Deftones: "The bass is a very forward-charging instrument, and it has to be for me to enjoy playing it"

(Image credit: Tamar Levine)

We love our bass-slinging siblings dearly, but, well, we’re called Australian Guitar for a reason, so we’ll just put it bluntly: the guitar (as in, the real guitar) is always going to be the star on any great rock album. There are admittedly a few outlier acts that give us a run for our money, however – one of which being Californian alt-metal outfit Deftones, who’d be nothing without the gravelly grunt of Sergio Vega’s four-string fury. 

Their ninth album, Ohms, is a career-defining onslaught of delightfully down-tuned volatility. It was released to some of the most fervent critical acclaim the quintet have seen since their 2000 magnum opus, White Pony, and deservedly so: the way they balance airiness and aggression, and explore a wealth tones ranging from angelic to angular, is simply phenomenal – as too is the continued strength of their collective songwriting chops and determination to evolve stylistically.

And at the core of it all, of course, is Vega’s next‑level bassage. The sheer gallantry with which he juts against lead guitarist Stephen Carpenter cannot be understated – not can the way his floor‑rattling rumbles weave around Chino Moreno’s impassioned vocals. We’re not implying that it’s a competition, but if it were, Vega would be the true MVP of this album – which is why we were over the moon when we heard he was keen to wax lyrical about it for Australian Guitar!

Heading into this enormous ninth chapter of the Deftones story, how did you want Ohms to push yourselves one step further, and what did you want to explore on this record that you haven’t before? 
Well, I would say that we never head into an album with an overarching goal. Our goal as a band, and as a collective of artists, is just to make something that we’re all excited about. Now as individuals, we all have specific agendas and ideas that we want to explore. 

We like to enter a recording process with a sort of palate refresh – for this one, Stephen [Carpenter, lead guitars] started playing a nine-string, I introduced some new tunings to my rig, and Chino [Moreno, vocals and guitar] got some new pedals, Frank [Delgado, keys and synth] got some new pedals and a new keyboard, and Abe [Cunningham, drums] got a new kit… We all have new toys and new sounds, and as individuals, things that are exciting to us. And how that collides within the band is the organic aspect of it.

What did you introduce into your arsenal for this record? 
For me, it was all new tunings. My writing process was the same – I think it was the same for everyone – but I just introduced some new tunings. I write a lot of my stuff on a Fender Bass VI – I did over half of Gore on that – and I also write on a guitar. 

And because I do a lot of home demos, I can smash out a song idea from start to finish whenever I like. For instance, there’s a song on this record called “Genesis” where I started demoing that as soon as the idea popped up into my head – I programmed the drums and keyboards, played the bass and guitar parts, and then emailed it out to the guys. 

But what made that new for me was that I did it all in a new tuning – because at a certain point in the process, some of the stuff I had written on the Bass VI, I showed Chino and he was like, “Hey, what if we played it like this?” So that was cool.

You play a lot harder and with a lot more attack than I’ve seen from a lot of rock bassists. Do you consider your approach towards the instrument to be more in line with that of a traditional guitarist? 
I don’t know if it’s so much that I approach it like a guitar, but I certainly like to explore the bass as a lead instrument. Some of my all-time favourite bands are bass-driven. I think some people associate the bass as being a reactionary instrument – other people write the songs, and the bassist just finds their space in that song. But that’s not my dynamic. It’s a very forward‑charging instrument, and it has to be for me to enjoy playing it.

Especially on a track like “The Spell Of Mathematics”, it is that really deep, driving low-end that carries the album at large. 
I have to give my kudos to Terry Date [producer] in terms of the overall richness and sonic girth of this record. There’s something that he does that he brings that out of us, y’know? For all but two songs on the record, I’m playing in a B tuning – it’s still a four-string bass, but I haven’t done that before, so that allowed me to go deeper. And my sound has a lot of crunch and a lot of compression, so it’s very articulated. Between Stephen and myself, with Stephen playing a nine‑string guitar, we can get pretty deep!

The way that Terry captures music, and the way that he works with instruments, is really exciting. I just consider him to be a genius. And Chino also tunes down as well – we’re playing in a couple of different tunings to shake things up between songs, but Chino has one tuning where he has his low string down to A, so we’re all playing in lower registers. Just for fun, y’know? It’s nothing intentional. It didn’t factor into the songwriting process as a conscious creative thing, but it was definitely a fun thing to do.

Is it a very collaborative sort of energy when you’re all in a room together?
Yes! I think that’s really how it all works. There’s a lot of active listening in the rehearsal room, so if someone has an idea, we can all jump in and put our fingerprints on it. Let’s say Frank plays something on a keyboard, and Chino finds it exciting – he’s quick to pick up on that riff and accompany it on the guitar. So it can start from anywhere. 

And everything is constantly being recorded, from the first rehearsals or the first writing sessions that we’re all there for – I’ll set up my laptop and we’ll put a couple of mics in the room, and we’ll have everything documented.

So you can watch songs shapeshift and evolve in realtime. 
Exactly. And it’s a huge thing, because the songs do shapeshift. You can be playing one riff for an hour straight, but it’ll go through several permutations throughout that time. So we have the ability to go back and listen to it from when the idea first came up, and choose whatever the best version of it is. And ideas don’t get lost that way, either – if we take an idea too far in one direction and it becomes something else entirely, we’re still able to go back and see what the original idea was.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…