Deftones' Chino Moreno Remembers Chi Cheng: "He Was Always Just Chi" | Revolver

Deftones' Chino Moreno Remembers Chi Cheng: "He Was Always Just Chi"

Singer looks back on life and legacy of bandmate and "brother"
deftones chi cheng 2000 GETTY, Gary Livingston/Newsmakers
Deftones' Chi Cheng, 2000
photograph by Gary Livingston/Newsmakers

Early in the morning on April 14, 2013, Deftones bassist Chi Cheng was rushed to a hospital in the band's native Sacramento, California. Not long after his arrival, Cheng was pronounced dead after experiencing cardiac arrest. He was 42 years old.

For Cheng, it was a tragic end to what had been a long and difficult fight for his life. Roughly four-and-a-half years earlier, on November 8, 2008, in Santa Clara, California, Cheng was riding shotgun in a car driven by his younger sister, Mae, when they smashed into another vehicle. Their car flipped over three times and Chi, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected out and onto the road. The accident left him in a coma. He eventually progressed to being in a semi-conscious state, but he was never able to speak or communicate, and for the most part could not move his body. His family—sister Mae, a brother, Ming, his mother, Jeanne, and a teenage son, Gabriel—remained vigilant in their care for Cheng, attempting every type of treatment possible over the years. Along with his bandmates, as well as his many friends in the music community and fans all over the world—one particularly devoted fan set up the One Love for Chi website as a way to share thoughts and stories about the bassist and also raise funds to help cover his extensive medical bills—they held out hope that Cheng would one day recover, and even, perhaps, play the bass again.

With Cheng's sudden passing in April, that hope has now turned to grief for his family, friends, and fans. And while his Deftones bandmates—singer Chino Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, drummer Abe Cunningham, and turntablist Frank Delgado—have for years been dealing with the ramifications of losing someone who was an integral part of their musical makeup (since Cheng's accident, his spot has been occupied by Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega), they have also had to cope with Cheng's absence on a more personal level. As much as Cheng was the big man who held down the big bottom end of the Deftones' sound, he was also a close friend. The primary members had known each other since they were teenagers, and as much as they were a band, they were also a family. "Since I was 17 years old, I spent practically every day of my life with Chi," Moreno says. "We were bandmates, but he was also like a brother." 

While at several times during our conversation about the bassist's life and passing, Moreno spoke of a "deep sadness," he chose to focus on the good times with Cheng, and in particular some of the more lighthearted aspects of his personality. "I really get a really warm feeling when I think about him," Moreno says. "He was just one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Probably the first thing I think of when I think of Chi is the funny shit. He would literally say the zaniest stuff. He had this thing, we'd call it his foot-in-mouth. Because he had a tendency to do that. The man didn't have a vindictive or conniving bone in his body, but he was the type of person who would point out the obvious, and then actually say it out loud. And always at the wrong time. And it would be like, 'Damn, Chi…' It was sort of a running joke."

Moreno laughs. "But that was definitely Chi's personality, and we always got a kick out of it. And so did he. That's how he was, and he knew that's how he was. Chi was always Chi."

REVOLVER When and how did you and Chi first meet?
It was the late '80s, and I believe I was probably 16 or 17. Chi was a couple years older than me so he was 18 or 19. The band had started at that point, but we needed to find a new bass player. And Stephen had come across Chi's number—Chi and his brother Ming both played bass, and Stephen saw an ad for them. But Ming was more of a funk player and Chi was more of a metal guy. So Stephen made the call and Ming answered the phone. Stephen told him about the band and what we were doing and right away Ming said, "You're looking for my brother." So he put Chi on the phone and we made a plan for him to come to our rehearsal space, which was Stephen's mom's garage.

What was your first impression of him?
I remember the first time I saw him, we were all sitting there on the porch and he pulled up in like a beat-up station wagon. He had really, really long straight black hair, and he was wearing long shorts with striped socks pulled all the way up to his knees. I could tell he was Asian, but I could also see he was Asian and white. He just looked like an interesting character. And he was super nice. Pretty open and joking a lot. And then he smiled his big, sort of crooked smile. I think everybody gravitated toward him right away.

How did the rehearsal go?
Well, we all went into the garage, which was a pretty tiny room. It was filled with all of Stephen's mom's crafts, boxes of Christmas stuff, whatever. So there was maybe a few feet there for us to stand and play our instruments. And it was hot. His mom used to run the washer and dryer while we were in there. That was the only thing: She let us practice there but we couldn't impinge on her laundry. [Laughs] So it was like a sweatbox. But we were stoked and we started playing and we actually wrote a song probably within an hour or two. I remember the song, but we never recorded it or anything like that. To explain it as far as how it sounded, it was heavy for the time I guess. It had a lot of groove. One thing we always tried to do was have music that's impacting and aggressive in a certain manner but always maintained some kind of groove to it. And Chi right away got that vibe, because he was sort of like a hippie. He had this very '60s type of attitude.

