Chi Cheng was a mighty bass player by anyone’s standards. When I interviewed him for BGM back in 2003, I was impressed by his huge performance on the Deftones’ recent, self-titled album for obvious reasons, but I also warmed to his easy, friendly character. Behind Chi’s relaxed personality, though, there was a man who knew what he wanted: when he explained his bass philosophy, it was obvious that he’d fought to get his bass parts accepted within the band. When the news came that he had entered a coma in 2008 after a road traffic accident, it was a sad day for the metal community, and it was even more tragic when on April 14 this year, he died. Here we’ve reproduced part of the interview he gave us a decade ago. RIP.
Your new album has a huge production. How do you keep the bass prominent?
Actually it is hard, because Stephen [Carpenter, Deftones guitarist] is just a wall of sound, so to find a tone that falls between him and the kick-drum is fairly tiring at points. But you know, it works. Actually Terry Date, our producer, has been turning the bass up more and more. You know, I just fuel up on alcohol and stumble around up and downstairs…
How does the songwriting get shared between the five of you?
It’s pretty organic. Everybody has input on anything that they want, but we all do our own thing that we’re best at. For bass-lines, I like to get a CD of the guitar parts, put it in the rental car and go for a long drive. Then I hear them in my head, it’s the only way I can do it. Then I rush back to the studio and get it down real quick. It makes sense. I was talking to Terry Date about it and he said that Rob Zombie does the same thing. He’ll drive around and listen to the CD, and his main focus is driving. Because, you know, you don’t want to get in a wreck or something, your secondary focus is the music. When you’re subconsciously taking it in, and you’re processing it and you start to hear something over it, you’re not forcing it and it’s not contrived. It would be easy just to play along with Stephen, but it’s just not what I hear.
Have you got a preferred bass that you use?
I use 59 Fender Precision reissues. You can’t really go wrong with Fenders. They’ve got double buckers. I’m not really good enough to have active pickups or more than one knob! They’re all from the custom shop. I told them, just give me a volume/tone knob.
No custom modifications on it?
No, I’m a minimalist! They’ve been four-strings up until this last album, but now I’ve got a couple of five-strings. Stephen refused to do anything other than seven-string work – you know, we really fought about it. Even some of the songs he plays a seven-string guitar on, I play a four-string bass on. Like, fuck it, you know? But there were certain parts I had to give in on. With my style of playing it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do on a five-string. The lines that I write aren’t the normal type of lines… they’re slinky, they move around the rhythm. I have my own weird sense of rhythm, it doesn’t really fall in with the normal sense!
Oh man, fuck no. I can barely handle four! I have to fight that fifth string. I’d like to go in the other direction, man, and go to three. Shit! Look at [Soulfly guitarist] Max Cavalera, he’s only got four strings on his guitar. He’s like, I can play this really beautiful rhythm on four, why do I need those other two?
What about amps?
I use Ampeg SVT-2 heads and 8×10 Ampeg cabs. You don’t really need much more than Fenders and Ampeg, that’s a pretty good combo. I use a rackmount for distor- tion, and to put a little bite into the other tones. But I really try to keep everything very minimalistic.
Do you prefer a clean sound or a bit of overdrive?
I like just a touch of overdrive for clarity, otherwise it’s just the distorted lines occasionally. Y’know, I’m not really the type of bass player to involve myself with a humungous rack and tons of effects. I’m like, look, bass is a rhythm instrument, you play with the drums. I’d rather be concerned with trying to write tasteful lines and have a really great live show and have fun than be a total gear-head.
Who are your bass heroes?
The guys that influenced me are the players who pushed the boundaries of metal bass playing – Steve Harris, Geezer, and Cliff Burton of Metallica. Cliff was an unbelievably phenomenal player and he would fall in with the guitars at the appropriate spots if he felt it was best for the totality of the song. But he didn’t mind stray- ing away from the guitars and writing something a little outside of it. Like the beginning of ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ he was tasteful. Steve Harris was the same way, he almost drives the band with his playing.
What music influenced you?
Well, I was into the thrash metal scene in Sacramento, but then I got into punk. I loved punk playing. Operation Ivy was a good Bay Area band, Christ On Parade, MDC – all these bands that I used to see in the 80s. That was an amazing, amazing form of bass playing. The first time I heard Bad Brains, I was like, Jesus! That’s a band that’s tastefully mixing all these styles of music.
Did you ever play slap?
I was never good enough to do it. I think I fiddled around with it and thought, oh I get this, but it didn’t really fit for our band. I get a lot of grief from Stephen anyway – he says, why don’t you just play along with my guitar riff? And I’m like, why don’t you piss off? Ha ha. I remember on our song ‘Change (In The House Of Flies)’, him and Terry said, oh no, you’re not gonna play that goofy dub-reggae bass-line, are you? And I was like, yes, that’s exactly what I’m gonna play! And then it became a really big song for us, so I was like, OK, now let me write the fuckin’ way I write.