Q&A With Chino Moreno of Team Sleep and Deftones

With a Chino Moreno interview, readers get two for the price of one. In the Q&A below, Moreno talks extensively about his side project, Team Sleep (an act profiled in the November 29 Westword), and draws the curtain back on his best known band, the Deftones, who are in the midst of readying an album due next year. Better yet, he goes into the sort of detail that’s rare for any performer, let alone one as prominent as he is.

Moreno begins by discussing the way he hopes to balance the demands on both his groups, including delaying the release of the next Team Sleep studio CD until (believe it or don’t) 2010. From there, he touches upon the changes in the record business from the early years of the century, when Team Sleep’s debut was delayed because of leaked demos, to the present day, when he plans to make several EPs’ worth of Team demos available online for free; the difficulties of making material created in piecemeal fashion on ProTools work in a live setting; his relationship with Team Sleep member Tom Wilkinson, who’s among the most eclectic personalities in current rock; the ways record companies trying to fix something that’s not broken can make difficult situations worse; the manner in which Team Sleep’s first album nearly broke up the Deftones, only to eventually bring the players closer together; a few words about drugs and alcohol; the Deftones’ casual approach to cutting their next CD; and a comparison between performing with Team Sleep and shopping while stoned.

Would you prefer paper or plastic?

Westword (Michael Roberts): How long a gap has it been since the last time Team Sleep played live and the start of your current tour?

Chino Moreno: It’s been a while. I think the last one was ’05. So almost three years – two and a half years since we’ve played. That kind of coincided with the release of the debut record, and I think we did close to six months of touring on it. We did all the States and we went to Europe and Australia and did a couple of other areas of the world. It was a pretty fast thing. That whole thing took place in the midst of writing the last Deftones record. So the whole thing was really squashing it into this short amount of time so I could get back to finishing the Deftones record. That’s why this time we’re doing it a little bit differently. I don’t know if you got the news that we’re not putting out a record until 2010.

WW: That was going to be one of the first things I wanted to ask you about. Very few people are organized enough to plot out their lives three years in advance. But was that the only way to squeeze in another Team Sleep record?

CM: Pretty much. It was so I can be prepared with what I’m doing with my bands. When you put out a record, it’s got to be thought out way ahead of time – from the time you start writing it until the time it’s completed, recorded and mixed, and then a few months for press before it comes out. So I’m usually about a year out when I’m planning stuff anyway. But since I’ve got a Deftones record that’s coming before that, I know that record will be out a year from now, say. So I’m looking at that touring cycle, and from the time I’m done, it’ll probably be another year and a half after that. So to be safe, I’m saying 2010 by the time we put out a Team Sleep record. This was, I feel like the Team Sleep record will get its just due. I feel we’ll be able to actually tour on it and not have to worry about, “I have to get back to Deftones.” We’re planning to take a break from Deftones after the next touring cycle, so I’ll actually have time to do things properly.

WW: I came across an article that was written around the time of that 2005 tour, and you said then that you already had fifteen new Team Sleep songs done. I know you’re planning on putting out some online Team Sleep EPs. Is that how you’ll be using that older material?

CM: Exactly. That stuff from back then up until now, there’s roughly thirty songs. I title them demos because they were all made separately. Everybody sent tracks to each other but did it all virally. So I look at them as demos, but at the same time, that’s how Team Sleep started out – being a project that was put together with different ideas from this team of people, I guess you would say. So the EPs that we’re talking about doing over the next couple of years that will lead us up into the record will be pretty much all the stuff we’ve been doing all the time. They’re not really demos, like I said, but all the stuff we’ve been working on the last couple of years. That stuff will lead us into the record, but with the record, what we’re going to do is make it like how most bands make records. We’re going to sit down and right it all together with each other and record it as one, which is a whole other experiment. Because once you bring live instrumentation into it, the songs are in a whole different league. It’s kind of two different ways of doing things. Like, with the Deftones, we’re not recording anything. Everybody’s just together in the same room, and we’re writing songs until we have them memorized, and once it’s at that level – once we’ve got the songs – we’re probably going to go record those songs around the beginning of the year, but to do it live. The last two or three Deftones records – the last couple, mainly – they’ve been made very sporadically. Everybody was doing their parts at different times, recording on ProTools and putting it together. I think it was cool for us to experiment with that at the time, but we kind of miss how we used to make records – how we started out as a band, per say. It’s just a different way of doing it, and I want to try that with Team Sleep as well.

WW: In terms of the Team Sleep material you have now, do you feel that you don’t want to develop them using that kind of live approach? Do you feel like they are what they are?

