“IT WAS US MAKING IT SUCK”: DEFTONES DRUMMER ABE CUNNINGHAM TALKS STRIFE, LABEL LOVE, AND BAD COVER SONGS
A dude could get used to the practice of semi-annually checking in with loud alternative rockers the Deftones. That’s the pattern at MetalSucks: Every other season, we pry into the personal and professional business of a band destined to be remembered as one of America’s all-time greatest (srs), the post-Cobain Faith No More and canonizer of real-head hall of fame acts like The Cardigans, Duran Duran, Suicidal Tendencies, and The Cure.
And the old Deftones — which, of course, were the young Deftones — seemed just as cocksure and drama-wracked as all those. However, this new, older Deftones is grooving smooth and hanging hard, said drummer Abe Cunningham in an epic gab with MS last week. (One never runs out of conversation topics with Deftones dudes.) Animated and way too modest, Cunningham talked me through even more Deftones details than I covered last time and last last time: The fun of recording awesome cover jams, their wake-up call when bassist Chi Cheng was seriously injured, his chemistry with Cheng’s replacement Sergio Vega and with singer Chino Moreno, their record deal then and now, and silly people like Helmet’s Page Hamilton and the big fat copycats in Shinedown.
Anso DF: The Deftones just released a nice collectors’ item for Record Store Day, the Covers collection. I’ve always admired Deftones covers cuz not only do they show off your range, but it draws listeners closer to the band. It’s like, hey, we listen to some of the same shit. And it sounds like you guys have fun.
Abe Cunningham: We do have fun. We always should have fuckin’ fun. If you can’t have fun, then … what the hell can you have? [laughs] After we finally got the elusive record deal and started making records, we finished each recording session by laying down a couple fun cover songs. These were songs that we enjoyed, but that maybe would catch people off guard. They might not expect that shit from us, something like Sade.
It’s funny because we did that shit a long … like, 1995. We had come back from our first tour for our first record; we had a friend who had a studio in town. We did “No Ordinary Love” and also “Milk” by S.O.D. When we did “Simple Man” — Stef [Carpenter, Deftones guitarist] and I love Skynrd, always have — but I remember Chino was like, [agreeably] “Yeah, whatever.” I remember him recording the lyrics and reading the lyrics right off the CD booklet. He wasn’t very comfortable with it; he did a couple passes on it and we called it a day. That was it. And we hadn’t heard that thing for hella years, man. Time passed and Chino had actually had babies, a couple sons, and I think that made him see the song in a different light. It’s kinda funny how things work out.
I think Shinedown did that song, too.
And they also have a song called “Diamond Eyes” — what the fuck is up with that?
But that’s a whole other story. And they’re all over the radio. That’s fine. Let them do what they do, we’ll just keep doing what we do. It’s all good.
Sounds fair. I’m a little surprised that Deftones covered a song that Chino wasn’t into. Is your selection of cover songs a democratic process? You need a couple votes, then everybody’s gotta play it?
It’s pretty damn democratic. Maybe it’s laziness on some people’s parts. Just his … Everyone has their moments and everyone’s been guilty of pulling way less weight than they should. That’s just part of being in a band; that’s totally fine. We’re cool enough and have been around long enough where no one’s holding grudges. Like, “Well, you took all the beer back in the day when we were loading the truck up.” You can go around holding grudges your whole life, but then you die and all you’ve done is hold a fuckin’ grudge. [laughs] Like I said, we’ve been around for quite a while now — certainly not forever, but close to forever. We appreciate that we’re still able to have a blast. Despite who pulls what weight, or who did it then or doesn’t do it now, it all evens out eventually.
About choosing the songs, we all do. We always try to do a little something different for covers. We all are music lovers and we listen to absolutely everything. Just have fun with it. Even like covering “Sinatra” by Helmet, it was like, “How the hell can you do that song? It’s already perfect anyways.” That was kinda scary. With certain things you take a risk, but at the same time, [pauses] you’re just playing someone’s song, so fuck it.
I heard that Helmet doesn’t play the song anymore cuz we covered it. If that’s the case, that’s sorry. I heard that’s what Page [Hamilton, Helmet frontman] said: “When other bands cover our song, we stop playing it.” If that’s the case, [to Hamilton] you need to lighten up, dude.
Is it just that the Deftones took over the song and Helmet can’t play it as well?
No, I think he thinks we bastardized it, which I can understand. I’ve heard songs of ours that have been bastardized by people, too. [Um, like this? Or this? Certainly this! –ADF] It’s cool that people do them! Like you said, it’s all about having a good time. If your music touches someone, that’s what it’s about! Life’s too short, man.
