Interview – Sergio Vega and Abe Cunningham of Deftones
– by Jacqueline Ronson/photos by Amanda Siebert
A new chapter began in Deftones history in 2008 when bassist Chi Cheng was seriously injured in a car accident. The incident brought the band together and gave them new drive. The California band scrapped Eros, their album intended for 2009 release, and instead released Diamond Eyes in 2010 with Sergio Vega replacing Cheng as bassist. Cheng has not yet recovered from the injuries sustained in the accident.
Vega and drummer Abe Cunningham sat down with me and few other reporters in their dressing room at the Commodore Ballroom April 19, between their back-to-back sold-out Vancouver tour dates. They talked about the new record, how the accident has changed the band’s attitude, and their ambivalent opinions about, well, everything. Also in the room were Cunningham’s two sons, who didn’t take their eyes off the video games they were playing.
Jacqueline Ronson: How has the band evolved over the years?
Sergio Vega: When the band first got together, you got to jam and hang out, you don’t have a lot of pressures of touring, and expectations. You get to develop and do your thing. And then you get where you’re touring all the time and you spend more time recording… I dunno man!
Abe Cunningham: We don’t really ever seriously think about it too much, we sort of take it as it comes… It’s always been that way, for better or for worse. We’re most productive when it’s us getting along and enjoying each others’ company. That to me is productivity, rather than us cranking out 15 songs in a certain amount… you know, we’re pretty lax about the whole thing. Over time, not much has changed. But our attitudes are better now.
JR: How big of an effect do you think that working with Nick [Raskulinecz, producer] and Sergio helped in really harnessing and inspiring that really positive energy that your new album has?
AC: It had a tremendous effect on that. Nick, Sergio… Obviously the circumstances were rather dire and quite extreme. With Chi’s accident, it really kicked us into gear on many, many levels. Quite frankly at that time, we were so ready to be positive and have things go smoothly, because the past few records we’ve made have been so difficult, ’til where the band almost broke up every time. It sounds corny to say, but we’re super close, we’re family. It’s kind of messed up when you can’t talk to your best friend and he’s right here, and you’re trying to be creative. It’s pretty bad.
JR: How does Nick differ in the studio compared to [producers] Terry [Date] and Bob [Ezrin]? How does the dynamic change?
AC: It’s just a different person. Like I said I think it was us being ready to get down to it and stop wasting time.
SV: He definitely brought a good structure. He gave us a nice template to work with. The creative aspect was really organic, but what he brought was, “We’ll do these days, from these hours…” and he was there capturing everything. So if we didn’t pick on something that was cool, he would be there to be like “This was cool, y’all did this” and “Work on that.”
AC: We also didn’t have any time. We had already made one record on this whole recording and we had used almost our entire budget to make Eros. And when it came time to say “Hey man, we want to do another record,” we were asking the label what they think, and there were like, “Are you serious? Well, if you can.” So we had no time and very little money to do it, and it just like, [SNAP], we just whipped it out, you know?
JR: What was the shift that you needed to make artistically to make this new record the album that you wanted it to be compared to Eros, which hasn’t seen the light of day yet?
AC: I gotta say it was pretty much Chi’s accident. I’m sure we could have made an album similar, we had good intentions, but that really just kicked things into perspective. How we treat each other, how we treat our business, which I hate to say it but this is what we do, this is out livelihood. Just how we treat everything. The fact that we were able to do it, to be walking around on two feet, healthy, still doing it after all of these years. That just put in into perspective, the fact that he’s down, the fact that he’s not able to do that, made us…
SV: More appreciative…
AC: Yeah, totally man.
JR: You seem to change directions with every record, do you ever feel the pressure from older fans to revisit the older sound?
AC: Maybe a teeny bit, I think we have in the past. I know I’ve learned, I think we all have as a group that you can’t make everybody happy. You certainly don’t want to alienate people that were into you and dug what you’ve done for all these years. But of course we never wanted to make the same record twice, we always wanted to evolve, I think any band does. At the same time, what’s wrong with sounding like yourself? There’s nothing with that, either. It’s just a matter of wanting to be stimulated and be happy.
JR: You guys have done some awesome collaborations, who has been your favourite collaboration so far? Does anyone in the studio have particularly amazing chemistry with you guys?
AC: Hmm… Maybe the collaboration that have yet to have done…
JR: Who do you want to work with in the future?
AC: A lot of the people I want to work with are passed away. I still want to work with Prince. I’ve said it a thousand times, and I’m not even kidding, that would be awesome.
I dunno, there’s tons of people. What do you [Sergio] have to say on this matter?
SV: I don’t know. It seems like whoever we’re on tour with, you get excited about because you meet them and then you have those opportunities. You realize that there are a lot of great people who are very talented. I think it’s more about what happens in that situation where you’re actually recording. I’m not so much fixed on anyone in particular. The more bands we travel with, and how nice they are, and what they bring to music, that’s inspiring. It’s all good. I could work with any of these people.
AC: In a world when so many collaborations are smashed together and manufactured and placed…. Every time that we’ve ever done anything it’s been either a friend or someone happened to be in town, it just happened very, [SNAP], very naturally. I think that’s the best way. I’m always open. I think we’re always open to work with anyone.
JR: What bands have you been listening to a lot lately?
AC: I don’t… I hate music. No… I don’t know man. That’s a tough… that’s one of the hardest questions, ever.
SV: For me, I’m still listening to that Crystal Castles, Phantogram…
AC: Anything with “bell” at the end…
SV: Sleigh Bells, School of Seven Bells, any “bell” bands.
