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Deftones: ‘It took a tragedy for us to really reconnect’

The alternative metallers have made it through their ‘dark days’, with new album Gore expected to go top five. But could their singer’s electicism lead to more trouble ahead?

Deftones
Out of the wilderness: Deftones

“No, I don’t listen to those two records,” says Chino Moreno, of the albums – Deftones and Saturday Night Wrist – from the era in the first half of the last decade that his band, Deftones, hold within their internal folklore as “the dark days”.

“We almost never play them. There’s a song called Battle Axe off the self-titled record. A few years ago, we decided to relearn it for a tour. So I looked up the words online, and I was playing along, thinking: ‘Man, this is so depressing.’ It took me right back to a shitty part of my life, and I wasn’t ready to reflect on that. We haven’t played that song since.”

Many bands have been up and down the rock’n’roll escalator, but few have done so with the melodrama of Deftones, whose narrative of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat snatched, in turn, from victory seems like a particularly lurid episode of Empire, clad in board shorts rather than bling.

At the turn of the century, at the height of the nu-metal boom, Moreno and his band rented a house in the Hollywood Hills while they made their masterpiece, White Pony. The record, which they described as a “cocaine concept album”, shot them out of the nu-metal paddling pool they shared with the likes of POD and Papa Roach, and won them a selective but undying loyalty for its smart, velveteen rock.

“At that time, ’99, 2000, a lot of more aggressive rock bands were actually becoming sort of mainstream,” Moreno says. “But we didn’t want to be confined by some kind of a scene we were already being placed in.” Yet the reason the band were so nuanced in their understanding of the cocaine concept album – and so able to pull clear of their rivals – was that they had been dusting their credit cards with a lot of the stuff. With an inevitability that perhaps only the band themselves failed to notice, by 2003, the hubris that had driven White Pony had descended into introspective sludge on its self-titled follow-up. During promo for Saturday Night Wrist in 2006, interviewers would turn up on Moreno’s doorstep to find the lounge table laden with marijuana, his new poison, he explained, now that he’d kicked the speed habit that had come immediately after he’d finished with the coke habit.

Those interviewers would also have been greeted by a much bulkier Moreno than the 90s metal pin-up. Always thick-set, he’d ballooned in the dark days. Losing that weight has been a gradual process rather than a Hollywood juice diet matter of months, but right now Moreno – a neat, self-contained guy in a red lumberjack shirt – seems in as good a place as he’s ever been.

“I live in nature now,” he says in a soft low burr. “In the mountains, in a little town called Bend, Oregon. I spend a lot of time in dirty clubs. Then I come home and I’m in one of the most beautiful places in the world. And I think that bleeds into the record a lot. Deer sometimes wander across the yard in the morning when I’m sitting on my porch having a coffee.”

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Watch the video for Deftones’ Doomed User

Even before he shipped out of his old home in Burbank in Los Angeles, Moreno was a nature fan. He comes up with the concepts for the band’s artwork, and his designs have always been one of the most obvious ways in which Deftones stood apart. There was the white pony on the cover of White Pony. There was the owl fronting 2010’s Diamond Eyes. Now, their forthcoming eighth album, Gore, stars a flock of flamingos.

“They’re in flight,” Moreno says, enthusiastically. “You usually see them standing on one foot, but in flight is something I’ve always wanted to see. The colour palette of flamingos is very intriguing.”

“Clever metal” is a tag its makers tend to shy away from, but there’s something more rarified than the norm about the influences Moreno draws on. Lyrically, his greatest influence is the impressionism of the Cure’s Robert Smith. Musically, he says he always heads first towards the dance section of any record store. As many have observed, he often seems to be more keen on his side-projects – the darkwave electro of Crosses and post-rock of his Death Grips collaboration Team Sleep – than on his main band. On his Twitter account lately, he’s been offering up links to UK underground post-dubstep producer CYPHR. For the B-side of their 1995 single 7 Words, Deftones covered the SmithsPlease Please Please Let Me Get What I Want; other B-sides have featured songs by Sade, Cocteau Twins and Japan, among many others – and Moreno has talked up the vocal effects on Gore by comparing them to the slapback echo on Morrissey’s early solo stuff.

