It is a truly arduous task finding a fresh statement in heavy music. Genres have splintered into sub-genres which have given way to a deluge of predictable, formulaic, and, if I may be honest, mediocre fare that sneaks by on the often-blind enthusiasm of the metal community. If it's heavy, it's heavy, right?
However, San Francisco's Deafheaven has succeeded in defiantly bold fashion with its second full length release, Sunbather, a strikingly original album that blends the drowning guitars and expansive atmospheres of British shoegaze with the tortured screams and relentless percussion of black metal. It demonstrates the band hitting its stride, graduating from the awkward gait that characterized 2011's Roads to Judah.
Sunbather spent the months following its release heralded as a masterpiece by everyone from the top alternative metal blogs to more mainstream music outlets including NPR and Spin. While many in the metal community find the band a polarizing progression, the acclaim Sunbather has received is completely unprecedented for a record painted in such abrasive colors. We spoke with Deafheaven frontman George Clarke before the band's Friday night show at Revolution Live.
New Times: Sunbather received a lot of press from outlets that don't normally touch the more experimental and/or extreme sides of metal, and it appears to have done a lot to progress the acceptance of extreme music as an art form. How does that feel, particularly considering that it's the band's sophomore album?
George Clarke: I think it's cool. Obviously it's not something that we were particularly aiming for, but, I'm happy that people picked up on it. It doesn't really matter what world or what angle you come from, but, if you appreciate the album, we appreciate that. I think that as far as mainstream relationships to the record goes, it has definitely broadened a few horizons. But, I take it all in stride. I don't put a lot of weight into it -- I think it's cool and I appreciate it a lot -- but it doesn't change much for us. I would never let things like that get in the way of how I perceive ourselves, or metal music in general.
I personally want to believe that outlets like NPR including the album on its year end top lists shows signs of a growing willingness in the mainstream to approach more extreme art.
Yeah, I think that has something to do with the record having accessible elements in it that are outside of aggressive music. To me, it's a combination of things: Right time, right place. Obvious effort. Not-so-obvious effort. It's kind of everything combined. It's cool. And I don't think that we're alone: I think a lot of bands right now are getting coverage from things like Spin and Pitchfork and shit like that. It's just the time.
On the development of the band's sound, how did the more atmospheric element find its way into the mix?
I think that we always wanted to aim for that. Even when were just first talking about forming a band, we wanted it to be built up around atmosphere. Bands like Cold World and Burzum, and a lot of French singing really shaped our early sound. So, I think there was always a focus on atmosphere. And, you know, there's always a focus on incorporating the shoegazing elements or post-rock elements in the music, so, that's been there since the beginning, it's just taken a few years to develop in a way that seems to be cohesive and interesting and work well within the song.
As a serious fan of black metal, did you have to make a conscious choice to separate yourself from the battle cry of hyper-authenticity that seems to be the trend amongst the genre's more dedicated constituents?
It's a style of music that I've been listening to for so many years now that it doesn't even come into play. Even before the band was a band, I never had anything to prove to anybody. I've been listening to records like that since I was a young teenager and I didn't have a studded battle jacket then and I don't now and I've never gone out of my way to really like try to identify with anybody or have some sense of elitism. So, I understand that it exists, obviously, but it's just nothing I really cared about ever. I think people kind of take it to a level that is just unnecessary, you know?
I imagine people lob that question your way pretty frequently, but it is such a specific association in the black metal world.
Yeah, and even the idea of being authentic is, for the most part, really inauthentic. If you end up knowing any of the dudes that kind of started it -- and at this point, I've met a couple -- you'd probably be really surprised. The general person's perception of how people in music relate towards music and how they view it and things like that is typically -- what I've found as I've morphed from a outward perspective to an inward one -- it's much less severe than you would think. People are pretty open-minded and, especially if you're into dark music, you're into a variety of things and you don't care for elitist attitudes and such.
Sunbather's lyrics are extremely personal. Did you achieve what you had hoped to by being so open? Have you expressed what you set out to?
I did. I mean, I think initially a lot of the things were pretty up in the air. I remember when we first started the record, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to talk about, and over time, I pieced together a fuller picture and investigated these feelings that I was going through and focused them and then wrote about them more intensely and in a more personal way and that became the lyric sheet for the album. I think that there's a nice direction to it and that it makes a lot of sense. I'm happy with the response to it because I know a lot of times -- at least in our genre -- there isn't a huge lyrical focus. But, people have decided to tune into these ones and it's cool, it's really cool. I think that you really can't understand the record in full until you've ingested the subject matter.
In shoegaze and black metal both, there is a similar lack of definition to things sonically and you can hear a lot of what you want to hear, but you have to dig deeper to find out what the artist is actually expressing. It's almost conceptual in a way, and I think that's a major part of why Deafheaven's sound is so cohesive.
I've always viewed in both genres the vocals serve more of a musical purpose than they do a lyric delivery, but I would agree that if you enjoy the music and you appreciate what it is that we're doing, the only way to really take that next step is to investigate the lyrics and it would take that to fully immerse yourself in the record. And I think that's cool, because that's how I felt when I was getting into music. There was albums that I loved that I couldn't even tell what they were talking about, but would investigate and go into it and that's what would turn a record that I liked into a record that I loved and remembered.