God’s favourite Californian nu-metallers Korn are back with their 12th album ‘The Serenity Of Suffering’ and it’s a return to their heavy ’90s heyday. Thea De Gallier talks to guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch about the unlikely revival of nu-metal and how they’ve avoided becoming a nostalgia act
Whatever happened to nu-metal? The days of puddle-absorbingly wide trousers, wallet chains and poor attempts at white-guy dreadlocks seem like a fleeting moment in metal’s chequered history, and yet the genre that’s always polarised fans of heavy music seems to be in rude health. Linkin Park are working on a new album, up-and-coming bands are fleshing out their sound with electronica, and this December, Korn – the band often credited with kicking off the nu-metal scene – are touring arenas with Limp Bizkit in tow. No, it’s not 1999.
Before the tour, Korn release their 12th album, ‘The Serenity Of Suffering’. Guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch rejoined them in 2013 after taking eight years away from the band he helped form in ’93, and it’s his second album with them since the reunion. “I absolutely love this new record,” he says over the phone. “I’m the type of person where life is too short and if I’m not passionate about doing something then I don’t wanna be there. We only have a certain number of years on the planet and I want to be doing something that I love.” Superfluous nuggets of contrived positivity like that pepper our chat, although judging by Head’s interview demeanour since he rejoined Korn – rejuvenated by his faith and almost decade-long abstention from drugs – these kind of soundbites are to be expected.
In 2013, just after he resumed his guitar duties, he wrote blithely in his column on US music site Loudwire that God was a Korn fan: “There was a time when I didn’t think God would be very into Korn’s music and lifestyle, but I’ve learned that He loves everyone where they’re at. And I know God loves Korn’s music because it’s passionate and very honest.” He also wrote that while recording 2013’s ‘The Paradigm Shift’, he felt “like I never left”, and hearing him talk animatedly about ‘The Serenity Of Suffering’ it’s obvious he’s well and truly back into his stride.
The album is full of the kind of percussive, bouncing riffs that 1999’s multi-million-selling album ‘Issues’ relied on, and lyrically it’s a cry of anguish. “It’s about JD’s relationships and stuff,” Head says of frontman Jonathan Davis’s words. “It seems like he lets people hurt him and he puts up with it; he’s been through a lot in his personal life. He says he finds strength and serenity in suffering for people he loves; I don’t know if that’s a good quality, or damaging to his soul. He’s a really nice guy, but I think sometimes it gets the best of him; sometimes people take advantage.”
‘The Serenity Of Suffering’ might have ended up as a vehicle for Davis to exorcise his demons, but Head says that at the start of the writing process, the vocalist didn’t like the music he and guitarist Munky were writing. “He was like, ‘I wanna like it, but I’m not really passionate about it,’” Head explains.
“In his words, he had to fall in love with heavy music again because he was getting into electronic music and he still loves that, but he knew we wanted to do this. He just kept working on the songs, and he wasn’t a jerk about it – he just kept trying. When he came up with something that he liked, it would encourage him. Now he really likes it.”
This collaborative atmosphere is a far cry from the public trash-talking Head and Davis partook of in 2005 after Head left the band and turned to religion. He reportedly accused his former bandmates of only caring about money, to which Davis responded by calling Christians “the biggest f**king con artists in the world” and saying Head’s new lifestyle “kinda weirds me out”. The mud-slinging continued on and off until 2011, when Head announced he and the band were back on good terms.
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An album that harks so obviously back to Korn’s early days is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a return to form for the band, who started experimenting with dubstep with Skrillex before Head rejoined them. He says they chose Roadrunner Records to release the new album because they’re “very passionate about it. [They] wanted to get the message out there to the rock world that Korn is back”. But with any blast from the past, there’s the danger of becoming nothing more than a nostalgia trip or, worse, a novelty. The fact that they’re about to tour with Limp Bizkit suggests that Korn are either embracing this or simply don’t give a f**k.
“I’ll take what I can get,” laughs Head, when I ask if he’s bothered that some people might regard Korn as nothing more than a throwback to nu-metal’s heyday. “Whoever wants to think of us like that, it’s fine with us. We’re pleased, because we’re still doing rock radio and in America we have a Top Five single next to Green Day and Metallica.” Does he worry about fitting into the modern metal scene, where trends seem to be veering towards metalcore and something of a punk revival? “You want to stay relevant and cool,” he admits. “Whatever happens to Korn, we should be thankful for where we’ve gotten because even if we fell off, we’ve had a very long career. But when we write a record, we want people to get excited. We want people to like our art. It’s fun to have a lot of people come to your shows and go crazy. Obviously we want success.”
He feels that pressure most when songwriting. “Our producer Nick Raskulinecz pushed us to keep recording [‘The Serenity Of Suffering’]. We wouldn’t have ‘Insane’, the first song on the album, if it wasn’t for him. I was saying, ‘We’ve got to stop, I’m freaking fried!’ I’m glad I listened to him. I think I get anxiety when I try to write because we were doing it for 20 years and I come into it like, ‘What am I going to do that I haven’t already done?’”
The answer, it seems, is to return to what Korn do best: discordant riffs and stark, biting verses. Oh, and a guest spot from Corey Taylor on the track ‘A Different World’. “Nick said, ‘Why don’t we call Corey?’” Head remembers. “He was free the following weekend. And he’s never free.”
I ask Head if he feels that there’s a renewed interest in nu-metal right now, but he’s reluctant to pigeonhole Korn into the genre. “It does feel like there’s a new excitement for our kind of music, but what I like about Korn is that we can fit in anywhere,” he muses. “We’ve always been on radio, we’ve always been playing shows. Our first tour was with No Doubt. We’ve played with Sick Of It All, Ozzy [Osbourne], Megadeth, Marilyn Manson, House Of Pain… That’s what I like about us, that we can blend in everywhere.”
Perhaps a Korn comeback isn’t such a far-fetched notion after all. Head might have gone away for a while, but he’s right when he says the band never really did. As for nu-metal itself, there’s a feeling that it’s returning, smarter and spruced-up, as the bands that pioneered it enjoy continued success and new bands look to it for inspiration. Let’s just hope it doesn’t spell a return for wide-legged trousers…