All photos by Carmelo Espanola
By Andrew Wilhelm (TX)
Inside the savage beast of black metal, you may sometimes find that beauty still lives. Even better, the visceral and the splendid can co-exist. Such is the modus operandi of San Francisco's Deafheaven. When "Violet," the first track off of their new record Roads to Judah, first comes through your headphones, you may think you've just stumbled upon a lost Slowdive record. The prettiness collapses upon itself soon enough, and tremoloed malevolence reigns. Judah alternates between the two seamlessly, resulting in what great black metal does - mix majesty and pure hellfire - but Deafheaven also incorporate 90s emotive hardcore (aka "emo" pre-Hot Topic) into their vision. This is not just prevalent in the riffs, but also in the earnestness of vocalist George LeSage Clarke's performance. His black metal screams come from a hardcore approach - sometimes he holds a mic, sometimes he's just screaming at the audience. It's powerful wherever he howls and whoever he's howling at. The whole band, as a matter of fact, gives it their all, and it shows.
I spoke with Clarke about the Judah validity of "blackened emo," Bay Area black metal, and a little bit about Rhianna.
Crustcake: How was the overall SXSW experience for you guys?
George LeSage Clarke, vocals: It was awesome. It was actually something we've been looking forward to a lot prior to, and it exceeded all our expectations. A lot of people harp on how crowded it is and such, but we just had a great time. All the shows we played were a lot of fun and pretty successful as far as what we were trying to accomplish.
Crustcake: Did you guys do any shows aside from the BrooklynVegan/Profound Lore day party and the Feed the Beat Party?
Clarke: Those were the two big ones for us, and we did a few house shows also which ended up being pretty successful as well.
Crustcake: One of the big things about SXSW is that bands try and pack in as many shows as they can. How did you feel about doing all that? Must have been exhausting at the end of it.
Clarke: Yeah, it get a little tiring. I think we all kind of recognize that it is a pretty unique experience to be a part of, so it didn't get any of us down.
Crustcake: Did you happen to run into Odd Future at the fest?
Clarke: I went a Vice party Saturday night, and they played. It was a pretty intimate setting - small stage and maybe 400 people. It was awesome, they were great.
Crustcake: It'd be funny if you ran into them and Tyler, the Creator agreed to make a remix of y'alls album.
Clarke: The girl that we took along with us, our friend Sydney, she met a few of them - we got into the VIP area of the party. A couple of them were hanging out, so she did a little schmoozing…
Crustcake: One of the people I met at SXSW described you guys as "blackened emo." Would you say that's an accurate assessment?
Clarke: Not entirely, no. I think "blackened emo's" a little strong. We definitely harbor a lot of first-wave scream influences and certainly a lot of black metal influences, but to categorize us as something like that would be a little inaccurate.
Crustcake: Especially that emo still kind of has that bad connotation with the mainstream stuff.
Clarke: Yeah. Our music is emotionally charge, and it's written to invoke emotion. But yea, to have the tag of "emo" and especially "blackened emo," that's just not something we're going for, necessarily.
Crustcake: Some of the riffs, they're played in a black metal style, but they hearken back to classic emo. Would you say that's accurate?
Clarke: Yeah. That's more of a question that our guitar player Kerry [McCoy] could answer a little better than me, but I do know that, musically, we do use a lot of melodic chords. In terms of layering, I guess that's the more black metal aspect. We take the melodic chords and layer them and play them at a speed to where it would be more fitting as a black metal riff rather than an emotive hardcore riff.
Crustcake: You mention layering - Deafheaven reminds me a bit of post-rock and shoegaze. Would you consider those types of music influence your sound?
Clarke: Hugely, especially in terms of layering. We do focus on a wall of sound - multiple tracking, really just making everything as thick and loud as possible.
Crustcake: I know you guys are from San Francisco, and the Bay Area's become sort of known for the new strain of black metal with bands like Weakling and Leviathan. Is there a connection between y'all and the bay area black metal bands?
Clarke: I would say we sort of have the influence, especially with Weakling, and then you have Ludicra, which has really opened a lot of doors in terms of more of an up-and-current style of black metal. I think in terms of that, yeah, we certainly relate, and to a certain degree, we fit in as well. I don't necessarily think we're doing the exact same thing as those bands, but as far as we go, they're highly respected and we're happy to be mentioned in the same breath as they are.
Crustcake: It's interesting that the Weakling record was released in 1999, but it took a few years, with bands like Wolves in the Throne Room taking from Weakling, for the album to be recognized.
Clarke: Yeah, that band [Weakling], I think really revolutionized the sound and ushered in what people would call the New Wave of American Black Metal. That record is hugely influential on a number of bands.
Crustcake: Like Weakling, you guys favor long compositions. Is that something you take directly from them?
Clarke: Like i said, we definitely have that influence, I think a lot of those surging melodies and large buildups come a lot from our shoegaze influence, to be honest. And our post-rock influence, and very soundtrack-esque stuff from those type of bands, but yes, certainly Weakling, as I mentioned before, one of the first bands to really expand and use those types of sounds with aggressive black metal.
Crustcake: When the band first formed, it was just you and Kerry. How did the other guys [drummer Trevor Deschryver, bassist Derek Prine, guitarist Nick Bassett] come into the band?
Clarke: Kerry and I had originally recorded the demo, and it [Deafheaven] was originally just supposed to be a studio project that the two of us did for fun. And then when we started getting approached about doing shows, we thought maybe it'd be fun to do a show. Kerry knew a couple of players and we found some other guys who were likeminded and enjoyed what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it. We got them on board and played a couple shows, and after those went well, we decided to take the project full-on and began writing new songs.
Crustcake: Where'd you find your drummer? He seems kinda young.
