Interview with Abe Cunningham of Deftones: Diamond Mining

In late 2008, Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, keyboardist/DJ Frank Delgado and drummer Abe Cunningham were shaken to their core by the news of bassist Chi Cheng’s devastating car accident. Instantly, the Sacramento visionaries were detoured onto a crossroads that no one can ever be truly prepared for.

While Chi, who aside from being an exceptional bassist, is a wonderful spoken word artist recovers from the physical trauma, long time Deftones’ friend, Sergio Vega [former Quicksand] plays hero to both the band and fans alike.

With its seductively breathy yet violent vocal strokes, racy riffs, panic-inducing melodies and hairpin turns, Diamond Eyes extenuates all the hallmarks of the Deftones’ sound, and is simply nothing less than an auditory addiction.

The Aquarian Weekly spoke to Abe a few days after his birthday, a month before one of the most anticipated tours of the fall begins. BlackDiamondSkye, pairs the Deftones with Alice In Chains and Mastodon.

The drummer, who makes the perplex signature dynamic of the band seem effortless, was recharging his batteries, and detailed how he celebrated his birthday. “I didn’t do much, hung with my friends and had a little dinner at my parents’ house that night. It was really mellow. I figured I would get loose a little later on the road. It was kind of nice.”

The rest of his story proves that the power of music is absolutely transcendent and transformative.

I think the record is just stellar.

Stellar is a great word, thanks.

It’s just so desperate, urgent, alarming and cunning, what played into that atmosphere? Was is it wanting to make it as remarkable as possible for Chi?

Really, it’s all that. It is and was such an immediate thing. We were in the studio almost for a year and a half before that, working on this thing called Eros. It’s sort of set aside for now. We were nearing the completion of that at the time of his accident, it was getting mixed and the artwork was getting done. Then he had an accident, and everything just stopped as it would, as it should, it totally stopped. So we took a couple of months to sort of figure things out. To figure out, “What do we do?” The main attention was on him.

Long story short, it came back to, we had one obligation. We had one show booked, and we needed to fill this obligation, so we called up our old friend Sergio, he came out and he learned the set real fast. We just ended up jamming, and we ended up writing a song that day which became “Royal,” the second song on the record. This happened so fast, we just figured we’d put what we just did out, but we just kept jamming with him. In the couple days that he was out here, we just ended up jamming, we came up with two songs.

We stared saying, “Fuck, let’s just keep making music.” It wasn’t even going to be a record yet, and he agreed. He’s from New York, so he had his life out there. We’re out here in California, and that day we decided, “Maybe we’ll do it….make a record.” So we dropped it in his lap. He said, “Give me a week.” He went home, got his things, and moved out to California for six months. We wrote and recorded this thing, doing the press and here we are rocking it. It was a crazy thing, very immediate, very inspired obviously for many things just due to the fact that everything was just ripped out from under our feet with Chi’s accident. We could have collapsed or we could have pulled it all together somehow, and thankfully, it came out really cool.

So there was that moment where you thought this could have been the end of the band?

Yeah, I mean it was definitely tossed around for a minute. I am the little dreamer in the band. I am always the dude when tensions, you know, going bad and there’s fights, I am trying to sort things out between the guys, and there’s been many moments of that. I mean, it’s pretty well documented that there has been tension in the band for years, I mean shit it’s just, you know, throw dudes together there’s bound to be…

A lot of it is well publicized and maybe blown out of proportion to some degree. All those things are pretty minimal and all those things are super small, the fact that we are still together and this happened to our brother. We’re just focusing on things and doing things right, and respecting what we’ve done and the fact that we’re still here, that we are able to move, and walk and breath. So that was that, and we sort of never looked back.

Well it has to be rewarding for you especially calling yourself the positive, little dreamer, the story is really one of art prevailing over all.

Yeah, but I don’t be here like, [soft voice] “I’m a little dreamer.” [Laughing] We’ve worked hard over the years to just keep on going, to be able to play out of our town, and go to the next town over. So we’ve got a good thing going, and we’re just really, really appreciative and stoked to able to do it. That’s a great start right there.

I really love Chi’s Bamboo Parachute CD. He’s a great spoken word artist.

He’s a great dude, I just miss him so much. At the same time, people aren’t aware of people in his situation, there are so many cases out there with people’s minds. We are just trying to keep people aware of the situation, and sending him love and good energy, because that’s all we can do until he’s ready to pop-up.

How is he doing now?

