced a stunning display of power and poise at this year’s Way Out West festival in Gothenburg, Sweden – despite starting at the rather unlikely hour of 1pm. They played the likes of ‘Dream House’ and ‘Sunbather’ from their breakthrough album, as well as a new song, more on which later.

I snagged frontman George Clark for 10 minutes, ducking into the festival’s press area (and out of the about to become torrential rain) to talk about how the band’s been, where it’s at now, and what label it might land on in the future.

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‘Dream House’, live at Pitchfork Music Festival 2014

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Sorry for dragging you away like this. You seemed kinda busy in conversation with some Important Looking People, just then…

It is a busy time. But, I’ve no complaints. I’m in the midst of everything.

How’s it been bringing the record to Europe for Øya yesterday, and today Way Out West. That sort of travel surely wasn’t anywhere near your mind when ‘Sunbather’ was being finished up?

It wasn’t. We’re on this run here now, for three weeks, and we had another earlier in the year that was three weeks. It’s really appreciated, but it has been a lot of work – and we’ve had to go through a lot of adjustments. Basically, we’re on a worldwide tour, doing 180 shows this year. It’s very intense, but it’s very cool.

When the feedback for ‘Sunbather’ was coming in, presumably you were noticing appreciation from areas of the press that didn’t necessarily specialise in metal, or even rock? As you can see that from the crowd today – it wasn’t just a bunch of gnarly dudes with beards and T-shirts covered in illegible writing.

Absolutely, yeah. I think we still have a pretty predominantly metal audience, but for whatever reason we are reaching people who aren’t from that crowd. A lot of other people caught on to what we’re doing, and heard it from different angles – some ignore the more aggressive aspects, preferring the melodies, and the things we have to say. And I think that’s really good. It’s more fun that way – but it’s also very strange. But again, no complaints. It’s interesting to see how it’s unfolding.

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My method of delivery is very important, and it’s important to relay the idea of the record, in a physical sense, to a broader audience...

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Performance is a big part of the band’s live impression – you don’t just stand still, instead acting, I guess, the force of the music that’s around you. Would I be right in thinking that – that what I’m seeing is, essentially, theatre, rather than anything more consciously confrontational?

I think my method of delivery is very important, and it’s important to relay the idea of the record, in a physical sense, to a broader audience – to people who may not have been keen on it beforehand. I want to let them know that, y’know, we are very serious about what we do, and I take the ideas that our band represents to a full, physical form. And that is essential to our live show.

It’s interpretive dance, then?

Yeah, it is – it’s partial theatre. It is theatrical, as it should be, and should be recognised as such.

Is that kind of expression, in public, something you’ve had to work on, or have you always had the confidence necessary to behave like that before an audience?

It came to me naturally enough, initially, but over time it’s definitely been refined. I think to begin with we knew what we wanted to do, but it takes time to cap that off and make it what it is. At the point we’re at now, we retain intensity but ensure that it’s fluid, and natural. We don’t want it to be over exuberant – just natural. I think our music needs a physical representation, so we’ve always strived to create that. From my angle, that has to be at the most intense point possible. Aurally, it’s loud and abrasive, but you have to see it in the live setting to appreciate how giving it is. I want to give everything I can to the experience.

And playing at 1pm, like we just did, is difficult! It’s not even the middle of the day, so far as the bill goes. It’s right at the beginning for these concert goers. And we had the huge pressure of going on before Slint

I saw David (Pajo) watching you from the side.

Yeah, he’s a really nice guy – all of those guys are great. But we definitely felt some pressure, being on right before them, in that slot. But you have to give what you do – and what we do is a very full-bodied experience. It’s very exhausting, physically. But it needs to be that way, to capture what we want it to.

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I saw the picture of Stephen (Clark, bassist) that was posted on Twitter the other day (see above). What happened there?

