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When The Sun Hits: How Deafheaven stepped out of the shadows to embrace a brave new dawn

Over the past decade, Deafheaven’s signature blend of blackened ballast and soothing shoegaze has earned their reputation as one of the most captivating, cutting-edge outfits in heavy music. As gauzy fifth LP Infinite Granite pushes forward, into softer textures and sweeter melodies, we find out how they’ll never risk stagnation for the sake of safety...

When The Sun Hits: How Deafheaven stepped out of the shadows to embrace a brave new dawn
Words:
Sam Law
Photos:
Carlos Jaramillo and Robin Laananen

For much of 2020, George Clarke found himself staring into the pale wash of dawn. Brimming with pent-up energy he’d normally expend onstage or traversing the great American outdoors, the locked-down Deafheaven frontman bounced off the four walls of his neat Los Angeles apartment and into an extended bout of insomnia. Rather than stewing in the still, antisocial silence of the small hours, however, he found himself captivated by their stark beauty, and took to writing between three and six in the morning, repeatedly watching the thick dark of night dissolve into the dewy haze of day.

Largely a result of those late-late sessions, Deafheaven’s fifth LP Infinite Granite feels like a glimmering reflection of wan light on the horizon. Jettisoning much of the remaining metallic heft they had carried through 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, it boldly commits to the sounds of shoegaze and avant-garde post-rock, delivering nine tracks of delicate melody and atmosphere.

“If Sunbather was summery high noon,” George begins, drawing a comparison with his band’s blistering 2013 breakthrough – its hot pink, Nick Steinhardt-crafted artwork meant to evoke bright light burning through shut eyelids – “then Infinite Granite is the early morning.”

As his eyes narrow beneath a crop of bleach-blond hair, George urges us not to oversimplify. Yes, there is irony – purpose, perhaps – in this ostensibly “blackened” outfit repeatedly splashing the colour. Nick’s abstract artwork this time out (a high-tech graphic visualisation of the record’s first 60 seconds) comes in cool blue hues very much by design. But far more relevant than the T-shirt-ready aesthetics are the experiences, thought processes and deep reflections with which they correspond.

The titular Infinite Granite, for instance, is a metaphor for feeling “fossilised” by the stillness and stagnation of life on hold. “There was this sense of being stuck in solid space,” George explains, “feeling the weight of repetition and routine.” Scratching beneath the surface of his increasingly impressionist lyrics, we find a powerful reckoning on fortune, fate and family. “It’s about how the abstract past can find its way into your own present. Seeing how you are, in part, a product of your family’s history. Their problems are often your problems. Their hardships inevitably become things that you have to navigate in your own life. It’s a reflection on the past, seeing how that past affects you.”

“I feel that it’s mostly about reflecting on the past and seeing how the past affects you…”

Hear George Clarke unpack the broader themes at play in Infinite Granite

A decade into Deafheaven’s journey – the milestone marked by last December’s 10 Years Gone live album – those empty hours saw a reckoning on their past, present, and future as a creative force, which led into Infinite Granite’s striking stylistic shift. As guitarist Kerry McCoy (healthily tanned and apologetic, having been held up in traffic after a morning’s surfing in Malibu) joins the conversation, he contrasts the men they were with those we meet today.

“I think of the kid that was writing [2011 debut LP] Roads To Judah. Being signed to a label like Deathwish; having a real booking agent; seeing doors open up to us. That was like winning the lottery. I literally thought – and I still do, to this very day – that it was 2040 and I was living in some kind of simulation I’d paid for with credits from my mining job. But I have a lot of empathy for that kid. I wish I could just tell him, ‘Hey, everything is going to be alright. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control.’”

Kerry expresses empathy for the band behind Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, too. Although change was audibly afoot three years ago, the victories over drug and alcohol dependency of that cycle, and its shedding of the “resentment” towards peers and armchair pundits who seemed obsessed with pigeonholing their band, were just the first steps towards broader creative liberation.