AC: That’s him. I don’t know. I’m stumped.
JR: The new single, “Diamond Eyes”, has over three million views on YouTube already. Do you feel that social media is integral to a band’s success?
AC: I definitely think it’s a great thing. We’ve embraced it as it’s come along. There’s so many avenues coming along every second. Even this Instagr.am thing, we started linking up on Instagr.am the other day. We’re just having fun with it.
SV: I don’t know if it’s integral, but it’s definitely viable. It’s definitely there, it’s true, it does happen. But do you need that to have success? I don’t know.
JR: Well, you guys were successful before Facebook and Twitter and all that.
AC: Well Gaga’s probably got 500 million trillion views and we only have three million. She’s successful. It’s a great thing. To me, personally, I long for a simpler time. If I could be back in the ’30s or ’40s, that would be cool. But I can’t. At least right now. To me, there’s just too much information going around. But that’s just me, I’m an old fart. But I love it, I embrace it. I’m not mad at technology, but it’s just too much sh… [Addressing his sons] Oh, hi Boys!
JR: Is there a song on the album that was the most difficult to create, and one that was the easiest?
SV: I think what was cool about it was how quickly and organically it came together. Certain things may have taken longer that others, but it was all in the span of two months, so it all came together very fast. And that to me is what stands out about it. It’s hard to dissect it as individual songs, I think of them as this period where all of these things came together very quickly and even though the songs don’t sound the same, they all have a pulse to them and an energy to them that runs throughout them. I look at it as one piece, which is cool.
AC: They’re family. Those songs are all family.
SV: Yeah, it all just kind of like flooded out. That’s what’s special about it.
JR: Do you guys have a favourite festival that you’ve played? And who do you enjoy seeing play live?
AC: Festivals are just a blast. We’ve been playing for years over in Europe. We just did Lollapalooza the other day in Chile. We all grew up with that. I went to the very first Lollapalooza when I was a sprout. That was such a big part of our existence growing up. Festivals are always a blast because they’re so varied. Some are more genre-oriented, this is a harder rock one or whatever. It could be us, and Bob Dylan after us, and Sex Pistols and whoever… Motorhead and PJ Harvey. It’s just so cool. We love music and to be able to spend a day or a weekend watching bands…
SV: Checking bands out, especially ones you didn’t expect to see.
JR: Who do you guys enjoy seeing live? Who has blown you away recently?
AC: Someone just did, the other day. Someone was bad as, was bad as eff the other day [looks at sons]. Bad as eff. I can’t remember who it was, though.
SV: We just played with Cypress Hill, that was fun. We saw The National the other day in Chile, that was good, I didn’t expect to see them.
JR: Making music is a personal experience for a band, but at the same time it’s such a personal experience for a listener as well. When putting together songs, do you keep in mind how a listener will interpret and digest them?
AC: Not really. Not to come off as… you know… We sort of just do it for ourselves, initially. If it makes us happy, that’s great. Over the years we’ve done a lot of our own editing as we go. We’re not the most prolific, we don’t bust records out constantly. It takes us a long time generally to make a record. We tend to do a lot of the editing of songs, not digital editing, but like, if this part’s good, if it work’s we’ll narrow it down to that point and move on. It sounds sort of pompous but we sort of do it initially for ourselves. It’s gotta feel good playing it for us.
SV: You get to the point where everyone’s excited and you just feel good about it, and that’s it. You figure it’s exciting to play, and look at it from that perspective. You just can’t wait to unleash it or share it. But it’s not so much, “Oh, this will get this reaction, this is going to be great,” or “These kids will like it, this is for these kids.”
JR: How has your relationship to the Diamond Eyes album changed now that you’ve been touring with it for quite some time?
AC: I’m still loving it. It’s so much fun to play. It’s the first record that we were able to play as a band – it had everything written and dialed – before we got the studio. It felt great. It reaffirmed the fact that, wait, we are a band. We can play our own music and we can bust it out. The three or four records prior to that, we’d had the majority of songs written, but we relied on studio time to write and finish the songs. That can work great, but if it’s not working out it’s the most taxing physically, mentally, financially. This is the first time since the first record that we had everything completed, we went in and just like, [CLAP]. So playing it live, we can still whip it out, it feels great. And it’s still a young record. It’s only just about a year old.
SV: It’s about a year old. But even that feels good, because it feels fresh and people come in excited to hear the songs.
AC: I don’t hate any of the songs yet. Every once in a while you kind of hate… I’ve hated certain songs of ours. It’s just like anything. You love ‘em, but they need a rest. Go take a rest for a while, and then come back with a new fresh approach. I’m really enjoying this record, it’s been a great time.
JR: At this point, what do you value most about the band?
AC: The band. It’s a heavy question. I enjoy “it” because it’s “us.” I’ve spent all my life with these dudes. It’s a pretty special thing. I’m just really pleased to be able to do it. We’re doing it pretty ok now. We’re having a wonderful time and just enjoying ourselves. It’s not always easy. It’s the greatest job in the world, but it’s also, you know, not. But it’s a blessing, so I’m stoked. And, [turns to Sergio] I love you guys, man.
JR: What do you see in the next few years to come?
AC: Hopefully more good times. We just feel positive right now. With the things going on the past few years, it could easily have not been positive, and we’re trying to keep it that way. It just feels great to do what we do, and have people enjoy it.
SV: You get to be creative. You get to do things, get to travel. It’s great company, you look forward to the opportunity to do more of the same and hang out.
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