The Deftones Have (Almost) Found Balance

“Our music doesn’t have to be any one thing ever,” says Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno. “And it shouldn’t, I don’t think.” Photo: Tamar Levine

Ohms, the upcoming ninth album from Sacramento alternative-metal veterans the Deftones, opens with some timely words, as vocalist Chino Moreno cuts into a wall of guitar and synth noise with a piercing shriek: “I reject both sides of what I’m being told!”

He spends the rest of the song wishing we could all just stop pecking at one another, that we could start all over again. Moreno’s a rock star, not a politician, but the divisive climate of the year is hard to shake. We don’t agree anymore. We can’t congregate in the spaces where we used to meet to fraternize and blow off steam. Between the pandemic and the coming election, it’s hard to sit back and decompress.

The Deftones’ summer tour was sidelined on the day the band was due to depart for a string of dates that would have carried it through Europe and the States (along with the French environmental prog-metal outfit Gojira and the ascendant pop star and YouTube sensation Poppy). Moreno hasn’t been in the same room as his bandmates in several months; work on Ohms wrapped in seclusion with producer Terry Date, who assisted with the band’s first four albums — an inimitable string of metal and hard-rock highlights that includes the 1995 nu-metal gem Adrenaline and the 2000 opus White Pony, on which shoegaze, synth pop, and progressive rock dissolve into an enticing soufflé. I spoke to Moreno over the phone in August, when Ohms’ lead single and title track landed. We talked about the process of creating the new album (out this Friday), Moreno’s frustrations about how 2016’s (critically acclaimed) Gore turned out, his joy in putting his 15-year-old daughter onto the classics, and the band’s upcoming White Pony remix album, Black Stallion.

It’s been a busy year for Deftones fans. May was the tenth anniversary of Diamond Eyes; in August, it was White Pony turning 20 and the announcement of the new album, Ohms; then Adrenaline turns 25 in October. Starting this band, did you ever imagine it would be a 30-year journey?
Hell, no. From the beginning, from the first days of us making music, I’ve always taken it day by day and been happy that we were able to make another record, then make another record anytime we get the opportunity to. Especially after the first couple records, I was like, “Wow. We can make another one? Okay, cool.” But yeah, no way could I expect that this many years later, we’d still be making records. But, lucky enough, we have, and we still seem to enjoy it.

Your bandmates all have different specialties in metal, hardcore, and hip-hop. You have a turntablist-programmer in Frank Delgado, and you have Sergio Vega, a bassist who played in the punk band Quicksand. Talk about blending five unique artistic visions into one.
I think the only sort of preconceived notion when we’re going in to make a record is to see if we can get each one of us individually and collectively inspired. We’ve found, after all these years, that those are the moments that really count. We get together, and someone makes some noise and then the person next to them reacts to that noise and makes some more noise and then after a minute, all that noise sort of turns into a song that didn’t exist an hour before. That’s a good feeling. It’s best when it happens organically like that. It doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes we get together and we talk shit for hours and not come up with anything. Or we do, but nothing sticks. And we don’t write many songs.

That’s another thing. We don’t get together to make a record and write 30 songs, then whittle it down into ten songs. We literally write ten songs. We start an idea, and if any one of us loses steam within the writing of it, it’s kind of a telltale that “Okay, let’s start over.” That’s how we work.

Your band adds depth and unusual textures to heavy music. Is that something you work toward, or is that just a mix of very different tastes bleeding through?
I think it’s everybody’s tastes bleeding through. [There’s] this false narrative that [guitarist] Stephen [Carpenter] is the metal guy and then he pulls us toward that. We all love heavy music. I can’t say I’m just a huge heavy-metal fan. I like shit that’s good. I like any kind of music. I don’t care what genre it is as long as there’s good songs. We’re open-minded, I guess. Our music doesn’t have to be any one thing ever. And it shouldn’t, I don’t think. That works for some people. If you want to listen to Cannibal Corpse, you listen to Cannibal Corpse. Get your fix. I think we all listen to so much different music that we’d be walling ourselves in, in a way, if we just decided one day that we had to just fit into one sort of niche.

The new album reunites you with Terry Date, who produced your first four albums. What does he bring to the table that other producers don’t?
He’s an awesome person that we have a strong, long history with. For me, personally, he’s very patient, but he also allows me the space to try different shit. Maybe if you’re working with someone you don’t have that comfortable feeling with, it’s like you get into the studio, and it’s go time and you have to commit and do something, and that’s the way it is. With Terry, I can come in and work my way through something. I can go down a crazy path trying something that maybe shouldn’t work, and probably might not work, and he’ll let me go down that path until I stop and say, “Okay, now I’m going to look at this from a whole other thing.” He makes a very comfortable working environment for me to do that, allowing me the due diligence to fail or not. I like that. At this point in our career, we shouldn’t be in a rush to put out music for the sake of putting out music. We should go through different things, go down different roads, and then come to a conclusion that suits us the best. He’s very much there to allow you to do that.

In a recent interview, [drummer] Abe Cunningham said the band took more time to make this album than the last one. Did this take off some of the pressure that seemed to be there last time?
With the last album, we had a deadline, and we don’t all live in the same city. When we get together to work, we literally have to fly into a certain city. We recorded [Gore] in Los Angeles, and I’d moved out of there maybe seven years ago or so. When I go back, I have to live in a hotel room and basically clock in to the studio from noon to six, which is usually the hours we would work. It was super-structured, which I didn’t mind, but at the end of the day, it was like, I’m away from home. I’m not sleeping in my own bed. I can’t cook my own food. I’m living like I’m on tour. I’m in the studio every day. We gotta get this done. But this is not my element. I’m away from home. I think that feeling of just wanting to just finish something in a timely manner is why that record turned out in that way, where it was like maybe we weren’t there yet. Maybe we hadn’t actually explored and allowed what would happen naturally to happen. It was like, “We have to finish this. We have enough songs. They’re done. Let’s go.” I think we learned from that process. Luckily, we’re at a point in our career where we can take our time, especially these days, where we’re all in a holding pattern. We were able to finish the songs [this time] and explore all the avenues.

