Deafheaven: San Franciscan Metal Alchemists Make Peace With Their Inner Softies

"We stopped second-guessing ourselves and started being like, 'Yeah, that sounds awesome."

Deafheaven
Deafheaven Photo by Reid Haithcock
WRITTEN BY
Kory Grow

Who: The blur of black metal, shoegaze, and post-rock that is Deafheaven began in the imaginations of two San Francisco–area buds, vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, in 2010. Since then, they've evolved their sinister sound and played up its unpredictability, a feature that earned their recently released second LP, Sunbather, heaps of critical praise. Over the course of the album's 60 minutes, the duo (plus drummer Daniel Tracy, who joins bassist Stephen Clark and guitarist Shiv Mehra live) weaves the harsh histrionics of black metal seamlessly with lighter fare, which they punctuate with trippy, sometimes serene interludes. "When we were writing Sunbather, we stopped second-guessing ourselves," says Clarke, 24, speaking from the van in the middle of a 12-hour drive to Seattle. "And we just started being like, 'Yeah, that sounds awesome.'"

Opium of the People: One of the more harrowing interludes on Sunbather is the scratchy-sounding piano-prog piece "Windows," which could just as easily be mistaken for an outtake from The Wall, thanks to its brooding chords and samples of a street preacher and a drug dealer. "While this one guy is talking about fearing a physical hell, the drug deal symbolizes someone's own personal hell," Clarke says. "It's so much darker and threatening in a way than anyone standing on the street yelling at you could ever be." And lest we think Deafheaven took the Floyd route and hired actors for these parts, the singer insists otherwise. "The sermon is from a street preacher on Powell and Market in San Francisco," he explains. And the other snippet of audio? "It was a drug deal that Kerry had participated in," Clarke says. (Jokingly? Maybe-jokingly?) "He recorded it with his phone in his shirt pocket."

Make-Out Metal: Audiences sometimes react to Deafheaven's transcendent soundscapes in unusual ways. The singer says he's seen people meditating, and he also recalls a guy at a recent show howling in front of the bass monitor. "His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, and he had both of his hands gripped onto the monitor," Clarke says. "But he wasn't singing along; he was just screaming as loud as he could." Then there's what happens when band makes its way through the intro of "Violet," the lead track off their 2010 debut, Roads to Judah. "People make out a lot to that song," he says. "It's usually one couple, but they'll be right in front of us. It's happened too many times for me to be like, 'It's just a drunk couple.' I don't know how it happens, but I've got no complaints."

No Glove, No Love: Even bands that fuse such seemingly fashion-unfriendly styles as black metal and shoegaze are concerned with appearances. One recent wardrobe addition: the black leather riding gloves Clarke has worn at recent shows. "You know what? I just think they're really cool," he says with a laugh. "I've been wanting to play in them for multiple tours now." At the onset of a recent jaunt, when the pair had a couple days off in L.A., Clarke patronized a few West Hollywood fetish shops until he found what he liked. "They didn't have many options," he says. "The only thing the salesman asked was if I wanted gloves for fisting or just for wearing. I opted for the 'wearing' ones."

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