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.
_________________________________________________________________

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.

Searching for a Form of Clarity:

Or Music Journalists Aren’t Your Friends and Don’t Forget That – Ever!

Hmm. Yes I remember it well. Not quite as well as I should and being a writer I probably should have documented every nuance and snippet of conversation while I was in the ‘moment.’ Alas, I’m not much of a journalist when it comes to that sort of thing. I’m more interested in having a good time and writing usually takes a back seat to my rabble rousing but since this is a story that was mostly experienced three sheets to the wind, I’ll preface it by taking some liberties in the facts. South By Southwest Music Festival is always a trial in patience and a test of ones alcohol endurance. The past two years I’ve been I’ve ended up hanging out with folks that don’t have badges, therefor my show going is limited by their ability to get into a venue, which usually means I miss the good shows at Stubbs (06′ Beastie Boys) or La Zona Rosa (06′ Drive By Truckers) or even Emo’s for (06′ Minus the Bear).

I’m a gregarious asshole and fiercely loyal to my friends, or at least I’d like to appear to have their best interests and happiness in mind and try to lend my brand of drunken revelry as the situation dictates. While 2006 was spent sharing a hotel room with The North Atlantic (J. Richards, who is almost 7′ tall, sleeps in the fetal position and takes up almost the entire bed, leaving me to half sleep on a parcel of mattress like some indentured farmer) and Under The Drone (their stand in bass player snores so loud, even pass-out drunk I couldn’t get to sleep and end up staying awake for roughly 48 hours. As a result of which during the a set by The Sword two days later I nod off on a chair at the back of the room. Luckily I’m there with my friend Ben who walks me across the Congress St bridge back to our room and I make my flight – yay! Crisis averted).

I did manage to break away from the non-badge holding crew, who had spent most of the time at the Red Eyed Fly watching Dixie Witch or Black Lamb and make my way to Lucero at Red 7. While I was there a man approached me at the bar. After I had placed my order for a tallboy of PBR he says, “Can I buy your drink for you?” Drunk and skeptical I look at him funny, turn around to look for Vanessa or Jamie (Badge holding crew/Lucero fans) for some guidance, but he quickly reassures me that his intention is purely marketable, stating, “I’m the regional rep for PBR, just want to thank you for your loyalty.”

“Uh huh. Thanks!” I say, adding,”It’s cheap and I can drink an assload of it.” Then make my way through the crowd to the front as Lucero busts into “Bikeriders” and my arms flail all marionette-like in excitement as my mouth tries to remember the lyrics and my brain warns me that this is the last tall boy I’m gonna drink.

These little one offs are common in Austin during this time. Chance meetings with people. One notable was at the patio of the Red Eyed Fly, watching Dixie Witch, riff through their songs, amplified by a sweet Mojave, I drunkenly turn to the guy standing next to me and bum a cigarette, as he lights it I realize its Elijah Wood (who apparently was there scouting for his own label) “thanks dude.” I mumble, with a twinkle in my eye, thinking, “Fucking Frodo loves stoner rock, he’s even cooler than I thought.” Though for a character of LOTR one might expect some fascination with drug culture and all its sub categories (statement is not to suggest or imply that Mr. Wood condones drugs or the use of them).

That leads me to SXSW 2007. On a much more business oriented, diplomatic approach, with my new boss, coworker and CEO in town I had to keep my booze intake waaayyy down. Meaning that it was bloody’s in the morning and only beer thereafter or I’d be a wreck by 5pm. I’m a good host and I had been to Austin the year before: I could handle it, I knew the score. Savagery by night, civility by day. Though the night before all those work folks got there I was rousing with the Lennon Bus Boys at the Purevolume lounge, drinking free booze (which is the best, btw) and trying to convince them to join me at the Emo’s Annex parking lot thingy where Hydrahead was having a showcase (Jesu, Pelican, Oxbow, Stephen Brodsky), I got in and Fester got stopped at the door, which sucked cause there wasn’t that many people there. Course this year, SXSW was undertaken with the pretense that we were going to actually conduct some sort of business and meet with industry people to discuss the problems and opportunities – blah blah blah – facing the industry I really had to put on the officious air, while toning down knowing that my best friend had flown from DC and the Drone crew was waiting elsewhere.

