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Deftones’ Chino Moreno on Creative ‘Balance,’ Healing Energy of New LP Ohms

Singer dives into vocal harmony, reuniting with producer Terry Date, the enduring brilliance of 'White Pony'

“It’s dark,” says Chino Moreno. “It’s a trip.”

Not a bad off-the-cuff summary of Deftones’ ninth LP, Ohms, which amplifies the art-metal band’s signature dynamic extremes: Frank Delgado’s shadowy synth atmospherics are more prominent in the mix, and Stephen Carpenter’s detuned riffs scorch the terrain beneath them.

But Moreno isn’t describing the album — instead, he’s marveling at the post-apocalyptic orange skies that blanket his current home of Bend, Oregon. Weeks before Ohms enters the world, the West Coast is ravaged by wildfires that have polluted the air to dangerous levels. “I’m actually out walking right now,” the frontman says, noting one of his regular pandemic-era activities. “But I shouldn’t be because the quality is too bad. It’s 11 a.m., and it’s really dark right now.”

It’s already become a cliché to evaluate music in relation to our ongoing doomsday scenario — but, Goddamnit, Ohms gives us no choice. “We’re surrounded by the debris of the past / And it’s too late to cause a change in the tides,” Moreno sings on the title-track. “So we slip into out hopeless sea of regret.” Oof.

But like every Deftones album, their latest achieves serenity in the darkness — even down to the title, which conjures both the term for electric resistance and the sacred meditation sound (“om”) used in some Eastern religions. And the writing process helped the band achieve a sort of healing.

Subtle tension started to simmer as they recorded 2016’s Gore, partly the product of Deftones co-producing the LP themselves. So for their initial jams in late 2018/early ’19, the band’s three original members — Moreno, Carpenter and drummer Abe Cunningham — met up in their small L.A. rehearsal space and worked out ideas “in a triangle.” The end result is a more “balanced” album, both sonically and personnel-wise.

“I felt like that was definitely missing from the Gore record — not completely, but not as represented as I would like to be,” Moreno says. “So that that experiment with those three of us was definitely important. I’m pretty sure that [nothing] we wrote during the sessions made the record. I could be wrong — there could be one or two little things. But it wasn’t even about that. It was more about getting in the room together and just hanging out.”

Moreno spoke to SPIN about the album’s healing energy, their upcoming Black Stallion remix of White Pony and why many fans still consider that 2000 LP their definitive work.

SPIN: During the Gore press cycle, Stephen admitted he wasn’t originally interested in those songs and kinda struggled to get into it. In recent interviews, you’ve talked about working with him directly in the writing process for Ohms. Did that get you into a better place creatively?
Moreno:
It was definitely beneficial. The first time we got together, it was just Abe, Stephen and myself. I live in Oregon; Abe lives in Sacramento, and Steph was in L.A., so Abe and I went down to L.A. to this little boxed-out rehearsal spot that we usually work at. I didn’t bring a guitar — I just had my mic. We set up in this little triangle sort of facing each other and just started making noise.

The core of the band, obviously aside from [bassist] Chi [who died in 2013], was us three — back from when we were kids in Stephen’s garage. I wanted to see what it would be like to get back to that basic foundation. I love to play guitar, and a lot of times I bring a guitar in and start playing; Abe will start playing with me, and then all of a sudden we’re creating a song, and Stephen’s kind of left finding his place in something [Abe] and I made. Sometimes that works great. But I realized that his guitar playing with Abe’s drums is a huge part of what Deftones do. And I missed that — not even as a band member but as a fan.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about getting to that kind of basic place: One of the things that stands out on Ohms is how dynamic and balanced it feels. There’s a lot more synth and bass presence than on Gore. Obviously, you wanted Stephen to have a bigger role — were you aiming for it to be more collaborative overall?
The one thing we were very thoughtful about was making make sure that balance was there — and wanting everybody to be heard. It’s weird that people think, “Oh, Stephen wasn’t there [on Gore] or “You guys just didn’t want him involved.” It was nothing like that. Stephen was there every day. He was just kind of in his corner [or] in the other room. He’d pick up his guitar, but he just wasn’t really checked in completely for the process. Maybe he didn’t want to be — I don’t know. But it wasn’t because we didn’t want him to be part of it. When we were done with that record, he came to me and explained what he was going through, and I totally understood. I’m like, “Dude, we all go through shit.” But when we went in to make this, I wanted him to be comfortable and to have fun. I wanted us all to have fun.

There’s a lot more vocal harmony presence on this album — “Ceremony” is a good example. You really leaned into it.
I never did too much of it on any of our previous records. I’m just experimenting — sometimes I try something and will be like, “Ooh, I’m gonna run in there real quick.” Also, Sergio there when I recorded my vocals. He came in the studio with me last summer [to producer Terry Date’s Seattle studio] because at that point we’d finished recording all the musical tracks.

