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Abe Cunningham: Deftones Come Back From The Brink

Photo: Robert Downs

Speaking with Abe Cunningham is a bit like talking to that twitchy kid you knew from your high school who drank too much Jolt before biology class. Cunningham is perpetually distracted, but in a good way. Right now at a studio in Burbank, the giddy sensation must be nice for him and the rest of the Deftones. The band just finished Diamond Eyes, whose tectonic churn and ethereal dusting recall landmark 2000 release White Pony, only it’s on to something bigger. Much bigger.

The collective mindset during the recording was something different for the band. Something they have not enjoyed for a long time, and Cunningham and the rest of the guys are still feeling the ripple effects. “We had a f___ing blast making this record, man,” Cunningham gushes. “We were prepared and relaxed and stoked and, like, confident. It’s definitely – dare I say – adult.”

Adult? Surely that’s not the term Cunningham was looking for.


“I mean, I think we’re adults now,” he clarifies. “We’ve always been a metal-based band. I’m pissed. I’m very happy too, but I’m still pissed. A lot of things piss me off, but I’m ultimately a happy dude. I love life and I love my kids. I love what I do, I love who I do it with. I think that’s a really amazing place to be.”

When Life Gives You Lemons...

Cunningham’s deep-in-the-bones gratitude comes off less like a platitude than it does the elation of a P.O.W. camp survivor. See, it’s been a rough few years for Deftones. Things started going bad back in 2007 when frontman Chino Moreno took off during a tour break to front side-project Team Sleep without a word to his bandmates. Deftones had grown uncommunicative in general over the years but now it was getting to the point where they wondered if they were a band at all.

Coming to their senses, they hashed it out and soon got cracking on the next record, tentatively titled Eros. The timing was good because they had just finished constructing a spacious, well-equipped studio/clubhouse in Sacramento, California where they could write songs, jam out, or just kick it. “Even when we don’t like each other we always gravitate towards this room,” Cunningham adds.

Around November 2008 they were three-quarters of the way though Eros when bassist Chi Cheng was involved in a horrific car accident that left him in a coma. In the two years preceding the incident, it had been an extraordinarily difficult time for Cheng. He had lost not just one but two brothers within an extremely short time span. In a cruelly ironic twist, Cheng’s car accident occurred on the very day of the one-year anniversary of the second brother’s death, on the way back from spreading his ashes over the Pacific Ocean. “I don’t even try to understand it because you can’t,” Cunningham explains. “Nobody should have to go through that. It’s so much suffering for any one person to go through. It’s just … I have no words.”

The band spent the next year and a half visiting Cheng in the hospital, spending the night when they could or playing him some of his favorite tunes. Cunningham, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, and keyboardist Frank Delgado would often sit at his bedside through the night. Sometimes Moreno would sing to him.

A promising development occurred last year when a foundation Web site set up on Cheng’s behalf reported that the bassist moved his left arm. Another encouraging sign is that he occasionally looks at whomever is addressing him. As of press time Deftones’ blog, OneLoveForChi, reported that Cheng’s medical expenses are in the tens of thousands. “It’s been a lot of trying to figure out a lot of things. I guess you stop asking questions,” Cunningham says of the whole episode. “I mean, you never stop asking questions. There are some answers for certain things but then sometimes you just have to take a step back and take some deep breaths and then try to focus elsewhere.”

The ideal distraction was music, but it did not feel right to resume Eros, which was deeply imbued with Cheng’s sensibility. Rather than having someone learn his parts, Deftones back-burnered the album entirely. “We just sort of set it aside for the time being. And we really had no intention of even trying to make a new record. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing at that point.”

In the meantime, Deftones had a few touring commitments, so a replacement bassist was needed right away. Sergio Vega, a veteran of the NYC hardcore scene best known for his time with Quicksand – a major influence on Deftones – was the first (and only) person they called. Vega and Deftones became friends from touring together back in the late ’90s, a bond that was further cemented when Vega filled in for Cheng after the bassist required emergency foot surgery. Fast-forward to early 2009, Vega was back in New York, DJing and pursuing other music projects, but once he got the call from Moreno he was on a plane the next day. “I think he came thinking there was going to be a line for try-outs,” Cunningham recalls with a chuckle. “He was all stressed. He came out all pacing and uptight and we’re like, ’Jesus, just relax.’”

Deftones, having since made a decision about moving forward, had yet to drop the big bomb on their old friend: Would he like to make a new record? Vega wasn’t expecting this, but he asked for a week to talk it out with his wife and square things away with his kids back in New York. After he got the wife’s blessing, it was on.

