Deftones: Be Quiet & Thrive

Deftones frontman Chino Moreno is in good spirits today. Despite being laid low with illness, he’s still polite, engaging and pleasant company as we quiz him about the state of his band in 2015. And why wouldn’t he be? More than 10 years since their last headlining show at Wembley Arena, Deftones have announced they’re returning there in November, and are sitting on what they believe is a triumphant new album.

During his chat with Hammer, the only time Chino’s voice drops from a tone of contentment is when we mention his friend and former Deftones bassist, Chi Cheng, who sadly passed away in 2013 from injuries sustained in a car accident in 2008. For five years, he was in a semi-conscious state. While he underwent treatment, Deftones made the difficult decision to carry on making music without him, and enlisted longtime buddy and Quicksand man Sergio Vega to play on 2010’s Diamond Eyes and 2012’s Koi No Yokan. The forthcoming album is the first the band have made since Chi’s death and, understandably, he’s still on his friends’ minds.

“I’d known him since I was 15, 16 years old,” Chino begins. “I spent nearly every day of my life with him from school and touring the world. When I first moved out of my house, I moved in with him, so he’s always been like a big brother to me. So it definitely affects me on a daily basis, and I think that when people hear the record, they will think things are a subconscious reference to Chi… and they might well be right, because I could definitely feel something, feel his spirit and his energy, while we were in the studio. But to be honest, ever since Diamond Eyes those thoughts and those feelings have been there, and I’m sure they have somehow made their way into our music…”

Over the past few decades, Deftones have shown great determination in the face of adversity. Aside from coping with personal tragedy, they’ve ridden a rollercoaster that’s taken them from the highs of being named one of the most exciting bands on the planet in the late 90s and early 00s, to the lows of infighting, identity struggles and 2006’s critically unloved Saturday Night Wrist. Now, thanks to the unanimously positive response to their last two albums, they’ve looped back to the point where they’re once again mentioned as one of metal’s most-loved acts.

Currently in Los Angeles’ Megawatt studios – previously home to legendary artists as disparate as My Chemical Romance and Tom Petty – they’re now recording their eighth album, with Koi No Yokan producer Matt Hyde. But if there’s been any pressure to sustain that momentum of success, drummer Abe Cunningham isn’t showing it. “We’ve had a blast,” he tells us, reflecting on the studio sessions so far. “We just thought rather than get together in an allotted time, you know, like, ‘Here is your month to do an album,’ we worked for the last year getting together a week here and a week there, and then going off and doing some shows to break it up. So it was just a nice way to do it. The pace of it, now we’re adults, was much more relaxed. It was a really joyful process.”

It’s heartening to hear Abe speak in those terms. After all, in days gone by Deftones have had a fractured relationship with the recording process, as well with each other. Creative tension between Chino and guitarist Stephen Carpenter was once a major talking point for gossip-hungry fans, and Chino later spoke of poor communication on Saturday Night Wrist. It seems Deftones have matured to a point where compromises are more easily made…

“Yeah, I agree,” nods Abe. “It’s gotten easier to get everyone’s personalities into the music over time. But it’s been hard in the past. That was well documented around the time of [2000’s] White Pony, and it wasn’t always fun to be around, but a lot of great music came out of it. What a stressful pain in the ass, though! Now we’ve been in the game this long – 27 years now, I believe – it has become easier. But that is still there – we just do things at a different pace now.”

And you can hear it in Chino’s voice, too. The old Chino, the one who appeared to steer the band toward the more melodic and cerebral waters, and who delayed doing his vocals for Saturday Night Wrist to work on ambient side-project Team Sleep, is nowhere to be seen today. He’s been replaced with a man brimming with enthusiasm about getting a piece of work he’s proud of released into the world as soon as possible.

“For the last couple of records, we’ve just gone in without any preconceived ideas of what we should do as a band,” he reveals. “And that’s always the most fun way to do things. [The new album] came together really quickly as a set of songs. The hardest thing for me is writing lyrics with the vocal patterns; it’s kind of like a puzzle. But I think I’m about halfway through writing the lyrics right now. Once that’s done, we’ll be ready to mix the album.”

While Chino speaks of feeling Chi’s “energy” in the studio, his verses and choruses won’t consciously reflect the band’s loss or pay tribute, instead following Deftones’ more familiar, obtuse, poetic route.

