The Deftones: Tao of Chi


This is a feature article I did a while ago on the now shutdown musicedge.com. I tried a new feature writing tactic, combining the narrative of feature style with some Q & A style thrown in the mix. It worked well for this particular article because Chi was quite conversational, which is a relief as an interviewer because the wealth of information lends itself to a fairly in depth article. Though I didn’t think too highly of their last record, Saturday Night Wrist, they are still one of the most consistently evolving bands from that post-hardcore era. Enjoy! *Charles Shannon took the live pic.
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When The Deftones debut album, Adrenaline, dropped in the mid-nineties they inadvertently opened the floodgates for what would encapsulate an entire short-lived genre of music – nu metal. It was a watershed album, full of post-hardcore riffs that drew as much inspiration from bands like Unsane and Helmet as it did melody and dynamics from bands like Smashing Pumpkins and The Pixies.

Was pigeonholing Sacramento CA’s Deftones a Nu-Metal band wrong? Not particularly in this case, The Deftones were and still are way out in front of the game and by the company they toured with in those days they were often lumped into sentences and explanations by many an irresponsible music journalist. The Deftones are too complex a band both musically and in personnel to throw words like ‘Rap-rock’ or ‘Nu-metal’ at just because comparison is appealing to the lowest common denominator. Adrenaline was released in 1995, at the downward slope of the post-hardcore movement. Major labels were pushing bands like Orange 9MM, Seaweed, Quicksand and the almighty Helmet, while bands like Snot, Clutch and to some extent, Korn were popularizing a mixture of down tuned guitars rap infused vocals.

We are aware of what has become of the Rap Metal/Nu-metal movement – irrelevance by way of over-saturation! Like all things that seem new and fresh in music they get assimilated into popular culture, bastardized versions rear their ugly head and are only made to move units through singles and record sales. Adaptability is a testament to the longevity of a band and its ability to evaluate itself from a musical perspective, something that Deftones bassist Chi Cheng attributes to the bands staying power. To remain relevant as the Deftones have done over the past dozen years is a gift many bands only think of in hindsight when the royalty checks cease and their CD’s end up in the bargain bin at the local record store.

Themusicedge.com recently caught up with bassist Chi Cheng as he was on the road headlining the Taste of Chaos tour and learned many things. His love for the works of famed prose writer, Charles Bukowski, wine, classical music and his band mates ability to internalize their creativity and make sure that “We’re the worst when it comes to what we do. If we think that (new song) sounds too much like the Deftones, we can’t play that, because that’s how we sound.”

Chi not only plays bass in one of the most enduring bands of the past ten years, he is also a writer of poetry. His first spoken word record, Bamboo Parachutes, released in 2000, was the result of a restless writing spirit and a need to express himself in another medium besides playing music or as Chi puts it, “I have no choice but to write – I love writing.”

Chi has at least 4 full-length spoken word records waiting in the wings and could essentially release one a year for as many years. His writing is prolific yet there are large chunks of time where he doesn’t get to put pen to paper due to the constraints of touring. “(I do write) with my days off it’s a lot easier. Being on the bus it’s a little too cramped, and there are a lot of distractions. Too much outer stimulus. I’m a Bukowski type of writer so I like to get my bottle of wine and my Mahler (Gustav Mahler, 19th Century Austrian composer) some Beethoven and go to work.”

Proceeds from the sale of Bamboo Parachutes were donated to a music program for homeless teens in Sacramento; a program based in his community, which Chi says, “I believe in working with the community that you live in, there are a lot of huge global issues obviously. I’m from Sacramento and I wanted some of the proceeds to go to charities that I know of and want to work with. This was a while ago, I started bringing in instruments and buying instruments and actually go in and play with the kids which is something I tried to do for a while.”

When you’re not insanely busy with touring?
“Yeah exactly.”

“As far as I know its still going on, I lost touch with it a couple of years ago when my life got crazy and hectic and I had a kid. From what I understand it’s going well. Self-sustaining at this point.” Which is certainly a blessing for a non-profit in today’s globalized economy.

A father and husband, Chi related that a difficult touring schedule and time away from home is the most difficult part of his almost anti-rock star lifestyle. When it comes to touring, he says, “I find it terribly difficult. I love playing music and when I’m on stage I couldn’t be happier but I tend to be a miserable prick 23 hours a day. The music I love, sitting around waiting to play I don’t love – at all.”

With the recent release of B Sides and Rarities The Deftones are looking at a fall release for their new record which is untitled as of this interview. They have been debuting new material on the Taste of Chaos tour; “I see a lot of camera phones every night and I’m sure that almost everyone at the show last night recorded the new songs.”

Have you named the new record? Has it been cut, mastered and edited?

“It’s just now being finalized, vocally and adding little things here and there to make sure it’s absolutely worth waiting for. So most likely September we’ll release it and it will be worth the wait. I’m absolutely in love with the new album.”

One key thing to remember about the Deftones is that each member falls under the category of modern day renaissance men. They were one of the first bands to utilize sample-based music, keyboards and turntables as tools to further a musical idea instead of as gimmicks for mass appeal. When it comes to incorporating electronic elements into the music of the new album it’s there and as Chi explains; “We’ve molded it into some of the songs on the new album, there are touches of it, glimpses on it, there are also a lot of moodiness and variations I don’t think we’ve done since White Pony. The last album was pretty dark whereas this one is more all over the place.”

Chi Cheng; poet, bassist, Zen rock star and family man who connects to people through music, his community and his kindness. Its people like Chi who make music great without ever playing a note.

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