At least ostensibly it was. Privately, Cunningham had reservations about diving headlong into a whole new project. “Creatively I was pretty much tapped out. Just drained and just … it had been a long process, you know, just this [whole thing with Cheng] prior. I was quick to jump in and say, ’Yeah, I’m down.’ But I was a bit concerned. I was like, ’S__t! Can we do this?’”

Eyes Of The Storm

The good news for fans is that Diamond Eyes is undeniably a Deftones record. The 10-track album is awash with jittery, volatile energy – sometimes ecstatic, other times menacing. If the band’s light/dark, soft/loud, passive/aggressive dynamic was all fits and starts before, Diamond Eyes is a colossal metal-gaze epiphany, like blinkered musicians who can suddenly see. The title track, sporting a math-y, detuned riff, could be Meshuggah until you get to a stretchy chorus full of guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s feedback-rich growl, a feat he pulls off again in “CMD/CNTRL.” Vega and Carpenter’s bent chords bulldoze through the record, except when they don’t, as in the staccato attack of second single “Rocket Skates.” Moreno’s tortured poetry unfolds between a series of whispers and wails with a few rants in between. But the common denominator is Cunningham’s loping 4/4, a signature style that disguises how fierce and frantic the beats are. It’s a clever way of spotlighting licks, whether it’s bass drum accents; crash cymbal placement; sudden, explosive fills; or flat-out weirdness like the intermittent hi-hat sixteenths he inserts with surgical precision inside the verse on “Risk.”

Ask Cunningham about any of his parts and all you get is a shrug. It’s not indifference as much as a refusal to get nerdy and analytical. “To me, I am the same old Abe,” he says. “I’ve always been a harder hitting drummer. But I think over the years I figured out that you can only hit something so hard. But I have never really been a metal drummer. I have always tried to be, but I can’t for the life of me do any double bass. I just can’t. I never really practiced I guess. You spend a thousand hours for ten years doing something, you get better at it. So I never really thought of myself as a metal drummer, but I am in a metal-based band.”

None of the tracks pose a special challenge, he says, just as none is more or less enjoyable to play than any other. It’s vintage Cunningham: rock-solid, frequently tasty, supportive all the time. “I love them all now, obviously, because they’re brand new still. There’s been no chance to be burnt out and tired of them.”

Work Flow Finesse

If there are major changes in the Deftones universe, a lot of it has to do with their writing process. Diamond Eyes is the result of a more disciplined work ethic. The band for many years got in the habit of screwing around in the studio with half-finished songs, a byproduct of a little success and the bloated recording budgets that started with White Pony and onward. Once Vega was on board, however, a renewed sense of purpose took over.

Except for the title track, mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, Diamond Eyes was produced and mixed by Nick Raskulinecz, the producer of recent releases such as Alice In Chains’ Black Gives Way To Blue and, more meaningfully for a Neil Peart worshipper such as Cunningham, Rush’s Snakes And Arrows. Enthusiastic and methodical both, Raskulinecz recorded the band’s jam sessions as the songs were starting to gel. He would pore over them at night and flag anything that leaped out so that if the band got stumped, he’d replay the cool part and get them juiced. “We would have all these ideas from jamming but we would never stop,” Cunningham says of Deftones’ old m.o. “Cool stuff might come out of it, but it just took so long. ’Dude, be sure to remember that.’ ’Oh don’t trip, I got it.’ And then of course it’s gone forever. This was a really streamlined process.”

Diamond Eyes’ two months of preproduction took place at The Ally and at Mates Rehearsal & Cartage, both located in the San Fernando Valley. The plan was to track at Studio 606, but owner Dave Grohl had just started cutting side project Them Crooked Vultures. “Dave was like, ’I want my studio back,’” Cunningham says, “So we were like, ’Fine. Knock yourself out.’” The band moved on to The Pass, one of L.A.’s most storied music studios, to do the actual tracking. “We just bashed it out and then just nailed it because we played everything a million times before we went in.”

Immediately following the tracking, Raskulinecz, who also mixed, was breaking everything the band recorded down into individual stems of bass, vocals, and so on. “I asked Nick, ’Hey, can I get just a run-through of the record, but just drums?’ He was like, ’Yeah, dude, no problem.’ So he burned me a disc of just drum tracks, all in sequence.”