CM: I think so. I think a lot of them are what they are. A lot of them are electronics-based and they sound lush, they sound beautiful. For us to take them and try to make them into live songs, they’d be songs that were made one way and played another way. I have the same kind of feeling about some Radiohead music. I love it on record, but when they play it live, sometimes I’m like, “Why?” Do you know what I mean? I’d much rather them push play on ProTools and play the wav file or whatever. That’s how it was meant to sound, how it was made. And that’s the beauty of demos in general. I think that initial feeling of how a song should sound, a lot of artists go back and release their demos after the record’s come out, because that’s kind of the way the songs were meant to be. Now, we are doing some of these songs live. I’m not saying it’s all broken up like that. But with both my bands, I kind of do the same thing. I love electronic music in general. I’ve been listening to it for years, and that’s mostly what I listen to – more than a lot of rock music or whatever. And I like to integrate that into what we do naturally.

WW: I know the first Team Sleep album was delayed because there were online leaks of material that wasn’t complete – and now you’re actually planning to release some demo stuff. Is that any indication of how much the music business has changed in the last four or five years?

CM: Totally. I think so. The main thing is, we want our music to be heard – and dealing with music like this, there’s not really any overhead. It’s not like we need to make a bunch of money we spent back. It’s free. We made it for free, so why not let people hear it for free. Obviously, when we do a record, like the one we’re going to do in 2010, we’ll actually be in a studio, and we’ll have to spend money on studio time and on engineers and all this stuff. Obviously, we’ll need to sell that to make back the money we spent making it. But stuff like this, the EPs, it’s like why not? Why shouldn’t it be free? To get right down to it, people are going to get it for free anyway, and if it comes from us, it’s a lot more personal anyway, and people I think appreciate it more when it comes directly from us. Like, these are the songs we want you to hear. Check it out. Why not?

WW: You mentioned Radiohead. Instead of letting people choose what to pay for your music, like they did, you’re just going to let them have it. Is that the luxury of having the Deftones – a band that can support you doing a free giveaway like this?

CM: Yeah, kind of. Eventually, I think the Deftones would love to do the same thing, love to give our music away. With Deftones as well, we don’t make a lot of money from our record sales, especially over the last few years. We make our living off touring, mostly. But I think with our records, I think we’d love for that to happen. I haven’t heard a lot of the feedback on the counts from the whole Radiohead thing, but I have heard positive comments about how they have made their money back, what they spent making the record. And for us, that’s the most important thing. Because for us, when we make a record sometimes, we get ourselves into a hole. We start borrowing money from the record company for studios, for apartments for us to live while we’re recording this and that. That’s where all the money goes, and we’re trying to sell records so we can pay the record company back. We go through that cycle every time. And this record that we’re making now, we haven’t been spending hardly any money on it. We’ve been using our own studios, our own stuff. It’s silly that we haven’t done this in the past. Producing it ourselves, that’ll be a way we’ll be able to go out and have a successful record cycle, and for us not to start off in the hole. Start out, have fun and enjoy ourselves, where we’re not just trying to get out of the hole. Where we’re just living our lives.

WW: Is it nice with Team Sleep that you don’t have a record company looking over your shoulder telling you what to do creatively?

CM: Definitely. That was one of the things that was holding the album back for so long. Even those demos, the first things that leaked of the Team Sleep stuff. The stuff that leaked was the first initial copy of the record that I gave them, and that was stuff we did in, like, three weeks. That was what the whole project was supposed to be like – some lo-fi stuff where we’d record it and boom, there it is. And the record company was like, “No. We want to put this out. We want to hear singles.” So it kind of postponed the record, and it eventually ended up with the record becoming what it is now. There are some songs on the record that people heard on the demos and stuff. But that’s how record companies make things change. At that point, they were doing it with Deftones, too. They were over my shoulder the whole time, saying, “We want you to work with this person. We want you to work with this songwriter.” And I’d never written a song with anybody else before – not that I’m opposed to it. But they wanted me to go in with songwriters, because in their minds, I guess they thought I didn’t know how to write simple songs that they could play on the radio.

WW: I don’t understand that mentality. You guys became successful by doing what you’ve always done. So why would they want to change it?

CM: I know. When they first signed Deftones, there wasn’t really any music like that being played on the radio – so that was never a factor. Our first two records, Adrenaline and Around the Fur, we did everything on those records on our own and just gave them to the record company. It was that simple. And then when White Pony came along, around 2000, the record company started panicking a lot more about singles and radio and stuff like that. And from that point on, it just got worse and worse up until this record, which we’re making now. Basically, our main A&R guy at the label, he’s not there anymore. We’re part of Warner Bros. now as opposed to Maverick. So we don’t have an A&R person coming in and telling us anything. We’re just going to make a record and give it to them and they’re going to put it out. And this is actually – I think we’re coming close to the end of our deal with them. This will be our sixth full-length record.

WW: I wanted to ask about Tom Wilkinson, who I know used to teach high school. Was he doing that when Team Sleep was active? Or was he already on to other things?

