“If you ever see me with a spiked jacket on, I just look like a douchebag.”
With their cropped hair, button-down shirts and unassuming demeanor, San Francisco’s Deafheaven are a far cry from the typical corpse-painted black metal band. Formed in 2010 by vocalist George Lesage Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, formerly of the defunct deathgrind band Rise of Caligula, they took their name from a Slowdive reference, and their surprise signing to macho hardcore label Deathwish initially confounded the brand conscious. So did their songs, which build upon a black metal foundation of buzzing guitars and gut-wrenching howls to reveal swaths of shoegazing melody and chiming post-rock meanderings. After years of heavy touring and dues-paying, and with the imminent release of their second and most fully-formed album, Sunbather, Deafheaven are due to elicit yet another Greek chorus of opinions from metal and indie rock circles alike. Recently expanded to a five-piece, with bassist Stephen Clark, drummer Dan Tracy and guitarist Shiv Mehra rounding out Clarke and McCoy’s vision with serious wall-of-sound potential, the band seems dead set on simply making the most impactful music they can muster.
“I’ve always loved black metal and identified it with an emotional time, but if you ever see me with a spiked jacket on, I just look like a douchebag,” says Clarke, his affable mien shining through a crackling Skype connection. This down-to-earth attitude alone separates Deafheaven pretty neatly from black metal’s more metaphysical or occult-minded practitioners, and Clarke’s description of the rundown, cramped apartment he shares with McCoy and Clark (“We live in absolute squalor—that’s just how it goes”) suggests that macabre, rock & roll glamor is the pretty much the last thing on their minds. They’re too busy honing the actual music.
Still, Deafheaven is a pretty perfect example of what can happen when black metal embraces its inner romantic. The layered guitar tremolos and chaotic blast beats at the opening of “Dream House” offer an immediate, euphoric rush, pushing harder and harder through various crests and falls until reaching an almost unbearably immense conclusion. At the heart of Deafheaven’s music is naked emotion and unstoppable drive, and that feeling of last-ditch urgency is as readily apparent in Sunbather’s thundering rhythmics and windpipe-ripping screams as it is in Clarke’s admission that, “if this band doesn’t work out, you might find me begging somewhere.
Accordingly, in grandness of vision alone, Sunbather feels light years away from their charmingly raw, 2010 demo EP. “It’s everything that we’ve been wanting to do, punched up a notch,” says Clarke. “The metal parts are more metal, and the nonmetal parts are much more nonmetal.” Guitarist Kerry McCoy interjects from somewhere in the background that “everything just got faster and poppier at the same time,” and it’s true. Gently rustling ambient passages and glistening guitar melodies trade off with full-on metal squall, dexterously timed to ensure that each extreme amplifies the visceral impact of its opposite. Deafheaven have never exactly been brimming with metal cred, but they’ve never cared, either; they’ve simply taken what they know and like, and tried to create something destructive and beautiful in equal measure. “Obviously there’s thought given to the record, but, dude, you’re sitting on the couch and you write a cool riff and everyone’s like, Yeah, that’s sick, and you use it. There’s nothing terribly otherwordly about it.” Deafheaven are a bunch of young dudes who dig craft, sarcasm and simplicity, and it’s those qualities that will take them further—not an image, not a brand and not a whiff of bullshit.