Ever since their 2013 release Sunbather, much of the discourse surrounding Deafheaven is whether or not they are a “metal band.” It’s difficult to plot their discography on some sort of metal vs. not-metal axis. Their past releases have the blast beats and guttural screeching vocals of a black metal band, but their instrumental arrangements borrow more from bands like My Bloody Valentine and Echo the Bunnymen than Immortal and Dimmu Borgir. They don’t look or dress like a metal band. In fact, whenever I deep dive into the Reddit or Twitter threads and read about Deafheaven, there’s a lot of discussion about frontman George Clarke’s hair and how it reflects on the band.
Did you ever see that VH1 Behind the Music episode about Metallica? There’s a part where they all get short haircuts and everyone freaks out— to which Kirk Hammett famously proclaims, “Metallica is all about music! Not the length of our hair!” A lot of that energy going on, glad to see some things don’t change.
This is all obviously very interesting stuff, so we spoke with Clarke via Zoom earlier this month to ask him if he thinks the band’s fifth studio LP, Infinite Granite, is or isn’t a metal album. We did not talk about his hair— you can jump over to Reddit and opt into that experience if you really want to. Here’s the cut:
Good morning George. How’s 2021 treating you so far?
Not bad. I started the year off in New Zealand. I got back to the States at the top of May to just start kind of rolling this album out.
Let’s get into it. I already had some preconceptions going into this record, after seeing the album art and reading the title Infinite Granite. The title just sounds huge. And yeah, this the biggest-sounding album you guys have done, in terms of sound and texture. How did that process go?
We knew that early on that we were going to be embracing a style shift. So, there was a conscious idea to replace the metallic heft and the speed of our earlier material with a more detailed production and heavy approach this time. Working with Justin Mendal-Johnson, who himself has a very bombastic, very maximalist style— he very much understood that and knew how to build that. So yeah, we used a ton of guitars and tons of synth layering. There’s a lot more vocal density, I think in terms of harmonies and things like that. That was just an overall idea just to create something that was very deep, detailed kind of over-the-top in a condensed way.
You guys still work with Jack Shirley at all for this record?
We did. Yeah, working with Jack was very important to us. He’s always been with us, and we wanted to have that continuity there. So, we did the first couple of weeks. Basic tracking all the drums and bass and the guitars, or at least the first layers of guitars at Atomic Gardens in August. And we worked with him for so long. I actually just got to hear a record that he just finished up and yeah, he’s just continues to be great. He really understands bands, which is pretty vital.
How did working with Justin Meldal-Johnson influence the sound on this record?
I think he influenced it a lot. You know, we’ve been big fans of his production style for a long time. His work with M83 and with Air in particular, And so, we were hoping to get kind of the same thing and I think we did, which is like I said before just very bombastic, very to-the-front, very full.
The first thing that pops in my head is the Phil Spector wall of sound.
That’s awesome, man. Yeah, that was the idea. It’s just all those dense layerings. He’s so good at packing things in. And because with us, I feel like we can find melody in everything. And we wanted to just pack as much melody as we could. And [Meldal-Johnson] knew a way for us to dynamically apply that idea.
Pitchfork called this your least metal record to date. Is that what you guys set out to do?
Yeah, I guess it is our least metal record! But one that I think still very much sounds like us. After we wrote the first couple songs, “Lament for Wasps” and “Villain”, we were just noticing that that’s where everyone’s headspace was. And so, after those two songs, we had a discussion and we’re like, maybe this is something we should pursue. It clearly seems like everyone is in this headspace. We’re all really wanting to try new things and refine ideas that we were experimenting with on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, and so it all just made sense. And then when we found Justin Meldal-Johnsen we were able to further solidify that in what I would call a safer way. Because he has so much experience with that kind of music, that it was really helpful to have his guiding presence along the whole thing.
You mentioned in an earlier interview that you approached vocals differently on the album. How did that process go for you?
