Chino Moreno, who has led Deftones since it formed in Sacramento nearly 30 years ago, performs with the band at SXSW 2016 in Austin, Texas. Adam Kissick for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Adam Kissick for NPR
Still widely viewed with contempt by critics and fans alike for what’s often seen as little more than juvenile angst and theatrics, the nü-metal movement of the late ’90s was a just as important turning point for the genre as bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer had been a decade earlier. At the very beginning of what became the music industry’s quick decline into bit torrent purgatory, nü-metal served as the collective voice of identity for an entire generational cross-section of music fans. By integrating hip-hop, funk and what were, at that point, the remnants of the grunge era, nü-metal put a face to metal’s name — something that had been all but forgotten by mainstream music at its advent in 1995.
In the two decades since those beginnings, not many of nü-metal’s defining acts have strayed far from the formula that brought them initial success. The lone exception to that trend might be Deftones. The Sacramento-based group has gradually distanced itself not only from the genre it helped establish but from virtually any kind of identifiable genre parameter. Beginning with its sophomore album, 1997’s Around the Fur, it became almost immediately evident that Deftones’ trajectory would take it someplace other than the appearances on TRL or guest spots on Eminem videos its contemporaries Korn and Limp Bizkit would be making by the end of the decade.
The music of Around the Fur, like its 1995 predecessor, Adrenaline, still aligned the group with the traditional nü-metal sound, with the release of 2000’s White Pony , Deftones made the distinction emphatically. Whether with vocalist Chino Moreno’s favor of singing over screaming (Grammy-winning single “Elite” notwithstanding), or the music’s shift into the heavy post-rock, shoegaze spectrum, the album signaled not only a change for the band but a new trajectory for heavy and experimental music entering the 21st century. Even more remarkable is that in the span of five years, Deftones had transformed from a band clearly rooted to a scene into a band whose sound no longer fit too comfortably under any genre-specific title.
Once an integral and recognizable part of metal’s traditionally hermetic trademark, Deftones has spent the sixteen years and four releases since White Pony establishing an identity as one of rock’s most mercurial and successful groups. Adding to the band’s singular identity is the unlikeliness of their story. Four childhood friends from the predominately Hispanic Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, Deftones’ story is the stuff of rock and roll lore.
But it isn’t fiction, and the fairy tale is not without its bleak moments, the most challenging of which was the tragedy of losing longtime bassist Chi Cheng in 2013. The story of Deftones’ longevity and acclaim has come solely from the reliable unpredictability of its music. From the trip-hop nuances of its self-titled album in 2003 to the bleak math metal tendencies of 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist to the goth-rock tinged shoegaze of 2010’s Diamond Eyes to the prog-rock flirting of 2012’s Koi No Yokan, Deftones’ catalogue reads like a case study in how a band can translate influences into a sound that’s definitively their own. This year has seen that characteristic reach full form in what’s one of the group’s finest works, Gore, released last month. Balancing equal parts Morrissey, Iron Maiden and those most effective components of the band’s prior releases, Gore is an album almost as unlikely as the band that created it.
Speaking in the aftermath of the new album’s release and before the group is scheduled to begin a tour that will stretch through the summer, Moreno speaks of his bandmates as if they were siblings and Gore as if it was the group’s debut. What might be a put on for many musicians desperate to convey a sense of unity in the egocentric rock star circus, Moreno’s earnestness is believable as we discussed the Deftones’ journey from the garage to The Garden.
It’s hard to think of a modern metal band whose sound has transitioned as much as Deftones since 1995. For you, where has that tendency to change come from?
Chino Moreno: The honest answer is that I’ve never lived any other life. It’s just been this life of a bunch of guys who are friends, and when they were kids, they started a band and slowly started on this forward trajectory. It started with us just having fun with our friends and skating to rock when we were kids, and there’s always been a good momentum for us even when things were at their roughest. One of the hardest things any of us has ever been through was losing Chi, and that was really an eye-opening experience as far as how lucky we are that we have each other, and that we’re able to do stuff like create music together. We all have different ways of doing things, and all the opposite mindsets come in, and those things make us the band that we are. I wanna believe that we haven’t changed but that everybody else has just sort of caught up. But that may be very arrogant, so maybe I don’t wanna say that. But really I don’t feel like we’ve had to go out of our way to adapt. We’ve never been a band who decides to do one thing or another. We’re a band who decides not to do things. It’s really been about that process as opposed to “Okay, what are we trying to do?” We don’t even have those conversations, because it would be like us boxing ourselves into those ideas and only those ideas. Because we don’t have those obstructions, it frees us up and gives us a broad pallette where everybody gets to — not to be gross — but to just vomit on it, and then I’ll look at it and make some sense out of it.
