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Getting Up-Close and Uncomfortable with Deafheaven

The young members of the San Francisco black metal-shoegaze band discuss why their music tends to provoke some people, and why others are eating it up.



George Clarke and Kerry McCoy live in what looks to be the ultimate musician's bachelor pad: crude graffiti on the walls, piles of clothes on the bed (actually a mattress on the floor), bong in the corner, dirty dishes on the table, pedal board in the bedroom, beer bottles under the futon couch. Even with an errant fly buzzing around and the constant whooshing sound of traffic (their outer Mission district apartment is just across the street from Highway 101), it's hard not to feel just a teensy bit jealous of them. Not only are they ridiculously young (both in their early twenties), but their band, Deafheaven, just returned from a months-long tour of Europe and the United States with bands that not that long ago they only knew as fans. Just months after forming, their band embarked on a meteoric rise to fame that forced them to quit their schooling — and, in Clarke's case, his job. It shows no signs of slowing down.

According to Clarke and McCoy, it all started a few months after they released a demo they didn't expect to go anywhere. Jacob Bannon, vocalist of the prominent hardcore band Converge and head of the label Deathwish Records, downloaded their songs off Bandcamp and soon offered them a deal, even though the band had little live experience. With the release of Deafheaven's debut, Roads to Judah, in April of last year, attention snowballed: write-ups by Pitchfork, Esquire, and NPR; performances at SXSW; two tours of Europe; and stages shared with such established acts as Russian Circles, Alcest, High on Fire, Boris, Kylesa, KEN mode, and Tombs.

All this attention may be most surprising to Deafheaven's founding members, Clarke and McCoy. "It was so weird when things started picking up," recalled Clarke, nursing a forty-ounce of Miller High Life on a recent Thursday afternoon. "We had zero idea; there was no intention. When we got mentioned on our first blog, I was, like, 'Oh, that's rad.' When things really started picking up, we figured, 'Fuck it, it's now or never. I'm not getting any younger. Might as well go on tour of the world.' I truly believe that is every musician's dream, at least for a bit of their life. Everything that we do is totally not taken for granted."

Just how did it happen, exactly? You could say it was the result of the perfect storm of circumstances: a band with a distinct sound (melding shoegaze, post-rock, and black metal influences), a distinct look (chiseled frontman Clarke looks and dresses like a cross between a J. Crew model and a skinhead), and an emotionally intense live performance. Yet those very elements that made Deafheaven popular have also made it a target of criticism.

To understand why requires a bit of background on black metal. For starters, the genre takes itself very seriously. Some early practitioners had such extreme views that they burned churches and committed murder, and their music and image reflected appropriately: raw, dark, bleak, and fast; corpse paint and bullet belts and spikes and all-black clothing. For fans, black metal doesn't just resonate on an aural level, but on a mental and emotional one as well, which is why some guard it as if it's sacred.

But over the years, as black metal influenced a new generation of fans who are miles away (literally and figuratively) from where it became popularized (Norway, in the 1990s), there's been a movement to expand on and experiment with the black metal template. That's resulted in everything from noisy black metal (Portal) to psychedelic-synth black metal (Nachtmystium) to black metal played on hammered dulcimer (Botanist), and these artists are increasingly getting reviewed on NPR and Pitchfork. It's also precipitated a new derogatory term, "hipster metal." To outsiders, black metal is taboo, but also a fascination. Of late, it's become trendy for non-metal bands — and fashion designers, for that matter — to appropriate black metal imagery. For fans, that's the equivalent of blasphemy.

Deafheaven is very much a product of this new generation of black metal-influenced music. They don't adhere to the genre's tropes and, in fact, Clarke and McCoy don't even call themselves a black metal band. "We don't call ourselves black metal because we don't have ethics and beliefs that true black metal bands have," McCoy explained. "We're black metal-influenced. I'm not from Norway. I don't want to burn down a church; I'm not going to put corpse paint on."

Maybe so, but that doesn't make them interlopers either. Clarke says he became a metal fan after seeing Slayer in seventh grade. He got into death metal like Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under and Obituary, then broadened his tastes to blackened death metal, punk, indie rock, ambient, and post-rock. He got "heavily into The Cure and The Smiths, which is still going on." Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights was a defining record for him.

