The secrets behind Deftones’ new album, Ohms: Inside the studio for the first time
Chino Moreno is used to it by now. Whenever Deftones release a new album, the same series of questions crop up. Sequestered in what looks like an audiophile’s idea of heaven in his Portland home – sat in a chair surrounded by records, cassettes, tangled cords, microphones, three wall-mounted guitars and a Cure poster – he guides Kerrang! through the usual interrogation.
‘Is it heavy?’ he will be asked.
“Do you mean, ‘Does it sound like Meshuggah?’” Chino will reply. “No, it’s not heavy like that.”
‘Is it fast?’ will follow. ‘Are there double bass pedals all over it?’
“No, but when have we ever sounded like that?” Chino will offer.
It goes on like this. The questions keep coming.
‘Is it angry?’ pings another enquiry.
“Some parts of it are angry,” Chino will nod. “But have we ever made records that are just angry from beginning to end? No, we’ve never done that.”
Chino and his bandmates – guitarist Stephen ‘Stef’ Carpenter, bassist Sergio Vega, turntablist/keyboardist Frank Delgado and drummer Abe Cunningham – will likely be fielding these familiar questions all over again in coming months, because Deftones’ ninth album is on its way. Yes, sometimes it sounds heavy. And fast. And angry… But this one? This one also has seagulls on it.
“It’s funny, because I’ve always wanted to put them in a song,” smiles Chino. “They’re sort of spooky. Don Henley’s Boys Of Summer has this one little section where you hear seagulls and it always made me feel creepy.”
The new Deftones song in question, Pompeji, was already done when Chino decided he wanted them in there – he eventually sourced a 12-minute recording of the predatory beachfront snack eaters, and cherry-picked some highlights. So it is that, at one point, the sound of sloshing waves and squawking seagulls can be heard rising out of a brooding soundscape.
“I like it because it changes the setting of the song,” he says. “It takes you somewhere.”
“We’ve had crickets before,” chuckles Abe Cunningham of the latest addition to the group’s expanding sonic menagerie, speaking from his house in Sacramento. “There are always teeny hidden beasts and insects stashed away.”
Nor are animal noises the only returning entity on Deftones’ ninth album. Re-enter: Terry Date – the producer behind their classic first four records 1995’s Adrenaline, Around The Fur (1997), White Pony (2000) and 2003’s self-titled album.
To that list you can now add another: Ohms. Google defines the title of Deftones’ new outing as “an electrical resistance between two points of a conductor” – but what does that word mean to Chino?
“It’s that balance and polarity of things,” he says. “I’ve always described our band as having that yin and yang. As people, the music we make, and the lyrics that I write, there’s always this juxtaposition and that’s the beauty of what we’ve created.”
About that beauty. Deftones’ drummer once told K! he pictured White Pony as “a beautiful horse running free” in his mind. We wonder what image Deftones’ latest album summons?
“Does it have to be an animal?” laughs Abe, a smile spreading across his face that seems as wide as his black cap’s brim. “This is a summer squash, maybe lemon-cucumber!” In case you haven’t guessed, he’s in extremely high spirits about Deftones being back in business. “We have a new colt,” he says, finally getting serious. “It’d be a colt. It’s just wild, man.”
Kerrang! can corroborate this. The album’s title track, and first single, is a gargantuan addition to Deftones’ library. Chino, always a soft-spoken, laidback interviewee, can’t hide his excitement when he remembers the first time it came into his life – via email.
“That was one of the first things written,” he reveals. “Stephen sent a demo of the whole song three or so years ago. I love opening up my email and seeing something from him because it really feels like he’s engaged – that engages me like crazy.”
Indeed, it boasts a riff – both ear-quaking yet somehow joyous-sounding – so big that it left the rest of the band in a quandary.
“Stephen’s guitar tone is so damn thick on that,” smiles Abe. “It’s hard to get the drum and everything else sounding huge when the fucking guitar’s eating up all of that prime real estate!”
