Deafheaven on evolution, reinvention, and Infinite Granite
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Alex Robert Ross talks to Deafheaven’s George Clarke and Kerry McCoy about the band’s incredible new album Infinite Granite.
Deafheaven on evolution, reinvention, and <i>Infinite Granite</i>

The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Last year the uncategorizable rock band Deafheaven went into Atomic Garden in Palo Alto with longtime producer Jack Shirley to track 10 Years Gone. The live studio album covered eight standouts from the Bay Area five-piece’s back catalog, from early cuts like “Daedalus” and “Language Games” to more experimental recent songs like the 11-minute “Glint,” from 2018's Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. At the end of a decade in which Deafheaven had constantly pushed their sound forwards — always pulling from punishing black metal but increasingly folding in shoegaze, post-rock, ambient music, and even alternative rock — it was a remarkably natural-sounding record. This was a band retelling their story in their own unique language, one that they’d refined and wilfully mutated over time.

It also left some people, myself included, wondering who else was left to shock. Deafheaven had always been controversial among black metal purists, but the critical adulation that followed each of their records — particularly from 2013's epochal Sunbather onwards — suggested that there were more than enough acolytes in the wider world to compensate for those that Deafheaven had pissed off. A gentle nudge forwards wouldn’t feel right, but where else could Deafheaven go?

Infinite Granite, their fifth album answers that question emphatically. The most obvious change this time around is lead singer George Clarke’s voice — the incendiary, blood-chilling, alien scream that bled into reverb on past records is almost completely gone, replaced by clean, melancholy vocals that borrow from Tears for Fears and Chet Baker. And Deafheaven have continued to evolve deeper in the mix; some listeners will hear arena rock, others will hear art rock. Infinite Granite was produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who’s also helmed albums by M83, Tegan and Sara, and Paramore. But despite all these radical shifts, Infinite Granite still sounds unmistakably like a Deafheaven album: expansive, uncompromising, and extreme — even when that doesn’t mean heavy.

A couple of weeks ago, The FADER’s Editorial Director Alex Robert Ross spoke to Clarke and Deafheaven’s co-founder and guitarist Kerry McCoy about the band’s first decade, their ability to turn off the critical noise when they need to, and Clark’s struggles in inventing a new voice from scratch.

The FADER: Congratulations on Infinite Granite. It's a real step forward for the band, which is unlikely given how many steps forward you've taken into past already. It's kind of a remarkable leap, but I wanted to start by talking about last year. You should have spent 2020 touring celebrating a decade together as a band and then that was obviously scuppered by the pandemic. How soon after things locked down did you conceive of 10 Years Gone and decided to release that?

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Clarke: Pretty immediately. I remember I was actually out driving through Death Valley and our manager called and we had been anticipating seeing all these tours around us cancel that we would be close behind and we got the news that everything had to be wiped for the year. And I remember brainstorming pretty immediately, not only because we were worried financially, but also because it was such a milestone for us. It was an opportunity to give fans a selection of music they haven't often heard us play live. And I think that the pressure to show up for them was pretty immediate. And we just got the ball rolling quickly. Everything happened so fast. That's what I remember most is just very quick reactions.

A lot of musicians tend to release music and then unless they're touring it and having to rehearse it, they just put it to one side and they moved forward. Was it a slightly fresh experience to go back to the stuff from as far back as a decade ago?

Clarke: Yeah.

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McCoy: I would say it was. Usually, I don't think a lot of people in the band really listened to our back catalog at all because you listened to it so much when you're writing and recording it and then you play it and all of that stuff. We're well aware of like the songs that the true heads want to hear. We definitely can tell what are the popular B-sides and that sort of thing. And so we wanted this record to kind of be more oriented towards that and around this tour as well.

What did going back through that old material and putting it together in this way tell you about the band that you were and the band that you'd spent 10 years becoming?

Clarke: It was fun to, especially with Jack, have this retrospective as we've done all the records with him. The thing that I noticed mostly was how they sounded in the present and how or what we had become in the 10 years, which was faster, more aggressive, smarter with dynamics, smarter with tone, things like that. And so I found that after recording these songs, they all had a lot more teeth and they had a lot more urgency to them. That was fun to see. It was interesting to really see how we've grown in those ways.

