The Path of Totality, Korn's 10th album, takes the quartet down the road of dub step, drum n' bass and electro house. In an attempt to specifically change up direction, singer Jonathan Davis wanted to try something different. Through the singer's urging, various producers such as Skillrex, Noisia, 12th Planet, Excision, Feed Me and others were approached to collaborate with the band. What emerges is the industrial welding of slamming guitars, drop bass and breakneck computer grooves presided over by Davis' haunted melodies.
For guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer it required a slightly different modified approach. He had to figure out where to lay his guitars so they didn't interfere with the slamming bass/drum tracks and the sometimes droning synth notes that would run through entire songs. The greatest challenge he faced was in creating an album that embodied all the integrity of earlier Korn records and not having fans come to the distasteful conclusion that they'd simply created a dance album.
Shaffer truly stretched the limits on the Fear and the Nervous System record, the guitar player's solo project that has been waiting in the wings since 2008. After producer Ross Robinson hooked James up with vocalist Steve Krolikowski, the final piece was in place and the self-titled could finally be completed. It is a dark album full of twisted guitars and strange rhythms and brings to mind an agonized version of Tool or A Perfect Circle. Here, the guitarist is listed as James Christian Shaffer [his birth name] Munky is nowhere to be found. Playing six-strings in normal tunings and reaching for an arsenal of vintage guitars and amps, he has created a more melodic and unfiltered style than what he does with Korn.
The Korn and Fear and the Nervous System records scream in their own fashion and here Shaffer talks about both of them.
UG: What attracted Korn to a project working with dub step, electro house and drum n' bass producers?
James Shaffer: Honestly it was the challenge. When Jonathan brought the idea to us, it felt like it was gonna be challenging and it felt like it would break the repetition of the same old stuff that everybody's doing over and over again. And to see Jonathan's enthusiasm about wanting to try this. That inspiration, man, at this point after almost 20 years and you see somebody excited and you have that spark of inspiration, you have to follow it immediately to really sort of push the boundaries. And I think that's what we wanted to dowe wanted to act on, Here he is excited and inspired and you want to sort of pour gas on that spark to sort of ignite something.
You said you didn't want to do what every other band was doingwas it also an attempt to get away from what Korn had been doing as well?
Absolutely, man. Absolutely. I remember after we recorded Remember Who You Are, we went back in the studio and recorded three songs that were OK [laughs]. I remember I had made a comment awhile back and it was like, They kind of had a Soundgarden feel. It didn't sound like Soundgarden, it sounded like Korn but there were some elements of that early grunge kind of sound and it was cool and different but it could have seemed like we're goin' backwards here. Nobody was really excited; it was just like sort of rehashing what we know and what we've done in the past.
You wanted that old fire back?
To kind of come up and get each other excited. It was boringit was really boring. The songs were good but nobody was like freakin' out. It was just kinda like, Here we are. Even though I think lyrically Jonathan had kind of stepped away from the stuff he did on Remember Who You Are. For me I had a lot of fun recordin' that because Ross is a lot of fun to record guitars and stuff with but Jonathan's experience with that is very much different. Because when Ross Robinson is doing vocals, you're digging down into dark, ugly childhood stuff and it can be unpleasant. I kind of feel like we're at a point where it's time to move on that and time to grow. How can you sort of sustain that anger and angst for 20 years? It's kinda like get over it.
You aren't angry young men anymore?
We're in a different place; every guy in the band is in a different place. A very good place. We're dads and we've been through that and we've grown through that and it's kinda time to move on musically and creatively.
When Jonathan approached you with this new idea, did you know much about that kind of music?
I didn't know that much about it. I'd been listening to some dance rock stuff and obviously I've been a huge Nine Inch Nails and Ministry fan for years. So it wasn't like I didn't know how to introduce electronics to metal. It was like, OK, I'll kind of look at it from an industrial standpoint and attack this on a guitar level. There was much more than that but initially when he struck me with the idea that's what came across as an inspiration. Oh yeah, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. In the last few years into the band called The Faint and The Qemists and Mindless Self Indulgence had done some similar sort of choppy stuff. They've always been sort of ahead of the curve too. So that's where the beginning of this kind of sparked for me.
