Laura Jane Grace Listens to Deftones: “Are These Guys Actually Nu Metal?”
On the release of her adventurous new album, 'Bought To Rot,' we had the frontwoman listen to Deftones' bold third album, 'White Pony,' for the first time.
Photos by Brittany Sowacke
Welcome to Blind Spots, in which we force some of our favorite artists to finally check out the most famous albums they've never heard.
On paper, Deftones and Against Me! have very little in common. The two bands formed at opposite ends of the country, with Deftones getting their start in Sacramento's alternative metal scene and Against Me! coming out of Gainesville's punk community—two scenes that had almost no overlap. Plus, Deftones supposedly refused to release anything until they signed to a major label, whereas Against Me! hacked it for years out on a handful of small punk labels before making the jump to Sire Records for 2007's New Wave.
Though their differences are stark, the two acts do have some common ground. They’ve both staked out lengthy careers full of artistic risks and sonic reinvention. For Deftones' third album, 2000's White Pony, they looked to break free from the rap-rock palate they developed on their early efforts, 1995’s Adrenaline and the more experimental Around the Fur in 1997. Hailed as the band's masterpiece, White Pony showcased their diverse tastes, adding the Smiths, trip-hop, and Sade as their influences, and broke free from nu metal comparisons. Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace can respect that. Her band has subverted expectations at several turns, even at the risk of pissing off her most hardcore supporters. Her new album, Bought To Rot, is another new adventure in her catalog. Her first record as Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, the eclectic and excellent LP takes more cues from Gainesville legend Tom Petty than any punk act she grew up with.
This is why, when Grace tells Noisey she's never listened to Deftones, specifically their best reviewed and best selling LP White Pony, it's actually kind of surprising. She explains, “I probably unfairly uncategorized them with other bands from that time who were at their commercial peak. I’m worried I was wrong and Deftones don’t actually sound like those bands.” Adding, “Since then, I have mutual friends with some of them and I know that they are great people. I’m actually excited to listen to this album.”
Noisey met up with Grace at her Chicago practice space to make her listen to White Pony all the way through for the first time (with "Back To School - Maggit" last, the way the album was intended). Read on for her track-by-track reaction.
Laura Jane Grace: Quick question. Are these guys actually nu metal?
Noisey: I’m not a Deftones fan to begin with but my gut reaction before listening to this LP was yes. However, every Deftones fan I know would kill me for thinking that, and this album is a bit different.
That’s the impression I’ve gotten too.
What strikes you so far?
I don’t know what strikes me right away. It kind of reminds me of that band Middle Class Rut. Are you familiar with them?
The vocals here especially remind me of that band. Musically, too, but Middle Class Rut are a two-piece. Although, to their credit, they have this full of a sound.
Interesting. Looking them up I see that Middle Class Rut are a Sacramento band which is where Deftones are from too.
There you go! When did this album come out?
This came out in 2000? Wow. I think Middle Class Rut came well after this. They were maybe inspired by Deftones then. That scream I just heard is very nu metal to me.
This album is Deftones’ third. Compared to their first two, their lead singer here attempted to break from the scream-first conventions of nu metal and make more melodic songs.
Do you know who recorded this record? And who put it out?
His name is Terry Date. He produced their previous two. Deftones were on Maverick.
Madonna’s label? That’s cool.
2. “Digital Bath”
When this was released, it debuted at #3 on the Billboard charts, selling 178,000 copies in its first week. Even though this was less than 20 years ago, it’s wild to me to think of that many people buying a $17 CD of this.
I guess I don’t have a context for it. Would this have been more of a radio success or an MTV success? I had definitely stopped watching MTV by 2000.
I know a few of these singles did well on alternative rock radio. It was a mixture of both.
I’ve heard this song on the radio before, I think.
It won the 2001 Grammy for Best Metal Performance. [ed note: The Grammy win was for "Elite"]
I like his voice a lot. Are there lyrics in this CD booklet?
There are! So, reading interviews with the band it’s clear that the title White Pony is pretty blatantly a drug reference.
I’ve never heard white pony as a reference to cocaine. I’ve heard shit like “butter.”
The lyrics often deal with partying and the hangups that come with that.
