In Conversation with Deafheaven

We caught up with Deafheaven’s Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra a few hours before their gig at Psycho Las Vegas festival.

They’d just released their newest, Infinite Granite – definitely one of the best releases of 2021. An aggregation of what Deafheaven have been doing over the last 11 years of their career, evolving from one album to the next, developing production and artistic focus without losing their core identity.

Louder Than War talks to the guitarists of Deafheaven – Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra – to discuss the writing of Infinite Granite and the importance of self-searching; relations with Sargent House and the degree of experimentation; the previously released 10 Years Gone; moments of catharsis, their love of Slowdive and their work process.

LTW: Infinite Granite was produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Jack Shirley. How does this combination of somebody who’s completely new to the band and somebody you’ve already worked for a decade affected the work process and the end result of it ?

Shiv: “Yeah, we’ve worked with Jack for a long time. So, he knows us best. Bringing in Justin was definitely a new element. We were unsure about how they would get along. But they got along perfectly well. And actually, kind of complement each other in their styles. ‘Cause, Jack comes from more his own set-of-ways of recording. And Justin has his own version. And I think, the combination of both was really beneficial for us.”

Kerry: “Essentially, I feel like because we had Jack on the board for tracking as a continuation of what we’ve done with the entire career for this band, that combined with the new influence and Justin kind of taking over…I feel like we got something unique that we wouldn’t have got with either them on their own.”

LTW: How much of a studio work was involved in the recording sessions of Infinite Granite ? In comparison with the cases when band gets to the studio to just record with someone like Steve Albini on a board.  

Shiv: “It was an extensive amount of studio time. First, at Jack’s studio for half a month. And then for couple of months at Justin’s house. It was the longest time we’ve ever spent on a record in a studio, I think.”

Kerry: “Yeah. A big part of it was tweaking stuff in the studio. Obviously, the meat and potatoes of it was written ahead of time. But most of the sound-design and extra-production flourishes – these sorts of things – were really when we got in the weeds. Especially at Justin’s studio.”

LTW: Kerry, commenting on Roads to Judah you noticed that at that point you had intense introspection involved in what you’re doing. All the records you’ve released are intense in various ways. But how long did it take for you to reach this point when this specific intensity became not something stylistically related but a compositional element ?

Kerry: “I think that was kind of a decision as a group. Pretty common misconception in the press these days is that the band is just George and me and “the other guys” – something like that. For the last three records essentially it’s been a regular band with five people writing, five people recording. We’ve been very democratic – one member, one vote! If everyone wants to do something, we do it. If one person doesn’t want to do something, and he can’t be convinced, we don’t do it.

So, in terms of our older output compared with the intensity you’re talking about, I think, especially with “Roads to Judah” – it’s a great example because, that record to me and to the guys in the band, sounded at that time very fresh. We were: “Wow! It’s such an intense thing! It’s so new and exciting to us!” – and that was a decade ago.

We were all working on this record and wanted to have the same feeling. We wanted to have the excitement and the intensity. The excitement of “That’s uncharted territory! This is something new!”. So that time of intensity, the decision of taking the intensity – from blast-beat and screaming into just emotional production-type of intensity not relying on the same tools…That was the general vibe five of us naturally gravitated towards…At the end of the tour schedule of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love , I’d say. We really wanted to explore that other side of us we had never really fully committed to.”

Shiv: “I think also our tastes had developed over time. And people inevitably changed. We love writing heavy stuff. And we also love writing ethereal dense compositions. Over time, as we grow, we just want to use everything we can. Explore every path of music we can kind of peak into.”

LTW: Quite a lot of your guitar-work is built around the creation of textural line and melodic line and their constant interaction. Dream House would be a good example of that. How does the writing process differ for you two and when your ideas usually come together ?

Kerry: “Speaking for myself, for the last couple of records I would say 95% percent of inspiration musically came from just five of us being in a room. There was a point in time when there were fewer members, different members or whatever in the band, when I would come up with the riffs ahead of time at my house and keep these little journals of songs – riffs in a certain order, just vague things and take them to practice. [So] we all would kind of hash it out.