Well, I’ve wondered about who chooses cover material because no Deftones cover jam has made me say, “The drummer picked that one. Definitely.” I guess I’m waiting for a Deftones cover song that is an Abe Cunningham showcase. Like freaking “Tom Sawyer.” Something drum-crazy!
[pauses] Damn. I’m no Neil Peart.
[laughs] Come on, man.
I’m certainly no Neil Peart.
But Deftones records feature some of the tastiest drumming put to tape, ever! You don’t agree with that.
Nah, I always say I’m just a squirrel looking for a nut after a long, cold winter. Shit, I just love playing drums, man.
I can dig it.
[laughs] Alright, man.
You guys planned a show in which the setlist would consist of the complete Around The Fur and Diamond Eyes albums.
We were supposed to do that [Saturday, April 16] in Portland, but that was a severe miscommunication with our esteemed management. I don’t know. It didn’t happen. [laughs] We were there for two nights and we played two rad shows. Apparently we were supposed to [play those albums], but I guess we didn’t. I’ve only heard a little backlash; I think people we happy to have a regular show. We’re out with Dillinger right now; it’s just super-duper fun. I did hear something about that, but I don’t know; I think we’re bad boys and we need to be spanked.
I was excited by that idea since it’d set up questions to you about the connection between those two Deftones albums. Is there any similarity between the creations of Around The Fur and Diamond Eyes? Were they both made quickly?
Defintely, yeah. It’s a great observation. On the surface, shit, they’re more then ten years apart. When we hear those comparisons and similarities, we’re like, “That’s cool. I wonder what it could be.” It’s simple: When we made Around The Fur, we were super stoked. We’d put out one record [1995’s Adrenaline], and no matter how well that record did, the label had to … We got another record. if everything else failed, we still had another record to make and put out. We’d toured and seen the world, and we came back juiced! Stoked. The process was super quick. We’d been around four, five years before we’d been signed. We were in a really great place, just super charged up to do it again.
But from that point on, I think making records for us became like pulling teeth, man. Or what’s worst than pulling teeth? Maybe surgery with no anesthesia, not to totally paraphrase a fucking song.
[laughs] Basically, making records became not fun. From around … What’s the one after White Pony?
Uh, the self-titled one?
Yeah, that one. And then Saturday Night Wrist was the absolute … just the worst time that you could ever, ever … And here we are in a band, we’re brothers having a blast, and everything should be great. But it absolutely sucked. But we figured out that it was us making it suck. We were making it way harder than it needed to be. There were issues with certain things in our lives, and things getting picked up along the way, and all this crap.
Anyways, on Diamond Eyes … Chi had his accident and that had a profound effect on how we do everything and on us as individuals — and still does to this day. That made us really stop in our tracks and say, “Look, man, know what? We’ve been treating ourselves and each other terribly. We’re in a band, dude; we get to go around the world and play music. C’mon man. Our brother is down.” It put everything in perspective very, very clearly: How we treat each other, how we treat our — dare I say, our business? I guess this is our business after all these years.
Coming into making Diamond Eyes, we were totally flattened and blown away by everything that happened with [Cheng], but at the same time, we decided to just try to make some more music. We went to our little jam room like we always had before and focussed on the music. This all sounds corny, but it’s really true. We all stepped away from everything for a few months there, and just wanted to see where things were gonna go with him and how he was going to improve, and if he’d even make it through that first few months.
We had a show booked that we had to fulfill, so we called up Sergio [Vega, ex-Quicksand bassist], who’d filled in for Chi in the past. Obviously, he came from Quicksand, a band that we seriously loved, were way into, and became buddies with over the years. We had a set to get together for this one show we had, so he agreed to come out to New York and do it.
Even in that first jamming session, we wrote “Royal,” the second song on our new record. We were like, “Let’s keep on writing songs and see what happens.” We had no plan on making a record or anything at all. But the next day, we were like, “Hey, we’re gonna make a record.” We never really looked back. This is long-winded, I know, but I’m getting back to answering your question. I can look at both of those times, and that’s the comparison. Each was done really fast, but we were back to having a great time doing what we do again, exactly the way it was way, way back when we did Around The Fur.
There’s probably more to it than that, but really that’s the essence. We’re enjoying each other and enjoying making music again; we vowed to never do it again like we did it the last few times: super-duper expensive, wasting time, not communicating — just stupid. I’m glad we were able to overcome that. We’ll never have to deal with that bullshit again.
To what extent were those issues related to pressure? Your first album showed strong, then you had a bona fide hit with Around The Fur and “Be Quiet And Drive” —
Yeah, it’s funny the way the industry … Our third album, White Pony, was apparently our “breakthrough hit.” We were already three records deep. But, definitely, yeah, those were things that went well.
Maybe White Pony was called a breakthrough because it reached fancy music people who don’t normally stoop to our level.
