One of the biggest and most enduring bands in rock, Deftones are still as vital as ever.
Words: Alexander Bradley.
Deftones are back with a career-defining album. In ‘Ohms’, they encapsulate all 30-something years that the band have been around, with songs that push and pull their singular sound in every direction.
The melodic, measured tones explored in its predecessor ‘Gore’ are present but so too is the visceral power of the band’s early work, that made tracks like ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’ become a neck vein popping anthem that has stood the test of time. But, more so with ‘Ohms’, those extremes turn in an instant as, while the spark of the song flickers alight, you can’t be sure if what Deftones are going to throw is water or gasoline.
The album also comes in the same year the band are celebrating the seminal ‘White Pony’; a game-changing album which transformed them from Sacramento nu-metal up-and-comers into a band without limitations, defiant of classification and at the forefront of experimentation.
But ‘Ohms’ might just be their magnum opus. It’s the accumulation of all the parts that have made Deftones so mesmerising over the course of their eight previous records into one balanced album that easily stands shoulder to shoulder with their very best work.
To make such an album happen, the band needed to unpack the shortcomings of ‘Gore’; especially in how that album came together. A lot was made of the fact guitarist Stephen Carpenter wasn’t as “on board” with the album, the creative tensions between himself and singer Chino Moreno and the logistical restraints of the singer living in Oregon while the rest of the band lived across California and recording happened in LA. The result was an album that lacked a certain identity; it wasn’t the wide-eyed optimism of ‘Diamond Eyes’ or the anger that fuelled ‘Around The Fur’ but instead something comfortably in the middle rather than on the extremes where Deftones usually thrive.
Frank Delgado – the bringer of various synth arrangements and textures to ‘Ohms’, particularly in linking the majestic finale of ‘Pompeji’ into the brooding opening of ‘This Link Is Dead’ – is still where it all started for Deftones, in Sacramento, California. “I think we knew we wanted to make it stress-free,” he starts, explaining how they wanted to approach this project.
“We ended up finding a system where we could get together for a couple of weeks, jam, record what we did then disband and come back a month later and do it all over again. We kind of did that in chunks over a couple of years.”
Chino, eight hours away in Oregon, adds that the first few sessions were about getting back to basics, with just himself, Stephen and drummer Abe Cunningham returning to their old rehearsal space in Sacramento. The space, which they bought in 1994, hadn’t been visited since bassist Chi Cheng’s accident in 2008 (which resulted in his death five years later) when the band were working on the now-abandoned ‘Eros’ project.
“It was definitely a trip when we first went in there,” Chino remembers.
“I think Abe and Frank are the only ones that ever cruise in there, so when we decided we were gonna go back there and work we walked in, and it was literally the same exactly that it was when we were doing the ‘Eros’ record. So, like all Chi’s gear was still set up, all his pictures and all his whole wall, he decorated his whole little side of the wall, and everything was decorated. The dry erase board was up and the song titles that we were working on of some ‘Eros’ stuff, so it was kind of like a time capsule.
“It was a trip, and it definitely was heavy, it was a lot of that feeling [of nostalgia], but then we all decided that you know what? We wanna utilise this spot again, let’s puts some elbow grease into it. So, we took everything out of there. We took everything out of the studio and then cleaned it, and I had this vocal booth there – it had two closets in it, and I hadn’t been in there either – back when we were doing that shit [in there] I was fucking out of my mind. I was going through the closets and going through all my old shit, and I had so much junk and the crazy shit I used to collect, just weird shit, literally it was like a purge. I threw away stuff, and I didn’t even think twice about it, old clothes, just stuff that was that part of my life and it was sort of like this thing lifted off [me].”
Getting back into the space they used from ‘Around The Fur’ up until Chi’s accident with a fresh perspective (not to mention also a decade sober for the singer), seemed to breathe new life into the band.
From Sacramento, they began to experiment with what ‘Ohms’ should be, and following a few trips from Oregon, the sessions moved south to LA, but still managed to find a better work / home balance for all five members of the band.
As it came to taking the songs into the studio, only Terry Date could bring that classic Deftones sound to turn ‘Ohms’ into another masterpiece. Frank credits the producer as “he kinda helped create what people’s perception of our sound is” nodding to the sonic shift between the rough around the edges feel of their debut album ‘Adrenaline’ to the acclaimed ‘White Pony’.
But for Chino, having Terry at the helm for this record was about pushing the band further.
“He brings a level of comfort, which sounds like maybe it would not be a good thing because I think, sometimes, when you get too comfortable, you don’t challenge yourself. But I think, beyond that, he actually, because we have such a close relationship with him, he makes us challenge ourselves in a way. I know that I can’t do anything that I’ve done before just for the sake of doing it because he already knows, he was there, he made some of these great records with us. So, I’m able to try things in front of him that I maybe wouldn’t try if I was working with someone new,” he begins.
