Kerry McCoy Gives Black Metal a Jangling New Tune

Unexpected outside influences help Deafheaven's guitarist redefine a murky, offensive genre, purists be damned

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WHO: Success in the world of metal, above everything else, is about the will to commit to an aesthetic considered torturous by the average listener. And that at least somewhat explains the recent success of noisy California crew Deafheaven: Guitarist Kerry McCoy and his comrades' half-decade of steadfast loyalty to a singular, powerful sound that approximates a waking, tripping nightmare eventually resulted in the ecstatic reception of the band's 2013 second album, Sunbather. The album is a caterwauling monolith of endless anguish that takes the various sonic tropes of black metal, shoegaze and indie jangle, places them roughly in a blender, hits the "on" switch and leaves the room. "I like things that are melodic, but also really fast," McCoy explains. "Using the blueprint for black metal is a great way to do that." (Watch him break down his unique technique in the Guitar Power video interview above.)

IT'S SO EASY: Fans and scholars endlessly quibble about what defines metal, but most at least agree that it's aggressive rock music that is difficult to play; precision, proficiency and extreme mastery of chops distinguish the category from other rock forms, right? You might think so, but McCoy argues that even if a band's music comes at you at blazing speed, packed to the gills with whirring guitar shards, blitzkrieg drum fills and inhuman shrieks, that doesn't necessarily signify complexity. And while Sunbather and its breathless critical reception incited both the ire of black metal purists and the rapturous zeal of metal neophytes, McCoy remains nonplussed: "The people that hate us and think we're the worst thing to happen to music are as wrong as the people that think we're the fucking saviors of whatever. We're just five dudes who like catchy guitars and fast drums; you can take from it what you want, and I appreciate all the attention, but it's not anything special. What we do is just really really simple."

YOU PUT YOUR ALT-JANGLE IN MY BLACK METAL: Epic and draining, Deafheaven earn their metal credentials via the merciless pummeling of their sonic assault. But stylistic juxtapositions are what make their sound so heartstopping. "Everything can essentially fit anything," McCoy reasons. "Ninety percent of songs by Burzum are written in E minor with power chords. The Cranberries, 90 percent of their songs are in a minor chord too — most of them are in D or A or E minor; the most obvious is ‘Zombie', which is in E minor. If you beat-match ‘Zombie' and ‘Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament', from Burzum's Filosofem, you can literally play those two songs at the same time. They're almost the same tempo, the chords are the same. Putting different things together is so easy if you know what you're doing — if you can hear past the aesthetics of something and just listen to the chords and notes that are actually being played."

A RIFF BY ANY OTHER NAME: In metal, those "chords and notes" usually constitute "riffs," but in Deafheaven's world, a "riff"could be a crunching fuzz-stacked run, or an atmospheric trem-picked beestorm haze. "I understand that if you say 'riff' to your average dude, he's going to think of a syncopated palm-muted buzzsaw kind of thing, but a lot of the stuff that I write comes from other influences," McCoy explains. "I put a blast beat behind it, and figure it out from there." If that sounds like he's calling a non-riff a riff in order to make his non-metal band sound metal — well, McCoy couldn't care less about that whole argument. "What I do works for me," he insists. "If you put anything behind a blast beat, it will instantly get that headbanging thing going. And if the riff happens to be catchy on top of that, it will get stuck in people's heads. It's not brain surgery — it's just syncopated rhythm and chords."