The Bleaker Side of Metal

Isaac Guzman is a staff writer for the New York Daily News

In a hotel suite darkened by half-drawn shades, Deftones guitarist Stephen (pronounced "Stefan") Carpenter dumps his laundry sack on the floor, plops into a chair, lights a joint and inhales deeply.

Violating the rules associated with not jinxing new record releases, Carpenter starts crowing about his hopes for Deftones' latest album, "White Pony," which hit stores June 20.

"If our record sells under 10 million, I'm going to be thoroughly let down," says Carpenter, 29, a shaggy figure sporting a sprawling goatee, tattoos and baggy black sweatpants.

"I know there's a generation of kids out there that will love our music," he says, his voice inflected with the hip-hop attitude of his multiracial Sacramento neighborhood. "If Metallica can do 45 million, and I know they're gods, we can do 10 million worldwide. I have no doubt in my mind that that many people are out there waiting for it."

In Deftones' decade-long history, the five-man group (which also includes singer-guitarist Chino Moreno, bassist Chi Cheng, drummer Abe Cunningham and DJ Frank Delgado) has never seen a moment quite like this.

Everything seems to be in place for the band's signature fusion of blistering guitars, bleak poetry and turntable atmospherics to break through to a mass audience. Likened to bands such as Limp Bizkit, Korn and Tool, Deftones are finally hoping to turn long-standing critical acclaim and cult status into mainstream success.

Despite little radio airplay and meager amounts of exposure on MTV, the Sacramento-based band's first two albums--1995's "Adrenaline" and 1997's "Around the Fur"--combined to sell more than 1.2 million copies. The group's incessant touring, including appearances on the Warped tour and OZZfest, built a loyal following that devours any new music from the band.

"White Pony" entered the national album chart at No. 3, selling more than 175,000 during its first week in the stores. It has since sold another 211,000 copies; the band's tour has just begun (it includes a date Aug. 10 at the Hollywood Palladium); and Deftones are getting the biggest push of their careers on MTV, where viewers have made the single "Change (in the House of Flies)" one of the most popular videos on "Total Request Live."

Bolstering Carpenter's worldwide aspirations, the record debuted in the Top 20 in the U.K., France, Germany and Norway.

Carpenter already has celebration plans if "White Pony" ever reaches 40% of his lofty goal. "When we hit 4 million, that'll be the day,' he says. "I'll be down in south Florida, sail-fishing, trying to make one more of them fish extinct."

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Aside from the hoopla surrounding Deftones' shot at stardom, "White Pony" marks a significant artistic accomplishment. The record's finely realized textures stand apart from most of their nu-metal counterparts, largely due to the delicate sense of urgency that Moreno, 27, infuses into his vocals and lyrics. The result is an album that is as frequently beautiful as it is harrowing and dark.

"The Deftones have always skirted the arty edge of hard rock . . ." Rolling Stone said in a profile of the group. "But few could have expected such committed experimentation from a band that has everything to gain from keeping things obvious."

Moreno is sitting in the same Manhattan hotel room as Carpenter an hour later, having spent the afternoon with his 3-year-old son in Central Park. Where Carpenter is filled with nervous energy, Moreno is laconic and thoughtful, hiding behind a bushy haircut and beard.

"[Beauty] is not so much something I'm trying to create, it's just the way I end up writing," Moreno says.

"A lot of it has to do with the music I listened to growing up, from listening to Duran Duran and stuff like that. I don't know if anybody really looks back and listens to that stuff these days, but lyrically Simon [Le Bon] was a genius as far as I'm concerned. I love the way he wrote. The same with Robert Smith of the Cure. He was another big influence on the way I write."

Moreno's songs frequently include dreamlike imagery and fantasies that initially look like typical metalhead grotesqueries, but, upon closer inspection, turn out to be tightly focused metaphors describing the psyches of his characters.

In "Elite," he uses images of ripeness and blood to signify the moment when an otherwise shy person gains confidence and realizes his potential.

"There seems to be a theme of secrecy going on there," Moreno says. "I never seem to say what I want to say. It might be because I don't have anything to say, but I like when I'm writing a song to have more imagery instead of just coming out and flat out telling a story."

