Elegant misery

George Clarke of Deafheaven on 10 years of 'Sunbather'

Credit: Robin Laananen

When it comes to extreme music over the past decade, few bands flipped the script quite like Deafheaven. The heavy San Francisco outfit’s 2013 breakthrough Sunbather turned the heads of critics and listeners under the banner of its now-iconic pink cover art, scrambling the boundaries of black metal, post-rock and shoegaze to dazzling and devastating effect. With soaring crescendos and gauzy guitars laid over breakneck blast beats and the formidable shriek of frontman George Clarke, the group’s genre-allergic sophomore effort — divisive at the time, now widely considered a classic — set a bold new template they have been redrawing ever since.

Ten years later, the Grammy-nominated group’s watershed LP gets the anniversary treatment with a new remixed and remastered edition, and a corresponding U.S. tour stopping at Summit in Denver on Dec. 13.  But looking back on Sunbather a decade after it first sparked backlash from black-metal purists and effusive praise from a growing legion of Deafheaven obsessives, Clarke reflects on both ends of the high-pitched response with a good-natured shrug. 

A remixed and remastered version of Deafheaven’s 2013 breakthrough Sunbather was released Nov. 17 via Deathwish Inc.

“You naturally want to defend yourself and be like, ‘No, this is what we like, and this is coming from an authentic place. We’re not trolling anyone,’ which was something that had been published at the time,” the 35-year-old frontman told Boulder Weekly from a New York City apartment before lighting out on the band’s upcoming tour. “While it was our natural inclination to do that, we were also pretty vocal about being like, ‘By the way, we’re not curing cancer here. This is just a record, and three people made it while drinking 40s  in a 10-by-10 room.

“For us, the whole process is quite down to earth. So for people to be like, ‘This record crumbles mountains,’ these sort of poetic exaggerations that were happening at the time …  I’ll take it, but I don’t know if I feel that way either,” Clarke continues. “It all feels a bit chaotic in retrospect. It’s fun that we went through it, and it’s kind of just part of our story now.”

And that story didn’t stop with Sunbather. While reactions to future records wouldn’t quite match the fever pitch of discourse surrounding the band’s first major splash, Deafheaven have reinvented themselves in equally bold strokes with each new release. But the even-keeled Clarke says the 10th anniversary of their landmark LP is giving the forward-looking collective a chance to pause and reflect on the winding path that brought them here. 

“It’s not very often that we do things that are strictly fanfare. We’ve always done this for ourselves. Being able to let go of that and just do something for fun and experience a little bit of nostalgia … it’s a nice little aside,” he says. “It feels like this kind of wholesome thing, which I can appreciate.”

“We gotta just follow our instinct and our heart,” Deafheaven frontman George Clarke says of the Grammy-nominated metal band’s knack for reinvention. Credit: Robin Laananen

Killer instinct  

Deafheaven’s knack for reinvention was pronounced with perhaps its biggest flourish on 2021’s Infinite Granite, which saw Clarke swapping his ferocious black-metal screech for a clean singing style that shares more chromosomes with Morrissey than Mayhem. In a career full of departures, this was arguably the band’s biggest. 

‘Infinite Granite’ by Deafheaven was released in August 2021 via Sargent House.

“We gotta just follow our instinct and our heart, and it would have been really ham-fisted to do anything else,” he says of the stylistic curveball. “I would have way rather thrown this crazy Hail Mary and hope that our audience would be prepared than to do, you know, Sunbather: Part 4.” 

Vocal delivery wasn’t the only place Clarke set out to recarve the map on the band’s latest left turn — with his obscuring scream stripped away, the lyrics took on a new urgency. “Forgive the trembling love / I’m weak and acting bold,” he sings on the Side-A standout “In Blur,” with a scaled-back vulnerability that pushes against the more baroque phrasing of past efforts.   

“I was reading a lot of surrealist poetry [while writing Sunbather] — a lot of purple prose and Victorian-type things. Whereas I think my tastes are a bit more modern now and maybe a bit more American,” he says. “I think that has lended itself to a welcomed simplification.”

But despite the chasm of experience and growth between these two points, Clarke looks back on those early years with warmth as he and his bandmates gear up to bring Sunbather back to life for audiences around the country. Such a victory lap is an opportunity not every band has, and one he is determined not to take for granted.

“During Sunbather, there was [a sense that] we could lose this tomorrow. And to be frank, we were losing it every six months and finding a way to piece it back together,” Clarke says. “Getting to see how it’s still resonating with people 10 years on is quite surreal. I think we’re very lucky to have a record like this.”

ON THE BILL: Deafheaven Sunbather 10th Anniversary Tour with Touché Amoré. 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13, Summit Denver, 1902 Blake St. Tickets here.


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