Steel For Brains: Knit the Fire - A Conversation with Deafheaven
Leaving little room for doubt that their sound is both triumphant and terrifyingly beautiful, Deafheaven is that band which immediately carves its way into the channels of the listener’s consciousness. Their stunning debut, Roads to Judah, released last year to much critical acclaim and, let’s be honest, hype - was and is well worth the press. Taking the post-rock noise of their Godspeed predecessors and weaving that through a tapestry of raw emotion and black metal aesthetics places Deafheaven in a league rarely seen in the metal genre. It’s not that vocalist George Clarke set out to break new ground or create what is perhaps one of the most intriguing and challenging metal albums of the last few years, but he did it all the same with Roads to Judah. The good news is - it’s only the beginning. I recently had the privilege of chatting with George just to discuss, among other things, the process of making the album and why Roads to Judah is a baby step in a much larger journey for the band.
The first question I have for you, George, concerns the evolution of Deafheaven. From the inception of the group to where you guys are now, sonically, personally, emotionally – in what ways have you seen that growth for you guys as a band?
I think initially when we started out, we had an idea of what we wanted to accomplish musically, but not necessarily all the tools and the know-how of how to do it. I think as time has gone by, we’ve done a lot of touring, and we’ve played with a lot of great bands, and our personal relationships have grown with one another – I think those things have definitely helped us out a lot. I think the new material that we’re writing – it shows a large amount of growth. I mean, we still have the same idea that we started out with, but it’s expanded quite a bit.
As a musician, what are your personal origins?
I mean, you know, since I was young I’ve been pretty much listening to everything. Middle school years and things like that, it was definitely metal, and then when it got to early high school years it became metal and punk, and then from that point it just expanded into a ton of different directions – just being exposed to so many different bands and so many different genres. But, my musical journey – if you want to call it that – started out in metal. You know, Slayer, early Florida death metal scene like Obituary, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse. I got really into death metal at an early age, and then got more into punk and hardcore in high school. Always listened to death metal still, but there were other things as well. Instrumental, new wave, even pop or whatever you want to call it. It’s just grown bigger and bigger. I have a pretty big appreciation for music on all levels.
You can certainly hear the diverse background in Deafheaven’s music, George. There’s not a specific point of reference for the listener, and I think that kind of conglomeration of sound is just one thing that sets you guys apart. Any time you talk to a musician or band who’s just coming together and has a specific sound they’re trying to create or emulate, it tends to be just that – a kind of mimicry, and that’s one thing you don’t get from Deafheaven. The influences? Yes. But the sound is solely yours. I was introduced to Roads to Judah a few weeks after the album dropped and was immediately floored by the lack of a place I could put the band’s sound. It’s something I personally always look for in a group and something I think garners a lot of the respect you guys have from fans and critics alike. As far as the evolution of metal itself, George, I think you’ve been around long enough to sort of see the changes occurring within the genre itself. When I hear the metal I grew up with and compare it to the sounds and music being produced and embraced today by surprising sects of the media, it’s interesting to see that kind of progression and respect for a genre that’s admittedly been around for years. How do you feel about the recent trends with regards to the genre?
I absolutely agree. I think there’s definitely been a lot more attention paid to it. I think there’s a kind of large major media outlet focus on it. I mean, you know, to tell the truth, I don’t why in just the last couple of years people have picked up on it as much as they have. I think it’s a genre that should have always been appreciated at that level, but at the same time it’s not as accessible as other types of music, and these things can take time. You know, that same situation can be applicable to a multitude of genres. Metal, you know, was never featured on things like Pitchfork and NPR as heavily as it is now. Metal’s always had its major outlets and things, but the wider audience it’s getting now thanks to those outlets, I think it’s cool. I think there’s a lot of work going into the independent scene, especially. I think fans of the metal scene have basically grown up and gone to work for NPR or Pitchfork and are deciding to pay more attention to it. I’m definitely not against it. I think that, if anything, it’s a natural progression to where the genre’s appreciate should go.
