The year was 1988. George Michael’s “Faith” ranked as the top-selling album. “Rain Man” ruled the box office. And “The Cosby Show” dominated Nielsen ratings.
Chino Moreno, a Depeche Mode fan with long skater bangs, was a student at McClatchy High School. One of his south Sacramento neighborhood pals was an outspoken metal-head named Stephen Carpenter who played an electric guitar with a blood-splattered smiley face sticker on its body. Like teenagers have done since the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, they formed a band, dubbed by Carpenter as “Deftones,” a name that parked homeboy slang in front of a classic ’50s-band suffix.
The group’s founding members also seemed to combine disparate influences. Moreno was a new-wave-loving singer with soaring, emotionally charged vocals; Carpenter a guitarist who set his amplifier to the heaviest chunka-chunka levels possible. But something special came from their collaboration, and as the band continued to develop its sound, playing backyard keggers and clubs, it finalized its lineup with drummer Abe Cunningham, bassist Chi Cheng and DJ Frank Delgado.
Now, five sitting presidents and eight major-label Deftones albums later – including “Gore,” released Friday, April 8 – the band members are in their 40s, bodies thicker, minds wiser, their skateboarding days essentially done. But the need to create still calls.
Cunningham’s two sons refer to the group as “Dadtones.” Longevity doesn’t come easily to rock bands, which can crack from the stresses of long-term touring, or forfeit the magic that made them successful by chasing the changing moods of modern music. But Deftones haven’t just persisted over 28 years, they’ve done something even more difficult: Remained relevant.
According to the concert trade publication Pollstar, the Deftones generated more than $9 million in ticket revenue from July through October , including a co-headlining tour with the band Incubus. Rolling Stone magazine recently profiled the band leading up to the release of “Gore,” as did Spin, which described the Deftones as “one of the most consistently enthralling hard-rock bands of the past 25 years.”
Up next: an April 12 performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and a headlining tour that winds through the United States and Europe.
“I definitely realize we’re in a rather unique and special situation, to have maintained this long and have people still into us,” said Cunningham, by phone while on a tour stop in Houston. “We’ve seen it all the time with bands that achieve success very fast and don’t know how to handle it. You have to be smart about it.”
And a bit hard-headed.
Deftones’ sound can be defined as a kind of push-pull. One side leans ultra-heavy with Carpenter’s gigantic guitar riffs anchored by Cunningham’s propulsive drumming style. But it’s not just music for mosh pits. The sound is tempered by Moreno’s impressionistic lyrics and expansive vocal melodies. Delgado augments the music with ambient soundscapes and other electronic textures via turntables or keyboards.
This cerebral approach to headbanging helped differentiate Deftones in a crowded field of hard-rock bands. Unlike many groups that rose alongside them in the 1990s, Deftones were moodier than the rap-metal acts of the times, yet heavier than the pop-punk bands that saturated radio airwaves. The long-running music magazine Kerrang! described Deftones as “the band that changed rock” in a recent cover story.
Delgado says the band’s aesthetic can be summed up in the cover art for “Gore,” which depicts a hallucinatory scene of flying pink flamingos.
“If you look at the picture, it’s pretty, but ‘gore’ is an ugly word and that’s the dynamic,” said Delgado in a recent phone interview. “We’ve always been about heavy/light and soft/hard. We want to create these pretty, beautiful things with this unnerving feeling.”
That’s not to say their songs develop easily. Deftones traditionally take a shark-tank approach to songwriting, where only the strongest ideas survive the smack talk and criticisms from fellow members. It’s been like this since the beginning, and it’s one of the keys to the band’s success.
Deftones have been ruthless about self-editing songs that sound derivative or too obvious in their influences. Instead of aiming straight for the mainstream heavy-metal crowd, they’ve woven elements of trip-hop, shoegaze and other atmospherics that challenge, subvert and expand the genre. The approach has allowed Deftones to sound fresh as the decades roll by, but it often comes at the expense of rigorous head butting.
“They’ve had a relentless pursuit of authenticity,” said Dave Park, who managed the band from 1990-1995. “New songs had to survive a tough gantlet that weeded out less quality material. And they were brutal in their self-analysis about what songs were authentic. They had to have their own identity.”
Through all the creative arguments, the members of Deftones have realized rock-star dreams that were first hashed out in a south Sacramento garage. They’ve been presented with gold and platinum record plaques, rewards for more than 3 million records sold in the United States, as well as a 2001 Grammy for “best metal performance.”
