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Deafheaven: The Dark Side of Sunshine

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Deafheaven. | Photo: Reid Haithcock.

In September of last year, George Clarke, vocalist and frontman for heavy rock band Deafheaven, moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. "I had a lot of friends in L.A.," Clarke explains. "When we had visited it was always this lively scene, but when you move somewhere you realize that people have their own lives that they are busy with." After his move, Clarke experienced the type of loneliness that comes with uprooting your life, further complicated by the fact that the singer was living with his girlfriend for the first time in his life. Already critically acclaimed following its release early last month, Deafheaven's album "New Bermuda" is a cycle of sonic poems thematically rooted in the gap between what we envision for ourselves when we embark on life-altering journeys, and the stark reality that always seems to lie ahead waiting.

"The record surrounds the idea of starting over and being hopeful of a new beginning, but then ultimately you're let down by the realities of life," says Clarke via a hissing cell phone line from somewhere in the desert; the band is currently on the road promoting the new album. "It's about the false promise. You have too many expectations, and the album is about the come down from that."

Judging by headlines and music coverage over the course of the last two years, it's hard to imagine Deafheaven having to come down from anything. With their idiosyncratic blend of indie rock nerve and churning guitar-driven black metal riffs, the band founded in 2010 by Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy and later expanded to include guitarist Shiv Mehra, bassist Stephen Clark, and drummer Daniel Tracy has reached audiences far beyond the relative confines of the metal scene from which they hail.

"I do consider us a metal band," says Clarke. "I've talked about labels so many times I don't really know what to say about it anymore. People can argue over that forever, I guess," the singer says with a hint of resignation. In the underground metal scene, the band's blatant disregard for genre conventions has made Deafheaven something of a favorite whipping boy. But the quintet's masterful musical eclecticism is exactly what has given them crossover appeal and made them one of the most highly praised bands of the last decade.

Deafheaven. | Photo: Kristen Cofer.
Deafheaven. | Photo: Kristen Cofer.

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The band's mainstream breakthrough came with the 2013 release of their second album "Sunbather," an album that became one of the best reviewed of the year, praised as a modern cross-genre masterpiece blending post-rock and shoegaze on a backdrop of blast beats and distorted guitars. "We take it in stride," says Clarke when asked about his overwhelming success. "The attention is very flattering and at times quite surprising. We love the critical praise obviously, but we don't pay too much attention to it."

Written in L.A. and San Francisco, "New Bermuda" has also been a roaring success, but it is in no way an obvious sequel. "For this record we wanted to think outside the box and expand our sound in different ways. We wanted to use tools we haven't used before: heavier riffing and a focus on a more metallic sound. We're also letting go of some of the post-rock and shoegaze strokes we've used on previous records. We focus on hooks and melody more. We wanted to retain our sound but in a new way." The result is an album that fluently weaves together such diverse influences as the fierce noise attack of Norwegian black metal pioneers Emperor with the cerebral alt-rock of Wilco.

One of the influences on Clarke's songwriting for "New Bermuda" was his move from San Francisco to L.A. On the album's second track, the 10 minute "Luna," Clarke offers a description of his new home: "There is no ocean for me. There is no glamour. Only the mirage of water ascending from the asphalt. I gaze at it from the oven of my home. Confined to a house that never remains clean."

"I was sitting in my kitchen looking out my window on a particularly hot day," Clarke says of the song's provenance. "When I first moved to L.A. I spent a lot of time alone, kind of being a hermit and dwelling on negative things. It's the only song I've ever written that to me has really clear negative feelings associated with it." The domestic nightmare Clarke introduces his audience to inverts the typical sunshine and glamour tropes of L.A.

"When we were writing 'New Bermuda,' I was reading a lot of Andre Breton. I think his writing always plays a part in mine. I enjoy surreal language and bizarre descriptions."

At this point the phone call is dropped. Deafheaven is out of reach, lost to the highway somewhere out in the desert. Somewhere in between the disparate realities of touring and the inconsistency of reality in the Southland, Clarke is watching for his next inspirational disappointment.

 

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