George Clarke (second from right) says that before Deafheaven began making its third album, New Bermuda, “The only real place to go was down.’
After releasing one of heavy metal’s most polarizing and celebrated albums in years with 2013’s Sunbather, Deafheaven faced a question familiar to those bands who’ve managed to capture that rarest kind of success: What happens now? Maintaining the creative trajectory that had won them adulation from critics and listeners presented enough of a challenge by itself. Combine it with the fact that the San Francisco-based black metal hybrid group presents an aesthetic challenge to a genre where high value is ironically placed on conformity, and the tension that could have easily crippled the group before writing even the first note of its third album, New Bermuda, the conflict instead worked to tremendous effect.
At just over 45 minutes, New Bermuda is a thematic reality check on its predecessor’s starry-eyed daydream. The hopeful aspirations and desperate grasps for the seemingly unreachable threaded throughout Sunbather are grounded with quick and unforgiving intensity within the first few minutes of New Bermuda’s opening track, "Brought to the Water.” But just as Sunbather at once infuriated and captivated the gaping maw of heavy metal traditionalists with its so-called “bastardization” of black metal, shoegaze and post-rock, New Bermuda further explores those uninhibited musical constructs, resulting in a kind of cynical vulnerability much darker than anything else the band has created so far.
On New Bermuda, Clarke screams his disenchanted rage against the backdrop of guitarist Kerry McCoy’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor–meets-Johnny Marr guitar playing. Contrasting Clarke and McCoy’s tandem agonized melodic digressions, Daniel Tracy (drums), Stephen Clark (bass) and Shiv Mehra (guitar) roar with an unhinged dissonant furor. As difficult a task as it can be to drown out the hypercritical noise that naturally follows when traditions are overturned, New Bermuda answers potential challenges with an conviction far more engaging than the reactionary skepticism it has received. In a recent conversation, Clarke was reserved but — as his songwriting tendencies indicate — disarmingly vulnerable and honest as he discussed New Bermuda and the significance of moving the album beyond its predecessor.
Lyrically speaking, Sunbather evoked a sense of longing or passion for something out of reach. That narrative has shifted significantly with New Bermuda, starting with the very first track, “Brought to the Water.” Was that thematic move something you felt happening with the album early on?
The difference between Sunbather and New Bermuda for me is that with Sunbather there’s a certain sense of sweet hopefulness to it. New Bermuda is much more set in reality. The premise of New Bermuda in a lot of ways is about me moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles where I thought there was going to be a lot of opportunity: I’m living with my girlfriend for the first time. We get a dog, and we have this little family. There are all these things that I want from my move to Los Angeles. I finally have some of those things that I’ve been working for. With Sunbather it was about putting things in action — getting an apartment and not being homeless and other things.
What I found was really a sense of false promise where I’d built something up in my head so much the only real place to go was down, and I think I did. It was my first real experience in being an adult. All of a sudden I’m paying bills, and I’m walking the dog, and I’m buying a car, and I’m doing these things that, honestly, I feel are kind of mundane in a certain way. I got really depressed over the idea. The relationship between my girlfriend and I changed a lot as well. It matured, but not in all the ways that I wanted it to. I thought that we sort of lost something in the move. “Brought to the Water” deals with that in a way. When your romantic relationship dynamic changes so does your sexual one and so does your level of happiness, and they fluctuate more. I felt at the time that we had stopped loving each other when we started this new life. It was really disheartening, and it kind of began my bout of depression that’s lasted a while. I wanted the idea of suffocating and drowning in my own decisions to begin the record and sort of lay it out as plainly as possible.
That idea definitely folds into the second track “Luna,” though the atmosphere and lyrics of the song take on a more resentful tone. Is that something you felt naturally occurring within the lyrics?
We’ve never really written from a bitter standpoint, I don’t think. If anything, it’s been vulnerable and at times very helpless but not bitter. This is the only time that I’ve really expressed anger in lyrics. Whereas “Brought to the Water” definitely has moments of being direct when it comes to Los Angeles, “Luna” is fully in it. When I first moved here it was hotter than hell. My girlfriend would go to work, and I would just sit at home twiddling my thumbs bored. I just became so frustrated. I remember thinking, “I know so many people in L.A., and I’m going to have friends here. It’s going to be a great party all of the time.” It really wasn’t like that. I experienced a lot of loneliness and a lot of confinement. You think of L.A., and you think palm trees and the ocean and all that, but it’s just like this barren, bleak, beige existence. I just looked out over the small part of the city I can see from my house and was totally let down by that. That song is, in the funniest way to put it, kind of just me being overblown with frustration and having no outlet.
Which makes sense because that kind of misanthropic frustration pretty much underscores the entire album and not just lyrically but with the compositions as well.
