Interview with RBMA Radio

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After growing up together in Modesto, California as self-professed bratty metal upstarts, vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy moved to San Francisco in 2010 and formed Deafheaven, a band whose contrasting mixture of metal and post-rock has made them both a success story and a curiosity for critics and fans alike. After recording their four-track demo, the duo became a five-piece band, signed up to Deathwish Inc. for their debut album Roads To Judah and took their strange new sound on the road.

After the strains of touring led the three new recruits to leave, McCoy and Clarke released their second LP, Sunbather, in 2013, a watershed release for the band with its lush shoegaze and even pop-leaning elements. Their third LP, New Bermuda, came in 2015, on Epitaph sister label ANTI. Rotating new band members in recent years, Deafheaven’s reputation for physically intense live shows and a “fuck you” attitude to metal convention has seen them contemporarily aligned with the new “North American Black Metal” sound (alongside groups such as Wolves In The Throne Room and Liturgy) – an innovative blend of black metal vocals and suspenseful, cathartic ambience. In this condensed excerpt from their Fireside Chat with Frosty on Red Bull Radio, McCoy and Clarke spoke about the band’s rapid success, the trials of touring and preserving their 20s through Deafheaven’s three albums.

Growing Up in Modesto

KERRY MCCOY

There’s an equidistant triangle between Modesto, Sacramento and San Francisco – they’re each about 90 miles from each other. While Sacramento and San Francisco are great places to live and grow up, Modesto, not so much. It’s part of Northern California, but as a culture it’s what’s known as a “bedroom community.” It’s a place that’s got bad pollution, but the rent is really cheap and it’s close enough to the Bay Area, so people will commute to work jobs there for higher wages and then come back home to Modesto at night. I think because it’s not actually in the Bay Area, or not actually part of a major city – I don’t want to slack off people who live in Modesto – but it sort of has a redneck vibe.

GEORGE CLARKE

It’s still a small town, even though there was a lot of cultural influence, especially in the punk scene, coming from the Bay at the time. To its credit, there was a decent amount of our kind of people living in Modesto, but the goal was always to get out after high school. San Francisco was the city where everyone hoped to leave for.

KERRY MCCOY

I remember the exact day George and I met, somewhere in the middle of 9th grade. He had just moved up from Bakersfield to Modesto. It was a rainy day, everyone was huddled underneath the awnings, but being the typical moody metal teenager that he was, he was sitting in the open rain by himself in a Slayer t-shirt. I was way into punk at the time, Slayer was the only metal band that I liked. I saw him and went up to him and was like, “Cool Slayer shirt.” He saw my Dead Kennedys patch. We complimented each other and started hanging out.

Finding Fans

KERRY MCCOY

The whole shoegaze/black metal, or post-black metal thing, was being done ten years before we were a band. We just started doing it and found people coming to our shows wearing Planning for Burial shirts, or kids that were into Mount Eerie really liked us. We were still an insanely small band at this time, like, could not get a hundred people to come see us. It was those kids who really had their ear to the ground on that kind of thing. From early on, I think most of them have stuck with us.

GEORGE CLARKE

Because we came from that same world. It was pockets of people that were into blogspot and weird lo-fi MediaFire records from 15 years ago that archived these things. This blogosphere is where we found our first broad audience.

KERRY MCCOY

The people that inhabit this triangle of extreme music, experimental music and very sad indie rock. That was what we were into. At that time, in 2010-11, we were listening to a lot of shoegaze, like Chapterhouse, Swervedriver, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and a lot of post-rock. A lot of Mount Eerie, a lot of Microphones. Grouper. That whole reverbed-out, almost to a noisy experimental state, of sad, desperate acoustic singer-songwriter stuff. There was some beauty in it.

The Rise of Caligula

KERRY MCCOY

Bands can’t really be a democracy. For us, it’s never worked. Everyone can contribute ideas, everyone can have their input, everybody brings riffs to the table, but at the end of the day there has to be somebody who has a clear vision of the way that things are going to go. That’s the way Deafheaven works. That’s what was wrong with [the band] Rise of Caligula. It all came together in this big jumbled soup where nothing really sounded like anything at all. We all worked so hard on it and it was so hard to be in that band because nobody gave a fuck. When we started Deafheaven people just instantly started liking it. This was before Facebook had pages for bands. We had a personal profile, literally “Deaf Heaven,” first and last name, and added all the cool metal people of the Bay Area. We got a bunch of messages back like, “Who the hell is this?”

GEORGE CLARKE

We would just never respond and keep it really cold.

KERRY MCCOY

We posted our demo, just like, “Here’s the band.” It would come up in people’s Facebook feed. It sort of worked. People would listen to it and we’d get another message like, “Who is this? This is really good.” We started getting show offers. It was like, “Oh. It’s not this nonstop uphill battle of getting people to like your band. If people like it, they’re going to like it from the very beginning.” We had this lineup all of a sudden and started playing shows. [George] had a Bandcamp linked to our email, so we’d get these emails that said “Jonathan from Flinzer has bought your record demo for this much,” or whatever. We got one that said “Tre at Deathwish Inc. has bought your album demo for $5.” We were like, “Dude, what the fuck is this?” The next day it was like, “Jacob Bannon at Deathwish Inc. has bought your album demo for $5.”

