The Deftones bassist on the upcoming album, Taste of Chaos tour and playing in Z-flat
Innovative Sacramento, Calif.-based alt-metal heroes Deftones have certainly come a long way since skateboarding together during their late ’80s high school days. Early on, Deftones first defined and then defied the nu-metal label placed on the band and its contemporaries, proceeding to embark on a multi-platinum-selling, Grammy®-winning career odyssey that saw adventurous stylistic nods to trip-hop, punk, acoustic and Brit new-wave elements on albums including Adrenaline (1995), Around the Fur (1997), White Pony (2000) and Deftones (2003).
Through it all, nimble—deft, you might as well say—bassist Chi Cheng (yes, that’s his real name) has provided first-order sonic underpinning, riffing away on his beloved Fender Precision Bass® guitar, a model of which, as we’ll soon see, he is an unabashed and ardent admirer.
Cheng, born in 1970, joined Deftones not long after the band’s inception. A graduate of the University of California, Davis, he has a B.A. in English literature and released his poetry collection, Bamboo Parachute, as a spoken-word album in 2000.
Fender News caught up with the always-articulate Cheng in January 2006, as Deftones were working on their as-yet untitled forthcoming album and preparing to embark on the Taste of Chaos tour (see related story on the tour) …
FN: First things first—have you finished tracking the new album?
CC: Yes, thank the lord! I think we have (laughs). It’s been about a year and a half on and off. And it’s been a really hard, terrible struggle. I think it’s finally turning around though, and I’m really happy about that.
FN: You stopped working with (legendary Pink Floyd producer) Bob Ezrin. Who are you working with now, and has it had any effect on the album?
CC: The album has been touched by a bunch of different producers. Ezrin did a lot of it with me, Abe (drummer Abe Cunningham) and Stephen (guitarist Stephen Carpenter). And we went back and worked with some other people. Chino (vocalist Chino Moreno) has been working with a bunch of people. I think it’s just a compilation of a bunch of different people, really. Ezrin did a lot of it. I love Ezrin and I got along with him famously. I don’t think he and Chino jived together well, and that happens.
FN: When you deal with artists, that’s what you get, for better or worse.
CC: Yeah. It’s the same thing. Bob Ezrin is also an artist. No one in the band questions how great his work is. It’s just a matter of jiving with somebody or not jiving with somebody.
FN: Does it sound like one fluid work, or does it sound more like a compilation?
CC: It’s really an amazingly good piece. I’m thrilled with it, especially now that I’m starting to hear some vocals for the first time in two years. It’s like, “Holy @#$%!”
FN: Is it more like White Pony or Deftones?
CC: It is more of a White Pony, for sure. It’s got that whole feel and depth. The other album (Deftones) was very intense and kind of dark. Everyone was going through a dark period. This album has a lot more variety and depth. People are really going to be tripped out when they hear this album.
FN: Is there a title?
CC: Hell no! This close to being finished (laughs)? No, no … we’re the Deftones, man!
FN: It’ll be out later this spring?
CC: Yeah, hopefully May or early summer.
FN: Many fans consider White Pony as your definitive album. How do you feel about that, and will the new album change that?
CC: The new album will show that the best is yet to come from the Deftones. I really think this album is going to show what’s going on with our band. We’re nowhere near being done yet.
FN: Chino and Stephen definitely offer different musical influences. Chino is more into the Cure and My Bloody Valentine; Stephen is more into heavier bands like Meshuggah. Where do you stand?
CC: I kind of float around, right in between.
FN: Like Switzerland?
CC: Exactly … I’m neutral (laughs)! Oddly enough, we’ve begun to rehearse again at night. And I’ve been listening to our past albums. Rather than playing with Stephen or Abe, I kind of float in between them.
FN: It’s your job to hold them together.
CC: Yeah, yeah … it’s cool.
FN: With tracking for the new album finished, you can focus on the upcoming Taste of Chaos tour. Will you be adding new songs to the set?
CC: Yeah, we’ll be doing two new songs.
FN: Do they have titles yet?
CC: You know … (Chino) changes the titles so much I have no clue. We haven’t even picked them yet.
FN: Any bands on the bill that you’re particularly excited to see?
CC: I’m always excited to see Dredg. I haven’t seen a lot of the other bands. I’ve seen Thrice, and they’re great!
FN: Last year, you played for the Cure on MTV® Icon™. What was that like?
CC: That was nerve-racking, to be honest. I was thrilled to honor the Cure, a band we all respect and have loved for a long time. But to actually go over there and sit down in front of them with them staring at us, I was just hoping someone else would mess up instead of me. We just played one track (“If Only Tonight We Could Sleep,” from Deftones’ B-Sides & Rarities). It was amazing. I don’t know if I could have stood to play any more songs!
FN: Do you still get nervous when you play live?
