“LA Weekly” – May 2003 // Chi Cheng Interviewed

Def Jam By Richard Abowitz



It is Saturday morning, and Chi Cheng doesn’t feel like working.
Or maybe the bass player for the Deftones is just in a playful mood when
I call to interview him.
“I haven’t seen him,” Cheng says about himself. “I think he’s out wandering around.”

After a few frantic calls back and forth with the Deftones’ tour manager,
Cheng gives in and is once again put on the phone. He’s quick to admit he’s
been surprised by the work ethic required for rock ‘n’ roll success today.

“I am going to tell you the truth. When I was growing up I was looking at Circus
magazine and watching Tommy Lee and Mötley Crüe pour champagne on titties and snort
coke off bitches’ asses. I thought that was the life. But it is not like that at all.”

In fact, Cheng discovered that “the life” is full of early morning interviews
followed by days spent doing radio promotions. Not that Cheng is complaining (or
at least not much). “The truth is that it is a good lifestyle. When you can play music
for people, it’s exciting,” he says.

For more than a dozen years now, Cheng has been playing the Deftones’ music for people;
and over those years, there have been countless concerts, promotions, interviews,
crummy vans and shared hotel rooms. But now with the release of the Deftones’ fourth
album, Cheng and his band are poised to hit the big time. The self-titled disc has
generated so much excitement—thanks to the preview provided by the single “Minerva”—
that the Deftones’ label limited advance copies of the music to prevent the songs from
being posted as MP3 files on the Internet before the album’s official release date. In
the past, security this extreme has been deemed necessary for a select few artists—like
Madonna, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the owner of the Deftones’ label, Maverick.

The club-chic pop of the Material Girl and the lacerating metal of the Deftones might not
seem to have much affinity. But Cheng notes that Madonna’s presence is felt in a beneficial
way in the label’s willingness to allow the Deftones creative power when it comes to control
of the music.

“I don’t hang with the broad a whole lot. But while it is not run by Madonna, it’s
Madonna’s label. It’s fairly artist-oriented. We told our label from the get-go that
we were going to do our shit, and that you’re going to take a step back and leave us alone.
They’ve been really cool that way. We do our thing, and they let us do our own thing.”

This time, though, the band’s thing required having its own studio, which Cheng says proved
to be as much a distraction as an asset. “You have the ability to do a little bit more.
But at the same time, having our own studio is pretty much a hindrance since you’re at
home and the troubles of home tend to carry along with you.”

Cheng says that despite the surge of recent interest, the Deftones’ fourth release isn’t
all that different from the earlier discs. “I don’t think we set out to do anything different.
We were doing what we naturally do, which is what makes us us.”

Instead, Cheng sees the band’s recent success as a tribute to all the years of hard work.
“This is our fourth album, and the number of fans has just kept growing with each one.
We’ve never been a radio or MTV band. We are more of a cult band. So the fans that are
into us have found out about us through the shows, and now there are a lot of new fans
that are starting to pick up on us.”

Of course, to bring the music to the people this way takes lots of hard work, including
(sigh) plenty of early morning interviews. But there are also rewards—like when Cheng found
a poster of his hero, Muhammad Ali, at Mandalay Bay during his last trip to Vegas.

“I’d been looking for this one poster of Ali, and I see it in this shop in Mandalay Bay.
I go in and it’s framed, and I wonder why anyone would frame a poster.
Then I notice it’s, like, $1,700. I look, and I see that it is signed by Muhammad Ali.”
Expensive, but not out of the price range of a rock star.

The Ali poster is now hanging on Cheng’s bedroom wall: a powerful incentive each morning
when he gets out of bed to admit who he is when he picks up the phone for an interview.