George Clarke and Stavros Giannopoulos
George Clarke and Stavros Giannopoulos Credit: June Zandona/Damir Ara

San Francisco metal band Deafheaven (see also Soundboard) started in 2010 as a low-key collaboration between vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, who wrote the songs for their demo using a nylon-string guitar and recorded with borrowed gear. In the three years since, they’ve developed a robust and original sound that melds black metal, postrock, emo, and ambient; Deafheaven’s recent second album, Sunbather (Deathwish Inc.), is beautiful, harsh, and huge. It also sounds like the work of a far more experienced band—perhaps Deafheaven seems to have emerged fully formed because Clarke and McCoy previously played together in grindcore outfit Rise of Caligula and have been close friends for a decade.

Interviewing Clarke for this week’s Artist on Artist is Chicago metal mainstay and visual artist Stavros Giannopoulos, front man for the Atlas Moth and Chrome Waves and a member of underground black-metal supergroup Twilight. All three bands have new music in the works, and Twilight hope to release their sophomore third album—you remember, the one with Thurston Moore—sometime this fall. Leor Galil

Stavros Giannopoulos: I’m surprised you guys didn’t wind up doing a Pitchfork fest yet.

George Clarke: We’re going to be doing stuff with them in the future. At the time I talked to [Pitchfork staffer] Brandon [Stosuy] a bit about it, and he was like, “You guys don’t have a new record out yet,” and I understood that. Now that the record has come out, we’ve set some stuff up—hopefully by the end of the year. That’s the thing; they’re just so good to bands, I think. Anything we’ve ever done with them has been 100 percent taken care of. They’re awesome. He’s awesome.

Brandon is the fucking man. This is something that I meant to bring up, because we get a considerable amount of shit—and I’m sure you guys get the same amount—for being a metal band on Pitchfork. I think people look at our bands and think, “Aw yeah, those guys are doing great,” and yeah, we’re doing great technically, but I’m not paying my fuckin’ electric bill here. Pitchfork has always done so much for us; how can I hate on it. I think it’s pretty rad to be next to, like, Kendrick Lamar or whatever. Or like Drake.

I think that to disregard what they do for the metal community as a whole would be so shortsighted. This is a major media outlet that’s putting its money to good use by paying extreme bands well and having them all come together and give you a good show—especially with all the free stuff they do.

Kim Kelly is one of the main people at Terrorizer now, and she’s done a bunch for me in our career—I love Kim to death, and she’s probably the most metal chick on the planet. By far. And she’s working for Pitchfork. What are you going to do, though? It’s like, do you only listen to metal? Even when I hear people talk about your band, there are the purists that are like, “Fuck those guys, they have a pink album cover.”

I think that’s in part a musician’s standpoint also. You as a guitar player would feel so absolutely limited if all you were interested in was heavy music. As a musician you can’t listen to just one style of music—that’s silly.

I think the most interesting bands are the guys you can tell listen to different shit. I listened to your new record a bunch just recently, and I was thinking, do you guys like a band called Envy?

Yeah, that’s come up a few times!

I’ll tell you what: I’m a huge Envy fan. It’s almost like a kinship I feel. It’s something that I never really heard with American bands, either—Envy had all these, like, people would put them in an Isis thing. And I would always think, it just sounds so different and really pretty. I thought that was really cool if you guys were influenced by that band—that band is amazing.

Yes! We actually got to go, and we played with them last November. It was cool. At the same time, I don’t really consider that to be one of our main influences. We started getting the comparison a lot for this record, and I think it may just be on a subconscious level. Though I’ve listened to them a lot previously, at the time we were writing the record, I hadn’t been jamming it at all, and neither had Kerry [McCoy] as far as I know. We’ve always had postrock leanings, and Kerry’s just naturally melodic like that. After a couple years of playing together more and doing a lot of touring and playing with other kinds of bands, we definitely let go of that black-metal thing. I consider us a metal band. I wouldn’t say we were so narrow this time around.

It’s almost a disservice to your band at this point. With the last one, if someone was like, “Ever hear of Deafheaven? They’re a black-metal band,” and you handed them Roads to Judah, I have a feeling Mr. Black Metal would be like, “Oh, this is fucking cool.” But if someone did the same thing with the new record, they’d be like, “What the fuck. This isn’t black metal.” It’s shitty to be in a hole with that, because it’s like calling Load a thrash-metal record because Metallica was a thrash-metal band. That’s a dis, my bad—it’s much better than Load, dude.

It’s kind of funny—I was thinking about this earlier, how I was trying to get you guys to come hang out when we were in San Francisco with the Gojira tour, and [James] Hetfield showed up at that show. It blew my mind.

