“This record embedded in our brains”: the endless power of Deftones’ ‘White Pony’

Deftones in 2000. Credit: James Minchin III

“Massive in pretension, slightly too long and gothic,” read the original NME 8/10 review of Deftones’ ambitious third album ‘White Pony’ back in 2000, “but when all the pieces fit, you can’t deny its unstoppable power.”

So powerful was the experimental ambition, pure musicality and onslaught of bangers on the Sacremento art-metallers’ opus that here we are celebrating it two decades later. As the band themselves would attest, the true promise of the album – which turns 20 today (June 20) – has only bloomed over time.

“I would describe the record as a slow-burner,” frontman Chino Moreno tells NME. “I remember when we were first putting it together – the songs were expansive and it all goes through a journey – but I don’t think that you can completely take that in when listening to it for the first time. The more you listen to it, the more you get out of it. It lends itself to having a longer shelf life.”

It certainly wasn’t what was expected at the time. Forming in 1988, the band bonded over a love of The Cure, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, alongside alternative pop, metal, trance, rap and hardcore punk as much as the emerging grunge scene that came to the fore throughout the early ‘90s.

Their melting pot of tastes made Deftones seem a welcome alternative when they arrived with the gloomy but brutal and quickfire post-hardcore of debut album ‘Adrenaline’ in 1995. The record drew comparisons to Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins, but was also sadly tagged with the lazy label of ‘nu-metal’. Lauren Mayberry, now singer of Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches, became a fan as a teenager. “It was ‘nu-metal’ but also it wasn’t at all,” she says. “There were soundscapes and stories and it just felt different from anything else we were listening to at the time. It was hardcore but it was post-rock, shoegaze, trip-hop, so many other things.”

‘Adrenaline’ sold modestly and word-of-mouth success kept them going through to 1997 follow-up ‘Around The Fur’, a record that further emphasised their and post-punk influences. The washed-out, weird single ‘Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away)’ became an MTV2 anthem and set them apart from the rest of the scene, but you’d still hear them mentioned in the same sentence as KoRn and other nu-metallers. By the time the turn of the century rolled around, rock music was in the clutches of berks like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, and rap-rock was co-opted as the party soundtrack to boozed-up frat boys.

Deftones knew this was their moment to make their mark and show the world who they really were. “People can recognise that ‘White Pony’ was just five guys hanging out, taking chances and believing in themselves,” says keyboardist Frank Delgado. “We were blazing our own trail, considering what was going on in the musical climate. I think it still sticks out for people.”

Drummer Abe Cunningham agrees: “We always existed in our own bubble. Up until this point, we had a tiny bit of success with the second record. We didn’t have much radio play, maybe a little bit of video stuff on MTV, but we just did what the fuck we wanted.”

Recalling the laid-back vibe and open approach when writing and recording ‘White Pony’, Moreno remembers it as “a wild time”. “I was 26-years-old when we recorded it,” he says. “We were young and full of life and the record mirrors that. We all lived together on houseboats in South Toledo on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Every day was an adventure. We were just having a blast and it felt really liberating to know we were taking a chance and living through it. When I hear that record now, it definitely takes me back to that time.”

He continues: “It’s funny how many people love that record now. I remember when a lot of fans first heard it and were like, ‘What is this?’ We just came off ‘Around The Fur’ which was a lot more aggressive in some ways and people were like, ‘What is going on here?’ I remember going into a chat room and had to get out because I was about to cry.”

‘White Pony’ certainly reflects that sense of adventure in sound. From the slick grooves meets woozy atmospherics of ‘Digital Bath’ to the pummelling rage of ‘Elite’, the glitchy tenderness and intimacy of ‘Teenager’ and anthemic primal scream therapy of ‘Knife Prty’, it’s an album bombastic in its dynamics and consistent in containing its own nightmarish little dream world.

“We were young and full of life; the record mirrors that” – Deftones’ Chino Moreno

Moreno had the cosmic horror movie lyrics to match the filmic sound. “New, cool meat / She pops the trunk, and she removes me,” he sings on ‘Feiticeira. On ‘Change (In the House Flies)’ he croons: “I took you home, set you on the glass, I pulled off your wings, then I laughed”. The spirit of the album is probably best represented by ‘Passenger’, a duet with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan that sees the pair howl over an operatic epic about a car ride about to spin out of control: “Mirrors sideways, Who cares what’s behind? / Just like always. Still your passenger.”

“We were recording in South Toledo, and [Keenan’s other band] A Perfect Circle were playing nearby,” recalls Moreno. “I remember because we got pulled over by the cops because I was speeding on the freeway on the way there. The next day, he came by the studio. We had just finished ‘Change’, and it wasn’t until we were near the end of the record that I still hadn’t had any ideas for ‘Passenger’. We just sat there and wrote it line-by-line. It was fun to collaborate with someone of his calibre. For me, as a singer, to trade lines with someone with a voice like his was super-special.”

For an indication of the album’s weirdness, look no further than the fact that Maynard plays bowls on it. “Next door to us was another tiny room where Foo Fighters were trying out new guitarists,” remembers drummer Abe Cunningham. “There was a line of like a hundred people trying out for Foo Fighters, and we’re next door when Maynard rolls up with these Tibetan glass bowls going ‘Woooo… woooo…’. It was great.”

The album was released to universal critical acclaim – but the bafflement of some fans – on June 20, 2000. Either way, the band became known as ‘the heavy metal Radiohead’. Maybe that was just because snobs didn’t consider hard rock to be all that ‘clever’, but here was a heavy band wearing long Dickies board shorts, with tube socks pulled up to their knees, who had created a complete mood-piece from start to finish.

