Inside Deftones' Game-Changing 'White Pony' Album

'White Pony': Inside Deftones' Game-Changing Alt-Metal Masterpiece

Chino Moreno, Abe Cunningham, Maynard James Keenan and more look back on watershed album at 20
deftones live white pony.jpg, Christina Radish/Redferns/Getty Images
photograph by Christina Radish/Redferns/Getty Images

"We've got some savages out there!"

Chino Moreno is facing a full house at the Hollywood Palladium, yelling into the mic as he wades into a thrashing crowd of outstretched hands. It's the summer of 2000, and when the singer isn't bouncing across the stage with his Deftones brethren, he's leaning into the true believers up front, handing his microphone to passing crowd-surfers. Moments earlier, he'd barely made it back up to the stage, Chuck Taylor sneakers on his feet, but with most of the buttons freshly torn from his black shirt.

It was an intense scene to match the moment, as the Deftones' five young dudes from Sacramento, California, unfurled dreamy, thundering tunes from their newest album, White Pony. Two decades later, the record remains the band's defining magnum opus, an open-ended statement of purpose for soundscapes of high tension and beauty. Even as they passed through Los Angeles on that first U.S. tour behind the album, introducing ethereal, mind-expanding songs like "Change (In the House of Flies)," "Digital Bath," and "Korea," it was clear that something strange and new was upon us.

"We just had this idea of a sound and we wanted to experiment with that," recalls Moreno now. "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."

As he looks back now, it's the summer of 2020 and the band is scattered to their homes, locked up under coronavirus quarantine. Any hopes for a White Pony 20th anniversary tour are in limbo, but a reissue is coming that will include a companion-piece remix album called Black Stallion (get the White Pony | Black Stallion Vinyl Set with Print at the Revolver shop), and the singer is excited to talk again about his band's watershed LP.

Work on the original record began amid pre-millennial angst as Y2K approached, and just as the nu-metal era was peaking with a tsunami of sound-alike acts colliding loud guitars, turntables and hip-hop vocals to platinum sales and MTV stardom. Deftones had played their part in creating that scene, with rapped vocals and a distinctive metal sound on their frantic 1995 debut, Adrenaline, but now were done with it. The band instinctively broke from the pack with 1997's Around the Fur, an album rife with exploratory songs that were agonized and contemplative, soaring and aggro.

deftones 2000 James minchin PRESS, James Minchin III
photograph by James Minchin III

Recording sessions for the White Pony album were designed to push ever further, as the classic Deftones lineup hit a new peak in range and ambition: Moreno on vocals and (for the first time) guitar, Stephen Carpenter on guitar, Chi Cheng on bass, Abe Cunningham on drums and, now a full member of the band, Frank Delgado on turntables and keyboards. They teamed again with producer Terry Date, who had helmed both Adrenaline and Around the Fur, and helped Deftones balance their competing influences: Carpenter's seven-string Meshuggah obsessions and Moreno's deep dive into the brooding post-modern sounds of DJ Shadow and Massive Attack. White Pony took twice as long to create as Around the Fur did, and it shows. "Great album. One of their best," says Tool singer Maynard James Keenan, who duets with Moreno on moody standout track "Passenger," and played a brief but impactful role during some of the writing sessions.

On the cover of White Pony is a simple outline of a horse in mid-gallop that Moreno found online before a single song had been recorded. It was a bit of minimalist clip art, and he recognized it as a potentially powerful image for the band. He shared it with the others. "Everybody gravitated towards it right away," Moreno says. "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."

Writing sessions for the album began at The Spot, the private Deftones rehearsal space and hangout in Sacramento, with a built-in ramp for skating and BMX. By then, Carpenter had abruptly moved to Los Angeles, and was working with Cypress Hill rapper B-Real on a side project called Kush. He would drive up to work on Deftones music for days at a time, but in his absence, Moreno began playing guitar.

"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 to play an acoustic at 16, jamming along to Smashing Pumpkins and Jane's Addiction songs. The expanding horizons of White Pony can be heard within the layering of Moreno's melodic playing and Carpenter's more rhythmic style. "It was just really fun to play along with him, and just see where I fit in," adds the singer. "It was just a whole other avenue that opened up."

deftones - white pony - chino/stephen Eddie Malluk/Atlas Icons.Com, Eddie Malluk/Atlas
photograph by Eddie Malluk/Atlas

While Carpenter never discouraged it, Moreno's new role on guitar came with some tension. "It's always a little weird when territory is being crossed a little," says Date. "It was just a learning curve. They had to get comfortable with it."

There were other issues, as the band reached for new sounds that were diverse and melodic. Moreno and Carpenter battled at first. The guitarist's impulse was to play "heavy shit," and the singer had been listening to Depeche Mode, Mogwai and Prince. "There was a lot of emotion going on during that record," Date recalls. "I think that contributed quite a bit to performances, vibe, the whole thing. Sometimes that emotion is hard to sit through and live through, but sometimes it creates that something extra that you just don't get normally."

