Photo: Robin Laananen
George Clarke On Deafheaven's New Album 'Infinite Granite,' Finding His Voice & Breaking Out Of Underground Memeification
Album art should ideally describe what's inside in some way, but Deafheaven's latest is unique in that it literally shows music. What may look like a grainy Voyager photo of Neptune in its indigo immensity is actually the first minutes of the opening track "Shellstar," processed through a visualizer and photographed in long exposure. To singer George Clarke, the resultant orb of blue specks on coal-black connotes "space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic... almost like a place of birth."
The band is also unique in that they treat themselves as solely musicians. In a field of swollen egos, this isn't a given. Ever since 2013's Sunbather, which inspired outsized reactions from zealots and haters alike, the GRAMMY-nominated five-piece—Clarke, guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, bassist Chris Johnson and drummer Daniel Tracy—has made a point to simply write the best music they can and not make a big deal out it. In a hailstorm of memes about crew-cuts and delay pedals and weeping in awe, Deafheaven simply worked hard.
Now, with their new album, Infinite Granite, which arrives August 20 via Sargent House, they get to fully enjoy the rewards of not believing their own hype. In what's already the primary talking point surrounding the album, Clarke doesn't scream throughout 85 percent of it, but croons. On advance singles "In Blur," "Great Mass of Color" and "The Gnashing," he displays just how hard he worked to not sound tentative, or coached, but confident—as if he had sung since the very first record.
In a wide-ranging interview with GRAMMY.com, George Clarke opens up about the cosmic and literary inspirations behind Infinite Granite, his creative development over the last year and a half and why, in the end, this is "just a record" and nothing more.
What's your life been like for the past year and a half?
It was fine, to be honest. The tour cancelations were a bit of a hit, but we were able to do this makeshift live record in-studio featuring songs we were going to play that year. That came together quickly and we were able to do that, which felt good. We were at the end of our cycle for Ordinary, so we had it easier than a lot of people did. We were able to settle into a writing period, so we started taking the necessary steps to get that done.
Which, of course, had its own difficulties, because we were very conscious of everything happening and we wanted to be as safe as possible. People were getting tested all the time and we were traveling to different studios with masks and all that, which kind of heightened the atmosphere of it, I think, and made things a little more difficult. But overall, it was good. We used the period to try to be creative and not waste what we saw as an opportunity.
Once the record finished, I went to New Zealand and lived there from January until about the beginning of May. Then, I've been back in L.A. since then, just kind of rolling out the album. I came back to start this whole experience, which has been really nice.
Was it a shock to the system after riding around in a van or bus for 10 years?
Yeah, definitely, especially this past year. We were spending a lot of time with each other. We worked on this record longer than any previous one, so we were together a lot, and that was great and felt very natural. But it was interesting not being on the road. Being at home for that amount of time is not something any of us are used to. That has increased throughout 2021 because we're not working on the record and not seeing each other as much. We're all eagerly anticipating that side of things to pick up again.
Did the other guys make it through OK, financially or otherwise?
Yeah, they did. That was one of the first things that happened: We had an emergency meeting and looked at all our accounts. We keep things for savings and this sort of thing. We were thankfully able to budget throughout the year so everyone could be as comfortable as possible. And, of course, unemployment as well.
Thankfully, everyone is alright, but there have definitely been times of stress. Everyone has picked up side work here and there, but that's also just in an effort to keep busy, I think. That was the other thing: The extreme boredom, the extreme idle feeling of the last year got to people a little bit.
I'm not sure how other journalists will receive Infinite Granite, but to me, it stands out from the rest. Hearing you let loose with a scream at the end—rather than screaming all the way through—gave me a feeling I hadn't gotten from any past Deafheaven record.
Thank you. I have no idea either! When we were making it, it wasn't a thought. There were jokes and things like that, but we weren't really consciously considering it. And then after the record was finished, we started to. I think that's what happens: Your head kind of clears and you sort of leave the cave and you're like, "Oh. How are people going to hear this? This actually might be quite interesting, to see what the reaction is."
I will say that we spent a lot of time on it and I think there's a lot of detail in it that wasn't necessarily present in our other albums. I think we really wanted to work more with nuance this time around.
One thing that's always struck me about Deafheaven is that you guys would open for Lamb of God or Slipknot—and then go play with non-heavy artists like Slowdive or Emma Ruth Rundle—with something of a smirk. I don't sense that you guys had existential crises along the way.
I think that early on, we simply saw that we could do both.
Just by getting the opportunity to do both, we saw that as an advantage, like an interesting position that not a lot of people were able to have. Say another band had the same position: They'd be like, "Oh, even if we can do both, we want to shy away from this and only work within this kind of thing. I don't know how an indie audience is going to respond to this, so we should always just take the Lamb of God opportunities," or vice versa.
"I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art."
