Korn: James Shaffer About The Band's Music And His Own Contribution To It

artist: Korn date: 02/09/2011 category: interviews
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Korn: James Shaffer About The Band's Music And His Own Contribution To It
Korn III: Remember Who You Are, the Bakersfield, California band's ninth album, debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and ultimately went to number one. It resonated with fans who had maybe grown a bit weary of the ProTools/time corrected albums the band had previously served up and were looking for more of the elements that they initially identified with on the band's earliest works. To that end, Korn went old school by recording to analog tape, pulling out vintage guitars and amps, and performing more as a live entity in the studio. They referenced their first records including Korn and Life is Peachy and tried to recreate the fire present on those albums. To help them get back to that mindset, the group brought in Ross Robinson, the producer who worked on those very records. This was also drummer Ray Luzier's first studio appearance since he replaced David Silveria and his presence adds a rhythmic dynamic to the band that had only been hinted at before. Korn III synthesizes all the elements that have distinguished the band through their career including staccato guitar riffs offset by ambient and ethereal sections. Guitarist James Munky' Shaffer was out on the road with the Music As A Weapon V tour when Ultimate-Guitar finally caught up to him. Though Shaffer sometimes appears a bit moody or standoffish in some of the YouTube footage of him, he was nothing less than enthusiastic and open in this conversation. Justifiably proud of the success Korn has been enjoying in recent years, he was nonetheless incredibly laid back in talking about the band's music and his own contribution to it. How does it feel to be out there on the road with Disturbed on the Music As A Weapon V tour? From the whole bill, from Sevendust and In This Moment, if I was a fan? I'd walk away satisfied, I think. I think every band brings a little bit of a different element to the table. It's almost like a festival sort of a show but indoors. Can you remember your own concert days? Was there a show that still means something to you today? Yeah, when I was a kid, one of my first concerts or my very first concert was in Bakersfield and it was Ted Nugent and I'll never forget it, man. I never heard a guitar that loud in my life; I don't think I still have. But I had virgin ears and my brother had brought me to the concert and it was just one of those memorable moments when I was 12 years old, I think. And I'm seeing a lot of young kids out there in the audience, which is refreshing and I'm seeing a lot of old school fans, too. I think it's nice to see both Disturbed fans and Korn fans getting a great show. You talk about seeing Ted Nugent when you were 12 and here he is all these years later still hunting animals and making music. He actually went out on the road last year on his Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead Tour. Do you have any sense about how long you'll be playing guitar in Korn? I think every musician sort of hopes for that. You know what I mean? No matter what point they're at in their career. Even if they're just beginning, it's sort of hard to visualize how long to go because you never know in this business. You'd like to think in 10, 15 years you'll still have the opportunity to play music in front of people. I just feel really fortunate to have such a long career at this point. I only hope so. Hope is one thing but the truth is Korn have created or are on their way to creating a body of work that will endure. The only reason Ted Nugent is still touring almost 40 years after he started recording is that fans still want to hear Cat Scratch Fever and Stranglehold. Bands like Korn and Disturbed have always been the frontrunners because they've always understood that it's all about great songs and not just furious guitar playing and relentless drum tracks. And a lot of other bands won't be around because they don't understand this concept. You know, I think you're absolutely right; I completely agree with you. When you're in a band, you have to compromise and you have to know that the other guys in the band have their idea of how the song should sound and if you guys aren't all on the same page, it's sort of like you're counter-productive in the sense of making the song the best it can be. Because honestly when you have an idea and you're in a band, you're gonna have to accept the fact that your idea may not evolve to 100 percent of what your conception of it is. And unless you learn to work with others that's what it's about: songwriting and working with others and considering each other's criticism constructively other than taking it personally. Everyone that's in a band understands that you have to compromise and if you don't it's gonna be counter-productive. I guess that's my point. On the Korn III: Remember Who You Are album, you've gone back to working with Ross Robinson who produced the Korn and Life is Peachy records. Did you feel there was an element missing on Untitled? What was it you were trying to get bck to? I think we just kind of wanted to reignite that flame we had when we wrote the first couple of albums. And it's with anything, you sort of get comfortable and you experiment with new song ideas and new producers and different instruments and different song structures. You start to experiment new melodies because, for me, I just don't want to make the same record on a creative level. Obviously having Jonathan singing and Fieldy on the bass and me on guitar, you're gonna have the same elements; you're gonna have the same sounds even though you're approaching it differently. And I think that sort of balanced out of focus. I think that we needed Ross at the time to kind of remind us of where we come from, what we do, why we do what we do, and remind us how fortunate we are and how many lives we've changed. You've experienced that before?

