Sunbather, the second album from Deafheaven, is a true listening “experience.” Clocking in at just under an hour, it moves from the epic blast-furnace riffage and jackhammer drumming of “Dream House” to the pensive, piano-laced wanderings of “Irresistible” with uncommon grace and fluidity. And that’s just the first two songs in a dynamic, ebb-and-flow album that has garnered love from across the musical landscape. (Metacritic listed it as the best-reviewed album of 2013, an unprecedented occurrence for a band as heavy as Deafheaven.)
Formed in 2010 by singer George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, the San Francisco five-piece is often described as Black Metal, but that’s just a starting point for a band that has name-checked everyone from Slayer and Mogwai to The Cranberries and The Smiths as influences.
CityBeat recently connected with Clarke — whose calm speaking voice is a far cry from his throat-shredding vocals on Sunbather — via phone to discuss the band’s relatively rapid rise to prominence, his love of darkness and the importance of not making a shitty record.
CityBeat: Sunbather is definitely a leap forward from the first record (2011’s Roads to Judah), but the critical and general listener response has been almost universally positive. Why do you think this one is getting so much love?
George Clarke: Yeah, I’ve thought about that a couple times. I don’t really know. I think we put a lot of work into it. From what we were trying to accomplish ourselves, we exceeded the goals and I was really happy with the final product. But other than that, maybe right time, right place? The response was pretty surprising overall. It was nothing I could have expected.
We just wanted Sunbather to be better than what we had done before. It sounds kind of silly or just simple, but that was sort of it. We knew with that first record, after some time had passed from the recording, we thought, “We’re better than this. It was good and is a good starting point, but let’s maybe try and like really push ourselves.” That was our only goal — we just didn’t want it to be a shitty record in our eyes.
CB: You have a kind of classic Black Metal approach to singing in that it’s almost impossible for the listener to discern the lyrics.
Do you see your vocals as more of another instrument in the mix rather than as a deliverer of lyrics?
GC: It’s to be used as an instrument more than anything else, not only to help with the emotional and intense parts of the music but also to kind of serve as a constant rock in the mix. There’s not a lot of variation in it. It’s a constant thing that sort of centers the songs while the instruments kind of move around it.
As far as its relationship to the lyrics, if people were invested in the songs on their own enough, they would then seek out the lyrics. So not being able to discern them initially isn’t really a problem for me. I did think that those who did seek out the lyrics are rewarded for it, because I feel like they are a really important part of the overall product.
CB: Speaking of overall product — the packaging of the vinyl version of the album, with the pink and yellow color scheme and elegant lettering, is the opposite of the traditional Metal record, which is often black with something like a menacing gargoyle on it. How did the packaging come together?
GC: We wanted something that had a little bit more of an elegant feel. I remember wanting something that was sort of like high fashion in a way. I wanted something that was pretty and contained a concept on the inside that was important or simple and dramatic. There were little things that we toyed around with initially, and then the designer we worked with, Nick Steinhardt, his focus is typography, so he kind of brought his strengths to the table with that and they we came up with the cover together.
CB: I read somewhere that you started listening to Slayer when you were 13. What was it about that kind of music that drew you in as a kid?
GC: I like darkness. I’ve always liked dark things. Horror movies and things like that, I was always into that as a kid. And then when I got into aggressive music, I always wanted it faster. So when I heard Slayer I was like, “Oh, I want faster, I want heavier.” I wanted to see how far it could go. That curiosity of the extreme pushed my listening habits.
CB: I was watching a clip of you guys on YouTube the other day and in the comments section there was a curious debate about whether you guys are a “real” Black Metal band. Why do you think Metal fans are so protective of what a band is expected to do and sound like?
GC: That way of thinking can be poisonous after a while, and if you read enough of it, it will hurt your brain. I’m certainly aware, but I don’t pay much mind to it. I was kind of the same way when I was a kid, but I feel like you should grow out of that mentality at a certain point. But it’s a tight-knit community. It focuses on ideals and things that aren’t presented in a lot of mainstream culture, so I understand the need for it on a certain level.
CB: Deafheaven’s lineup has changed a lot during its brief history — you and Kerry have been the only constants — but the current configuration seems pretty cohesive.
GC: Yeah, I think the lineup we have right now is really good and I think that they will stick with us. I’m never one to know the future, so if something were to happen with any of the players it would be unfortunate, but I like the place we’re at right now. And I think that, regardless, it will always be me and Kerry at the helm, so I don’t feel insecure about it. I think for the next record it will be the five of us. It will be good.
DEAFHEAVEN plays the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre Wednesday, Feb. 19 with Mala In Se. More info: tafttheatre.org