Deftones’ Chino Moreno: “It’s Kind Of A Weird Thing To Say, But A Lot Of The Time I’d Just Rather Not Talk To People”
Last year, Chino Moreno and Deftones returned to write at ‘the spot’, their hometown studio base in Sacramento, for the first time in a decade. Here, when the space was nothing but an abandoned warehouse in an empty part of town, they installed a half-pipe for skateboarding and recorded their 1997 album, Around The Fur. A decade changes much, and Chino was quietly shocked to see the room exactly as it was 10 years before. Even his bandmate’s respective areas had been left untouched, including that of Chi Cheng, Deftones’ bass guitarist who died in 2013, the result of injuries sustained in a car crash five years earlier.
“He loved to make collages,” says Chino. “We still have them up. Everything was pretty much left as it was – and it’s cool, it keeps his presence there in the room with us at all times. You can’t go in without remembering. We used to have some heavy, intense, week-long games of Risk. Which is probably why it takes us so long to make records. But going back to the studio, it’s like a time capsule. It’s like, ‘Wow, I remember this…’”
When Deftones recorded their 2000 album White Pony, they brought Linkin Park out on the European phase of the tour cycle. It’s a time that Chino remembers fondly, although he didn’t realise quite how far back the link between the two bands went. Before their counterparts released their turn-of-the-century breakthrough record Hybrid Theory, Mike Shinoda led an early line-up of the band by the name Xero, who had one demo to their name. Their track Closing, released only on a compilation named Rapology, samples the Deftones song Root, their earliest point of connection.
“I didn’t know that,” says Chino. “And what’s crazy is that I didn’t know that one of our managers, Mark Wakefield, was in Xero as well. I didn’t know the history of that, but his nickname has since become ‘Linkin Mark’!”
While Deftones are currently easing their way towards new material and settling down following the success of another Dia De Los Deftones festival in San Diego, Chino embraced the reflective mood.
What was the first ever Deftones show like?
“We played a show at a neat, local place here in Sacramento, The Cattle Club. It was maybe a 250-capacity room, but we had seen many great shows there. I saw Smashing Pumpkins there, I saw Nirvana there. When bands used to come through Sacramento, that’s where they played. I think we had just enough songs to maybe play for a half hour. We wanted to play a show there, but obviously they weren’t going to book a band that they’d never heard. And we had no demo tape, nothing – it was all hype. So they said, ‘Okay, we’ll book you on a Thursday night, but you gotta buy the tickets from us and you can either sell them on or give them away.’ So that’s what we did. We bought, like, 200 tickets. The tickets were $1 each, so we had to spend $200, but then, we could sell them for $3. So we sold some of them to people at school – we were still in high school at the time – so we basically gave them away to our friends and the show was actually packed. I think people were more curious about what the hell we were going to do.”
Was it a good show?
“I remember the show being good, because we were just having fun. I don’t know if this exists on film – I doubt it does – but I can pretty much be sure that we didn’t sound good, or if we did, we didn’t know. Honestly, when we started the band we didn’t really have an idea of what we were trying to do. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, we want to make a band that’s like this or like that.’ We just pretty much made noise. That’s really not changed that much to this day.”
Did that same approach apply to the creative process as well?
“Well, these days, when we make a record we never go in saying, ‘We want to make this type of record.’ We just start making noise, and then the noise turns into songs, sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes it doesn’t work. It was kind of that same mentality back then. We got in a room, we made some noise, and we made these things that were kind of songs. I mean, it probably wasn’t formatted that well. None of us had any real songwriting background. I certainly never had and I didn’t have any singing background either. Besides Abe [Cunningham, drums], he was probably the most talented one in the band as far as like, where, he could actually play his instrument. He’d been playing since he was, like, three years old. So he was sort of the foundation, and Stephen [Carpenter, guitar] as well, was always very, and he still is, consistent. So we sounded tight, I guess, but our direction was undefined and we didn’t know what we were doing. But we kind of didn’t care. And I think that was maybe some of the charm, in the beginning. Maybe it still is some of the charm, that there’s not really a way to describe what it is that we do. It’s what happens when Stephen and Abe and Chino and, at that time, Chi, get together and make some noise.”
What were those first Deftones songs like?
“At the time I don’t think we played that much that lasted. We did have a tape at the time. We had a two-song demo that we recorded ourselves with Engine No. 9 and 7 Words – two of probably the biggest songs on [1995 debut album] Adrenaline, but in demo form. We had some really creepy artwork on the front; a picture we found of these two kids with bandanas over their faces in a field in the middle of nowhere. There was no information, just this weird picture and those two songs. [Producer] Ross Robinson got one of those tapes, and he played it to the guys in Korn. So then, I think it was Brian [‘Head’ Welch, guitar], called me up, saying, ‘Yo, we’ve got to play some shows together.’ Finally we did – we booked a show with them in Los Angeles at the Dragonfly. And that was the craziest thing ever, because we’d never heard them, and they’d never heard us.”
Speaking of other artists, have you ever avoided meeting someone that you admire to save yourself from being disappointed?
“I feel like I do that a lot, yeah. I mean, it’s kind of a weird thing to say, and I don’t know why, but a lot of the time I’d just rather not talk to people. It might just be me being nervous, I guess. Like, ‘What would transpire if it didn’t go well?’ or whatever. But certain people – obviously I grew up with Morrissey as somebody I admire, and I really have no desire to… well, I shouldn’t say that, because I’d love to have a conversation with him. But if he was in the vicinity, I could see myself not going in that room. And I don’t know why.”
Have you ever crossed paths with someone like PJ Harvey, for example?