We would rather say yes to everything. It's all part of the greater experience of playing music like this. I think there's maybe a bit of a smirk, but it's just like an acknowledgement of how strangely unique it all is. Like, "That does work!" or "We can make it work!" and there's something fun about that. That's part of what makes what we do fun, and we have to have some of that.
At the same time, we kind of had to defend ourselves throughout our whole career, and that's a little tedious. At that point, it starts to get a little self-serious. I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art.
Back in the Sunbather era, I also sensed some bemusement at your haters, like, "We're not really black metal? They're making memes about us? Fine, great, I don't care."
I was kind of surprised by it, really: People really care! Sometimes that's funny. That's the honest attitude that we have maintained, and, in a way, have had to maintain. It gets a little unnerving when people tell you, "I think this is the greatest thing ever made," or "This saved my life."
It's not just the negative things. It's quite often the very true and positive things that make you have to recalibrate and be like, "Look, everyone, while I'm glad people are having an emotional reaction to the music—and while I want them to, and that's part of the intention of making it—it also needs to be stated, for good and for bad, however you choose to see it, there are just songs. We're just people in a room trying to be creative and not be bored."
Your music is often very heightened and does elicit extreme emotional responses. Have you ever felt invaded by fans or like people were getting creepy about it?
No, no. I've never really felt that. It's always been a lot of love. It's just good to be objective sometimes, I think. Like I said, that recalibration. It's just reminding everyone that, at least from our standpoint, this is just something that we're doing.
That record in particular [Sunbather], I was really surprised at how people gravitated toward it and how it became such a conversation piece, almost like a weird moment in the subculture. From that kind of came what you were talking about earlier, where it's like, "Man, we're like memes. Oh, funny. People are really invested."
And from it came so much good, so I'm thankful that we're able to experience that, but it was funny.
Deafheaven's George Clarke performing in Oslo in 2018. Photo: Avalon/PYMCA/Gonzales Photo/Per-Otto Oppi/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Was there a moment where the irritation of needing to defend yourselves began to loosen up and you guys could just be a rock band?
Yeah, yeah. We talked about this a little bit during Ordinary amongst ourselves. At the time, we were feeling really alleviated from not being so centered in the conversation.
I think what it was was we just stuck around long enough. Perhaps, if we had gone away after Sunbather, we would always be this thing, but because we continued forward making music we wanted to make and touring and not really making a big deal out of it, I think people are like, "OK, I can focus on something else."
When we were first coming out, there were a couple of different "controversial" bands that have all, I think, outgrown that. [Hunter Hunt-Hendrix] of Liturgy being another one, who just does her own thing and expands with each record. I think perhaps it is just a time thing, but regardless of the reason, yeah, it's freeing to be in that position. And I still feel that freedom.
Even if it is still a conversation—us at large—I don't see a ton of it.
What prompted the move from Anti- to Sargent House for Infinite Granite? I imagine you merely fulfilled your contract, but I don't want to presume.
Yes, that is it—we fulfilled the contract. I love Anti- and we had a very good experience with them.
Since we knew we were going to be working with Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] fairly early on, there was an idea with this record to expand the musical palette and expand the production and, along with that, expand those budgets while simultaneously shrinking the business side and taking more control over it and working closer with Sargent House in a more symbiotic way, because from a management side, we've been together so long.
There was an idea to kind of bring everything home while we were making this sound and delivery and art and all that much more expansive.
Since you guys have been with them forever, it doesn't strike me as downsizing, but consolidating.
That's exactly it. It's just putting everything under a smaller umbrella and having more control. Not to expand on it too far, but there was this idea that people would think the aspirations for this record were more commercial.
I think on a subconscious level, sticking with Sargent House and, in fact, even leaving Anti-, would be kind of a silent response to that curiosity. Just being like, "No, this is purely an artistic move, and we want to do it with the people we've known and gotten to trust over the past decade.
Were people starting to think you were reaching for pop appeal?
I'm not sure if that's a widespread idea, but it was in the realm of what people could be thinking. That's something I anticipated and was conscious of. I think it's an interesting optic to pursue, I guess, this bigger, more rock sound while honing everything in on the business side of things.
When I first saw the album cover, I figured it was a NASA photo. Then I looked at it more closely and realized it wasn't, and then I read that [Touché Amoré's] Nick Steinhardt designed it.
It's funny: Nick and I spent months talking about the album. I sent him the lyrics and said, "This is how I'm feeling about it," and so on. Blue was present very early on, and both of us, honestly, were envisioning this sort of blue mass. We both had this idea of spherical immensity—a strange, strong spherical image.
From that, he basically created an MP3 visualizer that rotates 360 degrees as the song plays. It's made up of all these dots and their movement shifts with the song, and then, as the soundbar does its 360-degree rotations, we took long-exposure photographs of those rotations. The cover is actually the first couple of minutes of the first song, and each track has its own corresponding orb that's made of the music.
