BORN from the ashes of tech-death/grindcore band Rise Of Caligula, Deafheaven began at the very start of the decade as a passion project between vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy.
Initially, there was no real desire to exist beyond the walls of their bedrooms – to them, this was just a creative outlet to indulge in on the side. “All we had was this demo, which we put up online for free,” explains George.
“We sent it off to a couple of blogs and that was it. There wasn’t anything in mind beyond that. Pretty soon, though, we started getting emails from local venues asking about us playing shows. We didn’t even have a band together, but we agreed that playing a show would be fun.
“We were able to Frankenstein a line-up together using Craigslist and friends of friends to play with us, and it went from just playing a show to playing shows. We became a band – quite quickly, too.”
“The thing about Deafheaven is that even when the lyrics come across as abstract, they’re often quite autobiographical.”
Needless to say, the universe had other plans that lay past Clarke and McCoy’s apartments. Deafheaven have been heralded as one of contemporary metal’s most ambitious, inventive and important bands in the ensuing years.
They’ve been nominated for a Grammy, taken to global festival stages and even been the gateway band for a legion unsuspecting indie kids, now inducted into the cult of heavy metal and here to stay.
Ahead of the band’s Australian tour, George spoke about the band’s life and times through the lens of five key tracks from Deafheaven’s back catalogue.
Was this the first song you and Kerry wrote as Deafheaven?
You’re pretty close – I do believe this was the second. I sang it and wrote the lyrics, while Kerry played everything on it other than the drums. We had our friend John come in to play drums for that session, which is the only time he ever recorded with us.
This was still under the guise of Deafheaven being a studio project of sorts.
That’s right, yeah. Kerry had been playing a lot of guitar, and had a bunch of ideas floating around that he had no idea what to do with. He asked me if I was interested in writing and recording with him, and we just went into it without any major plan. We felt motivated, so we took the time to really craft these songs. After we had ‘Libertine’ in the bag, I think that really set the course of where we’d go from there.
Do you remember much about your own headspace writing the lyrics for this song?
To be honest with you, not so much. I remember at the time, when Kerry was still coming up with ideas on guitar, I was also writing a lot of lyrics. For the demo, I used writing that had taken place up to two years prior – a lot of miscellaneous, unused things. Because of that, there’s not really one set headspace or particular drive that came with putting the songs for the demo together. It’s just a gathering of thoughts from an extended period of time.
The track ends with the lyrics, “I loved a girl I’ll never speak to again/I spoke to a girl I never stopped loving.” Is there anything to those lines specifically?
[Laughs] I kinda feel embarrassed hearing those lyrics read back to me. They feel very teenage, and I guess they were – I was 20 when we recorded it, but I’m certain that line comes from my 18-year-old self. [Laughs] I suppose they do have some weight to them, which is what I would have been drawn to.
The thing about Deafheaven is that even when the lyrics come across as abstract, they’re often quite autobiographical. I used to say that this band was a very selfish project – I was just using it as a vessel for these very personal thoughts. Around that time, we were really influence by more depressive black metal – that morose lyrical feeling. All of that factors into this song, and I think that really shows.
How long after the demo were the songs for Roads to Judah written?
[US label] Deafwish had been in touch – they had heard the demo, and they were interested in officially releasing it on the label. Kerry and I talked about it, and we agreed that because the songs were old and we had a full band now we should try and see if they were interested in putting out our next release. They said yes, even though they hadn’t heard anything from it. It all happened really fast. It was a very exciting time – it felt like this was something we should really pursue.
At what point of writing Roads to Judah did ‘Tunnel of Trees’ begin to take shape?
It’s hard to say. From what I remember, it might have even been the last song that we wrote for it. I know that ‘Language Games’ came first, and everything else just sort of followed suit from there. When it came to ‘Trees’, we just wanted something blistering with a no-frills approach. Starting off really aggressively was kind of the purpose that we wanted it to serve.
It’s an evocative title – what inspired it?
I was driving near Carmel, down the [Route] 1 along the coast of California. There was this line of arching trees along the highway, which is where I got the idea for the song title. The titles are almost always unrelated to the actual songs themselves, but they’re all little moments of inspiration that I get from everyday life.
This was the first Deafheaven release you were writing in real-time for. Was Kerry playing you instrumentals that you would shape lyrics around, or was the entire process collaborative between the two of you?
A lot of it was just discussion beforehand. So much of songwriting is just setting things up – just having conversations, listening to records, picking up guitars, fleshing out ideas. Kerry made those ideas real by going away and making demos, so it was collaborative in that sense. As for lyrics, I’m always writing – whether it’s boredom or necessity, it’s always happening. Once we were both close to finishing what we were doing, I’d listen to what Kerry put together and see where my parts would fit and where I could come in. Honestly, it’s not a lot of science. It’s more to do with the feeling. There’s no big scheme – we just get together and do it. We try and make it as natural as we can.
