“Bass Player” – 1997 // Chi Interviewed

BASS Player
May 1997

BASS Notes
Chi Cheng, The Zen of Metal


By Thomas Wictor

It’s hard to put the Deftones’ Chi Cheng into a neat little box – just as his band itself
defies categorization. Ostensibly a heavy metal outfit, the quartet from Sacramento, California,
is no clutch of head-banging, oafish thrashers. Lead vocalist Chino Moreno is a cryptic
lyricist who croons wistfully or screams as if he’s being boiled alive, guitarist Stephen
Carpenter alternates between ghostly, poignant chord phrasings and a percussive, blasting wall
of sound, and drummer Abe Cunningham supplies sophisticated, almost jazz-influenced parts that
are remarkably infectious.

In the midst of all this mayhem, Chi Cheng’s driving, minimalist bass lines serve as an anchor
– a stabilizing influence that helps to keep the music from blowing itself apart. On the
Deftones’ debut album, Adrenaline (Maverick), such principles as harmony and discord, light
and dark, and rage and resignation are presented not as contrast but as parts of a unified
whole. Tracks like the haunting “One Weak” and the disturbing “7 Words” swing relentlessly
back and forth between extremes of emotion.

In keeping with the Deftones’ yin-and-yang motif, hard rockin’ Chi is a self-professed Zen
Buddhist hippie who has studied Taoism, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and shamanism.
Though he relates off-the-record stories of beery exploits and “playful” scuffles that would
make even the most rabid metal fan gasp a reverent “Cool,” he himself is a committed vegetarian
and Grateful Dead enthusiast. (“I don’t even listen to metal that much,” he grins.)

Chang met up with the rest of the Deftones while studying English at Sacramento State
University in the late ’80s. They began playing at parties and moved on to a local club scene,
while Chi held down several jobs in addition to tutoring advanced poetry classes at the college.
After the band began garnering increasingly higher visibility, Cheng realized he was doing too
many things at the same time. He decided to concentrate solely on the band’s intense new brand
of metal rather than “halfass” everything else.

“I wouldn’t really label our music now,” Chi says. “I would just call it passionate, it’s more
about intensity than any actual style or genre. We’re more about dynamics – songs fluctuating
up and down like roller-coasters – than being proficient layers. I’m honest enough to know I’m
not a great bass player. I’m not going to dazzle anyone with my playing. But I stick with the
groove and put down lines that are good, strong, and passionate. Ninety-eight percent of the
music out there now is lousy because it’s soulless; it isn’t alive. It has hooks but no fire.
And if it doesn’t have that fire, it just doesn’t click with me.”

Cheng believes his own approach to the bass can be traced to a fondness for reggae, soul, jazz,
and blues. “I read in a Bass Player review that I play a lot of 16th-notes,” he recalls. “I
think that comes from listening to Tower of Power. I’m such a fan of Rocco Prestia; his playing
is so insistent and tasteful. Also, I’m more concerned about working with the drums than with
the guitar. I rarely write a bass line to match a guitar part because I’m looking at the big
picture. If people listen to our album, they can tell it’s not just another heavy metal record
because the bass is doing something under the guitar instead of with it.

“Also, I play with my fingers instead of a pick,” Chi continues. “Finger players are outlaws in
the heavy music industry – but for me, a pick just puts you farther away from the instrument.
It’s more organic to play with your fingers. I’d have a much better tone if I used a pick, but
I refuse to do it. It drives our guitar player nuts, but I’d rather cause friction between us
and stock with slinky, organic lines than be just another metal player.”

On the road for the past two years, the Deftones have opened for such bands as Ozzy Osborne,
Pantera, Kiss, White Zombie, 311, and Korn – as well as headlined their own shows.
When performing live, Chi undergoes what he calls a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” transformation.
“On stage I vent everything,” he explains. “I’m extremely aggressive because it’s a wonderful
outlet. Some people paint, some do tai chi or poetry – this is our way of venting. I hope
people won’t see it as violence or anger, although if you catch our show you might think we’ve
got chips on our shoulders or had bad childhoods. It’s not an angry thing for us; it’s always
been a positive, sacred thing for us to play with as much passion as we can.”

Chi is similarly enthusiastic about the two ’57 Fender Precision reissues made for him by Alex
Perez of the Fender Custom shop. One is a standard P-Bass with a maple neck, the other has a
rosewood board and an additional humbucking pickup. According to Cheng, “Alex put so much
honesty into the wood that when I got the basses I could feel it. He dumped so much positive
energy into them it was amazing. You can actually feel the difference between an instrument
that was made on the production line and one that was built just for you.” For amplification,
Cheng runs two Hughes & Kettner Bass Base 600 heads through four Hughes & Kettner 300-watt
4×10 cabinets. He also plugs in a SansAmp GT2 pedal enroute to achieving his “simple,
uncluttered” sound.

Although Chi knows the Deftones are turning lots of heads, he credits his years of meditation
and self-examination with keeping his feet firmly on the ground. “Wherever I am is where I need
to be,” he shrugs. “I could be washing dishes or teaching English and I’d still be content. The
truth is many musicians play because they need the admiration of others to make them whole. I
mean, it’s nice that people appreciate our music, and we’re flattered by it – but I don’t need
to be told we’re the best thing since sliced bread. It’s the creating and playing of music and
seeing how it affects people that’s the beautiful, sacred part. That’s why I’m going to put
everything I have into whatever I do. I don’t ever really think about where I’m going to be five
or ten years from now, because it doesn’t really matter. Life is what you make of it.”