I think you’re right, George. Of course there’s the part of me that wants to be frustrated and elitist when I see the crowd changes at metal shows over the last few years. Seven or eight years ago, virtually everyone at the black metal show is in a black t-shirt, has long hair, and so on and so forth – not demeaning that at all, but now the crowd is just completely diverse. There’s a whole new listener, basically. There’s an array of people waking up and saying “This is a viable art form. This is not shtick or some hack performance.” There’s the dichotomy that’s ever present for me, George. On one hand I’m thrilled there’s so many people being exposed to the genre I love, but on the other hand I’m scoffing at the “trend” factor, as it were. I don’t want fairweather fans just because some media outlet happened to feature this particular band on the same day as some other indie band the person happens to be into at the moment. People are taking note of what bands like Deafheaven and others are doing.
I think you’re going to have fairweather fans across the board in any genre regardless of who’s writing about who. And also I think it is a good thing that audiences have become more diverse. I like the kid in the black t-shirt just as much as I like the guy in the white collared shirt, you know. Just as a general example.
Oh, for sure. It’s definitely exciting. It’s just new and, frankly, unexpected. Anytime someone embraces an art form you love and have invested a large part of your life in, that’s definitely something worth taking note of and being thrilled about. The next question I have actually has to do with the album Roads to Judah, George. When you guys came together to create this album and this music, you were obviously coming at it from various perspectives, and you hear the typical screamo, black metal, post metal banter. There’s a litany of genres that were and still get thrown around with you guys, but you all seem to kind of transcend that with the album itself once you’ve actually listened to what it has to offer. A lot of the bullshit rhetoric honestly gets left in the wake of what you guys accomplish with Roads to Judah, and I’m just curious as to what the process was like for you guys.
You know, it’s always a strange question, because I can’t say it was a conscious thing. Our guitar player, Kerry, who writes most of our material, and I would just jam around and listen to records, and we started somewhere along the line noting similarities between genres and thinking “Hey, it’d be cool if someone put this kind of part in this song,” and then when we first started just messing around with those kinds of ideas, I guess we, in a sense, created a sound that way. It was never like “We’re gonna do this and do this.” It was much more organic. It was just kind us getting together, noticing those similarities, and then experimenting with them, and then thinking that they worked, and then on a whim decided to record it, and I guess it worked. I always feel strange answering that question, because I’m not entirely sure how we did what we did. We just liked a lot of different things and did our best to try and create something across the board – universally.
It’s always exciting to me to see that the process of creating the art was one of a kind of detachment or unconsciousness, George. You guys just coming together – five different personalities, five different experiences, five different point of awareness – and just creating this epic sound is something to certainly be heralded. It’s definitely difficult to pull off.
It was interesting to see the pieces fit.
Now you guys have a couple of shows with Godflesh, correct? Coming up?
Yes! We are, in November, we’re going to be playing a few dates with them in Japan.
How thrilled are you, man? Feel free to be a fanboy for a second [laughs].
I’m beyond [laughs]. When we first got approached with the opportunity we had some other things going on, and quite frankly we ended up sacrificing other plans, so we could do this, and it’s hugely important to us. Justin Broadrick and his projects have been hugely influential on what we do and the music we make, so yeah, man. I honestly couldn’t believe it was real at first. It took me a while [laughs]. It came together, and I can’t wait for.
Now, let’s talk about the split, George. You guys just recorded a split with Bosse-de-Nage.
We just recorded our side of it. I’m currently leaving the studio. We finished the mixing and mastering, and it went great. We finally have the finished product on hand. Bosse-de-Nage is a Bay-area band who we’ve been fans of since they released their demo a few years ago, and now their three albums deep, and all of them are great. So when we talked with them initially, which was probably over a year ago, we thought we should do some kind of cool, limited release together, and they were big fans of our as well and were good with the idea. So we just kept in touch, and it’s finally gonna happen. We should have the November release for the split. I just got the art for it, and everything came together nicely. The interesting thing for the split too, actually, was that instead of doing something original we opted to do a Mogwai cover. We did Punk Rock and Cody, both off Come On, Die Young, and we just put them both together as one long track, essentially. I’m thrilled with the way it came out.
Well, in reading and poking around the internet, I have to say I’m thrilled as well to see you guys are already working on the follow up to Roads to Judah, George.
We are, actually. We are working on our follow up LP.
Do you see a definitive change from the sound in Roads to Judah or is it more of a progression of that sound?