That was not show-related. They went to a bar, in Poland, and there was this really aggressive guy who approached Kerry (McCoy, band co-founder with George), our guitar player, and just hit him. It was out of nowhere. This guy was just really drunk, and thrashing around. And Stephen jumped in – and this guy who hit Kerry, he had a friend, who’d been watching. He was just standing there, but then he took a bottle and broke it over Stephen’s face. He got 20 stitches, in various parts of his face. He’s fine now. That’s what can happen when touring, and getting involved in those sorts of situations.

But it’s not like you’re a band that goes out looking for trouble.

No, not at all. And we don’t generally get any trouble. This was just a case of a stranger being aggressive. As a band, off stage, we’re not aggressive at all. I love an aspect of that behaviour, and it has purpose on the stage – but the stage and real life are two very different things. So that happening to Stephen was a shock, but he’s a really tough guy.

For you to take on so many shows this year, given how last year wasn’t close to as busy, it must be hugely demanding on you all. But I imagine it’s especially tough on you, given how you approach your vocals.

I mean, I have trained my throat, but I wouldn’t call what I do singing. That said, you do develop techniques, in order to preserve what it is that you do. In my line of work – and it is work now, really fun work – you train to do what you need to do. That takes time, and persistence, and patience, and it’s fine now. I’ve found a sweet spot where I can hit my vocals really high, without shredding them. Some people are surprised that, after a show, my voice isn’t totally gone.

But you have to be smart about it. It’s a lot more technical than just shouting – but there are several ways you can f*ck it up. You have to be able to work it in a way that it doesn’t get ruined, and that takes time, as it’s not a natural way of singing. Again, it’s a case of persistence, and understanding. And it is another instrument, in the mix – I keep my vocals lower than some people in my position might, as they’re meant to be even in the mix, to serve more as another instrument than a lead.

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‘Sunbather’, live at Pitchfork Music Festival 2014

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There’s a new song coming from you, as part of the Adult Swim Singles series. How’d that come about?

They approached us, basically, and our song actually comes out in just a couple of weeks. We just got the final mix in for it, and we’re very excited about it. We played it today – it’s called ‘From The Kettle Unto The Coil’. Which, basically, is… Do you live alone?

No, no. Married with kids.

Do you have an electric stove? No? But you know what it looks like, with the coils on the top. It’s the idea of the teakettle overflowing, water pouring onto the stove and that stinging sensation. So that’s the idea, lyrically interpreted. It literally was kitchen inspired, as I was writing in there when that happened. It came pretty naturally.

But it’s only been a year since ‘Sunbather’, so this shouldn’t be taken as a real sign of where we’ll go on the next LP – as we have a lot of different ideas for that, already. This is just a single, and it kind of follows the same formula as the last record. It’s definitely us. Maybe it’s a sort of in-between song, but I wanted to do the best I could, and I think with the lead melodies that it has, it’ll be a welcomed new song. It doesn’t necessarily reflect our full progression as a band, but it’s a really solid song.

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Inspiration is at a high. I’m very itchy right now to write again...

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And now the band unit is locked in, as it is, presumably having that stability will affect how the third album comes out?

Totally. We had a lot of issues with members before, but everything’s been really good lately. Stephen, Shiv (Mehra, guitar) and Daniel (Tracy, drums), they’re phenomenal, and they always know exactly what to incorporate and bring through ideas that we, Kerry and I, wouldn’t have had ourselves. I’m totally looking forward to writing more with them. Inspiration is at a high. I’m very itchy right now to write again.

I’m guessing that there are a few labels interested in picking up the next album. 

When we signed with (current label) Deathwish, we didn’t know what we were going to do, and nor did they, but they had a lot of confidence in us. And we’ve developed, now, into a band that’s bigger than a label of that size is able to manage – we know that, and they know that. As for when the next album is out, I couldn’t say for certain, but I’d hope for sometime next year.

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Words: Mike Diver
Homepage rotator photo from Facebook

Deafheaven are online, here. See them live as follows:

August
15th – Jabberwocky Festival, London
16th – Gorilla, Manchester
17th – Mandela Hall, Belfast
18th – Roisin Dubh, Galway
19th – Whelan’s, Dublin

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