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Therapy, rebirth and the ghosts of the past: the inside story of Deftones’ Ohms

Deftones
(Image credit: Press)

Walking into their Sacramento rehearsal space, to work there for the first time since bassist Chi Cheng passed away, Deftones frontman Chino Moreno felt heavy.

“We all had our own little stations in the studio, and Chi’s station was exactly how he’d left it, with his Tibetan flag hanging up and all his gear,” he says. “We had these dry-erase boards with some of the old songs we were working on written on them. It was like walking into a time capsule – it was a trip.”

They had last been at ‘The Spot’ in 2008, making what should have been their sixth album, Eros, but abandoned the material and the building after Chi was in a car accident, leaving him with injuries from which he would never recover. When it was time to start work on new album Ohms, the band decided to revamp the area, and assembled for a week of cleaning, carpeting, painting and bringing in new furnishings. It held profoundly personal memories for each of them, of all-nighters spent playing music, skating on the inbuilt halfpipe and sleeping in the lofts. There were great times, and times spent living on the edge. Chino went to his own room and purged boxes of stuff that “had old memories tied to it that I didn’t want”.

I didn’t want to do therapy for a long time. I was maybe afraid to do it.

Chino Moreno

“I was opening up these boxes of old clothes and electronics. A lot of it was stuff that maybe someone would have wanted, or I could have given away to the Goodwill. But… it made so much sense throwing it away,” he admits. “And I know that sounds terrible, but I was letting all this stuff go. I had this feeling of starting over again, at least in that space. It made it feel vibrant again.”

“Oh man, it felt good being around everyone in that space again where we did a lot of growing up,” smiles turntablist Frank Delgado. “We had to clean it and bring it back to life. We’re always talking about Chi, and I think that’s maybe why we avoided it for so long, but in all honesty, it’s a positive thing.”

Deftones, and in particular Chino, have been honouring the past, clearing out the old, and making way for the new. Today he is speaking to us from his new home in Portland, Oregon. Right now, a guy is getting the fireplaces in working order ahead of the winter, and tomorrow some trees will be removed from the yard. More than just bricks, mortar and grass, the property represents a decision to change his life for the better – more on that later.



When it comes to the band, there’s no doubt that Ohms is a triumph. Nine album releases in, Chino’s otherworldly vocals echo off and melt into Stephen Carpenter’s savage riffs, which attack without warning, alongside Sergio Vega’s equally brutal basslines. Meanwhile, Frank’s electronics shade in the gaps with an 80s, space-age feel. It’s all underpinned by Abe Cunningham’s distinctive rhythms that remain subtle until you notice them – and then you really notice them. When we ask Chino if he was aiming for a particular vibe on this record, he’s quick to highlight this palpable unity, following the much-documented creative disconnect between Stephen and the rest of the band on 2016’s Gore.

“I definitely wanted a stronger sense of everybody being represented on the record,” he explains. “I think it’s been pretty out there as far as Stephen’s contribution to Gore, where he was physically present when we wrote the music, yet he wasn’t as involved as we would have liked him to be. So at the end of the day, we had a record that maybe wasn’t as balanced. I think that was a learning experience, and after the record was finished, Stephen came to me and we spoke deeply about it.”

You can hear Chino’s quiet pride for Ohms, as he continues: “The main goal on this record was to have everybody heard and equally on the same sort of level. And so, that ended up happening. That was the greatest part about it.”

Deftones

(Image credit: Press)

If going back to The Spot was a homecoming, so was returning to Terry Date. He produced Deftones’ first four albums (1995’s Adrenaline, 1997’s Around The Fur, 2000’s White Pony and 2003’s Deftones), plus 2008’s ill-fated Eros. The band had always wanted to reunite with him someday, and when his name cropped up for Ohms, Terry was happy to oblige. “I’d never hesitate to go in with them, because it’s like working with brothers,” he says.

