Korn’s 13th studio album was inevitably going to be a difficult one for the metal stalwarts to negotiate. Frontman Jonathan Davis is no stranger to pouring out his heart into the band’s songs, but a pair of recent tragedies in his personal life – the sudden death of his wife in 2018, six months after the death of his mother – meant that the emotional wounds confronted on The Nothing are particularly acute.
In response, the band employed a more patient writing and recording process, allowing the singer to record vocals over a two-month period in his own studio. As dark as The Nothing sounds, it’s also one of the band’s strongest works, melodically and a continuation of a return to form that began with 2016’s critically acclaimed The Serenity Of Suffering.
The guitar sounds are less raw than on Korn’s early releases, but no less aggressive; and of course, the riffs are as pioneering as ever. We caught up with seven-string stalwart and band veteran Munky (aka James Shaffer) on the eve of their North American tour to discuss the making of The Nothing, brutal guitar tones and the 20 year anniversary of their self-titled debut.
What’s your general approach to songwriting? Did it change for The Nothing?
“I think generally, it was pretty much the same process – just trying to get removed from the distraction! If we’re close to home it can be distracting, because we have so many kids and stuff.”
Did you go into the studio with demos already written and an idea of what you were going to record?
“There were a couple of demos; a couple of riff ideas that Head had recorded and that I had recorded. It just needs one or two things to take off, so that’s kind of how we started – just get in a room and see what happens. You’ve got a blank canvas and just start adding colours, textures and see what sticks; see what people start to feel.”
Did you all go into the studio together?
“We started as a trio, which is me, Head [fellow guitarist Brian Welch] and Ray [Luzier, drummer]. We started working out different ideas and then demoing them. Then Fieldy came in and put bass on some of the stuff, and then we started to play them for Jonathan. We were figuring out what he was feeling and which directions he wanted us to lean more towards.
“It’s not easy, because he’s quite picky, you know… He should be, he has to put his lyrics over them. He has to feel we’re trying to create an atmosphere for him to essentially pour his heart out into. If he’s not feeling it or not comfortable with it, then it’s okay, we don’t take it personally – it’s like, ‘Hey let’s rewrite, or start afresh.’’’
Given that Jonathan was tackling such an emotionally difficult time in his life, were you concerned for him at all?
“We saw it kind of unfold before us, some of the things he was going through. It was difficult because there was kind of a little bit more pressure in the fact that we really wanted to make sure that he was feeling comfortable in that space. We didn’t really know how it was going to unfold, actually; we didn’t know whether he was going to want to finish the record right away or wait. I think for him, it was important to get out a lot of the emotions and feelings right away.”
Melodically, this seems to be one of the strongest Korn albums. Do you think that was a result of Jonathan having so much time to spend on the vocals?
“Yeah, definitely. We wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to live with the songs and kind of let each guy listen to them and decide which was the favourite out of the demos. When we did send them to Jonathan, they were sounding good so he could get a better idea of what they would sound like when they were finished. When it came down to him to do vocals and record, he’d had plenty of time to live with the songs.
“It definitely helped for a more mature type of songwriting process than just typically getting in there and pounding out songs as quickly possible and getting back out on the road. We definitely didn’t want to do that this time.”
There are always interesting sound effects on Korn albums, usually produced by the guitar. Are they the result of experimentation, or do you have a sound in your head that you want to create?
“A lot of it is just experimentation. A lot of it is just getting in and kind of coming up with different rhythms and working together, pulling out the best. Head’s always good at helping me develop some ideas and pulling melody out of a lot of my rhythm stuff, so a lot of it was mostly that.
The main riff in Idiosyncrasy has a real Pantera vibe to it; were those guys ever an influence?
“Yeah, actually that was one of the things that Jonathan said: ‘We need some more Pantera riffs!’ We’re like, ‘Okay, that’s right in my wheelhouse.’ So we had a lot of fun, we came up with quite a lot of stuff – some of it was drawn to the side because it didn’t quite fit, but a lot of it we did use. But yeah, that was actually a request from Jon.”
