Neither one of us is from Los Angeles, so we both have rentals – I’m in the black Dodge Caravan; he’s in the white Toyota Corolla. About as rock star as it gets, both of us.
Brian “Head” Welch, guitarist and founding member of the infamous rock outfit Korn, and I are trying to find my rental, specifically; I’ve been told ahead of time the green room would be in use for something else, and since I’m here to talk to him about his triumphant return to the band where he made his name, we need a place to talk.
“I know the room’s full upstairs,” I say to him. “We could go somewhere; there are plenty of places up and down Sunset.”
He looks at me, without a beat: “You got a car?” Yeah, I do. An awesome mini-van, actually. Problem is, it’s valeted and I have no clue where it is. “No worries. Mine’s right over here. You want to talk in the car?” He motions to the Corolla. He’s not picky. He genuinely doesn’t care. It’s almost like he thinks it’s a funny joke. I feel like I could genuinely switch him for my mini-van and he’d love it.
Later this evening, Welch will perform with his first band, Korn, for “Guitar Center Sessions” – a highly produced, pre-recorded performance show that airs exclusively on DirecTV – but he’s agreed to meet me early at the Guitar Center in Hollywood to chat about the band’s 11th studio album, The Paradigm Shift. Every interview ever published about the band from this point on will probably include the note that this was Welch’s first album back with the band after he took an eight-year hiatus, and it rightfully should. But most metal bands would kill to simply have an eight-year career, let alone one where a band member could leave and come back and then subsequently help write and put out an album that will assuredly chart for an extended period of time. (For the record, when The Paradigm Shift is released this month, it will be exactly 20 years since the band put out their first demo tape, Neidermayer’s Mind.)
Welch is unassuming and disarming. The “disarming” part of that sentence is almost necessary to point out; when the five members of Korn stand together on stage, they look like they’d stab you in the throat for fun. But when I saw Welch in Minnesota this summer – he was headlining the HM Stage at Sonshine Festival with his other band, Love and Death – the first thing he said on stage was that it sucks to be going up against Skillet. Here he is, the founding member of one of the most notable and groundbreaking rock acts on the planet, his band Love and Death performing on a stage around the corner from Skillet at the same time, and he thinks it’s hilarious most of the people that would normally be watching his show have opted for the bright lights and pyrotechnics of a band whose last record sold in the millions.
Never mind the fact that a big reason Skillet’s music is so popular is because Korn is in existence.
He fiddles with his phone as we settle into the car; it’s attached to a low looping chain, like a wallet. When given the choice to talk about music or religion first, he’ll take the music. Music is obviously on his mind – he’s here with Korn to promote their new record, after all – and I suppose it’s a much easier way to ease into a conversation than to go from small talk to life after death. But a lot of what I want to know about centers on his return to Korn, and the broad reason why he left Korn was because he had become a born-again Christian. And while that may be true, it’s stated a little out of chronological order – it’s more like he left Korn to go find this God, this thing that saved him, like his life was the personification of a riddle he had to solve.
As Welch puts it very directly: “What I wanted was to know this God that spared me from death.”
Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, the revolutionary bassist in Korn, is also a believer, but he’s quite literally not Welch. He’s a little quirkier, louder, more aggressive, and he goofs around a lot. Whereas Welch seems to enjoy his time on the road, Arvizu has a family at home, and his priorities have changed over time. (He’s not shy about it. “If I didn’t have five kids and a wife,” he says, “it is the best job in the world. But my hardest battle is to leave my family.”)
When I talk with him, he has his famous bass perched over his lap, giving him something to do with his hands. It’s that bass, the one with the fifth string, that Welch admits is the reason he and Shaffer went out and got seven string guitars, subsequently changing the course of rock music. It’s that bass, the one he slaps and picks at nightly, almost directly upright, that formed his signature look and “click” tone, one that would go on to be replicated by bassists for two decades.
The band is on a tight schedule to make this “Sessions” show happen in due order, and Welch rounded Arvizu up for me. Otherwise, we might not have had time to talk. (Welch would tell me multiple times throughout the day, “This thing is not all about me.”)
For The Paradigm Shift, Welch didn’t just show up to a written record, learn the songs and then go on tour. He was baptized back in, plunged under the water, became a part of the band again, helping write the new album and willingly being given his spot back, stage right. As Arvizu puts it to me, “It was kind of like if you haven’t seen a family member at Thanksgiving, and he showed up one year or something. It’s been so long for all of us. … Knowing somebody that long, they’re like family. No matter how long, you take up where you left off and it was just normal again.”
It was just like being right back with old friends. There was nothing between us at Carolina Rebellion when I visited them that night.