So in a sense, it was new Deafheaven covering old Deafheaven?

Clarke: Yeah. It felt like a facelift. we were bringing our current selves to these younger songs. I thought that was interesting. And even up to like ordinary stuff, like the live version of "Glint," for example, is quite beefier than what's on the record.

Were there things in the catalog as you are going back that maybe pleasantly surprised you?

McCoy: There was like, I remember listening to "Daedalus," going back and listening to it and then listening to it when we were figuring it out and being surprised by how simple it is, but also how catchy it is. Like, it's weird because it's a song that I wrote that on an acoustic guitar, like, in a bedroom with garage band and then the demo version came out and it was like beyond my wildest dreams how it sounded. I remember being like, 'wow, I cannot believe this is how this turned out.' This little idea that I had with George 10 years later or whatever.

Listening to it and rehearsing it with the band, I was like, it's almost kind of, like, cute to me at this point where it was like, 'oh yeah it's not bad.' There's some promise in this. I want to like young me and be like, 'hey, like you got some. Keep at it.'

Clarke: These kids are onto something.

Did going through 10 years of material and then putting it together in this format, did it at all give you the confidence to try something even more ambitious on a new album to sort of evolve even further r and more completely than you had on previous albums?

Clarke: I'm not really sure if the 10 Years Gone specifically was a catalyst for the experimentation and the direction that we went for Infinite Granite. And I only say that because we started Infinite Granite in 2019, but certainly when we were planning that tour and when we were choosing those bands and we were playing those venues and all that, that tour before it fell apart, that did feel like kind of a send-off. And I think that were we to have gone through with it, we would have treated it a little bit like that.

Not to say that we would never be returning to the songs, but I think that it would have been a more defining moment. Because that didn't happen and we did the record version instead, the pronouncement wasn't as strong, I think. I mean, I think we were happy to do it, but I didn't feel by the time we released 10 Years Gone like that, like, okay, like it's done now in the way that an exhaustive tour would have made one feel. When we were on the road and we're having those kinds of experiences, those feel much more grandiose in a way.

And I think that's what the feeling we would have gotten would have been. I think if anything, it just sort of strengthened our resolve. It kind of put us in this head space of being like, yeah, we are doing what we want to do right now. These songs are great and we're having fun with them, but the juice is over here, and that's the Infinite Granite material. Yeah.

McCoy: Yeah. I would, I would also second that. Well, like George mentioned, of course we'll play old songs. We're never going to not play old songs. Part of the point of that tour was to kind of, like, book smaller, rowdier venues and take out kind of like both a band that we've toured with twice before and are very rowdy dudes and like a new Deathwish band that was kind of like a callback to our roots sort of. And like he said, like kind of give that chapter or whatever of the band sort of like a big, like, 'this was awesome.'

We started this band when we were 21 and 22, like now we're this age and this is kind of cool to do this and we're going to try these other things now. When we were recording that, the live thing, we were very much like, 'oh, this is cool,' but just the speed with which we were able to record it, because these are songs that the five of us have played easily 50 times each at least. So, none of these with the exception of "Daedalus" or like some of the really rare ones. So there was no real surprises there and it's well trod material for us. So I think that again, like he said, kind of hammered in, like for our own sake, we need to kind of like try something new and challenge ourselves again.

So how far into the process of writing and recording were you when things shut down?

Clarke: We were pretty far along. I mean, I think that we at least had the first versions of a lot of songs and the plan was that post-tour, we were going to work on the record throughout the summer of 2020. And we were still kind of aiming for this fall recording time. But once everything fell through, we really kicked into gear and we didn't want to waste what we saw as kind of an opportunity. Even though things were terrible, we were like, we have to do something. It sort of created a spark, a more urgent need to delve into the making of this album.

Were you able to be together in the same room?

Clarke: We were. Yeah. There was a lot of precaution, especially at Jack's studio. He's very cautious. There was a lot of worry. Our bassist lives in Boston.

