Deftones: Diamond in the Rough
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2010
After surviving the loss of a member and scrapping an album's worth of recordings, Deftones return to form with the alt-metal masterpiece Diamond Eyes.
There was a time when Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter enjoyed the drama and unpredictability of rock and roll. He reveled in the late nights, indulged in the excesses and relished the adulation. These days, he craves a more chilled-out lifestyle. When he’s home, he likes to hit the golf course at least twice a week. He plays video poker every day, and he loves to twist up a joint and kick back with his new ESP eight-string guitar, or click on Pandora.com, where he finds inspiration in the music of groups like Battles and 65 Days of Static.
“Some people might consider me boring or something,” he says from a conference room at his record label in New York. “That’s okay. I’ve never cared what other people think.”
Carpenter’s desire for routine stems in part from the chaos and uncertainty that have marked Deftones’ recent history. In November 2008, cofounding bassist Chi Cheng suffered a near-fatal car accident that left him incapacitated. In the aftermath of that disaster, the band members stopped meeting, and the group almost broke up. When they finally did reconvene, they refocused their priorities and realigned their creative approach, continuing on, in the hope that Cheng would eventually pull through and rejoin them.
Though they had nearly completed a new album before Cheng’s accident, they set it aside and started again, banging out an entirely new record in less than six months with the assistance of bassist Sergio Vega. Somehow, the volatility brought out the best in Deftones: the new disc, Diamond Eyes, is one of their finest, encapsulating all of the skewed grooves, haunting melodies and ebb-and-flow dynamics that put them on the alt-metal map in the late Nineties.
“Basically, I’ve come to realize that this very moment in time is always the only moment you have, and you can either make it as great as you can or just let it be what it’s gonna be,” Carpenter says. “We all decided to make the best of these moments and make another great album, because life is so fragile. It could be gone in a blink and you wouldn’t even know it.”
The album that Deftones were working on at the time of Cheng’s accident was the follow-up to 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist. Titled Eros, it was recorded with their longtime producer Terry Date. They had tracked the drums, guitars and bass parts, and vocalist and rhythm guitarist Chino Moreno was working on the final vocal tracks. Then, on November 4, 2008, Cheng and his sister Mae were driving away from a memorial service for their older brother, who died a year earlier, when their car was involved in an accident. Cheng, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle. Despite surgery and countless hours of therapy, he remains in a semi-conscious state.
Carpenter learned about the tragedy the next day from a member of Deftones’ management team. “They told me Chi had been in a car accident the night before and was in a coma,” the guitarist recalls. “I was like, ‘What?! No, there must be some mistake.’ ”
For four months after the accident, Deftones were on the verge of collapse. They visited Cheng in the hospital but spent most of their time apart from each other, trying to escape what had happened. Finally, the bandmates decided to meet in their rehearsal space in Sacramento to decide if they wanted to stay together. “We really thought about breaking up the band,” Moreno says. “We thought, Maybe this is too hard now and this thing has run its course.”
Carpenter says, “I actually never considered breaking up, but I told everybody that I was perfectly comfortable with starting a whole new band—coming up with a new name and starting again from scratch.”
In the end, Deftones kept their name, but they shelved Eros indefinitely; it reminded them too much of Cheng. Next, they brought in Vega, the former bassist with Quicksand, who had filled in for Cheng back in 1999, after Cheng broke his foot and was unable to tour. With Vega in tow, the group played some shows that left them feeling revitalized, and in June 2009, they returned to their practice space with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Coheed and Cambria, Rush, Foo Fighters) to write a new album.
“Nick actually approached us while we were still working on Eros,” Moreno says. “I met him for lunch and he explained to me exactly what he liked about our band and totally sold me on his passion.”
Although Deftones were uneasy about returning to work, everything fell into place as soon as they plugged in their instruments and began jamming. Before long, they were coming up with new ideas at a fast pace. “It was definitely therapeutic for us to be writing again,” Moreno says. “And there was a level of confidence there and urgency that was maybe missing before. We knew we could do it, and we pulled it off.”
“In a lot of ways, we didn’t have a choice but to get together and be productive,” Carpenter says. “Moving forward with this was our way of not sitting around being bummed out. We sat around for months, and it was tough. And we’re still not completely out of that mindset. One half of me is having a great time in life; the other half can’t have that great a time because my friend Chi is still laid out.”
Pushing themselves to carry on has had a transformative effect on the band. On past albums, Deftones hadn’t really functioned as a team; they were consumed with personal issues, including divorce, substance abuse, family trauma and outside musical projects. When they did get together, they’d procrastinate like college students, then work with parts of music each member had put together at home. The results were evident on Saturday Night Wrist and 2003’s Deftones, which were as fragmented as they were ferocious—the sprawling sounds of musicians that weren’t really connecting.
Diamond Eyes, however, reflects the cohesion of band members working together for a common goal and leaving their past differences outside the studio door. This time they wrote steadily and collectively, banging out riffs and feeding off the energy they created. The emotion was palpable. Diamond Eyes is crushing, yet laced with vulnerability, intermingling dense, powerful stabs of muted low-end guitar, stuttering midpaced drums, and vocals that are as catchy as prime-era Smashing Pumpkins one moment and as harsh as late-Eighties hardcore then next. The music is relatively straightforward but still offbeat, combining the raw savagery of 1997’s Around the Fur with the surreal paranoia of 2000’s White Pony. It’s also eclectic. “You’ve Seen the Butcher” dabbles in violent, dusky blues; “Cmnd/Ctrl” is propelled by staggering staccato guitar jabs; and “Sextape” swirls with echoing acoustic arpeggios and gliding seductive keyboards.
