Interview: Deafheaven’s George Clark & Kerry McCoy

Deafheaven at Saint Vitus (more by Lukas Hodge)
Deafheaven at St Vitus

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When I met Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke out in front of Club Waizema, an Ethiopian restaurant/dive bar in San Francisco, I thought I was looking for someone named Greg.

“Hey, is your name Greg?” He had on Nike sneakers and a Real Skateboards sweatshirt, and carried a grocery bag full of books. He kinda looked like he was waiting to be buzzed in to the adjacent apartment building.

“It’s George.”

“Oh, never mind. Sorry.”

I walk inside, fairly certain I was still waiting for my interview–you probably need to know me to appreciate how resolutely nob-headed I can be in contexts like these. Fortunately, Mr. Clarke follows me in and sorts out the confusion, after which we pick up IPAs at the bar and sit at one of Waizema’s numerous empty tables to shoot the proverbial shit.

I’m not sure what I was expecting but the kindness and sincerity of Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy (who joins us soon thereafter) caught me off-guard. It’s possible their press photos had me braced for cooler attitudes but their downright geeky enthusiasm for metal and for music in general was heartwarming. During a short break in the Bay between a few dates opening for Boris (“maybe the best crowds we’ve ever played to”) and a long headlining stint that will see them spending most of the summer promoting their latest, Sunbather, the two chatted with me about escaping Modesto, meeting Justin Broadrick, and what they think of “that guy.”

Alee Karim

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Sunbather feels conceptual–not like a concept record, per se, but like there’s definitely some sort of unifying concept. Was there any sort of grand design to this record?

George Clarke: Well, when you’re writing the songs, there’s no design. You’re just writing a riff and you’re thinking, “Oh, this sounds good.” But ultimately, we wanted to capture the whole spectrum of human emotions. It’s supposed to encapsulate the human experience, ups and downs, which went through a ton of in the last few years. We wanted to create something that was emotional, [something] that felt big. I’m lucky enough to play with someone [McCoy] that can articulate the same things musically.

You guys have known each other for a while?

Both: Ten years.

And you’re from here [San Francisco]?

Clarke: We’re originally from Modesto. It’s a little hick, a little hood. It’s poor. A small town in Central California that many hope to leave and most don’t. So I had a little in with a girl [in San Francisco] and I came up here.

When was that?

2009. We found this house in the upper Haight, living with 16 people, but I had my own room. It was a disgusting place. [Laughs] But then he [Kerry] moved up.

Kerry McCoy: Around that time, we were doing like a Rotten Sound, total grind thing, with some people from Modesto. But I’d always been into shoegaze and post-rock, since I was about 17 or so. I was always like, ‘Hey, can I throw in a little pretty thing into this song?” I just played bass in that band; they barely let me write song. But at the end of that record, I just did this blackened post-rock song.

And that was the chocolate meets peanut butter moment?

McCoy: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Clarke: So, when we were living together, he was coming up with all these riffs and I was like, “Let’s not start a band, but let’s start a project, let’s not tell anyone about it.” So we did, we wrote a four-song demo, all written on a nylon string guitar because we didn’t have an amp or an electric guitar at the time. And when we went into the studio, we borrowed all the gear, got a drummer and recorded it. We didn’t do any photos or anything.

How were you guys able to afford a studio when you were so poor?

McCoy: Well, we saved and saved forever. And the guy we recorded with Jack [Shirley, of Atomic Garden Studios in Palo Alto, CA] is a really punk dude. He’s done all our albums. He’ll front you. But we didn’t pay him for so fucking long on that.

Was he sweating you?

Yeah, kind of. He’d occasionally write us being like, “Hey, come on.” It was just like $500 and we had to keep paying him in trickles.

So what’s the deal with your lineup: is it hard to get people to stick around or do you guys just not play well with others? [Laughs]

Clarke: Well, we have a revolving lineup.

McCoy: This last tour was the first time we made any money. When you tell people, we’re going out for this long, and we’re going to these cities . . . but I can’t pay you anything [up front]. You know, after a while, people get girlfriends and stuff, and when it’s not their own thing . . .
We decided it was easier to just call the band us two.

