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George Clarke Sings Hymns at Deafheaven's Gate

Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke talks economic disparity and his love of literature

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    Deafheaven headline Brick by Brick on Aug. 17.

    "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries," Shakespeare writes in Sonnet XXIX, lamenting both his (more precisely, his narrator's) poverty and also his feelings of social isolation.

    It's unclear whether black metal shoegazers Deafheaven lifted their band name directly from this poem or not, but if there's one band with which those lines should resonate, it's them.

    George Clarke and Kerry McCoy, who comprise the core of the group, escaped the "hick," "hood," "poor" town of Modesto, California, in 2009 only to find themselves faced with the crushing economic disparity of San Francisco. They went from living in a "disgusting place" with 16 people in the Upper Haight to sharing a living room for $150 a month, according to an Invisible Oranges interview from 2013.

    "I think it definitely looms on everyone that lives there and wants to pursue something creative," Clarke told me over the phone last week.

    2013 was the same year that Deafheaven released "Sunbather" -- an album written entirely by Clarke and McCoy -- to universal critical acclaim. In the past five years, the band has grown to five members and shifted around in response to the inaffordability of the Bay Area.

    "We did the last two records ["New Bermuda," "Ordinary Corrupt Human Love"] as a five-piece. We [Clarke and McCoy] still have the director's chair, so to speak, but I think more importantly than that, we’ve been playing with these guys for a long time now. We’ve toured so much together it very much feels like a unit," Clarke said.

    "Two of us are in Los Angeles, two of us are still in the Bay Area, and one is in Boston. Kerry and I moved to Los Angeles because we couldn’t afford the Bay Area," he added.

    On their latest album, "Ordinary Corrupt Human Love," Deafheaven branch out from post-rock instrumental soundscapes to piano-driven goth ballads without straying too far from their sensual, literary roots. It's not always easy to hear what Clarke is singing about, but it doesn't take a literary critic to recognize his intellectual and emotional expressiveness.

    "I read all the time.... There were always books around the house; my mom is a big reader. I have always thought that words were cool. Currently, I've been reading a biography on Malcolm X and 'Slow Days, Fast Company' [by Eve Babitz]," Clarke told me.

    "I'm proud that we all came together and created something that served as a timestamp. During the writing and recording of the record, everyone was in a very good place. Listening to that album will always reflect that feeling. There’s something very nice about that. It’s cool we were able to really focus and everyone’s personality was able to shine through," he said about the new album.

    On Aug. 1, Deafheaven announced a joint tour with DIIV, the dreamy guitar pop project of former Beach Fossils drummer, Zachary Cole Smith -- an ostensibly mismatched pairing to untrained ears. To my mind, the bands are two sides of the same coin, which is probably why they get along so well on a personal level.

    "We’ve been friends with those guys for a while. We’re fans of the band and fans of them as people. We have big, mutual respect for one another, and touring with friends is always very positive. Instead of focusing on what bands might be stylistically similar, we wanted to have a good time," Clarke said.

    While Deafheaven's "bootless cries" might not be as immediately accessible as DIIV's pleasant melodicism, at least they're making a case for black metal as a genre that can belong to something more than just an "outcast state." In the end, it's the love of the art that brings true wealth -- both for Shakespeare and also for Deafheaven.

    Deafheaven headline Brick by Brick on Aug. 17. The show is now sold out.

    Rutger Ansley Rosenborg has been an Associate Editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2016. Find out more here, or contact him here.