""Man, thank you for your music; you've saved my life.""

Not to sound like any sort of ego or anything, I don't know how many people have come up to me and said, Man, thank you for your music; you've saved my life. That has a big impact on how fortunate we are. Not only to get up on stage and play music, but it's actually helping people through their daily lives; if it's giving them some sort of salvation or they get to lose themselves in the music and forget about their problems. I mean that's huge; that's the biggest reward to me and that's what Ross brought into the room when he came back. He reminded us of how fortunate we are and look at what a great thing we're doing for people. Remember Who You Are went to number one on the Billboard chart and that says your instincts were right. Do you have any sense of what your fans heard or identified with on the album that resonated with them? I think it was going to two-inch tape and recording on analog gear and no click track so it was all sort of a live feeling. Honestly, when I listen to the record, I can imagine well, because I was there as a listener, it feels like you're in the room with us; in this little small room where we recorded. And you can kind of hear some background noise and the imperfections in it kind of relate to how people aren't perfect. And I think, you know, no matter how hard we try, we're never gonna be the perfect whatever: husband/brother/mother/sister/daughter, whatever it is. I think that resonates with the music. We knew when we recorded that those imperfections were gonna give sort of a characteristic and a human element that I don't think necessarily comes across when you're recording into a computer and correcting everything and making it the perfect recording. I think that sort of spills over to how human we are and how our mistakes and those characteristics of making mistakes can be a human quality. Knowing you weren't going to be able to rely on a computer time correcting all your guitar parts, did it result in you having to bring a new focus to your playing? Man, I'm telling you it was really difficult because when you get down a riff, you play it for 30-minutes in the room together. And you sort of get a chord voicing down or a staccato riff and you try alternate (things). Then you go back to an intro and play through the verse and you come up to this section where you were just playing it for 30 minutes straight and you draw a blank [laughs]. You don't remember exactly how it went and that's when ProTools did come into effect because we did record ideas on the ProTools so whenever we had to reference, Oh, man, how did that go? Can you play back the verse riff? or something like that, it came in handy. It required us to really focus and focus as the song and not just as the individual parts. But also you're having to think ahead of, OK, here comes the bridge section in eight bars and which key was it in? And you're trying to remember also where you are currently in the song and then still listen as a perspective listener. Is this making sense? It required more than we were used to (doing) on the previous couple albums. What you've described is really what seems to be lacking in a lot of modern bands. Everybody records digitally because it's a lot cheaper than recording to tape and that makes sense. But what happens is that the music doesn't breathe the way it used to when bands recorded analog. If we use Ted Nugent as an example, the timing on those records wasn't perfect but the tracks had a real human element to them. As technology comes along, you do have to embrace it; you have to embrace new elements: the new TVs and DVD-Blu-ray and it goes on and on. But I think you start, as with any technology and this goes all the way back to the freaking washing machine, to get lazy. It becomes faster, easier and cheaper and people, I think, don't want to put in the hard work like they used to. Seriously, who wants to edit and cut physical tape? It's become time consuming and it becomes hard work and when you know there's something out there to make it easier, you're like, Why am I doing it this way? At the same time, you're losing that organic breathing where the chorus speeds up a little and the verses lay back in tempo and you're missing those warm analog tones that cymbals have that you don't get recording digitally. And there are so many elements that you miss because you're relying on technology to speed things along and make it cheaper. It's a give and take and there's a balance and I think we achieved it on Remember Who You Are because we did record onto tape but when it was time to edit, we did it in ProTools. So if there's a good balance between the two technologies, I think you can use it to your advantage. Can you hear the difference in your guitar sounds on the Remember Who You Are record that was recorded to tape versus the digital recording of instruments on the Untitled album? I think there's definitely a warmth that it has and instead of listening to a guitar through speakers, it kind of feels like you're right up against the amplifier to me. It's not easy; there are miking techniques that you have to use and compression especially when you're going to tape to get that sound. It's hard, it's hard work. But