“That record was half-written right before I got sober, and half-written right after,” the guitarist continues, stressing his gratitude to bandmates George, guitarist Shiv Mehra, bassist Chris Johnson and drummer Daniel Tracey. “It was a very tumultuous time for my brain chemistry, my emotions, and my personal relationships. Individually and collectively, as we’ve figured out our stuff, growing up and righting some demons, we’ve lost a lot of the fear that is an inherent part of being creative people. We’re saying this is where we’re at right now, and we don’t need to make excuses or to prove anything to anybody.”

“Things were more tumultuous in the past,” chimes George. “We were fuelled by ego and negativity and wanting to be the best. Nowadays, that fearlessness propels us.”

In the run-up to writing and recording Infinite Granite, the band’s five members and broader collaborative team re-named their group-chat ‘Deafheaven LP Five: Will There Be Blasts?’

Although there was no definite consensus that this would be a “completely rock record”, as Kerry describes it, things seemed to be leaning that way. The surging shoegaze of early composition (and eventual mid-album highlight) Lament For Wasps set a template. The “airy falsetto” with which they’d experimented on Villain more emphatically steered their course. As things progressed, George expressed a pivotal desire for his vocals to be more “calculated” and less “haphazard”, referring to them as the “weak musical link”. His experiments with woozy croons, ghostly whispers, and wavy multi-part harmonies became the album’s defining sounds.

“I appreciate aggressive vocals,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve developed mine in a way that I really enjoy. It was more that I wanted to be challenged. I said, ‘I don’t think that the traditional vocal approach that we have in Deafheaven is going to enhance these songs. I feel that, given this direction we’re going in, a harsh vocal blanketed over the whole thing might limit it.’ After a chunk of the material was written, it felt more ambitious to match the music with a more adventurous vocal.”

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A “serendipitous” coming together with Air/M83/Paramore producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen in late 2018 accelerated momentum. Kerry found himself at Justin’s Glendale, California studio when asked to contribute an eventually-unused guitar-part for an anonymous other artist’s song. George then bumped into him at that December’s Nine Inch Nails/Jesus And Mary Chain show at the Los Angeles Palladium. Although Deafheaven had only ever worked with Jack Shirley (who would still act as engineer for Infinite Granite), Justin’s fresh enthusiasm for the band, and the opportunity to broaden their horizons, proved too much to pass up.

“Jack is very much a hands-off kinda guy,” explains Kerry. “If you want his opinion, he’ll give it to you, but he’s not there to interfere. He’s more about making time capsules of this band on that day with these songs. Justin was all about producing me. I’d never had that kind of input before. I found it intensely helpful: such a cool, satisfying experience.”

Yet where Justin had been expecting Deafheaven to pick up where they’d left off with 2019 single Black Brick – a flagellating seven-and-a-half-minutes so gnarly it was culled from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love – he was blindsided by the more expansive direction. “He was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do this!’, but then it was this other thing,” laughs Kerry. “Even though he wasn’t necessarily prepared for that, he pivoted to help facilitate this in the best way he could. I could definitely see people hearing the record, seeing him as a new producer coming in, and going, ‘Oh, he helped push them in this direction.’ But, in a weird way, it was almost the opposite.”

The help was needed. As COVID emptied calendars for both band and producer and they rolled into a months-long album process, the challenges of ‘conventional’ songwriting became achingly apparent.

“We’ve spent our entire careers writing these very linear, movement-oriented songs,” Kerry says. “The idea of trying verse/pre-chorus/chorus is, in a weirdly backwards way, something that feels very progressive to us. Then there’s that challenge of retaining the heft and intensity of what we normally do to ensure it sounds like us, without reverting to the same bag of tricks of having a double-kick here, a blastbeat there, then a big crescendo. Instead, trying to figure out how someone like Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth might approach these songs. It’s a different muscle to exercise.”

“There’s the challenge of retaining the intensity of what we normally do, without reverting to the same bag of tricks…”

Listen to Kerry McCoy discuss the challenges of turning their songwriting style on its head

“This is a lot more detail-oriented, more technical, than our older material,” George picks up. “It’s very naked in a lot of ways. Previously, the beefier elements would [mix together] into sort of a wash. Here, everything is on display. That amount of detail that we really had to massage to make these songs flow and feel dynamic and dramatic without being able to rely on that [dense blend] of our older sound was extremely challenging.”