A lot of ‘Tunnel of Trees’ centres the abstract lyrical imagery. It’s almost Shakespearean in parts. You were 22 when Judah was written and released. Do you feel as though you were processing your emotions in a lot more elaborate prisms when you were younger?
I think this song was my attempt at trying to get into what I would call more advanced songwriting. I’ve always endeavoured to be a more creative writer, but a general lack of skill in that area has always left my attempts at that in my lyrics being a little more [pauses] I guess “heart-on-sleeve” is the positive way of saying it. [Laughs] I was trying to use more imagery and surreal lyricism here – and that’s always going to be a matter of trial and error when it comes down to it.
As you’ve made more new records, you’ve played songs from Roads to Judah less and less. When you do come back to these songs, is it a curious contrast to where the band is currently?
Sure, but it’s always enjoyable. They can feel a little novice – they remind me of being young, scrappy and just figuring ourselves out. The early stuff sounds like us, but it sounds less like us than we sound now – if that makes sense. It’s fun to reflect on how we got to the point that we’re at now, more than anything.
Sunbather is the album where everything changes. Did you have any comprehension of what you were onto when you were writing this album?
Honestly, no. In our career, it’s always been about trying to be better than we were before – and trying to do it in a way that’s different. We never want our records to sound the same. I think we came into our own with Sunbather – it was an equal an opposite reaction to Roads To Judah, where we were trying to be a better version of ourselves and make a record that stood on its own, away from it. As far as what came after it, it wasn’t something we ever thought about it. At that point, we were just trying to do the best we could.
As far as the personnel of Deafheaven goes, this is also a crucial moment in the timeline of the band.
We’d gone through a lot, definitely. We had some rough tours, and we had a lot of line-up changes. It was creative, but it was chaotic and super stressful. Kerry was working on the album on his own a lot. He would sit there listening to the mixes in his room – but the funny part was that because we were living with a bunch of people in this house, his room was the living room. [Laughs] I think everyone living there must have heard the album like a hundred times.
We had no money – we were working day jobs, coming home to drink cheap beer and play our guitars. Kerry had just bought a loop pedal, so he could work out two guitar parts at the same time. We sat around watching him play, and hearing some of the lead guitar for the first time was so exciting. We needed a new drummer, so recording Sunbather was the first time we’d worked with our current drummer, Dan [Tracy]. It was really clicking – he was such a phenom. It was so impressive to watch him play in those first sessions. Everything really felt like it was coming together.
Do you remember hearing the instrumental of ‘Dream House” for the first time?
Not the entire thing. I had remembered hearing the end part when Kerry was working on it, so I knew it was going to be good. Once we’d finished it, we knew that this was going to be the song that opened the record. I think that’s kind of telling, in a way – we knew we had something pretty decent on our hands. [Laughs]
It’s become a real moment of every Deafheaven set when ‘Dream House’ is performed. When did you start playing it live?
We were on tour with a band called Marriages. It was an extremely fun tour – we’d completely stopped playing the old songs, and on that tour we basically played all of Sunbather in full. I don’t know why we do that to ourselves. [Laughs] For whatever reason, when we make a new record, we get so excited by it that we end up playing every song off it on the next tour. On that tour, we were opening up the set with ‘Dream House’ every night. By the end of that tour, we realised that it was the song that was easily getting the biggest reaction out of all of the new songs – which is why, on the next tour, we moved it to the end of the set. [Laughs] It’s been there for quite some time now.
Of all of Deafheaven’s songs, why do you think it’s ‘Dream House’ that seems to have stuck the most with people?
Firstly, it’s really cool when people connect with our music on such a deep, personal level. That never gets old – it’s kind and inspiring to hear. For this song in particular? I don’t know … that lead at the end is real catchy. [Laughs] That goes a long way! I sometimes think it doesn’t even matter what I sing – when music hits in a certain way, and you get that chilling feeling, you’re just so caught up in it.
The lyrics are basically about me being an alcoholic. There’s every chance people could have picked up on that and found it relatable. I don’t know if people can understand the lyrics well enough to know what they’re about. It would be easy for people to draw their own conclusions and interpretations, which is obviously great as well.
So, to answer why is it so popular … it’s a lot of different things put together, and I’m happy that it resonates. As a band just putting yourselves out there, it’s honestly all you could ask for.
This is the only Deafheaven song to have its own article on KnowYourMeme…
[Laughs] The internet is a magical place, isn’t it.
How did you and the band react when this started getting traction on Tumblr and Twitter?
We were just happy to be mentioned, and we’re thankful to all the meme-makers out there. Honestly, it’s the best thing for your career!
We go now from the opening number of a record to the closing number of the next.
I love talking about this song. It was a reach for us – it was definitely a song that came out of our comfort zone.
How did this song develop in its early stages?