Did you actually have the tracks written and then presented them to these various producers?
Jonathan came to me with Skillrex's album, Scary Monsters and started playing some of these tracks. He was like, Listen to some of this stuff and I was like, Wow, this is crazy. The sounds and the chord progressions and stuff. So basically he just kind of started from there and he was like, I'm gonna try to reach out to this guy and I'm like, OK, cool. And it turns out it's Sonny Moore who we know from From First to Last. I'm like, What? That's crazy.
You already knew Sonny Moore?
I didn't know who he was; I think Jonathan knew. And I'm like, What? This is crazy. So we met him basically at the studio about a month later after we called him up and he agreed to come and collaborate on a song with us and then we wrote Get Up! That's where it all kind of started.
You co-wrote these tracks with the producers?
Yeah. The only ones we didn't sit with and actually write songs with as far as me and Jonathan together were Noisia who were from the Netherlands so it was just a thing about geography.
So Kill Mercy Within was one of your tracks?
No, that was something that Noisia had sent to us through the Internet. We didn't work with them directly in the studio. And Feed Me basically sent skeleton tracks like Here's some ideas. Basically the process was sort of each producer had a handful of tracks and we just kind of started pick through em as we felt. Like, Oh, let's try this one next. OK. So we'd upload it into ProTools.
Did you try anything different guitar-wise when you were working on the songs?
I had a traditional rig, which was my Marshall Plexi and I think we used two cabinets, which were a Mesa straight and a Marshall straight. And I played and tracked it how I normally would with some different effects and stuff. And just started to kinda pick the song apart, listen to it and figure out what sort of tone would complement each other with what was there already and then start stacking guitar rhythms and melodies and that's how we wrote em. Then basically Jonathan would come in and say, Oh, this would be a good pre-chorus and let's move this over here so that I could sing this and it would make sense for vocals.
You bring up an interesting point because a lot of this type of music is instrumental only.
A lot of guys in the dub step and the dance thing, they don't write for vocals. The song starts out with one sound and it morphs by the end of the song into something completely different. For us for it to make sense as a Korn song, we have to arrange it in a way that makes sense to us.
What instruments did these producers have on the tracks that were presented to you?
They had rhythm stuff, some programmed drums and the big beast drops with the wobbly bass stuff. Pretty much some of the songs was like, What the fuck am I gonna do here? Where's there even room on this one? But then if that was the case basically we would take some of the stems they had given us and mute them and then I was able to like, Oh, OK, I can fit this here and fit that there and then reintroduce those tracks in the mix. And then even bring em back a little back [lowered volume] so there was room for guitar so it made sense.
So you really did have to rethink your approach to guitar?
One of the biggest challenges of doing this was the balance between the integrity of Korn, still pushing the boundary and doing something different and not just have people saying, Oh, man, they wrote a dance record. And that's wrongwe wrote a Korn album and hands down it's Korn. There is a balance though and it's like, Are we really gonna make a statement here? Are we really gonna take a chance and do something different? Because we wanted to include the elements and shake it up and challenge listeners into be willing to accept something different and new. But still the fundamental tracks of the song are Korn: it's me, Fieldy and Jonathan. So it's like we play and he writes and he sings in a way that nobody else can.
How did Ray Luzier participate in The Path to Totality?
Here's the thing: I think for Ray he was kinda sitting back and going, What am I gonna do? Like I said it had to be balanced so that it was kinda all the elements pulled together and he did a lot of cymbal work. All the cymbals and some snare are Ray; there wasn't a lot of work for him to do but I think he understood the vision of what we were trying to do. And now it's like he has so much shit to do live to recreate these songs because he's playing a triggered kit now. Those beats that are programmed, he wanted to take the sound from each drum sound and the snare sound and trigger them on a real kit so he can play those. Some of those beats are fuckin' hard and so he's really challenged now. At first he kinda sat back and thought, OK, I get what you guys are tryin' to do and it's cool and on every song there's cymbals and hi-hat overdubs. I think the willingness to collaborate was huge for him.