We were thinking about concept albums and talking about how artwork of conceptual records always reflects the lyrical content. For this, we wanted to kind of flip that on its head and have artwork that literally was a visual embodiment of what was happening sonically.
He did some tests and made maybe 300 or 400 of them, which all looked fairly similar. We just kind of went through and I was really struck by the one that made it to the cover. To me, not only does it have a kind of idea of space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic. I look at it almost like a place of birth.
Did the track title "Neptune Raining Diamonds" grow out of it?
They were kind of separate ideas. I heard the guys making "Neptune Raining Diamonds" and, to me, it just kind of sounds like that. I was doing some reading and there was a National Geographic article on how Neptune rains diamonds. It was talking about all the atmospheric pressure that makes this effect. I thought it was really interesting and, to me, it's what that track sounded like.
Can you imagine anything more visually splendorous than that?
When I saw the headline in the article, I thought the same thing! I was like, "Man, that visual is incredible." I can't really take the credit for it, but it did make me feel a certain way.
I'm sure some are making a big deal out of the fact that you sing through 85 percent of this record, but to me, it's a completely natural evolution. I think of "Night People" from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Did you always like to sing? Which singers have stuck with you over the years?
A ton. I've listened to traditional singing—or whatever you want to call it—artists forever. Some of my favorite performers are non-metal performers.
But that said, no. It was nothing that I really pursued myself outside of the shower, you know what I mean? Outside of just fun on my own, like most people do, I never really pursued it.
I was in theater for four or five years, and I did musical theater during that time. But even that was mostly secondary. I preferred drama. I didn't do anything for a long time, and it was something we had discussed in the band and something I was pulling toward and experimented with on a couple of occasions on Ordinary.
Once we were given all this time and opportunity to write this album, I decided I wanted to take it more seriously and fully pursue the idea.
Deafheaven at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards. Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Hundreds of shows into your career, did you start to feel limited by screaming?
Not so much in its expression. I still feel like it is oftentimes the ultimate way for me to express an idea or emotion, to express that level of intensity. I still think, ultimately, it is a preference of mine. But in terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else.
Like you said, we tour quite often. I think we had done, in that year, five full tours. That definitely was a catalyst for those decisions as well, or it just reinforced those feelings. I wanted to be fully sure this was a decision I wanted to make before I did it.
I remember playing that show in January, and we had already been kind of working on songs and I had been thinking about the clean-vocal idea. After that January 2020 show, I knew that I definitely wanted to pursue it.
You mentioned in a podcast with [Touché Amoré's] Jeremy Bolm that you had started to be at odds with your position in the band. That you felt like the musical weak link in some way. Was that a motivation as well?
I think so. By the winter of 2019, we had had two songs and maybe the skeleton of a third. I knew at that point this wasn't going to work [with screaming]. We could have pursued it anyway, but I just wouldn't have been happy.
The guys often don't see that juxtaposition as wrong in any scenario. I think they're always comfortable with and wanting a harsh vocal on whatever kind of bed they end up creating. But for me, it was just the artistic aspect of it. I wanted to be challenged in that way.
When people say "Oh, he's singing now," it's so much more than just the tone. The writing is so different. It's not one-note rhythm writing, which is what aggressive vocals are. You're not moving a lot melodically. It's purely rhythm. For this, you need lot more. And if you want to make something creative and not just standard, you need to have dexterity in your vocal and a little bit of range and a lot of confidence.
"In terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else."
It was developing those things with JMJ [Justin Meldal-Johnsen] that, to me, really got it over the finish line. It's not just hitting the notes. It's your delivery. It's wanting to make choruses. And I've said this a lot, but I'll say it again: I've never written a chorus at all.
I've been listening to them my whole life, so it's like, "What eras do I want to link to mine? How am I feeling? Am I listening to a lot of '70s music, or '80s music, or '90s music? Where am I pulling from?" Essentially, I have a blank canvas here. I think that's what made it take as long as I did because I worked on them for over a year, continuously.
You could have easily gone off the rails with overly complex melodies, but the chorus to "Great Mass of Color" is three notes. It seems like you've stripped down your melodic vocabulary for maximum catchiness.
We did, yeah! Especially between me and Justin, there's a lot of those conversations. I was having to rework my lyrics in different ways and there was a little bit of strain. I didn't want to lose ideas, but I did want to filter them in a way that was simple enough to be effective. A chorus is kind of a universal thing. It doesn't need to be the highest brow. It just needs to be impactful and emotional.
But then you have "Villain," one of the first songs we worked on vocally, with all the falsetto things. That was more of a product of what you're saying. It's this big empty canvas where I could do whatever I want, so there are moments where there are jumps into less standard territory. I was hoping for a blend between the two.