Clarke: And you know, we push a hard line sometimes: we’re going out on the road, it’s gonna be three months straight, you can either get on or we’ll find someone else. It’s not for everyone. I’ve been sleeping on a couch for years.

Are you sleeping on a couch now?

Clarke: Yeah, we share a living room. We each pay $150 [per month]. Our bass player is our roommate and our tour manager is our roommate. So we all leave together when it’s time for tour. And, fingers crossed, this is a really good lineup. I hope it sticks. It’s not fun to have the revolving door. It’d be nice to record an album that’s not just us two sweating in a room.
That could be where things go creatively.

Clarke: True. It would be nice to remove the stress at least.

What’s the reception to you guys on the road and does that change between opening and headlining?

McCoy: It changes between opening and headlining. It changes between Europe and America.

Is Europe more enthusiastic?

McCoy: Yeah, but it’s weird.

Are they uptight about the black metal thing?

McCoy: No, they’re less uptight about it. I have a theory that Germans will like a band so much that they’ll give you what they think is constructive criticism when really what it is is them being an asshole. [Laughs]

Clarke: But they want to help you. They’re like, “Your show tonight wasn’t that good but the next night will be better.” [Laughs]

Oh, and I’m a huge fan!

Clarke: Right! “Oh, you sound way better live than you do on your record. I didn’t really like you when I heard your record. Hey, do you want to take a picture with my girlfriend?” [Laughs]

It’s really strange. Then we play with a band like Russian Circles and they have this total normal guy audience who are really confused when they see me screaming in their face. [Laughs] But I think overall we’re a lot better than we were. Now when we have a good night, it’s really good.

It’s interesting because you guys got picked up by Deathwish before you had done any extensive touring. You kind of grew up in public.

Clarke: Exactly. You’re growing in the public eye. I’ve definitely learned from some mistakes. We played this hardcore festival called Sound and Fury. It’s in Santa Barbara and it’s the biggest West Coast hardcore festival.

McCoy: We had a booking agent who was a big hardcore dude. He would put us on these shows and it wasn’t the right fit. We were playing a festival where Earth Crisis headlined.

Clarke: And we have 20-minute songs. So we were just so uncomfortable and so out of our element. We just got tanked. That’s probably our worst show ever. Just me screaming to these people standing there. There’s still footage of it on YouTube! You can actually see us swaying. [Laughs]

What was the reception like at these Boris shows recently?

Clarke: That was the polar opposite.

McCoy: That was better than even the best Russian Circles show.

Clarke: It was the first time in America where people were cheering as we hit the stage and sang along to the songs. After a few years of doing the circuit after Roads to Judah, we started seeing people get familiar with our songs. And we started playing only to appropriate audiences; people who were enthusiastic about us. That’s when we did some shows with Alcest and some shows in Japan with Godflesh.

That is a real honor.

Clarke: Justin [Broadrick] is such a sweetheart.

He’s a new dad, right?

Clarke: Yeah, and he’ll spend an hour being like, “This is my kid.” He’s so proud.

McCoy: It’s weird because you’ll meet him and you’ll try not to fan out. But there was times where we’re chilling and he’s talking about touring with Skinny Puppy and I’m like, fuck . . .

Clarke: This is a true testament to his character. He could sit by himself not talking to anyone and pretty much everyone would understand. And I was sitting by myself watching Boris or Chelsea [Wolfe] one night and he comes up to me the first night we played this festival in Tokyo and he comes up and taps me on the shoulder, like, “Deafheaven, right? You’re George?” And he shakes my hand and says, “Really, looking forward to these shows!” I was just like, that’s fucking crazy! [Laughs] I was glad that he did that because I wouldn’t have been able to talk him at all. What am I gonna say?!

Cut to having a dinner with him and Ben and SunnO))) and they’re talking about how the blast beat was invented.

What a career, right? “Now that I’ve invented grindcore, what do I really want to do with my life?” [Laughs]

Clarke: And he had all these groupie stories from Napalm Death. Talking about literally picking from a line. Crazy shit. And then Ben, the other half of Godflesh is just as cool. He’s pretty quiet but when you put a few in him, he starts opening up about the early days. He was taking acid at all their early shows. Justin would look over at him and he’d just be smiling. [Laughs] But he’s mellow now; he’s got a family and kids and all that. In our career, that was a big highlight.

