Deftones' 'White Pony': 10 Things We Learned From Chino Moreno | Revolver

Deftones' 'White Pony': 10 Things We Learned From Chino Moreno

The origins of the iconic horse artwork, the turning point in "Digital Bath" and more
deftones 2000 James minchin PRESS, James Minchin III
photograph by James Minchin III

The Prince of Darkness appeared without warning to Chino Moreno at the supermarket. It was 1999, and the singer had just stepped away from a Deftones recording session in West Hollywood to grab a snack, only to find Ozzy Osbourne in the checkout line. "I didn't talk to him," Moreno recalls of that early encounter, one more in a series of weird events that season. "He was paying for his stuff and sort of fumbling with his money. It was just surreal."

When Moreno got back to Larrabee Studios, he finished the lyrics to a new song, "Teenager," already filling his head. He still sounds excited as he looks back on that time and the making of White Pony, the milestone album that Deftones offered up to an unsuspecting world on June 20th, 2000.

It remains at the center of his band's legacy for deep, mind-expanding thunder, with songs like "Change (In the House of Flies)," "Elite" and "Passenger" that remain essential fan favorites. To celebrate, Deftones are planning a White Pony reissue (still in the works) that will include a whole companion-piece remix album called Black Stallion.

At the time, the band had already gone through a creative awakening on 1997's Around the Fur, stepping further away from the popular nu-metal sound of the moment for something completely their own — raw, emotional, heavy, ethereal, mysterious. White Pony followed up by taking that sound deeper.

The album was written and recorded over many months across California by the classic Deftones lineup: Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, bassist Chi Cheng, drummer Abe Cunningham, and the newest full member, sound scientist Frank Delgado, DJ and keyboardist. The band's direction was at least partly inspired by the brooding trip-hop textures of DJ Shadow and Massive Attack, among others.

"We just had this idea of a sound and we wanted to experiment with that," recalls Moreno. "It was taking a chance, when we were already kind of successful for being a 'metal' leaning act, but it didn't feel uncomfortable. It felt like a natural progression. The confidence that we had in ourselves at the time really led us to open up and try those types of things."

In commemoration of 20 years of White Pony, Moreno spoke with Revolver for an in-depth piece to come. In the meantime, here are 10 highlights from our conversation about the alt-metal classic.

1. Stephen Carpenter heads South and Chino picks up a guitar
As songwriting sessions were set to begin in Sacramento for a third Deftones album, Carpenter abruptly moved to Los Angeles. The guitarist would drive up every week days at a time, but he was also beginning to work with Cypress Hill rapper B-Real on a side project in L.A. called Kush. "So he was out there and it was just us without him at our studio just tinkering around. That's when I started picking up the guitar," says Moreno, who first learned the instrument at 16, playing along to records by Smashing Pumpkins and Jane's Addiction. When he and Carpenter's guitars began mingling on White Pony, Moreno felt a new connection. "It was just really fun to play along with him, and just see where I fit in. It was just a whole other avenue that opened up."

2. The role of Maynard James Keenan
For a time during the sessions at Larrabee, Keenan turned up frequently and ended up singing with Moreno on "Passenger." The Tool singer was going to be a kind of executive producer of the recordings, says Moreno, but the role didn't stick after Keenan got busy with another new act: A Perfect Circle. "I was hanging out with him a little bit and he would come by the studio. We had this idea that he was going to executive produce," Moreno remembers. "It wasn't really clarified, but he was down to help us work on the record. So [we] wrote on a couple of songs — maybe the music for 'Passenger' and the music 'Digital Bath.' And then he got really busy."

3. The band's life of parties in the Hollywood Hills
After the sessions for White Pony moved to L.A., the band rented a house in the hills above the Sunset Strip, where things could get a little crazy. A clue to the flavor of those times can be seen in the music video for "Change (in the House of Flies)," which has Moreno singing amid scattered, shell-shocked survivors of a SoCal house party. In reality, only the cast of characters was different. "Maybe not as model-esque," he says now with a laugh, "but every night there was a party. We'd be up to the wee hours of the morning. It's funny, I remember a lot more of hanging out than actually working on the music, but somehow we got it done."