Cunningham promptly lost the disc, which he’s still kicking himself for because he had hoped to use it to help him remember his parts before Deftones hit the road this summer, but he’s not too worried about it. “Overall it’s kind of a cool drum record,” he says. “Not that it’s all technical, there’s just little things here and there that make it fun. I can see people maybe air-drumming to it. It’s not like playing ’Tom Sawyer.’ That’s what I air-drum to.”

Refining The Process

Like so many hard-rock and metal drummers of his generation, Cunningham gradually lost the feeling bands enjoy in the early part of their careers when they can just jam in a garage together. Once Cunningham started playing with in-ears – dialing down some members, jacking up others – the intimacy was lost. For the last year he has ditched the in-ears and gone back to massive subs for that clubby vibe, hearing be damned. “I have tinnitus – I know I do,” he explains. “It’s something that keeps me up at night. But I think right now I like being open and being out in the room again. You can feel everything, you can feel the crowd, you feel like you’re in the room with everybody else, rather than being in some space pod somewhere.”

Drummers synching up with bassists is a typical band dynamic, but not so with Deftones. “In the early years Stephen [Carpenter] and I wrote most of the music. We pretty much got things going before everyone else came in. So we just had this relationship, and not to take away that we’re a band – it takes everyone to do it – but in the early years, Stephen and I were really tight, and kind of just did everything.”

With Cunningham’s parts so germane to the songwriting process, the drums set the tone for Deftones more so than other metal bands. Factor in that Carpenter himself functions as a metronome, so the click track was almost an afterthought during performance. “Our guitarist is incredibly consistent. And I’ve always had him cranked in my monitors, and never had bass. Never.”

Cunningham consistently used a click for recording Diamond Eyes but only because it helped move things along, not because he doesn’t trust his internal clock. “I’ll do whatever makes it be in time but not so [in with the] click that the song suffers,” he explains. “I want to get my stuff done. You’re the drummer and the drums go down first, and everyone’s waiting on you, tapping their feet.”

He is redoubling his consistency efforts with a light-based metronome in the remaining weeks before the tour. “It kicked it all into gear real fast. To me, especially the way things were tracked, the songs are all over the place. We kicked a couple things up in choruses or back, [so for rehearsal] we used clicks because songs need to breathe. In the studio you can do a tempo map and click these things out but we’re a live band and these songs take on their own personalities once you start playing them.”

Going through the back catalogue with Vega was also effective. “I don’t really sit around and listen to our records all day long,” Cunningham says. “So when I did, just hearing the albums again is a great tool and definitely reaffirms the tempos and lets me know that I’m pretty much on.”

No matter how successful the band or how great the player, the same old problems dog even the best drummers every time they get behind the kit. For Cunningham, tom arrangement is still a puzzle that he is working out. “My dilemma is this,” he explains. “I love two rack toms, but I also love one rack tom and having my ride right where that second rack tom would be – I love a little 4-piece. I don’t like it over the floor, I like it over the second rack, kind of up high. So I’ve gone back and forth between the two racks on one stand [slightly to the left] of the bass drum, and now I’m back to where I have two racks over the kick and that ride up high.”

With Deftones planning to be on the road for two years or more with only a few breaks, conditioning is also on his mind. Practice pad warm-up backstage is always a good idea, but lately he is trying to think of the process holistically. “I’ve sort of made the whole day be my warm-up. From stretching all day, walking around, drinking lots of water, instead of doing it 45 minutes beforehand and you’re not really warmed up until half way through the show.”

Playing It Forward

Critics are calling Diamond Eyes a return to form, but it is in fact a departure: No possible way could this album have been made had the events of the last few years unfolded differently. There has been an evolution in Moreno’s writing, the band’s overall stylistic risk-taking, and most importantly, their outlook. What ought to have been opaque and dreary is hook-filled and triumphantly expansive. “To me it’s a pretty optimistic record. We’re trying to turn this whole situation into a positivity,” Cunningham says. “I think obviously [Cheng’s] accident just brought everything into perspective. It’s just another example of how quickly things change in life.”

Sure they do, and despite the inspired way the band flipped the situation, there is still plenty of personal drama in Cunningham’s life: He’s going through a divorce; he doesn’t see his two sons as much as he’d like; and so on. But it’s par for the course. Twenty years on, Deftones are still one of mainstream heavy music’s most relevant bands – not bad for a bunch of Northern California dudes who bonded over skateboarding – and this humble Mendocino boy is a big part of making it happen. “I love to play the drums,” Cunningham says. “I love what smacking a drum gives me back. It keeps me mellow. Playing drums is a pretty damn cool thing for keeping you level. It’s a great life.”