Kill Mercy Within was one of the Noisia tracks that was sent to you?
Yeah, it was one of the first tracks that was sent actually. I remember hearing that intro guitar thing that was originally written on a keyboard and I was like, That is the coolest thingI have to play that. If I saw Korn live I would want to see Munky play that riff live. So to transpose that onto a guitar was a challenge.
That was difficult?
Yeah, man, I was like, What? It was in F# or Db; no, I'm sorry, it was E# [F] and that was so fuckin' weird to me because usually we write all of our stuff in low dropped A. You know what I mean? So that was something that was different for me too because I tuned all my guitars to standard because all the stuff was written, not all the stuff but a lot of it was written on a keyboard. So when we started talking and having a dialog of music and notes and this and that, I was like, Fuck this. I'm a little bit lost here. I need to tune my guitar to a standard tuning.
Everybody tuned to normal tuning?
Yeah, we tuned up on the whole record and I used standard-tuned guitars. Of course 7-string guitars that were tuned standard.
That must have been a completely different approach for you.
It was and refreshing too. We're playing in keys that we hadn't written in before so that was fresh and I came up with alternate chords and melodies that just felt really new.
Let's Go was another Noisia track that had a real natural and organic feel to it.
That song came to us with just the 16th note hi-hat, chika chika chika chika chika, and the big drops on the top of every bar. So it's like dooo chika chika dooo chika chika dooo chika chika and that's all it was. I was able to let loose and come up with that whole sort of, it reminds me of a Rage Against the Machine riff or somethin'. And that was like wide open and I was like, What the hell am I gonna do here? Basically whatever I want, which was cool you know. Some of the tracks were wide open on that creative level so it was like, Wow, I can do whatever I want. And then some of em from some of the producers were like, Whoa, I'm kind of limited here as far as like what key am I in? I need to figure out some different modes to make the song move because there was always this banging root note.
That's interesting that Let's Go was one of your pieces of music and has such an
Organic feel, right?
Exactly. My Wall was one of the mixes by Excision.
I love that. That track cool is so live and reminds me of an early jam you'd hear off of Fragile from the Nine Inch Nails album. I don't know, people probably hear it differently but when the guitars come in on that track live it's so much fun to play.
What drew you to these specific producers? There were probably hundreds you could have chosen from?
Man, that was really Jonathan's call. The key to everything of unlocking the door was they [producers] had heard the song Get Up! that we'd done with Sonny [Skillrex] and I think those other guys liked what they heard and they liked the feedback and they liked the cross genre of stuff. So I think those guys were willing to, OK, let's try it. Because there was a positive feedback when we did contact some of these guys.
Noisia, Skillrex and Feed Me had all worked together and some of the other producers were all connected in some way.
Most of em knew each other. Like, I know this guy. They tour together and it's a tight-knit community so it was cool because that's how that town works, man. It's all who you know.
Way Too Far was the 12th Planet song with those crashing drum sounds.
That song is a monster live I'm telling you. I threw in some dive bombs with some harmonics and stuff before the chorus. The pre-choruses have got these really cool dive bombs and it was something really cool and different for me to do actually.
Bleeding Out was the Feed Me track with piano and synths.
That was heavy; I did that on 8-string. That was like the 8-string ripper right there.
Jonathan plays bagpipes on that one?
Yeah, I didn't even know. He told me, Oh, you gotta hear the middle section of Bleeding Out' and I was like, What did you do?' And he was like, Oh, I won't tell you.' And so then I was like, OK, I'm excited to hear it. And I was like, What? I thought it was like some Middle Eastern thing. When I first heard it, I was like this totally takes you someplace in the song. It totally took me like on a fuckin' camel ride or something.
"When Jonathan brought the idea to us, it felt like it was gonna be challenging and it felt like it would break the repetition of the same old stuff that everybody's doing over and over again."
These various producers were American and Europeancould you sense any difference in the musical approach depending on where they were from?