CC: Yeah, I do. I had an anxiety dream about it last night. I always have anxiety dreams before I go on the road. It was the worst. I ended up waking up at 7:00 this morning saying, “Oh god, we suck (laughs)!”
FN: You’ve played Fender Precision basses for most of your career. What led you to them and how have they affected your playing?
CC: As soon as I got hold of one, that’s all I played. I think I started playing them when I met Alex Perez (Fender artist relations manager and Custom Shop veteran) on the ’95 Warped Tour. His guitars and basses are the dopest! I was on tour with Fluf then. O (Fluf guitarist/vocalist) played Fenders. I told him that I wished I played them, so he gave me Alex’s number. Two weeks later, Alex sent me two basses. I dropped everything I had been playing, switched right over, and have never gone back! They were Precision Bass Specials, the same basses I play now. They have humbucking pickups in the front and the back, and have vintage Precision pickguards.
FN: How many basses do you take on the road with you?
CC: Just one to play, and one or two as backups. I don’t want it to look like (Van Halen bassist) Michael Anthony’s house (laughs). All respect to Michael Anthony!
FN: Well, do you have a Jack Daniel’s® bass?
CC: No, I don’t. I would probably go with a single-malt bass (laughs)!
FN: Do you play five-string basses?
CC: Yeah, I do have some five strings. I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the five-string, period. That’s more of a necessary evil for me.
FN: Do you tune down your four-string basses?
CC: Yeah, absolutely. Stephen consistently gets lower every album. I’m having to consistently follow him.
FN: Why doesn’t he just get a baritone or a bass?
CC: I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He just keeps going down lower and lower. And on a lot of the songs where he’s playing a seven-string, I’ll still be playing the four. But sometimes it doesn’t translate and I need to get that fifth string. I fought it for three albums, but then I had to give in.
FN: Do you have trouble setting up your action, or do you use much thicker strings?
CC: Yeah, they’re ridiculously thick strings. And I still tune the thing down. I think we’re in Z or Z-flat (laughs)!
FN: How has your playing developed since the Deftones took off? Do you still practice and work on your style?
CC: No. No, I’m lazy (laughs)! I think the more you listen to music, the more you play music, the more you get confident with music—you can move around better, and know yourself as a musician better, philosophically. I don’t have time to sit and practice for four hours like I did in high school. I feel like I should, but with a wife and a kid and a band, it gets to where you’re suddenly a grown-up, and time is hard to find. Young players should enjoy it while they can.
FN: Iron Maiden bassist and fellow Precision lover Steve Harris was a huge influence on you. What other bassists influence you?
CC: I’ve got to say that after my metal period I went into a new-wave period and was really into the Smiths’ bass player (Andy Rourke) and the Cure’s bass player (Simon Gallup, usually). Their playing was unreal! So I got into a small new-wave phase in my high school years. Then I got into punk. I really like a lot of the punk bass players a lot. I still think Matt Freeman from Rancid is such a monster! His playing is really tasteful and classy.
FN: Who else has inspired you?
CC: I love (Charles) Mingus. He set the standard. Jaco Pastorius is nice to listen to, but I can’t emulate it. But it’s beautiful. I love the old reggae bass playing and Studio One bass playing. I listen to that a lot more than I listen to anything else now.
FN: It sounds like there’s more of that in your playing now.
CC: It’s absolutely true. When I wrote the bass part to “Change (In the House of Flies),” Stephen was like, “Dear lord, no! Please don’t play that.” Frank (Delgado, turntables) was like, “Don’t do it!” But that’s how I play. Terry Date (producer), fortunately, was backing me. He told them to leave me alone and let me play the line I wrote.
FN: It was one of your biggest hits …
CC: It was our biggest hit. But Stephen wrote all of the leads and won a Grammy® for it. So he has the upper hand (laughs)!
FN: Now that you’re headlining festivals and inspiring future bassists, any advice for aspiring bassists?
CC: Spend as many hours as you can playing and listen to as many kinds of music as you can. Don’t shut yourself off to jazz or country. I was one of those kids. My mom paid for a month of bass lessons for me, and my instructor wanted me to check out some jazz. All I wanted to learn was (Metallica’s) “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth.” I could’ve been more open-minded (laughs)!
FN: As an avid reader and music lover, what are you listening to and reading lately?
CC: I’m such a collector. I’m reading some Camus. I love The Plague and The Stranger. I also started reading Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays. I’ve got some really rare Henry Miller that I’ve been reading—Sunday After The War. I’m kind of a book collector. It takes up a lot of my money. Unfortunately, (Charles) Bukowski is my favorite writer, followed by (Hunter S.) Thompson. So I like a lot of the derelicts (laughs)!
FN: 2006 marks Fender’s 60th anniversary. Your thoughts?
CC: Let’s have another 60 years of continuously good work. If I’m alive 60 years from now, I’ll still be playing Fender!