Have you seen what influences you creatively transition over time?
Not necessarily. I mean, I’ve always just been reacting to what it is that’s put in front of me. The only thing that’s a little different is that early on, like especially with Adrenaline, I arranged a lot of the music, like saying, “This part here and this part there,” but I didn’t have anything to do with creating the sounds at all. It was really just the guys in the band presenting me with their sounds and I’d react to that. Over the years I’ve gotten more involved in the sound-making part of it because it’s just fun, so I have that perspective, but at the same time it’s still just me reacting to the music that’s put in front of me. The idea for me is just to make it feel natural and feel fun and not overthink it and just enjoy the moment.
Going back to 1995 for a second, you guys came out of the nü-metal scene and managed to avoid falling into a niche or gimmick. Was that a pitfall you saw early on?
We actually made a conscious decision back then, though we didn’t really talk about it per se, but we knew in our beings that we wanted to challenge people and challenge ourselves. When we did the White Pony record in 2000, it was really us just going on instincts but it was also us testing ourselves. That’s when it really felt like, “Wow. This is what feels the best for us.” I’ll be honest, too, when the record came out, half the people didn’t like it and especially people that knew us from Adrenaline who were like, “Why aren’t you rapping?” or “Why are you singing all the time?” For me, hearing that I kind of took it hard. I was still proud of it at the same time, and obviously now in retrospect I feel the same way.
I think we all learned from that experience to follow where we wanna go without having any too preconceived idea. We’ll be ourselves and we’ll capture that moment in time. That’s what we did with Gore, and I honestly don’t feel that much different than I did then. A lot of things around us have changed, though. Obviously rock and roll in general isn’t the same or isn’t as big now in a way. There’s a lot of uphill battles that we have to fight. People don’t buy records anymore. We’re not really in the video age. What worth would it be if we spent all this money making videos if nobody’s gonna watch it? It might go on YouTube or something. But it’s stuff like that, and a lot of other things that aren’t the same as they were when we started the band. I think we’ve adapted comfortably well enough that we feel good.
A lot of the band’s influences seem more present with this album than any of the others. Did you find those having more of an impact this time?
I don’t think so. We don’t really talk about them. If anything, while we’re writing a song if someone says something like, “Oh, that sounds like Cocteau Twins” or something, then it kind of deters us from doing it because it’s like being called out for where you got that from or us being too obvious, and there’s a lot of that going on. I feel like all that stuff should be a natural thing that just comes out, and you hear and recognize it in retrospect. Honestly, in retrospect I heard a lot of that Morrissey stuff in some of the vocals on this record. I heard it myself, and I made the mistake of saying it in the press right before anyone heard the record, and I think everybody assumed that I sounded just like Morrissey. I don’t think it does, but I heard those things naturally creep out from what it is that’s gone into my ears. The only rule we sort of have is to just try and expand on what we did on our last record. If things start to feel a little formulaic in any way, our instincts are to try and take a left turn from that. That’s always kept us and the records progressing, and it’s made records fun to make because you’re always challenging yourself.
Speaking of lyrics, obviously you were a little more pissed off 21 years ago than you are now.
[Laughs.] I think if I do get angry, I have better ways of dealing with it now. But I think that’s something that comes with age for anybody. I guess I’m not as pent up as I was when I was a kid. I don’t know why I was so mad, but it’s like that habit that some kids have where they think the whole world is against them. I know a lot of teenage boys feel that way, and I felt that way. But I’ve never felt like that’s all of who I am. The majority of my lyrics, though, are my attempts to sort of paint my ideas out. The music creates the mood, so to speak, and then I just put some words around it to sort of solidify that mood but not really be too descriptive and say exactly what it is. For me, when things are vague to me it’s calming, because I don’t feel like I need to understand it.
