How Deftones Pulled Together After Trauma and Tragedy to Make 'Koi No Yokan' | Revolver

How Deftones Pulled Together After Trauma and Tragedy to Make 'Koi No Yokan'

Interband conflict. Label pressure. Substance abuse. Death. Chino Moreno discusses survival and healing in classic interview.
deftones_2012_13th_witness_1.jpg, 13th Witness
photograph by 13th Witness

This story was originally published in 2012.

For Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, there's no such thing as downtime. Take, for example, a recent afternoon in early September. Moreno was home in Los Angeles following the Deftones' short run of arenas with System of a Down. The band was set to begin rehearsals for their next round of touring, and also gearing up for the release of its new and seventh studio album, Koi No Yokan.

And yet, despite all the activity in Deftones world, Moreno finds himself on this day at the home studio of a friend — former Isis drummer Aaron Harris — where he's laying down vocals for the debut album from Palms, a band that, in addition to Harris, features additional ex-Isis men Clifford Meyer and Jeff Caxide.

"I'm just keeping busy," the 39-year-old singer says, acknowledging that music is not only his day job, but his hobby as well. "What else am I gonna do? If I'm not out on tour, I'm not gonna sit around and play video games or go golfing. I don't really do that stuff. It's like, my kids are at school, I'm at home, am I going to just watch TV all day? I want to do something creative. So if I have any spare time, I'm either listening to music, researching music or making music. Right now I have about a week to get some stuff done here, and then the rest of the guys are coming into town to rehearse and it'll be Deftones time again."

At present, the members of the Deftones are somewhat geographically dispersed. Moreno and guitarist Stephen Carpenter have for the past several years called the L.A. area home, while drummer Abe Cunningham and turntablist-keyboardist Frank Delgado still reside in and around the band's native Sacramento. Bassist Sergio Vega, who has been filling in for original member Chi Cheng since a devastating 2008 car accident left him incapacitated, makes his home in New York. "We're kind of spread out," Moreno admits, and yet they've been operating under a newfound closeness. According to the singer, past Deftones albums were often "pieced together rather than created together." But for Koi No Yokan, the band gathered in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio and crafted the songs as a unit. They then moved to nearby Paramount Recording Studios to cut the album with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains).

It's a working procedure that they first explored on their previous album, 2010's Diamond Eyes, for which the band eschewed the type of piecemeal, Pro Tools-assisted recording process that had become their norm in favor of cultivating something more organic and immediate. There were multiple reasons for this approach. For starters, following Cheng's accident, they had scrapped an almost completed album, Eros (which remains in the vaults to this day), in favor of beginning anew. "So we were in a situation where we were already a year-and-a-half into the record-making process and we were out of money," Moreno says. "We had to do it fast and we had to do it good." Secondly, for a band that had become accustomed to operating under a certain amount of stress, they now found themselves searching to find their way through severe tragedy, and to reconnect on personal and musical fronts. "It was an exercise in getting back to basics, and it really worked out for us," Moreno says. "So we approached this record the same way."

Like its predecessor, Koi No Yokan is a focused and hard-hitting effort, indicative in tracks like the loping "Swerve City" and the jerky "Poltergeist," the latter powered by a particularly menacing Carpenter eight-string-guitar riff. But in characteristic Deftones fashion, the aggressive moments are balanced with plenty of hazy, beatific melodies and layered, textural soundscapes. This time, however, the band ventures even further afield than they have in the recent past: Take "Entombed," an atmospheric ballad in which Moreno's high and clean vocal floats above burbling electronics and Carpenter's fluid, tapped-note patterns. It's ethereal and grandiose, and also quite beautiful. It also puts the lie to the idea that, as Moreno says, "people think of Stephen as being responsible for the heavy stuff and me for the pussy stuff." He laughs. "I think there are a lot of things Stephen's doing on this record where people would probably assume, 'That must be Chino's idea because it's not full-on aggressive.' But that's not always the case. We all just wanted to expand a little bit on what we've done in the past."

 But while the Koi No Yokan sessions seemed to have been infused by good vibes — the album's Japanese title even translates loosely as the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love — Moreno acknowledges that things still are not, and perhaps never will be, completely at ease in the Deftones camp. Currently, Cheng resides in a semi-conscious state, and his heath remains tenuous. The shock of his injury was still fresh in his bandmates' minds when Diamond Eyes was conceived and recorded, and the result was their strongest effort since 2000's White Pony. Today, with Quicksand bassist Vega firmly ensconced within their ranks, and the band's status as alt-metal untouchables seemingly reaffirmed, there's a sense that things have normalized. Only they haven't.