And yet, even amid this brilliant storm of competing noises, listeners will still hear Chino Moreno loud and clear as he sings the opening line: ‘We’re surrounded by debris of the past.’
That last word is something Deftones’ frontman has been contending with a lot lately. Both on and off record…
This may come as a surprise, but here it is: Chino Moreno – one of the most revered wordsmiths in Kerrang!’s storied history – isn’t actually that big on writing lyrics.
“Anytime you’re writing down thoughts in a more poetic way with songs, instead of a journal, it’s like… I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but it’s not the easiest thing to do,” he says. “It’s my least favourite thing to do (laughs). Because it’s hard. A lot of times I don’t know how much I want to say; a lot of times I’ll retract. Sometimes I’ll be very blunt in the beginning and then replace it with more anonymity so I don’t feel that pressure of being judged.”
Listen to Chino discuss the importance of ambiguity to his song-writing
It is precisely this ability to camouflage himself so interestingly within Deftones songs – always visible, yet never within reach – that has conferred an air of mystery upon the frontman over the years. Interestingly, this is something experienced by his own bandmates. Few people know Chino like Abe Cunningham. They can drink beers, shoot the shit all day and talk about anything. But does Abe ever find out what the songs he has spent his life playing are actually about?
“Sometimes I’ll ask, ‘Hey, is that about so and so?’” grins Abe. “He’ll always go, ‘Maaaaybe, I dunno, is it?’ I always drop a word that I heard just to let him know that I know. He’ll go, ‘Oh, you heard that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, motherfucker, come on, I listen to you!’ But to answer your question, no.”
This is not to say that Abe doesn’t have his theories, however.
“Knowing him as well and as long as I have, and watching him live through everything that he’s lived through – the good and bad we’ve all gone through – I have an inside take without even having to ask,” Abe says. “He’s always wanting to share something that’s going on in life. If you write it down on paper, it’s out of you. If you’re lucky enough to be able to sing about it every night, even if it’s a shitty situation, you’re able to exorcise that demon.”
Abe’s inner take seems remarkably astute on their ninth offering. Deftones don’t do concept records – the closest they ever came was on 2012’s Koi No Yokan, when early conversations about cosmic cataclysm were distilled into the record’s cinematic centerpiece Tempest (“Stephen was really into the idea that planet Nibiru was coming back towards the Earth,” recalls Chino). And yet to dissect their new songs, it feels like a concept album with certain words reappearing in different tracks, creating a compelling bleeding through of meaning; a sense of being disembodied in a world of constant tension pervades. This is not by chance.
“I’ve definitely gone through a lot just dealing with myself,” Chino begins. “After all the years of doing what we’ve been doing and living the way I’ve lived, I had to do some introspective stuff. I did some therapy, which I’d never done.”
At first, the very notion rankled with him. Not because of any outdated mental health stigmas; it’s just Chino considered himself extremely fortunate to have an amazing network of people he could talk to.
“I always felt, like, ‘Why would I talk to somebody I don’t know about my personal feelings?’” he explains. “But I did end up going to see somebody, and it was a whole different experience when you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know you from a band. You start talking about yourself from your childhood on, and start making sense of why and how you became the way you are.”
The sessions were occasionally intense. Chino would head there in the mornings and, across weeks and weeks, retrace his life story. It was occasionally draining, but the fatigue was worthwhile in order to get a glimpse into the mechanics of his own personality.
“I realised why I made the decisions I’ve made in my life, good or bad. It’s cool to figure that stuff out. It’s scary, too, but it’s definitely healthy. Some of the themes that reappear in the record are just about being able to recognise the choices that you made in life and figure out how to change certain things you might not like about yourself.”
All of this begs the obvious question: what was it he didn’t like?