I don’t know what it speaks to, but this sounds like it could’ve been released today. I do dig the recording quality a lot. It sounds like a band in a room as opposed to sounding like a Pro-Tools monster. I could see how this would translate really well to large venues too.
I have a lot of friends who just love Deftones. You don’t run into as many people with tastes you respect raving about Papa Roach or Limp Bizkit or any of the bands from that era.
I can clearly see why that is, though. I didn’t take a chance to listen to them because I assumed they sounded like Korn or Limp Bizkit.
What were some your first memories of nu metal?
Well, Limp Bizkit are from Jacksonville, Florida, so they were really close to Gainesville, where I lived at the time. Fred Durst gave my first wife a tattoo of a star on the bottom of her foot when she was 14 years old in his trailer home. So that was my first introduction to Limp Bizkit.
And then with Korn, we played one time at a festival in Europe with Jonathan Davis playing solo. He sat for his entire set, sitting in the middle of the stage on a fucking throne. It was such bullshit. I think the throne even had its own road case. They were in Europe so they had shipped the throne over. I was just astounded by the idea that people would be excited to see this dude sit on a throne for an entire show.
By the way, I really like Moreno’s screams on this song. Sometimes certain screams remind me of certain aspects of punk. This sounds like some emo-core bands that were emo-punk bands, but not in the way that people were thinking of emo bands like Fall Out Boy. I’m thinking this reminds me more of bands like Premonition. His voice really sounds like Premonition here. It also reminds me of a lot of the bands in the Gainesville hardcore scene towards the end of the 90s. Before The Fest in Gainesville, there was Gainesville Fest which was just strictly a hardcore fest and I could hear a riff like that going to Gainesville Fest.
4. “Rx Queen”
Have you ever listened to Hum?
No, I’ve never.
That’s actually more shocking to me than you not hearing this album. Hum are a major influence on Deftones, and the album cover of their 1995 LP You’d Prefer An Astronaut is a direct inspiration for the White Pony art.
Oh, wow. We got a zebra there and a white pony on here. Yeah, I also like that they were like, “Fuck you. We’re not putting our band name on the cover.” I mean, it’s on the side there and maybe it was a point of compromise with the label. It’s definitely just a white pony.
“Back to School - Mini Maggit” excluded, it seems like they were pretty uncompromising with their vision the whole way through.
This would also be a terrible album cover to do cocaine on.
I mean, they called this LP a “cocaine concept album.” They even recorded it at Sausalito’s The Plant where Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours. Can’t get any more on-the-nose than that.
I can’t believe you said “on the nose” there.
I swear that was unintentional.
On a different note, Scott Weiland is a guest vocalist on this track.
It’s funny you mentioned that because I just noticed Scott Weiland is mentioned in the thank-you notes in the CD booklet.
Another marquee guest vocalist later on in the record is MJK.
Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of Tool.
Oh! Why didn’t you just say that? What did you call him again?
Fans of Tool and A Perfect Circle often refer to Keenan as MJK. I’m already extremely self-conscious about going through a major Tool phase and realizing now I reflexively just call him MJK is making it worse.
It’s cool. I like Tool too. You have a relationship.
5. “Street Carp.”
You mentioned before we started that you had a really hard time landing on an album to choose. Why was that?
Let’s talk about that. I saw the Leonard Cohen interview and I really enjoyed reading it. But I was kind of blown away that for this interview, it’s on me to choose the record. How the fuck am I supposed to know what I haven’t heard? I’m a musician and I listen to music all the time. If there’s something out there where someone would tell me that I should listen to, I would listen to it. The idea of Ryley Walker not ever listening to Leonard Cohen is like me going out to dinner and them telling me that they’ve never had spaghetti or whatever. Like, “What? You’ve never had fucking spaghetti before?” And then for him to say that Leonard Cohen is “trying too hard” is like saying spaghetti is trying too hard.
I mean, it’s just a matter of taste. Your spaghetti reference reminded me of that Kylie Jenner tweet where she recently said, “Last night I had cereal with milk for the first time. Life changing.” It read as if she was letting her fans in on a secret like, “Oh my God you have to try this!”
Like, what the fuck are you talking about, you’ve never had cereal with milk?
Even though I run this interview series, there’s so much I still haven’t heard. There are a few records on the Rolling Stone 500 I don’t know. I could come up with several LPs.
