A hot pink blur isn't typically one of the many visceral images that rushes to mind when one thinks of hardcore music. Many metalheads would deem such a rosy hue too effeminate for their beloved music. Meanwhile, the genre's boldest band, Deafheaven, uses that contentious shade to adorn its latest album.
"We were discussing summer-based things within the songs, and trying to come up with a color palette," Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke says of the cover art for the San Francisco troop's latest critically lauded album, Sunbather. That decoration was designed by eclectic artist Nick Steinhardt, guitarist of fellow California hardcore troop Touché Amoré. Clarke adds of Steinhardt's work for Sunbather: "I told him I wanted something bright and sunny. He drafted a few versions of this salmon color scheme. I thought it was awesome, conceptually original."
Not everyone agreed. But Deafheaven, who will perform at Tremont Music Hall on March 23, has always had an unusually high number of detractors. Maybe it's because Clarke, with his chiseled features, looks "more like a model for J.Crew" than a metal head, according to Pitchfork. Perhaps it's the band's elaborate style that is turning purists off — nuanced, unpredictably beautiful notes that eschew the genre's typically macho verse-chorus-climactic riff style, as much shoegaze as hardcore. Or the hate could be attributed to the band's recent breakout successes.
To be sure, Sunbather isn't a chart-topping crossover akin to Metallica or Judas Priest in their heyday. But it did draw rave reviews, winding up on dozens of prominent critics's "Best of 2013" lists and being named the overall best reviewed album of the year by aggregating website Metacritic.
"Anytime an underground act like ours gets mainstream attention, people's first reactions are 'Why them and why not such-and-such?' It turns into a pissing contest. I don't pay attention to it," Clarke says.
Has such backlash helped the members of Deafheaven bond with their peers in Touché Amoré, the latter of whom suffer similar critiques? And did that prompt Clarke to tap Amoré's Steinhardt for Sunbather's cover art?
"I wouldn't necessarily say that we thrive on the backlash, but we do bond quite a bit on the subject," Steinhardt says via email. "I do know that neither of us, musically or artistically, are interested in doing something typical in order to fit in with our respective genre's confines. That mindset itself has brought us together, first as colleagues and now as friends with a great level of respect for each other."
That bond lead to a fruitful collaboration, as Clarke and Steinhardt mulled over the concepts for Sunbather's cover art.
Of his design, Steinhardt explains, "The peachy pink came from the summery and uplifting qualities of some of the musical passages, the color behind your eyelids while squinting at bright light, and has a element of something that's been faded slightly by being left out in the sun."
Steinhardt adds that he chose a didone typography for the album's font, though it's normally used to connote elegance and high class. "This custom variation I developed makes it appear to be slowly slipping away and just out of reach," he says.
Clarke explores that elusive decadence through the lyrics he screams on Sunbather. In a glowing review of the disc, Pitchfork mentioned the financial strains he and his single mom faced while he was a boy, before adding: "The album's central image is of a girl sunbathing outside of her upscale house. Clarke spotted her after moving back home for a bit. ... He wondered. ... what it would be like to have that girl's existence."
That angst may inspire some of his songs now, but the opposite was the case when he was a boy.
"I don't think it was any different than the average teenager," Clarke says, adding that he coped with his growing pains in a fairly unique way. "I got into thrash metal in the seventh grade, then punk, and found a little community through that."
Clarke's mother didn't object to his edgy music choice or hardcore pals. In fact, she seemed glad — as she does now that he creates some of the genre's best tunes himself — that George is finding a way to cope. But that doesn't make the details any easier for a mother to accept.
"Some of the subject matter is occasionally strange for her, especially when I sing about substance addiction, romantic failures, depression and financial anxiety. It's weird looking at your son like a human being at times," Clarke says, adding that awkwardness fades when they consider all they've endured, thanks to his absentee dad. "Her reactions can be funny — she's sometimes surprised by my lyrics, but mostly she's just interested. I'm just appreciative that she's interested in the first place."