Masters of disaster James Shaffer and Brian Welch divulge the secrets behind Korn's brooding style of twisted metal.
By Tim Keneally
On the surface, Korn--the quintet from Huntington Beach, California whose confrontational calling card was presented to the music world last October in the form of their eponymous Immortal/Epic debut--are an undeniably ugly proposition. Everything about them is abrasive, from the shadowy, foreboding figure that graces the album's controversial cover to the barking acridity of Jonathan Davis' vocals to the ominous lurches and violent outbursts that define the band's drum-tight dynamics.
Upon closer inspection, though, Korn's brand of rage proves to be more cathartic than malicious. Nowhere is this more evident than in "Daddy," the 17-plus minutes of pure purge that close the record (and which, according to guitarist James "Munk" Shaffer, Davis refuses to perform live: "He's already emotionally drained when he leaves the stage after our set, so I couldn't imagine him leaving the stage after playing that song"). It's also apparent during the band's live performances, when their rabid, cult-like following whips itself into a frenzy fully worthy of the mayhem taking place onstage. "They definitely feed off of us, and we feed off of them," says co-guitarist Brian Welch. "When we're up there losing our minds, they're losing theirs."
Shaffer and Welch's easy banter further attests to their lack of malice. Throughout the conversation, the pair alternately sing each other's praises and rib each other, sounding not so much like bandmates as brothers. Which, given their long-standing relationship, isn't surprising; though Shaffer branched off temporarily to form LAPD (who released an album on Triple X Records before disbanding) with future Korn rhythm section David (drums) and Fieldy (bass), the pair has played together since their high school days. "Brian pretty much inspired me to start playing," notes Shaffer. "I used to go over to his house and eat his mom and dad's food so I could save my lunch money and then buy an amp."
With the dissolution of LAPD and the formation of Creep, the two reconnected musically. Since then, they've held down the guitar duties in Korn--a unit that, by all indications, is at least as functional as the average American family. Fittingly, Welch and Shaffer spoke with Guitar School from Welch's parents' home in Bakersfield. If Ma and Pa Welch were smart, they locked up the fridge before letting them in.
GUITAR SCHOOL: You two started playing together in high school?
JAMES SHAFFER: Yeah. We all grew up in Bakersfield, California. Me and Brian went to the same high school.
BRIAN WELCH: Well, I started playing when I was 10 or 11, in fifth grade. We started playing together when we were 14 or 15. We started jamming, just messing around, and learning. And it was weird; we would hook up once a week or so. Maybe we'd go a month or two without jamming, and we both just started progressing a lot, especially the longer runs where I didn't jam with him. Every time I'd see him, I'd watch him play, and I'd be like, "Shit!" And then it would pump me up, and I'd practice harder.
GS: Kind of a friendly competition?
WELCH: You could say that. But it was an inspiration thing, too.
GS: Did you figure at that point you'd still be playing together 10 years later?
WELCH: Hell, no. [laughs] James went off and did his own thing with LAPD, and I was just hanging out, drinking their beer and stuff. I was always best friends with them, but they only used one guitar player, so I just hung out. After that band, they asked me to play with them, because they wanted a thicker sound and another writing source. And then me and Munk found Jonathan when we were visiting Bakersfield.
GS: At that point, you were calling yourselves Creep?
WELCH: Yeah. They played five or six shows altogether, and I played one show with them.
GS: Let's talk more about Korn's songwriting process.
SHAFFER: No song goes out unless everyone is totally satisfied. No part, no cymbal hit, no guitar pick, nothing--unless everybody's happy with it. That's why it takes us a while to write--but in the end, everybody's happy.
GS: So how much do you usually end up scrapping?
SHAFFER: Whew...a lot. That's just how we write.
GS: Has that approach ever created any conflicts between band members?
WELCH: We've definitely had some disagreements. If there are two or more people who feel strongly about something, then it just gets thrown away. I've never argued majorly with anyone in this band. [laughs] We talk shit behind each other's backs a little, but that's about it.
GS: Did the music change much when Jonathan came into it?
SHAFFER: Yeah, he gave us a whole new vibe. We were already leaning towards a heavy, dark sound, but he just put the icing on the cake. He totally gave us a direction. We still don't know what the direction is, but at least we know we're going the right way.
GS: Jonathan's got quite a bit of musical training. Does he bring any of that into Korn?
SHAFFER: Oh, yeah. He sits down with the guitar and actually comes up with parts and some good melodies. He'll actually come up with some of the vocal lines on the guitar. We'll come up with a riff or something and make him stay at home while we write, and then give him a tape of what we made. And if the part doesn't work for him, he'll take it and change it around a little bit so it'll fit him, vocal-wise, or maybe even come up with something completely different.
GS: Do you ever give him lyrics?
SHAFFER: No, that's something we leave up to him--he's awesome at it. If I was gonna write lyrics, they would have to be about drowning my dog or something, just to compete with Jonathan.
GS: Do you have predetermined roles as guitar players?
