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Interview: Korn’s Munky on The Path of Totality

December 7, 2011
Photo: Rick Wenner

“It’s about reinventing yourself,” exclaims Korn’s Munky [James Shaffer], “With each record you have to push yourself to try something new.” And The Path of Totality, Korn’s 10th release, sees the band venturing into uncharted territory with a cross-pollination of metal and dubstep. Album guests include Noisia, Downlink, Feed Me, 12th Planet, and Skrillex [Sonny John Moore], who made his first public appearance with the band this past April onstage at the Coachella Festival to give fans a teaser of the upcoming album.

Considering the success of last year’s Korn III: Remember Who You Are, which signaled a return to the band’s roots and earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance for the song “Let the Guilt Go,” The Path of Totality’s new direction may seem like a drastic change and a risky career move. And it very well may be. But from day one, evolution has been the band’s modus operandi and while other groups were busy re-hashing tried-and-true formulas, Korn ushered in the nü-metal genre with their revolutionary, dropped-tuned, 7-string riffage. That distinct sound quickly became the rage and dominated the metal sound of the mid-to-late ’90s. Somewhat ironically, the band’s latest release embodies a mildly perverted twist on reinvention. After decades of spearheading the sound of de-tuned disaster, The Path of Totality is the only Korn record to be completely recorded in standard tuning, subversively recasting the pedestrian tuning as the “new sound.”

There is perhaps no greater symbol of any band’s success than its longevity. Since Korn’s inception in 1993 to their 1996 breakthrough album, Follow the Leader, to now, the band has managed to continually push the envelope and still remain relevant despite the music industry’s constant metamorphosis. Of course, that’s not to say it’s been an easy road. A major setback occurred in 2005 when founding member, guitarist Head (Brian Welch) quit the band to deal with his drug addiction and seek salvation through holier channels. The rumor mill has since bristled with white-hot intensity regarding a possible reunion. Regarding which, Munky openly expresses his trepidation, “That’s something we have to get in a room and talk about. It’s always a roller coaster. Even me, I always say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ because I still have mixed feelings about it. Everybody does. But the thing is, we’ve recorded four records without him and I think we’re doing just fine without him, honestly.” Munky, never one to look back, graciously took time to reflect with Premier Guitar on the making of the new album and the gear he used to navigate the band’s new frontier.

What brought about the new album’s dubstep sound?
It really was Jonathan [Davis, frontman]. He’s been doing a lot of DJ gigs and stuff, and was really getting into the dubstep scene. Basically he just approached me and asked what I thought about including some elements of dubstep in our new record.

Photo: Joe Coffey

Did you have reservations initially?
At first I was like, “Wow, this is really gonna be a challenge. I don’t know how I’m gonna approach this, but I’m down.” It was really about getting Skrillex on the phone and seeing if he was into collaborating with us and going from there. That was when the song “Get Up!” came about. It was a positive experience and we wanted to do more songs. We were like, “Let’s go find more guys.” Skrillex asked his friends and helped us with that.

You guys pioneered the nü-metal genre. Are you looking to change the game again with this new record?
We’re not having that in mind. We’ve been doing this for so long and when I saw how enthusiastic and excited Jonathan was about getting into the studio and trying this. You know, after 20 years, if you see a band member that excited you have to follow the path and trust each other’s intuition when you get inspired.

When we started this band, basically we were trying to put together all of our favorite bands and influences including hip-hop and rap into our music and make one cool band. That’s all we’ve done again.

Last year’s Korn III: Remember Who You Are recalled the sounds of classic Korn and was a big success. Are you worried about how the fans might react to this radical stylistic change?
I think our fans know that with every Korn record there’s going to be something different. The fan base we’ve created and the newer fans are so open to different genres of music. I personally had a lot of fun doing Remember Who You Are. But you know, we’ve been doing it for so long so let’s do something different. We know that fans like it but it’s kind of conquered ground. We felt like we were kind of copying ourselves. Like Korn cover songs, but by Korn.

And this electronic element isn’t necessarily even foreign to you guys. A song like “Helmet in the Bush” from your debut album had some of that electronic influence.
I’m glad you said that. We’ve always had some type of electronic element in our sound. On every record there’s been an electronic song or two.

Can you talk us through the writing process with Skrillex?
He came to the studio and brought some ideas—a couple of drumbeats with some bass lines that he’d written. He uses Massive, which is a Native Instruments software program. He manipulates it and we’ll upload his files into Pro Tools. I would record riffs over a skeleton of drumbeats and bass that he would give us, then give him back the file and he would sit on the other side of the room with headphones on and chop it up and move it around a little bit. The good thing about working with him is that he’s been in a band so he knows how to arrange it for vocals because most dubstep and dance tracks, as opposed to pop, are not really arranged for vocal structure. Having been the singer in a band already, he had it already figured out so having a musical vocabulary with him was pretty much seamless.



Photo: Kaley Nelson

How about some of the other guys like Noisia?
Noisia is from the Netherlands so there was a geography thing.

So you did it all by email?
Yeah, email and Dropbox. They’d send us some skeletons, I’d riff on them, send it back, and then they’d change it a little bit or add a section here and there. Feed Me was the other guy. He was out of the UK. Funny thing about it is that these guys are from all over the world, but it still sounds like a Korn record.

What was the secret to maintaining your identity on this album?
That was really tricky to balance. Let’s do something different but still retain who we are. I think it comes down to Jonathan’s vocals—what he’s singing about and the delivery of the vocals—my guitar sound and also the mix of the guitar, and Fieldy’s bass.

