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.

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.

As an added bonus, Moreno's words, which he mainly sings or wails as opposed to the angry rapping on Adrenaline and Fur, largely reject the easy fatalism so common in this genre in favor of something more imagistic and amorphous. Most listeners will have no idea precisely why he's so obsessed with all things oral; the mouth references in "Digital Bath" ("You make the water warm/You taste foreign") and "Street Carp" ("But you're that girl/With the gold teeth") are hardly the only ones. But they'll no doubt feel like the answer is right on the tips of their tongues.

Because White Pony is clearly smarter and more ambitious than most discs of its ilk, it's been embraced by mainstream publications such as Time. That may be a mixed blessing in this context: Most high schoolers with pierced tongues and "Born to Die" tattoos would rather pound their genitalia with a meat tenderizer than admit to liking something lauded in a mag like that. Cheng, however, seems legitimately pleased by such praise. "I'm happy they're embracing the album," he says. But that doesn't mean he's willing to knock contemporaries like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, who are ostensibly working the same territory yet are more interested in appealing to the lowest common denominator than in stretching out.

"It's a tough business, and anybody who does well in the business, they've got my blessing. And it's good for everybody when guys are doing well. If you plug your guitar in and it's electric and you're playing rock music, it's just going to help.

"For us, it's all about writing music that makes us feel good and that we can go to bed and feel good about at night," he continues. "Our goal is to mature and, hopefully, to innovate. But if other bands want to use gimmicks, that's cool -- and I can even enjoy that sometimes. It's like, every movie I watch doesn't have to be a Jim Jarmusch flick. Every once in a while I'll want to watch a Bruce Willis movie -- something that isn't necessarily thought-provoking. And I think the same is true of music, you know."

This time around, the Deftones will have a chance to find out if the pop-music audience is willing to face the relative challenges its music presents. Likely inspired by Maverick's vigorous marketing campaign, which included the release of White Pony in several limited editions (an enhanced CD, discs with colored jewel boxes and different bonus tracks), an Internet "house party" and one of the most elaborate electronic press kits ever, MTV is airing the clip for "Change" -- "although not on TRL or anything like that," Cheng points out. "But that's probably because our fans would never call up and vote for us. They're really possessive of us, and a lot of them don't want us to get any bigger. They don't want to see kids they don't like at school in a Deftones shirt."

Thus far, such aficionados have remained true to the band despite the shifts that exemplify White Pony. According to Cheng, "Nobody's really accused us of selling out yet, and I don't think they will. After making the three albums we've done, people really can't say anything. They know the work speaks for itself."

As for being at the center of a media hypefest, Cheng sees no need to apologize. "I don't think anyone would want to be in any particular job for a long time and not move up," he says. "So after 11 years, making a little scratch wouldn't be a bad deal."

After all, baby needs a new pair of shoes.

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