Deftones: “Even in our worst moments, we persevere”

As the Sacramento art-metallers return with yet another masterpiece in new album ‘Ohms’, frontman Chino Moreno takes stock and tells Andrew Trendell about therapy, friendship and their dramatic journey so far – just don’t call it a rebirth

“We’re surrounded by debris of the past,” croons Deftones frontman Chino Moreno on the title track from the Sacramento art-metallers’ new opus ‘Ohms’. It’s a fittingly post-apocalyptic image for these dumpster fire times and our need to sever ties with broken ways of being if we’re going to get out of this alive. For Moreno at least, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. A resolve and optimism rises from the gloom as the chorus assures us, “Time won’t change this promise we made – it’s how we’ll stay”.

“That’s not directly about one thing,” Moreno tells NME when quizzed about the lyrics. “It could be about an experience or a relationship, but honestly in my mind I was thinking about the environment and the Earth. The chorus is saying that we’re going to remain here together and nothing’s going to change that.”

Hope, solidarity and taking stock are very much the order of the day as the singer calls us while he’s out on a long walk – a habit he’s developed for when he needs to talk through the big stuff and “get the endorphins going in his head”. It’s less than a couple of months since we last spoke to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their game-changing third album ‘White Pony’ and though Deftones aren’t usually ones for looking back, a record as seismic as that demanded it. Plus, we imagine they probably felt a little more comfortable about the whole affair knowing that they had another masterpiece about to drop in ninth album ‘Ohms’.

Here comes the science bit: ohms are the unit of measurement for electrical resistance between two points. That push and pull and the space between is what this record is all about – Deftones’ dichotomy of beauty and brutality, with a current running between sounds, moods, genres, vitriol and vulnerability. It’s about knowing your place in a world of opposing forces. “That yin and yang of what we’ve always done makes us who we are,” says Moreno. “We’ve never just been a metal band, we’ve never just been an alternative band, we’ve always just been us. We feel comfortable in never having to choose.”

“We’ve never just been a metal band, we’ve never just been an alternative band, we’ve always just been us”

Straight off the bat on battlecry opening track ‘Genesis’, Moreno plants his flag firmly in the ground. “I reject both sides of what I’m being told,” he squawks. “I’ve seen right through, now I watch how wild it gets – I finally achieve balance”. When there’s more chance of decent debate by screaming into a toilet than logging onto Twitter or Facebook, it’s a pretty relatable mantra. “That’s a strong statement in these political times when everyone is barking at each other: ‘I’m right’, ‘No, I’m right’, ‘No, I’m right’, ‘No, I’m right’,” says Moreno. “My response is that I don’t trust anybody.”

“I just said it in that song and thought about changing it because we’ve never been a political band. To me, that just doesn’t match with music. Music’s always been more of an escape from what’s going on and all that we’re being bombarded with. To leave it in there was scary, but I’m happy with it.”

It’s this assurance that drives ‘Ohms’ over the finish line to become a total triumph. Consistency and a high bar are part and parcel with Deftones. Formed in their teens in 1988 and marrying a love of metal with alt-pop, punk, rap and new wave, Deftones’ misfit alchemy was unleashed on the world with debut ‘Adrenaline’ in 1995 before the post-punk-meets-hardcore excellence of ‘Around The Fur’ in 1997. They were weird enough to seem like outliers, but lazily labelled as nu-metal. At the turn of the century – when the scene became all frat boys and red caps – they truly set themselves apart with 2000’s ‘White Pony’ – an epic, histrionic adventure in sound and emotion that earned them the tag “the heavy metal Radiohead”. In truth, they’d found the purest version of themselves.

Most bands are lucky to have that one record that becomes canon, and then spend the rest of their career dining out on its legacy. ‘White Pony’ could have been that trap for Deftones. The follow-up of 2003’s self-titled was valiant and strong, but by then drugs, partying, in-fighting and a bunch of other rock ‘n’ roll cliches were starting to take hold. The ambitious space-rock of 2006’s ‘Saturday Night Wrist’ proved a hit with fans and critics, but the band later admitted it was their worst album, plagued by a lack of direction and Moreno’s habits and doubts turning him into an “unconfident version of himself”. A reset was needed, but it was born out of tragedy.

In 2008, the band hooked up again with Terry Date (producer of their first four albums) for what would have been their fifth album, ‘Eros’. Then, while driving back from his older brother’s memorial service, bassist Chi Cheng was involved in a car crash that left him in a coma. The album was shelved as the band rallied round to support their old friend. Cheng was replaced by Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega (who remains a full-time member today) and the band started from scratch on 2010’s ‘Diamond Eyes’ with producer Rick Raskulinecz. Cheng remained semi-comatose until he died from cardiac arrest in 2013.

