Riff University: Passenger by Deftones

All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler, with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD

By Dr Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler)

Up this week: Passenger by Deftones

Read last week’s lecture on Sorry, You’re Not a Winner by Enter Shikari here.

Picture the scene; you’re driving somewhere, probably a country road, as the sky descends into an orange glow. The windows come down as a gentle breeze runs its fingers through your hair, you shut your eyes and tilt your head back. All this scene needs now is a soundtrack, and that soundtrack is Passenger by Deftones.

The interesting thing about Passenger is about two weeks ago, it became legally able to buy a drink in this country, turning 18 with the release of White Pony in May 2000. But much like a fine wine it could legally buy, Passenger has only gotten better with age, becoming a jewel in Deftones’ crown.

Possibly one of, if not the best songs about fucking in a car, Passenger’s riff is devastatingly simple, comprised of just four notes, it’s instantly recognisable as it sets the scene as is jumps between the strings on Stephen Carter’s guitar, with Chino Moreno’s vocals layering over the riff like freshly laid snow.

“Ahah!” you yelp “But that’s not just Chino is it?”, and you’re right, assisting with vocals on Passenger is Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, as he spent a lot of time with the band assisting with the riffs, arrangements and other things on the record. On one song, he started singing and it obviously “sounded like Tool” in Moreno’s words. When it came down to recording this song, Moreno just couldn’t shake the sound of Keenan’s vocals on the track, so the phone was picked up, and the end result was this amazing vocal trade off between Moreno and Keenan. The blend is fantastic to the point you can’t really notice in the verses where either is singing, it’s a fine cocktail, a vocal Sex on the Beach, or more fittingly, a vocal Sex in the Car.

Yes, this series is known as Riff University, where we focus on the biggest and baddest riffs of all time, of which Passenger is one, but the absolute highlight of this song is the build up to the chorus. The way the song goes from this, overdriven but not too heavy plucked verse, into this almighty sonic buildup, with “Driiiiiiiiive FAAAAAAASTER” before flooding back into the main riff for the chorus is absolutely fucking sublime.

Again, whilst the riff is instantly recognisable and iconic in that right, the lyrical theme is a huge part of this song. We know it’s about fucking in the car, Deftones know it’s about fucking in the car, the people fucking in the car know it’s about fucking in the car, but nobody actually says it. Instead, the use of vocal imagery lets you, the listener know what’s going on.

Take for a starter, the first lines of the first verse:

“Here I lay // Still and breathless // Just like always // Still, I want some more”

Arguably the wider lyrical theme of the songs help to set the scene, but with these four simple lines, it paints a picture that the listener can visualise in their own head. Two lovers, breathless, exasperated, but still wanting more. Some other interesting theories include that it’s about two friends, with the one not “feeling so good and wanting to die” according to one Reddit theory. Which is… maybe fucking in the car isn’t the meaning, but there’s no real vibes of anyone wanting to die, especially as they’re there, still and breathless, wanting more.

Again, with the chorus, the vocals paint a picture and tell a story that dances around the listener’s mind.

“Roll the window down // this cool night air is curious // let the whole world look in // who cares who sees anything? // I’m your passenger, I’m your passenger”

The narrator doesn’t care who sees, as they’re a passenger in this, maybe through a state of euphoria, and that they don’t care who sees them. Maybe there’s a more sinister undertone to it, but the pendulum feels like it’s swinging to them having a jolly good time.

White Pony represented a change in sound for Deftones, an evolution in their sound as they became more experimental with the new millennium. Still the band’s best selling album to date, songs like Change (In The House of Flies), Digital Bath and yes, Passenger have amassed nearly one million streams on Spotify. Arguably still the band’s best album, Passenger is an immediately recognisable hit from its simple, but devastating riff, huge build to the chorus and lyrical themes, making it a stand out from a stand out.

Maybe, with all this lyrical analysis, just maybe it’s time to shut down Riff University and reopen as the University of Thinly Veiled References to Fucking in Modern Music, which means next week, and for several weeks after, we will be covering the complete works of Bon Scott.

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