Early on, Date encouraged the band to seek out a different producer for their third album. He thought it would be healthy for Deftones to collaborate with someone new. So there were meetings with Rick Rubin and Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison, among others. In the end, the band chose Date once again.

"It's personal as hell when you're recording and you want to be comfortable with the people that you're with," says Cunningham, whose muscular, syncopated beats are an essential element of White Pony. "So after meeting a few people, we're like, 'Shit, let's just go back to Terry, man. We can definitely build on what we did last time.'"

deftones white pony stephen joe giron, Joe Giron
photograph by Joe Giron

From The Spot, they sent tapes of their songwriting progress to the producer, who was especially busy in those days, working on multiple projects every year. Virtually nothing from those first writing sessions made it on the album, but it was a start. Songwriting moved down to Los Angeles, specifically, a small room at Mates Rehearsal Studios, a comfortable, no-frills operation popular with major rock acts. In the next room, Foo Fighters were auditioning guitar players, with a long line out the door, and Slash was often seen around the complex. By now, Carpenter was fully involved and present for the Deftones sessions.

There was a new character in the room with them, as well: Maynard James Keenan. The Tool singer had been hanging out with Moreno, and he came to Mates to socialize, while also weighing in on arrangements, riff structures, time signatures. "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." Cunningham mainly recalls Keenan coming around with bottles of champagne and Tibetan Singing Bowls — instruments used by Buddhist monks in meditation practice, and as a path toward stress relief and emotional clarity, soothing your weary theta brain waves. The metal bowls are played by tapping or rubbing with a wooden mallet.

"I was told the guys were having a bit of writer's block or some turmoil within the band. Who knows? They certainly weren't going to discuss that with me, an almost total stranger," Keenan says now. He recalls the band as good company and "very strong-willed gents. Dare I say stubborn. ... Up to that point, they seemed to have been able to navigate through their differences in ideas and approaches. Great first efforts. The evidence is all there. I felt like they just needed a bit of new perspective.

"I had them each switch instruments, play on the bowls, take one loop and try some improvisation," Keenan adds. "The look on their faces was priceless. I might as well have been wearing hippie beads and bunny ears. I could just feel Stephen thinking, 'What kind of acid-trip crap is this?'"

Moreno remembers Keenan contributing to a few songs-in-progress, particularly "Passenger." As that piece was coming together musically, Keenan was inspired to step behind the mic to improvise a vocal melody. But his incipient executive-producer role didn't stick and the singer got busy with another new act: A Perfect Circle. Keenan also felt his place as instigator/coach/counselor was mostly completed.

"I stuck around long enough for them to start itching to not have me around," he says. "Eventually, it was time for me to let them be. The result of my interruption was for them to unconsciously remember or feel what connected them in the first place. By the time I saw them again, they had opened their own creative floodgates."

Recording soon began at the Plant in Sausalito, California, at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a celebrated studio where Fleetwood Mac recorded the multi-platinum Rumours, where Prince played all the instruments on his 1978 debut, and where Metallica made Garage Inc. in 1998. "There was some history in that place," says Date. Carved into the front doors was a scene of woodland creatures playing guitar, drums, violin and horns. The Deftones lived on houseboats a short walk away from The Plant.

The creative disagreements still flared up during these sessions, and band members would retreat to various corners of the studio. Carpenter logged many hours playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater on the big-screen TV. "We excel at wasting time and lagging. We get an A-plus for that," Cunningham says. The band would also try to predict when their frustrated producer would break. "He's actually quit on every record. It's a little thing we have to see if we can get Terry to quit again, and get his glasses fogged up."

deftones white pony chi Neil Zlozower/Atlasicons.Com, Neil Zlozower /
photograph by Neil Zlozower /

"They did everything they could do to try to get me going. There are a few videos of me losing it," Date admits with a laugh. "It would be pretty typical for people get on each other's nerves: 'Come on, let's go to work. Let's get going! We're sitting here wasting time. Can we please record some music?'"

The raging song "Elite" emerged from Carpenter's urge during the sessions to "hear some metal shit," recalls Moreno. The guitarist was fully on board with the sound of "Digital Bath" and other more ethereal tracks, spending many months expanding the Deftones sound. But it was time to kick out some jams. "Stephen came up with that riff and then I just attacked it," the singer says. "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."

With instrumental tracking nearly done by the end of 1999, the band took the holidays off and Date moved the operation down to Larrabee Studios in West Hollywood to finish vocals and mix. The entire band shared a house in the hills above the Sunset Strip. During the day, Moreno was in the control room, listening to the music on headphones and writing lyrics, which also were evolving.