Being new to the world of this style of dub step, I think on a very fundamental level the musical dialog between each guy was different. So I think it was about shifting gears on that level with each guy and understanding each other's vision. So when the new guys would come in it would be like, OK, we have to kind of get to know each other's vision and shift gears together and get onto the same page. And some guys were easier and some guys were harder and I think the guys we didn't get to meet and work directly with may have been the harder ones because there wasn't such a hands on back-and-forth creative vision.
Because this was new ground for you, did some ideas not work?
Yeah, because it was, Is this too heavy? Is it not enough? It was always, Where's that balance? Is it too riffy? Am I trying to squeeze too much of me in there? And that's what it wasit was the struggle about finding that balance in each riff and each section even all the way down to the mix. That was the real challenge. It was like, Oh, my guitars aren't loud enough [laughs]. And then it was like, Now they're too loud and you can't hear anything else. Now it sounds so much like what we did in the past, it sounds like a track from the Untouchables record. That to me was the biggest challenge. Am I putting too much here or is there not enough of me present? And I think the same with vocals. Is Jonathan making a big enough impact vocally for people to feel the emotion?
Did you learn anything from working with these dub step producers?
Sonically? Wow, this record is amazing for Korn. The techniques that these dub step artists use to record and the way they sight-chained all their stuff is something we will always use for all of our albums.
What exactly do you mean?
They basically magnify the soundwave on the computer so you can see it really big and instead of the kick drum landing with the bass and guitar, each one lands so slightly off that there's enough air space for everything to sound boom and hit together. So we sight chained all the stuff chained all the stuff so when you hear the bass drum and the guitar hit together, you're actually hearing the boom and then the guitar go rrrrmmmmm. But when you speed it up to normal speed, it sounds like everything's hitting together. When you magnify all this stuff, each instrument has its own little space and it's a trip.
Do you think you might use that approach on future Korn records?
These guys showed us how to do this and it's somethin' we'll always use because that is the science behind the art.
These types of artists really do take a lot of time in finessing and experimenting to create those types of sounds?
They're scientists that create art through music.
Jumping to the Fear and the Nervous System record, is that an entirely different approach than working with Korn?
Yes. I was working with producers and engineers that had worked on Korn records before and day-after-day when I was writing the music, I'd ask them, Does it sound too much like Korn? And they would give me their honest opinion. It would be like, Yeah, a little bit. So we would change it. I was constantly trying to overcome that and create something completely different.
How did you achieve that?
By using six-string guitars with alternate tunings and vintage stuffI was only using Fenders and Gibsons and old vintage amps as well. So I completely took a different approach to the whole thing because I wanted it to sound like a different band and it does.
It truly does.
Even the melodies and some of the melodies might sound like kind of Korn but I still wanted listeners to think, Oh yeah, I can tell that's him there. But I mean it's completely different the approach was. The playing style I wanted to kind of have more of like The Edge and the way he plays really jangly with the effects. It's kind of like a hybrid Edge sort of feel.
Triggers had a very non-Korn melody and a really dark feel to it.
Yeah, it's really different. You know who helped us treat this was Photek. We gave him this track and he ran it through some filters and I don't know what he did to it. He gave it back to us and we're like, Wow and then we started stacking guitars on it. He helped on that track and that was one of the guest appearances.
Hell was the short instrumental introduction to the album.
There's a fuzz on there that Billy Gould put on his bass and I rented some tympani drums. They brought in some tympani drums so Brooks Wackerman got to play some tympani drums. We composed this whole long song that really kind of became sort of a jam because it was like, Wait, what did we do five minutes ago? How did it go? So we took the best idea out of the middle of that jam somewhere and edited it down to what you hear as the intro.
"We wanted that old fire back to kind of come up and get each other excited."
You bring up drummer Brooks Wackermanhis playing on the album is remarkable.
He is amazing and he is one of those guys that sits behind the drums and can play and he just makes it look so effortless. Just wailing and not even breaking a sweat.
Working with Brooks Wackerman and Billy Gould feels different than playing with Ray Luzier and Fieldy?
It was the big time. In both respects it's very different and very satisfying.
Because Ray and Fieldy really do bring a unique feel to the rhythm section.
Wow. They lay down anything I need to just go wild over. But the rhythm section of Billy and Brooks becomes sort of a more melodic rhythm section.