GEORGE CLARKE

The next thing I really remember is I was at school, in between classes, and Tre [McCarthy] called my phone. I was walking around campus and we were kind of just talking shit, getting to know each other. He wanted to know a lot about the band. He was like “Oh, thank God you sound like a nice guy and you guys look normal, I thought you guys were going to look like total weirdos.”

KERRY MCCOY

I remember I worked at Ben & Jerry’s on Haight and Ashbury and I was like, “Can I take my lunch early? I’m getting a call.” [George] said, “Deathwish wants to put our record out.” I was like, “Man, we’ve played like eight shows and this is already happening?”

 

Trials of Touring

KERRY MCCOY

We do our first European tour with Heirophant in February 2012, which is a dream come true, even though it’s freezing and we’re sharing a van with nine people. It’s literally the best time we ever had. We come home from that, do a four-day tour with Whirl out to South by Southwest, and a two week tour with Alcest out to the East Coast, and a show playing with Converge in Rhode Island. Then we fly out to Prague and do six weeks with Russian Circles in Europe, after just doing Europe in February. Three-and-a-half straight months of touring.

GEORGE CLARKE

It breaks you down way more than you think it’s going to.

KERRY MCCOY

Before we tour with Russian Circles, Trevor [Deschryver], our first drummer, quits. We find Corey in San Diego to fill in for that. Nick from Whirl kind of drops out, and Joey from Whirl kind of fills in for him on those tours. We come home from that and we have a new drummer, we have a fill-in guitarist who’s kind of down, but not really, and we have a bassist, Derek [Prine], who at this point is losing steam.

GEORGE CLARKE

Derek was putting so much money into the band because he was the only one that really could.

KERRY MCCOY

He was the only that had money this whole time. At this point he’s realizing that he’s not really that comfortable. We love going on tour because when we come home, we’re sleeping in a living room and we’re eating on food stamps. Derek has his own house in Oakland, has a girlfriend there, has this great life, comfortable job, lots of money. We get home in May, and Derek winds up doing his own thing. Corey does his own thing, and me and George kind of just sit in a room for five months writing guitar stuff. I have this loop station, I start working on stuff. It’s going well because we’ve had so much time to sit there and play guitar that there’s all these riffs that I have saved up. These riffs wind up becoming Sunbather, essentially.

Sunbather musically and lyrically sums up what we were thinking; it’s very hopeful and bright and fast and energetic. Lyrically, it’s very yearning. It’s us having gotten a taste of how fun international touring is, we’re now friends with people who are in successful bands, their job is their band. We see all these guys, we’re playing all these big shows and it’s fun, then we got to come back home to working at Whole Foods and sleeping in a corner. We still have a record deal and could be a lot worse off. We’re living in San Francisco, single, young. But what that record is about is wanting to get that last push. “We’re almost there, can we just get that?” That’s what that record signifies. The record came out June ’13. We were at home literally on the iPad that my mom got me for my birthday, watching Sunbather blow up and get Best New Music on NPR, everybody talking about us and every outlet having an opinion about it.

GEORGE CLARKE

I stopped doing this a long time ago, but this is the time where you’d Twitter search yourself, you know? You can see all these things coming up and keep in mind, in 2013, when Pitchfork and NPR were covering metal, they were covering Agalloch, they were covering Yob. These were the bands that we wanted to be in arena with. We had come from these weirdo pockets. At the time, to be a metal band featured on a website like this, where there’s only a select few writers advocating for it, was a huge deal.

The Sunbather Effect

KERRY MCCOY

Because Sunbather was an insanely successful record that everybody loves, you have this terrible stressful conundrum of, we don’t want to write the same record over again, and we want this next record to be heavier, but are people going to fuck with it? Are they going to not like it? We have so much less time to do this and we want the songs to be shorter. There are all these things going into it and it winds up just being this nightmare. George and I are waking up in the middle of the night with night terrors about the record failing. Long story short, we hammer out New Bermuda. It’s the longest time we ever take to record, I think a total of 12 days, which is still shorter than a lot of people. We put it out and people like it, again. I don’t know… Not what we expected.

GEORGE CLARKE

New Bermuda is weird for me. I love everything that we’ve done, it’s a very important record. I think, lyrically, it’ll end up being the one that’s the most personal to me, but it reminds me of that time when we were writing it, and so it always just feels like, “What would have happened if we had more time?” I know whatever we do next, New Bermuda will feel like an in-between. I also think that those three records, Roads To Judah, Sunbather and New Bermuda, serve as a time, and whatever happens after that trio will always be grouped together. That’s me from age 20 to age 26, performing the records throughout until I’m 29. Those three records will be my 20s. Whatever we do next I think will feel very apart from those three albums.

By Frosty on March 7, 2017

(via Red Bull Music Academy)