SHAFFER: I'll usually lay down the real airy stuff on top of the rhythms, but we also switch off a lot; he does a lot of that, I do a lot of rhythm work, we share a lot of the parts. He'll do a melody line over the top of the chords that I'm doing, and then I'll do the melodies, or just noise, over the top of what he's doing. So there's no lead guitar in the band. We're just guitarists.
GS: Did you consciously opt for that approach?
SHAFFER: No, it was just pretty unanimous that no one liked leads. I mean, there's a lot of great players, don't get me wrong; I totally respect the lead guitar, but I feel like it's all been done before. I think that, instead of having a lead or a solo in the song, it's better to have the whole band build up to a part where everybody can have a piece of that lead action. That's actually something that we stumbled upon without knowing it. Before we knew it, we just weren't doing leads anymore. You know, a lot of our influence comes from Faith No More, and the way they treat leads in their song structures.
GS: You guys have a rep for high-impact shows. Did you try to capture that on the album?
SHAFFER: Since we'd already been doing live shows for a while, we wanted to capture that energy on tape. Which meant we didn't want to overproduce it. This way, after the record was done, we'd be able to pull all the stuff off in concert. We thought the energy would be captured better on an analog board--it was an old Neve--and with the old equipment. It gives it a warmer sound; more of a live thing. We thought we'd get the message across better.
GS: Even though it might not sound as pristine....
SHAFFER: Right, right. We wanted to sound like people playing, instead of machines. I think we pulled it off.
GS: How did you approach recording the guitars?
SHAFFER: Basically, we were just plugging distortion pedals into Marshalls. Just trying to get some really raunchy tones for the background....
GS: What kind of gear did you use?
SHAFFER: We used some really old guitars, like the old Silvertones. You know, the ones where the amp is built right into the case? That's actually the first guitar you hear on the record, on "Blind."
GS: Is it running through the amp in the case?
SHAFFER: Yeah, it is. It's running straight through the case, and then it's EQ'd a little bit on the board. But yeah, the mic's right up against the case there. We also used an old Telecaster, a '56, on some of the overdubs. Brian used a Les Paul on some of the warmer parts, like the one on "Shoots And Ladders," right before Jonathan starts to rap. It gives it a real warm, subtle sound, right before it kicks you in the face.
GS: The two guitars are pretty distinct on the recording.
SHAFFER: Actually, it took us a whole week just to do the guitars. And when we came back into the studio, Ross [Robinson, producer] said, "Listen to this tone." And it was about 10 times better than all the tracks we had just laid down! So we erased 'em all and went over 'em. We had to do it again. It took us another week!
GS: Is your live setup more stripped down?
SHAFFER: Yeah. I just run a wah pedal, a Small Stone phaser, a chorus, an overdrive and a channel switcher. And I usually only use one pedal per song.
WELCH: I play straight through my fucking head!
SHAFFER: Yeah, he plays straight to his nugget.
GS: When did the seven-string Ibanez Universes come into the picture for you?
SHAFFER: I've been playing those for about five years. I bought one right when they first came out, just for the simple fact that there are more possibilities in terms of chord variations and stuff. The seventh string is a B, but we tune it to A. So our E string is a D, and the B string on the 7th string is tuned to a A.
GS: So you're really using those lower registers.
SHAFFER: Oh, yeah! When those guitars first came out I was like, "Damn, man, you can really get some heavy shit out of this guitar!"
WELCH: He had his for a while and then, like I said, I was just hanging out with Creep, drinking their beer, and then when I joined them, I went to the store and I bought one. And now, I've got the first seven-string that James bought. That's the only one I can play without getting mad at it, because I love it. It's so beat up....
SHAFFER: Yeah, it's you, man--beat up. Nice and ugly.
GS: Was it difficult learning to play a seven-string?
SHAFFER: Not really.
WELCH: It took me about a month, because he could already do everything with it. I could sit down and play it, but when I stood up, I couldn't fucking do it. The neck is all fat, so it took me like three weeks to learn to play it, because both my hands were used to my old one.
GS: Anything you'd like to experiment with in the future?
SHAFFER: I'd really like to try some different things, especially different instruments. Just for background noise and things. I'm almost tempted to use an accordion, believe it or not. If you've ever heard one of these things, when they're not playing polka music, they're scary instruments. They've got like six or seven different harmonies, and you can get weird minor, diminished chords out of them. They're just eerie. We love stuff that almost sounds out of key. We're always doing that; bending the D note on the B string to match the E, and playing both strings so that it sounds like a 12-string, and then releasing it really slowly, so that it sounds like somebody's actually detuning a guitar.
GS: Any other favorite Korn guitar techniques?
SHAFFER: We like trying to get that whole sort of hip-hop samples sound, scratching and stuff like that. Sometimes, we try to get our amps to sound like AM radios; we take all the bass out and add all kinds of old, vintage pedals and stuff. It sounds like a broken record, all that crackle. I think we just want it to have a sick feel. We try to be vulgar without really being vulgar.