"It felt like there was a black cloud over us," says Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, talking at a furious, caffeinated clip; clearly a man with a lot to get out. "I think it would be real easy for us to put out a sad, depressing, dark record right now."
Since the 2003 release of Deftones, Moreno and his band have survived some of the lowest points of their career. By 2007 they had worked through most of their problems and felt stable enough to record the as-yet-unreleased Eros. Their bad luck culminated, though, on November 4, 2008, when Moreno's bandmate and friend of 20 years, bassist Chi Cheng, was in a severe car accident. At that point, the group's future had never seemed more uncertain.
The very foundation of Deftones has been violently upended. The year and a half following the accident has been the first time since 1988 — when Moreno, Cheng, drummer Abe Cunningham and guitarist Stephen Carpenter formed the band as Sacramento teenagers with a fondness for skateboarding and Faith No More records — that the bandmates could not play together. As of press time, Cheng remains minimally conscious in a Northern California hospital. His family has had to face astronomical medical bills, and the Deftones have held various auctions and charity shows, with a host of famous friends including members of Metallica, System of a Down and Cypress Hill to fund his recovery.
As a sort of therapy to get through their dark times, the band have shelved Eros for the time being and made a new record, Diamond Eyes, with friend Sergio Vega playing bass. Surprisingly, it is easily Deftones' most uplifting record to date, a tender embrace made of triumphant nu-sludge riffs, goosepimply shoegazer textures, and Moreno's spirited-away croon. It's a mushy, gushy return to the washed-out ebb and flow that made 2000's White Pony an alt-metal revelation.
"Since 'self-titled,' we've been making these dreary records," Moreno says. "Diamond Eyes is more optimistic. It's more wide-eyed. I think it's more where we want to be at this time in our lives."
The seven-year path it took them to get to this point was anything but easy, beginning with Deftones, which Cunningham has since taken to calling Dark Days. "That whole record, that whole time," says the drummer, "it just fucking sucked, quite frankly." The original quartet and a new fifth member, turntablist and keyboardist Frank Delgado, were touring until they were burnt. Small tensions between bandmates slowly flared up into huge rifts. The inter-group dynamic was breaking down. By the time they recorded Saturday Night Wrist in 2005, communication became virtually non-existent.
In the middle of the recording session, Moreno hastily took off to tour with his dreamtronica side project Team Sleep — a one-month tour that unexpectedly turned into three. Says Cunningham: "We were like, 'What the fuck?' I can see now why he needed a getaway, but it was the most inopportune time to think about doing your own thing, at the end of finishing that record. That's when the uncertainty and crap really came to a head — Are we a band? Are we done? He was away, touring with his buddies, and I was the only one really speaking to him. Nobody else. They were like, 'Fuck him.' They'd had it."
Once Moreno returned, the band had a meeting with various managers to decide the fate of the Deftones. It was the first time they had all been in a room together for months. The question laid on the table was, Did the guys want to do this? The answer was a unanimous, "Fuck, yeah, we do." "It was a huge powwow and hug session," Cunningham says. "It was the pinnacle of us putting in the elbow grease and getting that shine back — although it was a long time to come."
As the Deftones toured throughout 2007, they reconnected as friends and bandmates, emerging as a tighter assemblage than they had in a while. The group was excited to retreat back to their Sacramento studio to work on what would become Eros. At this point, the toils of band life had been overshadowed by the struggles of their personal lives. Cunningham and Cheng were both going through divorces, and Moreno was wrangling to get custody of his kids. For well over a year, the studio became a support group, more of a hangout than a productive place to record an album. "If you can't fall on your buddies, who can you fall on?" Cunningham says. "It was really a clubhouse, a treehouse with a studio in it. We put this little bar in the studio where we would meet up before we got down to recording. We would say, 'Hey fellas, what's up? What fucked-up shit happened today?'"
"We'd bullshit and play cards and all get along, but being at the studio was a little escape from being away from our lives that were smothering us," Moreno says. They wrote and recorded Eros as a team, instead of the piecemeal songwriting of Wrist. Although no music from the sessions has ever surfaced, Moreno says Eros was composed by "abandoning any kind of structure," full of lengthy songs, spaced-out parts, psychedelic vibes, and plenty of jamming. When asked if they were having a Pink Floyd moment, Moreno laughs and says, "I was actually thinking that but didn't want to say it."
The album was nearing completion at the end of 2008. Moreno was about halfway through recording his vocals, when the guys heard the news of Cheng's accident. Cunningham got a text in the middle of the night from someone he didn't consider a reliable source. He placed a 7 a.m. call to Moreno, who was dozing after spending all night working on Eros. Moreno quickly dismissed the news as bullshit as well and tried to get back to sleep. Ten minutes later, their phones were ringing off the hook. Cheng had been in an automobile collision. Three EMTs had been driving by and fortuitously had equipment in their vehicle to stabilize him right away. Nonetheless Cheng still lapsed into a coma.
