The SPIN Interview: Deftones
Lead singer Chino Moreno talks 20 years of defining alt-metal and defying expectations
The most popular metal band ever birthed from California’s state capital, Deftones have been capturing the attention and subverting the expectations of metal fans for more than two decades. Vaulting to national prominence on the aqueous assault of classic turn-of-the-century LPs Around the Fur (1997) and White Pony (2000), the group became a factor on MTV and radio via sublime and subsuming singles like “My Own Summer (Shove It)” and “Change (In the House of Flies).” But for too much of their prime, the band was dogged by the dreaded tag of “nu-metal” — a genre they helped spawn with their guitar-squall intensity and hip-hop rawness, but were too musically and emotionally diverse to truly belong to.
Despite unfortunate scene associations, a post-breakout malaise that nearly consumed the band, and the tragic death of co-founding bassist Chi Cheng in 2013 from a car accident five years earlier, the group has endured as one of the most consistently enthralling hard-rock bands of the past 25 years. Their immediately identifiable sound — the cavernous production, the torrents of monsooning guitars, the heart-stopping rasp and disarmingly sensual croon of frontman Chino Moreno — has yet to rust, and is still echoed by any alt-metal outfit as concerned with the splendor of dream-pop soundscapes as the violence of thrashing, as interested in f**king as f**king s**t up.
With the release of the band’s eighth studio LP, Gore, coming later this week, SPIN spoke with Moreno, 42, over the phone about 20-plus years of his band following their instincts, being outsold by Limp Bizkit, and getting snubbed by Coachella.
What was Sacramento like in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s when you guys were starting out? Was there a rock scene already in place?
Obviously there’s a music scene, but I don’t think there was any one certain trend that everybody was following. There were straight old-school rock’n’roll bands, there were ska bands, there were metal bands, there [were] all these huge hip-hop shows, a lot of different stuff. Everybody was always supporting each other’s shows and everything was pretty cross-bred.
I’ve always had a sort of open mind. I never really felt like, “Okay, this is what I like,” and stuck with it. And I kind of felt like Sacramento was a good breeding ground for that open-minded spirit of people just going out and enjoying music. So when we started our band, we didn’t really have this idea of what we were trying to do.
And because we weren’t in a big city like L.A. or even San Francisco, it wasn’t like there was one thing that we were trying to go for. We were able to figure ourselves out in a smaller city where it wasn’t like we came out and we were terrible in the beginning and people knew us for being terrible. We were actually able to have some sort of artist development on our own slow kind of pace, which helped us figure all that stuff out in the early days.
So when it came time to record 1995’s Adrenaline, did you guys have any goals for the album, either sonically or career-wise?
No, honestly, I still don’t think we really had that great of a vision of what we were trying to do at that time. I think it’s good, because we were very naïve going in, making that record, and because of that, we didn’t box ourselves in a corner of like, “This is what we are completely.”
People always say that that’s our heaviest record. I guess, in a way, it’s a lot more aggressive or angry. But if you listen to that record, there’s a lot of what still exists in the Deftones’ music today, which is a lot of that dynamic and sort of the more lush side, too, or the opposite of straight aggression. All those influences somehow made their way in, but I think that it was done in an organic way. It wasn’t so much like we sat and thought about what we were trying to do.
That being said, I was sort of bummed [about that album] because I didn’t think it was as good as it could have been. I felt like our rehearsals were great, like we were playing for nobody, just us four in a little, tiny space. I remember, we’d sit and play these songs and look at each other and go, “Wow. This stuff is incredibly heavy and infectious.” And then we recorded it, and it didn’t really transfer that well over on our first record. So as happy as I was that we were able to make a record, I always thought that there were better things to come.
Do you feel like you guys did a better job of capturing the live sound on Around the Fur?
With Around the Fur we definitely did. To this day, I feel like that’s one of our best records because for one, we had a second chance to make a record at a time when we got signed to a pretty decent-sized record deal [for] that time. Bands like us weren’t really anything in the mainstream; they wouldn’t play us on the radio. When they did even play us on college radio, they totally edited the songs and even took out screams, because there was nobody really screaming on the radio at that time. So the fact that we even got a chance to make a second record is just like, “Let’s just do this and really engulf ourselves in it.” I feel like we totally captured that time in our youth.
