Off to the Races

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The Deftones are crowded into a small dressing room in the bowels of the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., waiting for a chance to live up to their own hype. They didn't create all the multimedia fuss, not directly. Nonetheless, their recently released CD White Pony (Maverick) has garnered an enormous amount of buzz, that curious, often unreliable mix of critical adulation, street anticipation and well-orchestrated marketing. White Pony is supposed to be the album that "breaks" Deftones and places it in a league with the hottest hard-rock bands of the day, acts like Limp Bizkit and Creed. In fact, today Deftones is participating in a multiband concert that features those very groups. This is a significant moment. The band is ready to run with the Big Dogs.

But Deftones has been through this buzz circus before. White Pony is its third album. The last two sold well, but not spectacularly. "We've pretty much stopped listening to everyone's predictions," says lead singer Chino Moreno. "We know where we're headed. Longevity is our only goal."

Deftones may achieve longevity, but in the short term it looks as if it will enjoy some hefty sales as well. White Pony--a fiercely intelligent album that mixes thrashing rock, subtle hip-hop grooves and imagistic lyrics--sold 178,000 copies in its first week in stores and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, right behind MTV darlings Eminem and Britney Spears. Sure, the very next week White Pony slid down to No. 15, but the point had been made: in an age of teen pop and frat-boy rap-rock, there's still room at the top of the charts for uncompromisingly smart music.

The quintet, based in Sacramento, Calif., didn't start out looking to head a crusade to bring integrity back to hard rock. Actually, the guys just wanted to skateboard. Moreno, 27, the son of a plumber (his dad) and a secretary (his mom), met Stephen Carpenter, 29 (now Deftones' guitarist), in junior high school when the two were drawn together by their passion for skateboarding. Later, Moreno and Carpenter, along with drummer Abe Cunningham, 26, and bassist Chi Cheng, 29, formed Deftones and released its debut CD, Adrenaline, in 1995. Deejay Frank Delgado, 29, who performed on selected tracks on the debut, became a member after the second release.

The band's players hail from different ethnic backgrounds. Moreno and Delgado are Latino, Carpenter and Cunningham are white, and Chi Cheng is Chinese American. The racial mix is unusual in the mostly bleached-white world of hard rock but natural for a group from Sacramento. "It's really weird. We'll do interviews overseas, and they'll ask, 'What's it like being in a multiethnic band? Does that affect your music?'" says Cheng. "And we're like, 'Wow, man, come to our neighborhood. It's like that everywhere.'"

Musically too the band is an amalgam. Its music at points has the emotional delicacy of art-rock bands such as Radiohead; at other times the group's sound has the jagged intensity of punk rockers such as Nirvana. Deejay Delgado's hip-hoppy contributions are often more atmospheric than overt. "If there's anything hip-hop about our band, it's that it's groove-oriented," says Moreno. "Every song we have you can nod your head to like you would to a hip-hop song. But to me, hip-hop is more of a culture. We grew up in a hip-hop environment. But as far as me using words like 'yo' in my lyrics, I'm not about that, and I don't think this band calls for that at all." Instead, Moreno's lyrics come at the listener at odd angles, suggesting emotions rather than announcing them, conjuring strong images without explaining their meanings. "You turn newborn baby blue," he croons on RX Queen. "You're into depression cause/ it matches your eyes," he screams on Elite.

White Pony could ride the charts for a long time. But if it doesn't, will the Deftones be disappointed? "I can't tell a lie," says Carpenter. "I'll straight up say it. I love everything I got, and it could all stop tomorrow, and I would be happy. But I want more. That's not because I'm greedy. I just don't want to ever work a job. I'm not gonna be anyone's employee ever. I want to sell a gazillion records so I can have that financial freedom."

Moreno has a different take. "We already have freedom," he says. "We're able to make music and go around the world and play it. Anything else is a bonus." After the interview, Deftones takes the stage and more than lives up to the advance hype, pounding out some of its new songs, including the aching Change (in the House of Flies) with focused ferocity. It's the listeners who are getting the bonus.