Here’s what you need to know: I have worked in the music business for the last 35 years as an A&R man. First for Roadrunner Records, starting in 1987 and running for 25 years, and then for Nuclear Blast Records, where I have been for the last decade. Some of my biggest signings include Slipknot, Sepultura, Type O Negative, Biohazard, Machine Head, Fear Factory, Obituary, Deicide, Stone Sour, Trivium, Gojira, and Thy Art Is Murder.
Naturally, I have tons of stories from my experiences over the years, and these stories always come in handy when I am meeting with the latest young metal hopefuls I am trying to sign. Being an industry veteran at this stage, they are always interested in hearing any juicy stories from my past; how I first discovered some of their favorite Roadrunner bands or how some of their classic albums were made. I have a hit parade of stories, and I am always happy to cart them out and dazzle the youngsters. One of my favorites: the time I insisted that Deftones change their name as a condition of signing to Roadrunner. Yes, you read that right.
In the summer of 1993, I was sent a Deftones demo from a guy named Dave Park. He was based in Sacramento, where the band was from, and had just picked them for management. I was instantly blown away; their music was like nothing I had ever heard before. While the band are commonly grouped in with Korn as the innovators of nu-metal, I never viewed their sound as similar to, like, Limp Bizkit, or any of the other bands that quickly put nu-metal on the map. Deftones had their own sound then, and still do today.
I insisted that Deftones change their name as a condition of signing to Roadrunner. Yes, you read that right.
I asked Dave to fly to New York with the band’s singer Chino Moreno so I could have them meet the Roadrunner staff and woo them. At the last minute, Chino was not able to come so the band’s guitarist Stephen Carpenter came in his place. The dog and pony show was a big success and the pair left NYC being suitably impressed with the Roadrunner team.
As soon as they returned home, I made them an offer. But there was one big condition to the deal: I insisted that the band change their name because I thought “Deftones” was weighed down with issues. As absurd as that sounds now, let me set the table on where the culture was back then.
In 1993, after reportedly seeing "Def" in the dictionary, Rick Rubin, the arbiter of all things cool, decided the word was old hat and made the bold move of changing the name of his highly successful record label from Def American Recordings to simply American Recordings. The mainstreaming of the word went against the anti-establishment image that he was trying to project for the label. And in typical Rubin style, he was going to make the name change an event; a highly publicized mock funeral was held on August 27, 1993 to bury the word "Def."
At the same exact time, there was a full-blown ska movement happening with bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, No Doubt, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Rancid, Less Than Jake, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. To me, the “Tones” part of the band’s name made them sound like a ska band.
So “Def” was no longer cool, and “Tones” lumped the band in with the ska movement. The name simply had to go. Surprisingly, I got no real pushback from the band. I don’t know if it was because they agreed with me, or they were simply hungry for a deal and would do whatever it took to get signed. Not only was I the first A&R guy to offer them a deal, but I was the only A&R guy to offer them a deal. When you are the only label chasing a band, and there is no competition, it gives you automatic power and leverage. Regardless of what the reason was, they went along with my demand. During the contract negotiations they would regularly run new names past me, even suggesting at one point that maybe they should call themselves “Engine No. 9,” named after the best track on their demo.
Before we could even come to a resolution on the new name, the deal hit a roadblock. Roadrunner’s owner insisted not only on signing Deftones to a record deal but also to a publishing and merchandising deal—something frowned upon at that time. About five years or so later, such deals would become more commonplace, and would also include touring. At that time, these types of deals were given the name “360 deal.” That term referred to the fact that the label would participate in all of the band’s revenue streams.
Sadly, I lost the band. I believe it was about six months or so later that they signed to Maverick Records, releasing their debut album Adrenaline in 1995, and the rest is history.
Seemingly overnight, the album took off, the band blew up, and all the kids wanted t-shirts that said “Deftones.” I sure felt silly.
I didn’t cross paths with Stephen Carpenter again until 1997 or 1998, after they had released their even better second album, 1997’s Around The Fur. By that time, they were one of the biggest metal bands on the planet. The first thing I said to him was, “Man, I really blew it with the name change idea, huh?” He laughed and said, “Don’t feel so bad. When we met with Maverick the first thing they said was ‘You have to change your name.’ In the end, we couldn’t agree what the new name should be, the label got tired of waiting, so we just went with Deftones.”
Just like that, I was completely redeemed. Maybe that’s why I love telling the story to this day, because as astounded as the young bands are as I tell it, I feel vindicated. That, and the story has a happy ending, except, of course, that I didn’t get to actually sign the band. You’ve all heard the anecdote, “If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.” Well, there is a similar line in A&R circles. “If you don’t have misses, then you were never in the game.”
The most valuable lesson I learned from that whole experience is that you can’t look at a band’s name in a vacuum. The band’s music makes the name!