The New Black: How Deafheaven Reshaped Metal
Deafheaven’s 2013 Sunbather album transformed the band from complete unknowns into one of the world’s hottest cult bands. Five years on, and just days before the release of their latest album, the stunning, kaleidoscopic Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy spoke to Simon Young about learning to cope with fame, pressure and the wrath of none-more-black metal purists…
Back in the summer of 2013, few were expecting Deafheaven then a largely unknown blackgaze band from San Francisco, to become the darlings of the music press following the release of their second album, Sunbather.
We called it “a deranged, damaged, majestic treat” in our 4K review at the time, but it wasn’t just rock and metal publications that rushed to put the band on a pedestal that summer. Sunbather’s artwork soon appeared on an Apple iPhone advert. Indie blogs were quick to lavish praise on the band too, and by the year’s close, aggregate review site Metacritic declared Sunbather as the best-reviewed major album of 2013, making them the first metal band to top the chart with an average of score of 92 out of 100, comfortably beating releases by Beyoncé, Kanye West and Run The Jewels.
Then something stranger still happened. Despite the plaudits and the sudden realisation that blackgaze was becoming the latest hip genre, the quintet quickly found themselves at the centre of an internet backlash, with black metal purists publicly doubting their authenticity and labelling them as frauds for daring to dip their toes in the scene’s none-more-black waters.
“I wasn’t comfortable with being called black metal,” says guitarist Kerry McCoy today, of the reviews that greeted Sunbather. “I’d listened to it for a long time and I know what it sounds like and the ethos behind it. When we started the band, I remember talking about how we’d be a Californian version of those French bands or those German post-black metal shoegaze‑y bands. Everyone we knew knew of bands like Alcest, Lantlôs or Amesoeurs. So when we started, they were like, ‘Cool, it sounds like this stuff,’ so it was a surprise to us when people were labelling us black metal.
“When we get labelled that, the average person who likes metal or black metal doesn’t know that we’re not the ones saying that,” he continues. “It makes it look like we’re the ones calling ourselves something that we’re not. I learned a long time ago not to read the comments. They really never affected me. I know people were upset, but what can you do? I’m not going to not do my band. I just remember being like, ‘Fuck them’. I still feel that way.”
This month, Deafheaven release their fourth album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. In an era where rock and metal bands are attempting to re-establish the boundaries between themselves and the mainstream, Deafheaven have set out to torch the lot.
Yes, there are still moments of black metal pandemonium at the heart of the album, but there are delicate piano interludes, flamboyant Queen-style solos and nods to Manchester bands like The Smiths and Oasis. While on paper it sounds like a recipe for disaster, it’s anything but, and the brilliant Ordinary Corrupt Human Love looks set to be a watershed album that will really piss off the black metal gatekeepers.
And to think that they almost derailed themselves before they’d even had a chance to make it…
Deafheaven — Canary Yellow
First, some back story. Modesto is a small city surrounded by farmland located in California’s Central Valley, just 92 miles east of San Francisco. It was at a public high school here that George Clarke and Kerry McCoy met during their freshman year – that’s year 10 if you’re attending secondary school in the UK – and quickly bonded over a soaking wet metal T‑shirt.
“High school was vastly overcrowded but the group of alternative kids was very small,” says Kerry. “I think it was after winter break and me and my loser friends saw George sitting outside in the rain. I remember thinking that was so ridiculous. He was staring into space wearing this Slayer T‑shirt and had fishnets on his arms. I was a punk guy who got into Slayer because of their hardcore influence, so we ended up talking. He said he liked my Dead Kennedys patch on my jacket, and that was essentially it.”
“Band merch comes in really handy to help identify your peers,” adds George.
Not long after, the pair were part of a grindcore band called Rise Of Caligula, releasing an EP and full-length album in the space of two years.
“There’s not a lot to say about that band other than it was our first go at stuff and served a purpose in how to operate as a band,” says vocalist George with muted enthusiasm. “In my head, it’s very much on par with having a high school band.”
The lure of San Francisco’s night life drew the pair like excitable moths to a bulb, and they would regularly make the somewhat considerable journey to go to shows at the notoriously militant punk venue Gilman Street or the underground club Burnt Ramen, which Kerry describes being similar to Gilman “but with less rules”. It wasn’t long before they’d made firm plans to leave Modesto behind, and eventually found themselves sharing a room in a house in San Francisco’s Upper Haight area, along with 14 other people. Want a quiet night in? Jog on.
“Everyone was really poor, but it was a crazy party house,” remembers George. “There were parties, fights, cops getting called. When people have those wild college experiences, this was our college.”
