Deftones: comradship as a means to overcome adversity and go forward

Standing the test of time and stepping away from the constraints of nu-metal to become one of the most memorable and innovative rock bands of the past 25 years – Deftones managed all that mainly thanks to a combative spirit and fraternal symbiosis between the members, which they even pieced back together after Chi’s accident. The arrival of bassist Sergio Vega, a close friend of the band’s since the very beginnings, went so well both musically and humanly that he seems to have always been part of the band. At least that’s the impression we got from the interview the aforementioned granted us, along with Abe Cunningham, Deftones’ unmovable drummer. The following conversation underlines the spirit of comradeship, as well as Sergio’s good humor and energy – all crucial elements in the success of the band’s latest two albums, Koi No Yokan included, and of their return on stage and in the fans’ hearts.

Because this interview was conducted before Chi’s death, it also shows that the members of Deftones sided with their former bass player until the last. Although the musicians were marked by his tragic accident, they still had hope that the support from fans all over the world would help him overcome his ordeal. Even if their hope and positivity didn’t pay in the end, the fans will find solace in the thought that Chi spent his last days at home, with his family, in a loving atmosphere.

« But to have lived through that and come out the other side, stronger, happier, healthier, that’s a great feeling, man. It really is. We have the confidence back. We can just go and rock it. We used to do that all the time, we could do anywhere and fucking rock it. »

Radio Metal: Your latest album, Koi No Yokan, has been out for a few weeks now. First of all, did you all agree to use such a special name for the record?

Sergio Vega (bass): Yeah! (laughs) That’s really one of the criteria, to have five out of five. And everyone’s very excited whenever that happens. Fortunately, that really comes together a lot.

Abe Cunningham (drums): The cool thing is, there is no direct English translation, which makes it that much cooler. Wooooh, it’s out there!

With this short term perspective, how do you both see it?

Sergio Vega: I’m super proud of it, because to me, it’s like a dream come true. I had an idea for how I thought people should work together. I love collaborative experiences, I love interplay. Basically there were six of us in a room for the most part of the time – us in the band, and Nick [Raskulinecz], our producer. There was such a genuine rapport with everybody. It’s really nice, I love the thought of ideas coming up and people jumping on them and expressing themselves, and coming up with nice parts to help bolster up the initial riff. When I think about this stuff, it’s never like: “Who wrote this?” It’s like somebody dropped a seed and we all jumped on it. It’s a group effort in every moment. I know it and I remember it. It’s so special to me. That’s the way I think music should be made. And we did it, and it’s really cool. I like hearing it.

Abe Cunningham: And we did it twice.

Sergio Vega: Yeah, we did it twice, both the same way. It just blows my mind that it can actually happen. I’ve been in so many situations where you have to fight for riffs, and there’s a lot of animosity building through the stuff.

Abe Cunningham: That’s no fun!

Sergio Vega: It doesn’t have to be that way. I used to think: “It’s not good if there’s no hate”. But it’s so not true! It can be fun, you can really dig each other!

In a way, it represents the second record of a new era for Deftones, with a lot of newfound creativity and high energy on stage. How does it feel to be back on top?

Abe Cunningham: There’s been ups and downs, but such is life. But to have lived through that and come out the other side, stronger, happier, healthier, that’s a great feeling, man. It really is. We have the confidence back. We can just go and rock it. We used to do that all the time, we could do anywhere and fucking rock it. Now people are healthy and there’s happiness, man. It feels great. After going through the things we have, it’s very special.

You recently played two new songs from this album on stage, “Romantic Dreams” and “Entombed”. What was the reaction of the audience to those songs?

We’ve put a bunch more now.

Sergio Vega: Yeah. It’s really nice, surprisingly. No, not surprisingly. It’s much appreciated in the sense that you play these songs and it feels like such an awesome thing to have a band’s seventh record be so exciting to people. Usually, they want to hear earlier stuff and to rekindle feelings by playing an early record in its entirety or something like that. But we have a seventh record that people want to hear and they’re fucking psyched on it! One thing that is awesome is that it’s like the first time I ever finger tapped. Stephen and I figured out finger tapping so we could put that into a song. And we built a song out of it all together in like minutes. It’s awesome that we share it.

Abe Cunningham: We were playing those two songs for a while, then the record came out and we took two months off. So this is the sixth show, I think, and now we’re able to play the songs. We see a lot of young faces in the crowd, which is great, and they seem to be embracing the new stuff.

