Deftones are back at the top of their game

Sacramento’s own marquis band, Deftones, have come quite a way since their inception in the late ‘80s. From gigs at backyard barbecues to sold-out shows at the Cattle Club, to landing a record deal and headlining huge tours all around the world in support of chart-topping, genre-busting albums, these guys have been through thick and thin and have maintained momentum, as well as a rabid fan base, along the way. During a recent interview with Submerge, drummer Abe Cunningham reminisced on the old days. “We’ve surpassed any expectations,” he said with a chuckle. “We wanted to play the Crest Theatre; that was the huge goal.” After agreeing that they’ve achieved that goal and then some, he went on to say, “Every day from this point on, not to be corny, is a blessing. We’ve been so wild over the years and just fucked off so much and just been out of our minds fucked up on everything, just having the rock ‘n’ roll time of our lives. And I’m not saying that we’re angels now, we certainly have a blast to this day, but we’ve chilled out a bit.”

Unfortunately, Deftones original bass player Chi Cheng remains in a semi-conscious state after a horrific car accident in early November 2008 left him in a coma. This near loss of a friend and band mate quite obviously sent a shockwave through the group, who at the time was done with a record called Eros. After much deliberation, the band ultimately decided to put the release of Eros on hold and quickly got back to doing what they do best: making music. They enlisted longtime friend and former Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega to fill in as Chi slowly recovers. As the group began gathering at their West Sacramento rehearsal spot, it was quickly evident that they were all itching to create again, despite having just shelved an entire record that they poured themselves into for over a year. Before they knew it, the band had an entire new album’s worth of material. That material, born of tragedy and heartbreak, became the band’s sixth studio release called Diamond Eyes. The album charted at No. 6 on the U.S. Billboard 200 in May of this year and is arguably some of the band’s best material to date. “We’re better now than we’ve ever been,” Cunningham said with confidence.

In the following interview, Cunningham chats about their new record, Cheng’s current status, the band’s new lineup and more.

I’m curious, who in the band still calls Sacramento home?
Stephan [Carpenter], our guitarist, he moved down to the Los Angeles area a while ago. Chino [Moreno, vocals] lives in the L.A. area too. He moved down there maybe about three or four years ago. Frank [Delgado, keyboardist] and I are still here, and Chi is here. Sergio, our buddy who is playing bass with us is from New York. But I mean, we’re still a Sacramento band, we still claim it.

That’s cool because you guys have become such an international force over the years. It’s nice to see you still claim Sacramento. I feel like some bands that blow up from here end up claiming the Bay Area or L.A. or something.
I am sporting a Giants hat, but hey, you know? [Laughs] I mean shit, it’s where we’re from. Everybody’s from somewhere. And it’s not even that bad, so what the fuck, you know?

How is it performing the material off of Diamond Eyes? The record was conceived, produced and released in a very timely fashion, how does that affect the way the songs are translated in the live setting?
I mean everything is new still; the songs are still all very new. This is really the first record that we went in [to the studio] with the material all done since probably Around the Fur, actually really since our first record. Since then, we’ve mostly written everything in the studio, which can be really cool, but it also can be just fucking crazy because it’s super expensive and if you’re not gelling and getting shit done, it can just be insane. It can be a really costly, mentally draining experience all around. So that’s the way it’s kind of been for the past four records, at least up until this one. We just went in and blasted it out. We wrote it so quick and had a blast doing it despite everything that had been going on with Chi. It was a catalyst for us getting down to it.

So it was a more organic approach than you took with previous albums in that you guys were able to completely play all of these songs live in your rehearsal room before ever hitting record, right?
Yeah, dude! We can’t even play some of the songs on some of our records [laughs]. We’re actually like, “Wow, we’re a real band again. We can play our own shit.” Not that we couldn’t play all our other shit. In the studio we’ve never tried to do anything so outlandish that we could never really perform it live. Studios are great for that. You can get down and you can make the most insane masterpiece, but can you pull it off live? That’s why we always tried to limit ourselves a bit, because we’ve always wanted to be able to do it live. This time around we just blasted it out and had a great time doing it.

If you don’t mind, I’m sure it’s a touchy subject, but I’d like to talk briefly about Chi and that whole situation. When’s the last time you saw him?
Chino and I went down right around Easter; we were taking off for tour for quite some time. He’s back down in Stockton.

So he’s at home now, not in a hospital, right?
Yeah, he’s been home for a while. It’s way better than being in a hospital somewhere.

How is he doing? I read on that he is undergoing some crazy “wake up protocol” and being looked after by top-notch doctors. What can you tell me about that?
These doctors that took him on are apparently involved with a lot of people coming back from the Iraq war and Afghanistan. There’s been a skyrocketing number of people coming back with traumatic brain injuries–roadside explosions and shit like that. Anyway, these doctors I guess have had tremendous success with people that are in exact or similar states that Chi is in, bringing them back to some degree. Because, I mean, he’s awake, he’s there, but he’s trapped. It’s kind of like the Metallica “One” video.

