Korn Guitarist James Munky Shaffer Refuses To Apologize For Influencing Limp Bizkit.
Last week, Korn celebrated the 21st anniversary of its '94 self-titled debut, the album that effectively created the nu-metal genre. Though it never charted above No. 72, the album eventually went on to sale more than 2 million copies — and the undying adoration of Rolling Stone writer Christopher Weingarten, who called the album the most important metal record of the past 20 years.
He makes a fair point. Writes Weingarten: “While aging metalheads were trying to walk confidently through alternative nation, Korn lurched into the world like hip-hop zombies rocking Adidas tracksuits, baggy jeans and untamed dreadlocks. Their eclecticism was a pre-iTunes shuffle jumble: the whinnies and whines of Cypress Hill, the goth bravado of the Cure, the thwapping double-kicks of Primus, the 808 hit of a Rick Rubin brick-breaker, meth-fueled Boredoms-style scatting, and bass strings that sounded like a bask of crocodiles tangled in industrial-sized rubber bands. While Pantera's Phil Anselmo grumbled chest-puffing lines like 'I fucked your girlfriend last night,' Korn's frail Jonathan Davis screamed, 'I'm a faggot.' Pearl Jam and Tool couched their torment in poetry and anonymity; but Korn put everything on the line, especially with 'Daddy,' a harrowing song about Davis being molested as a child that ends with nearly four minutes of the singer sobbing in the vocal booth.”
So, for its current tour, the band decided to forego the big arenas and amphitheaters it has long grown used to — last fall the band headlined a show at the Gexa Energy Pavilion, for instance — in order to play its debut record front-to-back in the same size rooms it was playing in 1994. Which brings the boys to the somewhat intimate confines of the South Side Ballroom for this coming Tuesday's visit, ahead of which, we caught up with guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer to talk seven-string guitars, Rihanna covers and what he thinks about Rage Against the Machine bassist Brad Wilk's recent apology for influencing Limp Bizkit.
I heard you just had another kiddo, so congrats on that.
Thank you, yeah.
How has that been? Was it tough getting right back out on the road after?
I seem to have found a really good balance with the family at home and then getting to hang out with your boys on the road. You get to have some fun and still act like a 15-year-old kid.
The current tour marks the 21st anniversary of your debut album. It's crazy to think that album has been around so long.
It's crazy. It's gone by so fast, it really has.
I mean, when you were making that record did you think this is something you'd still be doing 20 years from now?
No. I absolutely did not think that we were going to be playing this record. I think that with age, that record really still stands up. It still had a lot of influence on peers. I have a lot of people come up to me at meet-and-greets or on the street and say, “You're the reason I bought a seven-string guitar.” It's really cool to know that something you created had such a long-lasting effect creatively on people.
That's true, you don't see too many other people playing the seven-string guitars. It's funny; I was joking with a buddy a few days ago about how, when that album came out, it seemed like everybody had to go out and get one.
I just did it because of Steve Vai — he's one of my big influences. But he didn't quite touch on the low riffing that I wanted to hear from the instrument. So that's when I was like, “Oh man, I've got to get one of those.” This was like '91 when he came out with that record Passion and Warfare and he introduced that guitar. He launched that guitar with that album. I was like, “Damn, this is amazing. I have to get one of those guitars so I can experiment with those lower notes.”
And so you went and made this record 21 years ago. But I'm sure you didn't stop experimenting or changing the way you play guitar. When you're going back and playing these songs now, are you having to relearn them? Are you playing them, more or less, note-for-note the way you wrote them back then, or do you kind of bring some of your current playing to the record?
We try to say faithful to the song. Some of the vocal parts Jonathan will change a little bit. But for the music part of it, we try to [stay faithful]. We try to, but it's difficult, because you're playing it every night. We all kind of throw in our little fills here and there, every two or three bars, because you just want to spice it up a little bit. But 90 percent of what you hear is that record in that sequence, exactly how we recorded it.
I'm sure there's at least a few of these songs you probably hadn't played for several years before last year's 20th anniversary tour. Going back and re-learning them, did you discover anything interesting about your playing style from back then that you've since dropped?
