PopMatters talks with lead screamer George Clarke of Deafheaven about his band's creative process, his writing influences, and the simultaneous allure and darkness of the pursuit of wealth in the Bay Area.
George Clarke doesn't talk like a man who views himself as having conquered the genres he plays in.
While he is confident in the direction he and the fellow members of his band Deafheaven have taken with their sophomore LP, the stunning Sunbather, for every goal he describes he cautiously admits his shortcomings. His honesty and humility are welcoming traits, especially considering that if one were to posit where Deafheaven is at by going off of Sunbather's Metascore alone, one would likely guess a couple of stratospheric layers above cloud nine. While in many circles the record is deeply polarizing, particularly in the black metal community, on the whole its critical reception has been exuberant. One critic calls it "very much a masterpiece". Another boldly argued that black metal will forever be changed by its release. Whether one loves or hates it, Sunbather is undoubtedly at the forefront of a lot of conversations in both indie and metal circles.
These were conversations that were already happening prior to Deafheaven's arrival into the Bay Area black metal scene -- Alcest's genre-shattering Souvenirs d'un autre monde in 2007 ringing most fondly in memory -- but Clarke, along with guitarist extraordinaire Kerry McCoy, has found himself at the right place at the right time. It's fitting that Deafheaven has toured with Alcest before; both are exemplary bands putting out some of the most beautiful -- but nonetheless heavy -- music of our time.
But unlike Alcest, where the vocals are only occasionally harsh, Deafheaven is defined by the contrast between Clarke's vintage black metal screams and the warm, post-rock derived guitar tones rendered by McCoy. It's an unsettling tactic at first; almost sunny songs like "Irresistible" are then followed up with banshee shrieks that problematize the beauty they emit from. One look at the lyric sheet to Sunbather makes it plain why Clarke's delivery is the way it is, and it has to do with that very problematizing: these are words of pain and anguish, of darkness being scorched by the blaring sun. This type of nuance is a tricky thing to pull off -- popular though black metalgaze may be, Emperor and Explosions in the Sky aren't the coziest of bedfellows -- and Clarke pulls it off imposingly. The majority of Sunbather is instrumental, so when Clarke comes into the mix, he makes himself known.
Clarke and I had an enlightening discussion about Sunbather and all it entails, spanning his and the band's creative process, his writing influences, and the simultaneous allure and darkness of the pursuit of wealth in the Bay Area.
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How do you feel things have been going for Sunbather thus far?
It's been good, and way more than I expected. I didn't think we were going to garner as much attention as we did. There have been a lot of people who are into it that I wouldn't have expected to be, and for that I'm riding high and very excited about it all so far.
Have you had to deal with purists on either side of the genre continuum that the album spans?
To a degree. But those types of criticisms are ones that I consider generally unfounded, so I don't pay too much attention to them. We do what we do, and it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, so there's no reason to be apologizing for it.
The progression between Roads to Judah and Sunbather is pretty significant. Did you imagine yourself making something like this?
We had a lot of time in between the two records, and I think when you as a musician grow, you naturally expand your sound. You grow more comfortable with your instrument. New and different influences come in. So on the one hand we knew it was definitely going to sound different, but you're never 100 percent sure until the whole thing is recorded. In the moment, we did what we did, and I'm happy with the way it turned out.
Some have taken Sunbather as your darkest work yet, and others your lightest. Do you side one way or the other, or do you disagree with the dichotomy in the first instance?
I think it's all encompassing; it's both darkest and lightest. The goal for this record was to expand our sound in many different directions, so while there are things that are easily the most aggressive we've written, there are also some of the brightest, most melodic, and pop-induced songs we've ever done. We aimed for a full spectrum of emotion. And while I don't know that we accomplished it, we certainly tried.
Could you describe the compositional process of the album?
For this record, it was just our guitar player Kerry [McCoy] and I that did the whole thing. [Drummer] Daniel Tracy eventually hopped on board towards the end of the writing stage; his drum contributions are huge -- he also helped shape the record for sure. But in terms of riffs and material, it was just Kerry and I. So the dynamic was definitely different than Roads -- there we were working with a full band -- and with this format we were able to get into each other's heads. There was a lot of him and I in a room, discussing ideas and throwing things back and forth. It was just our two brains coming together and seeing what we could do.
Were there any places where you two made a deliberate effort to do things differently than you'd done in the past?
A little bit. The biggest decision as far as that goes was the production. We wanted something that was bigger and slicker, and I think our production has hugely improved, although only because when we made Roads that wasn't a huge priority. This time we really wanted to emphasize the power of it all.