As their move coincided with a recession, telemarketing jobs were their only way of scraping together the $500 a month required to live in such palatial digs. As their nebulous shift work restricted to 15 hours, Kerry remembers having a lot of free time and no money to entertain himself, so passed the time playing his father’s nylon string guitar, just one of the few possessions he’d brought with him, along with a bag of clothes and a bike.
“Out of boredom and being broke, I started writing all these songs,” explains Kerry. “Our old band was done, so George said we should start a new one.”
Naming their project Deafheaven – partly in reference to Reading shoegazers Slowdive, although the phrase appears in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, a pithy moan about being an outcast – the duo recorded a demo for $500 with producer Jack Shirley (an amount they struggled to pay back, but the band have kept him on board for subsequent releases). Kerry says their big plan was to play house shows and “that would be their thing”, and pushed cassettes and download links to their favourite blogs, purposely omitting any information or photos to get honest feedback on their efforts. “We were convinced that if people saw us they’d be quick to judge the music,” says George, who clearly hasn’t ever worn corpse paint in a Nordic forest.
The demo caught the attention of Converge frontman Jacob Bannon, who signed Deafheaven – having since fleshed out their line-up to a quintet – to his Deathwish label by the year’s end and released their full-length debut, Roads To Judah, several months later.
Sunbather quickly followed, and in the blink of an eye, the previously anonymous band found themselves featured in magazines and on websites across the world.
“It was everything I ever wanted my whole life,” says Kerry. “I remember telling my dad how cool it would be if I could just work at McDonald’s and be in a band. We’d dedicated our lives to this thing and kinda accepted that it would never have been anything. So when all that happened, it was literally a dream come true. We used to ruin relationships with girlfriends, I’d lose jobs, all that stuff because we liked to do it and spent what money we had to do it. It was surreal, like we were in The Matrix or something.”
“It was the last thing we expected,” adds George. “To say we didn’t want that would be a lie. Our whole motto has been to just put out records and go on tour. That’s all we wanted to do. The response to Sunbather opened doors for us, like playing Coachella and with bands we grew up listening to. It was crazy.”
Unlike his bandmate, who learned never to read the comments, George would let his curiosity get the better of him and scour the forums and silently observe the arguments unfolding online about his band.
“Back in the day, I always looked on the forums,” says the vocalist. “I saw a lot of discussions and takes on what we were doing, but that blind hatred to me is really tired. I used to pay attention to that and saw just about everything negative that can be said about and us, and at this point I don’t care.”
“I never got into it with people,” he says of the urge to set people straight about which genre the band belonged. “I got a thicker skin, but it never made me doubt what we were doing. It makes you want to sit that person down, but they don’t go there for that. They’re just venting. They go in a circle and there’s no answers. There were times where I thought they didn’t get it, but it’s not worth explaining to them. There’s bigger things to worry about in the world.”
Why do you think some people in black metal scene took such offence to Deafheaven?
“It’s a small sub-genre that has gotten more attention over the years from people who don’t really understand it, so they’ll get precious,” he reasons. “There’s a lot of history to it; maybe that could be why. I don’t know, but I’d be hard-pressed to find someone as angry as a black metal fan.
“I’m extremely thankful for everything that’s come our way since the release of that album,” he adds. “At the time, people were saying we were an overnight success, but we were playing 150 to 200 shows a year, so while this conversation was happening, we were working hard and touring the globe. I’ll take the petty arguments if it means I can go play in places like Malaysia who share this love for what we do. It’s above and beyond any shallow criticism that comes our way.”
“Being on tour is fun,” says George. “You’re with your best friends, seeing the world and meeting new people. People want to drink, people want to party and it’s all free. You’re 23 or 24 and you’ve got nothing else to do. Have I always been more prone to that kind of life? Probably. I like to have a good time. But touring will take any vice you have and expand on it, for sure.”
What vices are we talking about?
A brief pause. Well, not so brief.
“Just booze, generally,” he replies. “Just guys having a good time.”
In 2014, those good times soon caught up with George, and after relocating to Los Angeles, he fell into a depression, unable to draw a distinct line between life on the road and at home.
“I was raging on the road and being crazy and when I got home, I was continuing that lifestyle,” he admits. “I was plainly not adjusting in a way that was healthy for me. I went into a depression, not managing adulthood properly. All those factors went into 2015’s third album, New Bermuda. People will talk of a post-tour depression because everything slows down dramatically. We were leaving and coming back so much, it was like jumping in hot and cold water over and over again, and our bodies couldn’t adjust to a regular temperature. I think that kind of life, if it’s not handled properly, can affect your mental health.”