But this record, especially, I don’t remember really coming out with anything ahead of practices. The five of us knew each other so well. It’s on autopilot at that point. That when we all get in the room with the each other – we can just read each others’ minds. And it just kind of bounces off the wall and it organically comes out. So that’s how it is for me.”

Shiv: “I feel like we wrote a lot of ideas on Ordinary Corrupt Human Love tour and we were like: “Oh, these are gonna be tracks that we’re going to use!” and when we got into lockdown, Kerry and I were sharing a bunch of songs, writing at home. And when, we met up it was like you said – 10 % of those riffs ended up getting used. On the spot it was more like both of us working on chord-structures together, while Chris and Dan were adding into the composition. So, it was more natural when it came together. We didn’t really used many of the preconceived ideas we started with.”

LTW: Before the release of Infinite Granite, you released your live-in-the-studio album 10 Years Gone. It’s interesting because a lot of these songs you played were taken from the beginnings of the band. In this sense, and also taking into account the stylistic difference of Infinite Granite, it reads like a statement.  

Kerry: “My thinking when we were coming up with the tracklist for 10 Years Gone was – there are a bunch of songs that kids really want to hear and we can’t always play on tour. Because our songs are so long and we only have an hour and half and we have to play Sunbather, we have to play Brought To The Water, we have to play Honeycomb – there are certain songs we have to play.

Otherwise, I feel like we sort of ripping off the people who bought tickets. But I also talked to kids, or people who watched shows saying: “Oh, man, I really want to hear The Kettle Onto The Coil or I really want to hear Glint again, I really want to hear Vertigo or Daedalus or Language Games –older deep cut…Or a lot of people asked me about a  Mogwai cover or something like that.

So with 10 Years Gone – we were going to do it on tour as well, but we kind of tried to pick a greatest hits that were also like rare-songs that you wouldn’t get just going to out Spotify and looking at top songs or whatever. So yeah, it was that sort of intention behind that.”

Shiv: 10 Years Gone is almost like the love-letter to past, before we transitioned to the future. It wasn’t something we decided would be like that. It was just ironically happened to happen in that way. And allowed us to move forward, trying these new things out. I think, it happened at a perfect time for us to do this.”

LTW: For lots of bands, the problem of self-determination remains actual. If we’d speak about thrash-metal or black-metal, where groups of artists defined themselves from archetypical heavy metal. For a number of years, you were called “blackgaze” band. Now you released the record that’s far from both these styles. But with it, it’s the most Deafheaven album of all. What role does the self-searching played this particular musical situation ?

Kerry: “It’s the only role it plays! The only thing you can do as an artist, in my opinion, at least is to release music you want to make and chase after the things that still excite you. It’s weird that you have to be a selfish, self-serving person when you create your art. Because, as a kid, I remember seeing so many bands that in my opinion would try to chase after what they thought their audience liked.

Here’s more of this, here’s this kind of thing. And not to sound cocky or something like that but if we wanted, we can crank out another Sunbather in three weeks or something. We’ve done it million times! We can do it! Those muscles are there. But it’s that kind of thing – we’re not interested in that. I think, the fact that we’ve never been interested in that and our audience has kind of stocked around and followed us on this journey kind of proofs that’s the right move to make. Just to essentially be purely self-serving. Purely make what you want to make. And be fearless about it. As much as going candid.

LTW: But when you’re getting some new elements to your sounds – isn’t there a fear of trying something that would not fit for the band or it’s also something that stimulates your experiments ? 

Shiv: “I think, we’ve just been developing our own [knowledge] of gear, learning so much about what’s out there that we maybe we didn’t used to use as much. Synthesizers, being a huge role now. And samples. All sorts of texture-choices. I think, that development just natural as musician grow.

I think, we know how to play the guitar really-well. And we had so much to learn out there. And why not to bring it into our art as we’re learning ? That’s gonna make our music more interesting to us. And hopefully, for others as time goes on.”

Kerry: “That fear is a part of the deal. Of course, I feel like you need the right, as an artist or musician to fail at something. Because, if you don’t feel like you have that right, that possibility to try something to fail – you’d just get sticked in the row.  And you won’t gonna try anything drastic.

There’s no guarantee with putting this record out that people are gonna like it, people are gonna dislike it, it’s gonna work or twenty years from now it would be the same as St.Anger…I don’t know! But we furiously defend the right to write whatever we want. And maybe it would work or not work.”