Well, for one year at least. In 2001, the band’s record label Maverick re-released ‘White Pony’ with the single ‘Back To School’ lazily tacked onto the start. “Look back I sift through all the cliques – roaming’ the halls all year, making me sick,” spat Moreno on the band’s radio-friendly, rap-heavy anthem for high school losers.

The band protested and spoke out about the revised track list, but if you go on Spotify today, this is the version of the album you’ll find. Moreno later called ‘Back To School’ “a calculated song, that had been built up with only one aim in mind: It should be a single”. He also admitted “I liked the sequence [of the album] we had when we first turned it in. When this version came out, a little part inside all of us felt like, ‘Fuck! We just totally compromised,’ and I know that a lot of our fans felt bad about it too.”

Still, the track’s mass appeal of led many down the rabbit hole to discover the truth about ‘White Pony’ – such as Lauren Mayberry, then a young mosher finding herself.

CHVRCHES backstage at Reading 2019. Credit: Andy Ford/NME

“I remember being at someone’s house and seeing the video for ‘Back To School’ on TV,” she tells NME. “At the time, everyone I knew was listening to Blink-182, Green Day, Bouncing Souls or Britney Spears – but most of the nu-metal stuff that was around didn’t really appeal to me as it felt very forcibly macho. I don’t think I could articulate it in those terms at the time – more that it just felt inaccessible when I was trying to listen to it and trying to be ‘down’, and I couldn’t figure out why.”

As well their genre-defying approach, Mayberry also fell for Moreno’s twisted way with words. While Moreno describes them as “not personal” but “just a vibe”, his vivid poeticism certainly leaves a mark.

Says Mayberry: “I like that he really paints with his words and there is often a duality in what he’s saying or how he’s saying it. He can talk about love with imagery that is really grotesque, or say something very sweet in an environment that sounds really aggressive. I think the fly in the ointment is the thing that makes you think twice.

“Most nu-metal stuff didn’t appeal to me as it felt forcibly macho” – Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry

“Lyrically, there were songs about love and obsession, moments of real darkness and weirdness, religious images, and then a song like ‘Passenger’, which to me always felt like it was a sort of coming-of-age romance or friendship story. I can’t think of any other nu-metal band who were going that deep.”

With a band that screamed of otherness, Mayberry felt at home among their fandom – something that wasn’t that easy in rock at the time: “As a teenage girl coming-of-age in a moment where a lot of bands, shows and other fans were very clearly not open to your presence, it meant a lot to me, and it’s something I’ve thought about as I’ve gone through my career as well.”

Mayberry remains a hardcore Deftones fan to this day – a fact made all the sweeter when Moreno handpicked Chvrches to play with them at their festival Dia De Los Deftones last year. The decision made headlines when Hatebreed singer Jamey Jasta argued that a heavier band should have taken their place, completely missing the point that Deftones’ appeal goes far beyond the metal community.

That’s why an album like ‘White Pony’ resonates so strongly today. Would it be fair to say that it challenged what a metal band could be?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” replies Deftones Jason Butler, super-fan and frontman of Californian hardcore political punks Fever 333. “Whether people know it or not, whether the band know it or not, they changed the game. There are a few albums you can look at and say, ‘This changed my life’, but the game? Deftones’ ‘White Pony’ did that.”

He continues: “What they and [producer] Terry Date did, from Abe’s cathedral-sounding drums and the weird sound on Chino’s voice to the guitar, Terry’s soundscapes and the bass – everything about it was so different. If you were to isolate any of it, I don’t think people would have understood it the way that they did. That’s what makes something perennial.”

FEVER 333 perform live, 2019. CREDIT: Getty

From the heavy AF realm of Fever 333 and Deafheaven to the poppier likes of Chvrches, Muse, and Paramore, ‘White Pony’’s is as much about spirit as it is about sound.

“That album really showed me that you should feel free to eradicate and obliterate all the boundaries,” Butler says. “It doesn’t matter that you may have been influenced by or even sampled from other genres that typically don’t go together, if you can do that tastefully and genuinely, you should do that. You should take the risk.”

‘White Pony’ went platinum in 2002 and became beloved as one of the landmark albums of the 21st Century – of any genre. To draw on the old Radiohead comparison, it was a watershed moment like ‘OK Computer’ or ‘Kid A’.

And the band themselves will now be giving the record the celebration it deserves: later this year they’ll be reissuing ‘White Pony’ with the original tracklist. They’ll also fulfil their dream of releasing a remix album called ‘Black Stallion’, featuring their hero DJ Shadow. Bizarrely, the band approached the Californian producer about this before they’d even made the album.

“‘White Pony’ changed the game” – Fever 333’s Jason Butler

“We’d talk about the record before we’d done anything and say, ‘Our new record is going to be so good that we’re going to have DJ Shadow remix it’ and we’ll call it ‘Black Stallion’,” says drummer Abe Cunningham. “I was DJing and opening for him before me and Chino cornered him at The Cattle Club [in Sacremento]. “We were like, ‘We want you to remix our record!’ He looked at us like we were crazy and said, ‘Send it to me and I’ll listen’. We told him, ‘We haven’t actually written or recorded it yet…’ It was batshit crazy of us, but what’s more crazy is that now he is part of it.”

You certainly can’t deny the “unstoppable power”, as NME put it, of the record: “This record was just embedded in our brains before we put it down to tape,” says Cunningham.

“Going against the grain, doing something daring and actually being successful gave us the confidence to keep going through the years and try different things,” concludes Moreno. “When we started, we didn’t know what kind of band we were going to be. With this record, it helped us to go down that road to figure it out.”

That’s the message that ‘White Pony’ inspires: keep going, do what you want, ride on.

– Deftones’ ‘White Pony’ 20th anniversary reissue will be released later this year. The band will be hold a digital listening party for the album on Monday June 22

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