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Deftones - How ‘White Pony’ Almost Killed Us

Ben Patashnik
Ben Patashnik 15 November 2010 at 14.30

Inspired by freaky drugs and freakier sex, Deftones staggering third album was a huge success but would go on to almost tear the band apart. In this extensive interview Chino Moreno and Abe Cunningham take us through the making of the classic record

Deftones' 'White Pony' is an album that always feels new - it might remind you of a particular time and place but it's so rich that every time you listen to it it'll take you somewhere new. Very few records can do that and only a tiny handful can still do it a decade after being unveiled to the world, but hey - 'White Pony' is really that good.

In this month's issue of Rock Sound we speak extensively to Chino Moreno and Abe Cunningham about the birth of the album, the whirlwind that surrounded its creation and its legacy. There's a reason it took Deftones 10 years to write another record even half as good - 'White Pony' loomed over the band like a shadow and was the beginning of their gradual, messy disintegration. In this web-exclusive extract the singer and drummer reveal how tensions boiled over within the band even while they were writing their masterpiece.

Chino, people look back on the album as either the point the band moved away from nu metal, or the album where you started playing guitar, or the album where Frank’s influence became more concrete – but how do you see it?
Chino Moreno (vocals): “It’s all of those things but the one thing is that we really took our time with that record. We knew we wanted to do something a little more experimental.”

How was the mood in the rest of the band when they saw what was happening between you and Steph, Chino?
Chino: “It was a little weird. It was heard for me because I was sort of bossy, and I could tell it was a little frustrating, but in my heart I was just very passionate. I didn’t think of it as my thing, I was just excited. Like I say, there wasn’t any real arguing. The way we did it, we took our time and compiled it this way, it worked on this record. We tried to do it again on the next couple of records and writing in the studio just didn’t work at all. But it did on ‘White Pony’.”

When did the songs start coming together?
Abe Cunningham (drums): “Just like anything else we got together and decided to make a new record. We did our usual thing – reconvened after a little break – and at that point nothing had been written and we were for the first time writing a lot in the studio. It’s such a different way of doing things – if it goes well then it’s wonderful but if not then it’s incredibly costly and immensely draining.”

Did it feel like you were on a particularly creative streak?
Abe: “It was a bit of a tense time, looking back now it was a good time but at that particular point Stephen had moved down to LA – we were always based out of Sacramento – and that was the first time Chino had picked up a guitar, so he and I started working on a lot of material knowing we had to make a record. And later we all worked on it together.”

With Chino picking up the guitar and Frank’s influence being more pronounced, this album feels like the template for what the band would become 10 years after.
Abe: “Definitely, I agree. We wanted to add some more electronic sounds and Frank’s textures were way more prominent on all the songs – he was more of a guest on the first two records, a buddy of ours who was touring with us constantly – and the whole guitar thing with Chino, that was the start of a huge animosity and tension between him and Steph that’s been well publicised over the years. That stemmed from Chino picking up the guitar, but it’s also because Stephen kinda left, he moved out and so we did what we needed to do. I still think that record is our best attempt at trying to meld all the sounds we like into one. It turned out alright…”

The album sounds like a band on the same page, so you wouldn’t know the tensions behind it…

Abe: “All being said, it was more brotherly bickering and it was very unified at the time. We had a common goal – I don’t think we thought about it too hard.”

Chino, with you writing songs in character, was there a point when you decided that’s what you wanted to do or did you write some songs and see that was the way you were heading?
Chino: “After I wrote a couple of songs I saw that’s the direction we were headed. We recorded half of it in Sausalito, California, and we lived in houseboats and recorded in The Plant Studios where there’s a lot of history, Fleetwood Mac recorded ‘Rumours’ there, and it was a really good vibe. We were living a great life, and then we moved to Los Angeles where I finished the vocals and we moved into this big mansion in the Hollywood Hills where all of us lived together.”

What was Terry Date’s reaction when it became clear where you were heading?
Abe: “He was very pleased, when we did our first record with him he was a very metal guy, and during the sessions of the first record we wanted to do a Smiths cover – ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ – and he wanted nothing to do with it, so we did it on our own real fast. He wanted nothing to do with anything that wasn’t metal as possible. And he was very, very pleased with the way things were going and could see us going from young sprouts, as we’d grown a bit and seen some of the world. It was just a magical time, without trying to be quaint.”

