Abe Cunningham: "Leathers"

abe cunningham

Photo: Frank Maddocks

There are many things on this Earth that improve with age. To that list, you must also add the extremely distinctive Sacramento rock outfit known as Deftones.

And as the group goes, so does their explosively creative drummer, Abe Cunningham. While he and his bandmates have experienced success, tragedy, and notoriously high levels of infighting, they have always delivered metal-edged music as innovative as it is emotional. Their seventh studio album, Koi No Yokan, continues that streak, powered in a big way by Cunningham’s chops, which sound harder and more artful than ever before.

“I’m definitely more comfortable in my skin – I think we all are,” Cunningham says of the recording process, which was carried out at Los Angeles’ Paramount Recording Studios. “That comfort level is a beautiful thing, and it comes over time. The machine is running well together now, and it feels great.”

But don’t take Cunningham’s word for it. Tune in to the track called “Leathers,” which starts with a hypnotic, spare, and mildly trippy guitar intro that’s sans drums clear until the 0:41 mark. That’s when Cunningham bursts into the song with a patient wrecking ball of a quadruple kick-drum beat that accompanies the verse vocals and hard rhythmic six-strings. “It’s very straightforward – just tempo and groove,” he says. “That’s always been the emphasis in our band from day one. I don’t come up with the most technical parts. I just want to make stuff that feels good. That beat is not too loose – but it’s loose enough.”

The first chorus begins at 0:59, where Cunningham digs into a tough, straightforward beat where he switches between keeping time on the hi-hat and the ride – meanwhile, he peels off tasty fills at will. “It goes back and forth between the ride and the hi-hat, every other section – I wanted to break it up a bit and make it not so straight,” explains Cunningham. “I’m using a 22" Custom ride on this album, because the songs here have a more Neil Peartish ping, if you will. When I’m mashing on the ride it’s more of a washy thing, but this song has parts that are more distinct and present when I’m pinging on the ride.

abe cunningham

Cunningham’s Setup

Drums Tama Starclassic Bubinga
(“Cunningham Blue” custom finish)
1 22" x 20" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6" Tama Starphonic Brass Snare Drum
3 10" x 6" Tom
4 12" x 7" Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom
6 18" x 16" Floor Tom
7 14" x 7" Tama S.L.P Maple Snare

Cymbals Zildjian
A 15" A Custom Mastersound Hi-Hat
B 19" A Custom Rezo Crash
C 8" A Custom Splash
D 20" K Crash Ride
E 11" K Custom Hybrid Splash
F 22" A Custom Ping Ride
G 21" K Crash Ride
H 17" A Custom Rezo Crash/20"
Oriental China Trash (stack)
I 21" Z3 Ultra Hammered China

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

“As for the fills,” he continues, “my philosophy is, ’When in doubt, throw it in.’ I don’t think there are any rules, as long as it sounds good at the end of the day. In the chorus, the fills are there to differentiate the parts between the hat and the ride, because otherwise the pattern is all the same. So the fills are a disguise, or a trick – they break the part up a bit, and help make it sound different.”

Deftones return to the verse. Then on the lead-in to the second chorus the sharp-eared will catch their drummer reeling off three crash (or are those open hi-hat?) stabs during the segue at 1:38. “Why not?” asks Cunningham, who seemed to become aware of the chop only when asked about it. “I had this song worked out, but on the other hand it wasn’t so dialed in that there wasn’t room for improvisation. I don’t apply the same things twice, and I like to leave a little room for fun. You never know what might turn out to be good.”

Cunningham brightens up when asked about the bridge, where he plays a tense and foreboding rolling tom beat accentuated by splash and hi-hat accents, closed out by a series of tom flams. “Oh, yeah! The breakdown part is this lumbering floor tom pattern. We never really had a part like that before – the beat drops it down, but we don’t lose any steam. On the vocals, he’s singing, ’What do your insides look like?’ and the splashes I’m playing are a little feel thing to break it up underneath – there’s a splash on every other beat, the 1 and the 3.”

Cunningham sits it out for five seconds or so, between 2:53 and 2:58, as the vocals and a thin guitar line string things sparely along. “It’s a little breather,” he says of the gap. “You’ve got to breathe from time to time, and the song wanted to rest right there. Then it comes back in, and bam! rocks again.”

And how. At 2:58, he plows into a firm, deep rock beat that gives the gift of true release. “We haven’t played it live yet, but I imagine it’ll be a blast,” he says. “This is such a fun song to play – it’s a basher, but it grooves. Our music has always been a bit of a battle between aggression and beauty, and this song – and this part in particular – seems to have a perfect mix of that.”

The third chorus and Cunningham’s hat/ride switcheroo return at 3:07. Then, at 3:37, he plays a crisp, halting break in unison with the guitars and bass that leads into the rolling bridge beat – just the type of move that proves Deftones are getting better as the group (which was founded in 1988) gets on in years. “It’s those little nuances that, as we feel more comfortable in writing songs, there’s a lot more of on this record,” Cunningham points out. “It’s a lot more of paying attention to each other, rather than just bashing by ourselves. We’re listening with increased awareness.”

Subtle tom flams pockmark the rolling bridge part, which builds steam as the song powers to the finale. “I think a flam is just so great – that probably comes from Stewart Copeland and Dave Grohl,” Cunningham says. “They’re so effective, it really gets the point across. And what’s simpler than a flam?”

The tension continues to mount until 4:10, when Deftones terminate “Leathers” all at once – an abruptness heightened by Cunningham’s solitary snare smack. “We couldn’t decide how to stop it, so we just ended on that up beat,” he recalls. “It’s not a conventional way to end, but it stuck. It’s one of those moments when we were all in agreement: It has a pull to it, like, whoa!, And it’s done.” 

Click here to see the video and full drum transcription of “Leathers.”

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