There was a lot of worry. Our bassist lives in Boston. He was traveling long distances. I remember, especially at the beginning, when people didn't know as much in April and May, it was very stressful, and we were getting tested as often as possible. And I remember Chris just having tons of masks on his flights and sending us photos, and just the whole thing. But yes, we made it happen. I think like a lot of other people, it wasn't ideal. And in spite of everything, we did really try and be safe.

McCoy: Yeah, I think also being in the same room, there was a couple moments where I remember being like, just from the amount of news or whatever I was reading and seeing the cases go up, I remember kind of just being like, "Man, there's kind of no way that we're not going to get this." We had canceled a couple practices right in March and April. The last thing I wanted to do was go to a punk practice space in Oakland, be inside a huge, no windows, closed place with a bunch of people. So, we canceled that and we moved it to Kathy's house, our manager.

Even then I remember being like, "Man, Chris is going on this plane, and it's from Boston. They're going to pack people in on there." I remember being like, "Man, there's no way he's not going to get it." And then I had to go pick him up and I was like, "That's it. I'm about to get it." Even though it freed us up, so to speak, to work on the record a lot more, that back-of-your-head fear and the chaos that was going on kind of crept into the writing stuff a lot. And you can hear it in a couple of the songs, I think. There's a little bit of weird tension, "The Gnashing" especially.

Clarke: Yeah, that song. We were working on the bulk of that song when LA went into curfew. Our manager lives a bit outside the city, and it's about a half hour drive back into the city, and Kerry and I live around downtown. And I have to go through downtown to get to my house, and I remember all the freeways are stopped off. LAPD was everywhere. There was just like copters. And of course because of the protests, between that and the fires that were happening in the state at the time, and LA had this brewing red brownness through day to day, and the ongoing COVID situation, all those things really going into that song, the soft, practice title was End of the World because it really felt apocalyptic. And that song has that big doomy ending, and the whole thing is kind of dark and driving. And I don't think it would have necessarily come out the same way had we not been writing it in that atmosphere.

George, you mentioned elsewhere that a big part of... I don't know if it was the genesis of the album, but there was sort of an extended bout of insomnia that went into this, right?

Clarke: Yeah. That was happening at the same time. It's funny looking back now because the pandemic is so much more understood at this point, but at the time, yeah, I was like wiping off grocery bags and not leaving my apartment at all. And I had so much wound up energy, not being able to go to the gym, not being able to go outside for a run, all of these things, at least in the first couple of months when the information was very thin.

Out of that developed a ton of insomnia. Just nowhere to place that energy, that anxiety, because we were working on the songs at the same time, I would just stay up and listen to demos and do writing and re-writing and try and write melodies and things like that. So a lot of my kind of homework happened between say two and six [AM]. And I think because of that, I was writing a lot in the blue hour, and I think that there's references to blue, and essentially every single song informed the artwork. The whole thing was kind of informed by this period of restlessness.

Yeah. You talked about just even breaking these songs down into syllables, because obviously the shift in your voice, the way that that's evolved quite quickly, and essentially having to find yourself a new voice on this record, or a different voice. What was that process like, of discovering that new voice and just breaking songs down into syllables that made more sense for that voice, as opposed to the howl of earlier records?

Clarke: It was a long process. When we were first talking with Justin, it was, of course, the kind of major thing, the major shift, that we were discussing. And he immediately made me feel very comfortable. He was like, "Look, we have a year, and we're going to do everything in that year to make this happen. You don't need to worry. Just do the steps. And we're going to work out a rough schedule and so on."

So as far as personal work goes, yeah, it was listening to a lot of different singers. I wanted to find a way to sing with some strength. A problem that I had with performing shoegaze live was I didn't want to be competing with roaring guitars and having this softer voice. And I found with a lot of bands that I love, the dynamic doesn't always work live. They can't always nail it. The mix is very difficult to balance those things out.