During these early days, you and Chi actually lived together as well?
Yeah. He had a place on the campus at Sacramento State, because he was still a part-time student there. He was living there with his girlfriend and I'd wind up just sleeping on the couch. And I remember thinking, God, his girlfriend must be sick of me because I'm always here. Eventually they broke up, and as soon as she moved out, I moved in officially. It was this little one bedroom and we shared it. And I got a job working in the dining commons, serving breakfast and lunch to the kids in the dorms. We just kind of made enough money to get by. But it was super-cheap because it was just the two of us in one bedroom, and Chi's dad actually paid half the rent, which he said he would do as long as Chi was in school. But then, as the band started to get more recognition around Sacramento, Chi decided he was going to quit school. We kept it from his dad as long as we could so that he would continue to help with the rent. [Laughs] But that was a real coming-of-age experience for me. I had moved out of my parents' house and in with Chi, and he was sort of like my big brother-slash-parent in a way. Being a couple years older, he looked out for me. So the second half of my life, and the beginning of my adult life, started out by being with Chi. From that point on, we spent every day together. We were together when we got the news that Deftones got a record deal.

How did that happen?
At the time, Chi and I were both working at Tower Records, because their home base was in Sacramento. We went and did our showcase for Maverick Records in Los Angeles. I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but one day Chi and I were at work and I remember Chi getting off the phone and saying, "Dude, we got a record deal!" And I was like, "All right. Let's quit!" And we quit Tower the next week. And it was rolling after that. We started making a record, we went on tour. That was it.

It was well known that Chi listened to a lot of music other than rock. He was a big fan of artists like Willie Nelson and Jimmy Cliff, and he also wrote poetry. He even released a spoken word album, The Bamboo Parachute, in 2000. How did all of that play into or influence the sound of the Deftones?
I wouldn't say it did all that much. Everybody in the band pretty much has influences that aren't typical. What Chi brought in was just another element of that. But he was really true to what he loved. The guy hardly ever listened to any heavy music at all. And I loved that about him. He was own person. But it wasn't anything that anybody in the group thought was weird. It was what made us what we are. But yeah, he loved Willie, Dolly Parton, old-school country stuff like that. He was sort of a hippie though, too. He loved reggae, Taj Mahal, old soul music. He was very much into the "roots" of any genre.

How did his actual playing style affect the band's sound?
It's funny because Chi was never really a technical bass player. We always had this sort of inside joke about him being a half-beat behind or in front of everybody at all points. Even Chi joked about it. The way he would tap his foot would always be…we called "Chi Time," because it was a timing that was different from everybody else's timing. But he always fit in there. In general, I think his thing was that he was sort of filling the holes, so that everything wasn't always so precise. And if you listen to all our records up through [2006's] Saturday Night Wrist, I think you can really hear that.

Chi was also a Buddhist, which is not the belief system followed by your typical rock guy.
He was always a very spiritual person. It's funny because even though he never acted like a rock star, he would do and say crazy shit all the time. Things that were, like, nuts. And you would think, This dude can't be a Buddhist! He was very raw, I guess. That'd be the best way to describe his personality. That was the other side of him. And he would tell me crazy shit, too. Like, early on, he convinced me, and I don't know how true it was or not, that he would astral project himself, that he had fought demons… He said one of his relatives or something was possessed. He'd always have some fucked-up, off-the-wall story. And knowing him, he wasn't a liar, so he wasn't just telling me this stuff to impress me.

But the thing is, that side of him was also what made me feel, after the accident, that there had to be something going on beyond what we could see. Because he was such a spiritual person and seemed to be very in touch with his soul, for lack of a better word. Even with the state he was in, there had to be some battle he was fighting for those four-and-a-half years. For better or worse, when people would ask me, "How is Chi doing?" that would be my answer. "He's fighting the fight." And I honestly felt that was the truth.

Can you talk about the moment when you first saw Chi after the car accident?
All the guys went up to the hospital in the Bay Area that day. At that point, Chi was all bandaged up and you couldn't even recognize him. But we just started taking it day by day. Every day we'd hear news—he's doing this, he might make it, he's doing better… To make a long story short, that went on for a good four-and-a-half years, with a lot of ups and downs. And for a while, the band stuff was the furthest thing from our minds. About six months after the accident, we finally started playing. We never really had a meeting or anything. We just got together. And I think that was a very therapeutic moment for us. There was obviously a big piece missing, but it felt like at least we had each other.