I think the music definitely reflects it. I think a big part of this too was that we were touring so much. When you’re on tour, your life is 100 miles per hour. You wake up and your whole day is scheduled. You’ve got to be in the van at this time, onstage at this time and so on. It’s always fast-paced. But when you get back, life continues at home. Everything slows down dramatically. You have to re-position yourself into normal society. For the first couple of months after we moved here, I was gone a lot. I didn’t have these opportunities to meet friends or anything, and it’s because we were gone so often. So when I got home I was frustrated. My two lives were very different from one another. Of course when I reflect on a lot of these feelings, it can come off as being a bit petty. I can imagine my dad, who had a kid and owned a house, worked a 40-hour a week job when he was my age, saying something like “Suck it up.” [Laughs.] But to be honest, being 26, this is my first real time where I’ve been an adult. The whole thing came as a shock, I guess you could say.
“Baby Blue” certainly takes that vulnerability to a surreal place with its narrative that evokes this kind of regeneration or rebirth. What was the starting point for you writing those lyrics specifically?
It was partially written when I had woken up in the middle of the night in a sweat. When I’m really stressed or I have a lot on my mind that happens a lot. I’m a really poor sleeper. It’s kind of a letter to my girlfriend, in a way where I’m apologizing for the things I had done in our old life. Again, it’s going back to relocating and having that be a reason for a new beginning. It’s me apologizing for the things that made our old life unhappy and wishing and hoping that I can be absolved of those things. Once we started our new life together and being trapped with those faults and really having to digest them and analyze the things that I had done and why I had made the mistakes that I did. With the line “In the pocket of yesteryear where faults have fallen to some,” it’s like I’m in her pocket, you know. With “I begged not to carry the corpse,” that’s just me carrying the corpse of myself, eventually. I have to let this weight off. I don’t want to feel like a stranger to her. I want to be there, open and honest. I want “to feel the gravel beneath my knees. I want to wake up in a home,” which is what that song really centers around. The last line is weird because I wrote this when we were already living in L.A. I had all these feelings, and I was kind of reflecting on what I wanted to say. I wanted to be like “Please, I’m tired of being separate in this guilt. I’ve done so many things to make our lives better, and I want to start anew with you.” A line like “God had sent my calamity into a deep space from which not even in dreams could I ever imagine my escape,” goes back to waking up from my sleep. I can’t even dream to get away from this. I have to accept the fate of my reality. To me it’s like someone trying to make sense of it all while being really depressed over the sense that it makes.
Now, “Come Back” seems anomalous in the context of the other tracks. It’s incredibly personal but acerbically so. What’s the story there?
It deals with someone very close to me that overdosed a couple of times in the last year, and I felt was struggling a lot with drug use, and it was hard to see sometimes. I had to help out sometimes. I realized a lot if it is very literal. This person, you know when they OD’d, we were carrying them. I remember I was carrying them into the street, and it was raining. So you have the line: “Drug onto the street and onto the soaking steps, again and again” and “All this debris through static lungs, seeping, lingering into every pore,” where in a way it becomes this person’s being. If you ever see someone who’s fully f***** up like that and they have this pained expression, it’s a lot like just being dragged out into the water. And I’m at fault to a degree for this as well. I cared very deeply for this person and everyone else cared and were like “Man, you know I really want [him] to change,” but nobody really did anything. People just sat and sort of watched the degradation. I thought to myself “Well if people did help… would anything happen? If these people did reach out, would the person accept their help?” I honestly didn’t believe that they would. That’s where, “I imagined the overcome and fell to my knees before the endless truth of instability and futility” comes from and then, “Now I know,” where like, I realized that maybe you don’t want help and maybe you’re just going to continue this way.
“Gifts For The Earth” seems almost like a convergence of everything the album has said. What was that conclusion of sorts something that was deliberate as far as its placement in the tracklist?
Yeah, I wanted that to be the last track because it is acceptance, in a weird way. When I wrote all of the lyrics to this record, it was a very low point, which was strange because we were having so many highs. There were so many high points that were happening in my professional life, but it was also me being at the absolute lowest. It’s accepting of all of these things that are wrong and instead of doing something about it, instead of being active in fixing it, I kind of want to be babied. I want to be cradled. I want it to end. I just don’t want to go out quietly, you know? It’s also the first time I’ve written in a fictional sense, which was fun but also a bit challenging. It’s me using Death as a mother figure with her just carrying me down and ending it peacefully. It’s just a take on acceptance and not wanting to fight anymore. Just wanting it to be quietly over.
With “Gifts For The Earth” it seems like you’re confronting your own disillusionment but also suggesting the idea of hope as well. It’s a departure musically speaking for you guys but also comes back to themes that are familiar from Sunbather.
It’s a huge desire to be content. The whole record deals with being discontent[ed]. I’m fighting for understanding of why I feel the things I feel and fighting for acceptance of the way I feel, hoping that in accepting it maybe I can learn how to cope. “Gifts For The Earth” is really about giving up on all of that. Sometimes it’s so much nicer to take the easy road, and in this case I would definitely consider this the easy road. Musically it’s definitely a departure. It ends on this listless sort of airy guitar lead and the piano comes in floating away. I think that’s one of the reasons we have this habit of ending on tape outs. That’s what it feels like to me. Sunbather felt that way too. It’s in a sense just sort of fading away.
photo by Kristin Cofer
words by Jonathan Dick