Noting that the differences might be subtle, Chino continues explaining how Terry’s presence in the studio guarantees the band aren’t just phoning it in or close to retreading old ground. He adds, “In a working environment, I feel really comfortable to experiment, and I think that’s important.
“Even when I’m at home, I have a little studio downstairs in my house, but it’s basically just in the basement so like if someone’s upstairs they can hear me down there. It’s not soundproof so if I’m working on something I’m very reluctant to sing out loud or try an idea because I have this thing where I’m a little bit nervous about people hearing me try something or be like, ‘what’s he doing down there?’ I don’t know why, I mean it’s my job, I shouldn’t be nervous of that, my wife’s not gonna make fun of me, but I’m a little self-conscious. But, it’s weird, in front of Terry, the relationship that we have, I don’t mind trying shit, and I feel very comfortable in that way. I’ll just try something, and even if it’s terrible I know that he’s not gonna judge me, but he will definitely say ‘Hey man, let’s go grab a beer somewhere’, because he knows my potential I guess. He is very patient, and he’s awesome. He’s like that, not just with me, but with everybody in the band, with Stephen, with Abe, everyone.”
With the regular breaks while working on the album, the clean slate and Terry’s calming presence in the studio, Chino insists there were fewer arguments this time around. Not none, but fewer.
“We do get in arguments a lot,” he admits. “But what’s even worse than that is when we’re not even arguing, but we’re just not communicating. Because at least if you’re arguing you have a strong opinion that you’re trying to get across and, the other person’s opinion might be different than yours, but it’s also a strong opinion, so those things usually end up building. Those are building blocks, and you’re obviously fighting or arguing or pushing your part, not because you want your part to win, but because you believe in something enough to where you want to put up a reason why.
“If I look back, the worst times of us as a band have been, not when we’re arguing, but when we’re not arguing, when we’re not confrontational. If any one of us is not engaged enough, the record or what we’re working on is not gonna be up to its potential, because everybody’s not fully engaged.”
Both Chino and Frank are quick to clarify that stories of the rifts within the band have been blown out of proportion down the years with Frank conceding that “it makes for a good story”. Usually, the story of conflict stems from the romantic idea of the opposing forces that drive the Deftones dynamic, with Chino’s new-wave influences and Stephen’s being the “metal guy” becoming something of a tug-of-war, in which the victor gets the bigger share of influence on a record. But, in truth, it’s those opposing forces that have made Deftones such a unique force.
If the stories were true, then ‘Ohms’ would be the album in which nobody lost the argument. That’s not to say that this is an album of compromise, rather it’s ten tracks packed with dynamism, light and dark, loud and quiet, screams and whispers and something altogether vintage Deftones.
Regardless of any arguments between the band, it cannot be denied that Deftones are always at their best when Chino is pissed off, and ‘Ohms’ finds him back at his most angry.
Chino’s wrath leads the album right out of the gate as he spews, “I reject both sides of what I’m being told / I’ve seen right through now I watch how wild it gets” in one of the most politically-driven statements he has ever made (or will ever make, he assures).
“I’m not interested in politics one bit, not one bit. It really is one of the most annoying, ugly things that exists and that’s basically the most blanket statement that I can give. In that moment, that’s what was annoying me, and it just came out in that sentence,” he explains.
From there the album is rife with flashes of rage, from the exasperated screams of “Jesus Christ” in ‘Pompeji’ or his head-on collision with expectations in ‘This Link Is Dead’.
“I try to not live with too much expectation because I just think it’s an ugly trait, why does everybody expect that things should be this way? Just expectations annoy the fuck out of me, I try to not live with expectations because for one, you’re gonna let yourself down or your gonna be let down if you’re just holding onto expectations of what things should be, this way or should be that way.
“So, to live with expectation is just not healthy. It drives me fucking nuts sometimes because motherfuckers want to impose… they wanna tell me what the fuck I should be thinking or feeling, and that’s driven me crazy since I was a kid. I still hold onto a little bit of that, and I think I released a little bit of my frustration on that tune.”
Anger has always bubbled under the surface of the skin for the singer, and it is something he has tried to address in recent years through therapy. He admits, “as a kid I always felt like the world’s against me,” but now at 47 years old, he recognises that he has learned to channel his frustrations better.
“I guess, like a thorn in my side, I try to work through some shit but sometimes music and saying and screaming things is fucking helping and it’s better to do it on the record than walk around the house just going into punch fits,” he reasons.