Deftones in 2000. Credit: James Minchin III
Deftones in the year 2000. Credit: James Minchin III

With the immaculate ‘Diamond Eyes’, the band finally escaped the shadow of ‘White Pony’. This purple patch continued with the cosmic beauty and groove of 2013’s follow-up ‘Koi No Yokan’ and 2016’s atmospheric ‘Gore’. Thanks to a little help from their old pal Terry Date, working as producer for the first time since ‘Eros’, ‘Ohms’ is certainly up there too.

“Some of our best records are the ones that we’ve done together, so I’d say that there was always a want to work together again,” says Moreno. “‘Eros’ was never finished or released due to Chi’s car accident. It was just put away. We needed a change of scenery and a change of everything. I think it really worked for what we needed to do mentally on ‘Diamond Eyes’.”

He continues: “I was always talking to Terry like once a week and he’s a constant part of our lives. It felt like a homecoming and it was a lot of fun.”

“I don’t want it to be a soundbite that ‘Chino goes to therapy and expels his demons on this record’”

Was it not a headfuck to be back at work with Terry having not finished ‘Eros’? Did it feel like there was some unfinished business to tend to?

“Not necessarily,” replies Moreno. “We talked a little about the ‘Eros’ stuff. Once everything shut down, the hard drives were put away. My memory of it is that we were maybe a little over halfway done. There was still a lot of work to do on it. It was still very fragmented. The question that we’re always asked is, ‘Are you ever going to put that record out?’ Honestly, it would be like making a whole other record – except I would be trying to write lyrics to songs that are over 10 years old.”

One track from the album, ‘Smile’, was released in 2014 to mark the year anniversary of Cheng’s death before the band gave it a live debut last year. Beyond that, Moreno finds it “hard to consider” re-occupying his headspace from before Chi’s passing to finish the tracks. “It takes you back to then and it’s a trip,” he says. “To do that with every song and then write from that place, it’s emotional. There are a lot of things tied to that album.”

Moreno adds: “It would be interesting to [finish] at some point, and I’ve never said that we won’t. There are times when I think that it would be an experiment that I can possibly learn from.”

With a blank page, Moreno enjoyed the freedom and comfort to “be open, truly himself and never self-conscious” when it came to pushing the new songs on ‘Ohms’ to the Nth degree. It allowed the band as a whole to be “firing on all pistons” and avoiding the mistakes they made on ‘Gore’. Ahead of that album’s release, guitarist Stef Carpenter told the press he “didn’t want to play on the record to begin with” and that the sound “wasn’t what he was expecting or wanting at first”. Rolling Stone famously described the creative tension of vying for melody over metal as Moreno “playing Morrissey to the guitarist’s [extreme metal band] Meshuggah”.

Now, the frontman tells us that the chemistry is back in check, with the motley crew taken “back to that time of being a kid in the clubhouse, just jamming together and making some noise”. He’s also keen to point out that reports of Carpenter’s previous dissidence have been greatly exaggerated.

“Stef’s physically there every day, and he’s probably the first person to show up at the studio,” says Moreno. “On ‘Gore’, he was just sat in the corner and wouldn’t really join in to the process as much. Eventually he did, and he had a part. He played on every song and a few of them were ideas that he spearheaded, but just the balance wasn’t as much as we all would have wanted. When he admitted it, the press just ran with it – claiming that he wanted nothing to do with it, although he obviously did.”

“When we came to make ‘Ohms’, that was obviously heavy on our minds. We said, ‘If we’re going to make this record, then everybody has to be fully engaged. Until we are all on the same page, then there’s no reason for us to be doing it’.”

So this time were they more Morrissey and Marr than Morrissey vs Meshuggah?

“No!” laughs Moreno. “I think that’s a false narrative as well. I like Meshuggah, and I like Morrissey too. So does Stef – he’s probably just a big a Depeche Mode fan as me. It’s not that divided. People always point out to me that he’s the metal dude and I’m the melodic guy. It’s not that black and white. Whenever we get into disagreements, it’s usually just me trying to find the song. When he plays a riff, he’ll go into outer space and just keep playing and playing it. I have a habit of editing them and formatting them to make more sense to my vocals. I know that drives him crazy. In terms of the style of music, we never argue. If it’s good, it’s good. We don’t disagree on that.”

Harmony flows through ‘Ohms’ as worlds collide. Keyboardist Frank Delgado shines on the sci-fi, synth-y drone rock of ‘The Spell Of Mathematics’ and the heavenly but heavy shoegaze of ‘Headless’, while still feeling entirely in the same wheelhouse as Carpenter’s ace shredding on ‘Urantia’ and ‘Radiant City’. Not only is the record a Trojan horse for arena-ready bangers (see ‘Ceremony’, ‘Error’ and ‘Pompeji’) but also for some of Moreno’s more personal lyrics.

