Push + Pull
For most bands, internal conflict would force them apart. For Deftones their differences only drive them higher.
Words: Ryan De Freitas.
Deftones have never released a bad album. From ‘Adrenaline’ all the way back in 1995, right through to previous effort ‘Koi No Yokan’, they’ve absolutely refused to put a foot wrong. Nobody chimes into a conversation about the legendary Sacramento outfit to lament they ‘prefer the early stuff’. In an age of cynicism, this is one band who still provoke near-universal enthusiasm.
They’re now back with eighth studio album ‘Gore’ and, predictably, it’s bloody great. There aren’t many bands who can say, over twenty years removed from the release of their debut record, that they’re still looked to with such unmoving expectation; that what they’re about to put out will stand shoulder to shoulder with what’s come before it. And there are even fewer bands still that can say it while having as diverse and unapologetically experimental a back-catalogue as Deftones’.
With all that in mind however, ‘Gore’ might require some patience. Where ‘Koi No Yokan’ offered up the blistering ‘Swerve City’ as its opener, this album presents the unhurried swirls of ‘Prayers/Triangles’ as an introduction – and it serves as a particularly succinct indicator of what’s to come. This isn’t a record of immediacy. It’s not hit after hit – that a song as relatively subdued as ‘Prayers/Triangles’ became the first radio single gave that away already. Instead, ‘Gore’ is a rich, considered body of work in which one can, given time, find themselves wholly immersed. The result of that, as vocalist Chino Moreno is happy to attest, is that it’s a bit of a slow burner – and that’s fine by him.
“I don’t think that it’s a first listen,” Chino concedes off the bat. “And honestly that wasn’t the idea going in to make this record – there wasn’t actually any idea going in to make this record – but that’s what ended up coming out. But in the end, as not even the person who created the record but as a listener of the record, I enjoy ‘Gore’ more today than I did the day we finished it. I honestly think that every time I hear the record I get something more out of it. I like that. Most of my favourite records do that, too.”
And of course, there’s nothing wrong with an album being a grower, but at a time where instant gratification tends to reign supreme, could that affect the commercial success of the album? Sitting as Chino is now, in the West London offices of Deftones’ record label, it’s a question that can’t be too far from his mind. “Possibly,” he considers. “But probably not, cause I feel it’s got longevity.
“I feel like this record – as opposed to some of our other records especially – has staying power. The more you listen to it the more you enjoy it. I have a short attention span so if I hear something and I figure it out really quick, I lose interest. That’s just me. But things that I don’t understand right away, that require me to take time to wrap my head around, are things that interest me. That’s in music and that’s in… almost, in life. That’s something that’s part of my character, it could be a flaw, could be whatever, but it’s just the way I’ve been for my whole life.”
The reason for this is rooted in more than just Chino’s personal taste, though. When it comes to Deftones there’s a very crucial dynamic at play, one that’s shaped every single thing the band have put their name on to date: the push and pull between the contrasting creative personalities of Chino Moreno and guitarist, Stephen Carpenter.
Chino – as you can hear particularly clearly listening to his Team Sleep, Crosses and Palms projects, or even on the almost ‘Full-Chino’ 2006 Deftones album, ‘Saturday Night Wrist’ – brings the ethereal, dreamy side of the band’s music to the table. It’s made most obvious by his vocal performance, but almost any time you feel Deftones leaning particularly left and veering into more ambient territory, that’s Chino leaving his mark.
Meanwhile Stephen, quite simply, is the metalhead of the group. That recurring bombardment of distortion on ‘Rocket Skates’? Stephen. ‘My Own Summer’’s iconic fury? Stephen. Basically, anything from a Deftones album or live show that leaves you feeling like you’ve been punched in the jaw is on him.
This isn’t to discredit the rest of the band’s input, but the dichotomy that exists between these two is crucial to how each individual Deftones album sounds. ‘Gore’ is no different. While it’s not entirely lacking in heavy moments, it’s clear that Chino walked away from their eighth recorded tug-of-war with the lengthier share of the rope.
“It wasn’t as equal as it usually is,” Chino admits. “Honestly, I did a lot more of the initiating. He plays on every song, he’s present on every song, but I initiated more of the initial ideas on this record. The reason behind that is something you’d have to ask him, cause I honestly don’t know.
“It was one of those things where we were in the studio, we were working, he was there every day, physically there, but he wasn’t that forthcoming with sparking ideas, and I don’t know why. The way I looked at it was, I flew here, I’m living in a hotel room and I’m in this studio, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit in a corner and just sort wait for things to happen, otherwise we’ll be here for three fucking years waiting to do something.”
“So, in the meantime I was very inspired and so was Sergio [Vega, bass],” Chino continues – hinting towards a reason as to why ‘Gore’ has turned out as groove-laden as it has, even by Deftones’ standards. “If there was any downtime he and I were working and writing stuff. Stephen eventually came around and joined the party but it took a little while. Maybe two-thirds through the writing process was when he finally started to become part of some of the ideas.
“That’s gonna come off maybe sounding like I’m biased to my own ideas – which I’m not. I’m a fan of Stephen’s guitar playing just as much as anybody, and I love when he comes and initiates songs. So I was trying to be as patient as possible with him, but at the same time I’ve still gotta be productive.”
The sound of the band’s most universally revered record, 2000’s ‘White Pony’, was a direct result of Chino and Stephen’s creative inclinations to build on, or outdo, the work of the other. It could read as a damning reflection on ‘Gore’, then, that Stephen wasn’t hands-on this time around.
What was it then, in the absence of that butting of heads, that the band could take inspiration from? Surely the quality of the album would suffer if the Deftones creative engine wasn’t firing on all cylinders?