Kerry had come up with these guitar parts, and we were trying to figure out a way to make it a bit more metallic, if that makes sense. We were trying to give the guitars a heavier tone, and beefing up the drums as well. After awhile, we sort of realised that this wasn’t the direction the song needed to go in. It was coming across as more of like a post-punk kind of song, with more straight beats instead of blastbeats. Once we did, we fleshed out the acoustic part towards the end.
That part is definitely one of the more surprising moments of the album – it’s definitely not how you would have expected it to end.
It was really cool for us. I felt like, in the context of our catalogue, it was definitely something different. It took elements of what we’d done, but it added a lot of dynamic and removed a lot of tropes – particularly in relation to the way that we use drum parts.
It’s also quite confronting when you sit down and read the lyrics of it.
It’s a song about drowning yourself. I like that the record ended on that – it’s a really dark record, so to end on an elaborate suicide seemed the most fitting. We’ve written a lot of songs about suicide, but this one really gets to the point.
If you don’t mind being asked, was it a reflection on where you were mentally at the time?
Yeah. We were all really worn down at the time. We even feel kind of iffy about playing songs off the record now – it’s a super-negative album. It’s what we needed to do, though. I’m super proud of it, but it’s definitely our most depressing album.
What do you remember about doing the vocal take for “Gifts” in the studio? It’s one thing to write these thoughts and ideations down, but it’s another entirely to vocalise them.
As weird as this is going to sound, it was kind of fun. When you’re dealing with the emotional side of the songs, it doesn’t always necessarily happen during the tracking. There’s feeling in there, of course, and I’m trying to do my best in terms of effort. When you’re tracking, though, your main concern is the song and how it comes across sonically.
That song was a bit challenging, because I’m doing my traditional vocal over these really clean bass-driven sections. It sounded really naked, and it was crazy to hear. At the end, when it all came together, I was really happy. I was able to really stretch myself.
Do you feel like you’ve been able to push yourself a little more with each album?
One thing I feel certain of is that my vocal delivery and prowess has gotten a lot stronger. I’ve been able to utilise my voice in a lot more interesting and useful ways. I don’t say things like that with a lot of confidence all that frequently, but it’s something I’m absolutely sure of.
This is another song that feels, in a way, like a real stylistic change for the band overall. Was that something you were feeling when ‘Canary’ was coming together?
Yeah. This was the first song we started working on for the album. Let me tell you this – the version on the album is like, Version 18. [Laughs] This song was such a pain to get through. I’m really glad that it came out okay, and that it functions as a centrepiece of the album. A lot of that has to do with the idea of stretching our limits – again, we wanted it to be the best we could do as a reaction to New Bermuda. It was a real rollercoaster of songwriting – it definitely informed the rest of the album.
Again, your lyrics deal with a lot of imagery and extended metaphor. What was influencing the lyric writing when it came to this track?
It’s reflective of the album as a whole, insofar as that it’s about observations of other people. It’s about finding inspiration in the mundane; in the details. For me, whenever I think about that track, I always think about the “language of flowers” portions. It’s kind of death imagery – it’s just about finding some being that gives you a little bit of solace.
I’d describe it as like an elaborate mosaic of sorts. I don’t really know what it is, but it feels right. A lot of the writing on that record is based on feeling. It’s not as direct as the other ones. It’s intended to create a mood, especially the more imagery-focused moments. ‘Canary’ does that especially, which I really like.
Whose idea was the outro involving the clean “on and on” vocal hook?
That was Kerry. I had the lyrics, and Kerry came over to my apartment to demo the song. It got changed quite a bit, but the end part was the one thing that we kept through the whole thing. We were just talking about the song, because the demo was instrumental. He told me that when he heard that last guitar part, he had a vocal melody in his head. We decided to go with it, and we recorded it right then and there in my bedroom together.
When we headed back to the [San Francisco] Bay, where the studio was, and we showed the rest of the band. Everyone was down – especially Chris [Johnson], our new bassist, who can actually sing. [Laughs] He’s trained and everything! He nailed the harmony vocal on it, and it was really cool. We knew we wanted it to be a big, layered, Queen-influenced sort of thing.
Have you always been a screaming vocalist? Have you ever sung much?
I mean, I did some musical theatre in high school, but I never sang in bands. I was always very committed to metal – I spent a lot of time learning the growls, screeches and such.
It’s funny you bring that up – purists have often tried to decry Deafheaven for not being “real metal”, and in a lot of ways Ordinary Corrupt Human Love feels like the least “metal” album you have made.
People have been saying that a lot. I guess it is, in a way, but it feels very much like a metal record to us. I think a lot of the songs start out with a lot of build, because the way we wrote it was through jamming. I guess, in that sense, it lends credence to the idea this is less “metal” than our other albums. At the end of the day, though, we’re a metal band – sometimes overtly, sometimes experimentally, but always with it in mind. It’s our bread and butter. If people want, they can call us “metal … with other stuff.” [Laughs]