Deftones were different. With their second album, 1997’s Around The Fur, the punishingly heavy Sacramento band had established themselves as a unique presence under the nu-metal umbrella, blowing out the skate-park rap-rock of their 1995 debut Adrenaline into dreamy, mascara-smudged grandeur. Scene signifiers like detuned riffs, DJ scratches, and vigorous bass popping still abounded, and Chino Moreno launched into throat-shredding tirades or syncopated scat tantrums at least as often as he whimpered and wailed. But by slathering this barrage with goth brooding, new wave glamour, and shoegaze haze, they’d zeroed in on a more artful breed of sleazy aggression. They were Depeche Mode gone beast mode, Meshuggah run through a Sade filter, Faith No More as directed by David Fincher.
The style they were cultivating didn’t just stand alone within their genre; it marked Deftones as an island unto themselves in the popular music landscape. Rhythmically, melodically, lyrically, they were creating their own language, or at least twisting existing dialects into disorienting new shapes. While their alleged peers were presenting a caricature of adolescent rage, Deftones were telling alluring stories of sex, drugs, and violence, visceral and blurry adult content in an age of arrested development. With White Pony, released 20 years ago this Saturday, they ceased to make sense within the existing containers, even as they caused lightbulbs to go off for legions of listeners who’d stick with them long after the nu-metal hype faded away. It was the sound of a band following their muse away from a disreputable trend and into the great unknown.
As Moreno told The Ringer in a new oral history of the album, breaking away from the nu-metal pack was both natural and intentional. “I wanted our band to stand on our own two feet,” he explained. “Nu-metal was at its peak. It’s in the name — nu-metal — it’s going to be old in time. Eventually, it did die. My whole idea was when that ship does go down, I don’t want to be on that motherfucker. We tried to distance ourselves as much as we could, and the best way to do that was by following the path we were on.”
That path led them to many thrilling destinations. Opening track “Feiticeira” bursts forth with guitar octaves in an urgent panic, intensifying into harsh beauty as Moreno kicks out a hallucinatory kidnapping narrative. Harmonically rich and breathlessly dynamic, it moves with a stilted grace to match his capricious sing-speak outbursts. On “Digital Bath,” he breathes haunted whispers over Abe Cunningham’s loosely swinging backbeat, then explodes upward to infinity when the power chords come charging in. “Tonight, I feel like more!” he shouts, sounding like a beam of light. “Elite” plows ahead angrily like an all-consuming war machine, Moreno shrieking about bleeding out of control in the wake of a filthy Stephen Carpenter guitar vamp. His screed could easily be directed at a self-styled Instagram sad girl of today: “You’re into depression! ‘Cause it matches your eyes!”
And those are just the first three songs. From there White Pony makes its way across staggering territory, redrawing the boundaries of what Deftones can be. A dream-pop knife party that played like a spectral sequel to Around The Fur’s surprise hit “Be Quiet And Drive (Far Away),” a teenage heartache lullaby guided by newly added turnablist Frank Delgado’s cuts and textures, a climactic night drive with Maynard James Keenan riding shotgun: It all hangs together magnificently. Deftones were guiding their fearless ambition with a rare synchronicity — hard-won, judging from the accounts of Moreno and Carpenter butting heads in the studio. They’d arrived in one of those creative sweet spots where every new idea filters back into a unified whole.
This would have been remarkable even if they weren’t partying to the point of blackout every night and burning up studio time playing Tony Hawk every day, much to producer Terry Date’s chagrin. Sausalito houseboats and a Hollywood mansion became ground zero for strippers, cocaine, and at least one accidental stabbing when Cunningham drunkenly rolled over onto a blade. (Remarkably, “Knife Prty” was inspired by an entirely different incident involving Cunningham’s cutlery on a tour bus.) Per Moreno, “white pony” is slang for a range of drugs and can also refer to sexual dreams, all key elements to the album’s indulgent swirl. It’s like marauding through a surreal underworld on the edge of consciousness, populated by street carp and Rx queens.
Moreno’s fantastical lyrics amplified this feeling. In the oral history, he recalled honing his craft by listening along to the Cure’s Pornography without the lyric booklet and writing down whatever he thought he heard. His words throughout reflect that approach — jarringly vivid yet just beyond reach, like stealing glimpses of other people’s half-remembered dreams. Some of those sounds and images emerged spontaneously. Guest singer Rodleen Getsic reportedly cut loose over “Knife Prty” just moments after randomly meeting Moreno in the kitchen of LA’s Larrabee Sound Studios. Moreno recalls writing “Passenger” with Keenan by handing a pad and pen back and forth just before hopping in the vocal booth. (In an online press conference this week, Carpenter also credited Keenan with helping to set the vibe by bringing champagne and Tibetan singing bowls to the studio, an extremely on-brand anecdote for the Tool singer.)
Upon finishing the album, Deftones insisted its lead single be “Change (In The House Of Flies),” a moody slow-burn that builds to an all-consuming blaze. Powered by the late Chi Cheng’s creeping bassline and celestial sighs worthy of the Cocteau Twins, it was like Around The Fur’s “My Own Summer (Shove It)” wrapped in gauze — quite a contrast from “Nookie,” “Freak On A Leash,” and “Last Resort,” but a rock radio hit nonetheless. Despite their artsy pivot, Deftones were still a healthy commercial prospect.
Yet the band was operating somewhere below the TRL-grade celebrity of the era’s biggest rock stars, so just months after supportively releasing White Pony, Maverick Records asked the band for a rap-rock single. Reluctantly and half-heartedly, at the urging of A&R man Guy Oseary, they converted the languorous album-closing dirge “Pink Maggit” into the half-hearted and formulaic “Back To School (Mini Maggit).” Maverick promptly tacked it onto the front of the tracklist of a reissued, repackaged White Pony that October. “We were furious because it opened with ‘Feiticeira’ originally, and it was exactly the way we wanted,” Cunningham told The Ringer. “It was our perfect baby, and they wanted us to add more to it.” Ironically, “Back To School” was a flop, but it remains the first song on all streaming versions of White Pony, a condition Moreno says the band will remedy on an upcoming reissue that will also contain a companion remix album called Black Stallion.
As inferior as “Back To School” may be, it would take a lot more to tarnish White Pony’s legacy. Fans, critics, and Moreno himself still consider it the definitive Deftones album, though many would argue they have other masterpieces to their name. Not only did White Pony set the template for Deftones going forward, it cast its spell on a vast spectrum of followers; this year alone, albums from artists as disparate as rising pop star Rina Sawayama and art-damaged hardcore band Higher Power bear the album’s influence. The Deftones aesthetic is far-reaching, their fan base voracious — so much so that they can headline their own festival every year in San Diego with support ranging from Chvrches to Gojira to JPEGMAFIA, and it all clicks, no matter what the guy from Hatebreed thinks. Two decades after fleeing a movement that never really suited them, Deftones are the center of their own expansive universe. They carved their niche.