So initially my thought was, I need to have a voice that is strong enough to compete with the guitars. And so that was kind of going back to the classics and listening to Nina Simone and listening to Chet Baker, people that have a lot of character and strength in their voice. And the same thing with Tears For Fears or Depeche Mode or these stronger singers. Because I knew eventually if we were performing them live, I didn't want that to be a massive hurdle for us, where we were needing to really dial in this delicate vocal over all the loud live music. So that was a motivation.

And then from there, Justin has a studio at his house that we did the record. He has an isolation booth and while he was just working on other projects, he would let me come over and I would just stay in the iso booth just for hours. And I would yell and I could be loud in ways that I'm unable to in my apartment. I could test ideas out. Say like the end of "Great Mass of Color" or the end of "Villain," these things that have these more roaring kind of half yells, I was able to develop that in his studio, which was very helpful. And then working with Shiv and Chris and Kerry, I, at one point went up to the Bay Area. Shiv and Dan and I worked together. I remember for "In Blur," a ton of that was worked the three of us.

Kerry and I worked together a ton, especially on, like you were saying, like the syllable stuff. There's kind of an antidote that I keep using. In the chorus of "Other Language," there was a lyric that wasn't working and I was being very combative about it. And we all kind of worked together to make that more musical, make that make more sense. Or "Lament for Wasps," Kerry and I worked in Justin's iso booth on that course together. So there was a lot of communal group writing in a way that really wasn't available to us on the older records. Because frankly, it's more difficult for the guys to have input on a scream, and that kind of thing I can do alone.

That in itself made the experience a lot richer and helped me get across the finish line with what I was trying to accomplish, which was not only singing in this new voice, but owning it, and trying to create a record that sounded like a band that had always been doing this. I guess what I'm ultimately trying to say was that it was very thought out. It didn't feel haphazard at all. It was a lot of work. Yeah.

You said at one point that you couldn't be afraid. Was there a point where you were a little bit afraid of putting yourself out there with something that nobody had ever heard before?

Clarke: Absolutely. It's funny. You have these feelings in you for so long. You say you have this voice in you for so long. We'd been talking about expanding the vocal for a while and in certain ways I had kind of already done it on my own and we had done it together, like on "Near" from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love or "Night People" from Ordinary. It was like, it's always there, but when you start to really put it into practice, there is an imposter feeling for sure. And there is a out of body feeling where you're like this isn't my identity at all. Even though you've been harboring this internally for a while, once you start stepping into it. Yeah, for me anyway, if it felt at times a bit strange. It was like using totally new muscles and using a totally different part of my brain.

And the whole thing was so new that there were steps along the way where I just felt apprehension. Even less vocally, but more like on the musical side, there were times in the writing process I remember where we could have easily put in like a double kick or something and maybe did, and then we would stop and discuss. And it was always my opinion that we should stay the course and not falter into our old habits. And that went more for me than anything. Like don't scream here, do what it is that you want to do. And now that you're doing it, keep going. It was so important just to keep going and to exercise that honesty. I think that's the best way I could put it.

Kerry, did you feel the same during the writing process? Was there a sort of apprehension? I mean, it's fascinating to hear you talk about like reverting to a double kick and then being like, 'no, no, wait, this isn't what we're trying to do here.' I mean, are those moments scary for you as well?

McCoy: Well, every record that we put out is scary at some point. When we're working on music, we kind of have this rule where we don't allow ourselves or anyone to really ask the question like, 'geez, what are people going to think about this?' And we had it with New Bermuda when we started adding, like, kind of more heavier elements or we had it with Ordinary when we opened the record with a song that starts with piano. Like every record we have the same rule and then the same result ends where we write this thing and we're in our bubble, not even the manager hears it. No one hears it until it's done. And we're fully locked in.

What inevitably happens after that is that we turn the thing in, we show it to the label, we show it to our management, we show it to everybody, and they love it. Every time so far, at least people are like all excited about it. And then you've got six months for final turnaround. And so, you've got about four months until you can announce at some point. And so that's four months for your brain to start thinking, 'oh my God, what the hell have we done here?' And so this is just the same thing, but it's just the stakes went up a little bit higher. So it was a little bit more of that feeling of we were in the studio writing this stuff and then we're in the studio recording it. And the whole time we were just like, man, this fucking rules. I really like this. This is really what we want to be doing right now at this time in our existence of a band.