“Being with Terry made it nostalgic,” reveals Frank. “It’s very comfortable. Terry knows what will work. If someone is hammering something they are trying to accomplish, Terry knows how long he’ll allow that to happen. He knows when Abe’s gonna blow a fuse, he knows how long to let Stef vent for, he knows those little things, which makes a great environment to be in.”

‘Comfortable’ is the word Chino uses, too. Paradoxically, being comfortable with Terry allows him the freedom to get out of his comfort zone. If he knows he’s being supported unconditionally, he can express himself fully and experiment without fear.

“With him, especially when I’m working on melodies or vocal ideas, I feel really open to trying different things, even if they’re bad,” he explains. “I don’t feel like he’s gonna judge me or push me in any direction, but more or less let me try until I fail, and then try again until I get it, and help me not get frustrated with the process. I feel like that’s very important to be in that sort of headspace when you’re trying to come up with things, especially after our 10th record of making music with the same dudes. It gets harder every time, but I think it’s supposed to.”

Why does it get harder? Shouldn’t it get easier each time?

“If we honestly were to follow some of the formulas that we’ve stumbled upon, it wouldn’t be that hard. Writing and formatting a song is not hard. But you’re trying not to fall into those formulas and repeat yourself,” he explains. “When you hear a Deftones song, you can tell it’s us, but the idea is to expand on what we’ve done in the past, so that can be challenging.”

Some of the more rogue elements on Ohms include the soft cry of seagulls on Pompeji, and those aforementioned 80s synths that hover over the record like a dramatic, retro-futuristic haze. Following initial sessions at The Spot, the band moved to Los Angeles to continue writing and begin recording, before Chino laid down vocals and Frank added textures at Terry’s home studio in Seattle. This is where much of the formula-dodging magic happened.

“The writing part is really the most nerve-wracking part, but once you know you have the foundation of the song, all the other stuff is like colouring in, so that’s the fun part,” Chino enthuses. “It’s like buying a house and then having the freedom to just decorate it any way you want.”

Frank Delgado, recruited as a Deftones member proper on 2000’s White Pony, still has the air of someone who can’t believe he managed to land his dream job. When we ask him a series of questions about how he dreamt up such distinctive soundscapes for Ohms, he’s at a loss, so we tell him his working methods sound mysterious. “Well, shit! Yeah, I’m still trying to figure it out myself,” he laughs. “I think it’s just seeing what happens when we get together. Trying to capture lightning in a bottle, I guess you could say.”

Both are relieved there was no pressure. By finishing Ohms at Terry’s, they avoided the burden of expensive studio costs mounting up. Frank stayed over, while Chino would make the three-hour drive up from Portland.

“I’d get in his house at noon, and we’d work until 6 o’clock, then go out and get some beers, and come back and maybe watch a basketball game or whatever, then work a bit more, and I’d go home. And then the same thing the next day,” recalls Chino. “There was a good working experience, when you don’t have that idea of, ‘I’ve just gotta get that done so I can move on with my life.’”

The experience also provided some much-needed artistic and social nourishment for Chino, who has spent a chunk of his 40s in a state of unease.

Deftones

(Image credit: Press)

Seven years ago, Chino left LA for the small city of Bend, Oregon. As well as recording and touring with Deftones, he’d been immersed in Team Sleep, Crosses, Palms and various other side-projects during his time there. He’d been prolific – perhaps too prolific – and desperately needed to restore his equilibrium.

“My life at the time was so hectic,” he remembers. “I wanted a good balance of being somewhere where, when I got off tour and came home, I could completely decompress and wind down. So it was nice. For the first few years, maybe…”

Bend, a former logging town with a population of 105,000 – compared with LA’s four million – is best known for outdoor sports, and boasts the last remaining Blockbuster video rental store. At first, Chino enjoyed the solitude, but then it started to wear on him. He had few local friends, and would sometimes make the three-hour trip north to Portland to jam with his longtime buddy and collaborator Chuck Doom, but was unable to get in a room with Deftones unless they were on tour. As that longing for company grew, so too did his dissatisfaction with daily life, and he turned to therapy.

