Sacramento’s Deftones defy easy classification. The band arose in the early 90s gigging alongside down-coast compatriots Korn at the anguished, aggressive dawn of nu-metal, one of the most unlikely movements in mainstream music history. The NorCal five-piece held court with their rap-metal peers but never quite fit in; in 2000, arguably the apex of the sound, the band’s most successful album White Pony made a darkly seductive cocktail out of their love of synthpop and shoegaze instead. Because Deftones always looked anxiously beyond nu-metal, they outpaced and outlasted it. Because the sound they crafted was singular, each successive album unfurls like a survey of uncharted corners of a world of their creation.
Today marks the release of the eighth Deftones studio album Gore. It is yet another triumph in a career full of them. The album races from pummeling riffs to blissed out choruses on the explosive “Doomed User,” and up through misty turbulence on “Phantom Bride,” a late album highlight set aflame by soulful lead guitar from Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. It is streamlined in style but adventurous in texture, a beautiful synthesis of singer Chino Moreno’s disembodied whisper-to-a-scream vocals, guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s metal chops, keyboardist Frank Delgado’s spectral aesthetics and bassist Sergio Vega and drummer Abe Cunningham’s stout low end.
I caught up with Chino via the phone on the eve of Gore’s release to ask how he and his band manage to keep pushing past their comfort zones over twenty years beyond their 1995 debut album Adrenaline and the Deftones summer tour schedule, which includes a run of arena shows with reconstituted Swedish post-hardcore gods Refused. Affable and poised, Moreno opened up about his writing process in and outside of his main band as well as the joys and pitfalls of making music with your friends as a day job.
NOISEY: Listening to the new album, I was struck by how varied and different a lot of it is in tone and texture from what you’ve done before. Is that something you consciously pursue in the recording process?
Chino Moreno: I think with every record we kinda try to expand a little bit on what we did last and at the same time try to maintain what it is that we do. Sonically it’s a little different. Our gear, that was one thing that was a little different. Everybody sorta took up a different sonic space on certain parts of this record. The songs themselves, the structure and things like that, we spent a little bit more time refining. The last couple records were pretty much written and recorded in a small frame of time. This one, we branched out into a year process of these really quick little spurts of writing. Like, eight to ten days of locking ourselves in a room and everybody going home for a month or two and coming back. Doing that was cool because we got to reflect on ideas and tweak em and refine things a little more.
Is writing ever a tug of war?
Yeah, it is a lot of times. We try to hold each other and ourselves accountable for trying to expand. We’re good friends also, and everyone is very much outspoken. I think it’s a good thing. It’s not always the easiest thing, but the fact that everybody speaks their minds and gives their honest opinion really helps push each other to see how far we can take things and make it an organic experience. Some days are harder than others, but overall it’s still a very fun process, just sitting together with your friends and making noise and making songs out of that noise.
Does taking time off and having other projects like Crosses and Palms help you to come back to this one with a fresh outlook?
Not necessarily. I mean, if it does, it’s not anything that I realize. Obviously working with other people has always been a learning experience for me, and a fun experience. Everybody has different ways of working, and I’m sure I bring certain things back or whatever. But I never approach things differently, no matter what project I’m working on. I’m only me. The music is created first, whether it’s Crosses or Team Sleep or Deftones. The music is always first, and what I do vocally is usually just a reaction to the music. I might react differently to different sounds, but overall I don’t approach anything differently.
When I look at the artwork for the new album—you’ve got this scene of serene beauty in nature, but there’s also a brutality to it—I feel like the contrast is true to the spirit of the band. Talk to me about naming this album Gore.
That was the idea, to juxtapose the visual with the title. the title is definitely provocative sounding and the art itself, there’s a beauty to it. So those two things right away are a dichotomy of one another. I’ve always felt like our best music always has that dichotomy as well. There’s always those velvety parts and a lot of jaggedness to it as well. It’s one of my favorite parts of what we do as a band. We don’t really have a formula of how we do what we do, but naturally there’s stuff that comes out that’s a lot more aggressive than other parts, and both those things balance out and create our sound. Visually, with the artwork, the concept behind it was to give that sort of energy, to paint what’s inside the songs.
