The first show I ever went to on my own was at a musty, 200-person-capacity sweatbox in east Sacramento called the Cattle Club. With a freshly minted driver's license burning a hole in my wallet, I borrowed the parental vehicle on a Friday night in '91 and headed straight for this oasis. Shimmering with as much authenticity as was imaginable for an all-ages venue, the Cattle Club was literally the only thing happening for an underage kid looking to break out of the weekly drink-beer-and-get-chased-out-of-the-park-by-cops routine.
On the bill that night were two local favorites, Phallucy and Far, with some unknown band from LA opening. Having heard ambitious, vibrant demo tapes from the first two, I was confident of soaking in some "hella legit" rock, as was said in the local parlance of the time. (Looking back on it, "alternative" would probably be the proper word to describe the scene at the Cattle Club, but all we cared about was the music was loud as hell and didn't sound like Tesla -- still Sacto's best-selling export.)
Phallucy, whose drummer was current Deftone Abe Cunningham, played a metal-rap hybrid song that night, at least a year before Rage Against the Machine released its genre-defining debut. The now-defunct Far submitted a performance in which the singer convincingly counterbalanced his breathy, downright feminine vocals with Bad Brains guitar crunch, a stylistic flair still shared by their good friends the Deftones. The opening act, however, was a snarly foursome of rather strung-out-looking heschers who deflowered my sixteen-year-old ears to arena-level volumes and left me shell-shocked and vaguely frightened. There was something jaded about them, in a distinctly Southern California sort of way. I found the two hometown groups much more accessible. But at the end of the evening, I couldn't help stumbling past the doorman and asking him who in God's name the first band was.
"Some freaks calling themselves Tool, I guess."
Five-dollar shows like this, eclectic in a thoroughly unpretentious sort of way, were standard operating procedure for club owner Jerry Perry. His early '90s bookings are the stuff of local legend. You could expect horror-core gangsta rapper Brotha Lynch Hung opening for the Deftones one night, a ska band splitting the bill with Cake the next. As Phallucy guitarist Sonny Mayugba puts it, "Jerry was doing Lollapalooza before there was Lollapalooza. He brought in Nirvana [before Nevermind], and eighty people saw it. Shit, we played with the Pumpkins there."
The Deftones are absolutely a product of those halcyon days of unlikely pairings of hip-hop and thrash, hard and soft. But before emerging into mainstream success, the 'Tones were the metalhead skater kids from the 'hood who turned up at every Cattle Club show and house party with a tapped keg. It was a nomadic lifestyle, best summed up by Moreno in the lyrics "grab my blue backpack, my walkman, and my bicycle/ because I know my friends are waiting by the door." If they didn't have friends in the band, they were invariably holding court in the back of the club, passing a smuggled bottle and dissing each other thoroughly.
After a platinum album (2000's White Pony), a Grammy (Best Metal Performance for "Elite"), and the keys to Sacramento, Cheng still gets a little choked up when reminiscing about those formative years. "I'd say we're struggling more now," he says over the phone from Lyon, France. "Back then was way doper -- it was just about trying to score gigs with [Bay Area funk metal groups] Fungo Mungo, Psychefunkapus, and Mordred, having a good time, being young kids, and hoping to get free beer. There was no real business involved in it at that point."
Business eventually caught up with them though, and while Cheng relishes the small-label feel of Madonna's Maverick imprint (which released all three Deftones albums), its connections to the Warner parent company have certainly enabled the band to extend its reach beyond that of the typical "nü metal" group. Starting with the 1995 Adrenaline debut, Maverick has aggressively pushed the band's presence through deftones.com, and later, deftonesworldwide.com, as well as taking a supportive role with a few of the group's numerous "unofficial" fan sites.
Unfortunately, aside from the Deftones and Cake, most of the innovative Sactown bands that came out of that period are now either gone or still struggling in obscurity. But since being signed in 1994, the Deftones have gone to great lengths to bring their cohorts up with them, taking other groups on tours and plugging their albums to the massive and highly Web-savvy fan base. Now with the end of their touring schedule in sight (the US tour with Godsmack winds up September 8), the bandmembers are taking this dedication to the next level by forming a number of side projects with old friends from the Cattle Club days.