They’ve also endured dark times. Plagued by in-fighting and burnout, the band nearly broke up around the time of 2006’s “Saturday Night Wrist.” They’ve lost friends along the way. Cheng, the group’s longtime bassist, died in 2013 after spending more than four years in a coma following a car accident. Sergio Vega of the New York City band Quicksand filled Cheng’s spot.
But buoyed by friendships that stretch back to their high-school days, Deftones have stuck it out. Unlike many bands nearing the 30-year mark that might include just one or two original members, Deftones’ line up virtually has stayed the same, save for the passing of Cheng.
“We’re a brotherhood,” Cunningham said. “We love and hate, but the time spent hating and being upset with each other versus the times with laughter, joy and excitement far outweighs the latter. Over time we’ve really learned to appreciate what we have and each other.”
March 5 counted as one of the good days in the Deftones camp. The setting was Costa Mesa’s MUSINK festival, a weekend long tattoo-and-music event that included Deftones headlining for a crowd of about 7,000.
Dozens of fans posted up for hours before show time, waiting to snag optimum spots in front of the stage, where Deftones would preview “Prayers/Triangles” and “Doomed User,” two new songs from “Gore.”
Like the members themselves, the band’s material has mellowed slightly over time. The songs on their 1995 debut, “Adrenaline,” favored in-your-face, incendiary riffs. The guitar bludgeoning is still there on “Prayers/Triangles” and “Doomed User,” but the songs take their time when unfolding, offering slower build-ups to the complex, immersive sonics.
Backstage at MUSINK, the vibe was like a south Sac backyard barbecue. Moreno and Carpenter played rounds of dominoes while Delgado bumped vintage funk tunes by Edwin Birdsong and Kleeer. Travis Barker, the blink-182 drummer who organized the festival, popped by the band’s trailers to hang out with Cunningham and take a few pictures.
The scene was much more relaxed than some Deftones fans might expect. In a February interview with ultimate-guitar.com, Carpenter hinted that the band had hit a breaking point during the recording of “Gore.”
“I think my proudest thing about my guitar playing on this record is just playing on the record because I didn’t want to play on the record to begin with ...” Carpenter is quoted as saying. “I would never leave the band that I started but the band started leaving me, I can’t control that.”
It’s a subject that’s become an unwelcome distraction as the band fields interviews in preps of “Gore.”
“Stef is brutally honest, but come on, that’s been happening for most of our existence,” Cunningham said. “We’re five guys with five strong opinions. It’s not always easy, but there is a lot of laughter.”
Breaking up during this time would be a bad business move. The group has earned a loyal fan base over its run, especially in Mexico and Latin America. Europe also remains a key market, and the band will spend a chunk of the summer there headlining shows and playing major festivals.
“I would say they’re even more relevant now,” Park said. “Now they are veterans. They’ve done things on their own terms for better or for worse, but they never gave up on each other because that’s the source of their strength. If you go through tough times together, the roots run deep.”
During the backstage dominoes session in Costa Mesa, Carpenter sported a sweatshirt from Boneyard Beer, located in Bend, Ore., Moreno’s hometown for about three years. The singer hasn’t lived in Sacramento for more than a decade, relocating first to Southern California before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
Deftones are essentially a commuter band these days. Cunningham and Delgado are the only members who still live in Sacramento, and Vega lives in New York City when he’s not working with Deftones. The band’s home base these days is Burbank, where they keep a rehearsal spot. Carpenter lives about 30 miles away from the studio in San Pedro.
But this distance has helped provide balance as Deftones age. The songwriting sessions for “Gore” were composed primarily in two week chunks, allowing the members time to go home and decompress before starting up again. Unlike the relentless road stints in the 1990s and aughts, the band now programs breaks in their studio sessions and touring itineraries. The time allows them to be with families, rest up and get some head space away from the rigors of rock ’n’ roll.
“That’s the part of letting it breathe,” said Delgado, about the band placing a premium on personal space. “It’s not always an easy thing to do but we’re learning. There’s no manual. It’s like a marriage: You make it work or not. It’s definitely a dysfunctional marriage, but that’s normal. We’re not all the same people and we don’t think the same. But I enjoy being around these guys.”
As Deftones prepares to tour in support of “Gore,” there’s no sense they’re phoning in performances or coasting on their veteran status. As the band pummeled through new song “Hexagram,” Moreno dove into a MUSINK crowd that awaited him with outstretched arms and cell phones capturing video of the action. For a moment, even with the band members in middle age, it felt like the stage diving exuberance of 1988 all over again.
“We’re thankful to be on the other side, to have achieved some sort of balance,” Cunningham said after the performance. “We’re allowed to be who we are, and still rip and have great shows. I still feel like a kid on our eighth record. It’s a new chance to see what we can do and see what happens.”