I’ve always wanted to ask you about song titles. Gore’s got some of the most out-there song titles since you named a song after the Contra code on Saturday Night Wrist. What is the process that goes into deciding, “This song is going to be called ‘Geometric Headdress’”?
A lot of times the titles come after the songs. That one in particular, I had the title first and wrote the song around the title. I don’t really write down lyrics or write down thoughts even. I’m not really that type of artist that I have like this book of things I feel like I’m gonna pull out one day and make songs out of. Whenever I’m reading, if a word or a phrase catches my ear or seems interesting to me, I’ll write it down. So after all the music was written for this, that’s when I took it to the next step as far as writing the melodies and the words. Sometimes I’ll look through my notes and I’ll just say wow this song has…
Like that song, for instance, “Geometric Headdress”: the music itself, the way it’s structured and the time signatures are a little bugged out, and that name fit very well. It kinda gave me a template to start writing around, and I wrote words to fit that title. Every time is different. Sometimes the song is written and done, and I just name it something. A lot of times naming it something odd… a lot of the records I like are something that’s a little off-kilter. You read it and you don’t know what it is right away and maybe you never know what it is. That curiosity is always something that draws me in, as a fan of music.
So words tend to come last in the songwriting process for you?
I’ll put the instrumental on in my headphones, and I’ll record three or four passes, all completely different ideas with no words at all. Sometimes words will pop out, and I’ll end up keeping them. Most of em I won’t. It’s more or less to figure out the cadence and melodies and how I’m going to fit my voice into the music as an instrument. And then it’s sorta like a puzzle trying to write the words and fit them into those melodies and structures. It does make it a little bit of a task, but that’s the only way I’ve ever been able to do it. The music is what inspires the lyrics, so yeah, it is the very last thing that happens. Some people are completely the opposite. Some people have a book of lyrics, and they hand them over to the musicians and say “Hey, write a song that goes with this.” I’ve never been able to do it. I admire that, but I’ve never been able to do it that way.
I grabbed a ticket to catch you guys with Refused this summer, and it’s still kind of mindblowing to me that we would ever get to see that band in that kind of venue. How did that pairing come about?
We’re fans of the group, and it seemed like it all made sense. They weren’t able to do the whole tour, they’re only coming out for about a month, but it’s just exciting for us, especially a band with high energy like that. The whole idea of having an opening band is someone going up there to just get the crowd sweating. And that band will definitely do that. It also pushes you when you’re playing with a group of that caliber to do your best. It should be a fun summer. We’re looking forward to it.
Looking through your touring schedule it seems like you’re playing a lot of big rooms this summer but not so much the big festivals...
We’re doing our fair share of festivals for sure this year, but it’s good to have a balance of regular shows where we can actually delve in and play deeper cuts and slightly longer sets. It’s our show, you know what I mean? So the production’s the way we want it to look, the sound, everything’s the way you like it. It’s an awesome experience to throw your own show. All the music that gets played from the time the doors open, between the acts, up until we go on stage is all handpicked by us. We make mixes to play throughout the day. So it’s sort of a Deftones event in that way. We’re a little spoiled to get to do that.
The festivals, on the other hand, are great. Especially the ones overseas that we started playing early on that are really diverse. This one time we went to Europe and played the Roskilde festival. Sepultura played, we played, Bob Dylan played, PJ Harvey… For me as a fan of music, I’m just like “Ah, I’m getting to play with all these great artists.” And the same crowd was out there watching the same show and enjoying all the different acts. That open-mindedness of people who are eager to experience all types of music, that’s alway a fun thing to get thrown into. There’s a lot of different types of acts, and for us as fans of music, it’s a good time.
Craig has been waiting 20 years for this. Follow him on Twitter.