Experimental heavy band Deafheaven, fresh off of a co-headlining tour with Baroness, has proven an act of its ilk can make its way on the road and do things its own way while continuing to grow, from a recent Grammy nomination to increasing ticket sales across the board.
“I think the greatest thing about moving up in size and rooms is the freedom to be more creative,” says Deafheaven frontman George Clarke, mentioning the band’s added production effects on its latest tours. “It’s always a dream of mine to make our show bigger and more entertaining.”
And grow they have. The band’s recent history includes an Aug. 18 date at Los Angeles’ Wiltern that moved 1,720 tickets and grossed $36,285 and a near-sellout July 24 at Brooklyn Steel that grossed $34,817. Deafheaven also enjoyed strong co-bill numbers at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre and Manhattan’s Terminal 5.
Deafheaven worked hard from the start, often touring for 10 months of the year and making its bones on the club circuit. The band has grown lots from its early days: In February, its members felt somewhat out of place at the Grammys, where Deafheaven’s 11-minute track “Honeycomb,” off 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, was nominated for Best Metal Performance.
“They were young boys when I met them,” says manager Cathy Pellow of Sargent House with a laugh. Pellow met Deafheaven almost 10 years ago through another client of hers, Russian Circles, and took the group on its first major tour. The band’s 2013 album Sunbather received unexpected critical buzz, including Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music designation, and set the bar for the black metal and shoegaze acts collectively known as “blackgaze.” Subsequently, Deafheaven’s touring exploded and the group graduated to headliner status.
“It’s been beautiful to watch them get big and support other up-and-coming bands,” Pellow says. “They really deserve everything they get. It’s such a proud thing for me to be at the Wiltern and say ‘Wow, these guys, when I met them….’ It’s unimaginable. They’re extremely grateful for it and don’t take it for granted.”
The band’s hard-to-define sound, which incorporates elements from serene shoegaze and post-rock to brutal, crushing metal featuring Clarke’s intense vocals, has meant careful planning when coming up with tour packages and determining festival slots.
“They’ve done dates with Slipknot, and opened for Lamb of God, but it didn’t always connect super well,” the band’s booking agent and close personal friend, Merrick Jarmulowicz at Ground Control Touring, says.
“That was a learning process, just trying to figure out what the audience is down to go on the ride with us for. The strategy has been mostly to prod the edges of where we can take it.”
This year, those edges include a Bonnaroo slot, and niche events like August’s Psycho Las Vegas, which boasts a lineup for metal purists topped by Megadeth and Opeth as well as genre mainstays such as High On Fire and Full of Hell. Deafheaven will also play Austin’s multi-venue Levitation Festival, which has acts from freak-folk acoustic strummer Devendra Banhart to thrash band Power Trip.
“We’ve been very fortunate to be invited to such a broad array of festivals,” Clarke says. “A lot of it is due to Merrick’s hard work, and hopefully just being an entertaining live band. We’re always kind of the odd man on festivals. I don’t know if that’s an advantage, but people keep inviting us and I think it’s fun to be part of different worlds.”
Those worlds go beyond the underground metal scene, which wasn’t always receptive to the band, despite a seeming openness to outsiders.
“They’re a very divisive band and they really took a lot of lumps getting to where they are now, taking a beating from the people who were probably their most natural fanbase,” Jarmulowicz says. “The people who want to just listen to the music and go to a show and be open-minded enough to be convinced, we’ve won a lot of them over because the live show is so good. It wasn’t natural and wasn’t embraced by everyone immediately.”
Clarke says the band’s performances speak for themselves. “For me, every stage is a proving ground,” he explains. “It’s important, no matter who we’re playing with or whatever audience, to represent what we do in its purest and most honest way, and to be ourselves and to give the best set we can. That’s kind of our motto.”
Touring with Baroness, another metal band albeit a more straightforward and melodic one, was one way to do that; Jarmulowicz and Pellow anticipate more creative packages.
“It’s probably not the last time we do that kind of thing, whether it’s supporting or co-headlining, anything to raise the profile of the band,” says Jarmulowicz, although Pellow notes Deafheaven likely won’t open for anyone. “They’re busy guys, they’ll probably do 150 shows this year or maybe more,” Jarmulowicz adds, mentioning the band will hit Asia this year after a Euro leg with Touche Amore. Even with a conservative average gross of $16,335, that means Deafheaven could easily surpass $2 million in that span.
“We find ourselves in a very motivated time right now,” Clarke says. “I don’t see things slowing down. Both in touring and writing, we are going to stay busy. Hopefully it’s just onward and upward.”