So that was one idea. Then there was the conscious idea of putting in interludes. We felt that interjecting quieter pieces in between the lengthier songs would enhance those songs and give the listener time to breathe. They really help with the overall flow and sequence of the record.
So the long/short song dynamic was planned in advance?
Kerry had been writing a lot of riffs; he dabbles in clean guitar tones. Some of the things he was writing weren't fitting into anything in particular -- they were their own little pieces. And so rather than trying to exhaust them in a longer song, we thought, "We don't want to waste these riffs; maybe we could use them as interludes." Then that evolved into the decision in the studio to break these up in between the longer songs, which really informs the flow of the record. I believe it's a record that should be listened to in one sitting all the way through. Certain songs are meant to complement others.
While not a concept album, there are a lot of recurring lyrical themes on this album. Did the lyrics inform the music, or did they arise simultaneously?
They arose together. The lyrics were written separately, but Kerry and I have worked together for so long that we kind of have a feel for one another. I'll hear a riff of his and it reminds me of something I wrote, so I'll put that to it, and sometimes I'll pair certain leads with particular lyrical phrasings. They usually complement one another really well.
And you're right, it's not a concept record. All of it came naturally out of how we construct albums. It seems that every album I've made is a product of how I'm feeling about just a small number of issues over a year or two prior.
You covered Mogwai's "Punk Rock" and "Cody" for your split with Bosse-de-Nage. Those tracks seem like obvious lead-ins to the music on Sunbather.
Mogwai has always been a big influence. It's funny, because now that we've done that cover and put out this record, a lot of people have been saying, "Oh yeah, there's a heavy Mogwai influence here," whereas no one had really mentioned it on Roads. We've always been there, but maybe people are more keen to pick up on it now that we've done that cover.
George Clarke performing.
What is it about the type of screaming found in black metal that appeals to you?
For me, it's more of instrument, which you can tell by the way it's mixed. Really, its primary purpose -- even though I certainly do like to let the listener connect with the lyrics -- is to build intensity. There are dramatic guitar parts, but I feel that they're complemented by something that's equally dramatic. They're really just supposed to enhance the very emotional things behind the music.
The allure and emptiness of wealth is a recurring theme throughout the album. What influences led to the development of this theme?
Lyrically, everything I write involves my reactions to the things I observe, whether that be personal relationships like family, romantic love, or whether it's desire for something greater.
The largest theme on the record is observing themes you don't possess because of your own faults. I see wealth, I see prosperity, I see happiness, and I think to myself, "What's lacking in my life that's making me feel so envious toward these lifestyles? What have I done to prevent myself from obtaining this ideal lifestyle?" I feel it's a very universal thing; it's something everyone feels. You have these setbacks and these personal issues, and when you finally self-analyze you realize you have all these character defects. Then you make this correlation between the faults you have and the things you lack in your life.
Do you think attaining wealth is a desirable goal, and that's why you feel there's this defect?
I have a strange relationship with it. On one hand, I've seen wealth that I strongly oppose; even going to a party in a nice house or a hotel, I feel immediately uncomfortable -- like I don't belong. There's something about it that doesn't relate to me.
But on the other hand, I recognize the comfort level of a lifestyle like that. It can peaceful, being that obscenely wealthy; no common, day-to-day worries, things like that. At least, that's what it can look like from the outside -- my lyrics are all about my outside perspective looking in.
So it's a weird conundrum. I dislike and disown it, yet I long for it because it's something I've never had.
I imagine living in the Bay Area has influenced those feelings.
Hugely. There's a song on there that almost directly deals with that ["Dream House"]. I would get off work and walk around at nighttime -- working a shitty job all day, getting off at 11 o'clock -- only to look up at these high-rise apartments. The lights are still on, and you can see inside that everything's meticulous, beautiful, and expensive. In San Francisco, there's this increasing divide of wealth. There are the people I know who have family who's really wealthy and they can skim by -- they go to school, but it's all paid for. Or you have people who are sharing a room with two other people, sleeping on a couch. They'll work a monotonous job.
Following from this, then, would you ever want Deafheaven to "go big?" Not necessarily "selling out," but basically to become more successful in a financial way.
Today, I think notions of "selling out" or "popularity" are so radically different than they've been before. Music is so different now, and creating music is equally different. So, everyone is downloading the record, which I'm totally fine with. But then, say, a shoe company wants to send me $5000 for doing promo work for them. I'm going to do it; I don't care how it "looks."