Did you feel there was pressure on you personally Chino, what with you starting to play guitar and using a different writing style?
Chino: “I didn’t care. I felt with ‘Around The Fur’ that it was a little bit further left than ‘Adrenaline’, which was more of a straight up metal, almost rap metal, record. And if you listen to ‘Around The Fur’, aside of ‘Lotion’ and ‘Headup’ there’s very little rhythmic singing. I still feel like that’s one of my greatest records. I wasn’t worried that the fans weren’t going to dig it or anything like that, if anything I felt liberated that we were doing something we wanted to do and weren’t looking back.”

Did you have that same excitement on subsequent records?
Abe: “The next record we were obviously in our craziest period. We were quite confident and up until that point our record label never had anything to say – our first three records, we wrote, recorded and mixed them and then handed them the reels. They had no input, and it was very free. We had heard horror stories and here we were, three albums deep on a major label and we were left to our own devices. The success of White Pony, which is our best-selling record to date, meant they wanted us to have hits and more immediate songs. They had a lot of input, which was very frustrating, and we were out of our minds on… other things, and that was the beginning of what I call the dark days.”

What was it like when you gave the label the masters?
Abe: “We were extremely proud. We’d worked our tails off making this... and it was just wild… we thought we’d reached the top and it was a time of excess. We worked our asses off but we also partied so, so hard as well.”

What was the story with having to write ‘Back To School’?
Chino: “I remember the record had already been out for a while and had some radio play, but they wanted a second single and they didn’t think there were any more on the record. I said, ‘Well how do you know, because you haven’t tried with any others?’ I remember them sitting me down and pointing me out Papa Roach and Linkin Park had sold 6million albums while we hadn’t sold a tenth of that. To me, they were saying they wanted some rap-rock, and at the time I was already way over making music like that., but my response was no way at first, and then they pointed out the chorus of ‘Pink Maggit’ was so great, so they asked me to rewrite it as a three-minute song. They kept hounding me about so I was like ‘Watch this’, because formulaic songs are so easy to write.

“In one day I rewrote the music and the lyrics, we recorded and then I said ‘Is that what you were talking about?’ And then they said they were going to release it with a video, they were going to get Paul Hunter who directed Eminem videos to do it, so at that point I was like ‘Whatever, I’ll trust you, I don’t care’. When a record company gets behind you like that it’s hard to say no, because the years prior they wouldn’t give us the time of day. So the fact they wanted to push things and pay for things was great. I look back on it now and I don’t regret it – it’s not a terrible song – but the only thing I made a point on was that when it came to do the reissue, they reissued the original record without that song on. It came out and it did what it did.”

How do you look back on that period on your lives? Is White Pony accurate an accurate depiction of where you guys were?
Chino: “Yeah, for better or worse it is what it was. I can’t compare any point in my life to that period again.”

Do you feel so affectionate for the album because you love the songs or because you have good memories of the time you recorded it?
Chino: “The times around it. ‘Around The Fur’ is my favourite for a couple of reasons because we were still high after coming off ‘Adrenaline’, which was received so well that we were even able to make a second record, and we wrote and recorded it all in four months. We were just so happy to be making it, and there’s something about that record that’s always made it my favourite. But ‘White Pony’ is great because of the dynamics of the album, you have to listen to the whole thing because it’s such a trip and it was produced so well – Terry did such a great job, to this day I’ll put up Abe’s drum sound on ‘Digital Bath’ against anything.”

How soon after its release did you realise the impact it was having, not just on your fans but in terms of raising the profile of the band?
Abe: “We never really look at things too closely – you could tell something was going on, something was stirring in the air and people were starting to enjoy it – and we were touring our asses off across the world and we were watching things grow. The audience sizes were growing, the type of people who were coming were not the same as before, and we’ve always had an open fanbase which is a beautiful thing, but we really started to notice it blossoming. It had an impact on people – I know that is’ good. It’s got some legs! But our band doesn’t get too caught up in that – it’s amazing that people are still inspired by it but we just moved onto the next thing rather than dwelling, but I’ll say this – it was very exciting seeing things grow and sprout around us. We were doing pretty well as a band. There were darker times to come…”

For more on 'White Pony' check out the new issue of Rock Sound, onsale now from WHSmith and all good newsagents.

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