See, I went through the Rolling Stone list and I’ve listened to pretty much everything on there. For the ones I didn’t, I didn’t think it’d be interesting for me to talk about how I’d never heard Boz Scaggs or shit like that. I don’t know. I just think that if you’re a musician of if you’re a music journalist, you have better listened to the 500 greatest albums of all time or at least know of them in some way.
You’re probably onto something but there have been several artists where their Blind Spot pick is a fairly ubiquitous LP.
Context is important too sometimes. Where I could see how listening to Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell for the first time could be more like a personal experience where you’re at home with your headphones on and listening by yourself, as opposed to sitting with somebody at a bar.
This isn’t a headphones record in the same way Joni Mitchell’s Blue might be.
No, you can definitely get what it’s about by just listening to it.
One of the funnier anecdotes I’ve read about the making of this album is that Chino Moreno mentioned how the band got delayed in getting work done because they were playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater so much.
I always think about that when it comes to my band recording. I remember some times where we’d be in the studio and the television would be on with the rest of my band watching football. I fucking hate sports. There have been so many times where I’d just yell, “Turn that shit off.”
Since I work from home, I feel that.
If this were an LP, this definitely would’ve been the start to Side B. I love that.
That makes sense listening to it but I’ve actually only seen this one as a double LP vinyl. This would close out the Side B, where the next song “Knife Prty” kicks off Side C, the second half of the album.
Now that you mention it I do see how they could’ve had a Radiohead influence with a song like this
This was actually a song that Moreno wrote when he was 15.
7. “Knife Prty”
[Author’s note: My recorder accidentally turned off during these two songs. I noticed it was off when we were halfway through “Passenger.” At risk of awkwardly recreating our conversation where Laura says how much she digs “Knife Prty,” especially its chorus and the Rodleen Gestic- sung mid-section, or her noticing that Moreno says “pony” in the song “Korea,” we’re going to skip these. My bad.]
That’s Maynard in there, right?
Yeah, he has a very distinct and easily recognizable voice. I’m sure you would’ve noticed it was him had I not mentioned anything earlier.
Maybe. OK. I want to do a quick test. Let’s play this. You can hear the snare drum here at the 1:59 mark in “Passenger.” Now let me play Korn’s “Freak On A Leash” so we can hear the difference in the tonality on the drums. [Grace pauses the song and plays the intro to “Freak On A Leash”] Alright, now back to Deftones. [“Passenger” resumes]
It’s pretty similar.
Sonically, the way the guitar, the bass, and the drums sound, I dig it.
This is a cool part.
That’s because it sounds like Tool right here. Were they friends?
Yeah, they definitely were. I read that they weren’t intending on MJK being on the record but having him involved was “a magical thing” for them.
I love that you keep calling him MJK. It’s cool. I’m curious to see the most recent Deftones setlist to know what are mainstays of the set and which songs from this LP they never play anymore.
Let me check Setlist.fm.
Thank God for the internet.
I’ve actually seen artists refer to Setlist.fm to remember what they played the night before.
Wow. I’ve never done that.
“Knife Prty” is definitely a staple.
Where is it usually?
On this most recent tour it’s middle of the set.
OK. What else?
“Change (In The House of Flies),” which is up next, is also a staple. It’s their most played song on this record.
I just love that their biggest song is second to last on the album. I also like that they use parentheses in their song titles.
10. “Change (In The House of Flies)”
Oh yeah, I’ve heard this one. I dig all the textural stuff going on in the background.
I remember hearing this and Linkin Park on the radio all the time.
Did they do a supergroup band at any point?
I never checked them out but I remember reading about Moreno forming a project called Saudade with members of Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, and a couple others. Deftones’ earlier band was an alternative metal band called Phallucy.
Who was the band that sang that song, “For the very first time,or the very first time, and I think I can fly”?
Oh wow. That’s P.O.D. I haven’t thought about them in forever.
Yeah, that one. I thought P.O.D. were a supergroup. Also, alternative metal is a new phrase that’s been brought up in this conversation. What’s the difference between that and nu metal?
As far as I’m aware, nu metal is generally considered a subset of alternative metal.