“I think just excitement of what we were coming up with,” Chino offers. “I mean I honestly just liked what we were coming up with, Sergio, Abe [Cunningham, drums] and I. Even though Stephen was sort of sitting there not participating as much as we would have liked him to, we were still very excited with what we were coming up with. And honestly once Stephen did decide he was gonna join the club, it even went up another notch, it was way better.
“It’s not that he didn’t do anything. He’s got songs on the record that he initiated. But I think one of the coolest things that we learned to do on this record is to fill in space, sonically, to complement each other in a way. I feel like when Stephen really came into this record, he complemented the foundation Sergio, Abe and I were building – and it led to less of a fucking djent record!”
There’s still some room for head-butting, clearly.
“I mean Stephen loves fucking Meshuggah, and when he plays his big ass fucking guitar, it sounds like fucking Meshuggah to me. I like Meshuggah too, but we’re not fucking Meshuggah. I love that being in there, but in the same way, I love Morrissey, but we’re not the fucking Smiths! So, to utilise our influences that are so separate, put it into what we do, but do it organically and fill the space, the crevices are in there. That’s what makes us, us. I guess there’s less of a push and pull on this album and more of us compromising, with our different ideas, into making something together that is cohesive.”
That compromise is apparent listening to the record. Sure, there’s a fair amount of Chino’s distinctive hallmarks on display, but without Stephen around to punctuate them as only he can, ‘Gore’ just wouldn’t be a Deftones album. Third track, ‘Doomed User’ shows this perfectly as it sees a measured, almost Mastodon-esque guitar line underlining its best moments. Still, it’s not a compromise that comes effortlessly.
“We still fight,” Chino confesses. “We still argue, we really do. We argue a lot. But we can argue, and know that we’re all gonna go home and still be friends and come back the next day and do it again because everybody’s just being fucking honest, we all speak up and say shit. If we didn’t, if we were tiptoeing around each other, you’d hear that in the music. And that would be no fun. You’d hear that record and be like, ‘these motherfuckers are just going through the motions.’”
But what’s stopping them from doing exactly that? Now into their forties, they could quite easily start phoning it in. Considering their legacy, they’d almost be forgiven for churning out the first thing that came to mind. At the end of the day, they’re a band who could quite easily fill up a ‘Greatest Hits’ setlist, tour it for the rest of their lives and continue making a pretty good living.
Instead, they tour on their current records and with bands like letlive., Death From Above 1979 and Periphery. Bands half their age that would blow most other ‘elder statesmen’ figureheads out of the water, legacy be damned. It takes guts to do that, but courage has never been something Deftones have lacked.
“I’m not scared of anyone,” Chino defies. “Maybe it’s a way of keeping us on our toes, but I’ll fucking play after anybody. We still have a lot of passion. When I hear some of our tunes, whether I like it or not, I can be tired as fuck, I can be not in the mood at all to even walk up on stage but once the music starts going, I feel overwhelmed with this passion just to let loose. And it feels very genuine still and that’s something that can’t be touched. So yeah I feel very confident with playing after whoever. Hell, you get a warm-up band cause they’re supposed to warm shit up!”
It’s that attitude that keeps Deftones at the top of their game. It’s that fire and fearlessness that allows their fans to feel safe in the knowledge that Deftones aren’t about to drop the ball. That ‘predictably great’ thing? It’s made so predictable because this is a band who wouldn’t know what laurels are to even consider ever resting on them. They’ve innovated, they’ve challenged expectation and, most importantly, they’ve stuck together through everything.
“It’s something as simple as the joy of making music together,” Chino continues, speaking again about what stops the band getting complacent. “Like I said, I have no interest in making music by myself. I can, of course. I can sit there and fucking program a beat on my computer, and put a bassline to it, put a guitar to it, throw my vocals on it and you’d have a song. It’d be very uninspired though because it’s just me being me, and I like collaborating. I think that’s one of the main things that keeps us at it; the fact that we can still collaborate, that we do still collaborate, is awesome. The fact that, there’s no sound there and then you put us together and we create something.
“The feeling we get from finishing something is one of the greatest feelings in the world, from creating something together. Especially when sometimes it’s not that easy, and when we actually break through the threshold and finish something. Can’t beat that, man. Can’t beat that feeling. And I’m also very proud that we’ve been a band, and friends, for as long as we have. What other bands are – I mean obviously aside from Chi [Cheng, original bassist who tragically died in 2013 after living in a semi-comatose state for almost five years], these are the people that I’ve been making music with for over half my life and we still have a handful of people who are interested in what that’s gonna sound like, so we are very lucky to be able to do that. That’s something that I’m probably more proud of than anything; that longevity that we have, and the fact that we’re still inspired by each other.”
“I mean, I don’t think that when we make records we think that we’re gonna save the world, or rock‘n’roll,” Chino concludes. “But I think we can just be proud of the fact that we are still together and we can still create, but also that we can actually be motivated, actually be engaged. It’s very much not just ‘well, guess we’ve gotta make another record’. If it were just something we were trying to get through we would definitely do it a lot faster. The fact is that, this far into our career, we spent a dedicated year of our lives to making ‘Gore’. We must have some sort of passion.”
‘Gore’ isn’t about singles. ‘Gore’ isn’t about increasing ticket sales. ‘Gore’ is the sound of a band that still give a fuck, continuing to give a fuck. And while so many others are happy to play nostalgia sets, or to reunite a band they don’t want to be in so that they can force a smile and collect a pay cheque, we should be grateful not only that Deftones are still around and still care, but that they’re doing it for each other and because they still want to – and by the sounds of it, that ‘want’ doesn’t seem to be fading in the slightest.