Remembering Chi Cheng

We look back at the inimitable and infectious character of the Deftones' bassist, before the car crash that claimed his life over five years.

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Apr 16 2013, 7:00am

Deftones bassist Chi Cheng died this weekend at the age of 42. But no one will remember him as a NorCal dude in his 40s; the car accident that left him in a coma in late 2008 didn't simply deprive his band of a brother, it left the world of heavy music slightly less bouncy. Until the crash he was by all accounts loping, friendly joker who always had time for everyone – that his energy was rendered static because he didn't put his seatbelt on is a tragedy of the highest order.

As part of arguably the most in-the-pocket rhythm section in metal, Cheng's instinctive ability to know when to punch and when to swing gave Deftones' biggest and best-loved songs their character. Whether it's the “The shade is a tool...” bit in "My Own Summer (Shove It)", the head-nod smoothness of "Dai The Flu" or the pulsing terror of "Change (In The House Of Flies)", Cheng's playing is as expressive and powerful as frontman Chino Moreno's vocals, but hidden neatly away in the deep gut of the music, because that's where bass should be.

Cheng was born in Davis, California on August 15, 1970, just over 10 miles away from Sacramento, where Deftones formed in 1988. Their debut album Adrenaline was released in 1995 and immediately asserted them as a weird new force in rock, as the likes of "Bored" and "7 Words" sounded nothing like the now-neutered post-grunge mewling that would later turn into nu metal. And when the band released Around The Fur in 1997 they created something that felt genuinely dangerous – here was a band unafraid to aim at both the head and the groin who were clearly skilled at catering for both. The critical acclaim they won with ...Fur was matched by popular success, as the band became fixtures on MTV when that was a thing that mattered and saw an appropriate explosion in album sales; when White Pony surfaced in 2000 it didn't so much capitalise as turn them into the biggest credible rock band in the world for a very brief second. Their two following albums, Deftones and Saturday Night Wrist, didn't come close to the quality of what had come before, save a couple of notable songs on each.

What's key about Deftones' ascent is that even though they were lumped in with nu metal – love it or hate it, it defined a time and place as much as grunge did, except with far more commercial success and visibility – they publicly disavowed it, despite being as obvious an influence on as many bands as, say, Linkin Park or Korn. And if nu metal is defined by its low-end strut, then Cheng's command of when to attack and when to sit back should be considered crucial in its flourishing, regardless of whether he and the band meant to create such a monster.

The crash that claimed Cheng over the course of five slow, agonising years saw the band, against all odds, creatively reinvigorated. Before they released Diamond Eyes and Koi No Yokan (both liberally peppered with references to Cheng's plight), however, the original quintet wrote and recorded an album called Eros that remains locked away on a hard drive in Sacramento. It's unclear what will happen to it now, but considering the constant outpouring of support for the OneLoveForChi charity, it would be a fine tribute to an artist who wore his importance as lightly as could be imagined.