Upon hearing the master of Diamond Eyes, the execs at Reprise, Deftones’ record label, were so excited that they immediately hired professional remixer Chris Lord-Alge (Dave Matthews Band, Howie Day, Daughtry) to create a radio mix of the title track, which starts with a palm-muted wall of distortion and segues into a mellifluous, radio-ready chorus. “I didn’t even know that was happening until a couple days ago,” Carpenter gripes in the same sedate voice he uses whether he’s excited or riled up. “And after I found out, I wasn’t cool with it at all, but what could I do? It was already done.”
In part, Carpenter is miffed about the remix because he wasn’t involved, but his annoyance has as much to do with his respect for Raskulinecz. When the Deftones needed someone to bring them out of their haze and into a raging creative zone, Raskulinecz served as a compassionate drill sergeant, keeping the band on a fixed schedule and focusing on each member’s strengths. “When we starting working on Diamond Eyes, we were just as unfocused as we’ve ever been,” Carpenter explains. “I’ve always got endless riff ideas at rehearsals. It’s just a question of whether [drummer] Abe [Cunningham] or anyone will be interested and start jamming with me. With Nick, I would come up with a cool riff and he would be like, ‘All right everybody, let’s work on that.’”
In the past, Moreno sometimes interrupted Carpenter’s creative flow by trying to add to, or change, guitar parts on the fly. This time, he usually held back and waited for Carpenter and Cunningham to construct the root of the song. “Stephen was on a roll, so I didn’t want to get in his way at all,” Moreno says. “We did work on some stuff together. Like, I came up with the opening riff for ‘Sextape,’ and then Sergio joined in and Stephen brought in all the soundscapes. The song just built and came together organically.”
In addition to playing on “Sextape,” Moreno contributed to “Royal,” “Beauty School” and “976-Evil.” The sound of his Gibson SG through a Green Matamp amplifier contrasted with Carpenter’s eight-string ESP guitar, Marshall JMP1 preamp and EL34 power amp, creating a vivid ocean of sound. Carpenter, who has played seven-strings since 2000, switched to the eight-string in the wake of his favorite band, Meshuggah.
“It’s funny, because for a long time I avoided switching to a seven-string,” Carpenter says. “It just seemed trendy to me. Then when I started listening to Meshuggah, and I discovered they were using seven strings, I realized, Ah, that’s why they use seven-strings. So when they switched to eight, I thought, Well, lemme get an eight before the whole world has one.”
Carpenter played all of his parts of Diamond Eyes with the eight-string tuned to A-440, the same tuning Moreno used on his six-string. For songs like “Rocket Skates” and “This Place Is Death,” he and Vega doubled their parts, but just as often the bassist played an octave up from Carpenter so the mix wouldn’t sound too swampy. “It’s a little weird because Sergio can’t really go all the way down to where I’m at,” Carpenter says. “When I hit that low F#, he’s going to a higher register than me to be there with me, but he’s a really good player, so he can handle it.”
In mid May, Diamond Eyes debuted on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart at Number Six. The release was accompanied with accolades from the press, which concluded that Deftones’ collision with tragedy had unified their cause and resolidified their bond. The assertion makes sense and neatly packages the “triumph over adversity” theme that plays so well in the media. But Carpenter, who loathes hype almost as much as an empty bong, refutes the assessment.
“I’ve actually been in exactly the same headspace with our music for the past 10 years,” he says. “I don’t ever question whether we’re in or out. I feel like our first three records have proven our consistency. I think the self-titled record is just as great as the first three, I think Saturday Night Wrist is just as great as the first four. This is our sixth record, and when I reflect on all the records, they are all good to me.”
Which brings us to the unfinished, and unreleased, Eros. Both Carpenter and Moreno say its songs are less direct and more experimental than those on Diamond Eyes, and they want their fans eventually to hear them. The real question is, when will that happen? Clearly, Diamond Eyes will remain on the shelf for the next year while Deftones are on tour. After that, Moreno wants to get back together with Raskulinecz and maintain the momentum of Diamond Eyes. But Carpenter wants Eros out sooner rather than later.
“When Chi’s accident first happened, I thought, Fuck, I don’t want to release that stuff without him being here to hear or see it,” Carpenter explains. “And since all of this time, I’ve really changed my perspective to the point where I really want people to hear what Chi’s done and put it out there to promote Chi. And when he comes back we’ll say, “Yo, dog, here’s the shit. It’s out. Welcome back.”
Moreover, while Carpenter is enjoying the group’s commercial resurgence, he says the songs he writes for Deftones’ next record will be more sonically challenging than anything on Diamond Eyes or Eros. “I have left the realm of anything being as it’s been,” he claims somewhat cryptically. “I have 100 percent intention of being as wild and creative as possible in the future, without it making any sense to hardly anyone. That’s just what’s exciting to me.”