"That night, the whole band went up there and saw him," Moreno says. "He was really banged up. It was crazy to see him like that. It was a lot to take in. At that point, I couldn't tell if he was there or not. Nobody really knew if he was gonna make it a day or two or through the night." Says Cunningham, "He's hooked up to every machine imaginable, his skull is removed, it's insane. You don't think in 1,000 years you would ever see anyone that you love in that position."
For months, the band visited Cheng and didn't think about music at all. They updated their MySpace with news, the small victories of a slow and steady recovery — when Cheng was breathing on his own, moving his eyes underneath his eyelids, getting brain probes removed. They posted daily inspiring messages from Cheng's mother, Jeanne. Meanwhile, no one knew the fate of Deftones.
After four or five months, the band reunited in their studio space, the first time they had been together without Cheng since the accident. "Should we finish this record? Get someone else to come in and learn Chi's parts? Should we continue on as a band? Before anyone even talked about it, we talked about Chi," said Moreno. "We sat, we laughed, we cried a little bit. Everybody gravitated toward their instruments, and we just started playing. I think at that moment we just needed to pour all our thoughts and emotions into something from that moment on."
The band dove into making music and trying to stay positive. They placed Eros in the vault. "As we neared completion on Eros, we realized that this record doesn't best encompass and represent who we are currently as people and as musicians," the bandmates said in a statement. "And although those songs will see the light of day at some point, we collectively made the decision that we needed to take a new approach, and with Chi's condition heavy on our minds while doing so."
The last time Moreno heard any of Eros was during his final recording session the night before the accident — although he remembers one exception. Once when visiting Cheng, he played him "Dallas," a track from Eros that he describes as "big sounding, real mid-tempo, kind of 'Minerva'-ish [referring to the lead single from Deftones], really big chords, kind of a sad one." Moreno comes by occasionally and plays Cheng music on the little stereo system in his hospital room — Queens of the Stone Age, NOFX, DMX. Cheng's mother usually sticks to playing Willie Nelson. "He's a weird dude," says Moreno of the bass player. "From DMX to Willie, I don't know!"
Back at work, they called up their old friend Sergio Vega, the bassist for influential early-'90s post-hardcore band Quicksand, whose unique mix of aggression and grace helped pave the way for groups like the Deftones and Thursday, and asked him to join. A week after he got there, they were writing Diamond Eyes. "The way that I looked at it was just trying to use the music completely as an escape," says Moreno. "I didn't want to make a sad record or a downer record."
The band adopted a new recording regimen for the album. No more loafing around their Sacramento hideout all night. They moved into a North Hollywood space five blocks from Moreno's house and adopted office hours of sorts — starting promptly at noon and ending at eight. Cunningham moved in with Moreno, Delgado and Vega lived up the street, and the four would meet up for coffee and ride their bikes to the space before noon. "Steph would come in right away, have a little puff, pick up his guitar and start writing," Moreno says. "He would say, 'Every time I pick up my guitar, I write a song.' We'd laugh at him, but he would." Producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Stone Sour) was present from the beginning, taping their sessions and helping them build songs. They had all of the album's 11 songs banged out in two months flat.
Rock-band boot camp also got Moreno into better mental and physical shape as well. Diamond Eyes' sexy "Rocket Skates" video features Moreno and a gal pal playing with knives behind hotel doors — proudly showing off a much leaner, meaner vocalist than the chubby dude hiding in all black, circa 2005. He's been running, hiking, biking, skateboarding, and, for the first time in his life, doing weight training. "I'm addicted to that now. I need to sweat every day, I need to expend energy," says Moreno. "And that regimen carries over to the way we work. While we're at work, everyone is there working. Then the sense of accomplishment kicks in."
If there's one word that Moreno and Cunningham keep using to describe their current situation, it's "stoked." "Here we are," the drummer says, "bit older, a bit wiser, and we're just fucking really stoked." Moreno adds, "It's been great — our relationships with each other, our lives in general. Everyone's kind of shining right now. We're all stoked."
As they gear up for a lengthy Diamond Eyes tour, they remain hopeful that their fallen comrade will return from his semi-conscious state. "Chi is making progress," Moreno says. "It's pretty slow progress, but he is making progress. The last time I saw him, he seemed like he was in there. His hair's growing out again. He's got his beard back and his long hair. He'll open his eyes and he'll look at you. Whether he plays bass with us again — which I hope for — more than anything it would be awesome to just talk to him and be able to have a conversation with him. I think that'd be the best thing ever."