Deftones Frank Delgado on Why Openness Is So Metal

Perhaps the biggest credit to the originality of Deftones is that none of the labels have stuck—and the press has tried them all.
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Left to right: Drummer Abe Cunningham, synthesist Frank Delgado, lead vocalist Chino Moreno, bassist Sergio Vega, and
guitarist Stephen Carpenter.

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Perhaps the biggest credit to the originality of Deftones is that none of the labels have stuck—and the press has tried them all. Nu-metal, alt-metal, post-hardcore . . . the list goes on. For critical acclaim, blending of thoughtful melodies with kick-your-ass heaviness, lyrical sophistication, and fandom bordering on religion, they’d tie with Tool, though the two bands stop short of sounding alike. Now, two years after the car accident that gravely injured longtime bassist Chi Cheng, there rises Diamond Eyes. As singular as Deftones’ sound itself is the role of DJ/keyboardist Frank Delgado in suffusing this phoenix of an album with inimitable soundscapes.

When you came into Deftones, it almost seemed like there was a conscious decision not to sound like a typical DJ-in-a-hard-rock-band.
I did come from a DJ background, and especially being in a heavier band like Deftones, it took some time to figure out my role, without the stereotype— you know, there’s a breakdown, then I’m supposed to scratch or whatever, but I never understood why it had to be that way. In a heavier band, trying to fit in DJ- or synth-based sounds is not the easiest thing to do without it sounding cheesy.

How did you approach this challenge at first?

When I first got into the band, all I had were records. I tried to implement them in a more soundscape-y way. I was trying to be a rudimentary sampler, you could say. From there, I progressed into buying keyboards, and teaching myself to play. Before that, I’d been plugging in a bunch of effects and guitar pedals, so I could sustain sounds, pitch them, and turn them into atmospheres. Now, instead of searching my record crate for sounds that fit a moment in a song, I can build my own—mostly in Ableton Live— and play and write with them.

Do you use the soft synths in Ableton Live?

Yes, as well as the Nord Lead 2 I still have, and the Minimoog Voyager—its low end beefs up the bass on a lot of our songs. I also record stuff around the studio. While Stephen [Carpenter, guitarist] is jamming, I might record that, and some feedback, then dump that into Ableton and twist it some more. Maybe I’ll spread it across the keys of a controller and pitch it. I’m no Ableton master, but I love how you can just keep twisting and turning until you make something cool, then hit “save.” Back in the day, I had no gear and had to search through records to find sounds that fit, then figure out how to stretch them and make them work in a song. That’s still how I work, but Ableton lets me do it all inside one program.

What was the first thing you heard that made you feel like electronics had a legitimate place in a band as heavy as Deftones?

I grew up in southern California, and was into anything DJ-related. When I moved to the Bay Area, I started listening to bands like Faith No More. I saw how they could pull off this heavy music that was still melodic and . . . pretty. It was still aggressive, but they had a keyboard player. That’s what made me go, “I think I can do that.”

Was Diamond Eyes different from your previous work with Deftones?

We used to spend a lot of time making records—it wasn’t intentional, it was just how it happened. We’d go in with maybe half the songs, and we’d write the rest in the studio. It’s creative, but it’s also time-consuming and not cost-effective. This time, Nick Raskulinecz, the producer, never let us lose the initial spark of any song we’d started. We worked at a really efficient pace, and could actually play the album end-to-end before we started tracking. That hadn’t happened in many years.

What do you practice, or listen to for inspiration, outside of playing with Deftones?

I still DJ on the side, so I’m really into both dance music and hip-hop. Being a DJ has put me into different worlds of music over the years. When I was young, it was a hip-hop thing, but that causes you to find jazz and funk, even if just for sampling at first. You’d be surprised at the stuff you hear anyone in Deftones listening to. We’re all over the map. Stephen Carpenter— you’d think he’s just this metalhead. Which he is, but he also listens to hip-hop all day long! I sometimes listen to old funk and disco.

What do you think fans would be most surprised to learn you’re into?

We make these pre-show “mixtapes” to play before we go on. They’re anything and everything, from Meshuggah to Björk to Depeche Mode to Milli Vanilli! [Laughs.] If you’ve only heard our singles on the radio, that doesn’t do justice to the range we try to pull off throughout an album or a show. We’ve also done these crazy B-side things—we’ve covered everything from Sade to the Cure.

What would you say to people who see DJs as less than real musicians?

To be a good DJ, you need rhythm, groove, a good ear—all the same things you need to play an instrument. Most DJs who stick with it end up moving into production. If you’re really into it, it’s going to open you up. You’re going to see how different rhythms, bass lines, and chord progressions relate. Plus, with the technology we have now, anyone can present as a “musician.” It’s a matter of how passionate you are. We could say the same thing about guitarists.

Can you a single out a Deftones song that represents your single biggest sonic contribution to the band yet?

I really love “You’ve Seen the Butcher,” as I’m playing so many different things on it: samples, synths, turntables. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a metal band pull off something quite like it—it’s heavy as f***, but it’s still sexy. One of my favorite things about our band is that there’s a sense of melody, and even a little funk, despite the overall aggressive rock focus. We’ve always tried to debunk the notion that we can’t do this or that because it’s not “metal.”

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be just like you?

You need to be open, which is hard to do when you’re young. When you’re young, you gravitate to the music of a given social circle. You get a little older, and it’s not about hanging with a crowd anymore. If you can realize when you’re young that it’s all rock ’n’ roll, and that there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of listening to, you’ll be ahead of the game.

DEFGEAR
Frank Delgado at the center of his hybrid DJ/synth rig. Left: Minimoog Voyager. DJ coffin, left to right: Technics SL1200 turntable, Pioneer EFX-500 behind Rane mixer, Korg Kaoss KP-3 behind Pioneer CDJ-1000, MacBook Pro running Ableton Live, controlled by Novation ReMote SL. Right: Nord Lead 2 above Yamaha RS-7000 groove box. Not visible: Line 6 DL4 delay and EHX Small Stone phaser.

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