Deafheaven’s George Clarke: “As a creative person, you should always be scared”

Deafheaven photo by Bobby Cochran

Deafheaven should have been closing out 2020 with a victory lap. Back at the beginning of the year, the California black metal band were gearing up for a tour to commemorate their 10th anniversary as a band, bringing Inter Arma, Greet Death and All Your Sisters along for the ride. You know how the rest of the story goes: In March, the country began a widespread lockdown due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, and Deafheaven’s tour dates ended up being put on hold indefinitely, along with the celebration of a significant milestone.

The worldwide closure of music venues presented an obstacle for Deafheaven, but it didn’t stop them from finding a way to bring their live experience to fans. Within days of canceling their tour dates, they announced the live-in-studio album 10 Years Gone, which was released this week via Sargent House. An urgent, intense collection of songs from throughout the band’s catalog — including rarities such as newly recorded versions of early demo “Daedalus” and Adult Swim single “From the Kettle Onto the Coil” — 10 Years Gone captures the band in their element as a well-oiled, tightly wound live album, but with the benefit of a more pristine studio sound. 

For Deafheaven, 10 Years Gone represents an opportunity to showcase their growth as a band, from the raw-yet-inspired approach of their 2011 debut Roads to Judah through the more experimental and graceful sounds of 2018’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. It carries all of the immediacy and bombast of seeing the band onstage, only without the crowd noise and George Clarke’s leather gloves — a close second prize, considering a year without live music is about to bleed into early 2021. Yet, most importantly, according to Clarke, 10 Years Gone presents a portrait of a band that has never stood still, and never will.

“When we were first starting, I don’t even know if we’d recognize what our own identity was,” he says. “All we wanted to do when we were starting was to fit in with a scene, the black metal scene that was happening in 2008, 2009, 2010. But yeah, as you grow, as you gain your own sense of self, things start to evolve, you start to develop your own personality, characteristics sonically, visually. At the same time, those things are never really cemented. So while I do feel we have a better grasp on our identity 10 years later, it’s not a finite identity. I don’t intend to always have Deafheaven in the place that it is.”

So this year sort of derailed your plans—how have you been spending the last eight months?

We had a lot of touring lined up. Just a few weeks prior to the tour starting, we had to cancel it — a large U.S. one that was about seven weeks, to kind of commemorate this 10-year existence of being a band. And unfortunately we couldn’t do that, so we tried to make a record version of it. It’s not the same, but at least we got to keep some of that spirit because initially the tour cancellation was a pretty hard hit, especially for morale, because we were all really looking forward to it. So, for the band it’s been a focus on staying busy and try to make some kind of lemonade out of what’s happened. But you know, we’re very much in the thick of it like everyone else. Just trying to keep our heads above water.

Does the tracklist for 10 Years Gone reflect what those setlists would have looked like? 

When everything first shut down and we were confronting a lot of loss, the idea was to just record what we were going to tour on, which was mostly songs that weren’t featured as singles throughout the years, a lot of songs we haven’t played over the last two tours that we were introducing again, and just general fanfare. 

Did you hope to capture performances of the songs that highlighted something new or different than the versions that most people might be familiar with?

Yeah, absolutely. I think after playing these songs for as long as we have, they naturally evolved. And I think typically all of our music is a bit more visceral live, and I think that was captured. Things became a bit faster. The vocal quality has a bit more grit to it, especially being able to sing these songs with the way we sound now, as opposed to 10 years ago. There’s a live heft that may not come across as much on the studio recordings.

Did recording some of the older songs bring about a different perspective on them for you?

Not necessarily a different perspective, but certainly a reminder of my appreciation for them. Especially playing songs off the demo or Roads to Judah or Sunbather. I was much younger when we were making the songs, and I think you can hear that. I like that. I like kind of tracing our musical journey through the songs, and this band is so much involved with the idea of reflection and looking into the past a bit. But it felt proper to do it. It didn’t feel awkward or anything. More humbling than anything.

What’s been the biggest change for Deafheaven that you’ve observed over the past ten years?

I think that, musically, in terms of our tastes, the core has remained the same throughout the decade, but as time has gone on we’ve found better ways to incorporate them into our music, or were able to refine our ideas as we get smarter about them. I like that about us, and on a personal level, we’re a band that has had, especially in the early years, some lineup changes and there was a bit of tumult, you know, some growing pains, I guess. And at this point we’re such a solid unit. They’re my best friends, and I think the coolest thing, the biggest change if anything, has been that strengthening, where it kind of goes beyond being bandmates and we’re this cohesive oneness. That has been a really great thing to develop over the last decade, my relationships with Kerry and Shiv and Dan and Chris. It remains the best thing about this band, what we have together.

How important is it to you to seek new challenges as a band?

I think new challenges just appear. I don’t know if it’s necessarily seeking it out. But we like to go bold. I’ve said in the past that for certain parts of our records, we’re experimenting, even if that means reverting to more traditional songwriting, or, on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, the first song has this ‘70s piano thing, which in the context of our music becomes an experimental decision. It’s not so much that there’s intent, it’s just that we like it and try it out and if it works, even if it might seem a little strange, we just continue forward with it. I was talking with a friend of mine about this, and we reached the conclusion that as a creative person you should always feel scared. And I think I always kind of have. Before the release of any of our records, I have this excitement but I have this big fear too, because there are these little reaches we have on each record, and I think it should always be that way. Just to keep ourselves interested, we incorporate challenging decisions.

It’s hard to grow if you don’t step outside your comfort zone.

Absolutely. And frankly, you don’t want to be bored. And that can happen, it does happen. 

While touring has been put on hold, has 2020 given you an opportunity to work on creating again?

It has. We were very fortunate that while our touring was eliminated, we were not at the top of promoting a record. If it was in 2018, it would have been a more difficult situation for us. We had more time to be creative, we were already working on things. It had its own challenges, because we’re not all in the same city and traveling is precarious. But we all made the most of it. I don’t feel like we wasted the year at all, and we’ve prepared for what will hopefully be an exciting 2021.

Deafheaven’s 10 Years Gone is out now on Sargent House.

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Words by Jeff Terich