Going Def

After more than a decade, the Deftones are overnight sensations

With the likes of Korn and Rage Against the Machine demonstrating that those predictions of rock's commercial demise you heard a year or two back were premature (again!), brainiacs at Madonna's Maverick imprint decided to promote the Deftones into the next big heavy-music thang -- and so far, their strategy seems to be succeeding. White Pony, the Sacramento-based quintet's latest (and best) disc, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart, and since then, units have kept moving, and tickets to Deftones shows have become an endangered species. But while that may make the band seem like the flavor of the month, the truth is considerably more complicated.

"We've been doing this for 11 years," points out bassist Chi Cheng. "Which is a really long time."

Cheng, who's joined in the Deftones by vocalist/guitarist Chino Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, drummer Abe Cunningham and turntablist Frank Delgado, doesn't fit many of the other definitions of a nascent aggro-star, either. For one thing, he's a dedicated family man with a wife of six years, Adrian, and a three-year-old son, Gabriel, of whom he's as protective as any suburban dad. The tot seldom travels with his pop because "things have been really hectic and crazy, and since he's in day care, we're trying to get him on a decent schedule -- something cohesive, a routine. He needs that kind of structure in his life right now." When asked if Junior digs the Deftones, he laughingly replies, "Oh, hell, no. He discovered the Beatles' Yellow Submarine movie, so he can stomach that. But otherwise, he doesn't really listen to much music."

Toning up: Chi Cheng (second from right) and the rest of the Deftones.
James Minchin
Toning up: Chi Cheng (second from right) and the rest of the Deftones.


Perform on Friday, August 11, at 7:30 p.m. with Glass Jaw
Celebrity Theatre

The contradictions don't stop there. Cheng is also a former English major and longtime practitioner of Buddhism and meditation ("I read The Dharma Bums, by Kerouac, my first year of college, and that was it for me") who writes poetry during his downtime. He's just released Bamboo Parachute, a spoken-word CD available at concerts and on the outfit's Web site, deftones.com, earmarking half the proceeds generated for WEAVE, a Sacramento nonprofit that aids victims of domestic violence and sexual assault; and Solar Cookers International, "a group my wife volunteers for that does alternative forms of cooking for refugee camps in Africa." In addition, the money he recently made auctioning off a guitar online will be used to start a music program for homeless teens in the Sacramento area. "I'm really into local community stuff," he points out. "I think it's important for people to take part in their own community."

Given this profile, the uninitiated can be forgiven for assuming that the Deftones sound like a band in search of a rainforest benefit. But, praise the Lord, any comparisons to Sting begin and end with Cheng's fondness for theology and philanthropy. Moreno, Cheng, Carpenter and Cunningham first got together more than a decade ago (Delgado didn't become a permanent member until the mid-'90s), spending years in Sacramento clubs pounding out a germinal form of metal rap. (Moreno claims that the Deftones helped invent the form, but that's a stretch.) Nonetheless, Maverick finally bit, and in 1995 the group debuted with Adrenaline, a raucous but fairly familiar-sounding platter that still managed to plant the seeds of a grassroots following. The CD received precious little radio or video airplay but managed to sell a half-million copies anyhow.

The Deftones soon earned a rep for hearty partying and wild concerts that occasionally flirted with disaster: In October 1996, an allegedly soused Moreno was blamed by the folks at Desert Sky Pavilion for starting a near-riot that caused a reported $150,000 in damage. Their music, though, wasn't nearly as unpredictable. Around the Fur, which hit stores in 1997, took a few more musical chances than its predecessor, but not enough. While the previously committed were enthralled (Fur, too, went gold), the cult wasn't significantly broadened.

Fortunately, White Pony is another matter altogether. Instead of reproducing the sound on its initial offerings (a safe strategy considering the current trends), the five-piece diversified. Cheng sees the results as "a natural progression," adding, "We definitely know that we don't want to stick to a formula. That would be kind of redundant and boring after a while. All of the influences we've always had are still there, but as we get older, they're a lot more subtle. Like when Adrenaline came out -- you could tell we listened to the Bad Brains a lot. But now that kind of thing is mixed and blended in better, and we pull a lot more influences from each other. It just happens naturally."

Don't take such comments as code for mellowing; there's still plenty of sonic mayhem on White Pony, including the distorted-scream orgy "Elite." But the band also exhibits a surer sense of melody even when the riffs are flying. Witness the opener, "Feiticeira," the structurally complex "Korea" and the dramatic, multilayered "Change (in the House of Flies)," which seems on its way to becoming an unlikely alterna-hit. Even more intriguing are expressionistic excursions such as "Passenger," a pairing of Moreno and Tool's Maynard James Keenan, and the concluding "Pink Maggit," which suggests a metallic Jeff Buckley -- head music that's good for headbanging, too.

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