Sergio Vega: Yeah, I was blown away on our first show on this run in Glasgow. We started playing that stuff and they were like singing aloud. I was like: “Wow, this is awesome!”

« From the very get go, we never had only one type of thing; we could be whatever we wanted to be. »

Now that there is a large catalog of Deftones songs, I guess you must have some favorites, or songs you don’t want to play anymore?

I’m down for anything!

Abe Cunningham: There are those times when some of the songs you want to play the least are the ones that people want to hear the most. But I think we’ve found a way to breathe new life into things. We can put them on simmer for a little bit. We have enough material to be able to swap, so it’s a good place to be. I’ve refallen in love with a lot of shit from our first record. That’s fun.

Sergio Vega: It’s so much fun. To me, what’s awesome about it is the context of a set. That’s how things really come in and out, because there’s a journey you want to go on and ways that you want to do things. We balance between two-guitar songs and one-guitar songs, so that there’s that whole thing. That kinda creates the parameters under which we decide what will happen. We can only play so many songs with two guitars or one guitar, because we use so many different tunings. Sometimes we want to have a little flow and we’re like: “How many songs are there with all the same tuning?” That’s very rare! (Laughs) Especially on Diamond Eyes, we’re never in the same tuning. On Koi No Yokan, sometimes Chino and I are on the same tuning, but never with Stephen. And it’s so cool! But that becomes part of the challenge of putting sets together, like the nice flow and all those things. You want to give yourself the chance to change.

For me and for many people, there is a big turning point in Deftones’ career, musically speaking, which is the White Pony album. From this record on, the sound of Deftones has evolved towards something that pushes up the atmosphere, using electronic stuff for example. How would you analyze this period and the contribution of this record to your musical career?

Abe Cunningham: It was a monumental moment for us. It’s still our highest selling record today or whatever. But it was more than that. From the very get go, we never had only one type of thing; we could be whatever we wanted to be. It was definitely based on metal guitar sounds but we could do whatever we wanted. The White Pony record was the first time I felt we got it right with the whole spectrum of sound, and the way the whole album was put together. You can see a jump from Adrenaline to Around The Fur, but we had the chance to make another record, and we pulled it off. I love that record, man. It’s why we’re still here, I think.

Sergio Vega: Yeah, it’s so awesome. Even from my perspective, I really like it. It’s so minimal when you hear it, and yet so heavy and so huge-sounding. The picking is so graceful, it’s really nice. There’s a cool marriage between things. When I first tried to play these songs, I was like: “Wooooow, this is so rad and so huge!”

From Terry Date to Nick Raskulinecz, you’ve only worked with three different producers in your career…

Abe Cunningham: Yeah, Terry Date and… Oooh, he who we’ll not speak of…

Sergio Vega: He who shall not be named!

Abe Cunningham: Terry did four records. Maybe five? Oh, he did Eros, which never came out, so that’s five. Bob Ezrin did Saturday Night Wrist. Or maybe my math is a bit off…

Sergio Vega: No, you’re right.

Abe Cunningham: Oh, yeah. And then the last two. Yay!

How did those guys influence the Deftones sound?

They’re great people to work with. Terry Date is a great engineer. I mean, he’s a producer, but he’s really an engineer. He buries his head in the fucking board and that’s his thing. He’s not so much of a person who… If he has an idea, of course he’ll say: “Come on guys, try it”. But he’s not really a hands-on producer, the way that Nick is.

Sergio Vega: Nick is like this awesome combination of being very involved and being very transparent and making it about you all the time. He’s never like: “Do this! Do that!” He’s always like: “What you just did was awesome, more of that! Look at what Frank’s doing, guys, check that out!” He’s really awesome at creating structures to allow you to be free. He’s documenting our entire rehearsal day, then he goes back and chops it up and sends it out to us. He keeps it moving. That was something we had incorporated, too. So if he had to miss a day or if he wasn’t around, we were really on top of doing that ourselves. There’s one side of you, which is the creative side, which is free and open. And it’s allowed to happen because there’s another aspect that is the strict documenting and poring over the ideas more consciously, then playing with the arrangements and the pieces. That allowed the stuff to crystallize very quickly.

