Up until a month ago, Deftones were the biggest band no one had ever heard of. Despite a lack of airplay or coverage, the band had earned the respect of its alternative-metal peers, a legion of die-hard fans and a spot on last year's Ozzfest ahead of well-knowns Slayer and Primus.
But about a month ago, Deftones released "White Pony," their third album, to critical raves, a sold-out tour and a No. 3 debut on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Everyone from Time to Alternative Press reported that "Pony" threatened to give heavy rock a good name again. Many critics predict that it's only a matter of time until Deftones go from the biggest band no one's ever heard of to the biggest band, period. But don't tell that to lead singer Chino Moreno.
"Whenever you're hyped up to be the shit, the next thing you know you have a bunch of people trying to shoot you down," says Moreno. "I don't really like to put labels on it or what we're doing or where we're going to be. I'd just like to take it as it comes."
Still, it's easy to see why so many people would get so excited about the decade-old group that got its start when four Sacramento, Calif., skate-punks (Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, bassist Chi Cheng and drummer Abe Cunningham) with a shared passion for Faith No More, Depeche Mode and Bad Brains decided to get together and play. After years of local gigging, Deftones released its 1995 debut, "Adrenaline," which, along with Korn's similarly timed self-titled birth, helped lay the ground work for the heavy sound that would later be tagged "nü-metal."
But don't blame the 'Tones for the youths' obsession with backward red baseball caps, because in 1997 the boys -- now augmented by DJ Frank Delgado -- dropped "Around the Fur." That record was certainly heavy, passionate and energetic, but it was also intelligent, dynamic, mysterious and occasionally vulnerable. The riffs were sharp and skull-crushing yet strangely alluring. For his part, Moreno eschewed the genre's stale rapping techniques in favor of actually singing, with a voice that sounded like the bastard child of Robert Smith and PJ Harvey. Neither of the first two albums had a hit single, but that didn't stop them from going gold. The unit's reputation as a devastating live act was paying off. Just the way Moreno intended it to happen.
"The label `Maverick` has always known we wanted a slow-building career, and they were cool about it," says Moreno. "By letting us marketing ourselves ... going on tour for a couple of years on every record and slowly building a really strong foundation for ourselves. ... We don't just rely on radio or MTV. Just for that alone, I think we get a little bit of respect from people."
After years of furious performances, the underground superstars have developed a devoted fan base that perhaps isn't too happy now that outsiders are finally catching on, in part due to the hit single and video "Change (in the House of Flies)."
"It's not like we just came out. We tried hard to get ourselves here, and I think we deserve it," says Moreno.
"White Pony" continues the group's evolution and, with any luck, will serve as a wake-up call for the fledgling heavy nation. Yes, "White Pony" is still heavy -- "Elite" and "Korea" are some of the most abrasive songs that the five-piece has ever done -- but there's more than that. The free-from, chorus-less "Feiticeira" deals with the joys of being kidnapped. "Knife Party" is a bizarre fantasy scenario where everyone ends up anemic, and the nostalgic "Teenager" almost sounds like a combination of Pink Floyd and Massive Attack. In short, Deftones have found a way to offer both violent catharses and sonic pleasure: Ride the "White Pony."