In fall 1996, for the first time in more than 16 years, Kiss played Rupp Arena with its original lineup, full makeup and theatrical gear. Fans were rabid with anticipation. Woe be to any band that stood between them and their grease- painted heroes.
Enter the Deftones. At the time, the West Coast troupe's mix of metal-singed guitar rock and pure, unadorned angst was largely unknown outside California. It certainly was something an arena full of Kentucky Kiss fans knew little of. Perhaps not surprisingly, the audience jeered the Deftones without mercy.
To its credit, the band held its ground. It incited no further ire from the crowd, although singer Chino Moreno was bent on trying to win over the unforgiving audience. But there was no sale. By the end of the set, boos hurled at the Deftones were unrepentant. It became one of the most savage treatments of an opening act in Rupp history.
"I've got to tell you," said Deftones drummer Abe Cunningham, "it was brutal. I even have a (sound) board tape that we recently dug up from that Lexington show. It's the funniest thing. I listen to it now and can go right back there. Man, was that brutal."
To say the last laugh is on the Deftones oversimplifies the scenario. In the 14 years since that performance, the band has made four gold- or platinum-selling albums, helped define and legitimize a vaguely drawn alternative metal music genre and overcome the unforeseen loss of a co-founder.
Formed in California's Sacramento area in the late '80s, the Deftones came to represent a smart but uncompromising guitar-rock sound that fell somewhere between Anthrax and early Tool, even though the songs on albums like Adrenaline (1995) and White Pony (2000) also had a sense of pop wonder that formed a wild contrast to Moreno's anguished singing. It's a sound that has remained untempered through the years even if the lifestyles of the Deftones themselves have settled somewhat.
"We still have an absolute blast out there," said Cunningham, 37. "This year, in fact, we're having some of the best times we've ever had on tour. To have that feeling this far into our career is pretty amazing and special. Of course, time dictates some things. We've outgrown certain things, like years of extreme wildness. But we're just appreciative we're still a band, that we're still doing this and that we're still doing this right."
Scan the reviews that have accumulated through the years, and you'll find the band's toughened sound has been termed "grunge" and "experimental." The dreaded "nü metal" also has been a frequent favorite. Cunningham isn't flattered by any of them.
"After all these years, I really don't care. But it's human nature, I suppose. People want to categorize things. It seems to help them when they put a band somewhere and get it out again later. And that's fine. You have grunge. You have, dare I say, nü metal. Whatever. We've done our best to transcend all of that by just doing our thing. We always have."
Doing its thing became a pointed challenge when it came time to follow the band's fifth album, 2006's Bob Ezrin-produced Saturday Night Wrist. A supposedly more experimental recording was cut in 2008 called Eros with an eye to an early 2009 release. But in November 2008, bassist and Deftones co-founder Chi Cheng was critically injured in a traffic accident that has left him in a "minimally conscious" state. Eros was shelved indefinitely; interim bassist Sergio Vega was recruited; and another new album, Diamond Eyes, was quickly assembled and recorded. Released last May, it became an immediate top 10 hit.
"Obviously, we're experiencing a huge loss," Cunningham said. "Chi is our brother, and he's still down after almost two years. It's a pretty heavy situation.
"We made Diamond Eyes, ultimately, for therapeutic reasons. We just wanted to get back and jam. There was no real thought of making another record after Eros. We just called our buddy Sergio up at a time that was kind of born out of desperation and out of a need to be productive.
"Look, we've been together about 22 years now as a band. Sergio has been a seamless fit, though, and has helped us find a fresh, new approach to our music. But all things being said, I would love to still have my friend Chi next to me, too."