Shiv: “It’s just a part of growth, at this point…”

LTW: Closer to the end of Great Mass Of Color , at coda, you get to the point of expressivity – getting to heavier sounds that emphasize that particular part of a song. But does it presuppose a different mentality ? In a sense, that if you start with heavy-chords, quite black-metallic-type-of-sounding you’d go in a different direction then if it would be a dream-pop song.

Kerry: “For us, we always had both – we had songs that with pretty much nothing in it – pretty much a black\death-metal song. But we [also] had songs like Near where it just could be a B-side from Souvlaki or something. We’ve always kind of been able to do both. I think, one of the main advantages we had as a band – when we were writing…And it’s very objective! People are trying to get egos out of the door making sure that we’re serving the song.

In terms of if you’d start clean and go heavier or start heavy and you want to mellow out whatever the thing is – we never really think about that. We literally think: “What is this song wants to go next ?” and that’s the only rule! Is the song as good as it can be? If it’s not – we’d fix that. It doesn’t matter who came up with the part, it doesn’t matter who thinks it’s good, who thinks it’s bad. If it can be better – it needs to be better.”

Shiv: “Yeah! Exactly! It’s exactly “What serves the song ?”. When we write – we’d try million things and try the metal-versions of things and whatever serves the song in the best way it is what we’d end up with.

I think, inevitably the core of our band would always sound like us. Whether we use blast or not. I think, we’re always gonna like us. Kerry’s guitar-playing would always gonna sound like him. And Dan’s drumming is gonna sound like him. It always would be us. And it would be fun not to go to our regular choices of what to do. We try to strip away from that.”

Kerry: “On the end of Great Mass of Color you’ve mentioned – one of my favorite songs on the record, that riff originally started out as Interpol of Turn On The Bright Lights-era riff. Big, heavy, loud part. It was originally going to be boarder-line-post-punky-dance-beat with something really clean and the guitars playing all downstroke. I think, I accidentally hit the wrong pedal and turned on my distortion on it. Everyone was like: “Woow! That’s kind of cool this way!..”

Shiv: “Yeah! It’s one of the happy accidents that helps to get it where it needs to be!”

Kerry: “Exactly! It’s also an example of us also trying to lean so hard into this. Like: “Let’s not rely on this old pattern and get loud and heavy!” – we tried that. And the objective reasoning of the five of us was: It works here!”

LTW: It was said a lot of the times that with Deafheaven, being an open-minded group of musicians working together and constantly bringing ideas, you still need to get sort of clear vision. Is this usually comes up to one person or a certain point of a common mutual understanding ?

Shiv: “I think, at some point it’s individually. But also, at some points, like Kerry said – it’s one of the happy accidents. Everyone is on board. So, it’s like an interplay between both in a way.”

Kerry: “Yeah!”

Shiv: “We spend a lot of time structuring together, stripping those parts away and collectively deciding would they fit or not.”

Kerry: “There’re definitely times when we were writing the last three records when…For me, I can always only remember my own times but I’m sure this is happened everybody else to…I had brought the riff and: “What if we do this ?” and play it. In my head it’s: “This f*cking rocks! We rule!” – then I’d get them playing [saying]: “This is great!” – and everybody else is: “Yeah…Not really!” ( laughter ).”

Shiv: “Yes ( laughs ).”

Kerry: “So again, we try to be objective but we also humans. I think, there definitely were times writing reach record when: “Man, that’s a good riff!” or something but…”

Shiv: “It’s strange! We do have individual thoughts on some parts! Like we’re bringing them on table and think if they’d fit. But we kind of collectively decide would be move that way or not.”

Kerry: “Exactly!”

Shiv: “Democratic!”

Kerry: “A good example – there’s this riff we had for Infinite Granite, I think, was originally going to be on the beginning of Villain…Do you remember that pixie-zee thing from two years ago ??

Shiv: “Yeah!”

Kerry: “And it was kind of pixie-zee-sort-of-riff, I really liked. I was like: “Man! This is goon!” but my thought on it was always kind of – when we come up with riffs, when we’re working on something and it’s good enough, all five people would instantly “F*ck! This rules!”.

