“We’re still a really young band, and I think that we have a lot of room to grow – and grow we will.”
The United States black metal scene is arguably one of the most vibrant ones today – not just in metal, but in music as a whole. Multiple bands have moved far beyond the initial confines of the genre, taking elements from the Norwegian pioneers and mixing them with elements of post-rock and shoegaze to create a very different beast from the corpse-painted anthems of the early 1990s. And few bands have been turning as many heads as Deafheaven has over the past couple years.
Originally formed in 2010 in San Francisco, Deafheaven‘s demo was well-received across the Internet, and they began playing shows soon after. They later signed with Deathwish Inc., the label founded and owned by Converge lead singer Jacob Bannon. Their debut album Roads to Judah was released in 2011 to wide critical acclaim, mixing influences from black metal, post-rock, and melodic hardcore to create a uniquely gripping work of stark emotional power.
I was lucky enough to meet George Clarke and Kerry McCoy, the vocalist and guitarist at the core of Deafheaven on March 31st, where they played a set at Public Assembly in Brooklyn, NY opening for Alcest on their ongoing North American tour. We discussed the feelings of being a new band in the limelight, the many influences they brought to the table (musical and otherwise), and what’s next for the band in the interview below.
MB: Despite your recent surge in popularity in the music underground, Deafheaven is still relatively obscure. How would you describe your sound to those who aren’t familiar with the band?
George: We gather from a lot of different influences; I think we tend to wear them on our sleeve a little bit. The more obvious ones are black metal – various forms of metal, really – and early shoegaze and dreampop, things like that. Also there’s this melodic hardcore or screamo aspect to it, but moreso just in the energy rather than in the actual music itself.
Kerry: Not really so much hardcore, I’d say more post-rock.
G: Yeah, a lot of post-rock. Hardcore is a touchy word.
K: It’s more the energy involved and sort of our outlook, it’s not really an influence on the music.
G: Yeah, musically it’s not [an influence]. Just more the way it’s presented.
MB: Your 2010 demo made a lot of waves in the underground, and Roads to Judah was incredibly well-received for a debut album (as well it should be!). I’ve heard you compared to artists like Envy, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor – all in the same sentence, no less, and now you’re touring with Alcest. How have you felt about all this newfound fame in the metal scene?
G: I don’t know if I’d call it fame, but it is really nice to be acknowledged and appreciated for what we’re trying to do. We’re still a really young band, and I think that we have a lot of room to grow – and grow we will. But as far as the reception of the record, it’s been awesome. I’m glad that people have caught on to it and taken what they want from it and appreciated it in that way, and hopefully we can just continue to do what we do and people will respond just as well as they did to Roads and the demo.
MB: How did the band originally come together?
K: George and I were in an old band back in the day and we got kind of tired of, I guess dealing with other people, and so me and him just decided to start our own thing. I had a bunch of riffs on the acoustic guitar, he had a bunch of lyrics, and we kind of just sat in our room and tried to hammer out a very rough version of the songs on the demo using a 4-track recorder, acoustic guitar, and a very simple drum machine. We just randomly saved up the money to go over to our friend Jack’s to record it and put the demo out and then got offers to play shows, tried to find people to play shows, et cetera. So it just evolved very naturally.
MB: Were you in any bands together before Deafheaven?
G: Yeah, we’ve been in a couple, just more local kinda jamming things.
K: Nothing really of note.
G: We’ve been friends for the last decade, so we’ve been been involved with each other musically in one respect or another. The working relationship started off really well because of this.
MB: Is there any experience you can point to that originally motivated you to start playing and performing music?
K: My dad was a music journalist and editor for about twenty years in northern California, so growing up I was raised on music. It was everywhere, surrounding me. So I guess probably that, and then when I was in fifth grade he gave me my first guitar, and I guess that has really more to do with it than anything.
G: Yeah, I guess I could probably just say the same thing. My mom was a huge influence on me, and she’s always really kept current with her musical tastes. There was always something playing in the house, whether it be Duran Duran, R.E.M., or Radiohead, things like that. That’s kind of what started me out, and I was raised with an open-mindedness and support from my parents to get into and enjoy whatever I wanted, so that just kind of evolved from that. [Music's] always been around, I think we’re just fortunate enough to be a part of it in a sense now.
MB: Although black metal has gone through a wide variety of changes in its history, most people who’ve heard of the genre still associate it with the church burnings and murders of the Norwegian scene. What made you decide to incorporate black metal elements as part of your sound?
K: We’ve listened to it for years. It wasn’t really a conscious decision as much as it was…we just wrote whatever we wrote, and whatever came out came out.
G: The main thing that we take from that genre is the speed, and I’ve always been into extreme and fast metal. We took that tempo and incorporated our own elements guitar-wise to it, and I think our biggest tie to that scene is ultimately just the rate at what we play at. Otherwise I don’t consider us to be black metal whatsoever.
K: We don’t consider ourselves a black metal band at all.
G: Yeah, not in the traditional sense at all. But we grew up listening to a lot of that stuff, even if it’s not part of the Norwegian scene. This sounds lame now in retrospect, but in eighth grade I bought Cradle of Filth‘s Midian, and I had no idea what black metal was, and I had no idea that they were a part of that and were influenced by that. So it’s just a natural evolution from listening to extreme metal for several years.