The interesting thing about working on this record for me was, because the synth was so heavy, when I heard it, I thought, “Man, it’s like a guitar.” I started to feel like I had to compete.

What adjustments did you then make to your sound?
We had to create this big guitar sound to compete with those sounds. We came up with this wall of sound using octave pedals and by layering stuff. Then the heavy synth and bass stuff were complementing each other.

And you came across a satisfactory balance?
Yeah. Then I could lay out in this section and play something a little cleaner and pick lightly instead of trying to compete with the heavy synth stuff. It was like having a second guitar player.

Photo: Kaley Nelson

How will you reproduce the electronic stuff live?
We have a lot of it on a Pro Tools rig—our keyboard player samples a lot of stuff. The new stuff from the record sounds so massive. I don’t know if you’ve listened to the record on a big stereo but it bumps harder than anything we’ve ever done. You can’t play a new song, then an old song, and then a new song because nothing holds up.

But you’re not playing only new stuff on tour, right?
No, no, of course not. We’d get tomatoes thrown at us. We’re doing a lot of new songs because we want to promote it and a lot of people seem really excited about it. We’re having a great time. We’re going to play old stuff, too: “Here To Stay,” “Got the Life,” “Blind,” “Freak on a Leash.” If I went to a concert to see Korn and didn’t hear “Freak on a Leash” or “Blind,” I would be pissed.

What’s your main guitar?
Ibanez made me a few prototypes with a single-coil and a humbucker in the bridge position and we called it the APEX100. It was kind of my own design and has that Ibanez RG body style. It’s a classic looking guitar with a modern feel. I wanted to have a Tele clean-sound, single-coil, 7-string neck pickup and modern, metal-sound bridge humbucker pickup.

You also went with standard tuning on this new record, after tuning down a whole step for about 20 years. Is this a first?
I’ve done a lot of stuff that’s standard tuning for overdubs, but as far as standard tuning for a whole record, yes. It [going to standard tuning now] was done to minimize the musical communication gap. I’m used to playing dropped-tuned guitars and there had been a little bit of confusion. You know I’m listening and watching them play and I’m like, “This is C, this is D,” and I’m trying to transpose it. So then it was like, “Let’s tune up,” and once we tuned up, everything sounded better. The guitar actually played better.

How about effects pedals?
The Digitech XP100 has been kind of a staple of my setup for recording for 15 years, ever since Follow the Leader. A Dunlop Wah, an MXR Phase 90, a Uni-Vibe. A company called Magic Box made a prototype distortion pedal and it’s great for lo-fi stuff and I use it as sort of an EQ but it can also be a great distortion. But it worked so good I asked them if they could make a production model, and they are going to do it. It’s going to be called The Crush. Then I have the Devi Ever Beautiful Disaster pedal, and a couple of Z.Vex pedals like the Seek Wah—that thing is really temperamental though, you have to be patient with it.

Gearbox

Guitars
Ibanez APEX100 with DiMarzio Blaze pickups

Amps
Marshall Plexi with Marshall straight cabinet loaded with Celestion Greenbacks, Bogner amps, Mesa/Boogie straight cabinets

Effects
Digitech XP100, Dunlop Wah, MXR Phase 90, Dunlop Uni-Vibe, Magic Box The Crush, Devi Ever Beautiful Disaster, Z.VEX Seek Wah, Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, Electro-Harmonix POG, Electro-Harmonix Ravish Sitar

Strings
Dean Markley .011–.060

Cables
Monster Cables

You got some pretty wicked sounds on “Sanctuary.” What did you use on that?
I’m going to give away my secrets right now—you’re hearing an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth pedal and also a Whammy pedal for a few dive bombs.

How about amps?
I’ve been using a modified Marshall Plexi for the last few records. I used it on the Issues album. When I was working with Brendan O’Brien we were renting some gear from Andy Bauer in L.A. and he had this Marshall that Brendan loved so much. He asked Andy if he would sell it and Andy said, “Yeah.” “How much?” And he said $800. Brendan was like, “Dude, if you don’t buy this amp, I’m going to.” So I said, “Okay, I better buy it,” and then it sat in my garage for so long. I finally got it out and used it on the last couple albums. Everyone loved it.

What mods does it have?
I couldn’t even tell you. We’ve been trying to figure it out. I have my guitar tech dissecting it to see if we can duplicate it into another Marshall. For a long time I used Mesa/Boogies and I kind of got over that.

With the band going all electronic I would think you’d be using something like an Axe-FX.
I know. I’m not using Guitar Rig or anything like that. I use a traditional setup. I like to record analog. We did add a couple of things, a couple of plug-ins. But it was recorded with a 4x12 straight cabinet and a Marshall amp. I just like to hear my amp turned all the way up in an iso-room mic’d. If we’re going to capture a Korn sound, this is how it has to be.



YouTube It
For a taste of Korn’s twisted nü-metal stylings, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.


The crowd goes berserk as Korn plays “Blind” at the 2007 Live Rock Am Ring festival in Germany.


Footage from 2004 of early Korn (with Head still in the band) playing “Freak on a Leash” from a surprise show at the now-defunct CBGB’s in New York City.


Full-length concert video of Korn from the 2011 Rock Am Ring festival in Germany, featuring the expletive-laced “Get Up!” from new release The Path of Totality.