But, for Chino that presents a dichotomy between what he feels and what he says in his songwriting. Beyond just the sonic dynamic Deftones have etched out for themselves, is the ambiguity that Chino has become famed for in his songwriting. Whether it’s soothing dreamily or screaming wildly, the singer hasn’t given too much of himself away in his lyrics.
And ‘Ohms’ is no different, with a lot of heavy references to the relationships of varying philosophical ideologies on religion, science and geometry. Song titles alone, like ‘Urantia’, reference the meaning of life, while ‘Radiant City’ is a theory based on the geometric designs for a utopia, opener ‘Genesis’ and closer ‘Ohms’ come with their own religious imagery too.
By creating those wormholes in a search for meaning within the album, Chino achieves what he set out to do; distraction from himself and what he is actually feeling.
He explains the thinking behind his songwriting as, “It’s still sort of me running from being too blatant on what I’m saying, to colour it a little bit. I do feel like with these lyrics that I actually got a bit more introverted in them, I pulled things from my personal things that I was going through day in day out, and very human things.
“But I’ve always had an issue with just going on and just saying exactly what I’m thinking. So, I try to just colour it and make it a little more artistic and throw a mood out there and hide behind words in a way.
“It’s definitely a lot different. Like, ‘White Pony’, which had really nothing to do with my personal life, it’s just me singing about things that were made up, which was kind of fun for that record, it worked for that. But with this record, it’s probably the exact opposite of that. I just let the things that were on my mind just come out and then spent a lot of time after that figuring out more clever ways of saying certain things, so everything was just not so… obvious”
By “skirting the issue” in his songwriting, the puzzle of what ‘Ohms’ might reference is interesting and one he is sure fans will sink their teeth into over the coming years. “What people get out of what I write is usually not correct, but I don’t mind that either, I kind of like giving people that,” he suggests; seeming to enjoy the veil behind which he can hide while people try to figure him out.
The deep mystery of the songwriting and the philosophical themes at play throughout ‘Ohms’ only aid it in becoming the most robust and well-rounded Deftones album to date. And, in the same year that the band are celebrating 20 years of ‘White Pony’, the debate of how their new music compares will only be natural.
The success of ‘White Pony’ was partially down to the timing of its release. Back in 2000, it was Slipknot, Papa Roach, Korn and Limp Bizkit who reigned supreme as the nu-metal wave was at its highest and Deftones came in with something completely different. ‘White Pony’ forged a new path for Deftones, away from classification of any genre thanks to tracks like the capricious ‘Change (In the House of Flies)’, Maynard James Keenan’s collaboration on the brooding ‘Passenger’ and the sultry ‘Knife Party’ as the band experimented with elements of industrial rock, trip-hop, and dream pop into their style of alternative metal.
The chance the band took on ‘White Pony’ opened the door on how Deftones would spend the next 20 years. And, in that time, the album has become lauded almost universally for its experimentation and risks. But, having lived with the album for all that time, Chino remembers more, the challenges they faced with ‘White Pony’.
“It created a lot of good and a lot of bad for us,” Chino reflects. “As rad as it was, in the climate that music was at when we made that record, was not a good place for that record. When it came out, let’s not get it twisted, motherfuckers did not like it. A lot of people didn’t like it, a lot of our fans didn’t like it, they wanted to hear fucking Papa Roach shit, that was what was poppin’ at the time, they wanted to hear Limp Bizkit type of shit, so they didn’t like it. But it was a slow grower.
“The bad part was that I think we got maybe a little too ahead of ourselves after that and thought, ‘okay, well we just did exactly what we wanted and now look, and now people love it. So, we can do whatever the fuck we want and we can dive into this self-indulgence full-on’, thinking that people are just gonna like it and get it. We learned the hard way that’s not always the case, sometimes that doesn’t always work. It was blessed and cursed at the same time, but in retrospect, yeah, fuck it, I’ve got to be proud of the fact that we took a chance and did something a little left of centre and we just happened to be in a good place, all of us, and communicating on some weird shit.”
Similarly, Frank, who became a full member for ‘White Pony’, acknowledges that the album signifies a turning point for the band but, in his opinion, it isn’t their best work. “I think we’ve overshadowed ‘White Pony’, just on our own records, long ago. It is a great record, but for me, I think ‘Diamond Eyes’ blows it away.
“I think it was just timing and what was happening. If anything this shows you can listen to ‘White Pony’ and be like, ‘oh shit, I see it now, I see why the band is making songs like this or a record like this because here it is, here’s where they figured out there are no rules’.”
To celebrate its 20 years, the band will release ‘Black Stallion’, a re-imagined and remixed version of the album later in the year. But, in truth, the greatest compliment to that record is in ‘Ohms’ as it’s the culmination of decades of working out exactly what is possible when the possibilities are endless.
Deftones’ new album is out later this year.