When you were writing and recording “My Own Summer (Shove It)” and “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away),” did you feel like, “Okay, these are gonna be the first Deftones songs that a lot of kids are gonna hear?”
Not necessarily, but I did know when those songs were written that it was another level of our creativity. Obviously, our first record comes out — Korn had put out a record maybe a year before — and right away, we were being compared to that. And then obviously this nu-metal moniker started to come to fruition here, but it was kind of putting us in the same [category]. Even as early as Around the Fur, I felt like we were taking a left turn from just being what people expected us to be. I kind of knew that we were taking things somewhere else and somewhere that opened our creativity up so we wouldn’t be so easily pigeonholed in with everything else that was going on.
This is kind of a nerdy question, but you guys have some great parentheticals in the titles of your first two hits, even your third, “Change (In the House of Flies).” Was that something that was of particular interest to Deftones at the time?
Growing up listening to Morrissey records and a lot of new-wave stuff, song titles are like looking at a book, or looking at an album cover, and it just attracts you, like, “What is this?” It makes you curious.
It’s funny, ‘cuz early on, I used to butt heads with the A&R guy at Maverick Records, because I would always try to name the songs something way off, something different. Even the song “Bored,” you know, the chorus goes, “I get bored, I get bored, I get bored.” So me, the song was called something else, [and] he goes, “You gotta call the song ‘Bored’”… I was like, “What about Radiohead? They have that song ‘Paranoid Android’.” I was like, “When do they say ‘Paranoid Android’ in the song? [They don’t], but doesn’t it just draw you in?”
He actually won in the end. He was like, “It can make things easier, if it says the name in the song, so people can recognize it, for radio, for people calling, requests…” But to me, I’ve always loved to throw curveballs, so a title’s always something that’s an afterthought, but it’s always fun to [take] a song and pull it away from your head and sort of look at it and say, “Okay, how can I make this [even] a little bit even more artistic and think of something that’s not obvious?”
Did the addition of [turntablist] Frank Delgado as a full-time member have something to do with shaping the new sound you guys went for on White Pony?
Not necessarily. He was a part of both Adrenaline and Around the Fur, not as much as when we did White Pony. The initial idea was to have a lot more electronics prominent in the band, a lot more soundscapes involved.
I remember actually, to make that record, I had a meeting with Rick Rubin. He was maybe gonna produce that record, and I think I just threw him through a loop ’cause he was like, “Well what do you wanna do with this record?” At that point, we’re known for being a heavy band. I was like, “Well, I just wanna utilize electronics and synthesizers and soundscapes and then put guitars and things around it.” And I think at that point, he was just like, “Well, I don’t know about that.” And that was the end of the conversation.
But that was one of the things that we wanted to do. And I’m not really sure why at that time. I think we made a well-balanced record because we had these different ideas.
Was it surprising to you that you guys made this much artier, balanced record and it ended up being your biggest commercial success?
Yeah, mostly because it was the start of records being very difficult to make [for us]. With Around the Fur, we recorded that record in four months from the time we started writing it to the time it was mixed and done. And when we started on White Pony, there was a lot of… I don’t want to say arguing, but there was a lot of passion back and forth of how this should be done and there was a lot of tension. And that record took about a year to make. It probably cost us close to a million dollars to make. At that time, budgets were obviously a lot bigger, but it was a difficult record to make.
But in the end, it worked because, all that tension and trying to outdo each other just escalated the project into somewhere where I didn’t expect, or any of the other guys in the band expected it to go. It was hard to get there, but when we got there, it was like, “Wow, I guess it was worth it.”
Were you caught off-guard when, for all the songs you guys could have won a Grammy for off of that record, you won for “Elite,” which is probably the heaviest, thrashiest song on that album?
Right? Yeah, that was surprising, and honestly, I didn’t even go to the award ceremony because I didn’t think we were gonna win.
I think I was more like trying to prove a point to other people, too. ‘Cause I remember, specifically, like Eminem would have a song where he was talking s**t about the Grammys, and I took that like, “I don’t give a f**k about this, whatever.” And then I end up watching and Eminem’s actually at the Grammys, and I wasn’t there. At that time, I had this total punk-rock attitude, like “I don’t give a f**k about that s**t,” you know? But inside, I was like a little boy when we found out we won, just screeching and all excited. But it was definitely something kind of like hearing yourself on the radio for the first time, just, “Wow, this is definitely something far beyond what I ever imagined that we’d do.”
