Bay Area darlings Deafheaven were one 2011’s more pleasant surprises. A poetic union of post-rock, shoegaze and black metal captured the attention of the entire metal community, and a successful tour with Russian Circles stole the hearts of their fans. Debut album “Roads to Judah,” released through Deathwish in April, found its way onto the selective year end lists of Pitchfork and NPR, ranking in Decibel Magazine’s Top 40 and topping dozens of others. Deafheaven are ringing in the new year with an upcoming European tour and plans for a new record. Bari Ann recently caught up with vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy to ask them all about it.
What, and who, is Deafheaven?
[George] Deafheaven was a project started between our guitarist Kerry and I in mid 2010. It has since become a five piece band.
Did you ever expect your debut full-length to reach such a high level of recognition and respect? NPR must have been cause for celebration.
[George] Not at all. The songs on the full length were written around the same we recorded our demo and honestly, we were just happy that someone was interested in releasing it. That sort of immense recognition from major media outlets was something we never expected.
Roads to Judah isn’t exactly a “concept album,” but reading the lyrics, without even scouring between the lines, reveals a connected narrative. It seems to exist in the purgatory between night and day, past and present, winter and spring, lingering at a crossroads. Was the creation of this album a sort of catharsis of the soul, or are there still demons left to fight?
[George] You’re right. Though the album is not conceptual, there is definitely an overall theme to what’s going. The lyrics were written during the Summer and the feelings generally associated with that season were contrasting a lot with personal issues that I was having. Contrast is a big thing in Deafheaven. Lyrically, visually, etc. Ultimately though, the record is about obsession. That’s what ties it together. Obsession, the self loathing that comes with recognizing that reality, and the self medication to help deal with it.
Recording a follow-up album in the same caliber of the critically praised Roads to Judah seems like a daunting task. Are you planning on using the same formula musically?
[George] I don’t see it like that. In my eyes, whatever we release next will just be a documentation of where we were at as people during the time of its writing. With what we’ve written so far, it’s a very nice progression from Roads to Judah.
Your demo was distributed in such a limited and personal way. Do you plan on continuing that kind of relationship with your fan base? And with your future efforts in mind, do you find it easier to offer music digitally, or do you prefer the growing interest in cassette and vinyl?
[George] I really want to. One of the most difficult things for me has been wanting to work with smaller labels that I love to release limited material. It’s a timing thing. We’ve been pretty consistently busy for the last year. And as much as I condone digital releases, I prefer vinyl packaging.
When it comes to labelling a band, wars are started over genre blending artists like Deafheaven. Atmospheric black metal, post-black metal, post-rock, shoegaze, and experimental are only a few of the tags I’ve seen in regards to your music. Do you consider them valid?
[George] While we definitely draw influences from a number of different styles, I would not use any of these tags exclusively to try and describe our sound.
Like Alcest and Amesoeurs, Deafheaven was immediately associated with the “black metal” despite heavy shoegaze and post-rock influences. Kerry possesses a surprising amount of knowledge about black metal, chose Wolfpack over Wolfbrigade, and won me over when he wore a Hate Forest shirt in New York. Is it safe to say that he’s mainly responsible for Deafheaven’s nod to the genre?
[George] Him and I are, yes, but everyone in the band listens to black metal.
Deafheaven’s musicality goes above and beyond just black metal. Do you find inspiration in shoegaze pioneers like My Blood Valentine? I found myself reliving the trancelike experience I had a MBV live performance while watching you onstage.
[George] Absolutely. My Bloody Valentine is a large influence on our music. We get our influence from a pretty vast catalogue of musicians.
I get the feeling you guys had a lot of fun touring with Russian Circles. What made playing with them so special?
[George] This is the first interview where I’ve been able to gush about those guys and so I will. Never have I met a group of people who cared more about what they were doing than those guys. Their professionalism and commitment to a good performance with good sound is pretty outstanding. They also happen to be really funny and easy going. I’m really glad that we became close with them. I didn’t expect that.
Does one show in particular stand out for any reason?
[George] New York is probably our favorite place to play. I’m in love with that city. There were a ton of good nights on this last tour though.
Are there any pre-show rituals?
[George] No, not really. Lots of stressing, usually. I get pretty intense nerves before every show, no matter the size or importance.
What’s your number one rule of tour etiquette? Who had the worst tour habits?
[George] This is hard because everyone breaks any sort of ‘rule’ that gets set. If I had to think hard though, it’s definitely short showers. Get in, get out.
Any prize for best gas station in America?
[George] Somewhere in west Texas, you can get two ‘jumbo dogs’ and a 32oz fountain drink for 99 cents. That’s America.
Unfortunately, touring wouldn’t be complete without a few unexpected obstacles. I know you had a particularly bad streak of luck with your van. Is there anything you plan on doing differently for your next US tour, and your upcoming European tour? Where are you most stoked to go, or more importantly, to eat and find beautiful women?
[George] Actually, we were pretty on top this tour. I think we managed it well even though we ran into unexpected van problems. That’s just something that comes with the road. You plan the best you can, but you can’t predict everything.
I’m just plain excited for everything that Europe has to offer, women and food included.
Musically, will 2012 suck less than 2011?
[George] I think 2011 was a great year for music and that 2012 will follow suite.
George, you are every writer’s excuse to finally use the word “cavalier.” The way you put yourself together puts the tattooed neckbeards populating this scene to shame. Your immaculate sense of style and conduct in no way prepare us for the seething, gravity shifting force you become on stage. Would you consider that immense presence the “real” George, or is it just another part of who you are?
[George] Wow, thank you. You’re very sweet. The stage presence is an extension of my personality, I think. I like that it puts people off. It’s supposed to. I don’t want to be seen on stage in the same light that I am off stage.
The offstage Kerry McCoy resembles a classy mashup of Nikki Sixx and P Diddy’s unbridled enthusiasm for all things Twitter. Your witty and hilarious thoughts have me chained to my feed. Tell me about the wisdom of Lil B, working at the Williamsburg of supermarkets, Bay Area hip hop and your unrequited love for Kim Kardashian.
[Kerry] I’ve actually gotten asked about my twitter before. Most of it is filled with inside jokes, incredibly immature humor, and random rants about my job or life at that moment. I don’t think much about how it appears to people, but I’m glad you get a kick out of it, haha.
Creeping on the music section of your Facebook page, one can tell pretty quickly that overall, you listen to a lot of good shit. However, it’s what’s not on there that I find most interesting. What pages haven’t you liked for fear of retribution from the musically elite? Feel free to sell out the rest of your band.
[Kerry] I haven’t made a conscious decision to not like pages because random metalheads in Europe might disapprove, but I do have loads of guilty pleasures, everything from Drake and Waka Flocka Flame to Rancid and AFI’s earlier material. My musical diet is full of people taking themselves very seriously; its good to take a break from that every once in a while.
Getting down to specifics, your affinity for DSBM may seem a bit strange to your fans. Would you say that DSBM artists like Totalselfhatred and Nyktalgia share any common ground with Deafheaven, musically or aesthetically?
[Kerry] I like a lot of DSBM; when its done correctly it can be downright disturbing. However, when its done poorly it almost becomes a satire of itself. I do try and incorporate some aspects from bands like Make A Change…Kill Yourself or Trist, but I wouldn’t say we share much common ground.