SAN FRANCISCO has long been at the forefront of alternative and underground culture in the United States, and for Deafheaven, whose sound encompasses both black metal and post-rock, the city has meant inspiration, frustration, ambition, hindrance, and realisation.
For modern creatives, San Francisco’s cultural reputation began with the poets and writers who gathered in the city’s Six Gallery for a public reading in 1955. That event ushered in the Beat literary movement and would itself pave the way in the late 1960s for the hippie subculture, centred in Haight-Ashbury.
Music was vital to that scene and the innovations of San Francisco bands like Jefferson Airplane saw psychedelia morph into acid-rock, gaving vent to the dark undercurrents which lay beneath the ‘Summer of Love’.
In the early 1980s San Francisco was again at the forefgront of new music. Punk and metal bands found common cause in their shared distaste for the hedonism and decadence of the ‘hair metal’ scene around LA’s Sunset Strip. The punks came to admired the metal band’s independent spirit and integrity; the metallers were inspired by punk’s speed and aggression, which led to the creation of trash metal.
San Francisco’s inspiring heritage and legacy is one Deafheaven are very aware of, especially given how much their own music owes to metal’s power and heaviness and the unorthodox, avant garde sonics of left field sixties bands.
“San Francisco has always had a cool aura around it, musically,” Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke tells me. “Growing up, all we wanted to do was move there and start a band. That in itself was a huge impact on us. Striving for that dream.”
Clarke though has no romantic illusions aboutthe city. When asked about its reputation for a strong bohemian and artistic energy, he replies: “To a degree it does, though the city is changing a lot.”
He also notes how the city’s reputation can be as much a hindrance as a help to aspiring artists and musicians. “I think that San Francisco’s expensive, youthful, atmosphere makes you a hard worker,” he says, “but it’s also easy to give up and slack in a city like that. If you want to make anything of what you do, persistence is important.”
From Judah to Sunbather
Deafheaven, who make their Galway debut this month at the Róisín Dubh, are centred on the duo of George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy. Both worked together in various bands over the years, but in 2010, they stuck out on their own to form Deafheaven.
“A project like Deafheaven was one we had been wanting to do for a long time,” Clarke says. “Kerry had been writing riffs that would work for a band like ours so we began to pursue it.”
Within months they had released the mini-album Demo before delivering their debut proper in 2011 with Roads To Judah. In both its title and its contents, the album was Clarke’s personal response to living in San Francisco.
The title is a nod to the N-Judah Light Rail service. “It was the rail by our house that I took to work every day,” says Clarke. “I found it to be a good place to collect my thoughts.” The album also deals with what Clarke calls his “year of substance abuse and debauchery”. “We were partying heavily and not really caring about much else. I left the city for a while to figure things out,” he reflects.
In September 2011, Daniel Tracy joined Deafheaven on drums, and also around that time Clarke and McCoy began writing new material. The fruits of those labours would eventually become second album Sunbather, released in June 2013. For Clarke, it represents a major artistic step forward.
“I think we came into our own much more and grew as musicians,” he says. “It’s a much more clear and focused record.”
It was no idle boast. Pitchfork declared it “a modern classic” and Rolling Stone called it “a mind blower”. “We’re very appreciative of the response it’s received,” says Clarke. “Our only intent was to make something that we were proud of.”
That indefinable essence
While the verdict on Sunbather was unanimously positive, opinion differs on how to define Deafheaven’s sound. ‘Vertigo’, one of Sunbather’s stand-out tracks, embodies this diversity. It is loud and pulverisingly heavy. It is black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze.In short there is no one term into which the band can be pigeonholed. The closest anyone has come to a proper definition was a fan on Bandcamp who said Deafheaven “scratches that itch between My Bloody Valentine and Slayer”.
“People have a lot of opinions on how we sound,” Clarke admits. “Yes, My Bloody Valentine is an influence but I don’t consider us to be very shoegazing. We just use a couple of the signature techniques of the genre. I let fans describe us the way that they want. I don’t have much of an opinion.”
Another facet of Deafheaven is Clarke’s uncompromising vocal style, a primal howl of rage and throat shredding defiance. Some, however will say ‘That’s not singing, that’s just screaming.’
“It is screaming,” is Clarke’s refreshingly unpretentious reply. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s what we do.”
What is definable in Deafheaven’s music is the intense dynamics at play, such as the strong sense of atmosphere and the creation of moments of light/shade, quiet/loud. What attracts the band to that sort of feel and arrangement?
“I think it allows for build ups and climaxes in songs which we’ve always been fond of,” says Clarke. “I also like to play around with juxtaposition.”
Juxtaposition is at its most extreme on Sunbather through the magnificent ‘Please Remember’, where after an age of unnerving feedback comes the shock of strummed acoustic guitars and harmonised electric guitars. “We wanted to try and show the idea of frustration that fades into melancholia,” Clarke says about the piece.Although Deafheaven centre on the duo of Clarke and McCoy, the addition of Tracy, along with Shiv Mehra and Stephen Lee Clarke while touring has been a positive experience.
“It’s been fantastic,” says Clarke. “Not only are they all very competent musicians, they each bring their own style and experience to the songwriting and live playing processes.”
Clarke also reveals that he and MyCoy will soon begin work on new material. In the meantime, there is next week’s Galway show to experience.
Deafheaven play the Róisín Dubh on Monday August 18 at 9pm. Support is from No Spill Blood. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.