High highs, low lows

Sleepwalking along the edge with Deftones, Sacramento’s leading purveyors of big noise

Photo By James Minchon/WBR

The creative spirit is a fickle beast. In art, literature and music, the best of it comes from those brave souls willing to go out on the peripherals, the fringes where proper society has shuttled off the grotesque, the vulgar, the illegal and the insane. Once there, the rules all change: There are no rules. But there always has been a trade-off for devouring a bowlful of forbidden fruit. You lose the taste for apples, y’know? Stay too long, and the vacation sometimes becomes permanent. Ask Hendrix. Ask Basquiat. Ask Dylan Thomas. Ask Cobain. Getting there is easy. Coming back is the tricky part.

These artists can, when successful, capture and convey their forays on the edge so you, the gentle aficionado, can enjoy them while basking in the sun, sipping chai and getting melanoma. Read Dennis Cooper’s Try to get a palatable sense of being brutally raped by your own father. Or listen to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and hear Ian Curtis read his suicide note to an uncaring world.

Navigating in these waters is treacherous. The smart ones stay in the life raft, taking snapshots as they cascade down the rapids toward the falls and paddling toward safety before taking the big plunge, souvenirs in hand. The artists that can straddle both of these worlds while keeping focused, grounded and productive are rare indeed. Deftones is a band of extremes, personality-wise and music-wise. Juxtapose the juggernaut sonics with Chino Moreno’s sleepy-eyed tone-poems. Deftones follow one song that has a core of pure basalt with an impressionistic sketch of keys and turntables as fragile as rice paper. If more proof is needed, check out the band’s new record, the eponymously titled Deftones, which comes out Tuesday, May 20 (a concert/release party that evening at an unspecified venue may be happening; check local radio for details the day the album comes out).

Deftones is a case study of mixed signals and contradictions. On the band’s fourth album for Maverick Records, the joint venture between singer Madonna and Warner Bros. Records, this quintet makes more of a ruckus than ever, musically, with monolithic slabs of harshness practically crushing every last bit of emotion out of singer Moreno. Stephen Carpenter’s guitars are weapons capable of blunt-force trauma, electricity in its pure, raw form. The bass and drums of Chi Cheng and Abe Cunningham, respectively, are symbiotic, the host feeding off the host, a two-headed Muhammad Ali of rhythm. They’re nimble and muscular together, and in a split second, capable of making you drink your own blood and sweat off the canvas. DJ Frank Delgado is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, adding layers upon layers of oblique strategies from his crate of confusion. But Delgado doesn’t scratch his LPs; instead, he’s mastered the art of the subliminal—dropping in fetal heartbeats or drenching a break in some crazy krautrock loopiness.

And though all of this would make you think that Deftones are part of the same angry/loud/dumb brigade as Slipknot, Limp Bizkit and Korn, the beatific longings of Moreno will flip that notion on its fat ass. Moreno has come into his own both as a singer and lyricist; his emotional range is as vast as it is soul-baring, which is why a Deftones audience has as many female fans as male ones.

On a gorgeous April day, Moreno was down at Midtown studio Retrofit Recording, where Deftones recorded two cover songs to be added onto the U.K. version of the album’s first single, “Minerva.” (Just to show the band’s diverse tastes, the songs are covers: Santo & Johnny’s seminal instrumental “Sleepwalk,” and “Sinatra” from the first Helmet album.) A couple old friends from the Socialistiks were hanging out doing some recording of their own, and Moreno threw the new CD in the house system; the whole foundation was shaking to the hard, hard groove. Moreno clearly was excited about everyone hearing it; he was grinning wildly at everyone’s else’s wild grins.

One week later, after an East Coast promotional jaunt, the band returned to Deftones central, a playground for big boys and girls. In the parking lot of the rehearsal space, a Tiparillo-smoking Cheng gave up a big, friendly hug. It had been a long time, and the conversation—interrupted by the Warner Bros. publicity rep, who gingerly tried to usher everyone indoors—ranged from the SARS epidemic to recent favorite books. Once inside, Carpenter was seated on the couch, with Cheng sitting across from him. What was scheduled to be a half-hour interview about the new album turned into two hours of pure, unbridled anarchy.

