ALL EYES ON THE DEFTONES: THE STEPHEN CARPENTER INTERVIEW
There remain some people who aren’t convinced that the Deftones are a special band, but if it’s possible to evaluate music subjectively, then few could argue that the post-alt metal quintet at least belongs on the ballot. For one thing, the Deftones Sound evolves (and occasionally just mutates), leading to a dynamic catalogue of resemblant but dissimilar albums. And like other rare, extra-interesting bands, Deftones elude classification and repeatedly outdo their, ahem, peers. Also, they have a killer drummer and an unobtrusive, artful guitarist (he’s so guitartful), a combo that ensures a ripping live show.
But what wows me about this band in 2010 is their handling of prolonged, agonizing tragedy. By shelving their near-completed sixth album, Eros, they seem to express a certainty of the day in the future where all of its authors will ably engage in its promotion and performance. For now, what guitarist Stephen Carpenter calls a whole “different Deftones” is enjoying a top-ten debut for the slim, slamming Diamond Eyes, a bonkers Fall tour with two other tweener juggernauts (Alice In Chains, Mastodon), and a healthy relationship with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Rush, Coheed And Cambria). Carpenter called back to Los Angeles from New York and spoke to Metal Sucks about both Deftones, weird talk radio, and the steamy night we shared in Milwaukee.
It’s cool. You can’t be upset with making top ten with your new release, right?
If you went back in time and told your teenaged self, would he freak out?
Oh for sure! Teenaged Stef would’ve freaked out for top 50 or top 100! [laughs]
I’m interested in the circumstances surrounding the making of Diamond Eyes. It’s unique considering the Chi situation and the postponement of Eros.
When it relates to Chi, it’s two different Deftones. On one hand, we have Chi and a record that is nearly finished; it’s not all the way finished. The music is [done], but it’s just not all the way finished. It’s two separate entities, because we’re all focused on what’s going on with Chi and we can get a little emotional about that. But we balance it out by having this other Deftones where we’re all having a great time making music and doing this record. That’s what it comes down to.
That is to say that the Eros record belongs to Chi’s Deftones?
For sure. That was the sentiment when we first made the decision to go forward. For me, as I’ve gone through this whole experience – and I’m still going through it, obviously — I’m of the mindframe that I would like to see [Eros come] out. Mostly because I think people would like to hear it because Chi is on it. He has a family and I’d like to see it do something for them as well. That would be nice.
And at this point, people should continue to help Chi and his family, right?
Yeah if it’s something you can do, it’s always welcome.
Talking further about Eros, I’ll say that some reports have described that album as weird and unorthodox. So it surprised me a bit that its successor is straight-ahead and poppy. Do you agree with that assessment?
Poppy? No. [laughs] Maybe in the spirit that comes with it, because we had a really good time making it. Everybody was really positive and enjoying themselves. So maybe it that sense, it goes in that direction. But I really think if you heard [Eros] too, you might even think the same. The Eros stuff is really good as well.
I’m dying to hear it. You can probably tell. Any idea when the release will happen?
I really wish I could say. So many things for it to filter through for it to make it to the public stage. I would hope it won’t be too far in the future. The sooner the better.
Can we talk about producer Nick Raskulinecz? Diamond Eyes is your second in a row without longtime producer Terry Date. What was it like working with Nick?
It was great working with Nick. He’s an awesome guy. I think the position we were all in when [starting work on Diamond Eyes], it was really nice to have someone uplifting like him with a really good work ethic, if you will. He likes to work and get it done. He likes to do a good job. It just so happened that that was what the Deftones really needed at that point in time. It worked out well – including Sergio [Vega, interim bassist]. I always talk about having both Nick and Sergio in the mix. They’re both very positive people and that helped out a lot. It made for a much better situation.
What did Terry bring to the process on the first four Deftones records?
Terry’s an awesome person, too. What I love about him is that he really believes in us, and believes that we have the ability to get it done. He’s always let us be our own way, which has always been fine. But on the same token, when the Deftones are left to their own accord to do what they will, they take their sweet time. [laughs] And that is the difference between Terry and Nick: Whereas Terry has let us run at our own pace and left us with the total freedom to be ourselves, Nick gave us that same freedom but we didn’t have all the time in the world. So Nick was like “Alright, let’s go. Let’s go! Hey what are you doin’ over there? You sitting down? Get over here!”
No, Nick didn’t limit us in any way at all. It was a really great experience. I really look forward to working with him again if he wants. I’m sure he wants to. When we get to the time and place to make another record, hopefully the band and Nick will be on the same schedule and won’t have to wait six months for him. Cuz I think what was really cool was, unlike any time in the past, Nick was right there from the inception of Diamond Eyes. We were starting to write songs — Nick was with us as we were writing them. That’s what made it really good.
Generally, when we’re writing songs, it can just two or three of us; sometimes, we get lucky and everybody’s involved. But generally, it’s just a couple of us and maybe the guys are just not interested in what they’re hearing at the time, or maybe focused on something else – who knows what’s going on… Collectively, we wouldn’t be whole until there was something that we’d all heard and liked. But with Nick, maybe a couple guys were working on something and Nick was digging into it — instead of just letting us to our own accord and letting us come together on our own time and terms … if someone was working on something and the other guys were on the side, Nick would be like “Hey guys we’re working on something. Why don’t we do this together?” He really brought us together when, normally, we’d be just doing our own things.
I think the album sounds like that: the work of a band. It sounds like you all are functioning together. Songs kick in, and Chino’s singing right away and often until the song ends. All the instruments have their parts, but there’s so little … solo music. Does that sound stupid?