And then you hear the whole thing and then, like, we would all just listen to it and we showed Kathy and then we showed... We showed people and everyone was just like, 'oh my God, this is the best thing you guys have ever done, etc etc.' And then we turned it in and we're waiting since January up until like June 9th. And we're all just like, 'wait, is it good? It's good, right?' I listened to it again in the car this way. And I think it's good, but maybe I'm too old now. And I don't know, you have these kind of thoughts.

I think we can all deal with that in healthier ways these days. And so it's at the end of the day, we all just kind of sat there and be like, I mean, 'it is what it is.' Like we're locked in now. It's like being at the top of a rollercoaster and being like, 'oh, should I go in this?' The point is moot at this point. We're going on this ride whether you like it or not. So yeah, it was kind of that feeling, but there were moments of like, 'wow, this is kind of a crazy thing for us to write as a band,' but for better, for worse, this is the band we are now. So people are going to have to take it or leave it.

I was quite surprised going back and reading old interviews with you a while ago. You were talking about sort of being a little bit apprehensive about a new album coming out and trying to shy away from reading reviews, and it surprised me because I've always conceived of Deafheaven as a band who, whoever they're pissing off, they're pissing off somebody. And I sort of expected you to be just like inured to it, just like completely defiant and just like, yeah, well, you know what? Some people are going to hate it. Is there still this kind of thrill about upending expectations?

McCoy: Yeah. I mean, that's a great question. A couple things. One is I stopped reading reviews. Well, I'll read the reviews, I'll read the big reviews, the ones that whatever... I stopped reading comments, I stopped reading any of that kind of stuff, when Sunbather first happened, or even before Sunbather when we did Roads to Judah, and it was our first little glimpse into, like, the wider world as a whole as aware of our existence. It's an exciting thing, especially like we were 22, 23 and you just want to, 'oh, wow, cool. Like people like this stuff we make, that's cool. I'll read it, you know? Wow.' And you kind of get into it. And then around Sunbather, I kind of realized that it doesn't really matter either way, even with reviews because as much as I am grateful for the critical love we've been shown, it doesn't mean that it'll happen all the time or not. Or people are human beings, etc. And they have different opinions on things and that's their job or whatever.

But the one thing that I came across as, especially back in the day in the Sunbather days, there seemed to be two camps of people who thought that we were God's gift to music as a whole, and this is this brand new thing that's whatever. And then, there's these people that just think like the world would be a better place if everyone in the band was aborted or something. Just these despicable, evil things being said about us. I realized kind of that both of these camps are wrong. We're not the worst thing that ever happened to music. And we're not The Beatles or whatever. We're just guys who write music and people feel a way about it.

And if you connect with them, I'm grateful for that. And it's just the music we want to make. I guess what I'm getting to is that after that experience, and then going into New Bermuda and all these kinds of things, I kind of realized, like, that's none of my business anyway, in a weird way. We do have this kind of bravado of, like, when we were in the studio, I remember people being like, wow, like this is going to be crazy, that this is a Deafheaven record, you know? And I remember us kind of being around, "Yeah. It's a Deafheavan record, because we say it is, and we're Deafheaven and that's what we get to do. But at a certain time, you're also like you got to live in the world. And like I'm aware of our previous content and what it sounds like and I'm aware of what people expect when they hear it. And none of us are millionaires. We've got to go hit the road and play this thing and pay our bills and stuff. So you can have a little bit of that bravado but you also, you're lying to yourself if you don't at some level kind of be like, oh God, like I hope they like it. I don't know. I like it. What does it say about me if this is this thing that I've poured two years of my life about into. People can think what they want. I like this. We all are very happy with it. And if this is the last thing we ever make and we can never play another show again, then at least we were honest with ourselves.