Do you ever revisit Adrenaline now?
You know, I listen to it, and I kind of blush. That’s one of my favorite records that we’ve done, because we were having the time of our lives then. We were just so happy that we got to make a record, and we had this chance to just be ourselves. I don’t even remember recording that record so much as I do us just hanging out together in our apartment that we all shared in Seattle. It was literally one of the best times of my life. I look back at it, and it’s just a really nice thing that we were able to do that together, and we talk about that s*** all the time.
As far as success goes, do you attribute a lot of that just to the fact that you guys are so comfortable with each other, having grown up together?
I do. Because we’re brutally honest with each other. We don’t do it just to be masochistic. I mean, we know how to pick our times. But it’s something that we expect from each other, and we all know each other so well that we know when to say something and when not to say something. At the same time, though, we always say something because we’re very outspoken, and there’s something very comfortable about that. I don’t think that anybody in this group has ever bitten their tongue when they wanted to say something that needed to be said. That’s a good thing, and we thrive on that. It’s good sometimes because we actually all live apart from each other in different cities, so when we do actually get together it’s like it’s always been where you get to hang out with these people who’ve been your friends since you were kids. It’s almost like a movie of all these stories that we’ve lived since we were kids.
Speaking of stories, you got this gig after the other guys heard you sing a Danzig cover, right?
Yes! It’s pretty funny, honestly. Stef [Stephen Carpenter] had a bunch of gear in his garage when we were kids. I wanna say we were like maybe fourteen or fifteen years old at the time, which was right around the time when we were gonna start the band. But everybody from the neighborhood would just go there and pick up an instrument and play. It was basically a bunch of mixed together or half-put-together bands or whatever, but every time I’d go over there, I’d want to play the drums but there would always be somebody there playing drums who could play better than me. So eventually I just had to figure out something I could do. I didn’t know I could sing, and that first Danzig record was one of my favorite records. I’d bought it the day it came out when I was in 10th grade. They were playing one of the songs, and I just started singing along with it. A few weeks later Stef was putting a band together, and he called me and said, “I’m putting this band together, and I want you to sing.” Of course, I’m like, “No, man. I can’t sing,” and he comes back with, “Dude, you sang that Danzig song the other night at my crib. You can totally sing. You’re in.” And that was pretty much it back in 1988 or 1989.
It’s kind of an amazing story, especially given the kind of economic and racial hurdles you guys faced in a predominately one-sided industry.
I do think that we were pretty lucky. We were all pretty driven in our own ways, though honestly I was never really driven in the fact that I wanted to make a career out of this or even really thought I could. I just wanted to be good at singing or be good at being a frontman or whatever. I think it was just a commonality we had with each other. Especially in the neighborhood we grew up in, the only kids who ever really wanted to hang out with us were other skateboarder kids who were into rock music. The majority of the kids in the neighborhood weren’t into rock and roll or skateboarding, so we kind of came together, and as we grew up together we realized there was nothing really like us; not in our neighborhood, not in our town, and then I realized once we started going out of our town that there was something we were doing that was different.
Early on there was a lot of people who would always bring up our race and say things like, “You guys are Mexican dudes, and you’re playing heavy metal. Is that weird?” [Laughs.] I never thought it was weird at all, but I guess from the neighborhood standpoint we were the only kids doing that. I just figure that music is universal, or at least it’s always been that way to me. But I definitely did feel like we were doing something that was our own. We weren’t influenced by anything that was directly around us. I mean, even the fact that I was the singer in a metal band and my favorite band was like The Smiths or The Cure — the other guys in the band couldn’t understand the music I liked at all. They introduced me to metal at that point, so were basically just figuring it all out while we were also creating music. I’ve been back to where I grew up at different stages of growing up since moving away, and it honestly seems like not much has changed. To me, it’s so weird when you’re in a neighborhood where you grew up, and it’s like when you’re a kid, your neighborhood is just so huge. It’s the world to you, and then you move away or you travel the world, and you realize how small the area is where you spent most of your childhood, but it’s always there in your heart. You never forget where you’ve come from.
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