Chino Moreno is the rare artist who both hates being labeled and actually makes music that resists labeling. Somehow, his Deftones (despite being signed to Madonna’s now-defunct Maverick label) got sucked into the late-’90s rap-metal vortex of Korn and Limp Bizkit (well, he did appear on a Korn album), but by their third full-length, 2000’s critically beloved White Pony, they’d already moved on to shoegaze-y dream-sludge with trip-hop textures, and you deserve your own seven-string Ibanez if you can decipher their lyrics enough to detect anything “aggro.” (Even key early single “7 Words” is the “Cut Your Hair” of angry choruses: Is he screaming, “Suck, suck, suck” or “Fuck, fuck, fuck”? And yes, it does make a difference.)
By the time Deftones songs with titles like “Rocket Skates” and “U, U, D, D, L, R, L, R, A, B, Select, Start” were commonplace, there was no telling what dimension Moreno was coming from, other than a stoned and loving one: This is a man who gave the band’s last record (and Revolver‘s 2012 Album of the Year) a title (Koi No Yokan) that translates to “Premonition of Love.” And as you’d imagine, he has side projects galore, from the somewhat ill-fated ambience experiments of Team Sleep (which put out one full-length in 2005) to last year’s return to his dream-metal wheelhouse with Palms.
This week, though, the focus is the first, self-titled full-length from his more electronic, songful band ††† (co-starring Chuck Doom and Far guitarist Shaun Lopez), which the Internet promptly tagged “witch house” when that band name first surfaced in 2011. Recently, Moreno talked to SPIN about the struggle to exist between genres, coming to terms with straightforward songwriting, and of course, his memories of Madonna.
You’ve held this rare position in the music world where you’ve mostly been able to do what you want, and I’ve rarely seen you get shit for it.
Was there ever much head-butting from labels before you could reach that point?
Honestly, I used to get a lot of shit for it, starting with when I wanted to do Team Sleep. That project in particular was really just this under-the-radar, lo-fi thing — the record itself was really just recorded on a four-track. At the time, Maverick was like, “The only way you’re going to put this out is if you put it out through us.” They ended up taking it, but they started trying to control it.
That was coming off the White Pony record, which was Deftones’ most successful record. So they were like, “Well, you can’t just put this demo quality-sounding stuff out.” They shut me down right there — they were like, “You need to go in with this producer….” I kind of tried it a little bit, we tried re-cutting the record. Through all that, it sort of took the wind out of the sails for me for that project. Which eventually led to me losing interest in it, sad as it is, because I really love playing with those guys, and they’re still my great buddies. It just stopped being fun and eventually faded away, and I went back to making Deftones records.
When they re-negotiated our deal with the label, I said the only way I’d re-sign with Warner Bros. is if I can make other music. I am fulfilled by Deftones, but I don’t like the idea of knowing that I can’t do it if I want to. Like, the Palms record. Those dudes recorded an instrumental record and gave it to me and said, ‘Hey, put some vocals on it.’ And I did. It was simple as that. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna start this other band, I’m gonna market it….’ It was just a fun project with my friends who I hang out with all the time.
Deftones always shied away from traditional metal imagery in your album art and lyrics, and now one of your mellower projects is covered in cross symbols. What is the significance of them?
Well, it’s nothing too significant other than the imagery itself, which we use a lot of, and throughout the music there’s a lot of reference to religion — but not any one specific religion —and also the supernatural. A lot of different things that the music sort of lends itself to. When I heard the music as an outsider, it had this dark sort of… but also this sound to it that just brought a lot of images to the forefront. When we were recording it, when I was doing the vocals and they were doing the music, we watched a lot of old sort of… cult, underground films, things like that. Everything from Fellini movies to Alejandro Jodorowsky movies to Russ Meyer films. I mean, just bold, vintage, retro kinds of movies, things that were very visually inspiring. And a lot of that stuff creeped in lyrically, and eventually it sort of set the band’s tone.
Is there any religious imagery in Russ Meyer films?
Well, probably not so much the Russ Meyer films.
You first referred to this band as a “witch house” project. Do you regret—
Oh, I didn’t refer to it as a witch house project at all. Some clown at Pitchfork did. But I think the reason was just because of the symbols, which from my understanding a lot of witch house, whatever it is, has a lot of symbols…
Were you aware of what “witch house” was at the time?
Oh, I knew what it was. But just, you know, fucking silly. I could go on and on about how stuff like that, for me… from the time I’ve started making music, I’ve constantly tried to skirt labels. Whether it be “nü-metal” or whatever… I’ve always tried to stay clear of being labeled, putting a label on what type of music that I make. So as soon as I put out another project, you know, you can’t just do music, it has to be linked to some sort of scene or whatever. And that was just like, “Here we go again.”