« I first saw and met them because somebody told me: “Go check out Deftones”. […] I saw them and I saw this pure energy, and I thought: “That’s what I’m in this for”. »

Sergio, what was your idea of the band before joining it?

I met them in 1995 on the first world tour. They were homies from 1995. I first saw and met them because somebody told me: “Go check out Deftones”. I was so into that hardcore bubble and I asked: “Are they like that?” And he said: “No, they’re not like that, they love the Bad Brains!” What, they love the Bad Brains?! I saw them and I saw this pure energy, and I thought: “That’s what I’m in this for”. I remember going to their Winnebago, and at that time I always had weed and cigars, so I went over there with weed and cigars! I kinda kicked it with them. I had long hair and gold teeth, mainly just to irk all of my hardcore friends, ‘cause they were so straight! I thought these guys’ energy was so amazing. I had the chance to fill in for Chi in 1999 for a short period. I had never been involved in anything that everybody wanted to be doing at the same time. I was like: “THIS IS AMAZING!” That makes me a super-uber fan of everything, because I know it’s true. So when they called me to do this, I was like: “A chance to be around true people? Let’s go!”

In the band, you’re very close to each other, as you’re the rhythmic basis of the band. In your own words, how would you describe your musical collaboration?

Abe Cunningham: Too right!

Sergio Vega: That’s what we call ourselves: too right, too strong, the rhythm section! (laughs)

Abe Cunningham: It’s funny, because back in the day, Chi had his style of playing. It was flowing and loose, but his rhythm was a trick, man. Stephen, our guitarist, is very concise, he’s on it. Usually, the rhythm section, bass and drums, play together. I never played to Chi, ever. So this, gentlemen, is a whole new thing! I never really felt it before. It’s great, man!

Sergio Vega: I love you too! Stephen is very rhythmically-oriented, and from my perspective, locking in with those two guys is so rad.

Abe Cunningham: I don’t listen to him anymore, I listen to you now!

Sergio Vega: I just want to hit everything that makes sense, and Stephen is the same way. These things really lock. I just want to be right there, and make it really fuse.

Abe Cunningham: And I just want to piss Stephen off! All day long!

Sergio Vega: (laughs) So yeah, I love being in the rhythm section, it’s great!

Sergio, when you joined the band, I thought, like many people, that these must be very strange conditions to join the band, given what had happened to Chi.

Yeah, that was horrible….

How did you find your place, and how did you manage to go over this?

Just by not thinking about that and by being a friend. The foundations of my actions are based on being as good a friend as possible and by being as positive as possible. The rest is the rest. I figure, if I do that right, it takes care of itself. As long as I’m of use to them, that’s good. I’m just happy to be a part of it, and that’s it. It’s very grounded: these are my friends and it’s an honor to be let into something that they’ve developed and have done so much with. So just be a good friend, work hard, practice every day and that’s it.

« [Stephen Carpenter] is my brother and we’re bound to… It’s my duty to piss him off every day! »

As we’re talking about bass, do you have any positive news of Chi to share with us?

Abe Cunningham: Pretty much the same. I guess that’s not so negative. I wish it was better, but it’s not. He’s still in a minimally conscious state. He’s at home now, which is a much better place than a hospital. He’s very susceptible to infections, ‘cause he’s bed-ridden. He’s been in hospitals forever but now he’s home with his family. I think about him all day long, every day.

Sergio Vega: There’s a lot of positive energy. There’s been so much advancement in understanding of severe brain injuries and brain traumas. There used to be a couple of narrow categorizations, this or this. Now there are so many precedents, of people coming to after decades, or people coming to right away, and all these things in between. So you constantly put out positive energy and wish well towards him. Ultimately, it’s having great results.

Abe Cunningham: He’s got that energy coming from people around the world. A love wave.

Sergio Vega: That’s effective. I’m sure in our lifetime they’ll be able to document and prove that it really helps.

You’ve played with Stephen Carpenter for more than 20 years now.

Abe Cunningham: 25!

How did your musical relationship with him evolve over the years?

(Splutters) (Laughs) I’m joking, but it really is like this. There’s definitely some things… I mean, we love a lot of the same stuff, but he listens to shit that I don’t like! But he’s my brother and we’re bound to… It’s my duty to piss him off every day!

Was it always easy to play with him?