I think in general, though, things are better for heavier music than they’ve ever been. Thanks to Brooklyn Vegan and people like Brandon [Stosuy] at Pitchfork. It’s fortunate.

Who are your touchstones in black metal?

McCoy: Pretty much all the stuff we’re influenced by is the Ukrainian stuff like Drudkh or Hate Forest. Or the German bands like Lantlos or Cold World. More of the atmospheric, post-rock kind of thing. Other than that the French bands, especially. And I hate that I’m about to say this but Wolves in the Throne Room and Panopticon are great. [Laughs] Then early Darkthrone, early Burzum, Ulver.

Clarke: I’m even down with the mid-’90s slick stuff from Satyricon and Emperor. Looking back, it’s this cheesy symphonic thing but, like, In the Nightside Eclipse, that record is so fucking sick.

McCoy: I’ve always been into the one dude with a drum machine in the middle of nowhere stuff. Striborg from Tasmania.

The album formula I came up with for Sunbather is [Mogwai’s] Young Team meets [Burzum’s] Filosofem meets Pink Floyd’s Animals. I think Floyd occurs because of the song lengths you guys veer towards. Are they an influence?

McCoy: Not a big one but we love Live at Pompeii and we’ve watched that a bunch.

Live at Pompeii is amazing!

McCoy: It’s so incredible to watch their songs grow to those lengths where they disintegrate into noise while they’re playing in front of these epic ruins with so much gear. [Laughs]
It’s incredible that there used to be money for such a thing. Once upon a time a prog band could ask a major label to fly them to Pompeii to record a documentary!

McCoy: But I feel like even though I like Pink Floyd, I would never call myself a huge fan.

So where do the long songs come from?

McCoy: I feel like I write long songs because I just have that much shit backed up.
Throw this here, this here, then the clean part here, and oh shit, it’s 20 minutes long.

Clarke: I think that if you understand dynamics and key changes and how things ebb and flow, you can have a 10 minute song that doesn’t feel like 10 minutes. Like the last song on Sunbather, “The Pecan Tree,” by the time you reach the end of it, it’s hard to remember what happened at the beginning. I think the idea is to be hypnotic without being repetitive.

McCoy: We just want to try so many things out. You can take a Cranberries riff and just slow it down and throw on this funeral dirge drum beat and all of a sudden it’s doom. That last song, the build-up towards the end is basically me trying to do [The Cranberries’] “Zombie” but with more of a Foo Fighters bent. [Laughs]

So you know how there’s a certain kind of metal fan who’s like [I fold my arms and frown] that guy. What does “that guy” think of you?

Clarke: That guy is an asshole. [Laughs] Sometimes we sway him.

McCoy: A lot of time, that is a classic case of “Music is who I am. My identity is these bands.” Instead of, “I’m a decent human being, I love my mother and drink beers and I happen to like metal.” [Laughs]

Clarke: “I have to walk around and show you who I am!”

McCoy: “I have my jacket and my patches and I swear to fucking GOD I’m cult!” [Laughs] It’s like, just relax, and keep it real. You can love your mother and listen to whatever music you want.

Clarke: So those people I don’t care about, and on top of not caring about them [Laughs], look, I’ll go toe-to-toe with you in metal. I love this music, I’ve been listening to Sepultura and Morbid Angel since 7th grade. I’ll talk about it with you up and down. So relax, take the XXL Bolt Thrower shirt off [Laughs]. I see your record collection, I’m not intimidated by it. Just relax and let’s be friends. This is the smallest subculture in the world. I know I’m doing something a little off the grid but you don’t have to crucify me for having short hair and shaving every few days. I’m friends with some of those guys, too. And those same guys are quick to judge.

McCoy: I remember I was at South By Southwest and this guy saw my Morrissey shirt and he goes, “Morrissey, that’s not fucking cult!” And I thought isn’t there more to life than being cult? Don’t you have bills to pay?

Clarke: Oh, and the European version of “that guy” is the coolest guy. They have tattoos and scarification and they’re wearing iron crosses and they’re like, “you guys are my favorite band!”

McCoy: And really ultimately, “that guy” is a sad guy. [Laughs]

Clarke: That’s why he likes sad guy metal.