So when it came time to do the first single off of the next album, 2003’s self-titled LP, you guys went with “Minerva,” and that couldn’t have been much further from what else was going on the radio at that time. That’s basically a shoegaze song.
Yeah, I don’t think there was anything political behind it. It was one of my favorite songs on the record. Pretty much since Adrenaline we’d been fighting an uphill battle with some of our old-school fans who just love us for the aggressive part of our band. As much as I like it, too — I’ve had this conversation many times — I’m not always there, I’m not always mad, life doesn’t [always] suck. [Laughs.]
And I got in a lot of trouble for calling out other bands at the time for not really [evolving], but still writing songs about how it sucks to be a kid. For one, I’m not a kid. Second of all, I’m not upset, I’m actually enjoying making music.
I was also wondering if you felt like you were kind of competing with yourself on the radio at that point anyway, because so many other bands started to sound like you. Would you hear a song like Chevelle’s “Send the Pain Below” and think, “Wow, I don’t remember writing that song?”
Most definitely. I’ve always had this issue with trying to steer left of what’s expected. I still do it. It’s sort of a natural instinct now that I can’t even help.
I had mixed feelings about it. Some things are hard to swallow. When a band like Limp Bizkit — who definitely were a good band, they wrote f**king hit songs… But to me, I was looking at, “Okay, if it wasn’t for us, if it wasn’t for something that we started doing, there would be no Limp Bizkit, straight up.” Not that I cared about that, but what did hurt me was, okay, yes, we are successful, but the success is like a whole other level with a band like that. Where with White Pony, which is our most successful record, we barely sold a million records. Limp Bizkit sold about seven million records.
So it’s success on another level, where those dudes don’t need to work for the rest of their lives and make that much f**king money. And us, we’re still hustling to do it. It’s a whole different level of things. So a part of me wanted to just be mad about it, but at the end of the day, it is what it is.
Do you feel like that self-titled album’s kind of under-appreciated in retrospect? It doesn’t usually get the same level as adoration as the two before it.
No, I don’t think so. We got out of it what we put into it. That was the start of everybody sort of taking a really relaxed position as far as making records. One of the bad things that came from White Pony was the fact that we were successful and we really took our time and spent too much money. And because we were successful with that record, we took that mindset to the next level with the self-titled record. And we really struggled with our work ethic and that record took us almost two years to make, double the time of White Pony.
Is it true that you wrote “Hole in the Earth” off of 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist as a rejoinder to the band for bugging you for taking so long to finish that album?
Yes, most definitely. There’s a line on that record that says, “I hate all of my friends / They all lack taste.” That was basically me talking to my bandmates, the song that they were playing on. But in their defense, they probably hated me at that time, too. That [recording] was basically everything that I had explained [about] the self-titled record magnified by 100. At that point, the disconnect was so strong and that record took three years to get finished and basically everybody just came in and did their part and left, including myself.
That record, to me, will probably always be my least favorite record because of that. Regardless of the songs, the quality of the songs, I just feel like the way it was made, it was so half-assed that there’s no way that the record could not show how pieced together it was.
I’ve always wanted to ask you about that “Pink Cellphone” outro, the spoken-word “Hot Carling” part. How did that come about?
[Laughs nervously.] Oh yeah. I don’t know. We were probably not even communicating enough as it was, so it probably just flew under the radar, without [the band] even knowing it, until the record was out. And it was a last-minute thing.
To me, it was out of character in a way, but so what? The record to me was already boring. I was so uninspired by it, [at least] something like that would just take the record out of context and put it in another thing. And it was really a fun experiment. I was in the studio, I was already working on the song, and Annie Hardy [of Giant Drag] was hanging around the studio that day, and I got her in there. It was totally in the moment. Didn’t expect to use it and, at the end, we just put it on [the album].
I remember when it first came out, people were like, “What the f**k is this?” And that’s the reaction I wanted; I wanted people either to really not understand it or just be like, “Why would you do that?” And why not? Especially because, like I said, I felt like that record was such a Frankensteined-together mess. Why not just take it one step further?
Did it take the tragedy of what happened to Chi [Cheng] to get Deftones back on the same page?