Like many other locals, Cheng had an opinion on the Kings’ playoff chances. “I’d love to see us win,” he said, “but let’s just beat the fucking Lakers! If the Spurs win or the Mavericks win, I’d be cool, whatever. But let’s just beat the fucking Lakers! They’re fucking punks.”

When asked whether he’d defend the Dixie Chicks, Cheng jumped at the chance. “Fuck yes, I would!” he exclaimed. “Howard Zinn just wrote Terrorism and War; he says the whole First Amendment is [about] the freedom of speech. That is the foundation of democracy, being able to say whatever the fuck you want. The fact that when Bush made his statement after September 11, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ well, isn’t that anti-democratic—you know what I mean? Bush has been passing all those sedition acts that make it illegal to speak out against the government right now.”

Deftones in a lush green context: From left, DJ Frank Delgado, Stephen Carpenter, Chino Moreno (foreground), Chi Cheng and Abe Cunningham (standing).

Carpenter, on the other hand, was more philosophical. “I have no desire to be famous,” he confessed. “I only want to make music that’s overwhelming. And I love what we do. … But we’re not there yet. We’re not at that point where the shit’s going to be coming at you and overwhelm, but it’s getting there.”

And, as a musician about to embark on tour, the Great White tragedy in Rhode Island was on Carpenter’s mind. “You know what the sad part is?” he asked rhetorically. “They didn’t just end it for them; they ended it for everybody—every performing artist there is, any music. You can’t have a packed house anymore. Remember back in the day that the Cattle Club would be blown to bits, too many people there. Not going to get that vibe anymore.”

It is somewhat comforting, yet so strange, after countless world tours, more than 4 million records sold and a Grammy award, that these guys have not changed one whit; they’re still accessible, friendly, funny, smart and totally down-to-earth, as in, “Please leave the rock-star ego at the door because none of that is allowed—unless you want to be harangued mercilessly, that is.”

A few days later, a nervous Moreno paced back and forth in his home office, puffing on menthol cigarettes, anxiously anticipating Deftones’ first shows in several months, which would commence on the East Coast in 48 hours.

“I still get nervous,” he said pensively. “Besides that … I know it’s good, but it’s mostly the anxiety of having the record completed and this weird time in between when it’s done and heading out there when they haven’t heard it yet.”

Pressed for what influenced him most on Deftones, Moreno couldn’t name anything specific. “You know, just living, enjoying life,” he said. “And not enjoying life. A lot of the lyrics were written in Seattle, and when I was there doing it, everyone had pretty much gone home—and it was just me, and it was during the winter. You couldn’t help but have a morose head. It’s weird. I don’t want to make the record seem like this unhappy thing—because there’s beauty in all of that, and that makes me happy.”

Lyrically, Moreno’s never been finer. Or more obtuse. On the band’s previous record, White Pony, he sang from the viewpoint of the characters he’d written about. On Deftones, the words seem so personal, it feels almost voyeuristic to read his lyrics. On “Minerva,” he sounds wounded and weak as he sings, “I get all numb when she sings it’s over / Such a strange numb and it brings my knees to the earth”—as the band pummels every last drop of energy out of him. Deftones is rife with imagery of wings being spread, of longing, of escape that reaches an apex on the luscious, piano-based “Lucky You” with its mantra “come and take me home” at its core.

“That song, for real, when I was writing it, I was picturing and—it sounds kinda corny—that I was not here on earth. I imagined I was singing that song from somewhere else,” Moreno said.

Higher up or from down below?

“No, I wouldn’t say higher up, just not on Earth. And that may be a metaphor for loneliness in some way, know what I mean? Just want to come home. Be home.

“And that’s what I’m asking for. To be home,” he said, his voice tapering off into a whisper.