Yeah! Absolutely, he and I did everything. We were just a two-piece when we started the band. We were called Animosity, after a Corrosion Of Conformity record, with the two of us. Chino introduced me to him, so they knew each other. The first couple of records, he and I wrote everything. We were the ones who were on time every day, stayed late, packed the fucking car, etc. That was the foundation, but we’re a band. It takes everyone. It’s as collaborative as it can be these days. I love Stephen, man. I love him tons and he loves me too, I know that. But I don’t like a lot of the music he listens to! (Laughs) And I’m sure he doesn’t like what I listen to either. But we always found some common ground. That’s part of the process and it keep it fun.

Let’s talk a bit about drums now. You cited Steward Copeland as one of your influences. Is he the one who inspired your way of hitting the snare, which is typical of your drums play?

Yeah. He’s always had a very tight snare. I love power. John Bohnam, of course, he’s so powerful and bombastic, and he’s dancing on the kit, too. Everyone thinks he’s just bam! bam! Even Dave Grohl, he fucking hits hard. But you can only hit something so hard before it starts sounding like shit. I’m super-duper influenced by Steward Copeland, maybe a bit too much, but there…

I can still remember the sound of the snare on songs like “Around The Fur” the first time I heard it. I remember thinking: “Wow, what a way to hit the snare!”

It looks like I’m hitting it, but I’m not hitting it that hard! Smoke in mirrors. Hollywood! Though I do like to smack the drums a bit.

Sergio Vega: He’s so powerful!

What does it represent to be an influence to drummers yourself?

Abe Cunningham: I don’t know!

Sergio Vega: For a lot of my friends, when we first heard Deftones back on the East coast, they were like: “His drumming is just like wooooooow.” The way it interfaces with the riffs and stuff, the way it cuts across the riff, it really gives it life, and it makes it sound like… It takes it to a whole another level. The proof to that is in my mind, when I imagine those riffs with different drum patterns, you know…

Abe Cunningham: Thanks for that.

Sergio Vega: It’s insane, dude!

« You don’t think of yourself as an influence, you don’t look at yourself in the third person. You look at your passion for music and that’s what makes it awesome and exciting. »

They were only two featurings in Deftones’ career (“Head Up” with Max Cavalera and “Passenger” with Maynard James Keenan), but those will remain in everyone’s memory for a long time. Why didn’t you make more featuring on your records?

Abe Cunningham: Those things happen very naturally. Those are friends of ours, who happened to be in town at the same time. Max was actually on tour when we were recording up in Seattle, Washington, and he happened to be there. We’d known him for quite some time and we were huge Sepultura fans. That was the motivation: “Fuck let’s do this”, it happened like that. On a lot of records these days, it’s: “This record is featuring so and so!” But for us it’s very natural and I like it that way.

Will there be any opportunity in the future to play with Tool?

That’ll be up to the gods! (laughs)

Sergio Vega: We’re playing Ozzfest together in Japan, on different days unfortunately.

You’ve been nominated to the Revolver Golden Gods Awards in the best drummer and bassist categories, and Chino as best vocalist. Does it represent something to you?

It’s interesting, we talked about that the other day. On one level, I don’t… (sputters, laughs) Come on, let’s start again!

Abe Cunningham: Of course it’s always neat to be acknowledged.

Sergio Vega: That’s the thing that’s really awesome: it’s something that you’re excited about, it creates excitement with people and they resonate and express it that way. But we’ve said it before: you don’t think of yourself as an influence, you don’t look at yourself in the third person. You look at your passion for music and that’s what makes it awesome and exciting. I daresay that’s why people are interested in us at all, because we’re not doing that. If we were those people that were doing that, we’d make forced collaborations with people – doing records with Katy Perry or whatever!

Abe Cunningham: We keep it pretty loose. We keep it light and loose and fun. Competition is for sports.

Sergio Vega: Literally. FIFA, you know what I’m saying?

Abe Cunningham: Aluminum Gods, I would be that. Tin Gods.(laughs)

At the end of the 90s, were you aware of living a golden age of alternative rock and metal? Many bands were born in this period: you, Rage Against The Machine, Tool, Nine Inch Nails…

A lot of people stopped, we just kept on going. I don’t think we’ve ever stopped. It’s weird. It was a great time, though. Lots of great bands, great time for music, for people going to see shows. It was worldwide, it was huge. I miss it.

Interview conducted face to face on February, 22th, 2013
Transcription: Saff’

Deftones’s website : www.deftones.com

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