But then we had to start dealing with the press asking all the time about how he was doing. And not even just the press—I'd run into people on the street wanting to know, "How is Chi?" And the reality of it was that for the whole time that he was in that state, there was nobody who really knew if he'd live another day, or if he'd wake up the next day or whatever. The information we got was always very vague and very uncertain. So it was kind of like we just held on to the most optimistic outlook and hoped for the best. But we really didn't know anything.

How did you find out he had passed?
It was almost like déjà vu with when he had the accident. I got a call in the morning, and was told he had passed in the night. Over the years, there had been a few times where things had gotten pretty bad, where he'd have these episodes, these seizures, and his vitals would go crazy and he'd get rushed to the hospital and things wouldn't look good. But that call was a very sobering blow. In one way, there was a slight sense of relief in that hopefully he wasn't suffering anymore. But at the same time, not to be selfish, but you think, I'm never going to be able to talk to my buddy again. I'm never going to be able to see him again. And that's when it really hit—that deep, deep, deep down sadness of knowing that the person I spent almost every single day with since I was 17 years old, the guy who every night on tour I'd be laying in my bunk hearing him snoring in the bunk across from me, he's gone. It was just a real sobering moment.

A few months before Chi's death you had his son, Gabriel, join you guys onstage at the Warfield in San Francisco to play bass on the Adrenaline song "Root." What was that experience like?
Ah man, it was insane. For him, I think it was an awesome experience, just being a kid and going onstage with your dad's band, filling your dad's shoes. I'm sure that must have been a big deal for him. But I don't think he realized how big a deal it was for us. Just to look on that side of the stage and see a little Chi doppelganger. He looks just like his dad. And he plays bass just like his dad. He has that Chi timing. He taps his foot while he plays, he bangs his head slightly off time, but he's still there… It's odd. He has the same mannerisms and everything. And he's such a great kid. A nice, nice boy. You could tell he was really nervous but he did a great job. And when he actually came up, I looked over at the side of the stage and everybody was tearing up. It was a really special moment.

I know you get asked all the time about the unreleased Eros record. But seeing as how those sessions constitute Chi's final recorded music with the band, is there more of a concrete plan now to do something with that material?
Not really. The main thing about it is that we actually have to revisit it. We couldn't put it out the way it is because it's not finished at all. I would say it's about 70 percent there. And I don't think that right now we feel like putting our energy into finishing that other 30 percent and then releasing it to people as something we're trying to promote. When we get together to make music now, we're looking forward and we're thinking about how everybody feels in the moment and we're trying to capture that. So it'd be hard for us to sit down and go backwards. And another thing is that it's just difficult to listen to. It really is. And while there's some good music there, I honestly don't think if Eros had come out that it would have been one of our best records.

Why do you say that?
I think it's pretty well documented that the Saturday Night Wrist record was pretty much the breaking point for us as a band. By Eros, we were rebuilding our work ethic but we hadn't really reached it fully yet. So it's a little fragmented in sound. But there are definitely some moments where it's crushing. One song in particular, I listened to it recently and it hit me on so many different levels. Chi's playing was on it and it really brought me back to those times in my life. And those days that we were spending together doing Eros were some of the best times. When we were writing that record was when we were reconnecting not just as a band but also as friends. We'd show up to the studio around 7 at night and we'd sit around, play poker, play board games. We'd have serious Risk competitions going on. [Laughs] It was a really fun time as far as us just being together. Musically, I think we were still sort of struggling a little bit. But as friends, we were really rebuilding ourselves. And that was one of the crazy things, that right in the middle of all of that Chi's accident happened. I think that opened our eyes even wider, to think that, Wow, here we were in years before, I wouldn't say taking things for granted, but just not really understanding what we had as friends and as a band. So I think at that point everybody became a lot closer. But to get back to the original question, no, we don't have any concrete plans to do anything with Eros right now. But that said, I truly believe that one day it will surface and it will be out, and people will get to hear Chi again.

Generally speaking, what do you think will stand as Chi's legacy in all of this, both as a person and also as a musician?
I think we're seeing it right now. Anybody he met, whether it was someone in another band or a fan, he was genuine. He touched the people around him. The ones who were lucky enough to meet him got to feel that. And you can hear it in his playing. I listen to some of those Deftones records and I hear his personality and individuality coming through his bass lines, through everything. He didn't really follow any trends or any ideas of what he was supposed to be. He was always just Chi. And I think people will always know that about him by seeing the life he lived and hearing the music he left behind.