It's a big year for Korn, with a blockbuster summer tour with Alice in Chains just behind them, their excellent 13th album The Nothing just around the corner (it's due September 13th), a new dramatized crime podcast of the same name on the way, and the 25th anniversary of the band's game-changing self-titled debut coming in October. All these momentous occurrences arrive in the wake of tragedy: Singer Jonathan Davis has been extremely forthcoming about the loss he suffered last year when his wife, Deven, died of a drug overdose, an event that cast a bleak shadow on the already-dark music for which Korn is known and loved. As for the rest of the band — guitarists James "Munky" Schaffer and Brian "Head" Welch, bassist Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu and drummer Ray Luzier — they were shaken by her death, as well, and found themselves faced with the challenge of writing music strong enough to support the intense emotions that Davis was wrangling with and channeling into his lyrics and vocals.
It hasn't been all personal darkness in the Korn family, however: Shaffer was noticeably absent from a handful of dates in early August on the AIC tour due to the happy arrival of a brand new baby, his third with wife Evis Xheneti. Still, he took some time between diaper changes to speak to us. Our conversation touched on The Nothing album and podcast, the impact of Deven's death on the creative process, and how Korn have managed to still be vital and relevant 25 years since their 1994 debut.
HEY, JAMES! CONGRATULATIONS ON THE NEW BABY. HOW ARE THINGS AROUND THERE WITH THREE LITTLE ONES NOW?
JAMES "MUNKY" SHAFFER Crazy. It's crazy and fun and hectic — it's all of it.
DID YOU PLAN FOR THAT TO HAPPEN AROUND THE RELEASE OF THIS ALBUM, OR WAS THAT JUST A HAPPY LITTLE ACCIDENT?
Oh hell no! We didn't know it was going to happen, especially in the middle of a tour! We were shitting our pants. My wife was like, "Don't tell anybody," but we were setting up the tour with Alice In Chains and I was like, "I gotta tell somebody!" She said if I did, she was going to chop my balls off, but I'm like, "Yeah, at this point it's time. I think it's time for the ol' snip."
WELL, GOOD LUCK WITH THAT WHENEVER YOU GO FOR IT. SO ABOUT THAT ALICE IN CHAINS TOUR, I THINK A LOT OF FANS WERE KINDA SURPRISED AT THE PAIRING OF THE TWO BANDS, BUT IT SEEMED TO BE A HUGE SUCCESS. HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE OUT THERE WITH THOSE GUYS?
It felt like there was this iconic band that wanted to do a tour was us, and we were freaking honored to do that! When that album Dirt came out, we really had to reassess how we were writing songs, and we [had] just started to form the band. We had already written a handful of songs, but the way that Jerry and Layne and the guys in Alice in Chains kind of wrote music in this chromatic way was so inspiring for us. To be able to be part of that … we jumped at it.
YOU ANNOUNCED THE NOTHING PODCAST RIGHT AFTER THE TOUR, AND IT HAS SOME OF THE SAME CREATORS AND CAST MEMBERS AS ALICE IN CHAINS' BLACK ANTENNA FILM. WAS THAT IN THE WORKS BEFORE THE TOUR, OR DID THAT COME TO LIFE WHILE ON THE ROAD WITH ALICE?
We had planned it before we went out, and there's a relationship there already, so it was easy to kind of bridge that and communicate with the writers. It's exciting for us, you know, something different. Bringing a new media platform into an already multi-faceted platform. I thought we were just going to become recording artists, but now you have to be a YouTube star, an Instagram personality, and all these other things. But it's cool! That's the nature of the beast in the entertainment world. It's always fluid, and it's always challenging.
HOW INVOLVED ARE YOU WITH THE PODCAST?
We are pretty much consulting, like, we're reading all the scripts and making minor changes, but these guys are seasoned writers so it's not like we have to change a lot. I guess we're like what an executive producer would be to a show.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE NOTHING, THE ALBUM. JONATHAN HAS BEEN GIVING MOST OF THE INTERVIEWS AND REALLY OPENING UP ABOUT WHEN HE WENT THROUGH WITH DEVEN'S DEATH AND THE VERY DARK PLACE HE WENT TO WHILE HE WAS WRITING THE LYRICS FOR THIS RECORD. ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THINGS, WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE FOR YOU GUYS WRITING THE INSTRUMENTAL PARTS WHILE HE WENT THROUGH THAT?
Well, I think Brian and Fieldy and Ray, we had to step back because we were writing this record and just sort of grooving and heavy and you know, traditional kind of Korn-style riffs. Then this tragedy with his wife happened, and it all hit us like a ton of fucking bricks because we're all so close. We're all brothers, so if one thing, good or bad, happens to one person in the band, we all feel it. It resonates through us, and there's no stopping it. It affects us all because we're so close and tight.