There are some quite brutal guitar sounds on this record, the tone in Harder in particular. What kind of amps were you using in the studio?
“We used some combo amps from a company called Budda. We used that combination with the [Mesa/Boogie] Triple Rectifiers, the Diezels and we used a Friedman on a few of the songs. We’ll run three amps into a selector, so essentially, when you hear a left or right guitar, you’re hearing three amplifiers blended with different mic positions on three different cabinets. So you’re hearing a Mesa, a Friedman, a Diezel all going through separate cabinets.
Have you ever used a Fractal Axe-Fx in the studio?
“Yeah, we’ve used some of that. We used a Kemper and Axe-Fx for some of the melodies across the chords, just to kind of get those to brighten up and pop over the top of the big, heavy chords. It just adds a nice icing-on-the-cake type of thing, with the way the effects are kind of built into that thing: it’s one of the special things I like about those.
“I prefer to get my tones and the bigger sounds out of real amps still; I’m just kind of an old-school guy. But for that kind of thing – creating soundscapes and melodies and things that you really want to shimmer – those units are both stellar. Then you can store them and if you need to take that sort of thing on the road, they are really roadworthy.”
Do you tour with amps or with digital modellers, like a lot of bands seem to these days?
“I do have a Kemper in my rack that I use for my clean sounds. I could never really get a good clean sound out of my Mesa amps: it’s not really made for that. I’m sure there’s a model that I could have had, but I haven’t really found it.”
Do you still take your huge pedalboard on tour, or have you found a way of condensing it?
“It’s not as big; it’s a sort of condensed version of it. I’ve figured out a couple of ways around some of the things. I’m not too concerned about getting the exact effect on some of the recordings, because you’re gonna be chasing your tail. I’d rather be focusing on getting the band tight and hitting the right notes. Generally, I’ve condensed it down to about 10 pedals.”
It’s been 20 years since your debut album, which obviously changed the face of metal forever. Could you ever have imagined the impact it would have on the genre?
“No, never. When we wrote the album and when we were recording it, we knew we had something special; we knew we were onto something that nobody was doing. So there was an excitement before we released the record and that excitement kind of kept us going on the road. We were on the road for 18 months at the beginning to launch that album. But we never thought it would carry us through record after record 25 years later.
“We didn’t think it was going to inspire so many musicians and kids to want to play seven-string guitars. I think Jonathan also kicked the door open for making it feel safe for others to seriously pour their heart out into their songs and become better songwriters as a result of it. All of a sudden, you have all these singers who want to sound like him and want to do what he’s doing – he really set the bar high.”
Did you notice the bands starting to emulate your style after that album?
“Yeah, we did. It was very annoying in the beginning. It was like, ‘Find your own shit!’ But about five or six years after we’d made a couple of records, right around Follow The Leader, that was kind of the two-sided meaning: obviously it was a children’s game as well, but there were so many bands emulating what we were doing at the time, we decided to do something a lot different; just kind of widen our palette of songwriting and sounds. But at that point it became, ‘Okay, we know what you’re all trying to do,’ and it became a flattery thing.”
You often quote Steve Vai as being an influence, yet we never hear his influence in your playing. In what way did Steve Vai influence you?
“Even though he’s such a virtuoso, technical type of player, I think he instilled in me to find your own voice and what makes sense for you on the instrument. I still have that today. I don’t consider myself a great guitar player, but I feel like I can make some unique, unusual sounds with my guitar. I find each person has something unique that they can bring to the instrument and I feel like that’s kind of what he made me realise.”
When you first experimented with a seven-string, you were also tuning it down to A. Did you ever have any experience with intonation issues?
“All the time! Especially in the studio, when the sounds are under a microscope and you’re trying to double. You’re pulling on the strings or you’re pressing too hard, you just kind of tune it gradually slowly to the first take sometimes. I mean it’s ‘par for the course’, I guess they say!”
Korn’s latest album, The Nothing, is out now on Roadrunner.