Never underestimate the healing capabilities of music especially when going through some of life’s most physically challenging moments. Speaking for myself, I was born with a chest deformity known as ‘pectus excavatum.’ If you’re unfamiliar with the term, my sternum sunk in towards my rib cage and almost resembled a cereal bowl. Growing up, I felt extremely insecure about my chest, especially when I took off my shirt. Seriously, it felt like all eyes would turn and make looks of disgust towards my direction. For the most part, my friends were cool about it but other kids would frequently ask me about my ‘weird looking chest’ whenever I had my shirt off at pool parties or summer camp. Until I turned 10, no physical issues really surfaced until I started experiencing repeated asthma attacks, chest discomfort, and shortness of breath when I exerted myself playing sports.
My condition eventually became both a physical and mental hurdle, so I needed a place of comfort where I could exert those feeling’s of resentment and confusion through a positive outlet. This form of therapy came from music, especially when I first saw the music video for Korn’s “Freak On A Leash.” I write these following sentences with chills running down my spine. In those moments of pitiful sorrow, I intuitively connected with Jonathan Davis as he painfully uttered, ‘Life’s got to always be messing with me/ Can’t they chill and let me be free?’ In fact, this song hit me unlike anything I ever heard beforehand because I identified with the “Freak” in the title. All those hurtful memories of bullying or feeling chastised for my condition evaporated for four minutes and fifteen seconds. I no longer felt secluded by expressing those thoughts of loneliness or sorrow through art.
After visiting several doctors for surgical advice, I had a procedure done to correct my chest before I entered the sixth grade. Thanks to the amazing work of world-renowned surgeon Donald Nuss, I went to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia where a metal bar was inserted into my upper body, therefore raising my sternum and opening up my lung’s to increase my breathing capacity. I’m a lifelong metalhead but it’s ironic how much I fell in love with heavier music when I had metal inside my body. Korn’s Follow The Leader, Issues, and The Untouchables became personal soundtracks that helped me overcome some of my toughest hurdles in obtaining self-confidence and strength. Long story short, I had the bar taken out after three-years and my chest is completely normal. I’m perfectly healthy and I frequently hit the gym and listen to bands like Korn through my headphones. I recently graduated from Rutgers University and I’m pursuing my dream as a music journalist. Working my way up in the world of heavy metal, I recently covered the seventh annual Mayhem Fest in Camden, New Jersey.
Throughout the festival, I interviewed some noteworthy artists but life came full-circle after I was chosen to participate in an exclusive Q&A session with Korn guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer and drummer Ray Luzier. Somewhere inside the subconscious of my 11-year old self, I couldn’t imagine this scenario ever becoming a reality back in 2001. Whoever thought I would work with Korn on a professional level? Currently touring behind the release of their special edition 11th studio album The Paradigm Shift, I joined a small group of reporters and spoke to Korn about a broad range of topics regarding their historic career. And yes, I told them my story following the conclusion of my interview.
Co-headlining an all-star worthy lineup at this summer’s Mayhem, Korn managed to push the barrier of a stereotypical metal show in the vein of how their debut LP changed the music scene during the mid 90s. Igniting a renaissance in the world of heavy metal following the success of their debut LP, Korn’s relentless accessibility inspired an entire generation of musicians to adapt seven-string riffs and melodic screaming into their repertoire. Close minded metal listeners will stereotype this era as ‘Nu-Metal,’ yet it remains underrated considering its undeniable mainstream impact after a second wave of bands ran away with Korn’s original blueprint.
Merging together the finest elements of industrial metal, death metal, thrash, funk, hip-hop, electronic, and pop, James “Munky” Shaffer’s calm demeanor signified an overall mindset shared by each member of Korn to continuously push for musical innovation. “It’s about taking chances and going out on a limb. You hear a lot of bands say how every album is a chance to reinvent yourself,” he said, “For us, I really feel like we’ve gone out on a fucking plank because sometimes there’s no turning back. You have to commit to it and sometimes it’s like ‘Eh, I don’t know,’ and you kind of let go and see what happens.”
Since joining the veteran act in 2007, Ray Luzier quickly adapted to Korn’s penchant for taking creative risks. For a world-class drummer like Luzier, substituting bass pedals for electronic drum samples challenged him to step outside his comfort zone. Seriously, listen to his contributions on the last three LP’s and notice the dramatic difference in style. He commented on his open-minded approach, “Some of my favorite bands like Iron Maiden or AC/DC, you kind of know what they’re new records are going to sound like. And that’s great because the fans expect it, and it’s a formula that works so don’t touch it. It’s cool when Jon brings these different ideas over and we’re like ‘Whoa’ and we step back for a second. Once we embrace it, we’ll get our heads around it and it’s a pretty fierce thing.”