Yeah, it was just a lot of trying and failing and trying again. I think, for better or worse, I kind of just white-knuckled it and didn’t do lessons or anything like that. It was more just kind of immersing myself in other singers and listening to what made things interesting, and what I liked about certain singer styles and trying to apply those things. And just demoing a ton.
I mean, the biggest difference in approach is that usually, everything just happens in studio vocally. A lot of our earlier records were pieced together and performed kind of just on the spot. Whereas this was an entire year of just going through tons and tons and tons of chorus ideas and verse ideas and harmony ideas. And what if we did this, or what if we tried something like “Villain”? Like, what if we tried falsettos on the chorus? Basically, we had this blank canvas, you know, and no one knew what it was going to sound like, including me. So was this really like an exploratory year of figuring it out.
Did you ever have moments where you tried something and immediately were like ‘Oh no, that doesn’t work!’
Oh yeah, the whole entire time! I was joking with someone else, actually, that when you’re competing with loud guitars, you know— and especially not just in demo land. But when you’re all together and you’re really trying to perform the things that you’re writing and you’re not trying to scream but you need to have volume your voice does all sorts of crazy stuff. For me it kind of pushes into like this [James] Hetfield gravelly direction [laughs]
There were funny moments where we’re like, ‘Alright, let’s reel that in.’ Because Hetfield can do it. That’s his thing! But it wasn’t really for me. It’s hard to think about now. But God, if I go through and listen to all of the demos— because I kept a lot of them— it’s probably just cringe all over the place.
I feel like experimenting with different singing styles and stepping out of your comfort zone with vocals, you set yourself up for maximum cringe.
It absolutely is. And it’s really funny to do it in front of all these guys whom I have such close relationships with— not only personally, but creatively. They very much know— or thought they knew— about my creative limits. And then to kind of try all these things out in front of people, we just had to be very supportive. Everyone knew that it was gonna be a funny, occasionally awkward transition.
If you Google Deafheaven, the search results still have you labeled as a black metal band or at least a metal band. How has your guys’ relationship with black metal, or just this metal scene in general evolved over the last few years?
It’s great. I mean, there’s a lot of people in that scene, in the metal scene at large that I love and support and who support us.
Yes, this is definitely not a black metal record. But largely, neither was the last one. And in many ways, are we not all together? I think what I like about Infinite Granite is that it is not very surprising. I think that for people that have listened to us for our careers, I think there’s a breadcrumb trail. I think you can see things two ways you can be like: these guys are just gonna get progressively heavier or you can be like, ‘No, actually look here— New Bermuda has “Gifts for the Earth” and it has “Baby Blue”— both of which have no blastbeats.’ And then we get into Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, which of course expands totally, and then we get to where we’re at now.
So anyway, I’m rambling about it, but our relationship is cool. I don’t think of us as really being anything and I don’t really know if it matters a whole lot. I think that we’ve been around long enough that our peers also don’t think it matters, and also would never call us a black metal band and everyone in our little world is totally comfortable with it. And it’s great! It feels free. I think people have always said ‘Deafheaven, you guys can do any kind of album you want.’ And I don’t know if that was totally true in the past, but I do believe it’s true now. And I think that the freedom that we’ve allowed ourselves in making this record has opened, essentially any door for the future.
There’s always risks associated when you’re a metal band trying to reinvent your sound. The first thing I immediately think of is Metallica, like the Load and Reload years. There’s obviously always going to be a risk, but I think that’s just being an artist, right?
I mean for me, that’s it. People do things for different reasons. I think for them at that time, it was probably the same thing! They’re like, ‘We’ve been making thrash for 15 years, and we could keep doing this and it’d be great! But why don’t we satisfy ourselves and then if the audience wants to come, they can come.’
