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Saturday Night Fever

Deftones’ Abe Cunningham on the art of stayin’ alive

When you’ve been playing music with the same band for almost 20 years, conflict is inevitable. No one knows this better than Abe Cunningham, drummer for the platinum-selling Sacramento alternative hard rock outfit known as Deftones. Severe internal turmoil recently brought this group perilously close to flatlining—which probably explains why Cunningham sounds so fired up to be on the road with his longtime bandmates, killing some time before a gig in Chicago by telling GT about an especially inventive method the Deftones have found for settling their differences.

“We shoot each other,” the 33-year-old musician deadpans. “Whoever has the biggest gun wins. I have a tank now. [Vocalist] Chino’s [Moreno] got a pellet gun, so he’s not gonna do so well. [Guitarist] Stephen [Carpenter] has a rubber band gun, and [bassist] Chi’s [Cheng] got a slingshot, so I guess I’ll win ’em all.”

It’s a good sign that Cunningham can joke about such things, given that there were moments during the recording of Deftones’ most recent disc, Saturday Night Wrist, when shooting his bandmates probably didn’t sound like too shabby a plan. Much of the dissonance stemmed from some all-around flakiness from Moreno, who was nearly axed from the group when he decided to tour with his side band Team Sleep rather than work on the vocals for Wrist. Compounding such frustrations was the interference of the Deftones’ label, Maverick Records. “They were waiting to see if we were writing hits before they gave us our recording budget, even though it’s already our money—sort of dangling this carrot, which makes for just a terrible time,” Cunningham explains. “You’re trying to be creative, and you’re waiting for someone to OK it. That’s just the way things are these days, and hopefully we’ll be out of our deal soon.”

Yet another obstacle to Wrist’s completion was the Deftones’ ill-fated partnership with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, whose credits include some of Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel and KISS’ defining works. In spite of his glowing track record, Ezrin’s vision quickly proved to be at odds with that of the band, creating a rift that led him and the Deftones to part ways midway through the project.

“We just didn’t get along that well, man,” Cunningham says. “It was a very unpleasant experience. He’s not a people person, which you would kind of expect a producer to be. He’s not a bad person—we just didn’t click. We really looked up to him and respected what he had done, and we thought we’d be able to draw some of that juice, but [working with him] wasn’t that great. But the record, I think, turned out pretty well, so it’s all good.”

That record finally hit the shelves on Halloween of 2006—a full two years after the band first set foot in the studio to record the disc. Universally applauded as the Deftones’ best work yet, Wrist is the quintessential statement of the band’s style, which could somewhat paradoxically be described as “ambient hard rock.” It’s the former half of this equation—the group’s floaty, Radiohead/U2/Cocteau Twins-ish side—that has always set the Deftones apart from other heavy rock acts, particularly their Adidas-touting, nookie-endorsing peers from the mid-’90s nu-metal movement.

Cunningham says he has no particular reaction to the widespread tendency to define the Deftones as a nu-metal band. “It’s human nature to want to lump things into a category for easy storage and recall,” he observes. “We were around way before the term [nu metal] popped into many people’s minds, and we’re still around now after it’s dead.”

Indeed, having formed in 1988, the Deftones can hardly be deemed “nu” anything. It’s a rare band that stays together this long without becoming a parody of itself, let alone without sounding dated. Short of settling arguments with weapons, does Cunningham have any tips for cultivating band longevity?

“Enjoy what you’re doing, but also, first and foremost, enjoy who you do it with,” the musician replies after a short pause. “I know that’s not always easy, of course—people do change and whatever, but it’s pretty neat to be able to be in a band and go around the world and play.”

So, everything’s peachy now, and all the Deftones’ problems are behind them? Well …

“There’s still some lumps and rocks, but everyone’s been playing well and having good shows, and that’s really what it’s all about,” Cunningham says. “I must say that it feels nice to still be around and have things work out. We’ve been having the best time we’ve had in a long time.”

 

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