When Deafheaven released Sunbather in 2013, the reviews were rapturous, with critics praising the group for their imaginative blend of shoegazey guitar tones, post-rock dynamics and death metal-brutality. It was the most lauded heavy album in recent years, topping critics lists at Pitchfork, Stereogum and so forth. But the backlash, as laid out recently by Stereogum’s Michael Nelson, was swift and unkind. Plenty of metal diehards don’t like getting indie chocolate in their peanut butter, after all.
Frontman George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy were determined not to let the reactions to Sunbather, on both sides of the spectrum, influence how they approached the follow-up. Instead, they reconfirmed their commitment to both sides of the art-metal equation with New Bermuda, an album that manages to be both even heavier and more exploratory than its predecessor. Since the release of Sunbather, Deafheaven has moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, solidified into a stable unit (including drummer Daniel Tracy, bassist Stephen Clark and guitarist Shiv Mehra) and signed to Anti-, but throughout the changes, they remain committed to doing things their way. We talked with Clarke about dealing with the sudden attention, staying focused and the importance of the Cranberries on their sound.
So tell me, how did the band approach New Bermuda as opposed to Sunbather?
Musically, because Sunbather took off in a way that we didn’t really expect, it made it more personally challenging, because we didn’t want to write the same record again. I think when you garner a certain amount of attention for the sound that you’re creating, it’s easy to fall into that pit and just try to make a sequel to the album that got you popular. So I think there was a conscious decision to move away from that sound a little bit and incorporate a few influences and just move in what we consider to be a different creative and a little more interesting direction.
It’s funny, because this album simultaneously pulls from older forms of heavy metal while incorporating even more non-metal influences. It’s like you got heavier and also less metal at the same time.
Yeah, when I hear the record, I think it sounds bigger on both spectrums. I think definitely the heavier side of things is heavier, it’s faster than what we previously had been doing. It’s more riff focused and a lot more metallic than our last record. But the softer side of things has evolved a lot also. I think we wanted to not really focus on the ethereal aspect and the dreamy aspect of shoegazing and focus more on tight songwriting, melodic hooks, and basically try to write things that are catchier. So instead of taking a lot from say, My Bloody Valentine, this time around we really focused on the Oasis influence and the Low influence, and there’s even parts that are reminiscent of maybe a Wilco record or something. It’s just kind of enhanced in both directions and I think that we expanded our sound quite a bit this time through.
When Sunbather came out, a lot of the reaction was people saying “finally someone’s doing something new with this sound,” but at the exact same time, some people were like, “what is this hipster shit? This isn’t metal.” Were you surprised at the crazy polarized reaction you received?
Yeah, I was. I mean, I was surprised people gave it that much attention, to be honest. You don’t really expect that kind of thing going into writing a record or recording it or even releasing it when you’re a band our size and doing what we do. So yeah, it was really interesting. It was odd to see how strongly people felt, whether it was positive or negative. I think that was the most surprising part, honestly. People really started feeling deeply about what we were doing on both ends of the spectrum.
When this sort of reaction happens, does it make it difficult to keep the creative process just for the band and not get caught up in trying to appease the haters?
Actually, no. I don’t think so. We’ve always done what we want to do visually and musically. I don’t really think about outside opinions when it comes to writing music. Deafheaven is a very selfish thing, and the band has always been very self-serving. It comes natural to ignore everyone around us.
Even with good reviews, sometimes artists fall into the trap of, “oh no, critics thought we were cool last time, but what about this time?” For a lot of people, it’s tough to get this type of stuff out of their head.
Yeah, I think we’ve definitely had discussions about it. Like, “well, what if people don’t like it like they did the last album?” But ultimately, you have to be happy about what you’re doing and you have to believe in what you’re doing and you have to not compromise. And I think that as long as you do that, you can come out satisfied regardless of critical reception.
Speaking of the creative process, how does it work in your band? Does Kerry write all the music and then send it to you?
He does, yeah. I mean a lot of the skeleton comes from Kerry and he brings it to Dan. And a lot of the time, Kerry and Dan flesh out the song before anyone can have their input. Then he teaches the rest of the guys the song and from there, when we start jamming on it and playing it over and over, ideas start formulating. Shiv will have an idea for a guitar lead or Steven will have an idea for a transition using bass. Typically, it starts with Kerry and Dan.
Now, do you and Kerry talk a lot about things before he starts writing, or do you just kind of react to things they give you?