The idea of punk and its standards is so old now, because the music landscape has changed and the business is totally different. So what I have to say about Deafheaven being a "big" band is that generally in music, longevity is not guaranteed. Most bands put out a few albums and then they break up. I can't guarantee that won't happen to us. So while we're here, I'll absolutely do the most of what I can with my time. If we get a big tour opportunity, I'm not going to turn it down. I want to do a big tour, and I want to play in front of huge crowds. I want to tour the world, and I want to put out more records. As long as that quality of the music is there, and you aren't selling yourself short artistically, financially or otherwise you can do whatever you want.
Do you have any particular writing influences?
Milan Kundera is probably my favorite author. I use things he talks about in his writing, as I find his characters to be really relatable. With our demo, Roads, and Sunbather, he's definitely referenced. Fitzgerald and Hemingway are also there too -- you know, "the big ones." [laughs] With Kundera, there have been pretty obvious or direct nods to, but with the rest of my influences I can't tell you where exactly they influenced me. I try to be as well read as possible, but I know I don't pull it off as well the writers I enjoy.
You ever read any Bret Easton Ellis?
Yeah! I should have mentioned him. Less than Zero, and that whole idea of the dark side of glamour, is definitely influential on our themes.
There are some instances on Sunbather where atypical images are paired with deeply personal lyrics. On "The Pecan Tree," for example, there are some really harrowing lyrics about your father, yet there's this tree sitting in the back of my mind as I listen that I don't know exactly what to do with.
That song deals with the relationship that I have with my father and his side of the family, which in turn also deals with his relationship with them. It also has to do with my grandmother. They have a house in Mississippi with this huge pecan tree, which is exactly the same every year. My grandmother would make a million things with these pecans, and everyone would hang out on the porch by this tree. It represents this eternal symbol, this thing that's always going to be there and will constantly remind me of those times.
Yeah, a lot of modern poetry works that way. The author will use an image that may mean something special to him or her, but not necessarily the reader.
That's a thing about all of my lyrics: they're all kind of selfish in a way. They're so personal, but I appreciate when people take pieces from them and interpret them in their own way. But I can also understand how they seem like nothing to some.
In addition to the lyrics, there are two spoken word sections on the album. It's Neige [Stéphane Paut] from Alcest reading the passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being on "Please Remember," right?
How did you get connected with him?
We did a tour with Alcest last March. We became really close friends, and later when we stayed in Paris we were at his house. We talked quite often. I think he has a really sweet voice.
We had talked about doing some kind of collaborative effort, but being so far apart it was kind of hard to. Originally we wanted to do a guitar collaboration -- something like that -- but distance wasn't allowing it, so I said, "Well, here's a Kundera quote." He did it, sent it to us, and we ended up including it.
Was there something about that particular quotation that made it connect thematically with the rest of the album for you?
It's a romantic thing that deals with the character's vulnerability and insecurity towards the woman he loves. He's kind of this playboy that has no real emotions toward his own sexual endeavors. He can be married, he can be in love, but he has all these side relationships that he doesn't care about -- it's just sex -- but when the opposite is mentioned, maybe she said something to that degree, he gets really sensitive about it. With that character, I've shared a lot of those personal feelings. Insecurity can be such a double-edged sword.
The other passage is in the track "Windows," which sounds like a televangelist ranting.
There's two samples going on there that we interweaved. One is a preacher downtown [in San Francisco]; they're there all the time, yelling at crowds.
The other is Kerry doing a drug deal. He had really gotten into opiates -- mostly pharmaceutical -- and it was a pretty big thing he was going through at the time, I felt. I told him, "I think you should sample this." It's pretty raw and soul-bearing, and I thought it would work well mixed in with this preacher.
He was kinda nervous. Our parents and friends are listening to this record. But he did it, and it sounded cool. Thematically, it's supposed to be about this guy talking about the evils of hell intermixed with one's own personal hell and the actual realities like addiction and self-worth, not the fire and brimstone. He didn't have a lot of money, and he was kind of desperate; he's showcasing the true horrors that are here on earth -- one's own personal demons. I wanted something that was really personal on his part to be on the record.
With that context, it's way more powerful in my head now.
That's how it is to me. But it's the one track that's missed the most on the record -- at least amongst the reviews I've read -- which is fine, it is what it is, but I feel like if people really understood the full concept of what was going on, they'd view it as a lot more important.
So if that was Kerry's most personal moment on the record, which is yours?
Lyrically, the things I was most concerned about putting in were the last lines of both "The Pecan Tree" and "Dream House". Everything I write is something I'm dealing with, but those were pretty strong statements. But they are abstract enough to where I felt comfortable about including them, even though it really is a pages out of my journal type of thing.
In the liner notes of the album, we always include a quote to accompany the lyrics, which was another thing that I get very personal about. I always get this weird feeling when people read it and I'm in the room. I feel like I shouldn't be there.