“I got to a point where I was feeling very isolated and lonely, and I’ve spent a lot of time by myself over the last few years being out there, and not making music, not being creative,” he says. “Whether I was riding my bike or out snowboarding – which are all things I like to do – I was doing those things all by myself. So I was just always by myself. If anybody had seen me out anywhere, I was by myself. Everything at home was pretty good, it wasn’t like I was going through anything crazy, but I was trying to figure out, ‘Why am I sort of slightly depressed? I live in a beautiful place, I have a job, and a healthy family and whatever… why am I so agitated?’”

He had previously considered having therapy, but couldn’t bring himself to go. After all, he had his wife, his family, his friends and his bandmates – he speaks to Abe almost every day on the phone. The difference, he found, was that with a stranger he could be brutally honest.

“I didn’t want to do it for a long time. I wanted to do it, but I was maybe afraid to do it. And then once I did it, it was just like, ‘Man, why didn’t I do this a long time ago? And then why is there a stigma attached to this, if there is one? Or why did I think there was a stigma attached to it.’ Like, if you go to talk to somebody, that you’re mentally unstable. It’s like admitting that you have a problem or something, you know what I mean?” he says. “Honestly, I think it’s one of those things where you don’t even need to have a problem, but it’s just a healthy thing to do. Even me talking to you now, it just feels good to let things out and express them sometimes. And I wasn’t doing that for a while.”

As Chino came to understand himself more, he made some adjustments – one of which was moving to Portland and civilisation. After renting in Lake Oswego for a year to test out the location, he’s now the owner of a new place. “Moving here was like, ‘I can be close to the city, I can go to see shows, basketball games, go out and have some kind of nightlife, and feel like I’m human again.”

Ask 47-year-old Chino what he gets from being in a group like Deftones, and he boils it down. “The easy, simple answer is happiness, and camaraderie,” he smiles. COVID-19 might have thrown his plans for greater connection into disarray, but at least in 2020 he feels more able to cope.

“It’s good to know that I have friends that I can share everyday conversations with, that I still enjoy the company of, and that’s probably the hardest part about what’s going on right now. Before the pandemic I was feeling isolated away from them, and now, it’s like it’s back to that,” he says. “But I’m obviously not alone with this, because everyone’s in the same boat right now as far as isolation. So I wouldn’t say I’m used to it, but I feel like I deal with it better now than I was even before the pandemic.”

Chino’s journey, in all its emotional complexity, is reflected in Ohms’ bombastic opener, Genesis. Rippling with Frank’s beginning-of-the-universe atmospherics, it erupts into being with a stunner of a riff from Stef, as Chino defiantly screams: ‘I reject both sides of what I’m being told!’ His thoughts evolve amid swirls of heaviness, and by the end he’s screaming: ‘Oh can you taste your life… balanced? / How will you spend your time… reborn?’

“When writing it, I don’t think I was aware per se,” he explains. “The first lyrics are pretty scathing, and it’s more about being frustrated with everything, but as the song develops itself you kind of realise this metamorphosis – going through something and coming out. It’s cool when that happens. I’m just scribbling down words that fit with the melodies that are there, or the cadence in my vocals, and then they completely reveal themselves to make sense of something exactly that I’m dealing with.”

In fact, Ohms is his most introspective record yet, and Deftones’ most hopeful. Chino’s lyrics have long remained abstract, evoking moods rather than divulging personal details; Adrenaline featured formless wails, while White Pony presented dramatic, fictional narratives. When he did turn inwards on their self-titled record, he was “very manic and in a super-dark place”. This time, there’s an openness. This time, there’s a sense he can see where he is.

“Now I feel like my vision is a lot clearer,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that there’s still not trials and tribulations that most humans deal with on a day-to-day basis, but I feel like there is a lot more light in it. Even if it trudges through the darkness, it seems like it comes out in the light. But yeah, it feels human to me.” 

Published in Metal Hammer #340.