Not surprisingly, Clarke and McCoy initially bonded over music. They met in high school in Modesto after McCoy complimented Clarke on his Slayer T-shirt. Although they don't like to talk about it, they played in a grindcore band together (sorry, guys).

It wasn't until Clarke and McCoy moved to San Francisco that the seeds of Deafheaven were planted. McCoy had played bass in the grindcore band, but he was really a guitarist and started writing material for what would become the as-yet-unnamed band's first demo. "I had been listening to Filosofem by Burzum and Darkthrone and Ulver and that type of stuff, also Alcest and all the French black metal stuff, obviously, and at the same time listening to My Bloody Valentine," said McCoy, who still writes the bulk of the band's songs. "I think what happened is ... I wanted to write something and have it encase everything that I thought that I liked, essentially."

The combination of influences makes sense, actually, and certainly made for a compelling debut. (The other members are a rotating cast of musicians.) Despite their refusal to call themselves black metal, Deafheaven has many elements of that sound — the shrieking vocals, the blast beats, the introspective, despairing tone. But there are also dreamy, reverbed guitars and quiet, reflective moments. Songs err on the long side, and often build in intensity to extreme heights.

Still, Clarke and McCoy admit that their genre-mashing sound isn't entirely unique these days. (In fact, they're remarkably humble, even self-deprecating, about their output, calling parts of Roads to Judah "really elementary" and unlistenable.) When it comes down to it, Clarke says it may be their non-stereotypical-metal look that differentiates them most from their peers. "I think that most of our attention, you're right, because we're not entirely musically different from whatever's going on right now with that whole style — it is the look," he said. "There's bands that play exactly what we do but they have hair down to their waist and so it's more authentic for some reason. I don't understand that."

"Our whole thing is just about being as honest as possible," McCoy explained. "The way we dress right now or in real life, that's the way I look onstage. It'd be weirder, it'd be fake [if] 'Oh, we're playing black metal now, gotta paint my face up.' We gotta be honest. Some people are very not happy about that."

To Clarke and McCoy, Deafheaven is an intensely personal expression of their life experiences. They don't get specific, but, lyrically, Clarke said Roads to Judah is "essentially about an obsession of wanting something you can't have or isn't available. And just what you do to cope with the fact that you can't have what it is that you're obsessed about, which is drugs or alcohol or just being wild or doing whatever you want."

In the live context, this intimacy translates to an emotionally uninhibited — some may call it overwrought — performance. A YouTube video of the band performing live a year ago in Santa Barbara shows Clarke prowling the stage in a semi-trance, arms flailing, his buttoned-up oxford shirt drenched with sweat as he screams into the crowd, sometimes without a microphone, with a force that could make one's vocal cords bleed. The audience of college students looks bewildered and transfixed at the same time. Comments on the video range from "this band is epic" to "stage presence fail."

Though it's hard to believe, Clarke says he's often holding emotions inside, so as not to make the audience too uncomfortable. "I've had to learn to tone things down at certain points, otherwise I think I could let my body get the best of me," he said. "[I'm] going so hard to the point where you're just like, this could seem outwardly over the top, but it doesn't feel that way. But I think there is a certain point where your connection with the audience or whoever's watching you can get lost when you're too, I guess, into yourself. I think our live show is more [of] a weird balance between being totally self-centered and trying not to be for the sake of everyone around you."

Yet whether or not traditional metal fans approve of Deafheaven may not matter so much in the long run, as the band's unconventional look and sound give it distinct crossover appeal. "Our audience is pretty diverse," said Clarke. "... People who like heavier music like it; people who are new to heavy music can find something they enjoy about it."

Ultimately, such wide appeal may not only help Deafheaven's career, but also the metal scene in general. After all, greater exposure and diversity can only lead to more support and creativity. Clarke and McCoy recognize that they're still a young band, and they promise that their next release, which they hope to put out early next year, will be "bigger," "way heavier," and "much more expanded upon." Luckily, they're in a great position to take creative risks.