By Paul Rogers
Sacramento band Deftones has been confusing critics and cutting across genres for over 20 years. Formed in 1988, the band’s unexpected mélange of metal and mellow, art and aggression propelled it to platinum-certified album sales (notably for 2000’s White Pony) and a giant, cult-like following worldwide. The group’s outlived the nü-metal tag bestowed upon it in the ’90s, and survived the post-Napster recording industry revolution. But the band almost fell apart during the drawn-out making of 2006 album Saturday Night Wrist, and then faced perhaps its greatest challenge to date when, in November 2008, bassist Chi Cheng was seriously injured in a car accident. He remains in a minimally conscious state. Having shelved the album that the band was working on at the time, Eros, Deftones rebounded (with stand-in bassist Sergio Vega aboard) with Diamond Eyes last year—a collection that many are comparing to their late-’90s best. Deftones frontman Chino Moreno tells the Weekly about where his band is at now and how they keep the music coming.
You, Abe [Cunningham, drummer] and Stephen [Carpenter, guitarist] have been together since Day One. What has been the secret to keeping a relatively stable lineup for so long?
I grew up with [Stephen]. The first time I hung out with him I was probably 10 years old or 7 years old. I’d just see him in the neighborhood. He also skateboarded, so we naturally gravitated towards becoming friends. And Abe the same way: I met him in junior high school . . . I think I was 11 years old.
So, I can attribute [Deftones’ stability] to just the fact that we’ve been friends for much longer than we were ever even a band. And we always kind of enjoyed a lot of the same stuff; a lot of the same music; and enjoyed hanging around each other. Luckily we’ve held onto that friendship and I think that’s one of the most solid things that we have in what we do.
And how is your relationship with Stephen? You two have had your ups and downs over the years, right?
I think there was a turning point in our career around ’99, 2000, when we were making White Pony. During that time Stephen was really just wanting to make our records get heavier and heavier and heavier as we went along—and my idea was pretty much the opposite. I wanted us to be not just a typical metal band, and instead try to expand with every record and bring in new sounds and new ideas. Not that I was right and he was wrong, but I think that’s always been the push and pull of our relationship.
When it does work and works organically, it’s something that can’t be touched. I feel if there was this unified idea of what kind of band we were and what we’re going to make and what we’re going to do, I think it would be very formulated and I think it would have gotten boring.
Your band has managed to straddle the “old” music industry—before Napster, when CD sales were huge and major labels ruled—and the “new” industry: the world of downloads, influential blogs and all-powerful social networking sites. How different is life in the Deftones today compared with, say, 10 years ago?
Well it’s definitely different, but luckily for us I don’t really feel so affected by it, because I think we’re kind of an exception as far as a lot of the bands that were coming out during that time. We were still a very word-of-mouth, underground thing . . . These days with the Net, blogs and all that stuff, it’s pretty much what we’ve been doing for many years except times a thousand or more.
Obviously there [are] pros and cons. Record sales-wise, it’s different, but we were never a band that just relied on our record sales. We always toured and were a very word-of-mouth type of band, and I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of this whole thing.
You’ve outlived the “nü-metal” tag that some critics hung on your band in the 1990s. Was Frank Delgado’s move from turntablist to keyboard player in part an effort to get away from that association?
Not necessarily. Frank wasn’t even actually in the band until the White Pony record . . . He was actually brought in to bring in soundscapes—he wasn’t brought in to do any scratching. If you listen to any of our records, there’s no scratching on them whatsoever—there never has been.
Before, Frank’s instrument was vinyl . . . he’s gradually learned to play the keys and other sampling devices and to record sounds. To me that’s always been a cool little window that has helped us steer away from being just straight riff-heavy rock with aggressive vocals.
It took years for some of your albums to be made, but Diamond Eyes was released in six months. What was different about the creative and recording process this time around?
A lot of it had to do with the work ethic that we had gradually just got ourselves into. It probably started when we were doing White Pony. We decided that we were just going to make a record at our leisure—and it worked. Commercially it’s probably our most successful record to this day, and the most acclaimed . . . So in our minds I think that we just had it come to where it was like “OK, we just work however we want and do whatever we want—and we’re going to win.”
