By Andy O’Connor
Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 27, 2014
Last June, Bay Area black metal/shoegaze unit Deafheaven played one of the most anticipated metal shows of the summer at Red 7. They had just released Sunbather, one of the most critically acclaimed metal records of 2013, and Deafheaven were in top form. Vocalist and lyricist George Clarke was clad in all black, down to his leather gloves, and his shaved head belied his flowing heart and energy. Fans were losing it from the opening chords of "Dream House," where guitarist and songwriter Kerry McCoy draws out a jangly riff into sublime metal beauty, to the encore of "Violet." As divisive as the band can be in some circles — more on that later — there was a real sense of unity in the crowd, and that’s what elevated the performance. In just under a year, as they return to play Red 7 again tonight, a lot has happened with the band, especially given that the band started as a studio project between vocalist/lyricist George Clarke and McCoy that had previously not intended to play live shows.
Earlier this year, they embarked on their most high-profile North American tour as support for tech-metal band Between the Buried and Me. While Deafheaven does not exactly cater to a traditional metal audience, neither do Between the Buried and Me, whose prog influences have also led to a devoted following most prominent prog acts have. Other than "some strenuous drives and extreme weather," they enjoyed the tour. Did it come with its challenges? Absolutely.
"When you play bigger venues with a band like that who’s well-seasoned, you have to be tight. In a musical sense, we’ve gotten a lot tighter," Clarke said.
In addition to trotting across Southeast Asia, China Japan, and Australia, Deafheaven also got a taste of the festival life with slots on this year’s editions of Sasquatch and Bonnaroo. It’s difficult to command a huge crowd if you’re not a headlining act, and that becomes even harder when you’re a metal band, as mainstream festivals don’t book a lot of metal acts. Bands like Mastodon and The Sword have both experienced this as metal bands who crossed over, and it was Deafheaven’s turn. Clarke saw these fests as a growth opportunity.
"What has influenced our live show the most has been the festivals that we’ve been doing because, when you have to command a crowd of that size, everything gets bigger, our showmanship has increased," he said.
Most metal bands don’t get the opportunity to tour the world and play huge festivals like Bonnaroo. Sunbather, released last year through Deathwish Inc., garners as much praise and discussion now as it did when it first came out. Deafheaven brought their shoegaze and Smiths influences into greater focus, tightened up the songwriting and enlisted Jack Shirley for a more polished production, and it paid off. Not only did it find an audience outside the metal world, it seemed as though the outsiders embraced it more. Strangely, both Sunbather’s most fervent supporters and equally impassioned detractors see it as an affront to black metal, a means of destroying the genre. The band doesn’t see it that way, and they are as quick to criticize people who see them as convention abolishers as those who mouth off with tired "hipster" insults.
"People oftentime think this hype comes from what comes from our mouths, and most often, we are bystanders," Clarke said. "We work hard, we tour often, we’re always on point, and if there’s anything that needs to be attributed to our success, it should not based on lame hype."
With success comes shifts, and Deafheaven aren’t immune to that. Clarke and McCoy both said that relationships have been the biggest challenge with touring, but where the band calls home has also changed. While most of the band is still based in San Francisco, McCoy now lives in Los Angeles. Clarke says he will soon follow, and touring bassist Stephen Clark has also considered moving down south. With rising rents — not an unusual concern for an artist to express — and rising ambitions, the Bay Area doesn’t hold the luster it once had. McCoy feels as though the area’s become more superficial over time. Growing up in Modesto, he felt a kinship with the few people who were into the music he was into, and he thought that would be the norm in San Francisco.
"What’s it turned into now is a bunch of people who wear the T-shirt without being into [the band]," McCoy.
Los Angeles might not be the best city to move to if you’re looking to escape superficiality. McCoy disagrees.
"There’s shows I would go to in San Francisco where literally three people showed up, and I went to that same show in L.A. and it was 250 people sold out. There’s more people, and I feel like the people down there are less concerned with being cool," he said.
Deafheaven have survived a hectic hype circle, shifty sound guys in Southeast Asia and a lot of jet lag. They can’t be stopped.
Pallbearer and Wreck and Reference will provide support for tonight’s show.