All the time. Kerry and I talk everyday no matter what. But especially when it comes to writing. Yeah, a lot of ideas are discussed. Even in terms of just listening to records like, “Man, I’ve been listening to this record a lot lately. It’d be cool if we did something like this.” I remember that specifically when we were writing “The Pecan Tree” on Sunbather, Kerry was listening to a lot of Cranberries and he was like, “Yeah, I’d like to do this sort of like… it might take on sort of a Cranberries thing” and I was like, “yeah, that would be cool.” And that’s actually how a lot of that song got written, the last half of it. We’re just hanging out listening to records going, “Oh yeah, that would be kind of neat.” And also, there’s more conscious in-depth conversations where if I want to take this direction and I think it would be smarter and more interesting if we presented ourselves in this sort of way. And this time around, that definitely showed itself with the thrash influence and I think Kerry was listening to, we both were, a lot more of the metal that we grew up on and just revisiting old classics. And we thought that if we could take some of these elements and utilize them in a way that would fit our band, it would be cool. And I guess that was part of the objective.
Are there any particular influences or artists that you guys disagree on?
I mean, not extremely. We have pretty similar tastes. I think on any given day, say, I’ll listen to a Morbid Angel album a little bit more and he’ll listen to like a Smiths album a little bit more. But we both like the Smiths and we both like Morbid Angel. There’s no strong differences between us, especially when it comes to influences on the band, we’re always on the same page.
How long have you two known each other?
I’ve known Kerry for almost 13 years, we’ve been friends since we were 14.
How did you meet?
We met in freshman year of high school. I moved to Modesto, where he was already living, in the middle of the semester, and there was like only a handful of kids who were into punk and metal, so we found each other pretty quickly.
Since you’ve known each other for so long, does it get difficult for the other guys in the band to get on your wavelength and not be intimidated by how close you two are?
I mean, we went through a lot of different people. It takes time to find the right people and we had a bit of a process with that. We were sort of a revolving door of members for a while so by the time we settled on the guys that we have now, those relationships were very strong. So I don’t think they’ve ever felt weird, because we’re all close to each other. Stephen, we were friends with a couple of years before he joined the band and Dan and Shiv have been really good friends, they’re kind of like me and Kerry, they’ve been really good friends since freshman year of high school also. So no, the dynamic wasn’t really that strange. It took a while to find people that we meshed really well with, but we definitely found them.
For a while, all of the press about the band focused on you and Kerry. You both did all of the interviews and were the only two in the photos. Do you now view the band as a stable unit, or are you and Kerry comfortable with the idea of you both being the only stable members of the band and everyone else comes and goes as they please?
I view the band as a very stable unit. It’s difficult because, you’re right, our band has been built on this idea of Kerry and I for so long that even when I do press for this record and stuff, a lot of the focus is still on the two of us and people will use outdated photos of just the two of us and stuff like that. I’ve definitely been working to skew that and to really let people know that on this record, it’s a full-band effort. We’ve been playing with these guys since 2013. They’re very much solidified and Deafheaven is the five of us.
Your band is in a really interesting position. I think it does annoy some people that there is this mentality around you that “if you’re an indie rock guy, or you like a lot of different types of music and you don’t have the time to be into every single obscure metal subgenre there is, you can just listen to Deafheaven and you’re fine.” I don’t think it’s anything to you consciously perpetuated, it’s just an angle that people have on your band, for good or for ill.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve found ourselves in that position. I’ve always felt that if you were a fan of Explosions in the Sky or something and you heard our band and you liked the post-rock elements in our music and then you warmed-up to the more aggressive side of things and that’s how you came to like aggressive music to begin with, I don’t think that’s a negative thing. I think it’s always interesting to see how people find music and how people expand their horizons and if we’re a band that allows people to do that, then I think that’s positive.
Now as far as the negative reactions that you get, are they mostly online or do people ever come up to you at shows or festivals and have opinions?
No. We’ve never had face-to-face confrontation with anyone. People on occasion will come to our shows and want to talk about the music and that’s fine. But for any outward hate, no, that’s definitely reserved for the online community.
When Sunbather came out, did you notice that you were getting a new crowd?
Yeah, absolutely. Well, it was growing and we still had the same core crowd that was with us from the beginning and it just expanded from there. Instead of just seeing people that are into metal and hardcore primarily, now we had this sort of broadened indie audience as well. But the core audience never really left. It’s a really mixed bag and it’s good to see that. It’s good to look out into a crowd and not see the same type of person. I like the diversity of it.
What do you think people are getting out of your music?
I don’t know, fully. I think different people connect to what we’re doing in different ways and I’ve always just wanted to maintain that from my standpoint, we’ll always be a very naked artist. We’re very open and we’re very honest about everything. And I would hope that if anything, people connected to that. And perhaps a few do. Overall, I can’t really say. People like things in different ways and music means different things to different people. But I would hope that they would take away that we just are a very honest, open group of people that write about real life and our reactions to it.
