Don’t even try and you will never beg.
—“One Weak,” Deftones, 1995
Since Korn first pounded us with their then-revolutionary hip-hop–heavy metal hybrid in 1994, so-called nu-metal has been one of the music industry’s more stable, and sometimes spectacular, earners. Linkin Park’s cultured take on the genre spawned 2001’s best-selling album (the eight-times-platinum Hybrid Theory), and even Limp Bizkit’s moronic mall-metal facsimile shifted similar truckloads. Yet while this marriage of down-tuned chugging guitars, beat-box-inspired grooves and cathartic vocals went high street, one of its original architects, Sacramento’s Deftones (who formed in 1988 and debuted with Adrenaline in 1995), were mysteriously slow burners, somehow remaining America’s biggest “underground” metal band. Their selling
4 million albums over a 15-year career is no trifle, yet these are figures the aforementioned come-latelies can muster in months.
“We don’t really make records for our fans,” mumbles Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno in partial explanation. “We just kinda make records when we want to. It sounds arrogant, but it’s actually the most comfortable way for us.” And so it’s been for Deftones, who revel in doing things their own way and at their own pace, often at the expense of a potentially stratospheric career. “We’ve turned down a lot of stuff,” Moreno says. “We turned down MTV once: On our second record [1997’s Around the Fur] they wanted us to do that show where models walk around [MTV’s Fashionably Loud] — it’s just kinda corny and we’re not going to do it. Then I’m watching it a couple of weeks later and Limp Bizkit are on, and that was right when they blew up. Making some of those decisions is hard to swallow, but I think in the long run it was to our advantage; I think the reason we have credibility is because we haven’t taken that extra step to be all in people’s faces or to cater to the kids who’re buying most of the records.”
Deftones (who’re completed by drummer Abe Cunningham, bassist Chi Cheng, guitarist Stephen Carpenter and turntablist Frank Delgado) stumbled together when high school buddies Cunningham and Moreno connected with Carpenter, who lived in Moreno’s neighborhood. Moreno maintains that he had no dreams about being in a band, but when Carpenter converted the insurance settlement from being run off his skateboard by a drunk driver into a garage full of musical equipment, the teenagers began teaching themselves to play. Soon Deftones were inadvertently pioneering a dark mix of granite guitar, the eclectic instincts of nearby San Francisco’s Faith No More and Primus, hip-hop, and Moreno’s subgothic passions (the Cure, Smiths, Depeche Mode) into nu-metal for non-jocks, a soundtrack for the “different” kids who still ached for the mosh pit. It wasn’t long before Madonna’s Maverick imprint invited the band to showcase and signed them.
Over the course of three increasingly high-profile albums (2000’s White Pony being a critically lauded platinum-plus watershed), Deftones have gradually sifted their signature rage into more measured and atmospheric statements, defined by Moreno’s multipersonality, fetal-position vocals. Yet strong strands of continuity prevail with their new, eponymous collection: As with all their albums, the band have once again shared production duties with Terry Date (Pantera, White Zombie), and on an initial hearing Deftones is more of the same. Indeed, the band themselves appear bemused as to what new statement the disc might make to the world. “That’s a hard question,” puzzles Moreno. “I don’t think there’s any underlying basis . . . it’s just more good songs, man, and I think a good mixture of songs. There’s a lot of mood on it — all of our records have had that, but this one is maybe more focused.” The normally effusive Cunningham is similarly stumped: “All I can say is that this is our next offering . . . I hope it reaches people and makes them excited and happy.”
But unconscious creativity has always been Deftones’ stock-in-trade. “I would say if we just sat in a room and did nothing, but everyone was excited and everyone was laughing and being friends, then that to me is productive,” says Cunningham. “We try to make it better each time, so each time it takes longer to make a record. It’s not harder to make records now, it’s just harder to get everyone on the same page. But once it’s there, it’s the most amazing thing in the world.”
So Deftones loiter until inspiration strikes, an approach they’ve indulged as commercial success has bought them time and trust: “I think that’s the biggest gift that we’ve earned,” nods Moreno. “I think it makes things real, doing it when you want to do it as opposed to just when you have to do it.”
Deftones again exhibits Moreno’s Cure fixation (“Lyrically, more than anything, I took a lot of inspiration from Robert Smith”) and the band’s chiseled grasp of sudden-mood-swing angst-metal, now tinged with emo-core (or is it the other way round?) and more lyrically abstract than ever. “I try to write stream of consciousness, and try to be more metaphorical,” says Moreno, who records his vocals off the top of his head only after all the music is on tape. “I can’t draw worth a shit, so I guess I do what you would do when you draw, or just kinda sketch. I like to leave it open to interpretation.” The current radio single “Minerva,” with its drawn-out verse syllables and schizophrenic/anthemic chorus, confirms that Deftones are an inner voice roaring, equal parts Korn and Cure.
Often portrayed as a tortured enigma, Moreno in fact views his vocation in everyday terms. “I don’t look at my music like this is my expression — it’s just something I really like to do. I just enjoy the art of it. I don’t look at it like this is my time to vent or tell everybody how I feel, ’cause that’s just not me.” And he avoids much of the chatter about his band: “I don’t go on the Internet — I think the Internet’s chickenshit. It’s the easiest way for people to just run their mouth and talk.”
Together since high school, Deftones know little else beyond the cycle of write/record/tour. Moreno claims to have rarely pondered life outside, or after, his band. “It’s all happened pretty naturally, and I think that’s a good thing. Obviously it won’t go on forever . . . I don’t think we’re going to make too many more records, but I know we’ll do it till it starts to get irritating. If it became a case of striving for people to listen, well, we’ve never done that, so I don’t think we’d start doing it now.”
While it’s clear that Maverick is staking plenty on Deftones, the band appear oblivious to pressure, secure in their hard-earned market position. “I think it’s our time,” Moreno says. “I’ve seen Maverick throw the world into other acts they have who’re not so good . . . I honestly don’t think record labels know what the fuck’s going on. I think they know when something’s good and when it isn’t, but I also think that if we handed them a record full of rap-rock hits, they’d probably market that just as well.”
Having carved their reputation through hardcore touring behind their first couple of records, Deftones are now able to dictate more civilized scheduling. Both Moreno and Cunningham are husbands and fathers, and the band still vet the events they get involved in. “Like this ‘Summer Sanitarium’ thing,” laments Moreno, referring to the impending arena tour also featuring Metallica, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and Mudvayne, “I wasn’t too keen on that right away. But since our band’s pretty much a democracy, I got voted out on that one.”
Even the prospect of their latest assault on audiences barely ripples Moreno’s understated demeanor: “I always know that, as long as we make records that I would want to listen to, then I don’t really have anything to worry about. The fans who just want to hear straight aggressive stuff, the earlier stuff we were doing, we’re never going to make them happy, because I’m never going to be as angry as I was when I was 16 years old.”