By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — I’m trying to see if George Clarke will ever blink. We’re engaged in a staring contest across time and space to the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park, Sunday, July 20th, 2014. I’m thinking that maybe he won’t. To his right guitarist Shiv Mehra is strumming two heavily reverbed notes on the most beautiful Fender Jaguar I’ve ever seen, to his left Clarke’s best friend and closest collaborator, Kerry McCoy, the only person onstage wearing a piece of clothing that isn’t black, waits for his signal. Clarke is wearing an immaculately cut black shirt, black pants, black patent leather Oxfords polished to a reflective sheen, hair parted far to the left. He doesn’t speak, but he’s communicating – gesticulating wildly, almost conducting the crowd before the song has begun. He still hasn’t blinked, and I’d hate to be whoever he’s staring at. His stare is Old Testament wrath-of-God stuff.
Clarke may be one of the only frontmen in rock music, and definitely one of very few in extreme metal, who can be accurately described as ‘flamboyant’ onstage (he has been compared to everyone from Freddie Mercury to, and I’m not making this up, Hitler), but offstage he is thoughtful and reflective, particularly when it comes to his band and its music. He’s also an ordinary, suburban white guy getting into his late 20s, coping with fame, notoriety, newfound wealth, touring, not touring, moving cities, staying still. Being the vocalist of the band giving modern extreme music a dose of raw and unfiltered feeling.
Clarke met Kerry McCoy in high school after moving to Modesto, California, a place he now describes as “Pretty desolate, a small town. San Francisco is where everyone attempts to go to after they graduate and pretty much where we grew up is a suburb.” McCoy was one of the only kids in the school who listened to punk and metal, identifying Clarke as one of his people by a Slayer t-shirt. They went deeper into the genre, finding thrash, death metal and finally, and above all else, black metal.
“We were involved in a lot of random bands in high school,” says Clark. “None of them really did too much. We didn’t really get serious about what we were doing until Deafheaven started.”
After a spell of homelessness, sleeping in cars and on couches, Clarke and McCoy moved to San Francisco, sharing a room in a Haight-Ashbury borderline-squat, both resigned to working nothing-jobs to be able to continue to play music.
They spent $500 recording a demo and released it online through Bandcamp. Not long after Tre McCarthy, one of the founders of the Deathwish Inc. label alongside Coverge’s Jacob Bannon, found the demo on a blog and emailed the band, offering to release the demo. Clarke and McCoy’s counter-offer was that Deathwish release Roads to Judah, their debut album.
“Things started moving really quickly,” Clarke says. “We were essentially nothing and then we became a real band. We did SXSW and some touring and it grew from there. We toured for two years and during that time we had different members switch in and out. We ended up gaining our current drummer, Dan Tracy, and started working on songs in the fall of 2012.”
Those songs had names like “Dream House,” “Irresistible” and “The Pecan Tree,” the album was titled Sunbather. The cover is pink, shading to orange. The title is written in a typeface, Sunbather Book, that’s available to purchase. There’s a section in which French musician Stéphane “Neige” Paut, who was hybridizing black metal and shoegaze as early as 2005 with his band Alcest, reads a section of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. While Roads to Judah’s lyrics detailed Clarke’s dissolute life in San Francisco, Sunbather was about the possibilities that were in front of him now that he had left that world behind. It breaks all the rules that metal claims to have never had and does so gloriously.
“That record is about wanting more than you have, and it’s about wealth disparity and finding yourself in financial straits. At that time we were going through a lot of transitions. We had lost our whole band, so Kerry started writing songs on his own. It was very stressful, and I think we turned that stress into something creative.”
Roads to Judah had been a critical darling, placed in best of lists by the mainstream and metal press alike. It opened doors for them, but Sunbather was a wrecking ball: review score aggregator Metacritic found that it was the best-reviewed major release of 2013, and it now stands as the seventeenth best reviewed record of all time on the site, beaten by Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Beyoncé, Serge Gainsbourg and Kendrick Lamar. It took first place in the best metal albums lists of Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin and others. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked at all: black metal with a distinct and acknowledged influence from Burzum, the one-man-band of a white supremacist, convicted murderer and church arsonist, but also gorgeous, crystalline shoegazing, tropical EBow and slide guitar harmonies from artists who dressed like regular people and would talk about their love for Drake in interviews.
Two years of touring followed before the self-described “road warriors” were back in the studio. Following Sunbather wouldn’t be easy.
“It was a high-stress situation again. Because we had received all these accolades with Sunbather we didn’t want to create the same record twice. That was the biggest challenge: we wanted to step outside of our comfort zone a little bit and include different influences – just evolve, and be interesting to ourselves.”
For last year’s New Bermuda, the band was looking to “trim the fat,” as Clarke puts it, to “Focus on stronger, more clear melodies. We also wanted to have a more metallic sound, a more riff-focused record. There’s a lot more urgency on New Bermuda.”
In addition to having something to prove, Clarke was having something of a quarter-life crisis, having gotten everything he promised himself on Sunbather and still not feeling content.
“That record thematically is a bit darker – it focuses on depression a lot, feeling uncomfortable, being in transition, dealing with adulthood for the first time. It’s about a loss of creativity, about moving to Los Angeles and not having it be what you wanted it to be. About being depressed.”
The song “Luna” portrays this beautifully when Clarke screams: “There is no ocean for me/ There is no glamour/ Only the mirage of water ascending from the asphalt/ I gaze at it from the oven of my home/ Confined to a house that never remains clean/ To a bed where the ill never get well.” The song opens with a guitar riff with a debt to thrash metal and Clarke sings in a register that’s lower and more guttural than he had on previous records. It’s noticeably more ‘metal,’ whatever that word means now that bands like Deafheaven exist.
They’ll be playing Sled Island after coming off a headlining tour with Tribulation and Envy and a support slot for Lamb of God and Anthrax, both the largest they’ve ever played. They’re used to being the odd band out, the metal band at the indie festival, the indie band on the metal tour, but if knowing that half of their audience just isn’t going to get it phases them then they haven’t shown it yet.
Deafheaven plays at the #1 Legion on June 25th as part of Sled Island Music and Arts Festival.#1 Royal Canadian Legion, AB, Alberta, Deafheaven, Sled Island 2016