As Deftones release their 2016 album, Gore, we look back on the story of Diamond Eyes, the 2010 record that helped them push past tragedy.
In the late '80s Deftones were just a bunch of friends - some skater kids from Sacramento who came together to create sound. Today they are a global rock force that continues to blast through boundaries imposed by genre tags. They’ve fought tension, tragedy and the vices of success. Now, at the dawn of a new album, Deftones are standing tall. To celebrate the release of 2016's Gore, we look back on the story of Diamond Eyes, the 2010 album that helped them push past their most challenging years.
Sacramento, California, summer 1988. Outside a small house, a teenage kid is sitting on his porch, a guitar across his lap. A few metres away, out of a small, locked garage, the most unholy noise is being blasted down the street. Death Angel riffs, Metallica riffs, riffs of the kid’s own invention all come roaring from a wall of amplifiers, connected remotely to the guitarist on the porch. In decades to come, legend will say that all this gear, all this racket, was paid for with the money the kid, Stephen Carpenter, was awarded after being hit by a drunk driver when he was fifteen. Truth is, he did get hit – and he did buy equipment with the money he got paid. But by the summer of ’88, all that gear is gone and the kid, barely eighteen, is forced to beg and borrow the kit crammed into his mom’s garage. Either way, the neighbours aren’t all that pleased.
Another couple of kids walk up. They’ve all been in and around the local skateboarding scene and they nod hellos. One kid rocks a perfectly coiffed pompadour, like a lost Hispanic member of The Smiths or Depeche Mode. His name is Camillo Wong Moreno, but everyone calls him Chino. He’s here to introduce his school friend Abe Cunningham, a drummer, to Carpenter. The guitarist is relaxed. He tells Cunningham that, if he likes, he can go into the garage where there is a drum kit set up on a rickety stage amid piles of junk. Cunningham does as he’s told and, with Carpenter still riffing on the porch, he proceeds to batter the hell out of the drums. Carpenter looks at Moreno and says just one thing: “Woah!”. They don’t stop playing for the rest of the day.
In the coming weeks and months, Moreno will start singing over the top of the sounds Cunningham and Carpenter create. With another friend on bass, they will play the barbecues and house-parties of their school friends. They’ll write songs almost exclusively – and somewhat bizarrely – about food: there’s ‘The Vegetable Song’ about not wanting to eat your greens, there’s ‘Hot Cheese’ inspired by their bassist who burnt his mouth on a piece of pizza. For adolescent variety, they’ll write ‘Butt Booty Naked’. Moreno will later laugh about them all, chuckling at how “silly” they were. He’ll also comment on how, from the start, they were “tight”, that Carpenter was always a good guitar player, and that they practised their ass off, everyday. Then he’ll add that he was “the weakest link” and that his band mates would make fun of him for sounding like Gomer Pyle, “kinda like a mix of Danzig and Morrissey”.
Still, they will progress from their friends’ parties to playing the local venue in town, The Cowshed, where in years to come Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins will play, and two or three hundred people will come down to watch their first ever club show. No one will tell them that they suck. And because of that, suddenly they will begin to think, just maybe, they can do this. Perhaps they really are a band – possibly a good one, too. They know they might have to ditch the songs about broccoli, though.
It’s been over twenty years since that very first Deftones jam in Carpenter’s mom’s garage. It’s been over two decades since those kids decided that playing music was something they wanted to spend the rest of their lives doing. And, in that time, those kids have gone on to leave a legacy unrivalled by almost all of their alt rock peers.
Theirs is an influence that has endured. Its seedlings were planted when hair metal was at its peak, it developed through grunge and it existed uneasily alongside nu-metal in the late ’90s. It unfurled majestically and experimentally as a new century dawned and it survived as tension, disillusionment, tragedy and the influence of drink and drugs took their toll. It still exists now.
Those kids went on to sell 6.7 million records and they are still out there selling them today, one of only a handful of rock bands who have remained current, commercially successful and credible over the course of nearly quarter of a century. From 1997’s influential Around The Fur to the massive-selling White Pony in 2000, from world tours to headlining festivals, from the very beginning, via six albums, to where they stand now, Deftones are a band who have shaped rock over the last two decades. And it all started with a bunch of skater kids in a suburban garage.
As Moreno will tell you now, “I would never have thought back then, not in my wildest dreams, that I would still be here talking about those days twenty years later. The thing is, we never had a plan. We never thought about any of this. All we were doing was just having fun.”
