AMR Exclusive Interview with deafheaven’s George Clarke
Today I had the lovely honor of speaking with George Clarke, the vocalist from deafheaven, over the phone. In our lengthy interview, we covered the history of the band, the rise of shoegaze/post black metal, physical appearances in black metal, piracy in music, and much more.
Matt: Hey George, it’s Matt. First, thanks for speaking with me.
George: Yeah man, any time.
Matt: Could you just first explain how the band formed and what the initial sound was that you guys were going for?
George: Yeah, our guitar player Kerry and I were living together and honestly we were playing in some other projects and we were just sort of bored. So we decided to just write some songs after Kerry showed me a few riffs. Musically we didn’t really have too much direction. I don’t know, we just kind of started coming up with stuff and I liked where it was going and we went from there. We demoed some songs and then we went into an actual studio and recorded them.
Him and I did the whole recording ourselves, and honestly it was just for fun. We didn’t expect to do anything with it, it was just a personal thing. We put that demo online and people started taking notice and we started getting show offers and we decided it would be best if we got a band together. We already knew a couple guys, and so we started playing shows. We played our first show July 29th last year, the first time as a full band. Like I said, it started picking up even more, and from there we started writing new songs which turned out to be songs from Roads to Judah. In August and September we had these songs and Deathwish had approached us. A few labels had approached us about releasing the demo, and we’d done a small self release so we weren’t too interested. Deathwish approached us and asked if they could do it, and we kind of told them we liked the demo, but we actually have a band together and we’ve been writing newer songs which we feel stronger about, and if you’re into releasing newer material we can do that. That was in November of last year, and we’ve just been going ever since.
Matt: So it seems like everything’s been happening pretty quick, and you guys only started playing your first shows like a year ago. Are you surprised at how fast things are happening for deafheaven?
George: Yeah yeah, definitely. Hugely unexpected. Like I said, when we first started writing these songs we were doing it out of boredom and had no intention of even releasing it on anything let alone doing everything we’re doing now with touring opportunities.
Matt: You guys play a unique form of black metal… there’re phrases and names tossed around like shoegaze black metal and post black metal. What kind of name do you guys apply to it?
George: We don’t. I think that I learned early on when we first released the demo, people were calling it this and people were calling it that. We have all these influences. We didn’t sit down one day together and say “let’s write this, and put a little of this in it and maybe do a little of this, do some of this,” it kind of came out organically. Everyone else can call it what they want I guess.
Matt: It seems like a few other bands have taken on a similar template as far as tempo changes and different vibes throughout the songs that are kind of a departure from ’90s black metal and the second wave.
George: Definitely, yeah.
Matt: Do you think there’s a reason why this has happened sort of all at once for a few bands?
George: Really what I attribute it to… one of our biggest obvious influences would be Weakling’s record, which came out over a decade ago now. I think that record and a few others really started propelling the sound and people started noticing that you could make emotional black metal, or you could expand the genre and play on different parts of it, and there are actually a lot of similarities between the genres. I really think it’s natural. Like you said there are a lot of forward thinking bands right now especially that are willing to break down the confines of the genre.
Matt: It seems like you guys have definitely gotten a good response and I think the record’s great, but at the same time there’s sort of this Internet black metal tr00 kvlt culture that has revolted against it. Have you guys encountered any negative feedback from people in that vein?
George: I mean… I knew it was one of those things I kind of knew early on that traditional black metal purists weren’t really going to grab on to what we were trying to do, and that’s fine. We’ve encountered a little bit of it, but it’s nothing unexpected. At the end of the day, people can think what they want, life goes on. Music’s music, I don’t really think about it.
Matt: Sort of playing into that, I saw you guys at the Cobalt Cafe a few months ago in Canoga Park and you guys were great. I was just sort of struck by how you guys don’t really look like a black metal band by any stretch of the imagination.
Matt: Do you guys ever hear comments on that? Like “you guys don’t have long hair, you guys wear Joy Division shirts,” anything like that?
George: All the time. People especially kind of have an issue with the way I look like, kind of above everyone else. I get a lot of attention for my haircut. Yeah, you get a little flak for it but it would be way lamer if I was just putting on my favorite death metal Ts to play a show to prove to people that I wasn’t a poser or something; the whole thing is kind of silly to me. I look like this on and off stage, it would be stupid of me not to.
Matt: Right. So you guys are embarking on what I read is your first full US tour this week or next week, is that true?
George: Yeah, we leave Tuesday morning. We start in Seattle and then work our way down the West Coast to the South and then up the East Coast and then through the Mid West.
Matt: How does a young band like yourself — like you said you guys have only been together like a year — how did you guys book a full US tour’s worth of shows?
George: Actually when we signed to Deathwish, they gave us an agent to work with, so he handled it primarily which we’re incredibly grateful for. Obviously more local shows we can handle ourselves, but when it came to doing the entire US we were helped out on it.
Matt: As far as Deathwish goes, what was it about them compared to the other labels that approached you that made them stand out enough for you guys to choose them? I know you said they were willing to release new material, were other labels not so keen on doing that?
George: I think the other labels were interested but we were so new. And like any label you have to go in working with a new band really cautiously. Most were just keen on doing the demo release, and we just really didn’t want to go that route because we’d already done a limited self release. Like I said, we we were coming strong with new material. When Deathwish approached us, it was really unexpected, especially with our style of music. I followed Deathwish lightly in the past, but honestly I never paid too much attention to the majority of their roster, and I was kind of confused why they were approaching us initially. But I was totally wrong about them. Even though they’re a predominately hardcore label, that people that run it are extremely open minded musically. Right off the bat they were just really willing to facilitate our needs and wants and where we wanted the band to go, if we wanted to take it to the next level sort of thing. They totally supported us in what we were trying to accomplish and had faith in releasing new music because of the strength of the songs on the demo.