Cunningham will be drumming again with the recently reunited Phallucy, a band that once seemed as likely as the Deftones to break the confines of its provincial hometown scene. The group lasted for only two years in its original incarnation, but managed to record a somewhat mythic 74-minute album in 1993 that is still floating around on tenth-generation cassette tapes. Its psychedelic-yet-punk sound and grandiose song structures make it something of an anomaly even today, prompting a few labels to talk about putting out a proper CD version.
"It didn't feel right for anyone else to [put it out]," guitarist Mayugba says. "My first reaction was that we shouldn't do anything with it. But then I listened to it again -- which I hadn't done for days because you just move on in life -- and it sounded really good. Then Abe told me the Deftones still listen to that on tour all the time, and I really started to consider it."
The decision solidified when the Deftones played a secret show in the River City in a cramped, Cattle Club-like venue and invited Phallucy to kick things off. It just felt right, as musicians are wont to say, so the band went about remixing the original reels and practicing together, with Moreno playing second guitar. Most likely, the album will be released on the band's Tone Def label, a subsidiary of Maverick/Warner, and Moreno is reportedly looking into getting Phallucy on a tour with Tool, some ten years after the two shared a stage in Sacramento together.
Moreno, who says he gets bored without creative endeavors to keep him distracted, will round out another offshoot, an experimental outfit called Team Sleep. They added two other members: childhood friend Todd Wilkenson, a Cattle Club regular who's played guitar for as long as the Deftones have been together, but never as part of a band ("being in a band always seemed like 4H club or something -- kinda corny and shit," he says); and DJ Crook, a comrade of Deftones DJ Frank Delgado. The three collaborate through the mail, with Wilkenson layering numerous guitar melodies with a four-track recorder and then sending them to Crook, who adds drum machines and textured soundscape snippets with his phonograph. Ideally, the tape then goes to Moreno and he lays down vocals while on tour. But his occasional rock star antics (he taunted and exposed himself to the crowd at Holland's Waldrock festival on July 2) and drink of choice (Gatorade and vodka) have kept his input to a minimum thus far.
Crook and Delgado also make up the Co-Defendants, a breakbeat mash-up production crew that should be worthy of note, given each DJ's extremely subtle approach to the turntable (Delgado's contribution to Deftones songs is so understated that it's often difficult to detect).
Guitarist Stephan Carpenter, the only Deftone living outside of Sacramento, is exorcising his metal riffing demons with Dr. Kush, a "supergroup" consisting of fellow Angelinos B-Real of Cypress Hill, and Christian Olde Wolbers and Raymond Herrera of Fear Factory.
Everyone, in fact, is moonlighting in one group or another, except for bassist Cheng, but he keeps himself occupied through his disturbed and disturbing spoken word project ("Chino calls it pervert poetry," he chuckles). His self-released CD Bamboo Parachute is riddled with opaque images of borrowed body parts and ruminations on loneliness and distance. During the current tour, he'll be giving readings on nights when they aren't performing gigs.
With all this activity, it looks as if the extended Deftones family might finally get its due; perhaps these once-down-and-out cowtowners were dialed into something special from the beginning. Wilkenson, who is both confident about and intimidated by the chance to release his debut on a Warner Bros. label, puts his friends' success into context: "When we were in high school, there were always these rich kids, and compared to them, we didn't have any money. So we had kinda messed-up clothes, but in a way, we were like, 'Fuck that, I'm better than everybody. I can do whatever I want, even without money.' It was kind of a conceited attitude, too, but we always felt like we were as good as anybody. So to see [the Deftones] blow up, it wasn't like they got bigger, it was like everything else got smaller... I mean, I haven't even played a live show in my life. All I've done is make melodies on a four-track, and the next thing I know I'm in a studio with [Deftones, Pantera, and White Zombie producer] Terry Date making a record."
So maybe there is a future in hanging out at a rinky-dink club in a third-tier city.
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