He’s back home, and that to me is better than being in a nasty ass hospital. His mom and his sister are taking care of him. There is a team of doctors that are taking care of him, and they are trying to get him to move back there to get him under the care of these super-brained physicians. He’s in what they call a minimally conscious state, and he’s sort of just hanging. He’s making slow progress, they are doing scans on his brain and seeing hope. They are trying to reroute his brain to do normal functions. I guess it’s a bowl of spaghetti up there. It’s a super heavy thing this brain. He’s got this team of people that are trying to work with him and we are just trying to keep this thing on people’s minds, so they can send them the good thoughts, too.

What’s the chemistry between you and Sergio as far as drummer/bassist?

It is a beautiful thing; he’s played with us before. He filled in for Chi a while back, but the band that he came from, Quicksand is a huge, huge influence on us, and dare I say, we were massively influenced by their swagger. It carried over into our music so it was pretty seamless. I mean, he’s made really just focused, he’s made us step up our game so much. We’ve been set in our ways for so many years, and he’s come into this situation with a pretty decent sized back catalog that we have, and having to learn all theses things, so he always has an iPod on and a bass 24/7.

He wants to practice and be good, and we would always sit around and do nothing at rehearsal. He’s like, “Come on guys.” So he has forced us to get up and start practicing—refamiliarizing ourselves with our own music, which is a trip. So he’s been great, he really, really has. Just him and I together, he’s a real musician and a great, great bass player. I am so thrilled that he’s been able to come and help us out and help Chi out. He’s just a great dude to have around.

Do you still have Steed going on? [Side project previously motioned in an interview with Abe’s friends Juan Gonzales and my friend Sonny. Described as the next Iron Maiden.]

Oh my God, Steed! Steed was a joke, because it only happed for one night.

Well, you convinced me.

You know why, because I was stoked on it and it’s so funny because every once in a while I will bring up the return of Steed. Yeah, Steed was just one wild night into the wee hours, but we had a great record, man! That was just a bunch of friends, but obviously we all jam with people, but our main thing is Deftones, and we are fully back at it now.

What are your hobbies on the road? Do you collect things from Europe?

Like porcelain beads and clogs from Sweden? I don’t know, I try to bring back stuff for my kids. They are big soccer players, so I always bring back jerseys for them from different spots, but I really just want to travel light. I am so over it man, I am just trying to travel light and leave a small footprint, be in and be out. Together as a band, when we have a day off, there’s good food involved, a nice dinner and we drink a lot of wine. Usually Frank and I will go out. Chino will join in, and Stephen will go online and play poker or play golf. He’s a super golfer, I mean that’s his thing, Deftones might as well be a side project for him. He wants to join the PGA, maybe we’re in his way. [Laughing] We have a blast, it’s more fun than it’s ever been before. We’ve had wild, great times, but it’s really just different and we’re just having a blast.

You and Alice In Chains are survival bands with all that you have been through as far as them losing Layne and your situation with Chi. That must make for a good bonding point.

We met them many years ago, we did a record in Seattle and met them there. We just did Diamond Eyes, and we did it with Nick Raskulinecz, who did their new record.

So while we were writing, they would be popping by, because they were mixing their record. So we hit it off again. They are just rad dudes and those dudes just have such great songs, they need to just be able to play their music, it’s been way too long. We did a bunch of shows in Europe and they are just absolutely killing it. And the Mastodon dudes we’ve known for quite awhile too, so this thing just kind of came up and it’s really cool.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from being in the Deftones?

Honestly, there’s been thousands of lessons, and just really like I said earlier it goes back to us wanting to play outside of our town. Over the years, we’ve been around the world several times and up and down and all around. Just made a ton of friends, and sometimes you see these friends doing the same thing you’re doing in some other hemisphere.

We’ve had great people show us the way, and I think it comes with a bit of maturity, and this is our dream to do what we do. It’s a pretty special thing that we are still able to do it. So lessons, everyday is a lesson, you know what I mean? There’s always something to keep up and learn, and don’t be an asshole. That’s pretty much it, because things are pretty cool. It’s just a beautiful thing. Now we are just coming into a situation where there’s less distractions, less wild crazy partying. We’re just stoked, for lack of a better word. We’re really happy, and people are healthy and just really digging what we do, and thrilled to able to do it. We get to play the Garden.

Yeah, is that the first time you played there?

That’s the first time, we’ve played everywhere else around there, but not the Garden. I am stoked, that’s pretty cool.

Deftones latest record, Diamond Eyes, is out now via Reprise and Warner Bros. They will be playing on the BlackDiamondSkye tour in Madison Square Garden alongside Alice In Chains and Mastodon.