Carpenter says that Moreno's lyrics mean so much to the band's audience that at recent shows he's seen fans crying. "I just see people bawling," he says. "The attitude of the fans is the same as it was, but it's just gotten more intense."

Like Moreno, Carpenter has an eclectic and surprising list of favorite bands. Along with thrash metal acts Meshuggah and Fear Factory, he's got a soft spot for one of the least aggressive bands of the '80s.

"I could go down the list of metal bands, but Depeche Mode, I declared them the best band of all time," he says. "They don't have any wack songs. And every one of their songs and lyrics are just like love songs, but not like cheesy love songs."

More and more, those errant influences are coming to the fore in Deftones' music. It can be heard in the frequency of the band's quiet passages, and its growing comfort with wide swings in volume and intensity. Carpenter, however, is guarded about these developments, lest their fans think they're wimping out.

"People say our stuff is softer," he says. "Maybe it seems softer because it's such an emotional-sounding record, but if you break it down my guitars are fully distorted at all times and we have some pretty driving beats. But we just play with more of a groove on this record. We put more of a swing to it and Chino sang really more wide open than he has done before. He came with it, man. There's no doubt about it."

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Skateboarding, Moreno says, is the glue that brought the band together before music. Cunningham's mother recently told Rolling Stone that the young Deftones were just "little geeks--sweaty skateboarders," who used to hang out in her garage. To this day, Deftones maintain a half-pipe skate ramp in their Sacramento rehearsal studio.

"I've known Steph since I was 8," Moreno says, referring to Carpenter. "The area where we grew up was pretty much minority, and there weren't too many skateboarders or rockers or anything. So he was always the guy with the crop-top and the half-shirt always sitting on the porch playing guitar. Skateboarding was the thing that we all had in common. We'd go downtown and skateboard all day long and come home and eat dinner and go out and skateboard some more and that was our lives, man."

In 1988, Moreno introduced drummer Cunningham to guitarist Carpenter and the three started a garage band that later added bassist Cheng. The band began playing all over California, picking up occasional shows with Korn before being discovered by a Maverick Records representative at a nearly empty show at the Roxy in West Hollywood. DJ Delgado is an East L.A. native who met the band when he was spinning in a Sacramento club. Delgado was considered a sideman during the recording of "Adrenaline," but by the time the band set out to record "Around the Fur" two years later, he had become a full-fledged member.

Deftones' multiethnic membership is an oddity in a rock world dominated by white artists. Moreno's nickname, "Chino," for example, is Spanish for "Chinese," reflecting his Asian and Mexican parentage. But Carpenter, whose mother is from Mexico and whose father is Anglo, says ethnicity has little to do with the band's art or ideas.

"We are a very ethnic band, but our ethnicity does not make us who we are. When we write our music, we're not like, 'Yo, check us out, we're the Chicanos and the Asians and the white boy, what's up?' If anything, we'd like to prove to the world that you've just got to get over all your stuff. Either learn to live with everybody else on the planet or move someplace where you don't have to be around it."

All of the band members but Carpenter, who recently set up digs in Los Angeles, still live in Sacramento. Carpenter refers to his hometown as "Sack of Tomatoes," a take on the city's abbreviation, "Sacto." Carpenter is also the only one who isn't married. Delgado is the only married member who doesn't have children.

Moreno says the band's tight, family-like bonds have made staying in Sacramento the right choice. He recently moved into a quiet, shady neighborhood that isn't geographically far from where he grew up, but represents a significant change in status.

"I love it there," he says. "I've been all over the world and I swear when I get back to Sacramento, I feel at home. It's not too fast and it's not a cow town like people picture it. You know, it's a decent-sized city with a cool pace to it. It's comfortable. I dig it."

Despite their role at the artistic forefront of the nu-metal movement, they've become used to being overlooked by the media and the mainstream, and have become philosophical about their place in the pop world.

"Every now and then, sitting back and turning on the TV or looking in the magazines that have these bands that have taken a lot of elements from what we've done and seeing them passing us up right away, it can get a little disturbing sometimes," Moreno says.

"But if I really sit back I realize that the reason we make music is for us. I get to make music that I like and never have we had to compromise to better our success in any way. Success has come to us. So I can't really sit around and complain about it." *

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Deftones play Aug. 10 at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., 6:30 p.m. Sold out. (323) 962-7600.

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