“Mean Street” – July 2003 // Abe Interviewed

July 2003 -Cover Story – Mean Street Music Magazine
DEFTONES: Nu Metal Mavericks

“That we still haven’t killed each other after fifteen years is pretty big.” – Chi Cheng

By: Mar Yvette


It’s a chilly May evening in Detroit and as the sun begins to set, the motley crowd of
generation Y-ers lined up at the foot of the gum-flecked, tag-scrawled steps of St.
Andrews Hall continues to swell, zigzagging around the block like some ravenous snake
anxious for its meal. A few guys at the front of the line hi-five each other, congratulating
themselves for waiting in line since sunrise while the burly, tattoo-laden security crew
cautiously look on and guard the door. Though no one is allowed in until showtime, the sonic
ferocity of sound check emanates from within the thick brick walls, offering the eager throng
a tantalizing preview of what’s to come. Playing tonight at the small yet legendary venue,
where everyone from Lou Reed to Nirvana has played, are the Deftones, music’s undisputed kings
of nu-metal. Part of the group’s brief “guerilla tour” preceding this year’s Summer Sanitarium
Tour, the performance is, as drummer Abe Cunningham later says, a warm-up of sorts. “We’ve been
off for almost two years and haven’t made a new album in almost three, so the whole point of
the tour was to play for a thousand people or less.”

Indeed, it’s been a while since audiences have seen a live Deftones show or listened to a
full-length album of new material. And as Cunningham sees it, the hiatus was a long time coming.
“This is the first time we actually took a break for ourselves since we’ve been around. And
we’ve been around since ’88! You have your whole life to record your first record, know what
I mean? But ever since we recorded [debut album Adrenaline], it’s been just a constant cycle
of record, tour, record, tour. This is the first time we actually said, ‘man, let’s kick it for
a while, go home and just be normal before we write songs again.’”

Sound check has finally finished (in fact, the designated time for this interview was pushed
back an hour and a half) and stepping onto the group’s massive tour bus is like entering a
tranquil sanctum, a stunning contrast to the fervent swarm gathered just a few feet away.
Guitarist Stephen Carpenter is standing near the bus’s entrance, rapidly typing away on a
laptop and downloading songs like “Car Wash” onto his iPod while several people sit around,
talking and laughing in hushed tones. Past the bunks, lounging at the back of the bus are
Cunningham, singer Chino Moreno, bassist Chi Cheng, and turntablist Frank Delgado, each of
whom is trying to determine the source for Delgado’s own current laptop quandary. Evidently,
“the damn thing won’t work” and Delgado is getting frustrated. “We bring things like our
computers [when touring], so it’s kind of annoying when they’re screwed up like this one is
right now.”

Watching the guys in a setting other than the head-banging roar and bright lights of the stage,
one would never guess that they are one of — if not the –most respected hardcore rock bands
to emerge within the last two decades. Though their sound has most often been billed as nu-metal,
it is a description acquired much more by default than by definition. “They call it all kinds of
things [alt-metal? ethereal-core?], but I just say it’s hard rock,” offers Cunningham, enunciating
“hard” and “rock” as though each word constitutes its own sentence. Among the first groups to
juxtapose masculine bombast (heavy riffs and earsplitting wails) with feminine gentleness (dreamy
tones and melodious vocals), the Deftones have generated countless imitators in their wake and
have influenced other successful bands like System Of A Down.

It was back in 1988, amid the suburban landscape of our state’s capital, when high school students
Carpenter, Cunningham and Moreno first got the notion to jam together. Playing anywhere they could
– the obligatory backyard parties and dive clubs — they slowly began to generate a local buzz and,
after going through several different bass players, they found a permanent bassist in Chi Cheng.
For the next several years, the group continued to develop their sound and harness their strengths,
eventually recording a solid four-song demo. Ultimately, it was this demo that caught the attention
of Madonna’s newly christened label, Maverick and in 1995, the Deftones quietly exploded onto the
scene with Adrenaline.