I was going to ask you—how was that tour? I know in San Francisco you did the Fillmore. That’s fucking crazy.

I remember the first time headline tour that we had done scared the crap out of me. And us and Altar of Plagues last year, we did a coheadlining thing, and every other day was completely opposite. We played here and it was sold out, and then we went to Detroit and there were like ten people.

Yeah, I am feeling the exact same right now. I know we’re going to hit spots where I’m going to have to chalk up.

You guys are from San Francisco—it’s another mecca of heavy music, where there’s a million fuckin’ venues too. You know if you went to a show you’re not gonna see anything like you’d see in fucking Great Falls, Montana. Are you guys playing in Montana on this tour at all?

No, no. All of the dates we have set up are actually pretty decent. We’re doing Chicago, we’re doing Denver. We’re playing Boise, actually. Which should be interesting. I never know how to feel about Idaho. We’re doing that and Salt Lake City.

That was another one that blew my mind. We played there on like a Tuesday on the way home from the Kowloon Walled City tour. It was a great show. It wasn’t like 5,000 people or anything, but 100 people on a Tuesday? You have to make sure you buy beer before you go to Salt Lake City, though, because all the booze there has less alcohol.

Oh yeah, they’re all like 3 percent, aren’t they?

Yeah, it’s like not even worth drinking a beer.

That’s how parts of the UK were. We played Brighton, UK, and they gave us Carlsberg and it was 3.5 percent, and they were like these mini cans.

“These are adorable, but do you have any real beer please?” That’s actually kind of crazy to hear about the UK not having real booze.

I thought the same thing. Ireland was different. We did have a few dates in Ireland, and the beer was definitely flowing then.

I saw you, and I don’t know if it was the first time you guys were in Chicago, but you were playing the Albion House up north—that basement—with KEN Mode.

Oh my God, yeah dude. That was our first tour.

That was your first tour? Awesome.

Yeah, that was fun.

I feel like KEN Mode always picks the weirdest bands to tour with. We’ve done a lot with KEN Mode, and I love those guys, but I’m always like, “Why would you go out with us? You guys are like, fast and angry as fuck. We’re sitting over here strumming guitars and being sad.” I remember seeing him with you guys, and I’m like, “What are you thinking, man? I mean, it’s awesome you guys are touring together, but it’s an interesting mix.”

I remember when we got asked to do that, I was like, “All right, well, this totally doesn’t make sense, but these guys seem tight.” Jesse [Matthewson] had reached out, and we talked a bit. Those guys are way too much fun. Jesse is a maniac. I was having a conversation with Kerry about this the other night—that band will not stop. They’ve been touring so much and just grinding really hard.

Those guys are heroes. We toured with them in September of 2011, the same year as you guys but just a few months later. It was like their seventh tour of the record, and it was all DIY and all done by Jesse, and I was like, “Holy God, how have you not murdered each other yet? Playing these basements and squats all over North America.”

Yeah man, he has something wrong with him. I’m happy because he and I still talk pretty often, and I just saw that they announced another tour and I was like, Jesus Christ.

Have you guys done any of the Scion stuff yet, or have they not touched you dudes?

No, they don’t fuck with us. I don’t know what their deal is. But the official reason that we were given is that they’re not working with black-metal bands anymore. This year’s Scion fest we were supposed to play, and we got confirmed for it, and then two weeks later we got hit back up saying, “Uh, actually you can’t play. We not gonna mess with you guys.” And the same thing happened—you know when they were doing those label showcases? Deathwish was going to do one, and Scion was like, “Yeah, just no Deafheaven.” For whatever reason, they don’t fuck with us. They put on an Enslaved show fairly recently, at least since they’ve said they’re not working with black-metal bands anymore, so I don’t really know what the actual deal is.

I’ve heard so many awesome reasons that bands haven’t gotten to do Scion stuff, and it’s always kind of a hilarious story. Like Mitochondrion was supposed to do the Profound Lore one, and I guess they had covered an Emperor song with the word “Satan” in the title. I think they were trying to kick Wolvhammer off it too, because they had a shirt that said, “Working Class Anti­Christian.” They were like, “No, they’re off the bill. Because of a T-shirt.”

I didn’t realize they were so Christian.

I think it’s hilarious that we were putting up a shirt that said “Smoke It All” with a bong on it and a Metallica logo. How the hell are we getting away with that, but those guys can’t have anti-Christ stuff on it.

I know, that’s ridiculous. Well, I’m glad that we’re not alone.