Matt: As far as the recording of Roads to Judah on your demo it was just you and Kerry, and for the full length you had I guess three extra guys, how did the writing process change, or did it change at all?
George: It changed a little bit, it changed definitely for the better. Neither Kerry nor I are drummers, so especially in that department after we got Trevor on drums, he has made the band so much bigger and better than it was. Being able to work with people that have that kind of talent, it really broadens what you can do in a song. I think the change is more freedom, more freedom to work with better ideas. A much more full process.
Matt: I know you guys probably aren’t thinking about new material as your debut just came out, but thinking ahead do you guys think you’ll stay within the same vein of what’s been called shoegaze black metal or post black metal or do you guys see yourselves branching out and incorporating other genres?
George: I think with every release there’s going to be a natural evolution. I think we’re fortunate enough to be playing a style we can evolve into so many different directions. We are happy to be playing what we’re playing now, I’m sure it’s gonna change this way or the other way. I definitely don’t see us writing the same record twice, not by any means.
Matt: As far you and the rest of the guys, is black metal really the primary genre for everyone or does everyone bring in other genres like post punk that they’re more interested in but they bring that to the writing table of deafheaven?
George: Definitely. Our other guitar player Nick plays in a strictly shoegaze band called Whirl who’s based out of Oakland. When we got him on board he had really liked the demo and we had known him for a few years, so when we got him on board that really opened up that side of the song writing, because that is his primary jam. He really brings a lot of the dream pop and post punk vibe to the material.
Matt: You guys are coming up in a time when music as a career is not really far fetched, but is much more difficult to obtain than in years past. Has the Internet and piracy and that whole culture… has that contributed to your rise in popularity and helped the band or harmed the band?
George: Definitely helped the band. It is what I really attribute like 95 percent of our success to. When we first released the demo, we released it for free. I emailed all of my favorite blogs to see if they’d be interested in putting it up, and that’s where the ball got rolling. The blogging community, especially for our style of music, I would say is essential.
Matt: How would you feel if someone were to pirate the new LP?
George: That’s totally fine, go for it. It got leaked originally, but unmastered copies were leaked. I’m all for leaks, but I don’t want the unfinished songs out there. That’s why when we went through our preorder cycle, we had an instant download so you could have the actual songs on your computer, which was kind of like the whole plan of it. As long as you’re getting the right stuff, I’m all for it.
Matt: It’s kind of an interesting perspective, as far as piracy in music and especially metal goes. Back in the early 2000s, you had the Metallica backlash against Napster. Do you think younger bands are kind of embracing piracy as something more helpful than harmful that older bands saw it as?
GeorgE: Yeah, definitely. Of course. I think some of the high rising bands that we have today are starting from the Internet, they’re starting from that community. Everyone, across all genres. Everyone’s really unitilizing it to their advantage. I think people that want to buy music and appreciate the other aspects of it, the artwork, the actual feel of the record, will do it. You never lose focus of that as well.
Matt: Just out of curiousity you guys are a young band, you guys have just booked this full US tour. Are you guys taking off time from day jobs or has deafheaven developed into enough of a career that you can use it as your primary source of income?
George: It’s definitely nowhere near a source of income yet. We all work or go to school. Hopefully, it would be awesome to one day evolve into a more full time touring band and have that liberty, but we’re still very new. If something like that were to happen, it will definitely take time.
Matt: Right, because it seems like you guys have been touring really heavily, especially for a band that has personal commitments with school and with work. Do you guys just have really flexible schedules?
George: Yeah, actually most of us work really flexible jobs. A couple of us are just full time students, so the summers are really available. When fall comes we’ll have to work a little harder to accomplish as much touring as we want, but it’ll happen.
Matt: Is music sort of the ideal career for all of you? Do you guys want to just moonlight in it or is it the goal in the end?
George: You know, I’m not sure. Right now I can’t even think of it being a career at all, to be honest. Not because I wouldn’t want it, but because the probability is I would say slim. Very few people live a decent life off their band. I don’t really think of it ever, but if it does happen and we stick around long enough and opportunities present themselves and it’s able to be a source of income, I’m all for it.
Matt: If music doesn’t develop into that, out of curiosity what are your interests outside of that?
George: Writing, mostly. I go to school for English. Our bass player is a respiratory therapist. He’s worked in a hospital for a couple years, and that’s kind of his main thing, to work in medicine. So that people don’t die [laughter]. Yeah, we all have interests.
Matt: How has English contributed to lyric writing? Do you write most of the lyrics?
George: I write all of them. It does a little, even when I wasn’t taking classes I was reading a lot. So I definitely have authors where their writing styles are influential. Classes help with that too, but nothing that I would consciously think of.
Matt: Do you think San Francisco will always be your muse as far as lyric writing?
George: No I don’t. I think whatever is going on at the time in my life whether it’s the city or not will serve as the primary inspiration for what I write. It just so happened that on the last album a lot of the material revolved around living in the city.
Matt: That’s all I got. Do you have any comments or plugs about deafheaven or any other projects?
George: Not really, hopefully we’ll see people on tour. Thanks for everyone that’s picked up the record and thank you for being interested enough to give me an interview, it’s cool.
Matt: Hey, thanks for taking the time.
George: Awesome man, take care.