CM: No, he’s been doing that. I’ve been friends with him since probably ninth or tenth grade – early high school years. He’s one of those guys you stay friends with after high school. We shared apartments together, we bought our first four-track recorder together. That’s how Team Sleep pretty much started off. I’d borrow the four track for a week, I’d record some stuff on it, then he’d borrow the four track, and he’d record a couple of tracks over that, and then we’d start making these little demos. But yeah, he just got back from China, actually. He was teaching over there for six months. He’s someone who’s very, very inspired in life and does a lot of stuff, whether it’s cycling or hiking. He’s always out doing stuff, and he’s probably one of the most efficient person in the band. He’s pretty much making the majority of the music. He writes the majority of it, and then I come in and put stuff together. And lyrics and stuff like that. But musically, he’s a wonder.

WW: And talk about the coolest high school teacher ever. Can you imagine telling your class, “Hey, no homework tonight, because I’m going to make music with the guy from the Deftones”?

CM: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s right.

WW: One of the first Team Sleep songs that surfaced was called “Natalie Portman,” which evolved into “Live From the Stage.” Why was it named “Natalie Portman” in the first place?

CM: I don’t know. I think at that time Star Wars was out. I think when the second one of the new ones was coming out and she was kicking ass. So it was one of those things where we needed a name for a song, so we quickly named it. And by the time when I was putting a version of that on the record – I was kind of upset about the version that I put on the record, because I think a lot of the fans would have liked the older demo version. But I didn’t want any kind of legal thing.

WW: That’s what I was going to ask you: Did the record company tell you, “You can’t name that song after Natalie Portman”?

CM: They would have. I don’t even think I turned it in that way. I know they would have.

WW: Looking back on the album, do you feel good about it? Do you feel it was everything it could have been?

CM: No. Everything it could be is how I’m picturing the 2010 record. Because what that record was the demos and everything we had transformed into a live thing. It kind of turned into a live band, and I like the live band versions, but I think it would be great for the live band to write stuff together, instead of trying to play stuff we wrote electronically. I think that’s what Team Sleep can be, and I think that will be awesome. That’s what we’re going to try to do on our next record – and keep the demos separate. The demos will be what they are. And it’s still the same people writing. It’s just a different way of doing it. It’s just two different sides of the brain, I guess.

WW: You mentioned that the Team Sleep album release and tour came in the middle of you making the Deftones disc Saturday Night Wrist. And I understand there was some tension with other members of the Deftones over that.

CM: Definitely. Well, it wasn’t so much tension. It was more like, obviously they were unhappy that I left in the middle of making a record. I was working on my vocals at the time, when I left, and everybody else’s parts were already recorded. I was just recording my vocals, and I seriously wasn’t having a good time about doing it at all. I should have been done by then. It was a hard time because, like I said, the label was involved, and they were trying to get me to write with different writers and they were sending me here and there. And I was like, man, let me get in with a great engineer and I’ll finish this record.

WW: Were you losing the joy of making the music?

CM: Oh man, it was so not fun. I felt so bad. I hated it. It was probably one of the most depressing parts of my life, and it should have been fun making a record. And it was a good record. But it was just madness trying to make it with everyone’s opinions. It wasn’t a good working environment. I was going through a divorce at the same time, and I was in Sacramento doing all this. So I kind of needed to get out, so it was a good opportunity to be able to get away from the record, step away from it and go do some other project that had nothing to do with it. Something completely new and fresh and fun, with other people. And honestly, I think it made the band upset. But it’s not that we ever argued about it. It’s just that we were gone, and during the six months I spent touring that record, I didn’t talk to anybody else. I was out of the country for a lot of the time, and I really didn’t talk to anybody. Neither of us called each other. It was like, “He’s there and we’re here.” And they were sitting at home waiting for what was going to go on and I was out doing something else, and they probably thought I was the hugest dick in the world, which I kind of was in a way. I guess it was pretty selfish just to vamp out like that. But the way I was looking at it then, I think it was a way bigger picture. Being in a band for ten years with the same people and constantly going from being on tour to being in the studio, being on tour, being in the studio, being on tour, being in the studio, and being around the same people all the time – at that point, I was like, man, I don’t even feel like working on this record. I want to do something else, I want to get out. And I did.

WW: When you came back, what was that first conversation like?

CM: It was pretty brutal. No one was sure if we were going to continue going on with the band, even. It was that conversation. At that point, it was pretty much like ten years since the Adrenaline record came out – it was right around that same time. So it was kind of an anniversary, and it was a good way to reflect back on those ten years – thinking, I had a lot of fun making music with each and every one of you guys. I want to keep doing this. Do you? And they were like, “Of course we want to keep doing this.” And after all that not talking, that was the one thing we needed to say: “Do you guys still want to do this? Are you still having fun doing this?” And everyone was like, “Hell, yeah.” From that point on, it was like the tension was gone. Even since then, and that was a couple of years ago, it’s so much better every day. Right now we’re in rehearsals. We’re writing right now, and I’m at home, in Burbank, and the guys are staying at these apartments four or five blocks away from here. Every day we ride our bikes to the studio, and everybody’s super-close, and it’s good, even with this Team Sleep stuff right now. We’re in the middle of writing a record and I’m going off to do this tour, but now that everything’s in the open and I’ve got everything planned so far out in ahead of time, and everybody knows what’s going on, and there are no surprises, I think everybody’s a lot more accepting of it, you know?