Then on the music end of it, we started to get back into writing and we kind of reassessed all the stuff that we had done, like, "Is this good enough? Is this good enough to represent what he's going through?" We went through and chopped a lot of stuff out because it felt too playful or not serious enough. Some of the riffs were written with not enough magnitude to represent his experience. It felt like, "Let's take a step back," and "That was all practice up until now. That was all warm-up. Now let's really take a good swing at this and knock it out of the park for him."
I kind of always imagine that he's going to step on a stage, so to speak, and we have to design this whole set. We have to create the scene for him to feel comfortable in, and it's a very vulnerable place to be in. If we're not creating this atmosphere or environment for him to be vulnerable in, he's not going to be able to open up and express himself and to get out this hurt and this pain. It was difficult because we just wanted to give him the right environment to create and feel comfortable in, and being his brothers, we were totally open to criticism and whatever it was that he needed more or less of.
DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIFIC FAVORITE SONGS ON THE RECORD THAT REALLY REPRESENTS THAT PROCESS YOU WENT THROUGH?
Yeah, totally. This song called "Finally Free" that starts out very kind of light and spacey, then picks up and gets into this funky burst and goes into the middle section which is very Korn-heavy. It's just one of my favorite songs on the record. I don't know why, it's just very different for us.
THE TITLE OF THAT ONE REALLY STRUCK ME.
It's totally relating to his wife and her death. She went through so much. Him and her together as a family went through so much, and if you know anybody who has battled with addiction, like I have and like so many of us in this band have, you sometimes feel like you can't shake those demons. She's finally free, which is essentially how we got the title of the song.
THERE ARE A LOT OF CALLBACKS ON THIS RECORD THAT SOUND REMINISCENT OF THE EARLY ONES, LIKE SELF-TITLED AND LIFE IS PEACHY. WAS THAT SOMETHING YOU GUYS WENT FOR ON PURPOSE, OR DID IT JUST FEEL LIKE A NATURAL CYCLE TO RETURN TO THEMES THAT DEALT WITH DARKNESS AND PAIN AT THIS JUNCTION?
I think it wasn't conscious, it's just something that felt right to do. I think things happened organically. Although, Nick Raskulinecz was kind of steering the ship there, being the producer, and he probably guided un into those directions whether we saw it or not. He pushed us that direction.
BESIDES THE ELEMENTS OF YOUR EARLIER SOUNDS, THERE SEEM TO BE A LOT OF OTHER INFLUENCES I CAN HEAR IN THERE LIKE A LITTLE BIT OF DOOM AND MAYBE EVEN SOME BLACK METAL ON A SONG OR TWO. WAS THAT SOMETHING YOU WERE TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
The heavy sections became heavier than we imagined because, even on that song "Cold," there's Jonathan's what we call "hand in glove," duplicating the guitar riff with layers of vocals that just sound like a monster coming out of the speakers. We wrote this heavy riff, but we didn't understand that Jonathan was going to copy that riff with layers of vocals, then put lyrics to it to distort and just mangle it. All of that stuff just kind of got built as the process happened.
SO, IT HASN'T ALWAYS BEEN SUNSHINE AND ROSES WITH THE BAND, INTERNALLY. HOW HAVE THOSE CHALLENGES WITHIN HELPED NAVIGATE WHAT YOU'RE MAKING NOW, AND DO YOU THINK ANY OF THE DRAMA HAS HELPED YOU WRITE BETTER AS A GROUP?
There definitely feels like there's a sort of solid foundation. There was some shaky, unsettled ground there for a while, probably right around 2005 through when Head came back to the band. After I stopped drinking and got my shit together, that's kind of when things started to mellow out and Brian came back to the band. Ever since then, there's so much more stability in the band.
We were young, and it was always parties — parties first! It was all that anybody cared about, but now we have families, and now we care about the future for our children. It's a very different sort of era, and pretty much everything we do now is for them.
A LOT OF PUBLICATIONS HAVE POINTED OUT RECENTLY THAT YOU GUYS, RAMMSTEIN, TOOL, AND SLIPKNOT ALL HAVE ALBUMS OUT IN 2019. WHAT'S IT FEEL LIKE TO STILL BE INCLUDED IN THE CONVERSATION WITH ALL THOSE BANDS THIS FAR ALONG?
The first thing that comes up for me is like, it could happen for so many bands as long as they're consistent. Every record's different, I think, but having that consistency and that drive, that motivation and keeping that fire burning inside of you going — even if it's not as bright as you would like it to burn all the time — keeping engaged and keeping that ignited somehow just always pays off.
That long-term hard work that comes over a long period of time and just being relentless with your vision … You know, as cheesy as it sounds, you've got to envision yourself where you want to be. I think that's what we all did, and what we still do.