MB: Are there any specific musical artists you can point to as major influences on Deafheaven’s sound?
K: Definitely Alcest for sure, obviously. My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, I guess you could say Godspeed You! Black Emperor and all the [Constellation Records] projects, all that stuff.
K: Yeah, Mogwai. And when it comes to black metal and stuff like that, really just Burzum mostly.
G: Just Burzum.
K: And a few of the DSBM bands but nothing too crazy. It’s mostly just like [George] said earlier, just the speed and atmosphere that we try and take from it, which is also present in a lot of other genres as well.
MB: What would you say were your major lyrical influences in creating the album?
G: The writing comes and goes. I think one of my faults is that I’m not consistent with it. So something will happen and it’ll trigger it and I’ll write a couple pages of something or another and then I go back and look at it and take portions of what I’ve written and try to apply them in a lyrical stance. It’s mainly just life experience, lots of reflection. They’re all very personal, though. I don’t write about anything that’s not intended solely for me. I’m happy if people can on a certain level relate to what I’m saying, but it’s not written to anyone other than myself.
MB: What’s it like working with a label like Deathwish Inc.?
G: It’s great! They’ve been very, very supportive. We get the comment a lot that we’re kind of an odd pick for Deathwish, and I think that with most of the roster we are, but them as people are extremely open-minded and very into various types of extreme and non-extreme music. So when they initially approached us, they were very open-minded to what we wanted to do artistically and very supportive of any decision we’ve made. And I think it’s actually worked out well because we’ve been able to create our own niche in the label and not just go along the same path as the majority of their other artists have. And I like that we’re standouts, and I do believe we are.
MB: Why did you choose to sign with them over another label?
K: [Deathwish] were essentially one of two labels that showed interest at all, and the other one we’ll be doing a release with later this year.
G: There was a smaller San Francisco-based label who’s fantastic, does great releases, and we were talking with them initially and Deathwish approached us with a different take on what we were trying to do. Their first question was “What are your goals? What are you ultimately trying to accomplish with this band?” And I think at that point I knew that it was either go for it all, or kinda sit back, and I wanted to capitalize on every opportunity that we were given. And I let them know what we wanted to do, and they took the steps to make that happen for us and they’ve continued to do that through our career.
MB: Are there any plans for a new album in the works?
K: There’s a full-length coming out, and that’ll be out probably next year on Deathwish. And then we also have a split that we’re going to do.
G: We’re working on a smaller project, but we’re also writing for the LP which we’ll be taking the whole summer off to write and record, and hopefully have out by early next year. Very excited for it.
MB: Is there anything about it you’d be able to share with us at this point, or is it too early in the process?
G: It’s kinda early, we have bits and pieces right now. Our songs are longer, generally, so usually we have these large portions that take time to craft together.
K: It’s going to be a lot more experimental. I’m not sure in which way it will be, but I just know it’s going to be as out there as we can try and do.
G: [There's] like a page of, just, ideas and things we want to have included in the record, and over the next few months we’re going to figure it out and work ‘em in. It’ll be, um…
G: Yeah, interesting. [laughter]
MB: So you also recently expressed your intention to go on tour forever.
K: Oh, yeah. [laughter]
MB: How has that been working out?
G: So far, so good. I think we’ve been a pretty hefty workhorse so far. We’ve been playing shows for a year and a half, we’re about to go to Europe for the second time, we’ve done multiple US tours. We have things in the works for later in the year, we already have things in the works for next year. What we meant by that was…there’s no guarantee to your shelf life as a band, and as long as you’re willing to push it as hard as you can while you have the opportunity to, you should. We really enjoy taking our music on the road, and so we tend to do anything we can to further that mentality.
MB: What would you say has been the best touring experience so far?
K: Absolutely the Russian Circles tour in November. But every tour gives you something different.
G: Yeah, every tour’s been great. We did a tour last summer with KEN mode, which was our first US tour, and it was kinda like getting our feet wet and also learning a lot about being a road dog, and roughing it, and taking our losses and taking our wins and being really confident in what you’re doing. I think that the Russian Circles tour for us was most important because we were able to take things to the next level and really learn about what it’s like being…I don’t wanna say an “actual band,” just being like…
K: Being part of, like, a bigger package. Playing bigger venues, seeing what it’s actually like to load in and…
G: Just the professionalism you have to learn. And they really kind of turned us into – or, we really turned *them* into, like, a big brother band. And, I mean, every day we’re asking them questions about “how do we do this,” or like “is this the proper thing,” or “what time do we have to be here.” We are a young band, and we’ve never done anything at this level whatsoever. So they helped us along and it worked out, because we’re meeting up with them later this week to do a European tour and it’s all very exciting.
MB: Any last words for your fans?
K: Thank you for enjoying what we do.
G: Yeah. Just a huge thanks for all the support and – hopefully – continued support, and we’ll be working just as hard as we ever have and we’re very appreciative of everything we’ve received so far. It’s awesome.