Today in the back lounge of Deftones’ tour bus, Cunningham has just woken up. He’s hunting for coffee and, when he can’t find any, he starts searching for tea. When he fails to find any of that either, he says “Fuck” and he looks like he means every letter.
The bus is speeding across the badlands of Texas, motoring from the desolate border town of El Paso towards Corpus Christi. Outside, through the window, is a great empty expanse of plain. Other than sporadic lonely cacti, there is nothing here at all. Dry, desert bleakness.
Moreno is shuffling around the bus too. He’s more alert than his drummer, a little less prone to abusing the facilities too. Recently, the singer lost pounds and pounds of weight. Where once his waistline had ballooned, victim to increasingly unhealthy eating, drinking and drug habits, now Moreno says he is back on track. “I’m getting my head together. I’m getting my brain and my body together,” he says, “and that means everything comes easier. Waking up in the morning is better and I sleep better, live better and feel better.”
He certainly looks better, his eyes are shining once again, his face is sharp once more.
Moreno has always been a worrier and he admits, in the past, that a fault of his was to “sit and analyse stuff and forget to just be me”. But he’s also a thinker, very much not the clichéd self-absorbed singer. In fact, he finds singing a slightly peculiar occupation, preferring instrumental music – possibly because he envies frontmen who don’t have to reveal themselves in lyrics.
“It is weird that I’m a singer and I don’t really like singers… well, I do, but I prefer sometimes to let the music speak for itself,” he says. “I like to hide in the music. That’s the way I’m most comfortable. It’s hard for me to write lyrics because I don’t really like to say much.”
Last night Deftones played in the town from which they’re now leaving. The gig was, as Cunningham puts it, “fantastic”. It was their first in America for a little while, and it followed a handful of Mexican dates. If all goes according to plan, they will be on the road – on and off – for the next twenty-four months.
Moreno, for one, is very pleased about this. “We’re warming up,” he says, voice full of eagerness. “We’re getting ready for a good couple of years.”
Perhaps he’s so buoyant because Deftones really haven’t had a very good last few years. There is a constant reminder of this when you look around their bus – their bass player, Chi Cheng is not here. Instead, he is semi-conscious in a hospital bed and has been for a year and a half. He was flung from the wreckage of a car crash while riding in the passenger seat and went into a coma from which he hasn’t yet fully emerged.
The accident happened when the band had nearly finished what would have been their sixth record, Eros. They shelved that project in the aftermath of Cheng’s crash, believing it didn’t represent them anymore, putting it aside out of respect for their bass player. Instead, they recorded an entirely new album, Diamond Eyes. This, though, is the first time Deftones have put in any serious road time without their fallen comrade. It’s taking a little getting used to.
“His bunk on the bus was always right across from mine. I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life right next to this guy almost every day,” says Moreno. “To be talking to him one day and not able to speak to him the next is a rough thing.”
All four of the rest of Deftones – Moreno, Cunningham, Carpenter and keyboardist Frank Delgado – remain distraught about their friend; he is never far from their minds. But there is an irony. It took Cheng’s accident to help save the band.
When Deftones recorded their 2006 album, Saturday Night Wrist, they were at breaking point. They weren’t communicating, they weren’t friends anymore and Moreno in particular had lost interest in the band. In fact he had lost interest to such an extent that he embarked on a tour with his side project, the dreamscape-inspired Team Sleep, instead of recording vocals for Deftones. He would return, but it was to a torturous recording process that further delayed the release of the album.
“That was absolutely the worst fucking time,” says Cunningham. “[Moreno] had started his vocals and then he decided to go on tour without finishing the record. We were like, ‘What the fuck?’ It was horrendous.”
“It caused a lot of problems,” admitted Moreno shortly after Saturday Night Wrist’s eventual release. “In fact, it was pretty much the end of Deftones. I didn’t really care at that point either. I was just so fed up with everything. I wasn’t getting any positive feedback from anything I was doing, so I thought, ‘Why am I even bothering?’ We always started this to have fun and it just wasn’t fun at all. I pretty much just walked away from it all for a while.”
It’s just one example of how bad, pre-Cheng’s accident, morale was. To see them now though – friendly, close and excited again – demonstrates how much things have changed.