Without rehashing the drama that took place in Welch’s absence – you can go read that anywhere – a mild chasm had to be mended for him to get back to the band. If you hear Welch tell the story, the emphasis would be on the word “mild,” as he makes it seem like it was mainly his fault and he just needed to man up and apologize. (Whether it is or is not his fault, I don’t know. I didn’t ask, and it wasn’t my concern.) Welch literally hadn’t seen some of his best friends in almost eight years, and when he took the step towards reconciliation, it was like fitting a record needle right back on its grooves. “I’ve known Head since seventh grade,” Arvizu says. “We weren’t even teenagers yet.”
Was it like getting back together with old friends, or were there a lot of kinks you had to work out?
Welch: “No, it was just like being right back with old friends. There was nothing between us at Carolina Rebellion when I visited them that night.”
North Carolina, right?
Welch: “Yeah, I did that show. That’s when I first saw James ‘Munky’ Shaffer, and I was like, ‘Hey man, so good to see you.’ I hadn’t seen them in eight years. One of the things I wanted to do with everybody was just look them in the face and be like, ‘Hey man. Love you, man. Sorry about being an ass.’
That show, “Carolina Rebellion,” was held May 5, 2012 at Rockingham Speedway, somewhere between Raleigh, Charlotte and Columbia, S.C. Jonathan Davis, before inviting him on stage to special guest with the band for the first time in forever, said, “I want to bring out one of my truest and oldest and most beloved friends to come out and have some fun with this.” They then played “Blind,” the first song off their first full album, written 18 years before that in 1994.
“I was there from the very first day we all went in to write the record,” Welch says to me. This is the first thing we talk about; he’s in the driver’s seat, chewing gum. I’m sitting next to him, probably closer than he’s used to in an interview, but the Corolla mandates it. He’s selected to talk about music first (we’ll get to that religion part later), and Welch makes it clear that when he got back with the band, he was basically entering tabula rasa, with an open door to help bring the record to fruition. “They didn’t have anything ready for the record, and it was just perfect timing,” he says. “We hung out in Bakersfield – that’s where we (recorded). We wrote, and then we’d go eat dinner. We’d just hang out and be friends, kind of reconnect.”
I always thought, ‘Man, I want to know what it feels like to have the four original (members) up front meet.’ I had no idea what to expect.
Drummer Ray Luzier – the permanent replacement for founding drummer David Silveria, who left in 2006 – joined the band in early 2007, which gave him over 10 years to be a fan of the band before being asked to join. (“I was so used to playing a disco beat, teaching a drum lesson, playing on a movie soundtrack,” Luzier says of his previous drumming jobs. “That was my life. I didn’t have the rock star thing going on.”) Since Welch left before Luzier joined, Luzier never actually got to play with Welch until he returned. “I always thought, ‘Man, I want to know what it feels like to have the four original (members) up front meet.’ I had no idea what to expect.”
No one else did, either – imagine what you were doing eight years ago. But it seemed like anything could be on the table; Korn has always been known to explore other territory. In 2011, they tried their hand at dubstep, releasing The Path of Totality with Skrillex and other electronic artists producing their tracks. They covered Cameo’s “Word Up!” for the release of their first greatest hits album in 2004. For the same record, they covered all three parts of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” mashed into a seven-minute, digestible version. They put out Chopped, Screwed, Live, & Unglued in 2006, with nine tracks chopped up by the chairman and CEO of Swisha House Records, Michael Watts. They even achieved Prince status, releasing their eighth studio album – and first one without founding drummer Silveria – without a name. To this date, that album’s sold almost half a million copies.
At this point, they could pretty much put out anything they wanted. But with two lines drawn in the sand – one when Welch left, one when he came back – the band could feel the blood fill back in their veins as they crossed that second line. “He brought (the band) back to life,” Luzier says. “We were in (the studio), and watching James and him work together is amazing. Little things, one little note here, one little note there. They vibe off of each other.”
Arvizu couldn’t agree more. “When we first stepped in the studio,” he recalls, “I remember the first day. Head and Munky were playing, and they were doing their thing, bouncing back and forth and playing. I was like, ‘Wow. I get to be me again and just play and fit in the middle,’ because when Head left, I felt like I was always trying to write riffs and fill that hole.”
If you listen to The Paradigm Shift as a whole (as the band would have you do), the first single, “Never Never,” stands out like a sore thumb. It’s happy, at least in tone. The structure is more like a pop song, and the chords give it an uplifting feel. In other words, not very much like Korn at all. I note this to Welch – after all, this is the first representation of the New Old Korn, and it doesn’t feel like Old Korn at all.
“Never Never” is like an island on the record. It stands alone as a different type of song. I noted, “It’s distinctly happier than most of Korn’s previous music.”
Welch: “First of all, the lyrics are definitely not happy.”
