By now everyone knows the story. Back in November, with only eight weeks until Australia’s premier summer festival Big Day Out was due to kick off, Britpop icons Blur dramatically pulled out of the event with a single post on their Facebook page.
A veritable shitstorm of finger-pointing ensued. Who was to blame? Blur? The festival? And more to the point, with one of Ken West’s three ‘white whales’ gone from the bill, who was going to be the replacement?
“A band called Blur cancelled and someone came calling,” recounts Abe Cunningham, drummer of alternative metal veterans Deftones. Speaking from his home in Sacramento, California, Cunningham is clearly rapt about the eleventh-hour deal that saw his band included in a three-for-one replacement for Blur (the other two acts being Swedish rockers The Hives and the Liam Gallagher-fronted Beady Eye).
“We were back at home base and supposed to be off,” says Cunningham, having recently wound up a world tour for Deftones’ resurgent seventh album Koi No Yokan, which saw the band hit Australia last May. “It’s pretty wild. Usually there’s a few years between trips and so this is wonderful. [Australia] is one of our favourite places to travel to and we’re more than stoked.”
2013 marked the 25th anniversary of Deftones, whose original and distinctive take on metal, according to Cunningham, “has always been a battle of beauty versus aggression”. As with any band that’s stayed together that long, you’d expect them to have encountered a few tough times along the way. But Deftones have copped more than their fair share in recent years. In 2008, bassist Chi Cheng was involved in a serious car accident that left him in a coma. In April last year, having recovered enough to leave hospital, Cheng tragically passed away due to sudden heart failure. Throw in the internal rifts, drug abuse and all the myriad trappings of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, and for a few years it looked inevitable the quintet would self-implode.
But they made it through. When asked if the band’s survival can be attributed to the fact that three of its core members have been friends since they were teenagers (Cunningham, singer Chino Moreno and guitarist Stephen Carpenter grew up together in Sacramento), Cunningham answers, “Yeah, definitely. There’s certainly been times when things were not so peachy. But I really do believe we’re based on a friendship. We definitely know each other well enough to ignite a flame in each other at the drop of a dice. But, you know, it’s fun, we’re brothers. We’ve experienced a lot over the years. We’ve seen the world over and over. And every day is a chance to do something new and exciting. And what better way to do it than with friends?”
One of the other keys to reaching the quarter-of-a-century milestone, according to Cunningham, is the lean years the band endured before becoming successful. After all, when Deftones’ seminal sophomore record Around The Fur took off in 1998, the band was already ten years old. In stark contrast, the nu-metal machine from which Deftones originally emerged was firing out overnight sensations on a near-weekly basis at around the same time.
“Our whole thing was very slow and very gradual,” recalls Cunningham. “I couldn’t have asked for a better way for it to happen. We knew a lot of people around us who were in bands that got so huge, so fast, and you’re really not allowed to figure it out in that kind of setting. It’s allowed us to be around to this day, to be able to appreciate things.”
Perhaps, in recent times at least, the longevity of Deftones also has something to do with the freedom the band members allow each other to pursue other projects. Moreno, in particular, has been prolific of late, with his excellent Palms collaboration with three ex-members of Isis, as well as his ongoing Crosses project with Shaun Lopez of Far. “Chino is just a busy, busy boy,” laughs Cunningham. “He’s always making music. At first it can be a bit like, ‘What, you’re not getting that from us, so you’re going somewhere else to get it?’ Kind of like cheating. But now I look at it this way: whatever experience any of us have from playing with different people, we bring that back to our mix and I can only think that it strengthens it.”
As for what’s next for Deftones, Cunningham is quick to quell rumours the band is set to release the shelved Eros album of 2008. “It’s definitely been talked a lot about in the press. People have a serious interest in that album for a lot of reasons. It’s a very heavy record. And quite frankly, the record’s not done. People think that we’re just sitting on it, but we’re not, it needs to be finished. It’s a heavy, heavy record for the fact that it’s the last thing we did with Chi. And from that point on we’ve sort of just gone forward. That’s not to discredit him or anything. That was just a heavy time, and we’ve just gone forward from there. We’ll give it a look when we can, but it’s not that easy, man.”
For the moment at least, Cunningham and his bandmates are happier to focus on the good fortune that’s allowed them to be jetting off for another Australian summer as part of the travelling circus that is the Big Day Out.