once you find that sweet spot in the mic on the cone and you find the right cabinet and head combination because that plays a huge factor, once you find that right combination between all three, that's the money; that's where it's at. You pulled out a bunch of older gear for the record, right? Yeah, I used mostly a Peavey 5150 Mark III. It was an amp that Ross brought in and he wanted me to check it out and it was really responsive; it had a lot of aggression. Our whole thing was to try to express the aggression from the right hand instead of the gain knob and that's what we did. We rolled off the gain on a lot of the amps so that you could really hear my right hand hammering down on the chords. The articulation. Yes, and that was really important to make sure it wasn't too blown out with a lot of fuzz and gain. That was important. It just had a really nice sound with the Marshall cabinet I was using; it was a 4x12 straight cab and then we also used an old JMC800 I had that I actually recorded most of the Issues album with. I had rented it from Andy Brauer in Los Angeles [rental company] and I fell in love with the amp. It was handpicked by Brendan O'Brien and myself when we recorded Issues and it was an amp that he loved and he said, Man, if I were you, I'd buy that thing. Of course listening to Brendan O'Brien who has the most amazing ears in the business, I went ahead and bought it for $800. But it sat in my house for so long and I said, Ross, I have a Marshall at home that sounds really good and we used it before. He said, Bring it in and that ended up being the main amp and it still is now. I don't bring it on the road because it's too sweet and it's not real road-worthy anyways. It's something I want to record with and take really good care of. What else? I think we used a Diezel Herbert and also Ross had an old Vox 2x12 AC30 that I did most of the clean sounds with and more of the melodic sort of distant things across the choruses. The ambient stuff. Yes, exactly. What was your guitar setup?

"I mainly tracked with my Apex with the leather crackle finish."

I mainly tracked with my Apex with the leather crackle finish and it has stars across the fretboard. Mainly ever guitar track rhythm-wise was done with the Ibanez. I used a hollowbody and you might hear it on the record, it's a guitar Wes Borland used to track some stuff over at Ross's house. Wes had left the guitar; it's an old Yamaha and has f-holes and I don't know the make or the model. But nevertheless it's got a great sound and again, it was one of those guitars where you could really hear the right hand's aggression in the picking stuff. Also, Ibanez made Jonathan a baritone 7-string that was really unusual; it's got this really long scale and it's almost like you're playing a bass. It's got great resonance; it just resonates over everything. I have an old '56 Telecaster that's amazing for clean sounds. I mean this thing sounds like church bells when you plug it in. I have an old '71 Strat; I have a Gibson Les Paul Studio; a Gibson Les Paul Standard; and a Thunderbird. Wow, now that I think about it, I used a lot of Gibsons for overdubs: a Gibson BFG that I think they did a limited run. So it was just like, Oh, let's try this one. Oh, no, it didn't work. OK, how about this one? I also used an old Silvertone, which was the Sears guitar with the lipstick pickup. I actually bought one in London on Denmark Street there with all those famous guitar shops. Those are the guitars that come to my mind right now. So you really had a chance to experiment with a lot of different types of guitar sounds. That was a good array of colors to add and most of it was all vintage stuff. And again, that warmth in that analog from all the tubes. Do you have to rethink the approach at all changing from your Ibanez 7-string to a 6-string guitar? Or is it automatic for you at this point? It's automatic at this point. If it's an overdub thing, it's probably going to be a little higher on the register. If the guitar isn't too old, we can put some heavier strings on it and de-tune it. The Gibsons can handle it but the Fenders don't really like it so I'll keep em tuned to standard and just kind of alter the key accordingly for the songs. Those things take a little more hammering out but some of those guitars can handle some heavier-gauged/de-tuned stuff even if it's one or two strings. You'll only change out a couple of strings? A lot of riffs that I do get really muddy if you just do em as a fifth or a third and you're doing chords; it starts to mud up. So a lot of the stuff I'll double with just single-string picking because with that low tuning it can get really muddy quickly. And that helps with the clarity: you roll off the gain and you get doubles of the main rhythms with single-string picking and it just has a real nice bite to it. What effects did you pull out? We used old Electro-Harmonix pedals like the Memory Man, the POG and the HOG; old RAT pedals for a little over-drive. We used the Ibanez Tube Screamer; everyone loves those and that became a classic. We just sort of went along and plugged things in as each section of the song [went by]. We didn't really plan this out, you know what I mean? Ross brought some of his favorite pedals from home and I brought