It's 3 p.m. when I meet up with Korn guitarists/co-founders James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch. It's lunch hour, even on rock star time, yet Munky is still drinking coffee while Head bops around the room recounting stories about dealing with kidney stones in Russia and farting during on-air interviews. It seems boys (even in their 40s) will be boys.
These boys—along with frontman Jonathan Davis, bassist Reggie "Fieldy" Arvizu, and drummer Ray Luzier—have lost none of the goofiness over the years. They've also kept a tight reign on the power, honesty, and emotionality that made Korn such a refreshing presence in the hard rock scene when they formed in the mid-90s. Now, more than two decades later, the band's forthcoming 12th studio album, The Serenity of Suffering (out October 21) further proves how just how visceral Korn is. Like the tracks on career-defining records like Life Is Peachy and Follow the Leader, the songs on The Serenity of Suffering are wrenchingly heavy. But as we recently discovered, Korn circa 2016 are in an undeniably lighter place.
Leading up to the band's fall tour, which kicks off September 25, we met up with Shaffer and Welch in New York City to talk about Korn's lengthy history, drugs, depression, and how music has helped heal both the band and its fans.
Jonathan Davis said that your new album title, The Serenity In Suffering, "defines both his life and the record." Do you two feel the same?
James Shaffer: The way I see it is it's his take on the record, the things that he was going through at the time of writing. I felt that he was kind of suffering—he was battling inside of himself to get to that creative place that he felt comfortable to start writing for the album, but it made a great record. This time for him, though, it felt a lot more difficult.
Brian Welch: I mean, he's not perfect—obviously none of us are—he's just a sweet guy and unfortunately he lets people hurt him a lot and he lives with it. He feels like normal when he's suffering because he has suffered so much. So he literally went through something for the last few years—I don't know how much personal stuff he's sharing—but he's just been really going through it and on this record he dug deep. He does on every record, but this one was special.
JS: Even for him to come up with that title that [says] he feels some serenity in his suffering is a major breakthrough. He is realizing what is behind this madness, this chaos he is going through in his mind. I think a huge step out of that suffering is seeing the problem and realizing it, and for him to use the record and lyrics to get that out feels probably like a relief.
BW: But the title The Serenity In Suffering--I totally relate to that because I've been through so much. I just wrote my book [With My Eyes Wide Open: Miracles And Mistakes On My Way Back To Korn] and I share a lot of the suffering that I went through. But there's a promise that you get paid back for your suffering; in life it always happens. I went through it over and over again, especially with my faith; it's a promise and so there is a serenity in my suffering because I know that something's going to come out of it.
Ross Robinson has psychological tricks to get deeply emotional performances from a band in the studio. How did Nick Raskulinecz compare?
JS: I think Nick is as passionate, he's just has a different sort of approach. It's not as psychological; it's more about passion and fun. Once, when we went to record, Ross actually went to Head's house when he was living in Phoenix and not in the band. He jumped the fence and ran up to Head's door because he wanted him to be part of [the recording]. He physically went up to his house, knocked on his door.
BW: I knew somebody was knocking and I was [pressed against] the wall and just didn't answer.
JS: That just tells you that it wasn't time. He wasn't ready, he wasn't in that place, because you know he's knocking on the door, and you know why he's there.
BW: Ross left a note, and I was like, "Ewww." Then someone came back and started knocking like crazy and I knew it was him. I wrote in my book, "How does two walls in front of your house scream 'Come knock on my door'?" It wasn't just him; I was getting all these knocks.
That, obviously, was during the time when you left Korn. You were out of the band eight years, then joined them onstage at a 2012 festival.
JS: He came on to the bus and I hadn't spoken to him or seen him in about six or seven years.
BW: My bad.
JS: Nah, because after 20 minutes of talking to him, it totally all made sense. He was with his daughter, it was like, "Man to see you back, and you're present and there's just a light around you." I totally understood 100-percent why he had to do what he had to do. [Now] I get to interact with a friend who is present and clear. I want to ask him after we hung out for a little bit, then Fieldy came over and asked us, without Head around, "Hey do you want Head to come up and play on stage?"
BW: Fieldy goes, "Hey, we set up a guitar there for you." This was all going down like five minutes before they went on. I was playing "Blind" in my set in the solo thing, but Fieldy's like, "Come and play the last three songs." I didn't know how to play those [anymore] and then to top it off, they did different versions of the songs. I'm like, "You almost set me up to look like a chump." I forgot what the Korn hugeness was like. It felt like it was like a lifetime ago; it was so foreign. I just remember going, 'Whoa..."
JS: It felt so good to be walking to the stage with him. It was like the team was back, even if it was just for the moment. I was happy at that time because it was the OG team.
Like many bands, you guys have dealt with drinking and drug issues. Am I correct in thinking that everyone is sober now?
JS: Yeah, I have been for six and half years.
BW: Nobody gets sloshy drunk.
JS: Even Reg [Fieldy] can have a few beers; Ray [Luzier, drummer] has a couple glasses of wine after the show. I can't. I've tried that. Rational moderation is not on the cards—I just can't do it. This morning I ran on the treadmill for 25 minutes. I know I have to replace [partying] and it creates endorphins in my brain that make me happy. Eating healthy and taking good care of myself gives me self-esteem that I used get from drinking.
BW: I get high on God, but what also helps me is seclusion. That way I can mediate and just be alone. I can go in my bunk. I really love to lay down, so I got like the softest blankets you could ever buy at Target in my bunk. I got a soft blanket on the bottom as a sheet and the same blanket on top and I got a body pillow, so I'm like in a cloud on my bunk. I get away from everybody and just seclude. A while back I started taking wine with communion. Then I was like, "I could have one glass of wine, in the spirit of communion" type thing. Then it turned into two glasses, tops. Then I was like, "I don't feel that buzzed." Then I did the whole bottle and had to quit. You lie to yourself.
So after or before the shows, what are your rituals? Do you do a huddle before the show?
JS: I kind wish we did, though we never really do either.
BW: I did that a couple of times when I came back. Idid a prayer thing for everyone, but that lasted about a week. Some of those bands do the prayer huddle or whatever right before they go on stage and they have bad relationships. We don't do that and we have good relationships. We live that huddle, I think. We don't fight and if we do and someone has a problem we are like, "Dude, what's wrong?"
Were you guys always like that?
BW: Hell no!
JS: Just in the past five or six years, I think we are so much more grateful for these gifts and to be able to be creative and have fans that care. We've actually saved people's lives through our music. That's our gift; to be given that is just a gift.
BW: Fans would say, "I had such hard times, I was going to kill myself." People have said they had a gun in their mouth and they're listening to Korn, then finding something saying, "I can make it."
JS: It's crazy because the music that we write as musicians makes Jonathan feel that he can pour his heart out, so it has power on both sides.
Korn's The Serenity of Suffering is out October 21. Catch the band on tour in a city near you here.