“Stephen said, 'Why don't you just play along with my guitar line?' I said: 'Why don't you just p**s off?'” A classic interview with Deftones bassist Chi Cheng

Bassist Chi Cheng performs live with his band, The Deftones at the University of California, Irvine Bren Events Center October 23, 2000 in Irvine, CA.
(Image credit: Gary Livingston/Getty Images)

The premature death of Deftones bassist Chi Cheng on April 13, 2013, was a blow to the bass community. The Californian musician had been involved in a serious vehicle accident five years beforehand and had spent those years in a comatose or semi-conscious state, but hopes were still high among Deftones fans and the wider musical community that he would recover. Sadly, he suffered a cardiac arrest — just over a decade ago, as we write this — and died at the age of 42.

We remember Chi as a skillful bass player and charismatic performer, with five Deftones albums and a solo spoken-word LP as his legacy, but we also recall his wit and conviction, as revealed in this interview with Bass Guitar magazine from 2003. You didn’t mess with Chi, because he strongly believed in what he was doing as a bassist and a composer, but at the same time you never met a cooler, mellower guy. He was a lifelong fan, too: when we spoke to him, the Deftones had just played the UK’s Download Festival, where he hung out with Iron Maiden. “I got a fuckin’ picture of me with Steve Harris — I’m gonna get it framed!” he told us. 

Chi, your bass parts often complement the guitar riffs rather than just underpinning them. How do you write them?

For basslines, I like to get a CD of the guitar parts, put it in the rental car and go for a long drive. Then I hear them in my head: it’s the only way I can do it. Then I rush back to the studio and get it down real quick. It makes sense. I was talking to our producer Terry Date about it, and he said that Rob Zombie does the same thing. He’ll drive around and listen to the CD, and his main focus is driving. When you’re subconsciously taking it in, and you’re processing it and you start to hear something over it, you’re not forcing it and it’s not contrived. It would be easy just to play along with Stephen [Carpenter, Deftones guitarist], but it’s just not what I hear.

Did you ever play slap bass?

I was never good enough to do it. I think I fiddled around with it and thought, oh I get this, but it didn’t really fit for our band. I get a lot of grief from Stephen anyway — he says, 'Why don’t you just play along with my guitar riff?' And I’m like, 'Why don’t you fuckin’ piss off?' Haha. 

Typical guitarist.

Yeah! He’s like, 'Can’t you just play along?' I remember on our song Change (In The House Of Flies), him and Terry said, 'Oh no, you’re not gonna play that goofy dub-reggae bass-line, are you?' And I was like, 'Yes, that’s exactly what I’m gonna play!' And then it became a really big song for us, so I was like, okay, now let me write the fuckin’ way I write.

Talking of Terry Date, your albums have a huge production. How do you keep the bass prominent?

Actually, it is kinda hard, because Stephen is just a wall of sound, so to find a tone that falls between him and the kick drum is fairly tiring at points. But you know, it works. You know, I just fuel up on alcohol and stumble around up and down stairs.

Which bassists did you admire when you were starting out?

The guys that influenced me are the players who pushed the boundaries of metal bass playing — Steve Harris, Geezer Butler, and Cliff Burton of Metallica. Cliff was an unbelievably phenomenal player, and he would fall in with the guitars at the appropriate spots if he felt it was best for the totality of the song. But he didn’t mind straying away from the fuckin’ guitars and writing something a little outside of it. Steve Harris was the same way: he almost drives the band with his playing.

What music influenced you?

Well, I was into the thrash metal scene in Sacramento, but then I got into punk. I loved punk playing. Operation Ivy was a good Bay Area band, Christ On Parade, MDC — all these bands that I used to see in the 80s. That was an amazing, amazing form of bass playing. The first time I heard Bad Brains, I was like, Jesus! That’s a band that’s tastefully mixing all these styles of music. Matt Freeman, who used to be in Operation Ivy, and is now in Rancid — another tasteful player.

What basses do you play?

I just use ’59 Fender Precision reissues. You can’t really go wrong with Fenders. I’m not really good enough to have active pickups or more than one knob! They’re all from the custom shop. I told them: 'Just give me a volume/tone knob'.

No custom modifications?

No, I’m a minimalist! They’ve been four-strings up until this last album [Deftones, 2003] but now I’ve got a couple of five-strings. Stephen refused to do anything other than seven-string work — you know, we really fought about it. Even some of the songs he plays a seven-string guitar on, I play a four-string bass on. Like, fuck it, you know? But there were certain parts I had to give in on. With my style of playing, it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do on a five-string. The lines that I write aren’t the normal type of lines — they’re slinky, they move around the rhythm. I have my own weird sense of rhythm, it doesn’t really fall in with the normal sense.

Ever played a six-string?

Oh man, fuck no. I can barely handle four. I have to fight that fifth string. I’d like to go in the other direction, man, and go to three. Shit, look at [Soulfly guitarist] Max Cavalera: he’s only got four strings on his guitar. He’s like, I can play this really beautiful rhythm on four, why do I need those other two? Fuck ’em!

Visit Buckle Up For Chi, the site that honors Chi's memory and promotes seat belt safety.

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.