Later on, Kerry had his own personal battles to contend with while seeking inspiration for their third album.
“We were this little band and it was a really stressful time,” says the guitarist. “That was when things started taking a turn for the worse. I had these habits that were starting to get out of control. I was a drug addict, essentially. We were spending 12-hour chunks in a room together trying to crank this material out and I had to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes to make myself not feel things again.
“I like to think New Bermuda is a testament to how talented everyone in this band is,” he brightens. “It was essentially all of us writing together for the first time and we were in this really stressed-out situation, but then there’d be moments where songs like Gifts For The Earth came together really fast. We were still writing music and getting that juice that comes from being in a room with four of your best friends making music. There was just a bunch of shit getting in the way of that.”
Deafheaven – Honeycomb
Before even considering writing material for Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, the band took action for their health, both physical and mental, and for the future of the band.
“We toured the hell out of New Bermuda and lost another member – Stephen [Clark, bassist] – who decided he didn’t want to continue, and no-one could blame him, because we were really worn out,” says George. “With his leaving, we took it as a sign to decompress. We came home and took a break from each other and gave ourselves enough time to reset. A vacation will often do wonders for you.”
That it did. It was around this time that Kerry faced his addiction head on; using the time off afforded to him, he admitted to himself that his habit was not only hurting himself but those around him and made a commitment to focus on his sobriety.
“I got to the point where I didn’t want to do it any more for about a year but couldn’t stop,” he says matter-of-factly. I reached a breaking point that I really don’t want to go into, but I reached a point where the party was over and I was still doing this stuff. It was a nightmare.”
In the early stages of his sobriety, Kerry quickly rediscovered his love of music and entered a prolific phase of songwriting, a period which his friend describes as “an explosion of inspiration”.
“I hadn’t been a sober person since I was 15,” says the guitarist, who turned 30 in January. “When I first met George, I was making jokes all the time and playing guitar incessantly. I loved hanging out with my friends and making music.
“Towards the end of my active addiction, I wasn’t even listening to music on the radio,” he continues. “I’d get in my car and listen to the news and only played guitar when I was being paid to do it. It sucked the fun out of life. When I got sober, it all came flooding back in a day or two.”
You can hear this sense of rejuvenation on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’s seven tracks. Yes, there’s still darkness at its heart, but it fizzes and crackles with life. It sounds happy, even.
“It was a really emotional time for me,” says the guitarist. “A lot of that is where some of the raw ideas for Honeycomb came from, that big, bright stuff. Shiv [Mehra, guitarist] hasn’t had a drink for over a year and we were bouncing ideas off each other. It was a very positive thing. I remembered who I was and this was my favourite thing in the world to do.”
For George, he took a different approach to his lyrics. After the heavily autobiographical nature of their first three albums, he turned his attentions to other people, often strangers he’d see in and around his neighbourhood.
“When we were writing this album, I kept calling it our celebration record,” says the singer. “It’s a mix of things I see in my day-to-day life, things that would strike me and I’d jot down to create a tapestry of intersecting lives. It’s essentially celebrating other people and finding the beauty in seemingly mundane details.”
And after almost a decade of blurring genre boundaries and attracting an equal share of acclaim and digital sniping, it’s anyone’s guess what Deafheaven will pull out of the bag next. They’ve moved so far away from the blackened sound that shaped their earlier releases, and that spiteful forum chatter is merely a dim hum in the distance. But one thing’s for sure: the band have emerged from a period which almost derailed them on both a personal and professional level. Now, they’re looking to the future with clearer eyes and a renewed invigoration. And as for the black metal scene police?
“If they didn’t like us then, they definitely won’t like us now,” laughs George. “For me, Sunbather and New Bermuda are different records, but I can tell the same people wrote them and the same goes for the new album. I think that it’s due to us being true to ourselves and true to our tastes, and I think that as long we continue to do that we have the liberty to pivot from there in any direction.”
“The human experience is fraught with perils once in a while,” Kerry adds. “When you get through that stuff you learn a lot about yourself, and I feel that we’ve done that; we’ve channelled them into a record that we’re really happy with. The one rule we’ve always followed is not to worry about what anyone’s going to say.
“I think we can kinda do anything now.”
DEAFHEAVEN’S ALBUM ORDINARY CORRUPT HUMAN LOVE IS OUT NOW VIA ANTI – . THE BAND TOUR THE UK FROM OCTOBER 1 – 5.
Photos: Jonathan Weiner and Corinne Schiavone
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