Aside from his chemically ravaged hair, his sideburns and his pointy beard, singer Chino Moreno seems an unlikely choice to lead the kind of aggressive assaults that are the stock in trade of Deftones, a Sacramento quartet whose power on stage is reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine's.
Contemplating the slow but steadily growing success that Deftones have enjoyed over the last three years, the shy, soft-spoken 24-year-old exhibits little of the bravado normally associated with the genre.
"This is kind of stupid," he begins tentatively, "but I have a problem with spending money sometimes. Yesterday I went out and bought this motorized skateboard thing, and then I was feeling guilty about it.
"Later, I showed up at the venue [where the band was playing], and, like, 30 kids bum-rushed me, telling me we're their favorite band and our record is their favorite record, and so I started to think maybe I don't feel so bad about doing something for myself. Sometimes I forget that I'm in a band or that my music means that much to people, and I worry a lot. I think I don't need to worry so much about things--kind of take it as it comes."
Moreno's speech may be sedate compared with his volatile vocals, but the meandering thought process behind his conversation is only slightly more linear than the stream-of-consciousness lyrics he incorporates into the band's music.
Attempting to shed light on his writing process, Moreno pauses, then confesses, "To tell you the truth, sometimes I don't know what the hell I am talking about. I know the idea behind 'the words,' but I have a really short attention span, so my mind starts to wander off.
"I'll start making a song about something, and it'll turn out to have so many different feelings in it. I'll find myself contradicting myself from the beginning to the end of a song. I kind of beat around the issue a little bit just to keep it interesting. I like a little bit of mystery."
So do the increasing number of hard-rock fans who have embraced Deftones since the group broke out of Sacramento three years ago.
At a time when metal and hard rock seem to have reached the limits of speed and thoroughly plumbed the depths of darkness, Deftones' quirky combination of heavy and light, grinding rock and pop lilt, is a breath of fresh air. Though they've been heralded--along with such groups as Korn, Fear Factory and Machine Head--as representatives of a new breed of metal bands, Moreno is leery of such weighty titles.
"Obviously, our sound was spawned from metal, and we have to give it that," the singer concedes, "but I think we're capable of going everywhere on future records. As far as being part of a whole new thing, . . . when people set you up to be the next big thing, you're kind of setting yourself up to be yesterday's thing a year from now."
As adventuresome as its future may be, Deftones' beginnings weren't particularly auspicious.
Moreno knew drummer Abe Cunningham from school, and guitarist Stephen Carpenter was a neighborhood friend. (Chi Cheng came on board when the group's original bassist left, about six months after Deftones started.)
Eventually, they put together a few demos, one of which made its way to Guy Oseary, then head of the artists & repertoire department at Maverick Records. Oseary found the tape fairly unremarkable and didn't think anything of it or the band until he and Maverick President and co-CEO Freddy DeMann saw the group play live.
"After three songs, we said, 'That's it. We have to sign this band,' " Oseary recalls. "They're everything you want to see in a performer. . . . exciting, dangerous, mysterious, beautiful."
After signing with Maverick, Deftones made its album debut in October 1995 with "Adrenaline." The collection drew warm if not copious critical response and sold a comfortable 200,000-plus copies, but radio was reluctant to pick up on the group's thorny combination of brazen guitar, sinewy hip-hop flavored rhythms and moody sentiments.
So Moreno and company employed the same strategy as musical kindred spirits Korn, opting to win a wider audience in person through relentless touring.
Deftones spent 13 months on the road supporting "Adrenaline," and the day before the second album, "Around the Fur," hit stores in October, the band members headed out for another round of touring that will continue through most of 1998.
It's a grueling schedule (especially for Cheng and Moreno, who have families with young children waiting for them at home), but the work has paid off. "Around the Fur" entered the national charts impressively at No. 29 ("Adrenaline" never cracked the Top 200) and has so far pushed past the 80,000 mark in sales.
With a year of live shows ahead, the band stands to gain even more ground.
"Around the Fur" is more dynamic than the debut effort. For all the bristling energy and in-your-face impact of tunes such as "Headup" and "My Own Summer (Shove It)," there are some surprisingly delicate elements.
Lurking among the bluster are tracks, such as "Dai the Flu," that revolve around resilient melodies--as prickly and poppy as post-punk tunesmiths such as the Pixies. Moreno can howl with feral intensity, but he's an equally effective pop crooner, and this time out his mood swings cover even more emotional ground.
As with "Adrenaline," it's all underscored with a spontaneous vibe that suggests the musicians are still establishing the parameters of their sound--and that's fine with Moreno. He likes to think he's fronting the kind of band that will keep evolving.
"Think of how the Beastie Boys did it," he says with admiration. "Put out a good first record, and the records just keep getting better; they keep getting more and more into the music, and their fans kind of grow with them. That's something I would hope to do."