What are you going to do, man? Since all that shit started going on, all of us have been, “Huh? Why?” My mom even, when I told her we were doing this when I was flying out of town, she was like, “Why is a car company giving you a bunch of money?” I have no idea. You know, don’t look the gift horse in the mouth, just keep it coming.

That was my exact thing. I don’t know why, but I’ll fucking take it. I turned in my punk card a few years ago, so my guilt will be very minimal.

So the band is just you and Kerry, right? Are the other guys members or not?

We do have other members, but my goal is to have a full solidified lineup. For the new record, it was Kerry and I, and we have a new drummer, Dan Tracy, who drummed on the record.

His drumming is fucking great on the record. I thought that was the biggest step up from the first record, because the drums are fucking awesome.

They’re light-years better than the first record. They really did bring a lot to the table.

Live we have our other guitar player, Shiv [Mehra], and on bass we have Stephen [Clark], and we’ve had those dudes for a little while now. Stephen came with us to Japan last year and has been jamming with us. We’ve always had a weird thing with lineups. It’s not by choice by any means, but for the last record we didn’t want to deal with it anymore while we were writing, so we decided to take it into our own hands. If I had it my way, we would jam as a full band. I always think it’s healthy and feels better having more brains in the room. We have a new set intro, just kind of done on the fly, that we practiced while we were all going over the set, and that sounds cool—hopefully it continues that way.

The production between the two records is kind of night and day to me. The new record sounds fucking awesome comparatively. But I think you’ll go back in a year from now, after being so involved in this record, and you’ll listen to the old one and think, “Yeah, this was pretty cool.”

Absolutely. It’s always going to be that way. I still do that with everything. I’ll go back and listen to one of our songs, and I’ll forget about the initial criticisms I had of it and think, “Oh, this is pretty good.” Then I’ll listen to it again and be like, “Wow, that part’s pretty bad.”

You can’t really judge a band on that one record in just one year. You can’t sacrifice Metallica because of Load. When they were doing those old records they were probably struggling too, but how is this rich guy going to harness something he put out in 1985 again?

People have always had unrealistic expectations of them. It’s just a band.

They’ve been around forever. Do you think Deafheaven will be sounding exactly like you guys do now if you guys do this band for 30 years? No fucking way, dude.

How they’ve held together this long and still—I think—do some cool shit, it’s a marvel.

I always say, “We’ve been doing this for eight years!” That blows my mind.

I just want to play Orion fest. I want to sneak in the back and meet them. Kirk [Hammett] goes to a bar that’s in my neighborhood, and I’m friends with one of the bartenders. And she’s like, “Yeah, he comes in here.” And I’m like, “Where’s my text message? Where’s my phone call?” I will immediately walk in.

We’d heard Hetfield was coming to that show we played out there, and I was like, “Oh my God, dude.” He was like my hero growing up. My meeting with him was a little bit disappointing, but what can you really expect. When I got in front of him, the only thing I could think was, “What the fuck do I say to this guy that he hasn’t heard a thousand times?” It’s like, “Your record changed my life!” No shit, me and three billion other people.

It’s one of those things where you just have to be cool and on an equal playing field. Even if you don’t want to be that way, you just go, “Hey man, it’s nice to meet you.” You have to find a way to be a peer.

I tried that really hard, and it just didn’t work. Afterward all the dudes in the band were like, “Did you meet him? Did you meet him?” And I was like, eh. . . . The only thing I could think about was that Dave [Edwardson], the bass player from Neurosis, was on our list, and while I was sitting there talking to James Hetfield I was like, “Man, why aren’t I hanging out with him?” All the time I’ve thought of meeting James Hetfield, and now it’s like, eh, you know.

Having those two people on it, period, is insane. And those two people potentially knowing each other—that blows my mind. When I see stuff like that it’s still really surreal to me.

Dave from Neurosis came back to our dressing room—we were sharing it with Devin Townsend—and I’m sitting there like, “This guy’s in Neurosis, this is really cool.” He’s totally down to earth, so I wasn’t really fanboying out on him, but I remember being in junior high listening to that band. He walked into our room and Devin and him just started talking, and he was like, “I played a show with you one time at a festival in Europe when I was in Nailbomb.”

Everyone has it, man. It doesn’t matter how big you are or how important the shit you do is, everyone’s looking up to someone.

The best thing about Hetfield was watching him watch Gojira—he was air guitaring to Gojira, but he was James Hetfield air guitaring. He was doing the stance and the pose and the mouth “yeahs” in between.

How dad was he? Was he just the most dad?

He was pretty fucking dad.

That’s a pill you just gotta swallow.