So, when that doesn’t happen or there’s a shock to the ego or something like that at times, my next thought is always: “Well, it’s not personal. If they liked it…” – they’re not trying to hurt my feelings or anything. And I would assume it’s vice-versa. Chris has some riffs that didn’t make a record etc. But it’s a weird balancing act.

Sometimes, it takes a descend of a couple of members to make this riff something and [you’re]: “Oh, yeah! I see why it didn’t worked…I see why” and then, we go back to the drawing board.”

Shiv: “There are parts, song we almost half-wrote and then you have an element of Justin coming in and giving his opinion…”

Kerry: “Yeah ( laughter ).”

Shiv: “And then you think of it again thinking: “Ok! He’s got the point here. So maybe we move in a different direction…” – there’s a lot of elements we played this time around.”

LTW: With almost every previous release you had a certain number of atmospheric tracks – You Without End, Irresistible are good examples. Do you think it’s important to have a certain pieces like these that would maybe get the listener back to comfort zone and create a catharsis ?

Shiv: “Maybe in the sense that if we wanted to go that way…Like it still comes down to have: We want to express our songs. I don’t think we personally think: “We’re doing this for people again!”

Kerry: “Yeah! I really can’t overexplain how much it’s a selfish thing. Every record we’ve made has been the one we wanted to make at that time. And I think, it just happens to be a happy co-accidence.

When we were writing on our earlier records, like “deah-stuff – blast-beats – delayed-guitar-leads” we were like: “Yeah, that kicks ass!” and then other people just happen to agree with that ( laughter ). There’s never really a point when we want to take people to a comfort zone. It’s kind of more: This is what we like! If you like it – follow us…”

Shiv: “I feel like there are moments of catharsis on this record. Because, we also like that. We like to break out to where we feel comfortable and bring it back. So, I feel like at the end of “Other Language”, at the end of Villian – there’s a tone of it on the record.”

In Conversation with Deafheaven

LTW: At the same time, there’s a context you put these songs. Irresistible creates a certain specific reaction being in this particular context. The same with In Blur. And having those songs in the live-set with different songs – don’t you feel the lack of this original context ? Does this make sense to you ?

Shiv: “No! ( laughs ). I still feel that moment of catharsis of what we’ve done. But I feel the one you’re relating to is maybe more in blast form – that maybe more at the end of Mombassa.

Kerry: “In terms of playing this stuff live – we never really know…When we writing these records, we don’t think: “Oh, this would fit in the set!” or “Oh, how can we play this live ?” – it’s always just we like this and figure that out later.

For Ordinary Corrupt Human Love there were a couple of tours we did where we were playing You Without End and I’d literally play a piano to it. I like playing it! But there’s a certain point when doing it really needs to bring the piano at our soundcheck, doing this whole thing, switch over to this, mellow the whole vibe for this…Again, we demand the right to fail, try and experiment.

I don’t know how Infinite Granite is gonna work in our set. We, obviously gonna play older stuff. We’re not gonna play older songs. But I don’t know how this is gonna work yet. That’s exciting and kind of scary. We’re gonna try it. And hopefully, people are gonna bear with us, as we work out ( laughter )”

LTW: The other day I was listening to When The Sun Hits by Slowdive thinking that when the song develops it kind of creates a conflict between Rachel’s voice and the pressure. But this conflict drives the song. And it becomes quite a hard task for a songwriter – to drive the song back from expressivity and intensity to softer melody-ness. How do you find the way out of such musical situation ?

Shiv: “Trial and error. We go through all sorts of experimentations to find our fit.”

Kerry: “I think, it’s also – if you have a good knowledge of the use of dynamics and honestly, we’ve been doing it for the whole career now. So, we’ve got figured out [this] quiet-loud thing. Other than that – When The Sun Hits is the great example of that. It starts off with the right cymbal and this, very-very pretty, very mellow guitar-riff.

There’s this big fill into big guitars and the chorus comes in. And they almost let that right down going down the stem, fading under neath of it with this familiar chord-production again. They’re going to a relative major instead of a minor chord there.