In short, while Kerrang! readers are the band’s meat and drink (the magazine recently hailed Deftones as “the band that changed rock”), they’ve also got a good claim to be every indie kid’s favourite metal band. “I know we have a lot of different types of fans,” says Moreno. “For people who are open to a lot of different types of music, maybe we fill that void for some of them.”

Growing up in Sacramento, the California state capital, Moreno was into Afrika Bambaataa and breakdancing. He introduced his childhood friend Stephen Carpenter –Deftones’ lead guitarist – to drummer Abe Cunningham. “And because I was the guy that introduced them, and being that I didn’t know how to play anything, they both decided I was the singer.”

Of course, in metal circles, there are still those who say he shouldn’t be the singer – because, they suggest, he can’t sing. His is an honest but technically imperfect voice, and he has a tendency to mumble words that has only served to enhance the mystery of his impressionistic lyrics. He can scream, but it’s his whisper that has always been Moreno’s strong suit: a soft, wounded burble that seems to better reflect the gentle, thoughtful, slightly anxious man sipping a cup of canteen instant coffee at Warner Bros HQ in west London.

After Moreno picked up the guitar on White Pony, the band’s muscial palette exploded into vivid colour, but tensions began to emerge between him and Carpenter.Deftones became the kind of band where one member goes into the studio, lays some stuff down, clocks out, then the next one adds their parts the next day. While they made the self-titled album and Saturday Night Wrist they were seldom in the same room.

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Watch the video for Prayers/Triangles.

The meltdown continued apace, until it got so much worse. In November 2008, a car driven by bassist Chi Cheng’s sister flipped three times after a collision with another vehicle. He was flung through the window, and spent the next four years in a coma. The band recruited Sergio Vega as a stand-in; Cheng died of a heart attack in April 2013, having started to make a partial recovery.

“Sadly, it took a tragedy like that for us to really reconnect,” Moreno says of the crash. “Maybe we took what we had with our friendships for granted.” The hatchets were quickly buried. They started turning up to the studio on the same days, and the results were obvious. 2010’s Diamond Eyes became the sequel that White Pony had always deserved. That was followed, in 2013, by the lush otherworldly pain of Koi No Yokan. Gore is the first full album they will have made since Cheng’s death. “It’s a very visual word,” Moreno says of the title. “You hear the word and you picture something in your head. Our music is that dichotomy between two things. It can be extreme either way.”

It’s certainly gory in parts: a bleak, sometimes brittle, often mournful ride where the spectre of someone lost can’t help but seem present. Acid Hologram has been reading from In Utero’s textbook on catatonic despair. Hearts/Wires opens with a touch of the Tangerine Dreams, before widening its dreamy hypnosis into infinite ache. Gore – the track Moreno says he likes least – revives some of their fat 90s guitar chops, while a fellow 90s musician, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, turns up to add his signature ranging style to epic album peak Phantom Bride.

“It’s never trying to reinvent ourselves,” Moreno says of the album. “It’s what we do when you put us in a room together. But I’ve never felt confined by that – I’ve always felt we could take that anywhere. Even with White Pony we didn’t talk about going in to make a record to separate ourselves from the nu-metal thing. It just happens.”

Right now, though, there are a few question marks on the horizon over their continued ability to get in the room together. After our interview, Carpenter complained to the press that Gore wasn’t the kind of album he’d have chosen to make. “I just really like metal,” he told Ultimate Guitar. “I would never leave the band that I started, but the band started leaving me. I can’t control that. I mean, I have a great time for the most part.”

Whatever the individual differences, they’re the opposites that combine to make the band what it is. The ability of Deftones to surprise, to wrong-foot their audience, lies in the strength of both of those perspectives.

“I like music that takes me somewhere,” Moreno says, his coffee barely touched, but our time almost at an end. “Say I wake up in the morning, and I’m in the car driving my daughter to school. As soon as she gets out the car, I put on Sway in the Morning on Shade 45. It’s like a total modern hip-hop station. Most of it’s awful, but it’s alive. It takes me somewhere from where I am. At night, usually, when I’m just full of anxiety, I’ll put something completely mellow on. Music has always been something that has transported me and given me some kind of head-change.”

From the depths of despair to mountain-biking in the hills of Oregon, his head has been all over the place through the years, but it’s still taking us somewhere.

Gore is out now on Warners
Taken from http://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/14/deftones-it-took-a-tragedy-for-us-to-really-reconnect?CMP=share_btn_tw

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