Partly the transformation came as they toured Saturday Night Wrist. Partly it came as barriers were lowered and communication started again as they recorded the shelved Eros album. But most of the reason came when they saw Cheng laid out on a hospital bed. Suddenly their issues and arguments didn’t seem that important anymore. “It really put things into perspective,” says Cunningham.
So, to cope with the incident and to cement their re-bonding, they went back into their rehearsal room in Sacramento, having invited their friend, the former Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega, to join them. And they did the thing they most love and understand: they played music together. “It wasn’t about writing anything new, we just wanted to play,” says Moreno. “It was very therapeutic.” And from that jam, stemmed new songs and, eventually a new album, Diamond Eyes, that has been hailed as their best in years.
“We lost a key member and so we relied on the music,” says Cunningham. “We had a lot to prove because we were wounded. Our friendship pulled us through. There’s always been a cloud hanging over us but I’m getting sick of that cloud. I’m ready to tell that cloud to fuck off.”
To understand where Deftones are now, it’s worth revisiting their history. From that day in Carpenter’s garage, it took them seven years to release their first record – 1995’s Adrenaline. They spent that time just learning to play. They would rehearse for hours each day, arranging sporadic mini-tours around their hometown. Gradually, they branched out into the rest of California.
They would play alongside a whole host of local bands, too. They played with nu-metal pioneers Korn, they played with influential post-hardcore band Far, they shared stages with the likes of quirky indie-rockers CAKE.
“We would all play shows together,” says Cunningham. “It was a mixed-up scene. I found a ticket stub not too long ago that had us, Korn and CAKE on it. It was pretty wild that, early on, we all played together. We were really influenced by the music in the Bay Area. So many different sounds came from there. We were influenced by the funk and soul of Tower Of Power, Primus in the ’90s, the thrash metal of Metallica and Death Angel in the ’80s.”
In that time, Moreno says the band never really tried to get signed to a label. “Our only plan was to get good enough to record a demo,” he says. And so, as Cunningham puts it, they became “a touring beast”. It was on the back of the support they generated on those tours, though, that they did land a deal and their debut, Adrenaline, followed soon after. Moreno will now describe that album as “not that great”. Cunningham, too, is not effusive in his praise for it. “When I listen to that record now, I hear a young band,” he says.
But it sent them around the world on tour and it was there that they saw how it had affected people. Despite its raw edges, it demonstrated that, in Deftones, there was something a bit different. And that lent the band real swagger. “I was straight hyped. I couldn’t believe people were digging us,” says Moreno of the reaction to Adrenaline. “I was really confident. My attitude was, ‘We just made an OK record and people really liked it. Now we’re going to make something that’s way sicker…’”
With spirits high, Moreno, Cunningham and Carpenter went into their rehearsal space and simply wrote. Cheng had moved temporarily to San Diego but Deftones simply couldn’t sit on their creative juices long enough for him to rejoin them, so they went on a writing frenzy, song after song tumbling out.
“Everything just fell into place,” says Moreno. “We really had a feeling we were onto some really great songs. We were taking things a little further than where we had been. They weren’t typical metal songs. And once we started recording, it was probably one of our best experiences ever. It was probably the tightest we’ve ever been. It was a real highlight in my life.”
The record that emerged was 1997’s Around The Fur, not their biggest-selling record but one that is often the favourite of Deftones purists. It was leaps and bounds ahead of Adrenaline in scope, adventure and artistry. And it began the slow build that would eventually make them stars. There was only one problem: the critics kept calling them nu-metal.
“Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach were selling a lot of records. I did see us getting lumped in with a lot of those bands and, you know, I don’t really mind,” says Moreno. “I felt we had a little more to offer than just being a nu-metal band or even just a metal band though.”
“Even to this day, I hate it,” is Cunningham’s less conciliatory response to their unwarranted nu-metal tag. “It annoys me even now. A lot of those bands are back now and putting out records again. You know what? Whatever. We’ve been around the whole time and we’ve always put records out.”
When Deftones released White Pony in 2000, they became superstars. The album has currently sold 2.6 million copies and counting and Moreno is justifiably proud. But he also believes that its release marked the point at which things started to go awry in the band. They had been joined full-time by the keyboardist Delgado who had contributed to their two previous albums, but had yet to become an official member. His arrival demonstrated Deftones’ insistence on developing their sound.
“I felt really confident we could do anything we wanted,” says Moreno. “Because Around The Fur was so different to Adrenaline, yet people still got it, I felt we could go further and make another record that was different again – and that people would like it. And it worked. We tried to go left of centre and the songs came out great.”