A song like lead single Great Mass Of Colour, he enthuses, is emblematic of that greater detail and definition. Overlapping vocal patterns and mirrored harmonies swirl kaleidoscopically. Woozy, almost ethereal, verses build into a defined (albeit unapologetically abstract) chorus – ‘I feel them all / Great mass of colour / Flooding in my bed / Dissolving into red…’ – then the levee breaks and sparse splashes of inky black metal finally spill through.

“It’s not just about making something melodic,” the singer presses. “It’s about doing something memorable.”

The resultant collection of songs is one that is abrasive at points, polished to a high sheen at others, rewarding repeat examinations of its detailed surfaces with unexpected crystalline glimmers and flashes of off-the-spectrum colour.

The ringing ambience of album opener Shellstar hardly feels unfamiliar, but rather than jumping off into a pit of heat and rage, it glides amongst the clouds, with George’s tale of ‘A sublime wander through summer fire / The char, the ash, the cough, the roar…’ dusted in a strange melancholy. Recent single In Blur, Kerry explains, is an open reference to Ride’s 1990 classic track Vapour Trail, toying with the dreamy euphoria of classic shoegaze and featuring a powerfully poignant, layered vocal that asks, ‘What does daylight look like in this chaos of cold?

Elsewhere, synth-laden instrumental Neptune Raining Diamonds could be cut straight from the Blade Runner score. At 186 seconds, it’s by far the shortest track on the album, yet it swirls with glimmering, retrofuturist potency. By the time we arrive at epic closer Mombasa (named after the oldest city in Shiv’s native Kenya), its eight-minute eruption from plaintive beauty into furious catharsis feels like the cataclysmic end point to an enthralling surge through the aether.

So, are these (frankly, very different) sounds representative of an effort to step back from the world of metal, and all the gatekeeper-driven bullshit that comes with it?

“It’s never reactionary,” George answers, unequivocally. “It’s a very driving, sensitive, highly emotional record with a focus on intensity and openness. It’s very thematically heavy, with a lot to unpack. As with all of our records, it is a mirror to who we are at this time, a natural reflection of us as people. If it’s a reaction to anything, it’s a reaction to the last album we put out.”

In that, old influences are bled through the new stylistic filter. Naturally, those of black metal and the blackgaze subgenre feel less prominent, but there are frosty flashes of Norwegian legends Ulver’s Kveldssanger era, while 2014 album Shelter from French heroes Alcest is an immediate reference point. There is plenty of the British Isles’ late-1980s/early-1990s shoegaze movement, too, in the rich textures indebted to My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver and Slowdive.

Kerry expands on those reference points with an eclectic cornucopia: Pink Floyd, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, The Smiths, and revered Swedish progsters Dungen. George, meanwhile, more narrowly presses the importance of Radiohead, crediting their acclaimed 2016 LP A Moon Shaped Pool, and its pulsating third single Identikit, as particularly inspirational.

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Deafheaven have consistently referred to Infinite Granite as their version of that band’s 2000 classic Kid A: a daring sonic departure that somehow retains and expands on the identity of its authors. But is that something an outfit in heavy music – even one as boundary-flexing as Deafheaven – can realistically replicate? “It’s about the willingness to unapologetically and open-endedly do what [we] want,” George says. “In the heavy community that can be seen in bands like Boris or Opeth, who operate on the understanding that they’re not going to be confined.”

So, what are those foundational fundamentals that ensure this new music remains discernibly Deafheaven, despite its less serrated edge?

“It’s another page in the book,” says Kerry, rolling the difficult question over in his head as he places himself in an outsider’s shoes. “It’s just a different flavour of the same band. It’s all of the core emotions that our music usually evokes, put through a new filter. Just like when we realised we could throw elements of thrash and death metal into our music on [2015’s third LP] New Bermuda, here we’re saying that we can do this, too. And that’s okay. It’s just another barrier that we’ve broken down so that we can stretch out our creative muscles.”