Clarke: I will second all of that. And another misconception has kind of often been that there's an intention to make our audience, to kind of to trick them, or to lead them astray, or to kind of trick the metal audience at large, and that's never been the case. That we ended up kind of subverting expectation, I think is a exciting side effect of the music that we make. But it's always just been about making things that we are feeling passionate about in the moment, and music that is simply just kind of a reflection of who we are.

And yet, after Sunbather, and I remember this, especially around Ordinary, I remember saying it out loud that all we wanted to do was just put our head down and work. And I think that we've really, despite if some people might think that we're kind of these trolls or something, I think that the only thing that we've ever really wanted to do and have done is just put our head down and work and tour and try and make things that are interesting to us and thankful for the people that connect with it.

I was thinking about the sort of semantics of your roots in what would be called extreme music, extreme metal. And yeah, bringing in Justin to work on this record, some of the influences that you were talking about here, Justin produced the Paramore record, 2017, After Laughter, which is one of the more, even by Paramore standards that was sonically diverse for them. I sort of wonder if there's something about Deafheaven that is constantly working in extremes, that yes, there's extreme metal on the one side of it, but there's a maximalism to this record that there's absolutely no sense of, 'okay, well, we should pull it back here a little bit.' If you're going to do melodies, you're really going to do melodies.

Clarke: It feels so good to hear you say that because I completely agree, and that has been with us since bringing in the Justin question. Will this guy work with us, and do we want to work with him, and why do we want to work with him? And that maximalism was a huge factor. And I've said this a couple of times, but I'll say it again. For me anyway, there was a real intention to replace the speed and metallic heft of our older records with density and hooks and real interlocking melody for this record and because we didn't want anything to feel lacking. We wanted it to feel grandiose. We knew that he was capable of making that sound.

The record that I was listening to mostly from his catalog while we were working was M83's Junk. It has so much variety. There's so much on that record that's bombastic and unafraid, and I wanted to take that and apply it to our sound. And I think we definitely did that. Not only working with him, but Shiv and Kerry really stepped it up with creative guitar playing. I think that this is such a guitar-centric album. I think that there's so many great textures and elements that they bring to it. And yeah, it was definitely thought about. And I was hoping that that was something that we would achieve.

The way that it seems like this band has worked for the past decade has been that you've gained confidence with each album. With each album, you work a little bit more cohesively as a unit. You understand each other better as musicians, yeah, also as people. And therefore, you sort of feel free to channel every possible influence into your work that as a unit, you don't need to push anything away. Are there things that you listen to now that you still haven't quite managed to fold into the Deafheaven sound? Are there things that right now beyond even Deafheaven?

McCoy: Yeah. It's not on the record, but at one point we were tossing around the idea of throwing an early DJ Shadow or the first Unkle record, kind of Boards of Canada-y kind of vibe in it. It's something that I listened to kind of that kind of stuff a lot. I'm sure it's not hard to see maybe a little bit of a Portishead or Massive Attack influence in the band, but there's a lot of stuff that I'm interested in, and Shiv was interested, George is interested, etc, like the Mo' Wax label stuff. And yeah, kind of just like early Warp records where we were going to kind of try and kind of throw, again, sort of like "Airbag" from OK Computer kind of like a DJ Shadow kind of thing. And it didn't quite fit. It didn't quite get in there. And it kind of wound up being for the best.

There's a few lanes still left to explore I think for us, and I hope that we have that for the remainder of the band, that there's always something, another flavor we can try. I think that's what's best about being a creative person.

Clarke: Yeah, that was definitely that more like laidback, breakbeat kind of trip hop influence that we did toy with quite a bit, but didn't necessarily land on this album. I would say that and Mary Lattimore, something that's quite a bit orchestral and kind of bringing in more of those auxiliary instruments into the fold, that's something that we've yet to do. Even strings or what have you, we've we've never really gone that way for no particular reason. Like Kerry said, I think there's always something that is, that is really keeping us interested, and there's always something to bring into the fold, and there's always something to try out. And I think we have kind of positioned ourselves in a way that we're able to. Hopefully we'll just continue experimenting and continue growing and doing the thing.

Deafheaven on evolution, reinvention, and Infinite Granite