some of mine from home and really just kind of attacked it as we went along with no real mapping of anything. It was sort of capture the tone; we'll know it when we get it. You know what I mean? That makes it fun and makes it spontaneous and really makes the creative process exciting. Looking at the songs on the Remember Who You Are album, can you lay out what's happening on Oildale (Leave Me Alone), the first single from the record? Most of that guitar intro was done with an old Gibson lap steel that I have. It's like a little bit of a Donkey Kong sound. But I'm actually fretting it so it sort of sounds muted. I'm actually trying to push down and fret on a steel string. It's kind of unusual; it was sort of like, Oh, that sounds cool, let's record that. There was a live performance from one of your gigs where you're performing Oildale and there was an auxiliary guitar player and a keyboard on stage with you. The point being that these textures you've created on the Remember Who You Are album are pretty multi-faceted and do require a lot of instruments to play them. Yeah, that sort of thing is always kind of creeping in the back of your mind. But you think, You know what? It sounds good, let's go for it and you just kinda go for it. You don't want to hold yourself back creatively and thinking, Oh, how is that gonna be played? I better not do that. So you kind of cherry pick all the main parts. There's gonna be vocals and all the other instruments sort of fill up the holes. You hear the main thing, and the melodies through the chorus; I'll use a second guitar player for it and the keyboard player and switch parts. You don't want it to hold you back when creatively when you're recording but at the same time it's, Oh, god, how am I gonna do that? Worry about it later. A song like Lead the Parade is a great example of how you switch from these monster guitar sounds down to these little ambient tones. You talked before about trying new guitar stuff as a section would go by in a song, but did you have some sense of how you wanted to orchestrate a song like this one before recording it? Yeah, a lot of that stuff basically when we were tracking drums, you're making mental notes of like, Oh, yeah, OK, we'll start with the guitar part. It's obvious when the drums kick in so I'm gonna make the intro super-fat so there's a nice contrast. So you're always wanting to give the listener and myself some sort of reference and depth, a field of depth, using your ears when you're hearing. It's like listening with 3-D ears you've got to think of music as something in your face or something far in the distance. Where did that 3-D approach to playing guitar come from? Yeah, this might sound kind of crazy but on the new record, it was really influenced by The Edge and how he sort of uses his reverb and his delays to get that depth and widen that spectrum of depth. I really liked how he does that so I incorporated that right hand with the reverby sound and even with the hollowbody and that sort of sound. I was listening to some of their records and really liked how he uses that in his palate of effects. Along with old Bauhaus records with the single-string picking and sort of a gothic The Edge meets Munky. You touched on the drums a second ago and certainly Ray Luzier brings a whole new dimension to Korn. Man, he's so good [laughs]. The dude is just so schooled in everything. He's really hard to keep up with, man, he really is; he's got great ears and he's a great drummer and he can hear everything. He's got great ideas. It really upped everybody's game to have someone who knows his shit that well. Still every night, man, I look behind me and we'll be playing and it's like, Damn, I gotta bring it. I gotta keep up with this guy musically and it's almost impossible; the guy is so good. While we're talking about drummers, what was it like playing with Terry Bozzio on the Untitled album? Bozzio and Korn seems like an odd combination. It was really unbelievable to see that kit and to see him play everything; like nothing's there for looks. He hits every single thing and he incorporates it in the song. It was like, Whoa, man, I mean like overload. He's playing in 7/8 time and 3/4 time and it was nice to experiment with those time signatures and bring that in and really comprehend it into a Korn song because it was something we hadn't done before. It was a lotta fun to experiment with him. He's really willing to step outside of his comfort zone and you can tell that by hearing him play. He does a lot of unorthodox techniques and structures when you hear his own recordings of some his stuff that he writes on his own. But just a phenomenal drummer. He's one of my favorite drummers along with Neal Peart and Brooks Wackerman who's also an amazing drummer. Brooks is insane. That guy just makes it look so easy. That's exactly what those guys do. Those are just the people I can think of right now and they're the best of the best. On Remember Who You Are, Untitled and See You On the Other Side, you were the sole guitarist in Korn. Brian Welch left just prior to the See You On the Other Side album and you became the only guitar player. Was there a learning curve in going from the dual guitar thing to becoming the only guitarist in the band?

