Dense in tones and inspired in attack, Deftones’ latest album Ohms is an amalgamation of the band’s signature sound with some new, boundary pushing layers, exceeding the expectations of ardent fans everywhere. The spark behind the pioneering alternative-metal outfit’s rekindled spirit came from a collaborative writing process between singer/guitarist Chino Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, drummer Abe Cunningham, keyboardist Frank Delgado, and bassist Sergio Vega, who played a key role in the songwriting for the album. Another factor was Deftones’ reunion with Terry Date, who produced the band’s first four records and returned to the helm for the first time since their 2003 self-titled LP.
Vega, who also founded the seminal post-hardcore band Quicksand and joined the Deftones in 2009, was writing heavily leading into the process of Ohms. That’s especially apparent listening to songs like “Radiant City,” “Ceremony,” and “Urantia” where his bass takes the spotlight. Tracking demos in his New York studio and sending them to his bandmates in California, Vega utilized his Jaguar basses in various tunings and his Bass VI to create some of the most memorable riffs on the album. Known for his cutting, brutal tone and aggressive pick attack, Vega’s rhythmic interlocking with Cunningham drives the music of Ohms, while his melodicism balances out Carpenter and Moreno’s heavy drop-tuned guitar work. In combining the classic Deftones sound with their freshly inspired swagger, Ohms is a proper return for one of the most influential alternative metal bands of all time. And Vega is the chief catalyst for that.
What was the writing process like for Ohms?
It’s always a similar process in that everything comes together collaboratively. A lot of ideas are spawned organically from what happens in the room when we’re together. All of us have home setups where we constantly write and send each other a lot of demos of ideas and parts that we eventually either use or scrap. Chino, Stephen, and I send a lot of stuff back and forth. Still, the final songs really come together when we’re all together in the room as a band, uplifting the music and turning it from a home demo into a Deftones song.
Was this process made a lot more difficult given the COVID circumstances of 2020?
Fortunately, the album was 99% recorded when the lockdown hit. We had moved over to Terry’s home studio, where Chino and I went to do vocals and where Frank went to do additional keyboards and little odds and ends. After the actual lockdown hit Chino took one last trip to finish up the backing vocals and we were done. Thankfully we had it all wrapped before we weren’t able to work on it anymore. But it has been a challenge presenting the record and doing photo shoots and videos in these circumstances.
The album was recorded in both Los Angeles, at Henson Studios, and Washington, at Trainwreck Studios. Did you guys hop back and forth between the two studios to track?
We didn’t go back and forth, we did a stint in Los Angeles where we finished the bulk of the instrumentation and then we took a break and went to Washington to primarily do vocals. Then at the end of an album process you always hear little things, so we went in and tweaked certain stuff—maybe sprinkled in a keyboard here or there, or maybe added a guitar part. I took two trips out to do vocal harmonies and backups. We basically went from the first section of recording to the second section.
The bass line on “Ceremony” is super melodic and it takes over the track from the start.
I came up with that on the Bass VI and it was something I had originally written on acoustic guitar. I took it to the VI from there, and in the studio I ended up using the B bass for it [His Fender Jaguar, tuned B-E-A-D]. The way I play guitar is so different from the way I play bass, and the way that I play the VI marries both. I hear melodies and I write them on bass. When most people hear the bass they don’t hear a song, but if you play the exact same thing on guitar, then they’ll hear a song. It’s a weird psychological thing that I’ve learned not to get butt hurt about.
That’s a brutal main riff you play on “Radiant City.”
Funny enough, that’s another one that started out on acoustic guitar. I was just playing some acoustic and I came up with that pattern. I thought it sounded pretty cool and then I played it on the VI and I played it on my B bass, and it worked. What was cool is it was one of a few riffs I brought in when we started writing, and it made the cut. It’s really fun to play. I like when other people are excited with ideas and take them somewhere different. Chino came up with the next part immediately and the rest of the song came together pretty easily. My favorite thing on every album is when we move a chromatic step down—and you’ll hear it on every record—because nothing sounds as brutal as notes descending chromatically.
What was it like working with Terry Date on this?
It was amazing. I’ve gotten to know him over the past few years from getting together and having dinner. Production and engineering is something that I have a huge interest in, so listening to him and picking his brain about how he does things made me super excited to work with him. He’s such a great producer, engineer, and mixer, and it’s a treat and an honor to put together a record with him.
What are the biggest things you learned from him about production?
He’s similar in his process to how I am as a collaborator, songwriter, and producer, where it’s all about active listening. I try not to prescribe, but more so listen and assist to get to the direction that the artist wants to go in. As a producer, I learned a lot from how and when Terry chooses to say something. If he sees us mulling over a section of a song where we have several variants, he’s going to come in and say that he sees what we’re going for and this is what he thinks is the most effective way of doing it. He’s very adamant about that approach. He wants to hear the artist and bring them out in the music. He doesn’t force himself into the music.
Your tone is huge on this album. How did you and Terry track your bass?
