“Pretty,” affirms Deftones singer and guitarist Chino Moreno when discussing their new full-length studio album, Diamond Eyes. “We’re not afraid to be pretty.” It’s an adjective most riff-heavy groups might avoid, but then, Deftones have never been your average hard rock band.
As kids, the Sacramento fivesome cut its teeth on Anthrax and The Smiths, Pantera and The Cure, skateboarding and “The Smurfs.” As a band out of high school, Deftones mixed trip hop with thrash, melodic vocals with crushing reverb, and yes, pretty with ugly. As chart-toppers and headliners, they’ve crossed over genres, defied categorization and confused the hell out of your iPod (“Heavy Metal?” “Hard Rock?” “Alternative?”) Above all, Deftones have stuck together throughout their often-turbulent tenure, and now, deliver one of the most compelling records of their career.
The 11-track album is just that—an album from start to finish. Diamond Eyes works the way good records used to; each song carries you a little further away from your shitty day until finally, you’ve been transported to a place that feels a whole lot better than where you started. “There are so many emotions that music can give you, and if you explore all sides of those, it can be really amazing,” says Moreno. “Like sadness — it can be really lovely, or beautiful, or wide open, or coarse. We connect with different emotions because we listen to everything out there—that could mean dumb music or something by Brian Eno. Then when we play, it’s not a real conscious thing, but the emotion builds and it takes us in a lot of different ways. I think that’s what music’s supposed to do.”
The tangle of Stephen Carpenter’s woozy, undulating guitar work and Moreno’s soaring then secretive vocal style is the bittersweet dynamic behind each of Deftones’ records, including Diamond Eyes. The friction drives the music as much as it does the players, though it doesn’t always make life easy for childhood friends Carpenter and Moreno. “What makes us work?” asks Carpenter. “Chino will give you the exact opposite answer that I do. That’s the way it is with us—we contradict each other constantly but it’s also what makes our music what it is—intense and different.”
There’s also a newfound sense of purpose that makes Deftones’ sixth album stand out. The band recorded the album after their best friend and bassist Chi Cheng sustained a debilitating brain injury from a car accident in November of 2008. “After Chi’s accident, it would have been easy for us to make a sad record,” says Moreno. “It felt like there was a cloud around us, so we aimed to make something uplifting. I think that’s why there’s a lot of fantasy stuff on the record. I tried to take it away from day to day life, and make it more about the abstract, about art. It sounds odd, but really, this is an optimistic record.” And a spontaneous one.
Diamond Eyes was made in a mere six months with the help of former Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega and producer Nick Raskulinecz of Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains, and Rush fame. Oddly enough, Deftones had just come off recording another full album, Eros, which they ultimately shelved. Moreno says, “Honestly, I knew there was something better to come.” Starting over was a bold move considering Deftones traditionally take their time writing and recording each album. Drummer Abe Cunningham was concerned about the decision, especially since it had been so difficult making records in the past. “Each one was getting to be like pulling teeth, and beyond—maybe like surgery without anesthesia,” he adds. “But this time, we just said fuck it, we’re still best friends, all of us — and we’re still able to do this. So we just lightened up and got creative, and we’re firing on all cylinders.”
These days, Deftones are far more unified than ever before, but that hasn’t always been the case. Tensions began to mount following their breakthrough record White Pony in 2000. It was their first to top the Billboard charts, win a Grammy and earn Platinum certification. In the wake of their success, the band toured nonstop; a grueling schedule that gave way to 24/7 road-life, in-fighting, and eventually, burnout. Carpenter and Moreno’s disputation over the direction of music escalated to the point where the pair stopped speaking all together. By the time their 2003 self-titled album was release, Cunningham says they all had their nicknames for the difficult period in which it was recorded. “Steph calls it the Downward Spiral. I refer to it as Dark Days.” The conflict made the band’s life hell, but it gave the music press something to write about in the stretch between albums. “A lot of that was trumped up, but we’ve definitely had some heavy times,” says keyboardist Frank Delgado, who joined the band originally as a turntableist in the mid 90s. “Still one of the best things about this band is that we just don’t give up. As dysfunctional as it can be, we still make it work. And I really don’t know what the press thinks of us now, but I like that. There should be some mysticism there. Maybe they should think we’re off our rocker.” And deconstructing the band’s mental state is an easy task compared to categorizing the music they make.
Critics, marketers and radio alike have struggled with just where to place or how to define Deftones. They band has, after all, played with punk rockers L7, toured with Metallica and appealed to some of the same fan base as Morrissey and generally defied simple, and ultimately pointless genre classification. “We’re not a party band, but we’re not a dark rock band,” says Moreno. “We’re not the most wildly artistic band, but we’re not light and fluffy. It’s hard to put us in one place. I don’t blame people when they try to do it, because I can’t even pin it myself. But really, does it matter?” Not when you’re as compelling, diverse, powerful and pretty as Deftones.