The Pitfalls of Perfection: Deafheaven on Sunbather
In the depths of a Glasgow basement, Deafheaven's George Clarke and Kerry McCoy deconstruct their band's lush and entirely listenable(!) take on black metal
Though the more reductive aspects of its iconography veer towards the cartoonish and the macabre, black metal is a complex genre with a rich history and a complicated, ongoing narrative. One of the most commonly cited albums to come out of the U.S. is 2000's Dead as Dreams, the only set of recordings by the short-lived San Franciscan project Weakling. Its dense, multi-structural nature would play a significant part in redefining just what could be done with the genre. Its influence can be heard in the music of modern, atmospheric groups like Ash Borer and Wolves in the Throne Room.
Deafheaven also hail from San Francisco, but their music, though arguably rooted in black metal, bears little resemblance to these bands. Deafheaven's founding members – vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy – both shared an interest in the genre's intense, cathartic nature and recorded a four-song demo together before releasing it on cassette tape in 2010. Their debut LP, 2011's Roads to Judah, was almost complete by the time they signed to prolific hardcore label Deathwish Inc. It saw the more aggressive end of their sound being washed together with styles outside of metal, namely the lush, multi-layered sonics of shoegaze and the loud, dramatic nature of post-rock. Roads' release seemed to come at a time where black metal, a culture once rigidly associated with misanthropic Norwegians, was once again being uprooted and recontextualised by a younger generation of bands.
Clarke and McCoy don't consider themselves part of this brief, oversimplified narrative. Seated in the small, unglamorous basement space which serves as the backstage area in Glasgow's Ivory Blacks, the pair discuss their influences. “Everything black metal that has mostly interested me has been 'post-black metal' stuff,” says McCoy. Clarke drops some band names, mostly ones who injected a strong sense of melody into the sound: “Alcest, Hate Forest, Amesoeurs, Cold World, Peste Noire, stuff like that.” McCoy sums up: “Anything French, and some German stuff. And of course, we listen to the Norwegian bands, but really of all those guys, Burzum and Ulver are the two bands that most influenced us.”
“It's difficult to tell this story without sounding like a creep...” – George Clarke
Clarke affirms that there are trivial similarities between his band and the others mentioned: “We share a common ground, and there are artists in those bands that have reached out to us, bands that we've befriended. We've toured with Alcest and so on, but I don't think we're necessarily carrying the torch. We're doing our own thing and they're recognising it, and we recognise them as being an influence. I wouldn't consider us a new generation or anything; I just want to be honest with who we are as people. The Norwegian bands that were involved in that scene, that's cool. That's cool for them – but I didn't grow up in a forest.”
You're more likely to catch the members of Deafheaven listening to ethereal dream pop band Slowdive, whose name inspired theirs, or The Smiths, than Mayhem or Shining. That they recently recorded a cover version of Punk Rock / Cody by local heroes Mogwai for a split release should speak volumes. McCoy explains the unconventional choice: “We were all listening to Come On Die Young. Cody is one of the few Mogwai songs that has vocals in it. I love that song so much, and I had the idea to essentially turn it into a like, depressive, suicidal black metal song, and then do My Bloody Valentine doing a Burzum cover of this Mogwai song. The tempo worked, even though it's this twangy country thing... But then I played it to some friends, and they were like 'this just sounds like you.'”
Deafheaven's second studio album, Sunbather, lands this month via Converge mainman Jacob Bannon's Deathwish Inc label. Listed as one of our records to swatch at the beginning of the year, it's noticeably more rock and pop-driven than its predecessor, yet still dark and moody enough to be considered a metal record, it sports a pretty, pink-coloured cover with striking lettering designed by Touché Amoré guitarist Nick Steinhardt. It's an aesthetic that couldn't be further from black metal's militant black and whites.“I felt like there were so many records that were coming out that were all focused on anger, or just focused on sadness,” Clarke explains. “For me, it's much more interesting to have something that's well-rounded. Not everyone's happy all the time, you're not sad all the time - you ebb and flow. Sunbather is a record of ups and downs; it's more like a journey rather than something that's stagnant. It wasn't a decision to destroy the aesthetic of black metal or anything like that. It was more an ode to honest feelings, and to keeping honesty in our music. Musically, it's all over the place.”
A notable difference between this album and the last is the addition of shorter interludes, which bridge the main songs. This is McCoy’s doing: “This time, I didn't want to have a record that was seventy-five percent blast-beats. All of the interludes are just weird ideas I have, like 'Oh, we've got this folky thing with a weird delay guitar over it. Let's put that over a reverse-delay, post-rock thing with harsh noise.' There's a lot of things on this record we wanted to combine.” The final vignette, Windows, contains field recordings of illicit activities interspersed with the voice of a street preacher. “There's this really dark, sad thing playing in the background,” McCoy explains, “and you've got two people who are clearly engaged in this thing, knowing that there's no hope for anything. Everyone's gonna die, there's no point to anything. It's this really nihilistic thing, and in the middle of it you've got this dude who's giving every ounce of himself to just yelling this bullshit on the street. It's an insight into the darkness that can come with San Francisco life.”
Sunbather has been described by the band as a record about “the profound sadness found in the quest for one's personal perfection.” Clarke talks us through the title and how it came to him: “It's difficult to tell this story without sounding like a creep,” he begins. “I had left the city to move home, to go to school for a while and to collect myself. At this time we were on the verge of signing to Deathwish, so I wanted to maintain my sanity for a little while. It was short-lived, because I realised that life just isn't for me. Especially living at home, because I hadn't in so long. It was this really weird drag. One day I decided to ditch class, and I was driving around, thinking about being twenty-two with no education, no plan. Everything I had tried had failed, I was broke, and there was all this bullshit. So I was driving through these nice houses, which I just liked to do, and there was this girl basically sunbathing in her front lawn. I parked, just to chill, but I noticed that she was there, and I watched her for a while. It just looked so easy, you know? She must have been nineteen, going to community college, living in this big house with this nice family, and I'm sitting here dwelling on these mistakes that I've made. To see something like that is a difficult thing to process when everything you want and you do contradicts that lifestyle, like being a touring musician and wanting people to accept your art. When we were putting the record together I used that story as the basis of the title. Kerry was into it, and it became a central theme for the other things the record deals with.”
That anecdote makes a lot of sense in relation to the band's home state, which is portrayed time and time again as a place of wealth and excess. Sunbather's rich mesh of beauty and malice is almost like experiencing Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero if it were a metal album rather than a novel. Clarke perks up at the comparison: “I had just read that book! A friend had lent me it. I read it three times through. I love that idea of wealth and excess and how it's... ugly. It's the glamour and the atrocity that goes with it, and the harsh realities. That's what it is. I didn't even think of that; that makes a lot of sense actually. That's one of my favourite books.”