Sergio has a great sense of melody, and I like to shoot things off people. Terry is good at that too, but it’s always great to have someone in the band. No one ever really speaks up when it comes to vocals — they kind of just go, “Go ahead and do your thing.” They trust me with it, which is rad. But I still like to get a reaction. With some of those harmonies, we literally sat on the couch listening to the thing, just humming or singing together. This is a whole different element of songwriting that I haven’t expressed too much.

Ohms reunites the band with Terry Date, who worked on the unfinished Eros record. That was a painful era, given Chi’s car accident in 2008. You never got to wrap up that project — was that unfinished business the main impetus for wanting to work with Terry again?
That was definitely part of it. But we’ve always had great experiences working with him. Even after White Pony, before we started the self-titled record, he was like, “I’ve loved working you guys on all these records. I feel like we all did a great job. But I’m not gonna get my feelings hurt if you want to work with someone else.” At that time, we were like, “Nah, man.” We’re all very close friends. I still talk to him on the phone pretty much at least once a week, just about nonsense.

We eventually worked with Nick Raskulinecz after the Eros record [on 2010’s Diamond Eyes] — Nick sort of approached us, and we had the opportunity to pretty much start a whole other record. I didn’t think the record company was gonna [agree] because we’d already spent a record’s [budget]. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “OK, we’re not gonna put this out. Will you give us money for him to make a brand new record?” They said yes, and Nick spearheaded that whole thing. We wrote and recorded that record in like two months — seriously. So it was kind of an experiment on its own, and it worked: Diamond Eyes really captured the spirit of what was happening in our lives. For the next record, it was like, “Well, that worked. Let’s try that again.” To me, [2012’s] Koi No Yokan feels like a reprise of Diamond Eyes. We kind of tried to do Gore ourselves, and I think we took on a lot. That one was kind of weird. But with Ohms, it was like, “This is long overdue, working with Terry,” so we hit him up.

The band vibe wasn’t 100 percent right for Gore, and it seems you’re in a much better, more collaborative place now. Did you miss having that outside voice on Gore?
Totally. We did have a producer, Matt Hyde, who engineered the Koi No Yokan record. We’ve had a great relationship with him. And he was there and [very] present. But looking back, I can totally see some of the things that triggered the chain of events. [laughs] If there’s no one else there to guide or say, “Hey guys, stop right there. Okay, that was cool, but play it again,” I become that person. By default, I’m kind of dictating what we’re doing. Then at some point, I’m sure Stephen was like, “Fuck you, motherfucker!” [laughs] Or he just retreated in a sly way.

[For Ohms, it was important] having someone there that we all trust, who can help us make sense of what we’re doing. A lot of times when we’re writing, we’ll play something, and like 20 minutes later we’re on a whole different planet. And that’s cool if we were just a jam band and wanted to do that forever, but at some point, we need some structure. So [it was good] to have someone there, a real producer — I know it sounds pathetic ’cause we’re grown men that need a babysitter. [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about the Black Stallion remix project. It’s an intriguing concept — experimenting with the album 20 years later. 
The record’s just been mastered, and it’s fucking brilliant. It could have been a little self-indulgent — it’s a record based off another record that’s people already like, so it would easy to fuck up. Our initial idea was to have DJ Shadow remix the whole record. He said he would love to do a song, so he did a remix of “Digital Bath.” The majority of the people we reached out to came back with excitement: “Oh, I love this song. Can I do this song?” The record is sequenced exactly like White Pony, so it kind of takes you on a journey in the same way but completely flipped upside-down.

White Pony is the one Deftones album that seems to resonate beyond hardcore fans. Can you pinpoint what makes it that album for so many people?
I think it’s one of our best-produced records — it’s some of Terry’s finest work. The drum sound is awesome. Because we were kind of influenced by a lot of electronic, beat-driven music like DJ Shadow, we really wanted to make a drum-forward album. So that record has a lot of head nod to it. It’s also very expansive. There’s a lot of kind of soundscape-y stuff, and there’s a heaviness — all those trigger points that Deftones are known for. But I remember when we first put it out, some people didn’t get it right way, like, “What is this? Where are the Deftones at?” Obviously, there are parts that jump out at you, but overall I think it’s a headphone record — kind of a slow-burner. So that’s given it life all these years.

It’s depressing that you guys can’t tour behind all this stuff. But bands are trying to maneuver around the pandemic through livestreams and playing in empty venues. No one can predict 20201, but have you thought about when — and how — you might perform next?

We don’t have any plans at this moment. It’s tough decision – obviously, nothing replaces live music. I understand why people are trying to find different ways to do it. On one hand, [sometimes] something is better than nothing. But at the same time, sometimes nothing is better than something. And that’s just me being speaking about us in general — I don’t know how good an internet show with us in a room would be. Maybe it would be good, but I don’t know.