I like alternative metal way more as a phrase than nu metal. I don’t like the nu. It’s just a no go. Alternative metal I feel like is a more apt-description. To me, though, this feels like more alternative hardcore. There aren’t like ripping solos or thrash elements.
I can sort of hear it with the drop-tuned power chords.
But is drop-tuning a metal thing? I can also imagine how liberating it would be to be a singer who’s only been known for screaming to be able to sing a few songs on the new record. It had to have added a lot to his ability to perform.
11. “Pink Maggit”
Last song on the record. The title is a Kool Keith lyric where he’s dissing Nas.
I didn’t know that. I love how none of the lyrics in this album rhyme. You can comfortably read these lyrics aloud and not feel like an asshole. Like, “I watched you change / Into a fly / I looked away / You're on fire / I watched a change in you / It's like you never had wings.” That reads well.
How lucky is it that for a guy who was more of a screaming frontman to have such a pretty voice? I can just imagine some of his bandmates being like, “Wow, man. You should do more of that.”
I’m sure that happened.
I don’t know how I feel about the lyrics to this song.
Let me read it. “I'll stick you a little / Enough to take your oxygen away / Then I'll set you on fire / 'Cause I'm on fire / And I'm with you alone / I'm so into this whore / Afraid, I might lose her.”
Yikes. That’s no good. It unfortunately feels not too far off from a lot of early 2000s nu metal tropes. And they were considered much more thoughtful than other bands of that era. Reading interviews with them from when this came out, I can’t imagine reading their answers in 2018 on Noisey without like serious pushback.
I remember a Washington Post profile where they were talking about all the strippers and drugs they were experiencing and you don’t see anyone really having such unchallenged bravado in a press interview.
Unironically? Wow. It’s just a few steps away from some Steel Panther shit.
One of the band’s singles on this LP, “Digital Bath,” is supposedly about a girl being electrocuted in the bathtub. He said in that profile, "It was probably five in the morning—we were still up partying—and I just pictured this whole scenario of having this girl, bringing her downstairs and taking a bath and like, out of nowhere, just reaching back and... electrocuting—basically throwing some kind of electrical device in the bathtub and then taking her out of the bath and drying her off and putting her clothes back on.”
It’s crazy. The interviewer literally asks, “Might that song be considered misogynous?” and Moreno replies, "I don't know what that means.”
Wow. That’s what a “Digital Bath” is, I guess. Reading those lyrics it’s, “You make the water warm / You taste foreign / And I know you can see / The cord break away / 'Cause tonight / I feel like more.”
It’s really jarring to read lyrics like that.
Yeah, at the same time there’s no way I would’ve read the lyrics like that and thought this is about electrocuting someone in the bathtub.
But yeah, this is how the record ends.
Whoa, is that their actual heartbeat? It does not sound like a heartbeat on cocaine.
Bonus: “Back To School - Mini Maggit”
Even though this is a version of the last song, it sounds nothing like it.
This is the only song on the album that sounds like rap-rock and I can see why they wanted to leave it off the album.
Yeah, it wasn’t what they turned in to the label. It was a single push from the label.
At the same time, having a song from the beginning and the end suggests some kind of story arc which is cool. But yeah, this is straight rap-rock. It seems like such an exercise in stupidity for a record label to be like, “Yeah, you have to put a new song on this.”
I think there was some competition to match bands like Papa Roach and later Linkin Park in sales.
This is a real California sound then. And maybe if you lived in California at the end of the 90s and had more of a relationship to this and whatever scene it came out of.
Other than “Back To School - Mini Maggit,” I was struck by how much the whole thing didn’t sound like rap-rock. The vocals deliveries surprised me—they were much more melodic than I thought and the textures in the recording really stuck with me too. But it’s not for me. It’s not my favorite thing in the world. I dig it. It’s fine. I’m not going to save it on Spotify or return to the record at all. Like, if you were to say, “This band’s like Pearl Jam or this band’s like Nirvana or this band’s like Stone Temple Pilots,” they would be the Pearl Jam of that era or that scene of bands. I can see why they’ve had that longevity in their career. I will say that.
Josh Terry is a writer based in Chicago. He's on Twitter.
Brittany Sowacke is a photographer who's also in Chicago. More of her work is on Instagram.