Crossin’ Over with Deafheaven’s George Clarke

Deafheaven have been living in rarefied air for the past few years—a metal band doing metal things in a non-metal world. From performing at huge festivals like Bonnaroo and Roskilde to signing with a label that’s home to Wilco and Neko Case, they’ve chiseled out a spot in the mainstream music landscape that’s rarely (if ever) occupied by a group that regularly features screeching vocals, tremolo picking and frenzied blast beats. With the release of their third LP, New Bermuda, a mere two weeks away, we caught up with vocalist/lyricist George Clarke to break down the details of Deafheaven’s unlikely crossover appeal.

You guys are often in situations where you’re playing for people who have little to no exposure to extreme metal in their daily lives. Do you notice mixed reactions from these types of crowds or do most of them have an open mind to what you’re doing?
I think a lot of them have an open mind. It’s sort of like climbing a mountain. When we play a mainstream music festival and we’re the one metal band, it can be hard. And we have the same struggle on the other side, like when we played Heavy Montréal recently. We’re the “indie metal band” that’s asked to do both for some reason. It’s always weird, but it’s been strangely positive, too.

I specifically remember playing Governors Ball in New York and being really nervous. We played at like 2:30 in the afternoon and I was thinking, “Man, are we gonna fall flat on our faces?” I could see beach balls in the crowd and I thought, “Fuck…it’s just not gonna happen.” But by the end of the set I was totally invigorated and empowered. People were losing their minds and it was a great crowd. I got off stage and was like, “I think we can do this.” As long as we have the energy and don’t let it show that we’re the odd man out, we can ride it out and make it a good experience. We just have to force people to pay attention. I think that’s been a theme [throughout] our history.

Do you ever stop to think about the specifics of Deafheaven’s crossover appeal? What is it about your band that makes so many non-metal people take notice?
It’s hard to pinpoint. The obvious answer is we have softer parts and there are clean guitars sometimes, but that doesn’t cut it. There are a lot of amazing metal bands that have broad, clean sections, including a lot of the bands we’re influenced by.

We’ve been obsessive about every decision we make, but we’ve also been really open minded and we’re not afraid to say yes to things. Like the first time we heard about Pitchfork covering us, we didn’t shun the opportunity, we embraced it. Every opportunity we could take, we would do it unashamedly. And maybe it has something to do with that—the sheer act of wanting everything all the time and forcing doors open. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to play for all different kinds of people and have our band recognized from all facets of media. But at the end of the day, we’re just gonna do what we do. We always have.

How have the last few years been for you in terms of adjusting to the life of a professional musician? Are you used to the constant touring or is it still a challenge?
I’ve found a good adjustment. I know it well enough now that I understand the importance of having occasional alone time and pacing myself with partying. You just have to be smart about it and not lose your head. At the same time, the sheer volume of shows can get a little overwhelming. I think the hardest part is coming home. You leave for months at a time and everything is constant, and then you get home and there’s that whole “post-tour depression” thing, which is real. I think it comes from a lack of anything to do. You kind of lose your importance on a day-to-day basis. That adjustment is the most difficult—going from zero to 100 and back.

But we’re warriors at this point, so we’re used to it. I’m excited to get back. I love it, honestly. It’s hard to argue against seeing beautiful places and meeting people, and going back to those places and having friends. I can’t wait to do that again while playing new songs and feeling fresh. It’s a good feeling. It’s hard work and it can be a little weird, but it’s ultimately very positive and I think everyone in our band feels that way.

New Bermuda is out October 2 on ANTI-. You can pre-order here.