Clarke: [laughs] We get that a lot. He is the youngest member of the band and he looks a lot younger than he actually is, so people usually get pretty surprised when they see him. He's actually originally from Sacramento and he had moved to San Francisco for a job and to go to school. We were pretty hard up for a drummer at that point, we had talked with a few people but nothing successful and actually, Kerry was on Craigslist and Trevor had posted an ad with a list of influences. So we sent him the demo and wanted to get his thoughts on it. He sent back some tracks he recorded to give us a taste of his style. After we heard it, we set up a meeting immediately and everything worked out really well and is continuing to.
Crustcake: What was the making of your record like?
Clarke: It was pretty easy. We actually, when we were approached by the label initially, we had half of Roads to Judah written. The process had been going along fairly smoothly already. So by the time we got to the studio, things were really well put-together already. We already knew what we were gonna do, and in terms of tones and production, we knew what we wanted, so we just kinda went in and hammered it out. The recording took three and a half days, so yeah, we did it pretty quickly.
Crustcake: Does the album have a unifying concept to it at all?
Clarke: Not necessarily, it's not a concept record, but there are universal themes as far as the lyrics go. A lot of the lyrics are kind of thematic, but no, it is not a concept record.
Crustcake: What do you express in your lyrics?
Clarke: The lyrics are all personal reflection. We have no political agenda, no social agenda. I don't talk about anything other what's going on in my life and my feelings and my reactions to those things that are going on. When the record was written, there was a lot of crazy, pretty crazy things going on in my life, especially in terms of alcoholism and drug use and just constantly going and never taking a break. Created a very chaotic atmosphere, and what comes along with that is lost relationships and disconnection and isolation and all those things that come along with that lifestyle. All the negative aspects of it. So the record really focuses on that primarily - the last year of my life, the insanity surrounding it, and my reflection based off those insane events.
Crustcake: Do you still do drugs?
Clarke: It's nothing that I would consider to be - as far as the drugs go, they happen here and there, it's whatever. It was just as a certain point, it got to be too much and I had to break away for a bit because when all that's happening, it's not good. But I take my life in moderation with everything I do, and I don't really have any qualms about what it is I do.
Crustcake: Does that become harder to manage out on the road?
Clarke: No, touring is fine because you're so busy all the time. It's a constant - you wake up, you're pretty much on schedule. By the time we do play a show, we generally have to leave soon after to drive to the next one. You drink here and there, it's nothing - what's bad is when you have nothing to do and you sit in your room all day and drink a bottle of whiskey to yourself and fall asleep at 8 PM and wake up at 3 AM not knowing what happened.
Crustcake: Going back to the record, what kind of growth or change do you notice between the demo and the new record?
Clarke: I would say there's a pretty significant change. We always had the same kind of idea of what to do. The demo was really written in a short amount of time, and Kerry just had some riffs, so we threw them together and we honestly didn't think that it was gonna turn out to be what it is today at all. Not to say we didn't put thought in it, but from a beginner's standpoint, I think it's a very amateur effort. I think that the full-length - we consciously sat down and thought "how can we take what we're doing already and expand on it as much as possible?" And especially with working with different players and other musicians bringing their ideas to the table, I think what the full-length is compared to the demo is just a very expansive version of it.
Crustcake: How did you guys hook up with Deathwish to put out the record?
Clarke: It was actually pretty unexpected. Deathwish approached us after our demo had hit the blog circuit. We had sent it out to a few friends that ran some blogs just to gather some opinions on what people may have thought of the demo. After that, it took off, and Deathwish had seen it floating around and liked it a lot. Trey from Deathwish emailed me initially wanting to release the demo, but at that point, we had already started the full band, and were already in the writing process for songs for Roads to Judah. I told him "I appreciate you wanting to put out the demo, but to be honest, this new material we're working on is far better and if you'd be interested in doing that instead, then I'm all for it," and he totally agreed. The strength of the demo allowed us to write this new record and [have Deathwish] put it out for us.
Crustcake: Van had emailed me saying one of the demo tapes went for 50-60 dollars on Ebay, which I think is kinda funny. Does the collector mentality in some elements of underground music bother you at all?
Clarke: No. I love it. I think that especially in a digital age, collecting is where it's at. You're gonna be either the guy that just downloads everything or you're gonna be a collector, so I think the underground scene really thrives on people that have a collector's mentality. I'm happy - if someone wants to buy a tape for 60 dollars, that's awesome. I would consider that support for our band, so it definitely is appreciated.
Crustcake: I definitely am a fan of physical media and collecting, I'd rather just give that money to you then bid it on Ebay.
Clarke: Yeah, I know, I get that, but if people wanna have everything and will go far lengths to get it, then it's obviously - it's material that's important to them and at the end of the day, if you are willing to spend that much money on a physical copy of something, it must have meant a fairly good deal to you.
Crustcake: My last question - I had saw that you had tweeted about digging Rhianna's new record. What do you dig about it? [ed. note - Clarke's Twitter account has since gone inactive]
Clarke: I am a sucker for a few Top 40 things. Top 40 music's very hit or miss, but when it hits, I'm usually really into it. I just like good production and I appreciate the musicianship of it. I think writing a really solid pop song is a lot more difficult than writing an aggressive styling. Sometimes I listen to music like that and I'm like "How did they do that? That's awesome!" I just appreciate the musicianship and ideas, which is kind of funny because most people would say that type of music lacks musicianship, but I disagree.
Deafheaven's next show will be at the Sound and Fury fest on the 24th at the Earl Warren Showground in Santa Barbara, CA. Bassett also has a shoegaze band Whirr that just signed to Tee Pee Records - their debut album, Distressor, can be streamed here.