By Martin Popoff
Risky, but before bravewords.com (well, me) sat down to chat with KORN’s two guitarist Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky Shaffer, I mused to the guys that the only time we’ve ever spoken was back in ’08 for Head’s solo album and then... Jonathan back at the friggin’ debut from ‘94. Simple reason for this—Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles was, at least broadly speaking, a nu-metal-free zone. Well, now there’s a sense that we’re all in this together, this being a crashed music business, and that one can throw some respect Korn’s way for sticking around, making records, touring...
So here comes the pride of Bakersfield, CA, with a new album much heavier than 2011’s controversial The Path Of Totality, called, with similar high-falutin’ pomp, The Paradigm Shift. What’s more, Head is back from an eight year absence from the band, one marked by crushing drug dependence and a born again conversion. Not like the rest of the guys didn’t have a big busload of demons themselves. But it’s all different now.
“Who has changed the most? Everybody, probably,” reflects Head, lounging with one of the best views of Toronto there be, pre-show at The Sound Academy. “Fieldy really tries to be a lot nicer to everybody now. And he was not nice before.”
“He did, and he is,” adds Munky, dead serious. “Like before, he would just walk by and not even sign your CDs (laughs).”
“Yeah, yeah.,” snickers Brian. “And then Munky was like a massive angry drunk. But he was always nice when he was sober, so he changed a lot too. And I did too. Jonathan is kind of like the same. He stopped partying in ‘98 or so.”
“I think individually, we all know that we had failed, as individuals,” figures Munky. “And I think we’ve kind of re-prioritized our own health and our own families. And if we stay healthy, then that helps us… If we stay clear, like a clear vessel, it’s easier to connect spiritually, and that keeps us grounded. And I think that reflects in what we do every day.”
And so here we are, Korn packing a new but old school Korn record, that Munky calls, “heavy guitar riffs but melodic. I think it still maintains the aggressiveness that Korn is known for, but it still has these great elements of melody. Definitely there are electronics in it, which help out with the melodic side of things. But there are a lot less.”
As for writing with Head again, “I think one of the main things is that we kind of... he learned a lot when he wasn’t in Korn for a while, and I learned a lot, and I think bringing those elements of just becoming better songwriters was good. It was good to get him back in.” Adds Head, “It was awesome. Because he was running the show, guitar-wise, in Korn for eight years. And then I did my solo stuff, and I was like in control of all that. So I learned to work better with people, people I never knew before. Unfamiliar people. And when I got back, it was even easier, because they were familiar to me.’
“Brian is really good at coming up with melodies on simple stuff,” continues Munky on the same tack, perhaps unwittingly getting across the thought that it feels really silly to call Brian Head these days. “He’s really good at pulling a melody out of, like, say, a chord progression that I’m doing. I’m kinda more the rhythm person. And maybe, you (pointing at Brian) do a lot of cool creepy sounds, atmospheric stuff that just sets the tone for the other instruments to lay on.”
Head: “I like the pretty melodies and I like the creepy melodies. I don’t know, it’s still old-style Korn, but it’s new, it’s different. We’re just doing what we know how to do, you know? And whoever wants to get involved, gets involved. We’re just kind of living life.” (Y’know, but Munky is a little spacey too—these guys have been through a lot).
As for the contributions of producer Don Gilmore, “Not much!” kids Head. “He just turned some knobs and stuff, but it’s really us who did the... No, he’s an amazing guy (laughs). In an encouraging way, he’ll say that sucks, but you can do better.”
“He’s really good at telling us in a constructive way that that sucks,” agrees Shaffer. “Without hurting our feelings. He puts on that kind of sour face, and he goes, ‘Nah, you know, maybe that’s something you’ve already done.’ And he’d really try to push us into a new chord, or even the slightest... you know, a few notes can really change the direction of a song. And he has this one thing he always said: ‘You’re going to scare everyone off the dance floor’ (laughs). Right? And we’re like, we want to scare everybody. And then he’s like, ‘Well, you’ve already scared everybody. Let’s try to have things evolve a little more.’ So that was good.”
Did he piss you off?
“Yeah, I got into arguments with him, like two,” says Head. “He was picking on me. Because the thing was, I was getting stressed-out, because I was like, am I coming back to an electronics album?”
Munky: “Yeah, that was a difficult one. He’s like... he gets this idea in his head, and he’s not willing... you know, if you’re not willing to compromise, it’s hard to work with people.”
“Yeah,” continues Brian, “I didn’t know if I was coming back to that, and I was getting stressed, and then so he called me a prima donna. He said that, but I was stressed-out, because I didn’t want to come back to an electronics album. I love the last record, but like, I know the fans, if we did that again, the fans would be pissed-off. So I chilled out, you know? Let’s just see what happens. And I love it—it’s my favourite Korn album now. So it all fell into place.”
Indeed, it must be said, The Path To Totality was Korn’s most experimental album, the band enamoured with the briefly hot dubstep movement, harsh electronics skronking and squawking all over that thing. So, says Munky, “I think the good thing about this album was, is we went in and wrote a guitar album. We wrote riffs, we wrote songs based around guitar riffs, as opposed to The Path To Totality, where the electronics were there and I just did the guitars around that. This actually came from guitar riffs, and then the electronics were added after that. I think that was key for making everybody happy.”
And when it comes to Jonathan Davis and his signature starkly personal lyrics, “We let him do his thing,” says James. “That’s his world. I think when you’re writing lyrics—you know, Brian—when you’re writing lyrics, you’re putting yourself out there, and you’ve got to be really vulnerable. You gotta let the audience connect with you, and be able to know what you’re saying and empathize, I guess. So we just let him do his thing, and I think the music really helps him. It helped him get a lot of that pain out. I think when he hears the tracks, he feels that. There were four or five songs in the album that didn’t make the record because he just wasn’t feeling it lyrically. I think the music helps him, again, and helps fuel that. When he hears the music that we write, it opens a doorway. It opened something inside of him that allows him to express himself without caring what everybody thinks.”
But if Head was on Don’s shit list—and Don on Munky’s—it sounds like... well, Jonathan was on Don’s too...
“I think the biggest clash between Jonathan and Don was getting him to get in the studio with him. He was like out with his kids. He would come in at 12 and work ‘til 1:00 PM, and then leave, and come back at 10 PM. And Don is like, I’ve got my thumb up my butt. What am I doing here? But they eventually got it all done (laughs).”