We were just talking about this last night during the encore, with one of the guys from the opening band, Suicide Silence. We were telling them, “Yeah, we had these hardcore rules: We're not going to do guitar slides, there's no pinch harmonic squeals, no pick scrapes.” There were certain things that people had overdone throughout the '80s and into the early '90s. We were so tired of hearing that crap that we didn't want to do anything like that. Like, “That's going to make us stand apart. It's going to make us special because we don't do those things.” As time wore on we kind of brought more of those techniques back into our playing — because we grew up learning all that stuff. George Lynch, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, all of that. But that's not what we were into at the time we were making the record. We were more into Faith No More, Rage Against the Machine, Sepultura. We loved the '90s gangster rap, the West Coast stuff. We loved Dr. Dre's production, like The Chronic, and we always tried to make our guitars sound like that.
You can really hear a lot of the Faith No More influence on that record — especially in Jonathan's vocals, which really remind you of Mike Patton.
Yeah, they were a huge influence. The record The Real Thing had a big influence on us. That really opened up a different melodic sense for the band. Then, when they followed it up with Angel Dust?! Aw man, that's one of my favorite Faith No More records.
Getting back to your self-titled debut, there's a lot of intense emotional stuff going on there lyrically. Is any of that stuff you still feel 20 years later when you play those songs?
A lot of the things Jonathan touched upon lyrically, a lot of that stuff is healed. So, there's not a real emotional attachment — it's a minimal emotional attachment that we have. For the most part, it's just fun. It takes you back in time. Just to look over and see Fieldy and Jonathan and Head rockin', it's just amazing to know that we've come so far. It's been a journey. Some of the things, like when we do the song, “Daddy,” that was a song that Jonathan wouldn't touch. We did it one time a long time ago and he swore he'd never do that song again. It was too close to an open wound at the time. Now, I kind of feel like — and I think he kind of feels like — a lot of those open wounds are healed. It's OK to do the song without having a breakdown. It's for the entertainment purpose of it, and I think he can get up and do it. It's some painful memories, and if you open up the box, it'll spill out. You gotta be careful with that kind of thing. But it's fun to play. That song is dark, man. It just, definitely, puts everybody in a somber mood. Then we definitely have to come back out and play some newer songs from throughout the catalog to lighten up the mood.
The songs that you come back out with and follow up with, are you playing the same ones from night to night, or trying to vary it up throughout the tour?
That was the idea. I'm always trying to push the guys to change the setlist up. I'm always like, “Every night? I'm pretty sure they're sick of it.” But when you're working [with an operation this size], the lighting guy has to know, the sound guy has to know, everybody has to have the setlist change. You get into a groove when you're on tour — a kind of Groundhog's Day groove. Once the train gets moving, it's hard to change directions. So, I have to kind of present things one song at a time. If I mention the right song on the right day, it could get changed. You've got four other people that have to give you a thumb's up.
Last time you were in town on this tour, you played the Gexa Energy Pavilion, which is a much larger venue. But I read for this leg you guys are intentionally booking smaller clubs. What's the thinking there?
Once we started doing festivals and stuff it was like, “OK, there are a bunch of people here who have never seen Korn. Do they want to see a guy have what looks like a mental breakdown on stage, or did they come here to have a good time?” We want to mix it up a little bit. Although the hardcore fans were always like, “That was amazing!” the feedback was 50-50. We thought by moving it to an intimate setting, it'd bring those hardcore fans that really want to see that record. Those are the people that have been there from the very first or second record. That's why it kind of made more sense to scale it down and make it feel like this, which is what we did when we first started. We're playing similar venues. Last night, we played the Irving Plaza in New York City. We literally have not played there in 20 years. We blew the roof off that place. There was 1,000 people in there. It was a lot of fun.
Recently, there was a funny story where the bassist for Rage Against the Machine came out and apologized for influencing Limp Bizkit.
Yeah, I saw that.
I think you guys were a much bigger influence on Limp Bizkit, for one thing, and so I figured I'd see if you had any type of response to that.