I think that mentality kind of poisoned us a little bit, especially with the next record, the self-titled one [released in 2003], where we dragged that thing out for like two years and it was very unfocused. And that continued heavily on the  Saturday Night Wrist record, where there was a 6-month hiatus where we didn’t even talk to each other. So I think when we made Diamond Eyes we had an idea; we had a timeline; and everybody focused.
We’ve done records fast before. The  Around the Fur record was probably our fastest record we ever did . . . and that’s probably my favorite of our records, and I think it’s because of that. There’s no re-thinking; there’s no over-analyzing —you make some songs in this window of time and that record is basically a snapshot of that.
I think that’s important when you make a record. You want it to be cohesive; you want it to kind of smell of and make you think of that time when you created it. Our plan when we go to record next time is to take that same idea.
This is the first album released since Chi’s accident, and you speak of it as an optimistic one. Can you tell us about that?
It easily could have been a darker record. And I won’t say the songs are all happy and rainbows and stuff . . . but it’s not like sitting there dwelling on what happened. We chose to deal with it in the most positive manner as far as not letting it just take us down. It very easily could have been the end of the band when that happened . . . at that point I didn’t know what was going on. But we don’t really know anything else but just to be together; to spend time together; and when we’re together play music together and create together. So, that’s what we did.
Your bio mentions a lot about the emotional journeys behind the new album’s tracks. Does this require you to dig down deep and dredge up possibly dark or turbulent emotions—feelings you might not dwell upon were it not for your songwriting?
No. I think it’s probably the exact opposite. I think there was a lot of emotions stirring up at that time . . . Everybody knew what was kind of going on with our band the last few years—not even considering what happened with Chi—so when that happened with Chi it just seemed like if we were going to make another record people were going to expect it to be this dark, sad record, digging up all these feelings and emotions, blah blah.
If anything, I tried not to focus on any of that stuff and just make music that we like. And honestly, doing so, I think organically a lot of internal stuff kind of arose. But it happened organically and I think that’s very important. For what I do artistically, if something’s pre-conceived or I think about things too much . . . it always seems contrived in a way to me.
On the Diamond Eyes record we weren’t trying to forget about what was going on, but we tried to lose ourselves in the music and the creative, artistic part of it. And I think the reality of what was going on, some of that stuff definitely leaked, lyrically and musically, into the record. It wasn’t until a year after the record was out that I sat back and listened to it and started to figure out a lot of the stuff and why it came out the way it did. And I’m glad that it did.
How is Chi doing? Can you and other members of the band communicate with him?
We saw him two weeks ago. Right now he’s in New Jersey and we were in New York . . . It’s pretty difficult. He’s still alive. I can’t really tell where he is—his eyes are open, he’s looking at you, but you don’t get a response. And to me—and for all of us—that’s the most difficult thing.
It’s really up to his family and the doctors. They believe that he can have a future. They don’t know what kind of a future, but the doctor believes he can get him out of this. How long it’s going to take, I have no idea. But as for the band, we’re in it for the long haul . . . More than anything if I could just have a conversation with him again—that’s the ultimate.
When this happened with Chi it brought the four of us really close together and I think that’s very therapeutic for the situation—that we have this kind of a tight thing right now.
Your current bassist Sergio Vega is in a strange position, standing in for Chi while he’s so sick. How has he navigated this delicate role?
I don’t think he feels like he’s filling Chi’s shoes at all. He doesn’t try to; he doesn’t act that way . . . It’s actually been very fluent. He’s been a friend for many years—before we even really started touring—and he filled in for Chi once before, so it was very natural when he came in . . . He’s having fun and we are too and it’s a great experience. He’s a great dude; he’s a great bass player.
I’m sure you get asked this question daily, but is there any news on Eros seeing the light of day at some point?
I’m not really thinking about that . . . It goes back to what I was saying about when you’re making music and it’s during a certain time and it’s kind of a snapshot of that time. I don’t want to look at that picture right now. I don’t think I’m ready to look at it. I don’t think it’s appropriate right now.
The Deftones w/The Dillinger Escape, Le Butcherettes at Fox Theater, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona; www.foxpomona.com, www.deftones.com. Wed, June 15, 7PM. $30.50 advance, $33 door. All ages.