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Interview: Deafheaven - Treefort 2022 Pick of the Fest

22 March 2022

Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke – Photo: Tim Bugbee

Here in Boise, we pray for snowfall. The more the merrier. Farmers consult their almanacs. Fitness freaks forage for forecasts online. Winter small talk revolves around precipitation, with any mention of a storm inevitably provoking someone to say, “Good. We need it.”

Why do Boiseans make that remark? In simple terms, more precipitation means more snowpack in the mountains. That means more water runoff in the spring and summer. That means more abundant rivers. That means more greenery and a wetter defense against drought.

Hefty snowpack allows Boise residents to collectively exhale with the knowledge that they’ll be able to enjoy more days hiking the foothills, floating the Boise River and running along the Greenbelt as the year progresses.

So far, 2022 is getting mixed reviews. Some climatologists are hopeful that Idaho’s snowpack levels seem strong, while others are concerned about the state’s snow-water equivalent, or the amount of water contained in the snowpack.

Time will tell how Boise and neighboring regions fare this year. But what cannot be disputed is that organizers behind the city’s annual music festival spent their COVID days packing more talent into its lineup than ever before.

And the flood is about to hit.

The 10th edition of Treefort Music Fest runs from Wednesday through Sunday, with a stacked lineup the likes of which Boise has never seen. Every year, the event features a staggering number of acts — which some argue waters down the festival.

But this year, not only does Treefort boast a whopping 530 acts at last count, the bill encompasses some of the most important names in the history of indie rock: Guided by Voices, Osees, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Mercury Rev, !!! (chk chk chk), Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof, Quasi and Fruit Bats, to name a few.

OK, we’ll name one more: Deafheaven. Originally scheduled to play Treefort 2020 last spring, the shoegaze-meets-metal marauders will perform for an hour at Boise’s classiest venue, the Egyptian Theatre, on Thursday night.

Whereas Deafheaven were somewhat incongruent with Treefort in 2017 — playing a thunderous, full-metal set — this time around, they’re supporting a new post-rock album (Infinite Granite) that couldn’t be better suited for the festival.

For that reason and a few more, Deafheaven will play the most-anticipated set of Treefort 2022, in the eyes (and ears) of the Big Takeover. Late last week, we caught up with the band’s frontman, George Clarke, to revel in excitement about the festival, Infinite Granite and the apparent winding down of COVID.

Thank heaven for Deafheaven.

What do you remember most clearly about the last time you played Treefort?

GEORGE CLARKE: We have some family out in Boise, and it was really good to see them. I remember the energy being really good, with the crowd and the festival itself. It seemed a bit lower-key than festivals we’re used to. It has a very familial feel to it. It’s nice.

You played a pretty unconventional venue too — Mardi Gras, which is primarily used as a wedding reception hall.

CLARKE: Yeah, I remember being in the back of the venue beforehand and thinking it was a bit makeshift. But that was part of the fun.

This year, you’re playing at the Egyptian Theatre, which is on the other end of the spectrum as far as Boise goes. Do you enjoy playing theaters?

CLARKE: Yeah, we like playing theaters. On this tour, we’re keeping our shows to a reasonable size, so we can have more audience contact. Being away from people the last few years, it’s kind of nice to re-familiarize ourselves in a more intimate way.

Last time I caught you was when you played at Psycho Las Vegas in August last year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band not play any new songs the day after they released a new album. Instead, you played most of Ten Years Gone, your live 10-year-anniversary collection from 2020. Did you want to wait to start a proper album tour cycle before playing any songs off Infinite Granite, your new studio album?

CLARKE: Yeah. The Psycho thing was a last-minute ask. They were dealing with a lot of troubles with getting European bands over due to pandemic restrictions. Due to that, we kinda — and I think correctly — assumed that the Psycho audience was more ready for a more classic set. Between that and not yet playing the “album release shows” we had in October, it made more sense to focus on the older material.

And you played Ten Years Gone once or twice more after that, right?

CLARKE: Yeah, we played it again in Alabama the month after. It was good to do.

You were booked pretty early to return to Treefort this year. Did you have such a great time when you played Mardi Gras that you reached a deal to come back for a subsequent installment of the festival?

CLARKE: Yeah, we had a lot of fun. Typically, when we get an offer, we think about the festival, the time we had, the people that ran it, the event — a lot of that goes into determining whether we want to play it again. Treefort is a festival that checks all those boxes. It’s a well-run, cool event that happens in an area that is just starting to get some attention. If we can get to be part of that initiation, it’s cool.

Do you feel like you have more breathing room at Treefort versus, say, a metal festival — especially as your new album finds you branching out with a new sound?

CLARKE: Yeah, I think that this newest record will appeal to audiences that our older material didn’t. When you’re in a festival setting, you have all these different types of fans in a room together experiencing new music and broadening their own horizons. I think something like Infinite Granite is a much easier stepping stone.

Did you find that during lockdown was the right time to make this record?

CLARKE: Yeah, I don’t think it really could’ve been made otherwise. It needed the time, it needed the thought and the focus for it to come out the way it did. I think that, while we would’ve reached for similar ideas in a normal circumstance, they wouldn’t have been executed as well.

How so? Do you mean in terms of battening down the hatches? Not mixing up recording sessions with live shows, where you’d revisit older material?