His lyrics on Adrenaline are angsty and youthful, some ("7 Words," for example) written when he was still a teen. By White Pony, they had become more poetic, fictional and abstract, as much about sound and emotion as any literal meaning. Moreno doesn't love writing lyrics, but they frequently connect.

"When Chino writes, he writes a reflection of what he sees and what he lives," bassist Cheng said in a 2000 interview. The rhythm player (who died in 2013) released a spoken-word album, The Bamboo Parachute, the same year as Pony. "He runs the gamut from happiness to sadness, joy, pain, beauty, sex, violence. ... I get a lot out of it, and I don't know what the hell he's singing about."

After months of work, the Deftones sound took a major leap with completion of vocals on the soaring, beat-driven "Digital Bath." Moreno had to hear it immediately, and took a fresh cassette copy into the band's rented Mustang convertible. "It was at night and I was just driving through Hollywood," he recalls. "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."

Such creative breakthroughs would be regularly followed by what Cunningham describes as "wild parties." They were young rockers with a borrowed house in the Hollywood Hills, in town to finish another album for Madonna's Maverick Records label. So they acted accordingly. A clue to the flavor of those times can be seen in the music video for "Change (In the House of Flies)," which has the band performing amid scattered, shell-shocked survivors of a SoCal house party.

In reality, only the cast of characters was different. "Maybe not as model-esque," Moreno 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, from Christina Aguilera to Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "I didn't feel like we ever really, really fit in," Moreno says, "but we did definitely have fun. It was kind of a whirlwind."

The Prince of Darkness also appeared without warning to Moreno at the supermarket. The Deftones singer had just stepped away from a recording session to grab a snack, only to find Ozzy Osbourne in the checkout line. "I didn't talk to him," Moreno recalls, though Deftones had recently toured on Ozzfest. "He was paying for his stuff and sort of fumbling with money. It was just surreal."

deftones white pony abe frank white, Frank White
photograph by Frank White

Despite the distractions, the work continued at Larrabee. The band even recorded an all-new song there, "Teenager," a track built on a sample of delicate acoustic guitar and swirling electronic effects. It was originally planned for Moreno's side project Team Sleep and started as a beat he brought in from DJ Crook. Delgado added some turntable atmosphere, and Carpenter plugged in some synth from the control room. "That was him welcoming the song into Deftones world," says Moreno.

One of the final tracks completed was "Passenger," partly because Moreno still heard echoes of Keenan's spontaneous vocal melody from the Mates writing sessions. Moreno invited him back, and they both sketched out lyrics to wail amid the song's eerie swirl of sounds. Date remembers the Tool singer coming by the studio several times. "I think he and Chino's brains work very much the same. Maynard likes to do his vocals after the music is recorded, and Chino's the same way," says the producer. Keenan recalls being content at the recording session "to assume the role that I've become accustomed to: Most pieces in place, now navigate the puzzle in front of you."

When White Pony was released on June 20th, 2000, it was just as the band had hoped it would be — an album experience, with a perfect track order of 11 songs, as far as Deftones were concerned. But after the LP was released, the label said there wasn't an obvious hit single, and asked for an additional radio-friendly number more attuned to the nu-metal moment.

One exec focused on the 7:34-minute closing track, "Pink Maggit," a brooding, surreal epic that emerged from a chord progression by Carpenter. "In our minds, it was like our Pink Floyd moment where we're just going to get astral and see how far out into space we can go," says Moreno. The label thought the song's vocal chorus was a potential pop hook that could be reworked into a single. Especially if there was a rap vocal. "We were livid," Cunningham says. "We're like, 'Fuck no, the record's done.' It was a bit of contention between us and label at the time."

The band reluctantly went along, creating a new song, "Back to School (Mini Maggit)." Deftones reconvened across town at Larrabee East, near the Universal Studios lot. Date wasn't involved. At just under four minutes, "Back to School" includes a biting rap from Moreno: "Start taking notes, I'm being everyone who's on the top/You think we're on the same page — but, no, we're not!"

He could still pull off a furious hip-hop vocal like he meant it, and the track was done quicker than anything else on the album. The message was simple: I can do this bullshit in my sleep.

deftones white pony chino SIMONE CECCHETTI/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES, Simone Cecchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
photograph by Simone Cecchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Maverick released "Back to School (Mini Maggit)" as a single, and reissued Pony with the new song right at the beginning. "It was just like, all right, let's dumb this down a little bit," says Moreno, who still considers the original album (sans "Back to School") to be the definitive version of White Pony. He calls the added song "a mistake."

"Change" ended up charting much higher than "Back to School," hitting the Top 10 of Billboard's alternative and mainstream rock charts. In early 2001, Deftones won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance for the album's "Elite" (still the band's only nomination). Two years after release, White Pony reached platinum sales. More important, though, it defined the band as a major creative force, and its reputation and influence has only grown over the last two decades.

Moreno compares its ongoing 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?"