“People are going to say what they want. That’s not our business. Our business is just to make what we want…”

Hear Kerry McCoy discuss the importance of blocking out the noise and focusing on their own vision

For George, these songs’ ability to maintain their unnerving edge even without the once-trademark friction between blasting black metal and soothing ambience is key.

“This record is ultimately us flipped inside-out,” he says. “There’s still a lot of tension. Even though it is melodic, it’s quite uncomfortable. We really worked to keep a focus on that tense minutia. Maybe it is a bit more subdued, but I don’t think it’s any less interesting…”

As the pandemic took its toll, George left the United States for a few months’ travel in New Zealand. Despite being surrounded by some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth – all open for business thanks to the island-nation’s no-nonsense COVID response – he found himself dreaming of being back on tour.

The frontman smiles at the thought, acutely conscious of how perspectives have shifted. “Kerry and I were talking about how this absence of shows has very much deepened our love of this lifestyle: touring, travelling the world, meeting people. It’s this insanely unique, wonderful thing that we, and many others like us, had taken away. So, when I think about this album, that’s what I think about: going out and playing as much as possible; seeing the world with the people I love the most, while doing the thing that I love the most.”

“We would make jokes about how I would sell my car right now to do a six-week European tour in February,” Kerry echoes the overwhelming enthusiasm. “All disco load-outs; all wet stairs; no green room; everyone smoking inside in every venue. That just sounds like heaven on earth to me right now. As much as I’ve always been grateful for what we do, nothing has hammered that home more than not being able to do it.”

And, as they get ready to face their fanbase for the first time in over 18 months, is there any concern as to whether Infinite Granite’s creative gamble has paid off? If some of the more entrenched metalheads in their fanbase choose to walk away, will they be comfortable with that?

“Losing a fan – that binary of gaining/losing – is really funny,” George smiles. “If fans of our ours, who love this band, cannot connect to this album, I understand. Nothing against them and, hopefully, nothing against us. We have a lot of other material that people can check out. And, that we were able to find each other at one point in time is still really incredible. It’s all just this evolving experience. With Deafheaven, you can get on and get off at any spot.”

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“The second you start to think about pleasing anyone else is the second you shoot yourself in the foot,” reasons Kerry. “But when you have those six months after you’ve turned the record in to sit with your thoughts on it, these questions will inevitably arise. With four records, plus a demo, plus a split, plus two singles, it feels like we’re already far enough in the door. I go on tour and talk to people all around the world who like us. I see their T-shirts and the tastes that they have. I logically know that those kids who like this band are going to make the leap.”

The guitarist furrows his brow for a second, then adds, bluntly: “I think [this change] had become almost a necessity. If we had put out another record full of blastbeats, major-key chord progressions and delayed guitar, people would’ve thought we’d become one of those legacy bands who’re like, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’”

Choosing relevance and self-satisfaction over safety at the current crossroads will prove definitive, one way or another. Where some poisonous detractors and well-meaning-but-misinformed friends and family have suggested that Infinite Granite’s more controlled textures will be the point where “‘radio’s gonna come knockin’, the money’s gonna start rollin’ in…’”, as George jokes, this band are smart enough to know that twilight shoegaze has never torn up the charts, and clinging to spikier metal sounds would’ve been a far safer bet. As we take our leave, they reiterate that staying true to themselves is a risk always worth taking.

“If we wanted to stay as an ‘extreme metal’ band, the hard part is effectively over,” Kerry nods. “It’s just a matter of keeping going and going – putting out ‘Deafheaveny’ records for the next 10 years – and the guarantees keep going up and up, the fest offers keep getting bigger. Then the next thing you know is you’ve got a nice little thing going.”

“We’re a bit too overly-interested in the creative aspect,” George concludes. “We need to fulfil ourselves over everything else, otherwise this project simply isn’t going to last. So we’re throwing ourselves back into the wilderness.”

Deafheaven's new album Infinite Granite is released August 20 via Sargent House.

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