Pony Tricks

Devoted fans are even more important than we think. In the increasingly marketing-driven world of mass media, it seems that anybody with a face and a hook and the right connections can get to the top. Kids will buy anything. Once. The trick is getting their support throughout the span of an entire career. Bands are not going to pull this off by aping fads or styles. They need to connect; they need to make little Jimmy or Janie an ally, not just a customer.

Tool has devoted fans. Depeche Mode has (had?) devoted fans. And the Deftones have devoted fans, which this band has secured the same way the other two have: by refusing to follow trends while insisting on artistic evolution. As it happens, Tool front man Maynard James Keenan duets with Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno on the latter's newest CD, White Pony. It also happens that Moreno is an unabashed Depeche Mode fan. Go figure.

Such tastes aren't exactly what you would expect from the vocalist of a band that broke out of the same camp as Korn and Limp Bizkit. Then again, the Deftones never quite fit in with that clique, anyway. Whereas the former two started off as updated versions of rap metal, the Deftones have always strayed far beyond that sound, incorporating elements of both hard-core punk and traditional rock. Sure, Moreno rapped and grunted with the best of 'em on the band's debut, Adrenaline, which spurred on the rap-metal categorization. Yet even then, the differences were as obvious as the similarities, and now on the band's third release, White Pony, the evidence of the Deftones' broader palette becomes as clear as the plastic jewel box the CD arrives in.

Both of the previous two albums have been certified gold. Both took the slow road to get there, gradually building momentum rather than entering the charts at No. 1, then fizzling. On the eve of White Pony's release, you know the suits at Maverick were confident they had built the foundation from which to launch the blockbuster. So was the band: Moreno (vocals, guitar), Abe Cunningham (drums), Chi Cheng (bass), Frank Delgado (turntables) and Stephen Carpenter (guitar). And then some. "Greater expectations were there from ourselves," says Cunningham. "But we just put on our blinders and went in and did it. It took a really long time to do, but we just blocked out everything. You look around, especially here in America, and everyone's saying, 'The rock is back.' Whatever." Cunningham knows of what he speaks; he has been a rock producer for the past ten years. "It's just funny," he says. "We put on our blinders and made the record we wanted to make. So we felt pressure, but we blocked it out and kept it amongst ourselves."

There's no denying the Deftones have raised the bar. Maverick followed suit by engaging in a multimedia promotion blitzkrieg a full six weeks before White Pony hit the shelves. And the street-level buzz remains high; before the end of the year, everybody's forehead will probably have a tattoo of the band's logo on it. "Yeah, you can kind of tell," says Cunningham, with modesty and sincere satisfaction. "It's exciting to see that there was a lot of anticipation for the record. It feels good inside to know that people were actually waiting to hear your music. That's a good feeling. We're pretty simple people, though. So we don't really get caught up in that. We're just happy to keep on going."

There should be ample opportunity for keepin' on keepin' on. Sonically, White Pony is head and shoulders above the Deftones' previous work -- and most anything on the radio or in the record stores at this time. Every sound is deeper and wider than before, yet it's less a wall of sound than a collection of individual performances. The pacing helps, on both individual songs and the track listing itself. "We took a little bit more time, production-wise," says Cunningham. Terry Date, who has produced all three Deftones releases, sat down with the band "before we got started," the drummer adds, "and just sort of brainstormed about what we wanted to try to accomplish regarding different ways of going about getting sounds."

"Maybe we're getting a bit better at writing songs," he continues, "and everybody sort of knows their place. So rather than everyone filling all the space with so many notes, we're getting better at figuring out within the band where to go off and where to just kind of kick back."

Less is more. The CD's passage from "Knife Party" through "Korea" and into "Passenger" (the aforementioned duet with Keenan, who co-wrote the song) reveals the Deftones' genre-defying attributes: stopping perfectly here, improvising open-endedly there, adding atmospheric flourishes followed by understated simplicity. Strung together, these three songs envelop the listener as only the best can.

Thematically, White Pony has an oral fixation. There are exactly two songs on the entire CD that don't include references to the mouth in some way. The effect creates a dark sensuality, in which the act of attraction isn't simply physical but transcendental. "He's kind of clever in the way he uses metaphor," says Cunningham of Moreno. "One word can have many meanings. But yeah, even on that old song 'Teething,' it was there. But I never really listened to it like that before.

"On the previous two records [Moreno] was younger and venting," continues Cunningham, rising to the topic. "There were lots of 'I's and 'me's in the songs. And I know he's having a lot more fun now, creating scenarios and things that aren't all about him, having fun telling stories and all. Some of them are pretty morbid. But they're not true. He's having a good time telling stories."

Take the opening track, "Feiticeira." The title comes from the name of a game show Moreno saw in Brazil, in which the winner drinks milk out of the host's navel. The song itself, however, evolved into something else altogether: "Stop I'm drunk / but I'm off my knees / The police stopped chasing / I'm her new cool meat / She pops the trunk / And she removes me / And a machine that takes / Pictures of us." Then there's the album closer, "Pink Maggit." By far the longest track on White Pony, it manages to increase claustrophobically at the same time it expands, finishing with the couplet "All you are to me is meat / Now pass the flask."

Not exactly the stuff of stereotypical chart toppers, but then it never has been. "It's a very special thing," says Cunningham, truly appreciative of the band's current position. "We've been around for almost 11 years now, and we've just kept it going without really making any conscious effort. Everything's been kept very pure, and yet we continue to grow."

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Chris Smith