I feel like a lot of those tricks, things that are pleasing to a human ear and that we learn from bands like Mogwai or Slowdive, bands like My Bloody Valentine…They’re experts at taking you right to the edge of something and then, not throwing you up from the cliff and just dropping back down. I feel like five of us in our early years kind of not copied it but we learnt to understand what they’re doing there. You get a grasp of it. And I think, that’s kind of helped to inform our songwriting.

Shiv: “I think, what Kerry said – we have these tools in our arsenal for doing that. I think, aside of musically, the harder part this time around was vocally finding the intensity and bringing it down to more mellow versions of singing.

It took a lot more work and something that was new to us. So we worked really hard to kind of find the balance of bringing that intensity and bringing that back vocally. And I think, George did a really good job in finding different voices this time around.”

LTW: Your cooperation with Sargent House has started when they re-released your demo – originally, a digital release. What brought you to work with them 10 Years Gone and now with Infinite Granite ?

Kerry: We started working with Cathy [Pellow] after we opened for Russian Circles in 2011. And she was managing us for a very long time. She put out the demo, essentially because she saw financially how much in right we were at that time. It was very hard to make the band work in the early days. She helped to put out the demo, helped to get us some cash early on. And then, she was managing us for years!

It’s always been these three parts of our team: our agents – our labels and our manager Cathy at Sargent House. We did our two records with ANTI- and they are ABSOLUTELY AMAZING PEOPLE. I would absolutely sing with them again any time. They are amazing. I can’t over-say how great as the record-label they are. How well they treated us, how much they let us do what they wanted to do. Extremely fair with the contracts. I literally would recommend this label to everybody. But our contract was up and Cathy was…There was just something [about it]: she’s been there since the beginning; she’s been there since literally a year into this band. And believed in us from the very beginning.

It just felt right to streamline the process, bring it home. Our team now are: our agents, who’d also been with us since 2011 and our management and our label now, who’d been with us since 2011. Just four-five people. There are not millions of dollars coming into the thing. And the timing seems right. We’re gonna make this big shift. And we’re gonna go for this thing. And “Let’s do it with the people who’d been with us!” – who’d been here since day one, have seen all the ups and downs and “Oh, my God! We have no money!”, “Oh, man! This person is gonna die of drugs!” – all this crazy dark stuff and stuck by us. And just seem like: “This is serendipitous. We should go for this!”.

There are a lot of people who’d brough up the fact that ANTI- as a label, again, amazing label is a part of Epitaph which is 49% owned or whatever by Warner Brothers. They have radio, people working there. It’s a huge building…They’d put out Smash by The Offspring and …And Out Come the Wolves by Rancid – these GIGANTIC millions-of-records-sold. A lot of people were: “You could stay with ANTI-!” – this is the record to help them work.

At a certain point, I understood this thinking. But being also so overwhelming and surprised…Not even surprised but happy with how Sargent House treated this record and how much leeway she gave us and just the rooster of artists that are on there now. Alexis Marshall, Russian Circles, Daughters, Langua Ignota – it’s an amazing label! It just seemed just the right move! “Let’s do this thing with the people who’d believed in us from the very beginning!” – and been there for us…It’s not even a business relationship. It’s a family-kind-of-thing at this point.”

Shiv: “Exactly! Like Kerry said – Cathy, she’s essentially our mom. She’s been around for so long. Cathy’s seen us going through all the changes, all the drug-problems, downsides of our existence in this band. She’s been there through it all. And ANTI- was also great to us.

At this point, it just feels like it kind of streamline the process, making it easier for us to have more control immediately on this record. Also, being around the community of friends and bands – it’s like a family. It couldn’t be a better decision for us at this point.”

Photo credits: Robin Laananen

Infinite Granite is out now via Sargent House.

~

Interview by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.

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Dan Volohov is a journalist and writer from Russia. Found his inspiration in punk-rock he still continues exploring. From 2016 to 2018 he was a chief reporter at Moscow-based “Radio ULTRA” where he used to cover all sorts of alternative music and interview artists like Billy Gould and Michaele Graves. Since 2015, Dan has been writing for various publications including Distortion Magazine, XSNoize, Maximumrocknroll, Punk Globe, Peek-A-Boo, Metalegion, MetalAddicts, Atmosfear, JoyZine and RamZine.

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