“Ever since the day of his accident, we’ve been affected by it,” says Chino. “And from that day on, and probably for the rest of our lives, we will be affected by it. We’re an emotionally open band, but I don’t think we’re much of a literal band. So we aren’t going to say, ‘OK, we’re going to write a record or a song and tell you about our feelings about Chi.’ We aren’t that type of band. We do keep those emotions close to us, and the only reason I say that is that, for me, it doesn’t feel natural to sit down and try and write that song. I don’t feel like that. This is still a deeply personal thing for me.”

When it comes to sound, Deftones are difficult to second-guess – as Abe points out when he tells us, “Some people hear a song like Teenager and then hear a song like Elite, and say, ‘How can this be the same band?’” All we know is that one of the new tracks features the guitar talents of Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. Will the songs reflect the atmospheric post-rock of White Pony or the grooving moshpits anthems that made Around The Fur so popular? It could be both… it could be neither.

“In a lot of ways, that’s the hardest question,” Chino replies. “I feel like each album is a snapshot of a time and place of our band. When I listen to, say, Around The Fur, it takes me right back to that time and place. You just have to capture the vibe of the time. I think we did that on this record, too. It’s not like a typical riff-rock record. It’s not full of ballads, either. This one is a challenge. We made a point of thinking about what we have learned from songwriting over the years to structure stuff a little differently. Believe me, this isn’t a case of, ‘Oh, that worked last time, so let’s just do it again.’ We definitely wanted to avoid doing that.”

Deftones’ eclectic, ever-changing music is one of the reasons they remain so revered, and still attract fresh fans. Since Diamond Eyes, through the tragedy that befell them, they’ve risen slowly but surely back into the thoughts of the people who may have written them off after their patchy mid-00s dip. Artistically and commercially, they’re a band revitalised. And if they get this album right, it could be the one that propels them to even higher altitudes.

“Listen, we’re just stoked we can play a place like, say, Brixton Academy!” says Abe, when asked about Deftones’ ambitions. “You know, maybe one day we can take the step up to headline those huge festivals. But I’m not bothered; it’s just the way things are. We’re still pretty high up on those festival bills.”

And the Sacramento legends are big enough to return to the UK as an arena-headlining band for the first time in over a decade, too. Not that they’re taking it for granted…

“I’m very pleased with the level of success we’ve had,” says Chino. “There are always things to strive for. But I don’t think headlining a festival is something that should define you. To me, putting out records for this long and still remaining relevant in some way worldwide is a huge feat in our existence. To me, that longevity will always mean more to us than having that short moment in the spotlight. I like the fact we can do a Wembley show and then come back to England and do a club show. We can basically do whatever we want, and I feel very lucky that we’ve always had that.”

“I’m just happy to be the drummer in a rock’n’ roll band,” shrugs Abe. “I know that might sound corny, but it’s true. We finally appreciate time, we don’t rush ourselves… we’re happy!”

He pauses and reflects. “How about that!”

Twenty-seven years. Eight albums. Happiness. Buckle up and hold on tight – this ride is far from over.

Them ‘Tones

** **

Jerry Cantrell reveals all about his guest spot on the record.

How did the collaboration come about?

“Deftones and I have known each other for years, and we’re also under the same management. Chino sent over the song file and I thought it was really great, cool and moody, so I worked on it that night and threw something down. He sent me a file of them jamming the song live, I sent it back with the idea I laid down, and Chino thought it was perfect. I waited until they got back in the studio and then came in and laid it down. So, it was pretty easy, and I think it’s going to be a great song. Chino’s a really talented guy and an amazing frontman, and they’re a band that has a sound that’s uniquely their own.”

What’s your contribution to the song?

“I play the guitar solo and the middle section of the song, and then did some colour work on the outro as well. I was originally just going to play the solo, but they wanted me to keep going.”

How do you feel about the finished track?

“It’s pretty apparent to me that it has the potential to be a really great song and a very big, epic-sounding tune. I actually haven’t heard the finished version of it yet, so I don’t know what Chino put on there. There weren’t any vocals when I played it, so I’m still looking forward to hearing that myself, because I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.”

Deftones’ untitled eighth album will be released later this year. They play London’s Wembley Arena on November 21

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.