Korn guitarist James Shaffer says making records sober isn’t the kind of stunt he’d necessarily advise other bands to pull, but that’s what his nu metal scarecrows did this time around. And for good reason, he adds.
“That’s what worked on this album,” says Shaffer. “For me, I could think a lot clearer and communicate ideas back and forth, which speeds things up. So we weren’t wasting time, which is money – and there’s not much money to make records anymore because not a lot of people buy them.”
With the recent release of The Paradigm Shift, Korn are presently experiencing what might be the closest they’ll ever come to a smell-the-roses phase, essentially engendered by previous health scares. The high-octane record is a nervy glimpse into the gates-of-hell headspace which uber-grim singer Jonathan Davis has been struggling to navigate his way out of in recent times – as distinct from all the other times – namely due to a Xanax addiction which superseded a 12-year dalliance with Prozac. It was a Xanax detox that indefinitely reassigned Davis’ consciousness to somewhere in the vicinity of the twilight zone and the stress of having a seriously sick child. Its completion spells a brighter chapter for all of the band members, Shaffer says.
“We were all so messed up before. We had to have our drink and our drugs and smoke and whatever it was before we would start even recording. We wasted a lot of time but we had a lot of fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
During the latest songwriting phase, the band collaborated in its Bakersfield, California studio to assemble some of the most brutal riffage this side of a metal festival curated by the Bandidos. Unlike 2011’s dubstep-happy The Path Of Totality, Korn toned down the electronic aspect to electro-lite this time around, and peppered the record with the digital bells and whistles retrospectively.
“I definitely prefer interacting with the live drums, and somebody actually performing, to anything else,” says Shaffer. “It just feels like there’s two people and not one guy and a machine.”
The live approach was further enhanced by guitarist Brian Welch’s return to studio recording for the first time since 2003’s Take A Look In The Mirror. In the early stages of the songwriting process, Shaffer says the band essentially sat down together and began spawning riffs. It reached a point where they had ten or 11 songs and more ideas than they knew what to do with. This was when they enlisted the services of producer Don Gilmore to help harness their ideas.
“This is somebody that Brian really wanted to work with,” Shaffer says. “I know he made a couple of Linkin Park records and [worked with] Three Days Grace, and some records that aren’t on the top of my list, but I know he makes great records … They’re not my favourite records but they’re great-sounding records and I was open to try this guy.”
Historically, Korn haven’t always hit it off with their producers. On 2010’s Korn III: Remember Who You Are, Davis said he was so troubled by his working relationship with producer Ross Robinson (producer of Korn’s first two albums) that he wanted to kill himself. Not this time, however. Shaffer says Gilmore worked with a sense of purpose and direction from the outset.
“We were just like, ‘This guy is full on into it. He gets it and he understands it. He understands where we are with Brian coming back to the band and where we see ourselves.’ We wanted to make a record that’s relevant and we wanted to make some songs that are good and that pertain to an album – not just a couple of singles. Because there are so many different personalities in the band, he was really good with delegating and getting people to show up and dealing with our adolescence.”
Dealing with his own emotional issues, Davis was absent from the recording of the album until it was time to lay down his vocals. “There was actually a lot of pressure on Jonathan,” says Shaffer, “because once the bulk of the recording of the music was done, everybody was starting to think, ‘We really need to get some vocals on here.’ But nobody really knew what was going on with him at that point. He had his own personal stuff going on, so I think there was some pressure at that point. But for three-quarters of the record, it was really relaxed and a lot of fun.”
The band’s 11th album, The Paradigm Shift entered the US Billboard 200 at number eight (selling 46,000 copies), topped the US Hard Rock Charts and debuted at seven on the ARIA charts. Whilst The Path Of Totality had signalled the band’s deeper foray into artificial instrumentation, the latest record is largely meat-and-potatoes Korn, and critically regarded as a return to form.
However, Korn continue to aspire to evolve. Shaffer says the metamorphosis they’ve been through over 11 albums has been intrinsic to their survival.
“I think it’s part of who we are as creative people,” says Shaffer. “We always want to keep going with experimentation. I think the beauty of it is that you can still have that Korn sound, which is the bass, guitar and vocals – those are the three elements we’ll always retain – but I think as creative people we always need to push ourselves in different directions and step out of our comfort zones. If you don’t step out of your comfort zone and feel a bit squeamish, you’re not really going to make any growth.”
This month, Korn touch down in Australia for Soundwave Festival and a string of sideshows. They’ll join forces with horror-metal ghoul Rob Zombie for a co-headline tour.
“We toured with him about ten years ago and I remember it being a good time, and then we toured with them a couple of years ago and I remember it was not so fun [laughs]. I don’t know, we played after him and he had all these gags and completely destroyed the stage. As far as I can recall he basically tarred and feathered the stage before we went on, so we had our crew cleaning until it was time to play. It was a real pain in the ass and I think he was doing it on purpose.”
Korn have already been playing with Zombie in American arenas on this tour. Behind the scenes, Shaffer says Zombie has been in excellent spirits.
“He’s a cool guy. He’s well-spoken, he’s very witty and he’s a lot of fun. I don’t remember him being in the best mood last time, but touring with him this time, he’s had us onstage – we’ve played songs together and sat in the catering room and had a few dinners together with the crew, and everybody got along well. I think it’s just a maturity thing. We’re at a different place in our lives where we’re very grateful we still get to go out and act like fools every night and have fun doing it.”
The Paradigm Shift out now through Prospect Park/Caroline.