“I think a lot of people deal with this, but at some point if you’re unhappy, or you’re sad, lonely or angry… I, er…” Chino trails off, issuing a quick cough to clear his throat. “I had times where out of nowhere I’d be mad. As you can tell from some of the songs that I’ve written over my time, my emotions have always kind of been all over the place (laughs). A lot of times I’m not able to hold my composure and I’ll be a dick to my closest friends or family sometimes. And I’m not mad at them, I’m probably mad at myself when I know I can do better. I don’t want to be too specific. It’s just about how, if you’ve made a decision and it didn’t make you feel good, then how do you change that? You hold yourself accountable. You need to look at yourself. A lot of people need to do that, and it’s not the easiest thing to do. But when you do, you learn a little bit more, and then you can start making little adjustments, maybe you wake up a little bit happier the next day, or just make better decisions…”
So is Ohms about the rebirth of Chino Moreno?
“I won’t say it’s that literal,” he offers. “I don’t feel like I’m this completely different person. I still feel pretty much myself. But when I listen to it now, I do hear some of these things – a sort of metamorphosis.”
Some things are different about Deftones in 2020, then. Some things, however, never change…
I the footage, Terry Date – the producer extraordinaire who’s handled everyone from Pantera to Slayer in the studio – is so utterly defeated he looks like he’s about to vaporise into a mist of pure disappointment.
“If we can get a couple of takes together… then you guys can eat seeds and play dominos for an hour,” he says. “But we need to get some shit down.”
There, looking back at him, is Chino Moreno (eating seeds, grinning), Stef Carpenter (playing dominos, grinning) and Frank Delgado (reading a magazine, grinning). This grainy footage of Deftones in the recording sessions for their self-titled record is 18 years old now (see YouTube). But, like we said, some things never change.
“We’ve always made Terry quit,” chuckles Abe. “It’s kind of our thing. We make him quit every record. First record? He quit. Second record and White Pony? He quit. Self-titled? He quit. And this one? He almost quit! He’s like a dad… And you don’t want to piss dad off. We can make his glasses fog up so quick. He bites his lip, his glasses get steamy, and we know we’re at that point! There’s always that goal of, ‘Let’s make ol’ TD quit!’ A lot of times he would just quit to get us on our toes.”
If it’s true that no producer has loyally suffered more at the hands of what Abe jokes is Deftones’ ability to “excel at lagging” than Terry Date, it’s also true that no producer has harnessed the beauty and fury of Deftones’ music like him. Their latest outing is a testament to this.
Despite Abe’s jokes, Deftones clearly put the work in: a band hyper-focused on delivering an album to fall in love with, not just one epic lead single. Recorded at LA’s Henson and Seattle’s Trainwreck Studios, it was fuelled, Abe says, with the usual stimulants of “coffee, juice, good beer, laughter, a little piss’n’vinegar, but a lot less tequila”. Together with Date – who is constantly praised by Abe and Chino throughout the conversation – they worked on 12 tracks, with 10 making the final cut.
“A lot of bands say, ‘We wrote 6,000 songs for this record and chiseled it down for you, the fan!’” jabs Abe, playfully. “You didn’t write 6,000 fucking songs, man!”
The ones they did, they paid forensic attention to. The opening track, Genesis, which begins with a gorgeous synth passage from Frank, had a complete overhaul. The screamed vocals you will hear were first demoed at Chino’s house over Christmas when he decided he didn’t like his initial approach on the song as it had already been recorded. Picture this: Chino – a preternaturally gifted vocalist – demoing his new take by whispering his screams into the mic so as not to disturb the people in his home. Stunning moments mount up: Radiant City starts with a bassline so rapid Sergio Vega’s left hand probably has no fingerprints left.
Hear Chino discuss the difficulties of home-working on the new album
Yet the input of one Deftones member, in particular, is likely to attract the most scrutiny this time around. Their last album, 2016’s Gore, was released under a cloud of controversy when Stef told UltimateGuitar.com: “I think my proudest thing about my guitar playing on this record is just playing on the record, because I didn’t want to play on the record to begin with.”