"OK, I'm gonna focus on building the song as a skeleton."

There was a learning curve. [But] I knew when it came time to tracking, I was building the skeleton of it. I sort of got to grow into it. It wasn't like one day, Oh, I've got two guitars I need to play. It was, OK, I'm gonna focus on building the song as a skeleton and later when we were tracking the guitars, I could develop the melodies and the alternate guitar on the right or the left side. As I started to grow into it, I was like, Wow, this is great. There was some nervousness but now I love it. I love having the freedom; I love having the ability to try new things and knowing whether I like it or not. I'm not gonna record something I don't like [laughs]. So, it's a great sense of creative reward and satisfaction, like, Yes, that's all me. It is a bit ironic inasmuch as it was you and Brian playing guitars on the Korn and Life is Peach albums, and it was those albums the band referenced in terms of recording the new album. And now Brian is gone and you have this monster album with Remember Who You Are. Undeniably you and Brian had a special chemistry as guitar players. Yeah, for sure, and that goes for all the guys in the band. This thing wouldn't be where it is without David [Silveria, former drummer] or Brian. We're not gonna fire anybody we're gonna keep going. Can you update us on the Fear and the Nervous System album? Yeah, we're almost done; it's in the final phase. We're mixing and we're gonna do the mastering in February and then we're gonna figure out a way to distribute it. Either in a limited edition of physical copies and we'll take pre-orders so we don't over-produce a bunch of CDs that was a mistake in the past. And digis [digital downloads]. Sort of what Trent did [presumably talking about Trent Reznor and The Social Network soundtrack that was made available across multiple formats] where you have an option to download or download it and get the record or you can get a limited edition where the bandmembers have signed it and so on and so on. Would you pursue the Fear and the Nervous System project on any kind of real level? Touring or whatever? It was done a long time ago so my main focus now is Korn. If that project comes back to life later then I'll approach it. It was done about two years ago now and a lot of time has passed. Jonathan had gone on a solo tour and I was sitting at home and my dad had passed away. I gotta get out of the house and do something creatively because I'm literally going crazy. So that was really a project to experiment with some vintage guitars and some alternate tunings and it was nice. It was something to keep me busy creatively until Korn became the main focus again. We made a great record, a great collection of creative people that were a part of it. Brooks Wackerman plays drums in Fear and the Nervous System? Yeah, he plays on that and Billy Gould from Faith No More. We also had a couple of great producers [Ross Robinson and Danny Lohner] and it was something that I haven't leaked out because I wanted it to have more of an impact. It's not really a solo record because it was such a collaboration with so many heavy hitters that it's sort of like a band we put together collectively. It wasn't me just going, You, you, you. It was, Let's see who'll fit here. And I'm excited cause people are gonna get to see the artwork that Wes Borland painted for the album cover. It's amazing. There are still a lot of things that need to fall into place but nevertheless the songs are great and it's gonna be exciting. Can a fan still recognize you as the guitar player and writer from Korn? I think so. It's like, Oh, it kinda sounds Korn, like Nine Inch Nails and Faith No More and it has an early Smashing Pumpkins feel, like a gothic thing, I guess. It's pretty cool and I'm excited for people to hear it. And lastly, you were nominated for another Grammy for Let the Guilt Go? Yeah, man, how cool is that? I'm excited probably more than anybody else in the band cause of getting ready, got my suit, I'm gonna go even if we don't win, I'm still gonna go because it's exciting to go to something like that and hang out with your colleagues and your peers and say hello to old friends. You know? I think it's great; I think it is something great for this band to still get a nod is cool at this point. That's pretty cool, man. I mean it's been 10 years since we've been nominated at least. And even with the new lineup it's like, Wow, cool. Alright. So this is working. It's sorta, you know, we know it is but still to get a nod and like, Good job, it still feels good. Validation. Yeah validation. Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2011
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