It’s clear from his band’s two genre-hopping LPs and his onstage histrionics that Deafheaven frontman George Clarke has a predilection for the dramatic. Last year’s well-regarded sophomore record Sunbather drew heavily from two diametrically opposed pillars of melodrama (the weepy moans of shoegaze and the twilight rush of black metal) and rocketed the San Francisco project, helmed by Clarke and co-founder guitarist Kerry McCoy, from metal-scene pariahs to a crossover success story extolled by outfits like Spin and Pitchfork.com. This success can be at least partially attributed to Clarke’s intense night-in-and-night-out emotionality. In conversation with Clarke, with whom this interviewer caught up on the phone from a Michigan tour stop, that theatricality peeked through in his generally enthusiastic demeanor.
“Darkness always meant more to me than anything else,” he explained, regarding the early interests that eventually drew him to black metal. Whether it was the writings of Edgar Allan Poe or the body-horror of early Stephen King, the art that appealed to Clarke from a young age tended to skew toward the morbid. “It always felt stronger than things that were lighthearted or playful or bright.”
But even a cursory listen to Sunbather or a brief glance at the wide swath of accolades won by Clarke and McCoy shows the focus of their project isn’t just all-consuming darkness. There's something more complicated at play, something a bit more like life that can be found between the splatter-painted blast beats and vocal squelches.
Deafheaven’s ethos, from the beginning, has been an auditory chiaroscuro. Teetering on the edge between beauty and the void, the musicians have found a unique and, it seems, relatable balance between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. McCoy’s soaring guitar parts and found-sound samples could easily be seen as creating tension against Clarke’s shrieks and moans, but at its best Sunbather emphasizes a unity of the styles rather than a contrast.
“Darkness and light often complement one another,” insisted Clarke. “And there’s a difference between dark music and dark themes. There will always be a dark undercurrent to what we play, but I don’t necessarily think the music absolutely needs to reflect that. If it does, it does so in a way that’s complementary.”
This finely orchestrated balance has won them almost universal acclaim in the wake of their latest record, and this tour supporting North Carolina prog-metal aesthetes Between the Buried and Me can be seen as something of a victory lap. Pairing a band like Deafheaven, that scoffs at genre conventions as much as embraces them, can be a tricky prospect for those agents in charge of packaging tours, but the same power that won over more mainstream audiences to the darker elements of the band’s sound can work the other way around, too.
“I think people identify with the record from different angles and grew to appreciate the other parts that they didn’t identify with initially,” Clarke commented. “I’m all for a broader audience and a more well-rounded view of aggressive music as a whole.”
Whatever audiences at large make of Deafheaven, between Sunbather, an unusually contemplative and considered melding of seemingly disparate genres, and their predictably punishing live shows, the band is on to something special.
Euronymous, of black metal forefathers Mayhem, once famously said that “if a band cultivates and worships Satan, it’s black metal.” Deafheaven’s concerns aren’t so uniform. As Clarke put it, the band explores “the contrast between darkness and light, but there’s also sadness and there’s frustration and there’s sexuality.” These are big, heady topics; topics that are far bigger than black metal. There’s something engaging and endearing about attempts to tackle themes so big in such a dramatic manner, but when Deafheaven does so successfully (as they often do, both sonically and aesthetically), the results are undeniable.
Deafheaven supports Between the Buried and Me with Intronaut, The Kindred on Thurs, March 20, The Ritz Ybor, Ybor City, 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $18 (all ages). More info at theritzybor.com.