FACE CRITICS DEAFHEAVEN
Meet Deafheaven, the band that learned from the extremes of black metal but refused to follow its rules. Never pandering to critics or purists, they’ve remained true to themselves since day one.
When George Clarke was a 16-year-old punk growing up in Modesto, Calif., he had this trick. It involved a tiny flame. Before school, or occasionally there in the hallway, he would take a lighter to his sharpened black stick of eyeliner—typically procured from the local Sally Beauty Supply—in order to make it blear on thicker, like charcoal. (Liquid eyeliner was too complicated: “We were brutish and didn’t take our time.”) A spiritual descendant of such goth luminaries as Bauhaus and the Cure, Clarke wore black eyeshadow as well. He did not care when classmates disapproved. “It always ended with this bitter thought,” he recalls now with a knowing laugh, “'You’re stupid and I’m not, you don’t get what I’m doing. And that’s your fault, not mine.’”
As a teen, Clarke was that guy—the one quietly brooding in the back of the classroom trying to not get called on. The one attempting to be invisible despite himself. Outside school, he’d smoke cigarettes with punks in the park. He had an admittedly low self-esteem. He was a drama kid—Sonny in Grease, the murderess’ brother in Arsenic and Old Lace, a role in The Crucible. “I had a feeling of heat wash over me anytime I was put on display,” Clarke says. “I was always partial to performing, but theater was more like wearing a mask.”
This foundation of emboldened outsiderdom has served Clarke well as the frontperson of Deafheaven. Formed in 2010 with his Smiths-loving high school friend and fellow misfit, guitarist Kerry McCoy, Deafheaven have made their name across three records—2011’s Roads to Judah, 2013’s Sunbather, 2015’s New Bermuda—on an ecstatic sound that is thrillingly divisive. (Paradigm shifts often are that way.) Deafheaven’s post-metal fuses the radiant emotionality of post-rock and shoegaze with a handful of searing black metal tropes, and the result is like drawing with the blackest black Sharpie marker alongside expressive smears of pastel crayons. Light beams and blast beats are a foil to Clarke’s gnarled, guttural screaming and soul-baring lyrics. They play by no rules, but Deafheaven’s black metal influence—the depressive beat, Clarke’s growl—is imbued with meaning. The gestures draw out “the ferocity behind the music,” Clarke says, expressing the drama with “speed and buildups and power and extremity.”
Their signature song, “Dream House,” for example, is like an epically modern epistolary poem—drawing from a drunk text exchange that Clarke once had with a girl he loved.
Is it blissful?
It's like a dream.
I want to dream.
“They play by no rules, but Deafheaven’s black metal influence—the depressive beat, Clarke’s growl—is imbued with meaning.”
You’d need a lyric-sheet to really investigate Clarke’s scratchy lyrical exorcisms, but the whole of Deafheaven’s oeuvre speaks in poetics. Even on a purely sonic level, Deafheaven make confessional metal. Within its brash container, there’s a peculiar elegance, romance, and poise. Live, Clarke’s dramatic persona harkens back to his theater days: he is part-screamer, part occultish modern dancer, dressed religiously in all-black. Sometimes it looks like he’s conducting the band in the vein of mighty noise guitar pioneer Glenn Branca. “There’s an inflated sense of myself in performing,” Clarke says. “It’s very highlighted from what I am typically. I guess it was the same with makeup. I’ve always just been partial to theater. I’ve always enjoyed things being over the top.” (On a whim, I ask Clarke about opera, and he enthusiastically recounts how he and Deafheaven bassist Stephen Clark were recently discussing Pavarotti—“how serene opera can be even though it’s so dramatic.”)
Deafheaven’s explorations—indeed, its very existence—have catapulted them to colossal heights, ones that are incredibly unusual for an aggressive band. (When we spoke, Clarke was still recovering from intense jet lag after a 17-hour flight home from Australia, where Deafheaven played the Sydney Opera House.) With that, it has been well documented that Deafheaven’s awed and blackened dreamscape has often appeared to the chagrin of black metal purists. From behind their computer screens, these keyboard-critics find that Deafheaven sully the genre’s sanctity by making it more palatable—by taking a purposefully unapproachable form of music and making it accessible, by commodifying an underground art, by making it inclusive rather than exclusive, by swapping out its mystique for a clearly-defined face, by effectively complicating it. (“The whole idea is tired to me,” Clarke sighs.)
The biggest rule Deafheaven have broken, in Clarke’s eyes, is in their willingness to be incredibly vulnerable. (Which is, by basic creative logic, necessary for survival as an artist.) “Deafheaven has always been founded on emotional openness and everything being autobiographical,” Clarke says. “We try and be very straightforward about that being one of our goals as a band—to always be emotionally available.” This goes back to Clarke and McCoy’s very first conversations surrounding Deafheaven, sitting around discussing ideas, riffs, and identity. “I mentioned that if we weren’t going to talk about things that directly pertained to our lives, that it was going to be a waste of time,” he says. “We would have to open every door and not be afraid of letting people in, and not be afraid of presenting our truest selves.”
“The biggest rule Deafheaven have broken, in Clarke’s eyes, is in their willingness to be incredibly vulnerable.”
“We didn’t want to feel fake or come off fake,” Clarke continues. “For me, it’s not worth taking the time to sit down and write if I’m not going to be completely honest about myself or the way things are happening with me.”
As a band, Deafheaven always remind me of a mantra from ambient master Brian Eno, one he shared in the 1993 film Imaginary Landscapes: “Go to an extreme and then retreat to a more useful position.” In learning from the extremes of black metal, but refusing to limit the breadth of their imagination or the fullness of their heart, Deafheaven have effectively raised the stakes of a strident sound. “I’ve always celebrated artists who are unapologetically themselves, and that’s all that matters to me,” Clarke says.
In the process, Deafheaven have exploded their vision across an unusually diverse cross-sections of fans, moving beyond what “rules” would allow. “It’s taught me this simple truth—that people are the same,” Clarke says of the move towards vulnerability. “A lot of people identify with this same experience, with the same anxieties and depressions.”
Critics, then, have ultimately strengthened Deafheaven, and bolstered their insularity. “We’ve always had a very 'us vs. you’ mentality, even though we’re open to other people,” Clarke says, and perhaps being a born outcast helps. “I never had much popularity to begin with, if at all,” he laughs. “In high school my friends and I always had the attitude that we were just against everybody. And you didn’t have to understand what it was that we were into. We didn’t care about the popular crowd or the parties they were going to because we had our own parties, we had our own thing, and it was cooler because not everyone understood it. That was the point.”
Jenn Pelly is a writer and editor in New York. Her book, The Raincoats, will be published next year by Bloomsbury.
Graham Walzer was born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, an area know as The Valley. He loves being on the road, wandering around talking to people and looking at things. Graham is currently splitting his time between LA and the rest of the world.