Three years since meltings faces on their career-defining New Bermuda tour (which, if you managed to catch in the flesh, you're probably still recovering from), the blackgaze warriors in Deafheaven are finally back and tearing shit up on Australian stages – this time plugging their 2018 record, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. And try as they might to persuede us, Deafheaven are anything but ordinary. Their unique fusion of guttural grit and ethereality makes for a truly mind-bending live show, and with Human Love, thus is triply so. Because there's no voice more convincing than the artist's itself, we caught up with guitarist Kerry McKoy to help explain just why that is.
It’s been a little over half a year since you dropped Ordinary Corrupt Human Love – how do you feel about the record now that it’s well and truly out of your hands and the fans have had a chance to really sit with it?
I’m pretty happy with it! It’s something that we worked really hard on. And y'know, when we write records and stuff like that, we have this unspoken rule in the studio where no-one is allowed to say, "What are people going to think about this?" Because the moment you start trying to appease people or wonder how they'll react to it, your mind starts to drift away from the song itself. The only way to really do this stuff is to just make what you want. And so we always try to do that, which then inevitably leads to us being locked in the studio with a handful of songs, which we'll record and everyone will be satisfied with.
But then we have to turn it over to the label, and we'll have this run-up of four, five months where the creative juices kind of wear off and we start coming down from the high, and we're all like, “Oh man, there’s essentially a piano-based rock song that starts this thing off.” You have all this time to just sit there and finally think about that question – “What are people going to think about this!?” And so every time we put a record out, we’re kind of amazed at how well it's perceived. Y’know, we just kind of write these things for ourselves and then hope that people enjoy them after the fact. We like them, at least, so if everyone else likes them, that’s good too!
I think that’s a really good attitude to have though. Even if people don’t necessarily love the record, it's still an important release because you're proud of it. All that matters in the end is that it came from the heart.
That’s it. With this last tour, we were kind of joking around like, “Man, if you don’t like this record, you’re almost saying you don’t like me, because this is everything I like in one album” [laughs].
It feels like with each new record you put out, you’ve sort of upped the ante with your techniques as a guitar player. How did you want to approach the guitars on Human Love differently than how you did on a record like New Bermuda or Sunbather, for example?
It’s kind of a weird thing where with Sunbather, there was a sound that I was going for – I wanted it to be a very big, very dramatic, delay pedal-centric, beautiful and depressing and ambient kind of vibe. And then with New Bermuda, we made this conscious decision where it still sounds like us and there’s delay pedals and all that post-rock influence, but Shiv [Mehra, guitar] and I went, “Let’s make a record where it’s just f***ing hooks, man!" We'd just be like, "Let’s put a solo on there,” or, “Let’s have some riffs on this one – let the riffs speak for themselves!” It didn’t have to be this big, dramatic kind of… For want of a better term, Sigur Rós-type vibe.
And with this one, it wasn’t really as much of a reaction to the record before it. We went into the studio being like, “If it works, it works." We weren't going to put any constraints on us, or be like, “Oh, we should have lots of effects here," or, "Let’s not have any effects here at all.” If there’s effects there, they’re there, and they’re there to serve a purpose and be not the end-all, be-all of the songs. I think for myself, personally, I've been drifting further and further away from effects with each record that passes. On this record,there’s a space echo, there’s the blue Memory Man with the Hazarai digital delay, and there’s a couple of reverb pedals. There might be a chorus on there as well, but it’s like… I'm not trying to use less and less, so to speak, but just use what I know are kind of my strengths. We tried to not put any rules on our playing ahead of time – we wanted to let the record be what it was going to be, essentially.
Do you feel like this is the culmination of everything you’ve learned over the past decade or so?
Yeah, absolutely! I think every record is kind of like a time stamp of where we are musically, and I guess just as people in general. There’s a lot of good lessons we've learned, but a lot of tough lessons as well. There’s a lot of shit we’ve learned along the way of how not to do things – like, how not to, for instance, be in a band, or how not to treat yourself and the people around you. There’s nothing that I’m like disappointed in with our records – I’m proud of every record – but with this one, it felt like we really understood who we were as a band.
We looked at what worked and didn't work for us in the past and went, “Okay, let's not do rehearsals seven days a week, ten hours a day, for a month straight." That wasn’t really a healthy place to put ourselves in, so instead, we were like, “Let’s do three months, and let’s do four hours a day, five days a week. And after four hours, no matter what, we pack up and everyone gets coffee.” We learned how to be in a band, essentially. So to me, this record sounds like the hard lessons we learned from just living and touring and doing all of that stuff.