You mentioned Chet Baker as an influence on your singing voice. I'm a Chet Baker lunatic.
That rules. A little bit! I was trying to find voices that had a sweet strength to them. When I was deciding on how I wanted my vocal approach to be, one of the things I was considering was shoegaze live and how it's very difficult to mix, especially in smaller clubs. From the top down, everyone has a little bit of struggle. I knew how the music was developing, so I needed a voice where I could compete with loud guitars but not always be full rock.
There are moments on the record where I accentuate more of this rocking voice, but what I described is sweet strength that has legs to it. I find that a lot with [Chet Baker]. I was listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Tears for Fears and stuff that has a dreamy bed of music but doesn't sacrifice the vocal to that sound. It has a very impactful voice on top of it to, in a way, compete.
It's a balancing act between insubstantial, wispy shoegaze vocals and, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Yes, yes, yes, exactly. I dabbled in both. There are so many demos, in part, because I wanted to record everything to hear it back. And, yes, I was going both directions and was hoping to find a middle ground, and maybe I did. I don't know. It's why songs like "In Blur" or "The Gnashing" have a different tonal quality than "Other Language" or "Great Mass of Color."
Chet kind of tossed his voice, but not flimsily. He owned the high notes.
It's that control. That's exactly what I mean. It's less breathy, less careless. They're not supposed to be what shines in shoegaze; it's just another textural element. And we didn't want to be a shoegaze band. I think while this record has a lot of that in there, I wouldn't call it that. Our defining marker was that vocal decision.
Fans glom onto one lyric or another with each Deafheaven record, but I feel like your lyrics remain weirdly underdiscussed. What can you tell me about your lyrical approach for this one? What are you reading lately?
Thank you. I'm into these lyrics. They're a real patchwork of all these different themes, and no song is about any singular thing, necessarily. They have major motifs, but it's all [multifaceted]. The reason is that, originally, I wanted it to be kind of a concept record surrounding family—estranged family, and how those figures find their way into your life in this bigger connection.
But through the course of years, I was reflecting so much on all the heightened emotion of 2020 and the California fires that were happening and the protests and all these things. Those were finding their way into the lyrics, and I just kind of made a patchwork of both things. There's equal parts familial reflection and a present-day doomsday feeling.
I'm trying to think of what I was reading. I've been reading a lot of political stuff in the last year and a half. I felt my headspace was in that area. But, yeah, a lot of Polish stuff. I was reading Aleksander Wat, Szymborska, Milosz. I was reading a lot of Lydia Davis. I got that essay and short story anthology she put out. That's some of them.
You post your photography on Instagram, and I know you put out a couple of books of poetry. It seems like you're finding ways to express yourself beyond this thing you do 10 months a year.
Yeah, I'd like to do more of that. I am doing more of that. Maybe since I turned 30, I've been in this highly motivated zone, just really wanting to do things. Last year probably perpetuated it some, but I'm just looking to be busy. I love all those steps—conceptualizing and then seeing something through, whether it's writing or photography or music. It's all kind of thrilling. I think all that stuff is just in an effort to keep my brain occupied.
Or maybe just becoming a more balanced human being?
And learning! I'd never picked up a camera. I got a camera a few years ago and, through books and YouTube and whatever else, and texting friends that shoot film, I learned all this stuff. I develop and scan everything at my place. It's been cool to exercise that muscle more.
How did you get over the hump of "amateur photography"?
Oh, I'm amateur hour through and through. I'm an absolute hobbyist. Thankfully, a couple of friends have asked me to take their photo and it's great practice, but anything that looks professional or set-up is just [me] having some fun with it. I've taken so many and there's a lot of s**t. My goal is always to have a high average of what I call "keeps" from each roll, and I'm still on the low. [Laughs.]
What's going through your head as you prepare to head back on tour? Do you feel apprehensive about how this material will be received? That some fans might just want the screaming songs?
Honestly, I think our audience is going to be accepting. The show is going to have a lot more [dynamism] now with these new songs. Overall, the picture will be more interesting and varied.
But there's a ton of thought going into the technical aspect of it. We got together a couple of months ago to run the songs as we'll be doing them. Everyone has in-ear monitors now and we have a totally different amp setup with tons of different pedal and synth configurations now. There's a click track, which we've never done before. So, there's different bridges to cross.
If anything, that's where the nerves are coming from. But we have a lot of time and we are typically well-prepared people, so I feel really good. I feel mostly excited to play shows and see friends and see the country and hopefully see the world at some point soon and just get on with it.
And just play music without being a conversation piece?
If there's anything I want from people or from the record, it's just to take some time with it and to really listen to it. We put a lot of work into it. It's very detailed. When people receive the package, that aspect is very detailed as well.
And it doesn't really need to be more than that. It's just a record.
The above was drawn from two conversations and has been lightly edited for clarity.