Though it was far from being an overnight sensation, the Deftones’ debut sold more than half a
million copies based on word of mouth alone. Having built up a firm fanbase with their relentless
touring (both on their own and opening for artists like Ozzy Osbourne and fellow Californians,
Korn) it wasn’t long before expectations mounted for a follow-up album. Enter 1997’s Around the
Fur, the gold-selling album which not only expanded the band’s musical range (thanks to newest
member Delgado and his skills on the turntables), but it also propelled the group to greater
prominence with the MTV and radio hits “My Own Summer (Shove It)” and “Be Quiet and Drive (Far

After yet another endless jag of touring, in the summer of 2000, the group released White Pony,
the platinum-plus selling album that erased any lingering doubts that the Deftones were merely a
poster band for the post-Metallica, neo-hardcore movement. But rather than remaining in the secure
territory of past success, the Deftones — as had been their modus operandi from the beginning –
tinkered more freely with experimental styles and synth-driven instrumentation, allowing Moreno’s
well-known affinity for bands like The Cure and Duran Duran to seep through the sober sludge of
dense rhythms and thick guitars. Interestingly enough, it was the unconventional nature of the
album that garnered the most mainstream recognition, reaping the band’s first Grammy win — something
Cunningham doesn’t take too seriously.

“It’s a pretty cool thing to win a Grammy ‘cause I would always watch that stuff growing up with
my mom,” he says in his animated speech style. “I remember she would always get excited when the
Grammys came on, so it’s a big thing, but I’m over it. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s on some shelf
in my house, all dusty and fingerprinted like a motherfucker,” he laughs.

Now, nearly three years after the success of White Pony comes the group’s fourth full-length effort,
simply titled Deftones. Debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts (it was #1 in Canada), the self-titled
disc has been one of the most awaited hard rock releases of the year. A dark, hard-hitting assault of
artistic perplexity, Deftones evolves well beyond the whisper-to-scream blueprint inked on past albums,
but it isn’t afraid to embrace the band’s fundamental appeal: a hauntingly gauzy yet intensely raw
soundscape of Moreno’s lyrical abstractions and chameleon-like vocals floating above a sea of
tempestuous rhythms, unrelenting guitar gnarls and thudding bass lines.

Like the eerily melodic first single “Minerva,” songs like “Hexagram” and “Bloody Cape” demonstrate a
decidedly tighter yet no-less-abrasive sound. “Lucky You” surfaces as the most obvious nod to gothic
80’ new wave while the closing “Moana” seduces with a haunting sparseness. Although Cheng says he
considers the record merely “another Deftones album that’s not really distinctive from the other
albums,” others might disagree. It is arguably the most lucid reflection of the band to date.

Slouched over his seat with strands of disheveled hair peeping from underneath his baseball cap,
Moreno says, “I think the album really represents us as a band and that’s why it’s called Deftones.
But other than that, a title never really jumped out at us. We felt [the title] represented all of
the songs, our band and the time we spent on it. We literally spent over a year making it, so…just
being together every single day, going into the studio and spending all day just playing together,
making parts, putting them together and making songs…it was all us.”

In the course of less than an hour, it becomes clear that though they are five very distinct
personalities, the Deftones have built a genuine camaraderie with one another. How else to explain
surviving the notoriously heated scuffles and rebounding from the dreaded brink of breakup? It is
an accomplishment that still amazes the soft-spoken Cheng. “That we still haven’t killed each other
after fifteen years is pretty big,” he says pensively. “And I think we’re all really happy. I mean,
there’s been a lot of ups and downs, but I don’t think that we have any regrets. I think we’re the
closest we’ve been in a long time and I’m glad we’ve been able to get through it all together.”

Cunningham agrees that the sometimes-volatile moments have been well worth the struggle. “This is
our business that we created and we know that we can’t always suck it dry. I think we’re just
learning that. We went backwards a lot, but it’s all part of learning. Our whole experience with
this band has always been a very slow but gradual climb over the last fifteen years. If I were to
sit around and bitch about anything, it would be bullshit because this is my dream, personally.
It’s a pretty beautiful thing to be able to do – to travel the world and be our own bosses.
I haven’t had a job, like a real job, in ten years. So to say anything negative would be totally
ungrateful. ”

With no opening band on this particular tour (which will have wrapped up by the time you read this),
the band has just about forty-five minutes before they have to put their shoes back on and get onstage.
Wondering if there’s any musician they’d be willing to stand in line for all day, the guys mention their
current favorites. “Right now I’m into Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown. That’s about it,” Cheng offers.
“I’ve been listening to… uh…man, every time this question comes up I cannot answer it,” replies
Cunningham. What about the new Justin Timberlake? (Going out on a limb.) “Ah, dude, I’ll rock that
shit!” he exclaims. “That album is Michael Jackson like a motherfucker, but it’s pretty damn good.
[Timberlake] actually came to one of our shows and we didn’t even know it. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be
at the show tonight. We would love to kick it with Justin! ”