However, they did get criticised – chiefly and perhaps fittingly from the nu-metal scene in which they wanted no part. “I specifically remember Fieldy from Korn,” says Moreno. “He said, ‘What’s up with this record? Why don’t you rap?’ I had to tell him that we liked what we were doing. It was more experimental and it was more fun. That was what music was about to me.”
But as White Pony’s commercial success began to match its creative highs, so the band began to drift from their moorings. “Life happened,” says Cunningham. “Rock ‘n’ roll life. Need I say more? Shit, there was a ton of drugs, a ton of excess. All that shit. You’ve heard it a million times. Over time, there’s no mystery as to why that causes problems. These things erode even the best foundations.”
“I spent a lot of years making excuses, not following through and being irresponsible,” says Moreno of that time and the period that followed. “I can attribute that to a million things: drugs, alcohol and thinking this is the way you’re supposed to behave in a rock band. I was living my life on the edge all the time.”
“From White Pony onwards, it h becoming a task,” says Moreno. “White Pony was when the tension first started – especially between me and Stephen. I had started to play guitar and recently he told me why he was so mad about that. He said, ‘I wish I could have learned to play guitar in a band that was already established.’ And he was right. I was pretty much learning to play guitar on TV. And I sucked!”
Carpenter is a hulking figure. Though avuncular but occasionally taciturn, he has a mischievous side that takes some getting used to. He’s the sort of person who, as happened recently, will turn up to a photo shoot at which the required dress code is all black, wearing a luminous orange hockey shirt. But he is also one of the creative rocks on which the band is founded. So, him and Moreno not getting along caused real problems.
“People think me and him are always at odds,” Carpenter says of his relationship with the singer. “We’re almost never at odds with each other but we do come at things from two different perspectives.”
Certainly that’s what happened on the band’s 2003 self-titled fourth album.
“[On White Pony] we were trying to outdo each other,” says Moreno. “So, by the end, we had this great record of us trying to outdo each other. Perhaps we were trying to prove ourselves to each other and, somehow, it worked out. But then, on the self-titled record, there was no focus there at all. Instead of building on top of each other, Stephen and I were building two separate things and then trying to mash them together.”
Deftones, the album, failed to match up to its predecessor in both content and sales. That, and the tensions within, began to grate. It was the start of a bleak period that would culminate in the draining three-year writing and recording process for Saturday Night Wrist and Moreno’s temporary and self-imposed exile in Team Sleep.
“We’d been going for ten years straight and it was a relentless cycle of studio, touring, studio, touring. It just wasn’t fun anymore,” says Moreno. “The reason we’re in a band is because it’s fun and it just wasn’t fun back then.”
But now, the fun is back. It’s there in the way they speak to each other, it’s there in the enthusiasm with which they hit the stage, it’s there in the glimmer behind their eyes – despite and perhaps, indirectly, because of the bond they shared after Cheng’s accident.
“Right now is a gift,” is how Carpenter describes it, “to call it the present couldn’t be a better title for it, because it’s a gift.” Moreno says he’s closer to his band than he has been in ten years, Cunningham states “he’s giddy with life at the moment” – or at least he does after that coffee.
The reason is the new album and its recording. It was an album that came together in much the same way Around The Fur came together all those years ago. The creative juices flowed once more and part of the reason for that was the fact they were talking to one another again, they were communicating. Though that was a process that had started during the tour for Saturday Night Wrist, and continued through the recording of Eros – an album the band aren’t sure when will see the light of day – it came to a head in the wake of Cheng’s crash.
So, from tragedy, came something. There came renewed friendship, buried hatchets, explanations and apologies. There came creativity, excitement and fun again. But most of all, there came music. And, in Diamond Eyes, it is music that continues Deftones’ astonishing arc, proving that, unlike so many other rock bands, sometimes musicians do get better with age.
As the band’s tour bus pulls into Corpus Christi, the dry plains of El Paso behind them, there is only one way Deftones are looking and it’s not back down the road from where they came. Because, for now, it’s about the future.
“We all had to go through what we went through to come out the other side,” says Moreno before he finally disappears inside the venue. “Now, I’m optimistic about the future of this band. We’re in a better place than we’ve been in years. Everybody is having fun.”
And, after all, when they started this all back in Carpenter’s mom’s garage, fun was all they had ever wanted.
This story first ran in Huck 21 – Deftones (June/July 2010).