How far into this year were you still working on the album? Did social distancing throw a wrench into things?
I finished most all of the vocals right before the holiday, toward the end of [last] year. When this year started, I had to go back to Terry’s house. He lives in Seattle, and I live in Portland so it’s about a three-hour drive to his house. I would just drive up to his house, and it was just me and him in the studio. He doesn’t go anywhere; I don’t go anywhere. So I felt pretty safe with just me and him. Other than that, I haven’t even seen my other bandmates in almost half a year now. It’s kind of crazy.

It’s an unusual circumstance. It must be extra frustrating to be in a band that had a whole tour planned for the summer.
Yeah, it sucks. But I’m trying to stay optimistic, and I think at some point we’ll be able to go out and do what we do. Right before all this stuff started, we had a really good rehearsal where we played through a bunch of our old songs that we hadn’t played in years, and it was really awesome. We were set to leave to go on tour, starting in Australia, which was in March. Literally the day before we left for tour, everything got shut down. We were well rehearsed and ready to go, and it was just like, boom! Everything stopped.

In “Genesis,” the opening track of the new album, you say, “I finally achieve balance.” I know you’re not necessarily a literalist when it comes to lyrics, and they can be up for interpretation. But I’m curious if it was about how you’ve been embracing therapy lately.
That [lyric] was a pretty literal statement. I’ll be completely honest: I haven’t actually achieved complete balance. I have moments where I feel that. Some days I’m closer to it than others. Some days I’m miles away from it.

No matter who you are or what you do, I think most people deal with that dichotomy in life, having days of feeling like you’re your better self than others. I’m a work-in-progress. But yes, the song is acknowledging that. But it’s also about being frustrated with the times and how everybody, not to be so literal, because it’s not political or whatever — but it’s like everybody’s right. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody’s barking at each other through the fence, and it drives me fucking mad. I don’t want to have to pick a side. I want balance. I want to be able to make a decision that doesn’t have to go along with any one side of any argument. You know what I mean? That song actually also speaks to that, I guess, whatever. Everything is so polarized.

In April, you streamed a DJ set on Twitch and played a lot of music people might not expect you to be into. It was probably the only time I ever heard N.W.A, Toro y Moi, Brian Eno, and Blut Aus Nord songs so close together. What are you listening to this summer?
Just random shit. I’ve really been engulfed in working on this Black Stallion album, which is —

The White Pony remix album, right?
Yeah. I’ve been listening to a lot of remixers, DJs, and a lot of Boiler Room shit. I love live manipulating, especially vinyl. I just watched DJ Shadow’s Boiler Room set last night. He’s one of the artists that’s on the Black Stallion album. I like a lot of electronic music, a lot of experimental and shit, and there’s always the classics. I’ve been collecting vinyl for years. At my new house, I set up a record player in the media room, which has forced me and my family to listen to records and start them from the beginning and listen to the whole thing, through the experience. I’m trying to get my daughter, who’s 15, into that mindset of listening to records. Everybody right now is spoon-fed singles, but listening to records is an experience.

I know I sound like an old man saying this, because this is a speech I’m sure a lot of older people give youngsters, but it’s something that means a lot to me so I do it. I’ll have my daughter come into my room and go through my records, and I’ll say, “Just pick out a record, even if you don’t know what it is. Pick it out just because you like the cover of it, blah, blah, blah, whatever.” So the other day, she came in, and she picked out this band Tortoise, a six-piece with two drummers, all instrumental. I was like, “Why’d you pick that out?” She’s like, “I just liked the cover.” Then we put it on and listened to it.

That’s the way we used to pick out music. I would go to the record store, I would look at [the records], and if it looked cool, I would get it. And then because you spent your hard-earned money on it, you kind of made yourself like it. I’m trying to keep that spirit alive, I guess, within myself and trying to pass it on to the youngsters.

That’s incredible. Can you give any details about who might be involved with Black Stallion?
Trevor Jackson did an awesome remix. I was so stoked on it. It’s almost hard to figure out what song it is. I love remixes like that, where it’s a whole new take. So him, DJ Shadow, Clams Casino, people whose music I liked and I like working with.

As the anniversaries of certain rock albums from the year 2000 come around, a lot of music fans and writers have been talking about nu metal like it’s a guilty pleasure, something everyone is embarrassed about now. I know your band didn’t necessarily fit the label at the time, but how do you feel about people who look down on that era?
I think they probably always did look down. They always felt guilty about listening to certain things. I don’t think it’s us so much but definitely Limp Bizkit and shit like that. I think motherfuckers were embarrassed for that shit back then, too. You can’t deny it. It’s fucking stupidly good, some of it, but they knew back then that it was stupid. I mean, listen to the words. It’s stupid. So it’s not like in retrospect they’re like, “I can’t believe I listened to that.” It’s like, “No, when you listened to it then, you knew it was dumb, but you liked it.” And that’s okay. No one should be embarrassed by shit they like that’s dumb. Just like what you like. Who cares? Don’t try to be holier than thou. If you liked it then, don’t be embarrassed, because it wasn’t any smarter back then. It’s the same music it was 20 years ago. And you know what? It’s catchy. I get it. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The Deftones Have (Almost) Found Balance