I meant the overall tone of it.
Welch: “The tone of the whole song is good, but the whole process with that, for me – to be really honest – was a kind of a fight because I was like … Jonathan wrote that song and—”
Welch: “Yeah, everything. And then Munky added some guitars. I was on tour and I couldn’t even play on that song (on the recording). When they said, ‘We want to use that as the first single,’ I was like, ‘You’re serious?’”
That’s what went through my head.
Welch: “I go, ‘I didn’t even play guitar on it, and you’re billing this thing as the Head reunion with Korn?’ They said, ‘Well, we just really think we want a shot at alternative radio because it’s been a while.’ I was like, ‘OK. That makes sense.’ And then I talked with the band, and the band said, ‘Well, how about if we put another heavy song that represents the album a little bit better along with it or just right after it?’ So we released a snippet of ‘Love and Meth’ a week later.”
Both Welch and Luzier told me independently that The Paradigm Shift is a listen-from-start-to-finish record. They stand behind their record as a whole (obviously, because it’s their baby), but having listened to it, I’d have to agree. It has a certain flow to it, and if you just listened to “Never Never” – which ended up being a successful single after all – you’d never get the full story. “There are really great choruses,” Welch says about the music. “(And) Jonathan’s lyrics, you’ve got to get what you want out of them. He was in a straitjacket place when he was recording the album, but I love his vocals.”
And in a way that feels distinctly Welchian, he starts to talk personally about his frontman, a dude with whom he’s almost literally been to hell-and-back. He speaks clearly and nonchalantly when we talk about Davis’s message behind The Paradigm Shift, his matter-of-fact speech making you simultaneously feel like he’s about to tell you a joke and then tell you your dog just died.
Had Jonathan already written the vocals previously? Because you said he wrote “Never Never.”
Welch: “He wrote ‘Never Never’ in December, music only. Then in April, he came up with the vocals.”
So he was going nuts that spring?
Welch: “Yeah, totally. He was going nuts the whole time. … I came down to start writing with them. He showed up, and he was like, ‘Hey man,’ then he left two hours later, and then I didn’t see him until December. He was so screwed up, coming off of Xanax and all these prescription things. When he came in in December, he wrote ‘Never,’ and got off all the stuff. Then he was going crazy, just, in his mind from December until probably about mid-May. He was all over the place.”
That’s the great artist’s conundrum. You have to sometimes be in that place to write great music, but at the same time, you have to be in that place, which can be the worst thing to do to yourself.
Welch: “Yeah. His kid got diabetes during that time, too. That’s another reason why he was staying at home. … It was a big deal for him. He felt like God was just slamming a hammer down on his life.”
Welch is quick to point out that Davis is neither a believer nor religious, and that Davis is very clear about this non-belief. The furthest Welch will go is to say that Davis believes in a higher power. Of course, there was a point when Welch felt that same way, too. He was staring down death, himself a drug addict, ready to die. He had that same gut feeling of a higher power, but his was like someone reaching down into that hole, grabbing him and wrestling him loose.
Your time apart (from Korn), was it one of those things where you had to get your head on straight?
Welch: “I’ll first start it off with: The hunger for deep spiritual truth in the soul of a drug addict and the hunger for the Lord runs really, really deep. What I wanted was to know this God that spared me from death. That was a big thing. I wanted to walk away and get away from everybody and everything. The public, the music – everything – and focus on my daughter and God.
“I didn’t want to just admit, ‘I was evil; Jesus forgive my sins, and now I’m sober and I’m going to go do good deeds.’ No, I wanted to go and figure out how real this person is. (How real) this God is, this eternity. … We can interact and have experiences with Jesus Christ now. I want to go figure that out. That’s what I’ve been doing for eight years.”
Arvizu had a similar experience, coming to grips with God in his own way, but way less publicized. The green room back in Guitar Center has opened up, and Arvizu and I are sitting on the couch in front of a TV showing old “Sessions.” Welch is in a chair across the room, picking at craft service, and Luzier is looming in and out, killing time before makeup. When I start to ask Arvizu about his experience finding God – I’m a little surprised he opened up about it – he and Welch welcome the parallels their stories share.
What was it like when you found God?
Arvizu: “When everything happened for me, I guess I’d say I locked myself away and studied for eight years. My head was gone.”
Oh, yeah? That sounds a lot like what he did (points to Welch).
Arvizu: “I did the same thing; I was just on a tour bus. There were planes going all over the place.”
Welch: “I was at home in my bed.”
Arvizu: “Same thing. He probably did the same thing, where we just dove in the Word. We’re reading every day and studying and taking all of this in.”
Welch: “What’s all this really about, for real?”