WW: It sounds like if you hadn’t taken the time away, the band might have cracked under the pressure – but by going out with Team Sleep, it brought the Deftones back together in a strange way.

CM: Definitely. Something would have happened – something bad. I was out of my mind personally. It was just a bad time.

WW: You’ve talked in past interviews about drinking and things like that. Have you stopped entirely?

CM: No, I never really had a problem with drinking too much. Drugs were probably worse than that. That was just the downfall of everything. And that probably started around the White Pony record. It was just one of those times. It just got bad, it just wasn’t fun anymore. When you’re doing shit like that and you’re not even doing it for fun – when you’re doing it because you’re in a hole, it’s bad. So I completely had to quit all that shit out. I smoke a little pot and drink still, and I’m very, very mellow and happy with that.

WW: You talked about the material you’re working on for the Deftones. How do the Team Sleep material and the Deftones material interact with each other? Do you try to keep them separate in your mind? Or do you feel one influencing the other?

CM: No, I don’t try to keep them separate in my mind, and I don’t think it really happens that way anyhow. I think whatever my idea’s going to be at that time of day, it’ll be the same idea whether it’s a Deftones song or a Team Sleep song. I don’t think one way about one project and another way about the other project. I’m just me, and what I do is what I do whether it’s for Team Sleep or Deftones. It’s just what comes into my brain. All the guys in Team Sleep are good friends with the guys in Deftones as well. We all grew up together. It’s not like it’s a whole different set of friends none of those guys knew. We all knew each other and everyone gets along really well. It’s not anything that I have to completely keep secret. The only thing I do have to do is scheduling-wise. I have to be very efficient and up-front, and think a lot ahead of times so I can let everyone know what’s going on so scheduling conflicts won’t get in the way. That’s the only thing that would make it not a happy situation.

WW: I read you’re not going to play guitar on the next Deftones record and concentrate on singing, which some people might interpret as you being less creatively involved than you have been. Is that how it should be interpreted?

CM: I can see how people would interpret it that way. It does have me less involved in the actual songwriting as far as these aren’t my ideas as far as where the music’s coming from. But where it’s going, I’m definitely still a big part of that work. I write all my lyrics and all my melodies, which I’ve always done. And I still format the music. I’ve always been the member of the band who put the songs together. The rest of the people write parts and I’ll put them together into a song. They’re still my structures and still my lyrics and ideas. But I’m not picking up a guitar and playing a riff and then saying, “Play along with this.” It’s not like that, and it’s kind of helped speed things up, because there’s not another person in there throwing stuff in there. Not too many cooks. And it’s been good, because it’s inspired [Deftones guitarist] Stephen [Carpenter] to step up and come with different ideas. So far, literally, we have eight songs that are finished. We don’t have them recorded onto any tape whatsoever, but we play this set of eight songs at the beginning of every rehearsal we do. We go through those, and this week, each one of us will be coming in with a new idea this week, because Stephen has a goal of how many songs he wants to work on. Which is great. He’s been the most productive he’s been in years. I don’t know if it has anything directly with me stepping back on guitar and on songwriting, but it’s definitely worked for the better as far as his songwriting is concerned. And in the end, we can have so many songs, and if I want to write some more music or have some song ideas, I can come in and say, “Here,” because everybody’s willing to hear them. So I think it’s been a positive step with me stepping back.

WW: Do you feel it’s strengthened the rest of the band? Do they feel like their roles are stronger as a result?

CM: I think so. It seems that way.

WW: With the Deftones, you often play huge venues, festival shows. But with Team Sleep, you’ll be playing much smaller places. Does that take some adjustment? Or does it remind you of the early days of venues you played during the early days of Deftones?

CM: No, it’s pretty normal. I’m pretty used to playing all different types of situations. Some places, the Deftones will play smaller places. The main thing I’m not as comfortable with is, I feel like I’m the central link of Team Sleep. I kind of have to hold everything together musically, where with Deftones, everyone’s very efficient on their own. Live, everyone’s in their pocket, in their place, and knows their shit. I feel like I’m more of a conductor in Team Sleep. I feel like I’m relied on a little bit more in Team Sleep. Which is kind of fun. It’s like getting high and going to the grocery store. It can be overwhelming to you, but at the same time, it’s kind of fun.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts