Los Angeles is My "New Bermuda": a Conversation with Deafheaven’s George Clarke

Los Angeles is My

This was originally published in AdHoc Issue 9. Order a copy of the issue here.

It’s a little after noon on a Sunday in late September, and George Clarke is having a hard time finding a quiet place to chat. “If you hear screaming in the background, I apologize,” he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of people in my living room playing Fantasy Football right now.” By his own admission, the Deafheaven frontman and Bay Area native doesn’t care much for the game; and he doesn’t care much for Southern California either, having relocated there with his bandmate, Kerry McCoy, and girlfriend in December of last year. The latter aversion, he explains, forms the subject of Deafheaven’s third studio album, New Bermuda, which finds the screaming frontman lost in a very different way than he was around the time Sunbather, the group’s 2013 shoegaze and black metal-melding breakout record, came out.

With its pummeling tremolos and furiously cantering percussion, Sunbather encapsulated in sound the last-ditch sense of urgency that he and McCoy—two formerly homeless Bay Area call center employees—were presumably feeling when they made it. As a slightly younger Clarke put it to The FADER, “If this band doesn’t work out, you might find me begging somewhere.” Fast forward a couple years, world tours, and rounds of backlash from purists in the metal community, and George would find himself in a better place than he’d ever been: frontman of a successful rock band, newly solvent, and in the sort of loving relationship that gives one thoughts of settling down.

“I think thematically, Sunbather dealt with a longing for a greater life, and a longing for materialism,” Clarke explains to me. “The new album deals with having those things and kind of being let down.” Growing up is never easy business, but it can be especially hard when you’re living in a city as dislocated and isolating as the city where he tried to do it. Here, Clarke explains how Los Angeles became his Bermuda Triangle—and inspired Deafheaven’s most punishing, viscerally impactful record to date.

AdHoc: What’s the story behind the title of the new record?

George Clarke: Basically, in the last year I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I had certain goals in mind, certain expectations that came from moving: greater opportunities, a whole new area, a broader friend group, the opportunity to live with my girlfriend for the first time. Just a new city that was more affordable. But I found the whole move to be a whole lot more difficult than that.

There were a lot of aspects to living on your own—real steps to moving into adulthood—that I found to be challenging. And because of that, I became really depressed over my entire situation. I felt very trapped, very alone and frustrated—and the record just deals with those feelings. So I called it New Bermuda. Los Angeles is my “new Bermuda”; it’s a place I’d considered to be a paradise to some extent, but everything was swallowed up by the waters of reality before I was able to reach that state of paradise. 

AdHoc: Have you reached it yet?

George:  Absolutely not. But everything is all in good time. 

AdHoc: Is there something about the topography of the city itself that lends itself to the feeling of being lost?

George: Yeah, I think to a certain extent. Los Angeles is much more disconnected than San Francisco. It’s sprawling, and it feels very suburban, so I definitely feel that it lends itself to isolation and loneliness to a certain degree. I’m much more adjusted to city life, and that’s where I feel most comfortable. I don’t feel like an Angeleno.

AdHoc: How do you like the sun?

George:  I have a very love/hate relationship with it. I think I used to love it, but then I got too much of it—and now I can’t stand the heat and am patiently waiting for it to be gone.

AdHoc: Did you still feel connected to the Bay Area music scene?

George: Yes and no. There’s definitely a community there for extreme music, despite all the financial changes the city has gone through. But Deafheaven never really fit in anywhere. In black metal or avant-garde black metal or whatever you want to call it—we’ve never really fit in. Either people like us but we don’t fit in, or it’s a scene where we should fit in but no one likes us. We’re kind of the loners of the music world. We’ve just sort of had to make our own way most of the time.

AH: How would you say the new record compares to Sunbather, in terms of overall mood?

GC: The idea is, if everything I’ve ever wanted is what I now have and I’m not happy, then I have to start digging deeper. I have to reflect, and I have to reconcile these surface-level desires with what I really want. There’s also the idea of, if I’m not happy now, then what will it take to achieve that? I don’t think I’ve found that yet, but I think it helps to write about it and form an album around those ideas. 

AH: Would you say there’s a trajectory that New Bermuda follows, narrative-wise?

GC: Mildly. It deals a lot with my romantic relationship, and the struggle with living with someone for the first time, and having it be not really what it’s cracked up to be. Sort of being let down, which transfers over to being bitter about the move in the first place and hating the city—even though the city itself hasn’t done anything to you. The last song deals with the release of those feelings, and agreeing to escape everything—deciding to stop putting effort into everything and taking the easy way out. 