I understand what you mean. I feel like our past stuff really is a collective too, but the amount of time to do it on our own vs. Nick pulling us together is the difference. Our past stuff came at a pace that would be anywhere from a song in a day or a couple months. Whereas with working with Nick, in the first two weeks, we already had I think eight songs written. Just right away. We had all the songs written and rehearsed before day one in the studio. That was definitely a difference. Usually we’d go into the studio — with the exception of Adrenaline, which we had our entire lives to write — but from Around the Fur forward, we went into each session with seven or eight songs, and the rest would come together in the studio.
I’m glad you bring up the pace of making Diamond Eyes. From a fan’s perspective, it seemed like there was very little time between the announcement of Eros’ postponement and the release of the new album.
I think it happened quickly, but I don’t think the process of making the record happened any more quickly than normal. Like I said, the writing process happened right away. We were all excited, everybody was in it. Aside from Chi’s accident, we were excited to move forward and work together and like you said, the music came right away. But the actual time we took on the record wasn’t too different. We started in February and I don’t think we finished anything and started the mix until like November. It was still a long time working on it. But it was born pretty fast.
People mention a Meshuggah influence on your guitar playing of late. How do you describe your approach on this record? It seems like previous albums had a lot more Stef whereas your guitar functions more as a foundation on Diamond Eyes.
I don’t feel like I’m in the background. In fact, my approach on this record has differed none at all from what I’ve done in the past. Really, it’s just the riffs I happened to write at the time. The place in my mind where they come from is the same. I always joke and kid with people, but I really can write a song every time I pick up my guitar. I don’t say that with arrogance; it’s just jamming for me. I don’t try to design a riff for a long time to make some super-riff. I’m going with the flow at the time.
My belief is that it’s never rocket science, it’s music. All things are possible if you’re willing to do the hard work it takes to achieve what you desire. So as far as the guitar playing goes, I just played like I always have. The difference, like I said, was that Nick was right there with us all. Where I might have tons of riffs that I think are great coming left and right that disappear into the ether because no one’s is focused on what we’re doing. [laughs]
I get you. On that note, I want to ask what music is grabbing you these days?
During the making of Diamond Eyes, all I listened to is Tech N9ne.
Yeah! [laughs] Over the last five, six months I’ve been listening to a lot of Battles, lot of 65 Days of Static, and drum & bass. I listen to talk radio predominantly.
Talk radio? Like political stuff?
Just talk radio. I listen to one station specifically, 640 AM KFI in L.A. I’ve been listening to talk radio since the early ‘90s and that started largely with a program called Coast To Coast AM.
That surprises me. What do you get out of that?
Lot of great things there. The mind craves information, craves knowledge. Radio has informed me far more than anything TV has offered. I’ve been listening to Coast To Coast AM for almost 20 years and I honestly believe that the stories they talk about – some of them are a bit wild and ya go “Oh my god. That’s probably not real” and often their proven to be not real – but I hear stories six months in advance of what hits mainstream.
Interesting! In fall you guys start a pretty mind-blowing tour with Alice In Chains and Mastodon.
That’s gonna be awesome. That’s two great bands which I didn’t think we’d ever tour with. It’s awesome we get to go out with both of them.
How gratifying is it for you as a player to be witness to this phase of the rebirth of Alice In Chains?
They’re a great band… The line-up is totally awesome. I dig on their sound.
It’s a neat tour with three boundary-pushing bands, yet none of the bands is of the same ilk.
Yeah, we’re all independent of each other for sure.
So you’ll get to play for people who aren’t Deftones fans, but definitely dig serious music.
Oh, for sure. But like you said, whether or not the audience is into it, I’m into both bands. From a selfish perspective, it’s gonna be fun. [laughs]
I last saw Deftones at the Smoke-out.
This past one?
Yeah, this past November or whatever.
Yeah, that show? I was so out of it that day. And I wasn’t high.
I had the flu or something. That whole day, I was in a state of vertigo. I never really caught my bearings that day. When we were on stage, there were a few times where I thought I was going to fall asleep or collapse on stage.
But I could swear that you guys killed. Weird.
After we left the stage, I went right to the bus to lay down. We did a meet-and-greet and after that I wrapped myself in a blanket on the bus. I was freezing cold and sweating. I was a wreck.
It sucks when that happens. Other times, technical issues can threaten to spoil the experience. A few years back in Milwaukee, I was at a show that was momentarily derailed by guitar problems after one or two songs.
Was that on the Taste of Chaos tour?
That night, if you remember, it was incredibly hot and humid in there. It was cold and wet outside and it got really muggy in there. My equipment is usually pretty reliable, but that day, because it’s a small stage, [my stuff] wasn’t all set up. In those conditions, it’s best that my equipment remains on all day so it can fight off the moisture in the air. It wasn’t on, so when we came on … we started out fine. It went great, but as my gear started to heat up, that moisture started building up on it and that shut my pre-amp down.
In so many of our songs, I have different sounds and changes. A lot of the time, the changes are subtle, but nonetheless [significant]. But that night my system totally shut down, so I had to borrow an amp from somebody. And the only songs that we can play that I don’t have that many changes sound-wise is the Adrenaline record. That night we resorted to playing that whole record. On one hand, it was cool but really it ended up being what we were available to do. We try not to give anyone less than our best. It was unfortunate because we really enjoy playing from all our records, but what are ya gonna do? That’s what we had to deal with! [laughs]
Yeah, technical difficulties … You can’t just go out there and say “Sorry, guys. We’re done.” [laughs] I’m sure not everyone was satisfied, but I thought it turned out pretty good.