It’s definitely a much bigger endeavor. It is certainly a nod to Roads to Judah in certain ways, because I think we’ve kind of created a bit of our sound, but it’s really expansive. There’s a lot more going on. It’s just a lot more mature, honestly. It feels a lot more thought out and bigger and, I think, better. We’ve done a few rough demos of just a couple of tracks and, to me, when I listen to it, it makes Roads to Judah sound pretty elementary. And that could be because it’s been a couple of years since we released the first record, and we’ve had so much time to sit down and formulate new ideas, but I’m really happy with it so far. Really looking forward to when we can record and start promoting that release. I think it’ll be much better than Roads.
A lot of times bands will change just for the sake of change. In my mind it ends up sounding contrived, oftentimes. But when a band experiments and goes in different directions while maintaining their definitive sound, it’s always interesting and exciting to me, personally, as a fan.
It’s all about maintaining your balance and making sure you’re not forcing yourself to do anything you don’t want to do just for the sake of change, while at the same time pushing your boundaries and following the organic direction, basically.
How do you as a musician and fan of music yourself, George, see how the social networking boom has affected the way music is heard, distributed, marketed, etc.? Obviously there’s been a huge shift. What is your take on the music piracy issue or music file sharing issue?
I think that open file sharing is a positive thing. I think it helps music get around a lot. I also, at the same time, have a great respect for, you know, physical music – if that’s CDs, vinyls, or whatever. I think there’s still a huge population that supports that and will continue to, and I think that you’re really not going to stop people from downloading. Quite honestly, I do both, and I don’t think I’m harming anyone. I think if you’re able to download a record just to hear it, and that causes you to go see the band, and buy their record, I don’t see any harm in that at all. It’s just the way things are now. I’m at an age where it’s the way things have been for a long time, and you have to learn to adapt with it and use it to your advantage, hopefully. Otherwise you don’t survive as an industry.
Do you kind of see the reasoning behind the huge record labels struggling as an indicator of them not adapting to that change? I mean, granted, there’s smaller record labels struggling for the same reason as well.
When it first happened it was probably a hard thing to adapt to. I mean, I’m not in there shoes. I understand it takes a lot for the industry to continue, but I don’t feel sympathy, necessarily. I just feel you should roll with the punches and, like I said, ultimately find a way to use it to your advantage. I think a ton of labels have, honestly. Especially with record purchases – so many have exclusive downloads they offer. At so many of these shows, these smaller labels are supporting music recording and sharing. It’s at a certain point where people are just having to adapt, and I personally just don’t see it as that big of an issue at this point. Not anymore.
A lot of people our age don’t see it as an issue, yet there’s a group of people who will throw out the word “stealing” or what have you, and then you try to explain that the vast amount of money that these bands make is from shows and selling merchandise. In my mind, if you really want to support a band it has fuck all to do with their album. It has to do with going to see them live and buying their merchandise. There’s a lot more to it that seems to be missing from the equation of the argument against file sharing.
There’s a million ways to support a band. And honestly, those who want to support a band or a label will continue to do so, and those who are fairweather fans simply won’t. It’s not going to matter to the artist, either way. I just don’t see the impact being that profound.
My last question, George, just has to do with you personally as someone whose life is entrenched in writing and making music. I’m just curious as to what you do in your leisure time when you’re not working with Deafheaven.
What do I enjoy doing? Hm. Honestly, I like to write a lot. When I’m not writing, I’m usually working or just hanging with friends. To tell the truth, Deafheaven takes up a lot of my mental energy – pretty much all of it.
What’s the last good book you read, man?
The last book I read was Herzog and it was good. I enjoyed it. I try to read as much as I can. I go through periods where I won’t be able to put books down, and then I’ll go six months without reading one. I love touring, because that allows for more reading, and I honestly get most of that done during that time. I try and do things I enjoy as much as I can when I’m not focusing on the band. Deafheaven and work [laughs].
Time for a shameless plug, George, but when can we expect to see Deafheaven here in Birmingham, man?
I’m hoping, if all goes to plan accordingly, we’ll be in the studio recording the next LP around December, and then start a US touring schedule hopefully in early spring, around March or April, and it’ll be an extensive US tour.
Be on the lookout for the upcoming Deafheaven/Boss-De-Nage split. Deafheaven covering Mogwai, despite what purists may say, is an absolutely natural fit, and something I personally can’t wait to hear. Thanks so much to George for his time and to Deathwish Inc. for offering up yet another incredible group of musicians. If you’re ever in doubt that the metal genre has run out of ideas, look no further than the path that leads you to Roads to Judah by way of Deafheaven.
Cheers. - D