And you see that through tons of artists, and everyone has varying degrees of success in making what we call “the jump” from one to the next. For us though, I think we’re a little bit different. Just simply for the stuff that we’ve been talking about, I think that we’ve kind of positioned ourselves as a band that doesn’t allow itself to be pigeonholed. And that embraces all these kinds of worlds. It would be one thing if we were like a metal band, and then we put out an alt-rock record. And then we just only toured with alt-rock bands. And we were just doing alt-rock stuff and abandoned that other stuff. But we’ve kind of set ourselves up in a way that just reflects our honest intention, which is: we don’t want to do that— I want to play Wacken fest and Pitchfork fest! We’ve always wanted to do, that’s what we’ve always done. There were some small anxieties like, ‘will people like this?’ But ultimately, I think that we’ve done a good job at keeping ourselves creatively available.
And I think also, we’re just hard-headed, and we just kind of want to do what we want. And sometimes there’s no real rhyme or reason. We just kind of want it all.
I didn’t mean any slight against Metallica. I don’t care, I love Load and Reload [laughs] I’ve watched some documentaries on that part of their lives. If you were the biggest metal band in the world for like 15 years, it’s like what do you do at that point?
Yeah, and never starting side projects or anything! Like, everything that you want to do has to be filtered through Metallica. That seems like such an impenetrable stylistic barrier. From an adult standpoint, I mean yeah, they took a big ass risk. But I know it’s not a slight against them.
So many people have made crazy records. You know, there’s Lou Reed’s ‘80s period. Going for us, we were looking at bands like AFI and Cave In. I was like thirteen when Sing the Sorrow came out. And everyone I knew was a Black Sails in the Sunset fan or All Hallows EP fan and all that kind of stuff. So, I remember there being a big thing about Sing the Sorrow and just reflecting on that as an adult and thinking that’s so funny.
I was also a teenager when that record came out and LOVED Sing the Sorrow.
I loved it too! I did too. I was always on their side for sure!
So many of my friends gave me shit.
It was that and Indestructible came out, by Rancid. And man, my friend group just tore that record in half.
Oh yeah! I remember all my friends were like Rancid sucks now! Good Charlotte’s in their music video!
Dude, oh my god. It’s so funny, it’s literally the exact same thing. I still remember the jokes that we had about it. Just like being a 13-year-old snob is hilarious.
That age is like the height of musical snobbery. Because you’re trying so hard to differentiate yourself and you have this need to be different from everyone or even yourself, like six months ago.
Oh, my god. Yeah, you’re changing all the time. Yeah, you’re like, You’re like a shoe.
Some people honestly never grow out of that.
Maybe they don’t. I mean god help them if they don’t. That’s terrible! To live a life scorned by an artist that you think owes you something. I think as the culture develops, everyone kind of cares a little bit less. And I think it’s more at this point, it’s like ‘hey, if this is a Deafheaven record that you like, that’s awesome and we appreciate it.’
We don’t know if this is always going to be the trajectory. And so, if you don’t like it, maybe like the next one! This band is kind of a get-off-when-you-want ride, you know what I mean? Like, it’s like a hop-on-hop-off bus.
It’s funny that you brought up AFI because they’re always my go-to reference for that. Remember, that was around the first time I started reading music magazines and I remember reading an interview with them. They were just like, ‘Some people don’t like us, because we can’t be easily categorized.’ And I was a kid, so I didn’t really get what they were talking about. I was just like, ‘What do you mean, they’re a punk rock band right?’ But at the time, people didn’t know if they were goth, or hardcore, or punk…
Totally. Yeah, man! I don’t know any of those guys. Or maybe I’ve met Davey like once or something. But I would love to pick their brains at some point. Cause also it was 2003, right? So much was different. And it would be really fun to know what their experience was.
And I want to say clearly that our experience is very non-comparison. Because they’d been a band for like 10 years at that point and they were becoming a huge band. And I think that for their fanbase it was very polarizing, especially because of the size that they got after Sing the Sorrow. But yeah, it’d be great to talk to them about it. I’d love to learn more about the real perspective on those giant artistic shifts.
For more from Deafheaven, find them at their official website.
Photo courtesy of Deafheaven and Robin Laananen. Album art courtesy of Deafheaven and Nick Steinhardt.