Heavy metal – both with its wide musical spectrum and as a subculture unto itself – is a peculiar beast. It’s safe to say that no-one – whether they be a fan, a critic or merely a spectator – could have quite predicted this outcome: that the year’s most talked-about, critically acclaimed album within the metal world was a seven-track black metal release with a pink cover made by some relatively clean-cut and unassuming Californians. Not even the band responsible for the album in question, San Francisco’s Deafheaven, had any idea just what kind of impact Sunbather would have.
“It’s definitely left us very surprised,” says George Clarke, the band’s lead vocalist and co-founder alongside guitarist Kerry McCoy. “It’s nothing that we could have really anticipated or expected. At the same time, above anything else, I’m just really appreciative of the support that we’ve gotten from any direction. It’s crazy and really cool that so many publications that aren’t necessarily open to metal music, or don’t really have a focus on it, were really positive about what we do and were really open to our record – I’ve had a really good time with it.”
Sunbather was written by Clarke and McCoy as a duo, although by the time it was recorded and released the band had expanded to a quintet. Deafheaven welcomed guitiarist Shiv Mehra, bassist Stephen Clark and drummer Daniel Tracy to the fold in 2013 – and Clarke feels they have assimilated well within the group.
“They’ve handled it wonderfully,” he says. “That was one of the biggest accomplishments for us this year – solidifying this new lineup and picking people that are really dedicated, talented and enjoy making music. I’m really looking forward to working with them more and more into next year and after that.”
The album is a visceral, unforgiving listen, drenched in feedback and sprawling progressions. The vocals are often cloaked behind the force of the music itself. It’s not for the easily distracted, either – some tracks on the album go for as long as 15 minutes. There are plenty of descriptive terms to be bandied about when it comes to Sunbather, but ‘user-friendly’ and ‘accessible’ certainly aren’t ones that immediately come to mind. Its failure to comply with a single mould within the confines of metal can be traced to the band’s interest in sounds and musical styles outside the proverbial square – namely, the shoegaze movement; with bands like My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse and Slowdive serving as an inspiration.
“That style of music is a really large influence on us,” says Clarke. “It always has been. I think that we were able to blend it in a really smart way on this album. It was a very conscious decision to include that element, and I think that we pulled it off. We just write things that we like – and we happen to like a lot of different styles of music. It’s just a natural outcome of writing songs.”
Clarke is also calm when responding to a relatively small yet vocal backlash from various purists, questioning just how ‘metal’ an album like Sunbather is. “No-one’s ever going to write an album that every single person likes,” he says nonchalantly. “There’s always something to attack or resist when it comes to music, and that’s okay. I don’t think much of it – that’s just how it goes. I went into making this album knowing that.”
The aforementioned pink cover art of Sunbather was inspired by what one sees when they stare at the sun and close their eyes. It was designed by Nick Steinhardt, who plays guitar for fellow genre outsiders Touché Amoré. The cover drives a visual aspect behind the music itself, lending a vivid imagery to the already provocative soundtrack – but don’t expect anything similarly stunning on the eyes when it comes to the band’s live performances. Clarke is quick to point out that although a lot of thought went into how the album itself looks – arguably, almost as much as to how it sounds – a Deafheaven show is definitely a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of deal.
“The art aspect – at least up until this point – has been separate from our live show. The show is definitely a lot more focused on the sound and the presentation of the songs themselves, as opposed to an overbearing visual accompaniment. We definitely have a large focus on aesthetics – it just doesn’t play into our live show super heavily.”
January will see the band touring Australia for the first time ever, bringing the songs from Sunbather (as well as their 2011 debut, Roads To Judah) to life across a slew of intimate club shows. Anticipation is high among local fans – and Clarke himself is intrigued and very ready to kick off 2014 Down Under.
“We’re just very excited to be travelling somewhere new,” he says. “We always love experiencing new culture and visiting new cities. From what I’ve been told about Australia, it seems really exciting. Shows seem to do really well there, and people that I know in bands always talk about what a great time they have over there. I think it’s going to be a really positive experience – we’re so happy that we finally get to go.”
BY DAVID JAMES YOUNG