Interview: James “Munky” Shaffer of Korn Talks About His Side Project, Fear and the Nervous System
Korn has toured the world, picked up a few Grammys, and won Album of the Year for The Path of Totality at Revolver‘s 2012 Golden Gods. But even all of that has not been enough for guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer (pictured left). When he had down time from his main band, he spent it on an alternative musical outlet that became Fear and the Nervous System. After years of gathering musicians from bands like Bad Religion and Faith No More, the group was able to release its self-titled album in September. Revolver spoke with Munky and asked him just how all this monkey business came together.
REVOLVER How and when did the Fear and the Nervous System come together?
We started in 2008. It was really just me trying to get into the studio and write some songs. Korn had taken a bit of a break and my dad was in really bad health and so I just wanted to get into the studio and stay busy. It was my way of dealing with it. I didn’t have songs. I had a few ideas so I started hiring musicians
How do you know Billy Gould from Faith No More and Brooks Wackerman from Bad Religion, and why have they phased out from the band?
I hired these guys, you know? And they also did it as a favor. Korn has worked with Brooks Wackerman when we did the  Untitled album. I remember thinking when I did want to get a project going, I wanted to have him involved. These guys are still into this which is great because they weren’t able to tour with me because of their schedules. Brooks is with Bad Religion and Tenacious D. Billy is with another project he has called The Talking Book. I hope to make a record with these guys again.
Why did you feel like Steve Krolikowski from Repeater was the right vocalist?
After sitting on these songs completed for about a year and in between the Untitled album and the record we did with [producer] Ross Robinson, [2010's] Remember Who You Are, that was a period where I thought I was going to be able to step up and sing this stuff, but I’m not a singer. I’m not a good lyricist. I just stick to the music. The songs were too good to have someone who wasn’t a singer, who never wrote lyrics before to try to do that. Ross suggested Steve Krolikowski from the band Repeater. He said, “Why don’t you have him come in and try to sing on a few tracks and see what it’s like?” And then it worked out really well.
Why did you want to form a side band from Korn? What did you want to do differently with this band than what you do in Korn?
Well, I was kinda blocked into just simple stuff like tunings. I wanted to take a vintage approach and use different tunings and six-stringed guitars. And for up to that point, I spent 15 years of recording seven-string guitars with super modern amps and very modern techniques. I just wanted to step back and track a record that was very loosely structured. I didn’t want to have any time frames–I just wanted to make music. I’m not looking to sell a million records. I was just looking to find an outlet at the time to put some music together on my own watch–and my own wallet! [Laughs]
Your father passed away while recording this record. What was the most important thing he taught you?
He always taught me to follow through with everything. Once I start something, finish it. I’m glad with this whole project because it was started because of him. I was able to finish it and see it through all the way to getting the physical CD in people’s hands finally. It took a lot of hard work and people to come together and make this happen for me–and that was one of the things he taught me to do. I couldn’t have selected a better project seeing that his memory is remembered and that he is remembered by this project.
Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland provided the artwork for the record. Why did you like this piece?
He had an old medical book from the ’20s. Musically, we didn’t have time–our schedules were conflicting to really sit down and work on a few songs together. We do have those songs but they’re more or less demos. I know that if he and I had some time later, we could flesh out some really great ideas into an album. So we didn’t have that time musically but he agreed to do artwork. I had a vision–I wanted a very sterile sort of looking album cover, very medical cross-section. Of course, he put his own twist on things in his own color schemes. But the painting itself is massive–it’s a 5X6″ giant oil painting and I have it at our studio. I wanted to put it up somewhere, preserve it because it’s such a cool piece of art.
How did Fear and The Nervous System’s recent show in California go?
You know I was really nervous doing these shows [laughs] because I don’t know these songs like I know Korn songs. Korn has been a part of my life for 20 years and it’s part of who I am. So when I get up on the stage with Korn, it’s really super second nature but with this…I have to think about it so much because the songs are so new and we literally had five rehearsals before the first show. I think with the next set of shows that we put together, we’re going to be feeling much more confident and have our shit together. It was a little bumpy here and there but it was a lot of fun.
With Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis busy with his electronic music, and you busy with this band, what is the future of Korn?
We have 15 new Korn songs written, which is really cool. I mean, they’re not complete songs but we are in the process of finding a producer and trying to find the right balance of what we want with these songs, how to present them. We have massive choruses and we have riff sections. We’re kind of waiting for Jonathan to put lyric ideas on them so we can move into the recording process.
Do you foresee bringing in your side-projects or keep them on the side?
I think the technical aspects as far as recording techniques. Jonathan can provide what he’s learning in the electronic world and bring that in. I’ve learned some stuff on my vintage recording that I can bring and I think fans would love that. So it’s very much that we’re doing it as a band where we know our niche and that’s what we’re gonna carve out and really define. We’re not gonna try to put out a dance album. [Laughs] It’s very much going to be a metal album and I think a guitar-heavy record.
Just to bring it back to Fear and The Nervous System, what gives you fear or makes you nervous?
Well…society. I fear social aspects of the world and the way that we’re headed. I’m fearful about that and because I’m about to have a new baby in a few days. [Shaffer's son was born yesterday at 8:44 AM, less than a week after this interview.] It’s kind of made me reflect about the state of society and how everyone’s so divided and opinionated. They’re not willing to stand up and say it in public forums. I think that’s one of the things about this band is we’ve been able to come out and talk about social issues–not about political stuff–just about what you believe in. People do it behind their computer screens but when it’s time for people to move into action. Nobody is ready to do that. That makes me a little nervous. I want to see people come together more as a society and stand up for what is right.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m really grateful. Doing this Fear and The Nervous System album has really made me reflect on how hard and how far Korn has come. It’s given me a lot of gratitude but also very humbling to feel like I’m starting with something from the ground up. Doing this record on my own has made me think about how far we’ve come. Korn is still going strong. We have a big 2013 planned for our fans, for ourselves, and our families. Our fans are really dedicated and diehard and that’s always stuck out to me.