CLARKE: Yeah. Typically, when we’re writing a new album, it’s between tours and very hectic, and we don’t have a lot of time, and there’s no one with us, and we’re self-producing. There’s no dialogue happening. So it comes out the way it does. With this record, we had the time and the personnel and people who also had their own schedules cleared, so we could bounce off ideas and really solidify why we were doing this to begin with.

Is this a record you had wanted to make since the beginning of the band?

CLARKE: I don’t know about that, but I think it’s a record that we were all naturally going to make no matter what. I think the pandemic allowed us time to refine the ideas that had presented themselves already. But the way we are right now and the way we were at the time just signaled wanting to do something like this. As far as the more metallic side … I don’t know, we pushed it maybe as far as we could push it. So it’s just more interesting overall to develop the other side and try to expand ourselves as musicians.

Your recent setlists have mixed in your older, heavier material, but are you tempted at an indie-rock festival like Treefort to just play the new album?

CLARKE: I think I always do, because I’m still excited about the new album, and it feels very fresh for me. But at the same time, we want to be fair to fans. There’s a lot of people who a) haven’t seen us in general; or b) haven’t seen us since 2019 or fall 2018. It would be doing a disservice to them to not play older material. So we’re going to have a mixed set. I think it’s going to be good, with a nice flow, and something that everyone’s happy with.

Are you finding that the flow is pretty smooth in concert from your older material to your newer songs?

CLARKE: Yeah, absolutely. I think people who thought that the new record was this jarring departure — if they still happen to believe that, will come around after seeing it live. It all meshes together in a nice way.

Are concertgoers responding differently to your newer music?

CLARKE: The newer record has shown me that people can enjoy what you’re doing without needing to frantically move around or mosh or whatever. While I really like that, it’s been interesting to see how the other side responds to live music — which is very gracious and very kind, but in larger respects, more subdued.

Did you carve out a new look or presentation as a band for your new material? Maybe a less animated approach?

CLARKE: No, the stage show is still animated, still very high-energy. I cut my hair because having long hair is very annoying after a lot of years. And then I bleached it, which came up in some Deafheaven photos, but it was actually for another project I was working on, that kind of coincided. It’s nice to feel current, but it wasn’t a reaction to the new music.

Was the other project Alto Arc? [The experimental group also features make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench, producer Danny L Harle and Trayer Tryon of Hundred Waters.]

CLARKE: Yeah, exactly.

Was that a one-off deal or are you going to continue with it going forward?

CLARKE: It’ll continue forward for sure, but it’s a side project for everyone involved, so it’s just a matter of schedules. But it’s very exciting and a lot of fun.

The pandemic challenged every band. What specific aspect of the lockdowns challenged Deafheaven the most?

CLARKE: Money, probably. I think that essentially nobody had any. I think MusiCares [a charity that helps musicians in financial need] came through as best they could, but I think it’s no secret that the pandemic shined a massive light on how there’s absolutely no state/support/infrastructure at all for live music or musicians or bands or crew.

All I saw left and right were fundraisers from artists supporting people in music or fundraisers from organizations trying to save venues or stages. And we went through the same thing. Thankfully, we were able to rely on really wonderful people and take advances and restructure our business and make sure everyone could have some kind of retainer and try to survive. But I would say that the biggest challenge widely was financial.

Seeing the lack of support for musicians exposed like that, was it hard not to become pessimistic about being a musician in the U.S.?

CLARKE: Oh, I’m always pessimistic. Or, I’m realistic. Everyone who’s a musician in America knows that America doesn’t give a shit about musicians. All you have to do is tour Europe once to know that. It’s an entirely different thing.

American society is aggressively anti-art comparatively to countries that it associates with. That said, no, I was pretty — honestly, I kept my head up, and I tried to … we had it lucky. And a lot of people who work paycheck to paycheck and have families that they have to take care of, things like that, they really bared the brunt of it. So while I want to acknowledge the problems related to the music industry, I also want to say that … I kind of take back the earlier statement; we did maintain a certain amount of optimism. I think that it was important that we did in order to get us across the finish line.

Are you obligated to certain future commitments because of all the rescheduling and having to make new music?

CLARKE: Touring is never an obligation — it’s what we love to do. My hope is that we keep booking shows, because yeah, I’m very excited about this record, and seeing fans and doing what it is that we know how to do is such an immense reward. We don’t take it for granted. My only real hope for the next year, year and a half or two is that we can just be allowed to do our jobs and get back on our feet. We enjoy doing this.

Aside from the pandemic, was there any other interference with your plans for making music, touring or otherwise?

CLARKE: As far as our business side of things, the label and all that, the team of people we work with are so supportive — immensely supportive, in fact — they gave us free rein and said, “We trust you. Don’t screw it up.” [He laughs.] We tried to do the best we could.

Did you wind up writing a lot more material during the pandemic that you haven’t released yet?

CLARKE: Not necessarily, no. But we’re always demoing, and the guys and I are file-sharing all the time. So there’s definitely ideas. But for Infinite Granite, we definitely put it all out on the table. It took a lot of brainpower. So no B-sides right now. But I suspect we’ll be making new music sooner than later.

What are you most excited about in terms of coming back to Boise?

CLARKE: I’m really excited for the show. Last time we were there, I’d say the only thing that was a negative is that we didn’t have enough time to really enjoy it as much as we could. So hopefully we’ll have more time to check out a good restaurant or some nice park to go on a run through. I think it’d be a nice way to end the monthlong tour we’re doing.

Check back with the Big Takeover each day from Wednesday through Sunday to read our fresh interviews with the other bands we are most stoked to see at Treefort 2022.