It’s been the same basic set up for a few years, but it’s constantly evolving. I’m running the Fractal Axe-FX II into an Orange OB1 and two OBC810 cabs. My tone is constantly influenced and tweaked by the people I’m around. I’m always seeking other opinions to help it get to where I want it. I like a lot of bite in my tone, with a tight low end, so I use a multi-bank compressor at the front of my chain. That enables me to dial in all of the frequency changes and let the high end be more open and the low end be super tight. When I first tried the B tuning on my Jaguar, Chino suggested transporting my ideas to that bass, and it allowed me to go down deeper instead of going up higher. For the recording I thought, Guitar players always get to multitrack, why don’t I get to multitrack? So I recorded parts as I initially wrote them on the Bass VI and then I tracked over them with the B bass.
How did the Jaguar respond to the B tuning?
I was very happy with it. I had to get super thick gauge strings for it. I kept the tuning at B-E-A-D and it worked out well. I was stoked to be able to go down to certain notes. The band uses a lot of different tunings and we don’t plot it out so it’s very rare that we’re all able to hit an open string together. If we had one wish in life it would be for all of us to be able to hit an open string together [laughs].
How many basses are you touring with now?
I travel with eight. I have my main and my back up, a main and a back up in drop D, a drop C, a drop C#, and my two Bass VI’s. I guess I’ll have to add a drop B, as well.
Does it get tricky performing live when your tech hands you a different bass in a different tuning for every song?
I just play the song. I’m not transposing anything. The song was written in that tuning so it’s just muscle memory and you’re fine. In my career there was only one time where I was handed the wrong bass, for the song “Rocket Skates.” I instantly realized what was going on and I had to transpose everything in that moment. It was a challenge, but it went well. Fortunately there weren’t any open strings in the entire song, so I just had to slide up on fret and I was good.
What’s it like being in a rhythm section with Abe Cunningham?
It’s a joy. We put a lot of effort into being a tight rhythm section. We call ourselves Too Right and we even got matching tattoos. We’re very serious about it. Whether we’re playing like a traditional rhythm section where I match his kick, or we’re interplaying, it’s mainly about keeping everything super tight. After a song is written, the final aspect of detailing for me is isolating Abe’s drums and playing with them over and over, and making sure I’m locking in with every little thing he’s doing. Steph is the same way and he approaches guitar a lot like a bass.
There’s a lot going on in your music between Steph playing primarily low frequencies, Chino also playing guitar, and Frank on keys. What’s it like finding the space for your bass?
If I’m coming in with a part then everyone else is fitting in with how they hear it, but if someone else has a part then it’s my job to do that. Stephen and I have a lot of fun matching each other and we do role bending where he’ll play low and very rhythmically, and I’ll go high on the neck and make it more melodic. A lot of it isn’t thought out, it’s just what sounds best.
You’ve honed and defined your tone over the years and you have a definite signature sound. How would you describe your technique?
I’m a firm believer in the fact that your rhythm is what makes things happen. Keith Richards once said, “It’s about the space between the notes.” It’s not so much about how many notes you play, it’s all about the rhythm behind it. Your fretting hand is always going to be fairly simple, so a lot of attention goes towards the picking. I truly believe that you can articulate better with a pick, but again, to each their own. I think the biggest part of my tone is my articulation. That’s where that multiband compressor comes in. For me it’s all in the right hand and coming up with interesting picking patterns and being percussive with it. You can mute the strings and do a lot of percussive things, like in-between notes, and it keeps the body moving—more so than playing a lot of notes. Your fretting hand relates more to a conscious mind and your picking hand relates more to your gut and your body. That will make or break a part.
You’ve now been a member of this band for twelve years. Does it totally feel like home now?
I’m thankful for the Internet because when I first came into the band in 2009 there were people who had no idea who I was and they were really upset because of what was going on. Some people even thought my Jaguar basses sucked. But then there were also people who recognized that I was from the New York hardcore scene, I’m from the band Quicksand, and I had filled in for Chi [Cheng] long before he passed. So then they were like, Oh, he’s okay. Over time I feel like people have learned my history and they don’t bundle the tragedy of Chi with me. I’ve always been okay with that and I’ve never felt anything other than, I’m coming in to help and I’ve been friends with Chino and the guys since 1995. I accept that people are going to grieve and be upset, and I take a hit from that sometimes, but it’s alright. It’s not personal.
Can we expect anything from Quicksand in the future?
We just have fun with it. The band exists and we don’t put pressure on ourselves. One of the problems with our first tenure was the pressure we put on ourselves unnecessarily. That led to our breakup. In getting back together we realized that we enjoy each other, we’re healthy, and we have a good time together. We’re in touch with each other super-frequently. Anything we can do in a way that’s easy, we’re going to do. –BM
Hear Him On: Deftones, Ohms 
Basses: Fender Jaguar Basses in various tunings, Fender Bass VI
Strings: Dunlop Stainless Steel Heavy Guage [.050-.110]
Amps: Two Orange OB1-500 Analog heads with two OBC810 Cabinets
Pedals: Fractal Audio Axe-FX II, MXR Sub Octave Bass Fuzz, MXR M83 Bass Chorus, TC Electronics Sub N’ Up, MXR Carbon Copy, Pigtronix Philosopher Bass Compressor
Picks: Dunlop 1mm Tortex
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