AH: The easy way out—what does that mean?

GC: It’s sort of—the song is a metaphor for drowning yourself.

AH: There are some pretty complicated arrangements on the album. How does your writing process work?

GC:  For this album, it was awesome. We’d been touring with [drummer] Dan [Tracy] and [bassist] Stephen [Clark] and [guitarist] Shiv [Mehra] for so long, but we hadn’t had the opportunity to write a record with them yet. The writing dynamic didn’t alter too much: Kerry [McCoy] would start writing music and arranging it, and we’d present them with the skeleton of a song, conceptually. Dan would play along to it and add his own rhythmic quirks, and Shiv would have an idea for a lead, and Stephen would do the same thing. Their contributions really enhanced the songs.  

AH: People are saying this album is heavier and more “metal” than Sunbather—do you agree with that assessment?

GC: I think that we definitely had some more classic influences that we interjected in a way that made the songs a little beefier—thrash metal, for example.  But, I don’t know... People have this whole thing about Sunbather not being a “metal” album, and I’ve never agreed with that. I’d describe this record as being an enhanced version of [all our records]. You’ve got metal parts—or whatever you wanna call them—that are are heavier, but also softer parts that are a little more fully formed and a little more dynamic. I think it’s just a larger product overall, and a little bit more concise. As you play together, and as you understand your influences more and more, you’re able to write records that are truer to yourself. I think we’re on a path to defining our sound, and what is no one else’s. 

AH: I hear some classic rock influences on the record, like a lot of big time guitar solo-ing and shredding. And I also hear some country influences, like with the slide guitar.

GC: We take from so many different places, and I think a lot of that rocking comes from all playing in a room together and exchanging ideas—things get a little looser, and you start throwing in guitar solos. And you’ll be like, it actually doesn’t sound that weird, or bad, or I kinda like it, and we should play with that some more. 

AH: It sounds like you’re having a good time.

GC: Absolutely. What’s funny is that even though I consider the record to be a very dark record—and even though when I wrote a lot of those lyrics, I was in a very lonesome place—the recording process was actually the most fun we’ve ever had in a studio. It’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition. 

AH: What’s the story behind the oil painting on the album cover?

GC: When I was writing the record, and I was feeling kind of down, I would play the piano in my spare time. I wanted a thick oil on canvas painting, and Nick Steinhardt suggested Allison Shulnik would work perfectly for that, and she did. I gave her a painting called The Pianist by Polish artist Jarek Puczel as reference, as I felt the mood accompanied the album well. We contacted her, and I gave her the work of the Polish painter and said, “Just do this in the way that you would do it.” [The figure] is sort of solemn and looking downward, and I thought it fit the music and themes of the record, and so we went with it. The actual physical thing is gorgeous—it’s huge and it comes out three inches off of the canvas. It’s a lot of paint; it took around three weeks to dry.

AH: Were there any books you were reading around the time you were recording the album that influenced the way it turned out?

GC: I was reading a lot of André Breton—he’s an old surrealist French poet. In fact, the quote on the inside of the [album’s] sleeve is a quote from him: “Perhaps I am doomed to retrace my steps under the illusion that I am exploring." We always pick a borrowed piece of writing for the inner sleeve. I think I’ve always written with a touch of surrealism and bizarre imagery to get my point across. His writing definitely helped me construct the lyrics on this record.

AH: What was it like experiencing all that sudden attention when Sunbather came out—including some backlash from the metal community—and then having to come back and make a new record?

GC: I mean, I don’t think a lot about the outside pressure. For us, the biggest pressure was a personal one. Writing a record that was better than the last one, that didn’t sound like the last one That was the biggest hardship: literally not wanting to repeat yourself.

AH:  Is there something that you fear people will misunderstand about this album?

GC: Well… no. Our albums are based in complete self-reflection. I’m not really talking about anyone other than me, to be completely blunt. The whole experience of this band is completely self-serving. Not saying that it’s not nice when people connect, but in terms of what people get or don’t get, I don’t know until people start hearing it. Going into it, it’s an album about depression and not knowing what to do about depression. If I tried to put it in broad terms, that would be it.

AH: How do feel now in relation to the head space in which you made the album?

GC: I feel better. I’m always better when I’m being creative or being busy. So I’m happy it’s done. I’m happy we don’t have to play Sunbather songs that much anymore. I’m happy we can start touring again, start redirecting our focus. When I have things to look forward to, I’m at my best.

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