When singer George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy moved to San Francisco and formed Deafheaven in 2010, there was no master plan. That's how it's always been for these two longtime friends, who met as high-school metalheads in Modesto, Calif., and started writing music together, despite not owning any equipment other than acoustic guitars. "We didn't even plan to play shows. We didn't even have members," Clarke says. "Everything in the beginning was really unplanned and done on a whim." Little changed when the two relocated to the big city. "I remember having a conversation, being like, 'Let's just not care about anything. Let's not do photos,'" Clarke says. âNo ambition at all.â
Odd thing, coming from a band that just made one of the year's most ambitious albums. Youth, beauty, melody and emotion are not typically considered assets in the realm of black metal, but Sunbather, Deafheaven's sophomore effort, is as gorgeous as it is brutal. While the drums blast furiously, the guitars focus on melodies gleaned from shoegazers like Slowdive and Mogwai. Clarke's screamed vocals, while characteristically harsh, are low in the mix, blending into the other instruments. And then there's the bright pink album cover. All in all, it's a rule-breaking conundrum that will be a gateway for many and a deal breaker for others.
As polarizing as the reaction to Sunbather has been—lauded by critics, regarded with suspicion by some in the metal community—Clarke doesn't see the album as being all that different.
"With extreme music, I've always found, especially on the more atmospheric side of things, black metal has always been something that carries a great amount of emotion and ferocity," he says.
Still, in black metal, where emotions are often trumped by a preoccupation with eldritch forests and pagan ritual, an album made with the level of honest sentiment that went into Sunbather stands out. The allure of the album, written by Clarke and McCoy, who employed a revolving cast of highly proficient hired guns to fill out the sound, is its exquisitely crafted composition. Each of its four epic-length tracks is separated by reflective instrumental interludes. The lyrics concern Clarke's vision of perfection, and the impossibility of achieving it. It's an immersive experience, right down to the art and layout by Nick Steinhardt of L.A. hardcore band Touché Amoré. "He came in with the idea of sort of what the sun looks like behind your eyelids, when your eyes are closed, and youâre like staring at the sky,â Clarke says.
For a group that says it started with no particular vision, the success Deafheaven has experienced so far—headlining tours of the U.S. and Europe, a deal with Jacob Bannon of Converge's Deathwish Inc. label, a coveted Best New Music tag from Pitchfork—is coming as a surprise, even to its members. And if it's achieved all that precisely because it doesn't fit the framework of a typical black-metal band, well, that isn't really for them to worry about.
"For us, [black metal] was definitely a starting point," Clarke says. "I think that there is a huge amount of influence in our music. But I would never say that we're a black-metal band. Then again, I don't know what I would say otherwise. We're just kind of a band."
SEE IT: Deafheaven plays Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., with Marriages, on Saturday, July 13. 9 pm. $10. 21+.