George Clarke on How Deafheaven's Black Metal Plays Both Sides of the Coin

George Clarke on How Deafheaven's Black Metal Plays Both Sides of the Coin
Nick Fancher
Black metal isn’t the most user-friendly of musical genres. While many black metal groups weave melodic elements into their work that would make shoegaze fans and post-rock aficionados nod their heads in appreciation, the harsh, "dirty" vocal style that defines the genre keeps it from breaking out commercially. It’s hard to sell music to the masses when your singer sounds like an arctic windstorm howling through a rickety screen door.

While the style blossomed into its dark glory in Northern Europe, it has also established a significant presence in the U.S. underground. Groups like Agalloch, Weakling, and Krallice put out epic, complex records full of vocal-cord-ripping shrieks and atmospheric guitar shredding.

But it wasn’t until 2013 when American black metal had its Nevermind moment with the release of Sunbather, Deafheaven’s sophomore album.

Sunbather charted on Billboard, topped indie music blog best-of lists, and was later declared by Metacritic to be the best-reviewed major album of 2013. For an album devoted to a style of music that isn’t in most critics’ wheelhouse, it received a level of adulation and praise that surprised just about everyone — even the band.

“I think it’s cool — we’ve been lucky to be given the opportunity to play both sides of the coin,” Deafheaven singer George Clarke says about the band’s crossover status as a metal band for people who don’t listen to metal bands.

Forming the band in San Francisco in 2010 with guitarist Kerry McCoy, the pair created a dynamic interpretation of black metal that some critics call “doomgaze.” While Deafheaven utilizes “dirty vocals” (good luck trying to understand anything Clarke is saying without a lyrics sheet), they emphasize the genre’s melodic potential. They took the brief moments of beauty you could find in songs by groups like Burzum and Alcest and blew them to epic dimensions, switching gears from throttling ear-puncturing dissonance to ethereal instrumentals that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album from Ride or Explosions In The Sky. It was the rare black metal record that you could just as easily make out to as you could rage to it.

Deafheaven followed up Sunbather with New Bermuda in 2015, an album that was just as well-received as its predecessor. The band’s sound had darkened in the interim, giving their third album a harder edge (though songs like “Brought to the Water” and “Baby Blue” still featured moments of six-string beauty that would make most shoegaze bands want to set their pedal boards on fire after hearing them). Deafheaven have toured relentlessly since New Bermuda dropped, and they plan to have a new album ready in 2018.

“We’re going to finish this year’s worth of shows, which we’ve got booked through July, and then we’re planning on taking some time off to really focus on writing and hopefully get something recorded by the end of the year,” Clarke says. While the band has been voraciously listening to music on tour, they haven’t settled on what kind of direction their new material will take. “At this point, we haven’t had a lot of time to make anything concrete. I always want to give details early on, but it never ends up being what the final outcome is.”

One of the shows they have booked is this weekend’s FORM Festival at Arcosanti. It’s an interesting booking choice — Deafheaven are part of only a handful of acts at FORM that represent music’s shadowy side (other “dark” outsiders include being singer Chelsea Wolfe and dark electronic composer Haxan Cloak, who recently announced he had to cancel his performance due to visa issues). But considering the band’s status as a crossover act, it makes sense that they would be the one metal band on FORM’s bill.

“We’re definitely the odd man out on that bill,” an amused Clarke says. “But it’s cool for us — to have the ability to float freely between festivals like FORM and more metal-oriented festivals and shows.”

When asked if the band had a dream tour in mind, Clarke is quick to shower praise on Scotland’s favorite sons.

“Mogwai would be up there," he says. "I think that’s a bill that would fit us well, because they’re really heavy live. That would be our ultimate tour. Or if you’re shooting for the stars — Nine Inch Nails.”

There was only one question left to ask to one of black metal’s most prominent public figures: How does Clarke keep his throat from getting utterly wrecked by his singing?

“It’s all technique. You just train your voice,” Clarke breaks out with a laugh. “Honestly, I don’t really take care of it. I don’t do any warmups or drink honey or anything like that.”

Deafheaven will be playing at FORM Festival in Arcosanti on Saturday, May 13.

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Ashley Naftule