“I didn’t reinvent myself, I just got a little more comfortable”

Channeling his heroes Morrissey and The Cure‘s Robert Smith, Moreno has always traded in vivid words that work more towards a dreamy mood rather than tell a story, which made him stand as his peers turned self-pity into big business in the ‘90s. “A lot of music back then, particularly coming out of the grunge era, was all like, ‘Life sucks, my childhood was this or that’, and complaining was just really popular in music at that moment.” recalls Moreno. “I wanted to write about something that you could just expand on, imagine and paint pictures. It really freed me up to not have any agenda and just literally be inspired by the sounds that the band were making.”

While still veiled in fantasy and metaphor, the lyrics of ‘Ohms’ seem to show Moreno trying to summon a reckoning of sorts. “So I’m leaving you tonight, it’s not fun here any more – I’ll be joining the parade, I’m the ghost who came before,” he mourns on ‘Ceremony’. “Jesus Christ, you gave your life, but we die in vain,” he sings as things take a biblical twist on ‘Pompeji. “We drink from the fountain of intent, and we choke on the water then repent”. Heavy! Hope returns on ‘The Spell Of Mathematics’ as Moreno offers: “I believe your love has placed a spell on me, I believe your love creates a space where we can breathe.

Of the shift in his process, Moreno likens it to the writing of their 2003 self-titled album. “I felt like I had a little more perspective than I had on other records,” he said. “The self-titled record was a really dark time. I was out of my mind on all kinds of substances. ‘Ohms’ isn’t anywhere near as dark and is quite optimistic, but there are some deeper themes. It’s just a little more introspective.”

He goes on: “It’s always scary when you’re writing from that perspective. I skirted that issue for so long. I’ve always been really reserved in just being completely transparent with my feelings. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just the way I’ve always been. I realised I was just making shit up and not singing anything about myself or my feelings, and it worked. I try to find ways where I add a little anonymity in there to make it a little more interesting.”

Deftones return with ‘Ohms’. Credit: Tamar Levine

This comes after a long period of self-analysis for Moreno, having spent a lot of time in the run-up to ‘Ohms’ “dealing with himself” in therapy. He is an advocate that all adult humans should be able to access to therapy because being an adult human is pretty fucking hard. Talking about this stuff should be normalised, and he argues that its impact on ‘Ohms’ shouldn’t be made out to be overly profound.

“I don’t want it to be a soundbite that ‘Chino goes to therapy and expels his demons on this record’. It shouldn’t be a big deal,” he shrugs. “I would recommend everyone to go and do it, whether you’ve got anything going on or not. It’s just healthy. You go to the doctor to get your blood pressure and heart checked, why wouldn’t you do that for your head?”

Praising the benefits of his time spent retracing his life and questioning how he thinks, Moreno sagely concludes: “You’re stuck with yourself for the rest of your life so why wouldn’t you want to learn why you make certain decisions? Hopefully you can adjust from knowing. It’s not even about striving to be a perfect person. I don’t plan on being holier than thou at any point of my life, but I do think we should just acknowledge things and figure shit out. It’s part of growing older.”

“I’ve got a lot of life left, but I’ve had great and not so great times. I’m where I am today because of all of that, so it’s good to figure this stuff out with someone who doesn’t know you or know you from a band – but is just a stranger who’s a little smarter than you!”

“I realised I was just making shit up and not singing anything about myself or my feelings, and it worked”

Deftones have always been a band who thrive on risk. We put it to Moreno that the most daring thing he’s done here is put himself out there.

“A little bit,” he shrugs, not wanting to fall into another ‘false narrative’. “I didn’t reinvent myself, I just got a little more comfortable. It’s still uncomfortable, I’m just still trying to figure stuff out while making a really good song. It’s not all about me. We’re a collective of things and I’m just one part of it. It’s a piece of art that five of us are sharing.”

With closeness and clarity, Deftones are not a band reborn, but rewired and ready for another round. They’ve found balance with their history, each other and the world, rooted by a restless compulsion to both stay true to themselves and also outdo themselves. That’s why they’re still such a vital force and their next move could always turn out to be their best. Moreno sums it up in one key lyric on Ohm’s closing title track: “This is our time – we devour the days ahead”.

“I think that every record has a special place in our past, and hopefully our future,” he tells us. “Even in our worst moments, we persevere in making music together as the same people we were growing up as kids. We’re just lucky that we still want to and we still can.”

‘Ohms’ by Deftones is out September 25 


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