"Speaking for myself, it's not like I've completely settled into this," Moreno says of their situation as it stands now. "But I have acknowledged that it is what it is, like, 'This is where we're at today.' But it's not like there's been any kind of closure at all. Because Chi is still alive and he's still fighting. So we can never completely relax into the way things are."

That said, he does acknowledge that, at the very least, Cheng's accident forced the bandmates to reassess what they had as a unit. "There's the cliché of realizing what's important in the face of tragedy, and it's absolutely true," he says. "You begin to understand just how precious everything is. It makes all the other shit you're dealing with feel so stupid." In the Deftones' case, they were a band that had become known for their "shit," so to speak, from drug addictions — cocaine and speed for Moreno — to plenty of interband arguing, culminating in Moreno's disappearing for a three-month tour with his trippy electronic project Team Sleep during the making of 2006's Saturday Night Wrist.

"The guys were pretty pissed about that," Moreno says of his going AWOL during the sessions. "And they had a reason to be. But I honestly felt we just needed a little time apart. A lot of people seem to forget that we've been a band since 1988. I've known Stephen since I was 10 years old, and Abe since I was 11 or 12. And shortly after that, we formed a band together. So we've spent all our lives doing the same thing with the same people. And at some point you step back from that and you're like, Wow. I've been doing this every single day for a long time. You start to have issues."

According to Moreno, those issues were compounded by problems they were experiencing with their then-record label, Maverick. On the heels of the unexpected success of White Pony, Maverick began to envision the Deftones as a band that could break big on mainstream-oriented rock radio, the most infamous consequence being "Back to School (Mini Maggit)," a trendy, rap-metal reworking of White Pony's "Pink Maggit" that was tacked onto later versions of that album. "I would always say to Maverick, 'Do you guys remember that you signed us with a record called Adrenaline?" recalls Moreno, referring to the Deftones' 1995 debut album. "That wasn't a pop record.' But after White Pony, the label became obsessed with the idea that we had to have at least two or three radio songs on our albums. And if they didn't hear it, they'd try to get us to work with outside writers. Now, that sucks for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that it totally broke my confidence. It was bad enough that I was a drug addict and had a low self-esteem already. But now I kind of believed that I wasn't even good at making music anymore. It was a lame situation altogether."

But those days are now well in the past. Today, Moreno says that even his well-documented squabbles with Carpenter have fallen off. "I could say that Steph used to be really hardheaded." He laughs. "He still is a little bit. But I guess I am, too. But I think we've both grown up a lot over the years." Indeed, Moreno has returned to a place of confidence both personally and with the band. And he certainly doesn't seem to have any problems making music. In addition to Koi No Yokan, he has, over the past year, cut two EPs with Crosses, an ambient electronic collaboration with Chuck Doom and Far guitarist Shawn Lopez, as well as collaborated on electronic-based tracks with Bassnectar ("Hexes" on the Resident Evil: Retribution soundtrack) and Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda ("Razors Out," on the soundtrack of Indonesian martial-arts movie The Raid: Redemption). He also plans to finish work on the Palms record within the next few weeks. 

"It's very cinematic, and the songs are long," he says of this newest project. The album should be released early next year. "The song I'm working on ow is like three Deftones songs in one. It goes through a lot of levels of intensity."

Moreno even says there might one day be another Team Sleep record. "We have it in mind. But it's difficult because everyone else is still up in Sacramento so it's hard to get together. But we do have a bunch of stuff that we've recorded over the last five years or so just by trading ideas and music online. So there are demos." And while it wouldn't be unreasonable to question whether Moreno sees these various projects as providing outlets for musical ideas he is unable to express in his full-time band, he says that's hardly the case. "It's nothing like that," he insists. "It's just about making music with my buddies. And it's fun."

Today, he can say the same about making music with the Deftones. "It's a much more pleasurable working situation than it had been for a while, absolutely. Even just writing this new record, it's like, everybody's a little bit more easygoing." Moreno laughs. "We all at least listen to each other's full ideas before, like, stomping all over them, you know?

He continues. "But I think the thing is that we all totally realize we have the greatest opportunity in life, which is to make music and then to go around and play it for people that appreciate it. And it sucks because, you know, one person is not able to enjoy that with us right now. So it's hard for me to sit here and say, 'Wow, everything's so great.' But it does feel like everything's pretty good. So we take it day by day."

Below, see Chino Moreno open up about the Deftones' creative process and why "conflict in great":