Now I will get to the point. The point about being a music journalist and all its trappings. Attempting to do something like what we’re doing with HYPEzine.com and what I attempted to do with themusicedge but was thwarted by shortsighted corporate ineptitude is at most times an opportunistic venture. Just like a shark’s feeding habits or a thief’s intuition. But the main point in this piece is about not trying to be friends with people in bands that are subjects of an interview and just trying to get the story and all that shit. You know – that shit that real journalist learn in journalist school and publicity people train their clients ‘these people aren’t your friends, whatever you say is on the record, no matter if they say its off the record” – kind of ethics. While both statements are pretty harsh they are quite true and are pretty much par for the course when it comes to the general journalism practicioners. As a side note, I’m not the most prolific ‘blogger’ not because I’ve got a lack of material, but because sometimes, which is most times, its good to have someone look at your stuff before it gets released into the wild. However, one good thing that comes from this medium is the ability to give another perspective. A first hand account. The gonzo side of things for those of us that get paid to write and can’t write about puking in the graffiti covered stall of some shit hole bar in a Tulsa strip club, or taking hits from a hash pipe and blowing it into the window of a K9 unit while the officer is busy securing the scene of a drunk driving accident amidst a thousand drunken pedestrians.

Right. Just as Fucked Up writes weird pseudo-hard core, I digress a bit. I meet up with Vanessa (AM!’s publicist and longtime friend/colleague of mine) for the Shirts for a Cure showcase where I am to do an interview with Tom Gabel of Against Me! Its 2pm and I’ve already had four Lonestars and to be quite honest, I am a bit intimidated (read: buzzed) at the thought of interviewing him in person (fanboy syndrome), being the telephone coward I am when it comes to interviewing bands I actually care about. In hindsight I probably should have done the interview right then and there. After a brief introduction, I explain that I’d prefer to do the interview at a later date. I don’t pull any punches with Vanessa, since I’ve known her and worked with her now going on ten years since my time at the college paper. She’s cool. That short 4 days in Austin I watch Against Me! a total of five times. Some shows I’m at the stage and some shows I’m way far away (Mountain Dew free show in the Park with Mastodon and Riverboat Gamblers, Eric* and I pass out during the Gamblers set and are awoken by Gamblers singer Mike Weibe who, with wireless mic in hand has come down to the grass and dances with all the kids. I instantly like the RBG more just for that fact). Eric*(best friend from DC) and I go for a gyro and are standing up eating and watching the last few RGB songs when we are tackled by Justin and Ben of Under the Drone. Not just tackled but violently tackled by two uber drunks. Gyro’s fly everywhere. Its quite humorous; sob/laughing a bit, I feel like Chunk in Goonies when his food is taken away. I’m stoked that we’ll be seeing AM! for the third time that week. They come on next, wind blowing, people screaming, making for a very dramatic effect. The band runs through the gamut of great tunes like “Miami” and “Cliche Guevara” and play some new ones like “Americans Abroad” and “White People for Peace” and I begin to realize that this band is my age and they grew up on Fugazi and Black Flag and The Replacements and maybe their replacing The Replacements but thats just the booze talking and the sweat and fists of strangers swirling around me singing at the top of their lungs to “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.” I think how it feels to listen to music and how great it is to be part of this thing – whatever the fuck it is – taking place in the little pockets of world.

So…finally, I end up doing the interview with Tom for HYPEzine.com (Link). I did it on the phone, after almost two months of missed times I caught him at home prior to their tour with Mastodon, Cursive and Planes Mistaken for Stars. The best lineup and tour package I’ve seen in the past five years (even though I didn’t make it when they played San Diego). He seemed somewhat guarded during the interview, even though I had drunkenly bored him to death with my musings on punk rock and selling out at the No Idea party in Austin. [Where Chuck Reagan played a solo set right before The Draft and I was convinced they would do a Hot Water Music song, and I drunk texted one of my old estranged friends but never got a reply. Of course they didn’t. AM!’s James told me he knew they wouldn’t although Warren and I kept saying how cool it would be if they did.] Though gregarious I may be I realized there is sometimes a line between interviewer and interviewee and I suppose I’m okay with that. Tom was quick to assert his disapproval of illegal downloading and like an idiot I mention that the new Neurosis is amazing.

“I didn’t think that was out yet.” He exclaims.
“Yeah, I got an advance copy from one of my sound engineer buddies.” I explain, then realize what a total asshole I must sound like after he just told me what he thinks of downloading.

All in all it was a good interview. I was hungover when I talked to him and I’m always a bit sensitive after a bout with the cohol and I took some of his comments the wrong way but when I went back to transcribe the interview I realized how articulate and thoughtful he was. So there ya go! Here are some pictures from the best show in Austin I’ve ever witnessed from one of my favorite bands.