K! drilled into this back in 2016, Stef being quick to point that he did like the record, it was just Hearts/Wires that he found hard to get into.
“I went eight records before I had any kind of issue,” he said. “But I’ve already lived through two records in the past where somebody else didn’t enjoy them at all. For me to finally hit a wall, I think I lasted pretty good because I’ve seen other people already buckle.”
When K! asked if Deftones can operate with every member feeling fulfilled, the answer in 2016 was a resounding yes. This remains true. But that’s not to say they didn’t learn things from Gore.
“When you’ve made a lot of records with the same people, everybody has to be engaged,” reflects Chino. “We’ve learned the hard way. A perfect example would be Gore, when Stef basically admitted, like, ‘I didn’t have much to do with this record.’ And that was not because we didn’t want him – my favourite ideas of Deftones songs are ones that he spearheads!”
Chino proceeds to paint a picture of the Gore sessions. Stef would always be the first to be in the studio – he would tinker around before eventually drifting away into a corner, leaving the others to start jamming. They worked up songs, Stef jumped on later.
“He was involved in Gore, let’s not get it wrong,” says Chino. “Phantom Bride? Aside from the lyrics and drums, he wrote that all by himself. He did have something to do with the record, he just wasn’t fully engaged, and it wasn’t because we were like, ‘Our songs are better.’ It was nothing like that. He was going through something, and after the record was done he talked to me a little bit about it, like, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t as available as I should have been.’ I was like, ‘Dude, you’re my brother, I totally understand.’ When the record came out, I think people felt that Stef wasn’t as big a part of it and that it may have suffered in certain areas because of that, so one of the most important things is that everybody is engaged and everybody is excited.”
And is that the case this time?
“Most definitely,” says Chino, unequivocally. If a gauge of Stef’s engagement was needed, consider this: the first version of the lead single he emailed to Chino was 12-minutes long. “Stephen has a thing where he’ll play a riff and he’ll just grind it into you!” laughs Chino. Abe, meanwhile, is so engaged he’s already thinking about the next Deftones record.
“I’m a little boy,” he enthuses. “I’m fucking excited as hell to be able to have another go at it, that we’re able to still make another record.”
His default setting when it comes to his band is one of permanent gratitude, and it’s not hard to fathom why. While this is officially Deftones’ ninth record, it is actually the 10th they have worked on. The last time they were in the studio together with Terry was while making the still-unreleased and incomplete Eros album – the record abandoned when their much-missed bassist Chi Cheng suffered the horrifying car crash that placed him in the coma that would ultimately claim his life in 2013. K! wonders if there was a poignancy attached to being back in the room with Terry Date, minus their old friend…
“There always is,” admits Abe, solemnly. “He’s a source of inspiration who is thought about daily. He’s always around.”
There have been other reasons to reflect of late. In 2020, Deftones – always a nostalgia-allergic band – finally looked back. As they celebrated the 10th and 20th anniversaries of Diamond Eyes and White Pony respectively, they were deeply humbled by the outpouring of love. And yet… they remain committed to keeping their egos in check.
“You can’t always believe the hype,” says Abe. “I don’t mean to take away from people, because White Pony is a very important record to us, so is Diamond Eyes. It’s great to have people dig it, but be humble. Does that make sense?”
Before K! can muster a reply, Abe cuts back in with perfect comic timing.
“Don’t smell your own farts,” he winks.
The thing that matters most – even more than the music – is intact. It’s the bond between the people that make it.
“At this point in the game, of course we take it all seriously,” offers Abe. “And I know that this sounds silly and childish, but with us it’s just all about the hang, man. We just talk sooooo much shit all day long.”
“We don’t need to make a record just for the sake of making a record,” agrees Chino. “We make them because this is what we like to do. We like to hang out. We like to make noise. And we like to make some songs out of that noise.”
As it always was before, so it ever shall be: the noise coming your way is glorious.
Deftones’ Ohms is out now via Warner Music – get your copy here.
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