Does the kind of music you’re making at the moment usually reflect what you’re listening to at that time?
Umm… probably. I don’t think so directly, but indirectly, maybe? Not just what I’m listening to now, but what I’ve been listening to my whole life. I don’t know if a lot of people realize that I’ve been in the Deftones since I was 15 years old, but Deftones was also my first introduction to heavy metal. Before that, I didn’t know much about heavy metal at all, I just happened to be friends with Stef [Carpenter, Deftones guitarist] and Abe [Cunningham, drummer], and those dudes were into heavy metal. So they taught me heavy metal, and I kind of showed them, you know, a lot of early electronic and new-wave stuff that I was into growing up. So it’s always been a hodgepodge of influences with Deftones. But with †††, it’s a little different: different people, different influences.
Even with Deftones, you covered Sade, and this project has a somewhat of an R&B feel. “Blk Stallion” and “Bermuda Locket” actually sound like they could be on a Miguel record.
[Laughs.] Thanks. Well, that’s awesome. I mean, I don’t approach what I do with Deftones any different: I just react to the music that is placed in front of me. Sometimes with Deftones, there’s more aggression, so maybe I’ll approach with more aggression in parts, but that’s just reacting to what happens with my friends. So when I go to make it, I don’t think, like, “Oh, this song is a little more R&B, so I need it sing it R&B.” That’s not at all the case. But I look at that as a compliment, as far as… if that’s what people hear in the record, that’s awesome. I grew up listening to so much different pop and stuff other than just aggressive music.
Has anyone in your life disliked metal, and told you that they wished you’d do something different or more mellow with your voice?
Like more mellow, you mean? I think even people who have bought the Deftones’ records have always got that from me, that dynamic in our music pretty strong. I’d say our first record is probably our most, I’d say, linear-sounding album. It’s probably the least dynamic and the most aggressive. But after that, I think with Around the Fur and especially White Pony, I think we really opened up a lot sound-wise, and people expected other, different things than just straightforward riffs.
You just wrote a piece saluting Mogwai for their mastery of loud/soft dynamics, which is one of the hallmarks of your vocal style. Did it feel weird making a record that’s more straight down the middle, with lots of conventional singing? Do you feel more exposed?
You know, honestly, I thought about this recently. I have this natural want to… when things sound very easy and straightforward, something inside me always makes me want to take a left turn. If it comes to me and it’s too simple, there has to be a more complicated route. I will complicate things like that at times. I think it’s good sometimes for a lot of things, I think it’s helped us to have our longevity with Deftones, because it’s not just so straightforward.
But with this project I really didn’t do that. A lot of the songs on this record, my vocal takes are the very first idea that came to my head. And a lot of songs on this ††† record are basically my first ideas, the first melodies that came to me, and it worked. This is what the music made me do, and this is how I’m reacting to it. It was a very organic, straightforward approach — I didn’t allow myself to complicate it. Which, like I said, can be a good thing sometimes. Sometimes I have to understand that it’s okay to just follow your instinct sometimes.
From Team Sleep to Palms, you’ve collaborated with a lot of people from the so-called “indie” and “underground” worlds, but do you still hang out with the Korn guys or any bands from the Ozzfest circuit these days?
You know what, I don’t even live in Los Angeles anymore. I live in Oregon now; I’m pretty secluded. But I do have a lot of friends still in the industry. When I see old friends, I’m very excited. I keep in touch with Zach Hill, for instance, the drummer of Team Sleep, Death Grips. But I don’t hang out too much… with anybody, really. [Laughs.]
Do you have any good Madonna stories from when you first got signed to Maverick?
I’m not sure if I’ve told this story before, but she was the first famous person I think that I ever met, which is crazy, because she’s probably the most famous person I’ve ever met. When we were just getting signed to Maverick, they came to watch us play. We played a few songs, and Freddy Duran, who was our manager at the time, stood up and said they left us a note: “We want to sign you guys right now. Come over to the offices, we want to introduce you guys to the rest of the company.” So I went over to their office in Beverly Hills, and I was in there for like five minutes, and Madonna comes poking her head in and goes, “Hey, what’s up?” It totally caught me off guard. Maybe they had that planned, to seal the deal or whatever.
Awesome. Did she ever come to see the band play?
She came a couple times. One time it was actually pretty cool: We were playing the Limelight in New York. We’re playing, and I was singing, and I noticed no one was looking at me, and I’m thinking, “What’s going on?” I look over, and she’s up in the balcony, dancing. I haven’t seen her in years, but at that time, it was like, to be that young, the crap we did… and to have that kind of support from somebody who I admired as a kid.
And dancing to your music!
I know, right?