So as far as the songwriting goes, what was the creative dynamic like between the five of you?
Man, we’ve been through so many members since the beginning of this band! We’ve had a lot of people come in and out of this band, and it’s because George [Clarke, vocals] and I made a pact when we first started, that we were never gonna settle. If somebody didn’t really fit in this thing, we’d just keep looking. And so I remember when we first found Dan [Tracy, drums], we were like, “Finally! This guy is really good at drums, and he knows how to write songs outside of just drums. He has good opinions, and he’s the kind of guy we want to be around with for nine months out of the year.” Before, when I would jam with drummers, I'd have to be like, “Okay, so there's gonna be a 4/4 blast on this, and you’re gonna do a big, long drum roll, and then I’m gonna need a triplet thing for this long, and then this double kick…” Y’know, I'd have to kind of map it out. But with Dan, we'd get in a room and I can say, “Here’s this riff – I’m kind of thinking something fast, what do you think?” And then whatever he comes up with is way cooler than anything I could even think of.
And then when we found Shiv, it was the same thing. I would show him a riff one time, and on the second time I'd be playing through this riff, he'd come up with something off the top of his head and I’d be like, “Wow, that’s it!” And so we’ve always kind of had that with him, and with Chris, it was the same thing as well. We're at the point, with the five of us in a room together, where everyone trusts each other’s tastes, trusts each other’s level of musical ability, and also trusts each other as people, to where we can almost kind of read each other’s minds and just bounce ideas off each other, but also be honest when things don’t work.
Shiv would bring a riff to practice, and within 30 seconds, all of us would be doing stuff on top of it, and then I'd be like, “Wow, that’s it, this is how it’s gonna be on the record.” I remember at one point, he brought this big rock part that transitioned right out of the the heavy, black-metal-y stuff into this Bends-era Radiohead part. We’re all such good friends and everyone is so good at their instruments, so it’s a really positive, really healthy dynamic.
What’s going through your mind when you’re up there onstage, tearing through a solo or nailing a riff?
These days, everyone’s really relaxed up there. Especially now, what you see is five guys just having as much fun as possible. And really, if someone messes something up or whatever, everyone knows it’s not the end of the world – y’know, there’s a smile here and a smile there... There’s times when everything is right, and where it’s like, Shiv will go into that lead at the end of “Worthless Animal” or something like that, and he's got his foot on the monitor up front, George is next to him wailing his heart out, and then there's like me, Chris and Dan, just absolutely losing our minds, dancing around, just having fun. It’s just this really, really fun thing.
And then it’s also kind of weird because when shows are really good like that, you can’t really remember certain parts. You just have these little glimpses of, “Oh yeah, it was so cool when you did that,” or, “I really loved that part when…” I think that’s kind of a testament to how much we like this record – when we’re up there, we’re like, “Oh my God, you remember that guy in the front row?” or, “You were great!” And we’ll get off the stage and everyone will just be f***ing buzzing, y’know? It just feels amazing, man. We’ve literally got the best job in the world.
When you’ve got these sprawling, 10-minute songs loaded with different layers and solos and things like that, do you find it easy to improvise much onstage? Do the songs almost take on a life of their own, in a sense?
Over time they do. With our last stretch of touring, we had a US tour, and then we had three weeks off, and then we had a European tour, and then we had a week off, and then we had another US tour – and so at the end of it, we had done 81 shows or something in four months. At that point, you’ve played the set so many times that when you look back, you kind of go, “Woah, what happened to this song? Where did that J Mascis-esque lead on ‘Canary’ come from? That’s kind of fun!” Or y’know, Shiv will just throw a little stank on some of his psych-y things And make them a little more Slash and a little less George Harrison [laughs].
Catch the full details for Deafheaven's 2019 Australian tour below!
Wednesday February 20th - Valhalla, Wellington NZ
Thursday February 21st - Galatos, Auckland NZ
Friday February 22nd - Perth Festival, Perth WA
Sunday February 24th - Crowbar, Brisbane QLD
Wednesday February 27th - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Thursday February 28th - Manning Bar, Sydney NSW
Saturday March 2nd - Farmer & The Owl, Wollongong NSW