Arvizu: “Yeah. The hardest thing of what it’s all about is love. That’s the hardest thing. When people start digging into that, it’s like … people die in the name of love. People aren’t trying to hear that. They don’t want to accept it. There are a lot of hurt people.
“Look at the new Korn single, ‘I’m Never Gonna Love Again.’ People are hurt in this world. For us to be opening our hearts and trying to love people is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
People die for all different types of causes, right or wrong. What makes you so steadfast and grounded in what the Bible says?
Arvizu: “As I opened it up, it just came to me as truth. I’m like, ‘Wow, I can grab onto this and take this as daily wisdom, something I can finally trust.’
“Everything seemed to be a lie to me. Everything from being a kid to growing up, everything always came back void. And then, (I had heard) over the years, the Word of God doesn’t come back void. That’s over 3,000 years and it’s holding its truth.
“Even God says, ‘Test me in this.’ We can test him and go, ‘Let’s see if you come back void.’ It’s amazing to hold that there’s solid truth in some words because all words in books always come back void, and they always change. Jesus says, ‘I’m the same yesterday, today and forever.’ It doesn’t change.”
I know that people reading this will be wanting to argue with me about it already. If you’re already starting to argue with someone, then you’ve failed right there.
It gets tricky here, because, to some, believers shouldn’t have anything to do with secular music, especially metal. Some shun the genre all together, regardless of whether or not the band is in a Christian market. (If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck … ) It leaves Welch and Arvizu in an interesting spot, but they don’t see it like that at all. Where they come from, there wasn’t even a second thought about switching jobs; it’s almost bewildering to them that someone would even question it. As Welch would tell me, your neighbor is more important.
How do you respond to those critics that say you shouldn’t be playing in Korn as a believer?
Welch: “All the scriptures, they’re supposed to be a springboard to relationships. They’re supposed to lead you to the living God. The Word of God is living and active and it pushes us to meet the real God, and you’ve got to know the real God and what he’s like – now, in this day and age. He’s the same yesterday, today and forever. He always says in scriptures, ‘Behold, I do a new thing.’ I’m doing a new thing.
“A lot of people get stuck in the scriptures, and they don’t read them in context. They think what Paul’s saying to them or what this guy’s saying to this church 2,000 years ago applies today. That’s what religion does. It blinds you, and then it totally alienates you from the time that you’re in.
“I went through that, too, so I try not to get all pissed off at them. I’m trying to wake people up to realize God’s not in a box. He’s not afraid. He sent me back here to Korn, and what if it’s just to have relationships? Jesus didn’t go up to the people at the parties and be like, ‘You know if you confess my name …’”
He made more wine the first time.
“Yes. He made wine. He didn’t say, ‘If you confess my name and believe in your heart then you’ll be saved.’ He didn’t do that. He started relationships.
“I know that people reading this will be wanting to argue with me about it already. If you’re already starting to argue with someone, then you’ve failed right there. You’ve got to stop and start over because the scriptures aren’t for like … you don’t load scriptures in a gun and shoot somebody. You’re missing the whole point of Jesus if you do that.”
On separate occasions, when I brought up this question to Arvizu and Welch, they had similar answers. They used similar words. When they say they’re like family, it’s true. The relationship they built – the one they use to hold each other up, as well as the others in their band and those around them – are the proof they’re effectively living out what they say.
Arvizu takes a slightly different approach to answering the question. It’s a more rational one – not that Welch’s answer is irrational – but one that is more objective than emotional.
“Let’s say I was a carpenter, as Jesus was, and I got a job building for churches,” Arvizu says. “I’m like, ‘This is good money.’ But then, all of a sudden, a multi-trillionaire says, ‘I want you to build this palace for me,’ and he’s not a believer. Do I do it? Yeah, because I’m building it for Him. I go with my hammer and I build and I do the best I can.
“No matter where we go, we’re always doing it for Him,” he continues. “Not for a man or the world, because it’s just a job. I don’t take it as, ‘This (band) is my god.’ I know there’s a bigger picture and I know there’s more to this” – he points down at that famous bass across his lap – “what I call my ax. It’s an ax. I could be chopping wood with it or making tunes.”
Arvizu knows he doesn’t get it right all the time. He came from a rough background, and, with no excuses, he knows it’s an everyday workout to set aside his quick reactions or maybe even bury how he really wants to respond. But at the end of the day, he knows it needs to come from a place of love.
“Honestly, you’ve just got to love everybody right where they’re at,” he says. “If you’re not loving someone, then you’re not telling them about God. If they’re taking it wrong then you’re taking the wrong approach. I have a hard time. I’ve got to take it slow, because I’m not the best at it, and I’m working on it. That’s my daily battle. To love people. The bottom line is trying to love people.”
Korn was posted on October 7, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by David Stagg.