In Conversation: Deftones’ Chino Moreno Has Finally Achieved Balance

In a year that’s gone off the rails, “Ohms” proves the alt-metal rockers’ ultimate act of resistance.
In Conversation
In Conversation: Deftones’ Chino Moreno Has Finally Achieved Balance

In a year that’s gone off the rails, “Ohms” proves the alt-metal rockers’ ultimate act of resistance.

Words: Sadie Sartini Garner

photo by Tamar Levine

September 28, 2020

Tumbling through a foamy wash of synth and bound in by the scrape of guitar, Chino Moreno wonders how he got here, “in chaos where it’s warm.” The world the Deftones singer finds himself in on “Pompeji,” from the group’s new album Ohms, is the one he and his bandmates have been cultivating for 25 years. Since 1995’s Adrenaline, the Sacramento-born quintet has steadily cultivated a gorgeously messy form of art metal built around the forever-unstated idea that there is a beautiful power that comes with staring deep into your own wounds. 

Ohms, the group’s ninth record, arrives twenty years after their consensus peak, White Pony, but the band captured here plays with a locked-in ferocity they haven’t shown this consistently since 2003’s Deftones. Ohms might also be the most melodic record they’ve ever made; songs like “Urantia,” “Genesis,” and “This Link Is Dead” marry tunefulness to heaviness with the grace of the group’s longtime heroes in Hum or the “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” version of Smashing Pumpkins. Gone are the occasionally ponderous stretches that mired 2016’s Gore—and with them, any argument that Moreno and guitarist Stephen Carpenter, whose nine-string guitar produces a sound so thick you could stand a spoon in it, are at war over the group’s direction. Few bands this deep into their career sound this happy to be playing with one another.

It all adds up to a new level of stability for Moreno, who recently moved to Portland from Bend, Oregon, just in time for all of the restaurants he’d been looking forward to visiting to close due to COVID. Unable to tour, he did what any of us would do the week before releasing a major new work into the world: He spent a bunch of money on Depeche Mode singles. Then he got on the phone to answer a few questions.

You’ve got a real strong connection with your audience that comes through when you play live. With being in quarantine and not able to perform, how are you feeling?

It’s definitely weird. Usually, at this time, we’d already be out there on tour, getting ready to play some of the new tunes and stuff like that. We’ve been doing that same kind of cycle since the mid-’90s. It’s kind of a trip, man. Will people ever be comfortable sweating and writhing around each other again? We’ve built a career on having this really close, tangible relationship with our fans, so it’s weird to think that it could get back to that at some point. 

As you’ve gotten older, has it become harder to access the part of you that comes out when you’re on stage?

I think mentally. I mean, probably physically a little bit, too. It’s one of those things, kind of like muscle memory: Once I start playing, I don’t want to say I black out, but I definitely go into some other mode. It just takes over; the music is fuel for that. When I write the set list, I’m always conscious of, “OK, well, this song I’ll be playing guitar, so I’ll just be pretty much standing in front of the microphone for the majority of the part, so I can kind of rest up here.” And then a couple more bangers. So I can pace out the set.

You guys have evolved so much from Adrenaline to now. Do you feel a sense of loyalty to that version of the band, or to who you were at that time?

“Once I start playing, I don’t want to say I black out, but I definitely go into some other mode. It just takes over; the music is fuel for that.”

I don’t feel disconnected from it. It was a long time ago, but I can tap into some of those emotions to this day—maybe not as often. It’s one of the things where we were kind of young and naive in a lot of ways, and something about that music is special because we didn’t really know what we were doing, kind of like that happy accident kind of stuff, where we stumbled upon something that ended up—I don’t want to say timeless, but it ended up standing the test of time. Literally, we were teenagers when we wrote that stuff.

If Deftones started today, I wonder how people would think of you, because that era set the terms of how you’re discussed. Sometimes it takes on the guise of, “It’s Chino versus Stephen. One is metal and one is pop. Where’s it going to land?” Is it strange to be caught in that kind of trap?

It’s really not that black and white. We’ve always kind of grown up listening to lots of different music, and that thing of never really wanting to decide or have to make a choice of what type of band we were going to be. We didn’t know. We’re all pretty much self-taught musicians and just made music by utilizing a lot of those influences we grew up with. I remember the first time we played the Roskilde Festival. The lineup was so weird—well, it wasn’t weird for me, it was awesome for me. I remember it was Slayer and Bob Dylan and Nick Cave and No Doubt. Literally, these bands would go on stage right after one another. It seemed like the same crowd was out there watching every band. To me, it was so rad, because it just shows how open-minded people are, or could be.

Ohms seems to be about living in a world that’s falling apart in a both physical and spiritual sense, coupled with this longing for redemption that you ultimately find in love. How much of that is coming from your own view of the world?

I think a lot of it. When I was writing it, I didn’t realize what headspace I was in. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write about this or that.” Now, listening to it, I totally hear a lot of these themes are sort of just asking questions in a way, or like you said, painting this view of how the world looks to me, how it looked to me in those days when I was in the midst of writing. I hear myself sound like I’m longing for something, some kind of connection. That was before I moved, too, to Portland from this little town in the middle of nowhere. I was really feeling isolated at that time. It was written before all this shutdown stuff happened. I feel like a lot of people are probably kind of feeling very similar feelings to that, considering there’s not much connection happening these days. 

How has the pandemic shaped the perception that you have of Ohms as a record since you can’t go out and tour it, and you can’t see how the songs feel out in an open space? What is your relationship with this record right now?

You know, I don’t really have a clear view of it. I feel like I’m still sort of right in the middle of it. I’m eager to see how people perceive it. I hope they like it; I think they will. Some might not. More than anything, I’m pretty proud of it, just for the fact that to be making music with the same guys for this many years—the fact that we can still get together and actually enjoy it, I feel proud of that. FL