For the new album, the first song you wrote was, “Brought to the Water,” right?
I think the first song that came together was “Brought to the Water.” But all of our music is always written in pieces and the pieces are written over a long period of time and eventually when it comes to forming, we’re like, “okay, we need to sit down and really start putting these ideas together because we really want to start recording an album,” then we take all these riffs that we’ve worked on in pieces and do that. I think the actual first part of the record that was ever written was the second half of “Come Back” when it goes into the slide guitar melody, we wrote that a long time ago. We usually do soundcheck with it on tour and stuff like that. So we’ve had that in our pocket for a while. But yeah, I guess everything put together, the first track would’ve been “Brought to the Water.”
Now how did that one come about and what did it mean to you and why do you think it was kind that kicked off the journey of the album?
When Kerry and I were discussing this sort of thrash influence, he wrote that triplet kind of chugging riff with the high-hat build-up, and it was just cool. And the first riff sort of became the style, just sort of really dark, slow chord progression while the drums blast behind it. I think it’s just that pace. After we wrote that beginning part, I think everyone was like, “okay.” We had discussed sort of taking on these different influences and now that we can really hear what they sound like in the context of our music, it’s what we want to go forward with. I think that first minute-and-a-half sort of set a blueprint for the album and it definitely sets the mood up. And then lyrically, as well. The lyrics deal with my life in the last year and a lot of the changes I’d been going through and a lot of the growing up that I had to do and it’s been sort of my real introduction into adulthood, in a way that they could be used to exemplify the overall theme of the album. Just with all these things, it just sort of felt like it should be the first track and the first thing we come out with so we can really let people know, “this is the basis for the new sound of the new album”.
It’s interesting listening to it, because there are less pretty parts that build into heavy parts and there’s a lot more of like, “here’s a really heavy guitar riff but at the same time, we can kind of hear this sort of distorted jangly kind of pretty thing also happening in the background.” It seems like you’re doing a lot more things at once.
Yeah, I would agree with that too. There’s also in the first riff of “Come Back,” what we do is the same kind of thing, this sort of underlying melody that plays throughout. And that’s really just because of Kerry, that’s just how his style has sort of evolved. One thing that we really wanted to do with this record was to fit a lot more into a tighter space. While Sunbather is around 60 minutes and New Bermuda is only around 45, I think that New Bermuda has a lot more content crammed into it. I think it’s definitely much more of a fuller sound.
The title New Bermuda brings to mind images of feeling lost and not really know where you’re at. Is there a reason you chose that title?
Yeah, the idea was my move from San Francisco to LA, actually, and all these sort of life transitions that I experienced in the course of the move. So LA is sort of my New Bermuda. It’s something that I had had built into my head for some reason, it was more affordable but it was more lively, there as so much going on. I knew a lot of people from Los Angeles who were very passionate about what they did. It was sort of this new beginning, this sort of paradise in my head. And nothing is paradise. There’s a lot of real life reality that surrounds getting your own place and living with your girlfriend and your romantic relationship changes. When you live with someone, your whole romantic dynamic changes. These are things I don’t know if I was necessarily prepared for, things I kind of had to weather through. Basically, the experience overall wasn’t everything that I hoped it would be - it was sort of this idea of false promise. I built up all of this expectation in my head that the only thing left to do was to be let down by it. So I got really depressed by it and I wrote a record about it and I think it kind of analyze what I was feeling and reconcile those kinds of feelings.
So this interview is for PAPER, so obviously, I’m going to ask you a fashion question, are you ready for it?
Tell me about these fancy leather gloves you’ve been wearing onstage.
The gloves. (laughs) The gloves got a lot of attention. I didn’t really think that was gonna happen. Very early on, we used a lot of fetish imagery. We did a mixtape for Actual Pain that featured some of this fetish imagery. And we had some other design work and it was just something that I was interested in and I thought that it looked very menacing and interesting and sort of threw a weird wrench in our visual presentation. I didn’t really think anything about it beyond that. People really picked up on that in a much stronger way than I thought they would. But it was fun for the time. It just added another little exciting element, I guess.
While writing about one of your shows last year, The New Yorker said you looked like “an angry yoga teacher.” What’s your response to that?
(laughs) I think it’s one of the better ones I’ve heard. People will naturally have their own take on what we do, and I can find humor in pretty much every example.
I think it was meant as a compliment.
Oh, I’m sure. It doesn’t sound offensive to me at all. I’m not at all bothered by it. I’ve heard much, much, much worse.