Till this day, Korn’s musical output ignites a variety of mixed reactions whether its older fans disliking the modern dubstep elements or newer fans supporting their experimentation. Ironically, Munky never considered his recent LPs as a step towards becoming “Kornstep,” but viewed it as paying homage to his favorites bands like Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy. He claimed, “I always just thought of it as my chance to take a step into a new wave of industrial metal.” Luzier further backed his bandmate’s comment, “It’s still cool that we could go off the deep end like we did with the dubstep stuff, or bring Brian and those metal elements back again twenty-years later.” He added, “You’re always going to piss somebody off but I’ll tell you that we gained a bunch of new fans because they’re all into dubstep. All this stuff still sounds like Korn and I think that’s incredible.”
The highly anticipated return of guitarist Brian “Head” Welch in 2013 helped Korn overcome a period of internal struggle that eventually solidified itself into the tightest lineup of its career. “I’m glad we went through all those up’s and down’s because we’re in a place now where we have such gratitude,” said Munky, “We went through so much turmoil and than Brian left. There were so many interchanges in the band. It’s a whole book’s worth of stuff that I’ll probably write about one day. The whole experience has made this band stronger and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
For the first time in nearly a decade, ‘Head’ made significant writing contributions to Korn’s latest LP The Paradigm Shift. I asked Munky about reconnecting with Head in terms of musical chemistry, and how redeveloping that familiarity with his longtime bandmate will influence his approach on the next album. He said, “Head and I were talking on the way here about how we really want to keep the melodic element of what we captured on last record but really expand on the heavy riffs and get a bit dirtier. Maybe a little longer songs with longer intros, and a little more math rock, not prog-rocky but maybe some slower tempoed grooves that are 7-8 or 3-4’s timing and stuff like that.”
I couldn’t stop myself from asking Munky and Luzier about their plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Korn. Considering its long-term impact on Generation X and Y, this historic debut deserves a momentous celebration. It’s safe to say, Munky’s answer didn’t fail to raise my excitement. He stated, “Our 20th anniversary will probably be next year. We’re celebrating the idea this year (laughs). We came up with a couple of ideas but I think it will have to be a performance or recording of us in a usual place playing the older songs. We still have to figure out the details regarding the location and songs. It’s going to be cool.”
Adding to the sense of nostalgia during this conversation, Ray Luzier acknowledged the enormity of Korn. He reminisced, “I’ve been touring with different bands for 22-years and I remember when Korn’s first record came out and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is going to blow up and nobody is going to sound like them ever.’ And I’m still right.” Munky shortly joked right after, “I’m glad you thought that because when our first record came out, nobody wanted to play it.”
In moment symbolizing the band’s ability to survive the music industry’s fickle transition from physical to digital, Munky said, “I remember when somebody told me that we should buy the domain name for Korn.com.” Regardless of what lies ahead for the future of music consumption, Luzier confidently asserted, “You could never ever replace live entertainment, no matter what happens to the records. I don’t care what you could do with your iPhone, it’s the interaction with the crowd, what we’re giving, and what we’re taking back that will never go away.”
Releasing eleven albums in twenty years, it’s no surprise that fans of different ages cherish certain eras of the catalog. Whether listeners discovered the Bakersfield act during the mid 90s, early 2000s, or even last year, Munky certainly takes pride when other noteworthy musician’s express their gratitude for Korn. He remarked, “Seeing a new generation that has been inspired by Korn is really cool. It’s really great to see these bands, and sometimes I’ll notice some riffs and think to myself, “That sounds a little Korn-y.”
Displaying a genuine gratitude for those who overcame personal struggles by listening to Korn, Luzier finds inspiration through his fan’s words of wisdom. He said, “There are a lot of people out there where the first couple of Korn records got them through high school and now they’re bringing their kids. When someone says Korn’s music got them through rough times or brought their families back together, that’s heavy. They had nothing to with us and we had nothing to do with them but we connected with them through our music and that’s so much more powerful than you think it is.”
It’s no wonder why audiences across the world clamor to see Korn when they visit countries like Dubai or Mongolia. The band’s music continues to find international audiences; therefore expanding its global presence to newfound heights. Till this day, few musical experiences equate to seeing those dreadlocks bounce across every square inch of the stage. Pit your favorite band against Korn, they will certainly walk away looking like amateurs. I fully standby this statement; Korn’s never sounded better live and they are currently performing at peak levels, which Luzier eludes is the result of the band’s belief in one another. He concluded, “People think we’re getting older but we’re just more experienced and we’re just as eager to get out there. We’re in a really great place in our lives; everyone is focused on the music and their families so we’re just a freight train right now.”