“I have, and it was one of the most crazy things. We were playing Roskilde Festival in 1996, maybe. It was one of our first times ever in Europe. Adrenaline was out, and it was the only time we went over on that cycle – just that one show. At that time I was a huge PJ Harvey fan. That was my jam, all day, every day. I didn’t even know she was there, but Nick Cave was playing and I guess she was performing with him. I was walking out of catering and I looked up and she was walking right towards me. That’s probably one of the only times I’ve ever got weak in the knees. I felt a little faint, even. I actually said ‘Hi’ and asked to take a picture with her. When I look at that picture now it’s still funny, because I look so fucking nervous. My smile is the funniest shit ever. But then years after that in Australia we played the Big Day Out with PJ, so I got to see her a lot more then. It got a little less crazy, for me at least. I was in an elevator going down to the hotel lobby and we stopped at a floor and she got on. It was one of those quick things, just like, ‘Hi…’ and then I didn’t really have anything to say, so I just smiled. But to see someone whose voice you connect with – it’s a trip.”
Do you have advice for young artists who are working at home on their first batch of songs, on their laptop or in their bedroom?
“There wouldn’t be any technical advice. I think everybody has a way of figuring out what works for them, so I couldn’t tell anyone how to do what they do. It sounds kinda hokey, but I would say, ‘Enjoy your time doing it, have fun, and experiment as much as you can.’ I always feel like the best shit is when someone doesn’t have a distinct idea of what they’re trying to do, but it just kind of happens. I think people really find their own voice when they don’t have a preconceived idea of what they’re trying to create. One of the things I’ll do is go in with no lyrics, nothing. I’ll just hear the song and trust my very first instinct: whatever comes out, comes out. I’ll record that, and then I’ll walk away from it. A day or two later I’ll do the same thing again. The takes will be completely different, but there’ll be one or two things that I did exactly the same. The things that I did the same, that’s what really belongs. But the fact that there are things that are completely different? I love that, because it opens everything. It could be anything. It doesn’t need to be any one thing. So experiment, and have fun.”
Is there something that you used to ask for on your rider, that you no longer do?
“We used to get really extravagant, and ask for socks and underwear. Back then we looked at it like, ‘We get a rider and we can ask for anything? Shit, I need clean socks!’ Back then we were pretty poor as a band, but going on a tour and playing a show and being able to ask for things which really weren’t technically free? In our minds, they were. We were living in a van back then. A lot of spaces wouldn’t have showers, so you could at least put on your brand-new clean socks after the show.”
Deftones have recorded an incredible variety of covers over the years. What can you tell us about Say It Ain’t So by Weezer, or Sinatra by Helmet, for example?
“Weezer’s first record [1994’s ‘The Blue Album’] was such a big record for us. Although musically we were in completely different genres, I think that those songs are so good and they’re so fun to listen to. So that record was on all the time, in our dressing room or wherever. We just gradually started learning them, and maybe playing them at soundcheck for fun. At some point between our songs we started playing Say It Ain’t So live. We never actually recorded any Weezer covers, but I think we pretty much learned every song off that record and every now and then we would pop one of them into the middle of our show. People would trip out, because Weezer is hard to dislike – especially that first record. People would get excited to hear it, ‘Why are they playing this?’ It didn’t fit with what we were doing, but we enjoyed it. We were having fun. As far as recording things goes, we’ve really covered a lot of ground in terms of the different types of artists and things that we grew up listening to. Helmet was one of those things we did for fun. We were recording something else at the time, but we learned Sinatra and recorded it in a couple of hours, so we put it out as a B-side with [2003 single] Minerva. We never really even try to make a song our own, but we have that bar band mentality of having fun and goofing off. But at the same time you’re showing a little nod and respect to the music that you grew up listening to.”
In 30 years, has it become more important for you to protect your privacy and to maintain a healthy personal space for yourself?
“Yeah. As a band we’ve kind of always been that way. I say that for myself, personally, as well. I’m more comfortable that way. I always feel like less is more. I don’t like to talk about what I’m about to do. I’d rather just do it and then have people hear what it is. There’s certain things that make things more interesting if they’re not spoon-fed to you. So even artists that I’ve always admired, I don’t want to say there’s a mystique, but people like Trent Reznor, or Maynard [James Keenan] even, sometimes it’s like, I kind of don’t want to know what these dudes are up to. And I kind of like it like that.
I don’t want to know what Trent Reznor had for breakfast this morning. I’d much rather imagine what he’s doing. That in general is something that makes things more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to not know stuff.”
Which song or mood from Deftones’ past best represents the band’s future?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know, and it’s hard to say. Where we are with our writing process right now, it’s really difficult for me to put a single look on what we’re doing. It’s morphing every day that we get together and write. We’re definitely getting into experimental sort of modes, which is the funnest phase that we get into. One of the biggest records in our career is obviously [2000’s] White Pony, and it’s our most commercially successful record as well, but that was also one of our most experimental records, especially for the time when it came out. That record, making it was… what’s a good word to describe it? We felt really free. We basically made whatever we liked, whatever was happening at that moment. It didn’t really go along with what was going on around us, as far as our contemporaries and where other music was.”
Was that approach a reaction against nu-metal?
“Well, at that time, honestly, with bands like Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach and what was to be coined nu-metal or whatever, that was at its height. And we probably made our most un-nu-metal record. I don’t know why we did it. Like I said, we were into experimenting more than we were trying to do something that we felt we already did. That’s why it’s hard to answer the question about the future and what comes next. But if anything I would just say [I’m reminded of] White Pony, that record in general, because it was probably us at our most experimental.”
So, it feels somewhat similar now?
“We’re a little bit in that mode where we’re just trying completely different ways of doing things. And that’s what keeps it fun for us for the most part; not really knowing what’s going to become of this, or what type of record we’re making – just letting it kind of happen. It’s been good on that level. That’s the best way I can describe where we’re at, and where we’re going.”
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