Cunningham’s Set

DRUMS: Tama Starclassic Bubinga (Blue Sparkle)
1 22" x 20" Bass Drum
2 14" x 5.5" Snare Drum
3 12" x 7" Tom
4 14" x 7" Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom
6 18" x 18" Floor Tom
7 13" x 6" Wood Snare Drum

CYMBALS: Zildjian
A 15" A Custom Mastersound Hi-Hat
B 19" A Custom Rezo Crash
C 8" A Custom Splash
D 20" A Custom Rezo Crash (Brilliant)
E 10" K Custom Hybrid Splash
F 22" A Custom Ride
G 20" A Medium Thin Crash (Brilliant)
H 20" Oriental Trash China
I 22" K Crash/Ride (Brilliant)

Abe Cunningham also uses Tama Iron Cobra double pedal and Tama hardware, Remo heads, and Pro-Mark Abe Cunningham signature sticks.

Sergio Vega: No End To The Low End

Tucked in the back of a cab in the thick of early morning Manhattan traffic, Sergio Vega couldn’t be more thrilled, even though he almost left his bass and pre-amp sitting on the sidewalk back on 26th Street. “We are really on some happy-happy, joy thing right now,” Deftones’ newest member says. “So you can’t mess with us.”

As someone who played with Helmet’s John Stanier (a former DRUM! Magazine columnist) and other great players, the ex-Quicksand bassist came correct when it was time to lock down with Abe Cunningham. “I love him as a drummer,” says the Fender Jaguar plucker. “I’ve gotten an opportunity to play with great drummers and he’s sick, man, what he brings. He has a unique voice.

“I put a lot of energy into us locking. And I think we just had good time with that. And I think it was fun for him. My approach to bass playing is similar to Chi. I like a lot of eye contact and I love the idea of a rhythm section but I consider myself to be part of the string section with Stephen. I have a relationship with each one individually.”

Even though no one could ever replace Cheng, Deftones fans were quick to embrace Vega, who attributes this fact not only to the intermingled history of Quicksand and Deftones over the years, but to something more elemental. “We come from the same culture, even though I’m East Coast and they’re West Coast. They come from bands like Faith No More as part of their DNA and I come more from the [NYC hardcore legends] Cromags, but we both have Bad Brains.” [laughs]

Vega stepping in for Cheng on tour last year and subsequently going on to record Diamond Eyes made sense, but it boils down to more than skill. His natural musical intuition and empathy as an accompanist was a secondary consideration. “It wasn’t, ’What do I have to do to earn their respect?’” he adds. “This is about our swagger and the energy that we bring to everything we do. We’re family, and I just happen to play bass.”

Groove Analysis: Aping Abe

Diehard Deftones fans waiting in anxious anticipation for the release of Diamond Eyes surely will not be disappointed. The album flat-out rocks. Abe Cunningham’s powerful drumming is a perfect match for this band, as he deftly (pardon the pun) steers through funky, angular riffs and treacherous odd-time sections. The title track is a perfect example.

“Diamond Eyes”

This song has a slow tempo but doesn’t feel that way as it gets its momentum from Cunningham’s clever use of thirty-second-notes. You’ll notice that the song starts in 6/8 but doesn’t remain there for long. The choruses alternate bars of 6/8 and 5/8, and the only difference is the shorter bars lack the last bass drum note, so the vocals come around again earlier than you’d expect. All the changing time signatures make sense when listening to the song, and never sound complex in the way that a Tool or Meshuggah song does, but flow along with the melody. Still, if you’re going to play along with this track you’d better count! Cunningham doesn’t play a lot of fills, usually only placing them at the ends of sections, but he livens up the track with thirty-second-note bass drum ruffs leading into snare crashes.

“Rocket Skates”

If you’re not a strong music reader, 12/8 can be thought of as 4/4, felt as triplets, and is often counted 1 & ah 2 & ah 3 & ah 4 & ah rather than as the more syllabically cumbersome 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. That bit of info may come in handy when deciphering the tricky Intro to “Rocket Skates.” At the end of the first line Cunningham plays a crash-over-bass-drum pattern that falls on 1 a (2) & (3) a (4) & and plays a snare flam on 3. However, you may prefer to think of the rhythm as quarter-note triplets. The 15/8 bar may make you break out in a cold sweat, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Basically it’s the same pattern as the measure just described but with an extra beat tacked onto the end. It sounds very cool in the song, but that spot is likely to throw you if you aren’t counting.

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