There's no way I would apologize for Limp Bizkit, because, personally, I like that band. I like them. I've liked them from the day Fred Durst knocked on our bus door and handed us his cassette tape and said, “Check out my band.” And we played it. I remember that night. We were like, “This is awesome.” We just thought it was the coolest shit ever. There's a part of me that's very proud of them that they've continued to be successful and go on and develop their own style and their own sound. Nobody sounds like Limp Bizkit. Nobody sounds like Sam Rivers and John Otto and Wes Borland. That's a powerhouse trio right there. And then with Fred, when you seem them live, the way he commands a crowd — he's like an emcee. He's very talented. And they've still got it! I just saw them — we played a festival with them in Belgium and they were awesome. So there's no way I would apologize. I think what put a bad taste in people's mouths was that whole Woodstock thing. They were all pointing the fingers at them. It was a bad situation, and I don't think Fred made it any better by how it kind of seemed like he was egging people on. But there's always two sides to every story. I think that's what made people say, “Oh, they're terrible. They caused these riots.” I think that's where that started.
I wasn't expecting you to apologize, it's just that there's two sides to every story.
It's funny because I like that dude Brad [Wilk]. He's one of my favorite bass players. I like his solo stuff that he recently put out. Nevertheless, I don't know why he felt like he should apologize. Or why he felt like he, specifically, had that much influence on Limp Bizkit. It might have just been one of those drunken replies to somebody. Listen, there's things that I get mad about, and I can kind of relate to what he's saying, because there were so many bands that came after us and were trying to sound like us. That made me really fucking mad a lot. It made me feel like, here we are, we created this sound and sort of invented a genre, and there's all these people trying to do it and then claim they did it first. Everybody in Korn just knew it was total bullshit. Now, they don't even own it. They don't say Korn was a huge influence on them. They don't give you thanks or praise or anything. It's just like, “Fuck you guys.” I know what bands they are, but I would never single them out. I can relate with Brad on that.
There weren't a lot of people doing what you guys were at the time — making heavy music, but wearing track suits and scratching their guitars.
Listen, Tom Morello was scratching guitars and doing all that, and that influenced us. Also, fucking Dimebag, that was the birth of a sound. The way that shit was delivered — that slowed, heavy down grooves — that shit was so pissed off. We wanted that. And the thing that Zack de la Rocha delivered on the mic? Those were the two biggest influences right there.
You were influential back then, but then you never stopped taking chances. For instance, the decision to combine heavy rock and dubstep on one of your more recent albums.
It just keeps it interesting and fun for us. We like to get outside our comfort zone. We have limitations — this is how I play guitar, this is how Fieldy plays bass, it's going to sound like Korn. It's a strong voice. We just try to bring in different elements that influence or inspire us in slightly different directions. It keeps it fresh for us, creatively.
Are you working on a new album?
Yeah, we're working on a new record. It's probably going to be early-to-mid 2016. We're excited. I can't tell you too much about it, because I want people to judge for themselves. Of course, I'm going to say it's great; everybody says their record is great. But I don't want anybody to know what to expect. I just want to split 'em over the head with a sledgehammer.
In that vein, I really enjoyed you guys doing that Rihanna remix/cover thing. That was really unexpected for me. Whose idea was that?
Her manager asked us if it was something we'd want to do. We said, “Hell yes!” because that's something cool and different. It's not something every band would want to do, but I think Rihanna is a real fucking person. I think what we do comes from the heart and it's real. It just made sense. She's a badass bitch. To put our music under her vocals would just be sick. We were like, “That's cool and different and people won't expect it.”
Yeah, you don't. But when you hear it, it starts to make sense.
Yeah, it sounds more like a mashup than a remix, really. But, it's cool. I really like it.
Lastly, in one of the Foo Fighters documentaries, Dave Grohl says that if he knew 20 years ago, when he made his first record, that the band was going to be so successful, he would have named it something else. So, same question: If you knew in 1993 that Korn was going to be on tour 20 years later, would you have thought a little harder about calling yourselves Korn?
I always think that a band name has to be short. I wouldn't change it today. It's always the music that creates the name. You have to call your band something. It's funny, [Dave] actually came to the studio when we were working a few weeks ago. He said, “Man, I was watching you guys' live videos every night.” He's blown away by our live performances. I was like, “You gotta take us on the road motherfucker!”
Cover photo by Stefano Micchia & Fadewood Studios. Korn performs at the South Side Ballroom on Tuesday, October 20. Head here for more information.