On other nights, Deftones members might land at a club and find a random assortment of celebrities and musicians, from Christina Aguilera to Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "I didn't feel like we ever really, really fit in," he says, "but we did definitely have fun. It was kind of a whirlwind."

4. A turning point in "Digital Bath"
After months of work in and out of the studio, White Pony and the evolving Deftones sound took a major leap with the ethereal, soaring, beat-driven "Digital Bath." After he finished his vocal tracking, Moreno had to hear it immediately, and took a fresh cassette copy into his rental car. "It was at night and I was just driving through Hollywood," he says. "I was just thinking to myself, 'This sounds futuristic to me. There's little elements of things that I love, but it sounds like something new.' And we just made it an hour ago. So there was a feeling of accomplishment. I sort of felt like, yeah, we're onto something."

5. "Pink Maggit" vs. "Back to School (Mini Maggit)"
White Pony closes with the band's longest and least conventionally structured song up to that point. At 7:38 minutes, "Pink Maggit" is a brooding, surreal tune that came out of a chord progression from Carpenter. "In our minds, it was like our Pink Floyd moment where we're just going to get astral and see how far out of space we can go."

Even within the song's epic scope, there was a hook that the label advised could be shaped into a hit single. White Pony had already been released as an 11-song album, but the band was urged to rework one of the album's purest expressions into a shorter single and include it on a second, 12-track version of the LP. The band reluctantly went along, and included a biting rap vocal from Moreno. "It was just like, alright, let's dumb this down a little bit," says Moreno, who still considers the original album (sans "Back to School") the preferred White Pony. "We just did it and the outcome was sort of lukewarm. I think some people liked it."

6. As White Pony session got deep, Deftones took a moment to get loud
The raging song "Elite" won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance and emerged from Carpenter's sudden urge during the White Pony sessions to "hear some metal shit," recalls Moreno. The guitarist was fully on board with the sound of "Digital Bath" and other tracks, spending many months expanding the Deftones sound into layered sonic landscapes, but it was time to kick out some jams. "Stephen came up with that riff and then I just attacked it — I did what I knew he would love, and came up with some scathing aggression. It's that moment of the record that's in your face and relentless. I like heavy shit, too."

7. The evolution of Chino's singing style
As he had on Around the Fur, Moreno stepped further away from nu-metal vocals at the new sessions. The songs he sang were often less about lyrical content than pure feeling and melody, and usually inspired by the Deftones sounds around him. "I've always written melodies and words inspired by the music that I'm singing to," he says. "It all has to work together. We've never been a band where I just hand those guys some lyrics and say, 'Hey, could you guys write something to this?' I mean, that'd be awesome to experiment with, but we've just never been that band."

8. The White Pony title and famous horse icon was chosen before a single song was written
On the cover of White Pony is a simple outline of a horse in mid-gallop that Moreno found online, and he immediately connected to it. Recording sessions for the album had yet to begin, but he already recognized White Pony as a powerful title and image for the band. He says it was just a bit of minimalist clip art, and he shared it with the others. "Everybody gravitated towards it right away," Moreno says of the band. "Frank brought out that the pony was symbolizing how we were treading our own path. I don't think we really talked about it back then, but our one mission was to stay away from the pack. I felt like we were all trying to do that making that record."

9. White Pony's popularity grew slowly
White Pony is now recognized as a milestone in the evolution of Deftones' music. Many critics immediately embraced the evolving sound, but it was two years before the record reached platinum. Moreno compares its current popularity to some of his favorite albums while growing up. "The more you listen to them, the more things start revealing themselves to you, and those records usually always ended up being the ones that stand the test of time," he says. "Years would go by and you got the vibe that it's a lot of people's favorite record. Some people that don't even really know much about Deftones' discography, they know that record, you know?"

10. The White Pony documentary that wasn't
The success of White Pony also meant a long period of touring before returning to the studio in 2002 again, and the band brought a documentary crew with them during the final leg of the tour. That film was never released.

"After watching it, it was just depressing because you could tell we were tired. We needed a break," says Moreno. "Everybody just needed to step back and decompress. And we did, and then we started a whole other chapter of craziness."