I just got the goose bumps, because I was thinking the exact same thing. It seems like he’s come a long way already, though, like his eyes are open now and he looks more aware and you can talk to him and he engages, right? How encouraging is that, being one of his closes friends and band mates?
All I want is the best for him, man. I think about his son, he’s got a son. I think about his whole family obviously, but he’s got a 12-year-old son who’s just the raddest kid and that’s really on my mind. He needs his dad back. Fuck him playing in the band again, that would be awesome if that could happen, but…

When it came time to make the call to bring in Sergio on bass and to continue playing and writing music without Chi, was that a tough decision?
I mean not really, and I don’t mean to be insensitive. Obviously we took time off to just try and figure what the fuck we were going to do and why this happened, and you just realize that some things you can never ever no matter how hard you try find an answer for, and this is one of them. Well, I’ll tell you why it happened; he wasn’t wearing his fucking seatbelt. So, of course we were trying to figure out what’s up with the band, and we took a couple months just to breathe and figure some stuff out. We just said, “Shit, this is what we do, we play music, we make music and we play it. We’ve been doing it for a long time now and it’s really what we do.” It was as simple as that. It’s what we do.

Was everybody in the band on the same page or was there some struggle between members?
Well yeah, it eventually came back to that struggle. At first Stephan wanted to just like start over again with a new band and all this stuff. Hey, I can dig that but come on, you know? Everyone was just kind of juggling ideas around, and it just came down really to getting back into our little spot out in West Sacramento. We have this studio we’ve had out there for a really long time. We just wanted to get out there, and we started jamming again, just for the sake of playing music. We actually had a record pretty much done called Eros. We’d been working on that for over a year already, and that was pretty much done. The whole thing with Sergio is, we had a show booked and we had this one thing we needed to fill, this one obligation. He had played with us before, he’d filled in for Chi way back, but he also came from this band Quicksand that we loved and was totally a huge influence on us, so we were all buddies over the years.

Was there ever anyone else in the running or was it Sergio all the way?
Yeah, it was kind of funny. He’s all neurotic, all New Yorker and shit. He came out here and I think he thought in his mind there was going to be 50 or 100 people in line to try out like that Metallica movie. He came out and he was all nervous, and we were like, “Dude just come out here, fuck this, come kick it.” We kind of shot the shit for a little bit and in actuality we were like, “Dude, you’re the only person we had in mind. There was nobody else.” He was just like, “Phew” and took a deep breath.

Can you tell me a little about the decision to put Eros on hold and start the writing process all over again for what would become Diamond Eyes?
It was really a huge decision for us. When it was brought up, I was like, “Yeah, I’m down,” when inside I was like “Fuck, I really don’t know.” I knew we could do it, but I had some reservations. We had just done this Eros thing. We were totally tapped creatively and all this shit. I was like, “We can do it! But wait, can we really do it?” But everything just came, you know? And with Eros, honestly, if we would have put that record out right now, it just was not the right time for that record. It’s not that it’s bad, there’s some good stuff on it; it just wouldn’t be good for us, man. And really it was out of respect for Chi, too. We spent all this time writing and recording and making these songs with him, and for us to go out on tour with those songs without him would be a trip. We just said, “Fuck it, let’s not shelve it, let’s put it on simmer on the backburner and let it chill a while and Chi, hopefully he can join us.”

You worked with a new producer on this one, Nick Raskulinecz. How much of an influence did he have on this record? Was he there during a lot of the writing?
Oh yeah, he was in there every single day with us from the get-go until we finished the record.

Was that new for the band, to sort of have that outside influence when crafting a record? Have you ever let anyone in creatively like that?
Never. We did most of our records with Terry Date, who is a dear friend. He’s a producer, but he’s more of an engineer. If he had an opinion, of course he’d say it, but he never was hands-on up in our shit. Normally we don’t like that shit, we’re like, “Fuck man, we can do this. We’re doing OK, leave us alone,” but Nick is just a rad dude and is so much fun to be around. He was right up in there with us. Everyone totally gelled and trusted him. Our biggest hang up is we’ll be jamming for hours and hours and hours and have cool shit come out, but nobody will ever stop and say, “That was tight, do that.” What he did was just float around the room and encouraged us to do what we were already doing. He just made everyone confident, like, “Wait, I’m doing rad shit, cool!” It was like fire, man.

It seems like everything was in place, you know? Nick was a fan of the band and on board to produce, Sergio came out and fit right in, you all started creating music again together in your old band room. It’s pretty uplifting, and frankly I think Chi would be pretty proud.
That’s our whole goal; there will always be some people that don’t get it. They ask, “How could you? How dare you?” You know what, fuck you, you have no idea how this works. You can sit on your keyboard on the Internet and talk shit. It’s really not been like that though. For the most part everyone’s been very supportive. We’re out doing our thing in Chi’s name, in his honor. He’s right there with us in spirit. I know he’s around.

    Jonathan Carabba

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