Most definitely. At the time [after Saturday Night Wrist] we started making another record, which was tentatively titled Eros. The band started to reconnect on a friendship level. We were having fun again — we’d get into our rehearsal spot, and no one would show up till like 8 p.m., and as soon as we’d get there, we’d play dominoes or Risk. We’d have games of Risk that would last weeks at a time. So we’d spend hours just playing games, talking s**t, just hanging out really. But as far as our work ethic, the music was coming together very slow, and it wasn’t that great — a lot of meandering, a lot of jammy sort of stuff.
When Chi had his accident, we were probably another six months away or something from finishing it. But at that point, everything halted. We all sort of just stepped back from [recording], all our thoughts [were] with Chi and his well-being and what was gonna happen with him. It wasn’t till maybe six months after his accident where the whole band had gotten together, back in Sacramento in our rehearsal spot. And we sat and talked for a few hours about Chi and about everything else. And before we even had a chance to really start talking about the future of the band, everybody walked over to their gear and just started playing. We started writing music that day, pretty much what became [2010’s] Diamond Eyes.
And at that point, we were like, “Well, okay, if we’re gonna do this, obviously we’re not gonna go look for bass players, but maybe one of us will play bass on this record. But if not, let’s hit up Sergio [Vega] if he’s down.” He filled in for Chi before when he broke his foot a few years back when we were on tour with Black Sabbath and we didn’t wanna leave the tour. So we asked Vega to come and play with us and he did on a whim and it was great.
In two months we had the whole Diamond Eyes record written and there was this whole reconnecting of everything that had been missing for the last ten years or so. And we had totally gotten into a groove and I think we [took] our grieving, everything that we were going through, and put it into our work. And a couple months later, we came out with Diamond Eyes and we were just like, “Wow.” There was this feeling of creating a record together, all of us in a room together, rediscovering this excitement for making music together all accumulating at once. And I think that record is a great testament to that.
On Gore, it sounds like you guys are almost reconnecting with a classic metal influence that I haven’t heard in any previous albums. Some of the riffs almost sound like Iron Maiden.
In retrospect, yeah. I love the fact that, when I sit back and listen to stuff, and then I realize, “Okay, wow, I realize where it came from or where it might’ve been inspired from.” We all have similar taste in music, which is probably why we can be in a band together, but at the same time, we all have very different tastes. But the fact [is] that we are open-minded with one another’s tastes and in the end, I don’t care what style something is as long as it’s good.
So like, if Stephen [Carpenter, guitarist] comes up with a heavy riff that is just good, like the song “Doomed User” on the new record. It’s almost ‘80s metal throwback at a certain part. And like I was saying earlier, as much I’m not really into really aggressive stuff like that as much as I used to be, if it’s undeniably good, I can find something within it that’s inspiring and follow where that’s going.
Looking back, when you guys have hit your career peaks, the critical acclaim in the mainstream U.S. press hasn’t necessarily followed. When you see a band today like Deafheaven that gets this rapturous praise for combining extreme metal with dream-pop influences and hip-hop attitude, do you think “Okay, we were doing this 20 years ago?”
No, I definitely love that. I think that’s awesome. To me, it’s great when I see bands that just passionately do what they do. And I feel that, probably the [thing I’m] most proud of in our career is not the accolades that we’ve had. ‘Cause we’ve never been that big of a band — we’ve always been one of the biggest underground bands, but we still have not had this crazy commercial success. But the longevity of our career, to me, outweighs any of those accolades, or hit songs that spirited us into the atmosphere. I’ve always been very comfortable with the success level that we’ve had.
Do you feel like critics are coming back around to you guys now that the kids that grew up with your music 15 to 20 years ago are at the forefront of music writing, and they can understand the way you guys stood apart from those other bands back then?
Possibly. I don’t think completely. I mean, for instance, we’ve never been invited to play Coachella. I’ve played Coachella with Crosses, one of my side bands. [But] Deftones has never been invited to play Coachella, and I would love to play Coachella. But I honestly feel like there are things like that where we’re still considered to be a nu-metal band to some people, and it’s just not cool enough.
To that I’d say, whatever. If I’m not invited to your party, I’m not gonna cry about it. But honestly, there are still people that don’t get it. And it’s really not my job to prove it to anybody. We’re just gonna keep making records, and hopefully good ones that will stand the test of time. And maybe, one day, they will come around, and we’ll ask them for a s**tload of money.