Ambien had a really stark quality about it with those string parts and the cool synth pads.
Zac Baird our keyboard player wrote on the bus when we were touring with Korn and when I heard the piece of music and this whole string section I was like, Wow. And I could see it right when he was playing it for me, I was like, This has to be an album closer. I originally thought it was gonna be instrumental but then when Steve Krolikowski put the vocals on it we were like, Fuck, this is unbelievable. It's not structured like a typical song either. It kinda goes into a verse and then it goes right away into a bridge and then it kinda ends with this big chorusy thing, which is different.
It was unexpected.
Yeah, and also I wanted to use a lot of odd time signatures throughout the record to kind of make the listener tilt their head here and there. To have that sort of A Perfect Circle/Tool feel through the album, which is more of an alternative metal album to me. Or alternative rockI don't even know if it's metal. It's not metal not at all.
Steve Krolikowski's approach to songs and vocal melodies is different than Jonathan's
It is. In this case the music wasn't done and that was the similarity of how we do Korn records. Depending on how this one picks up, the great thing about it is like you ask me about the stuff and I don't have to spend tons of money on marketing and promotion because I want people to kind of discover this record on their own and let it simmer with them and listen to it. Because each time you kind of discover something new like Steve's vocals and his intensity and the intelligent lyrical content that he brings. He really just puts the icing on the cake and I have to thank him for that. Because it was something that before he came into the picture, I really didn't the record was gonna see the light of day. I was gonna sing on it and then I was like, I'm not singing on it. I'm not a singer and there's no way I could have delivered a fraction of what he did on it so it was all meant to be.
The first time you heard Steve sing you knew he was the right person to sing your songs?
It was a perfect match and that's because Ross Robinson had recorded the Repeater record [Krolikowski's band] right before we went in to record Remember Who You Are. Ross was like, Let me hear the music that you worked on that everyone was talkin' about how great it is. So after a session we put the files and started lettin' Ross hear the stuff and he goes, Oh, my godI got the perfect guy for this. And he got him on the phone and literally the next day he came down and Ross put him in the vocal booth and he did some oohs and ahhs over the top of a couple of tracks. Everybody that was there [laughs] completely had like goosebumps and they were freaking out that this guy was a perfect match for this music. So it was a matter of just like getting him in the mindset, getting to know him and letting him know some of my vision about the album and he took it from there and I've really become good friends with him since. He's a great guy; he's a smart guy; and he's someone I'm happy to know.
Chinatown is a heavy shuffle.
Yeah, it has that feel. Yes.
You don't hear a lot of heavier bands using this type of groove.
It just sounds cheesy if it's not done right. It's like a classic blues riff.
On Jaguar is Brooks adding some percussive hand drums?
We had an alternate snare that he was playing to the left of him. Every once in a while for a verse or something, he would knock on that thing. It sounds like an overdub but he's playing it. He really makes it sound like he has three arms.
You're touring with a bunch of these producers like 12th Planet, Kill the Noise and Downlink?
Yes. At this point of almost 20 years, you need some fuckin' fresh blood in there [laughs] and that's pretty much it.
Will these producers get up and play with Korn?
Yeah, I think so.
You've mentioned several times about wanting to take Korn in a different direction and try new things. Did you achieve that with The Path of Totality record?
There's still that level of anxiety and anxiousness: Are people gonna like it enough? Is it gonna do what we intended it to? Yeah we want to challenge listeners but we don't want to alienate our fans as well. We want to hopefully gain some new fans. There's a generation of music lovers out there now that are pre-teens and early teens that we want to sort of introduce who Korn is and what we've been doing through the last 20 years and hopefully pull them along into something new that they haven't experienced before.
Don't shoot me for this but the Fear and the Nervous System record is every bit as goodif not betterthan the Korn album.
It's no problemthat's a huge compliment. Thank you. I worked as hard or if not more on that record. That record definitely took blood, sweat and tears. The Korn record? More sweat and not so much blood.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I kind of feel like we're at a point where it's time to move on that and time to grow. How can you sort of sustain that anger and angst for 20 years? It's kinda like get over it."