I understand that, but we were like, “Motherfucker, we’ve been doing this!” But I understand how it goes.
We talked about the fact that creating the self-titled Deftones record and Saturday Night Wrist involved a lot of wasted time and wasted money. I think it shows on the self-titled record; it’s a little one-dimensional. However, I fucking love Saturday Night Wrist. That shit sounds like the result of great chemistry, not frustration and strife in the studio. Can you explain why it’s not regarded as a highlight of the Deftones catalogue?
It’s a trip, man. I enjoyed it. When I hear it, like when I hear any of our records, it takes me right back. That’s what music should do — take you back to wherever you were at. If it was a good time or a break-up. Anything. That’s the beauty of music. But that was a really horrendous time. Only now am I hearing people say, “They’re not playing a lot from that record. I wonder if it’s because they’re too attached to it.” It’s not really that; we’re just trying to give other records a chance. And we do need to play more songs off that, we just haven’t for the past year or so. I think we’re gonna add more in.
That record is a trip, for one, because it was recorded in, like, six different studios. Not only in California, but we started tracking the majority of it up in Connecticut. A couple songs have drum parts where the verse was tracked in this living room at this house in California, the main part was recorded in the main studio, then we put a little something else on top. If you have a record that’s been recorded in one spot, it sounds pretty much the same; so Saturday Night Wrist has a lot of variety in terms of drum sounds. We really cut up and pieced [together] a lot of shit. We had to. We weren’t talking so how the hell were we going to make a record. That’s why it took so long.
It sucks when you’re not even talking to your best friends in the world. They’re five feet away and you’re not even speaking. That was pretty lame. But it’s not like that anymore. We talk a lot.
That’s scary. I don’t hear a lot of real-time gossip from the Deftones camp, so I wasn’t worried then. But to hear this now makes me tense. Fans don’t want our jams endangered in any way.
Totally. But now we’re talking a lot. Talking a lot of shit. [laughs] We’re having a blast, man.
That’s great. Regarding live performance, you’re probably the player who’s most immediately affected by Chi’s absence. Was it tough to start anew and lock in with Sergio?
No, it was really seamless. He had filled in for Chi in the past, but honestly, it was our love of Quicksand, and their massive influence on us … Similar swagger, similar style. Chi and I were influenced seriously by Sergio and Alan [Cage, Quicksand drummer]. Without saying that we ripped them off, how about [we say] that they greatly influenced us. Sergio’s just a great dude who came to it at our greatest time of need.
It’s a trip, though; it’s different. I think we’re actually tighter now. We already had six records, a catalogue, and he came into our camp wanting to be good. We were sitting there like, “Well, blah, we’ve played these songs a thousand times. Whatever.” But he really kicked us in the ass to pay attention to the music again. There were songs that we hadn’t touched off a bunch of records in many years. We started jamming and getting the juices flowing, and now it’s ingrained for us. We can take the fact that we haven’t played [a song] in eight years, and we can play it now — due to him. He’s been a very positive influence on us, kicking us into gear. But it was due, it was necessary; we’ve grown up. You spend a little more time on earth and hopefully things make a bit more sense.
I’m fascinated by the Deftones’ home on Warner Bros. Records. It’s a major label group, but the Warners label has fostered a huge roster of left-of-center and prestigious but great-selling acts, like Talking Heads, Van Halen, Flaming Lips, Robyn Hitchcock, and so on.
Yeah, and Neil Young on Reprise — that’s all Warner Bros. Such great bands. I hear ya.
Oh yeah — Faith No More was on Reprise, too. Do you find that part of the Deftones’ creative success, if not your popular success, is due to Warners’ way of doing things? Do they give you a long leash?
Yeah, the first three records we recorded, mixed, and mastered, and then sent in the masters to them without a peep of input. They let us do exactly what we wanted to do, for better or worse. We were like, ‘Wow, we’re on a national label. This is amazing.’ [Then, the music industry] started changing, in terms of lack of sales and the need for an immediate hit, and we were one of the last bands of an era — what am I trying to say here — to be nurtured, to be allowed to do what we want by a label. The goal was to get out on tour, then eventually get off tour support and be self-sufficient. That doesn’t exist anymore, man; it does, to a degree, on smaller indies. But to be nurtured and supported is a huge thing, and [our label] totally did that.
But the industry changed and [the label] started peeking. That shit pisses us off, so we had massive beef all through the self-titled album and Saturday Night Wrist. I mean, massive hatred of the label and their opinions. We’re not fools and we understand how the industry changed. It’s a crazy business, man. I like to play drums. [laughs] It’s pretty wild. They were great, man. I don’t know where they’re at now; and I don’t know where we’re at. I know we’re enjoying … That’s all I can say on that. It’s been a great place to be. We’ve certainly had our beefs, but that’s anything in life.