INTERVIEW: Korn’s James ‘Munky’ Shaffer

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Korn are one of the few bands of the Nu Metal era to have endured. Not only does their original breakthrough material still hold up despite the decade and a half of imitators, they also manage to maintain a sense of vitality in their newer material. Just look at last year’s Korn III: Remember Who You Are. It was a dirty, raw, powerful, vital album at a time when bands often become complacent. But complacency isn’t in Korn’s vocabulary. Their latest, The Path Of Totality, finds them pairing up with various dubstep and electronica producers to put a heavily neo-industrial spin on their established bottom-heavy rhythmic drive. But The Path Of Totality isn’t the only new release that Korn guitarist James ‘Munky’ Shaffer is involved in. He recently – finally – released the debut self-titled album by his long-planned solo project, Fear and the Nervous System, a band which features Faith No More bass player Billy Gould, drummer Brooks Wackerman, and Repeater vocalist Steve Krolikowski.

How did the collaborations on The Path Of Totality happen? Did you work together in the studio? Did you send off recorded parts?

It was kind of mixed up. We started out with Skrillex and we worked in the studio with him on the first track, which was ‘Get Up.'” So we were actually working with him in person. And also with Downlink and Excision. Noisia, those guys are from the Netherlands so we just send tracks through the air. They sent them back and Jonathan (Davis, vocals) was in communication with them. So it was kinda different with each artist and producer.

It must have been a cool challenge to figure out exactly where the guitar would fit amongst all the other stuff going on.

I mean, on a lot of the tracks it seemed really like ‘Where am I gonna put the guitar? Where is it gonna fit?’ And it was challenging for me. Rhythmically it was really kinda busy and I was trying to find the right space and the right notes. It’s like a boxing match – you bob and weave to sort of get your punch in there.

One thing it reminds me of is Faith No More in the sense that you’re kind of providing a bridge between the rhythm and the atmospherics. 

That’s a good analogy. Thank you!

When I heard about what you were going to do with this album I thought it’d remind me of the electronic edge to See You On The Other Side with regards to the electronic stuff, but instead it gives me a bit of a vibe like The Untouchables in terms of how experimental it is. 

I guess I can’t really compare it to any other of our other records, except I guess Untouchables is the first in the sense that we were using different sounds and recording techniques and kind of trying to create more of a sonic boom on that record than anything. And I think this record has that familiarity to the rhythms, of what makes Korn ‘Korn.’

It’s interesting that you have such a definable sound that so many people have tried to copy but you’re not afraid to really push it in another direction and mess with it.

I think our fans understand that. I hope that our fans understand that sort of creative change that we feel like we need to do, that we need to follow throughout our career.

There were so many bands who copied you and they’re all gone but you’re still here.

I know! It’s really mind blowing when I think about it. But I’ve just got to kind of look forward and move through it, not look back. I mean, I look back for a minute and go “Oh, look, that’s cool!” but then keep moving forward to whatever your calling is.

How are you handling the new material live?

We have some tracks that we’re triggering for the electronics. What do you call it, Pro Tools? Pro Tools running click tracks, and it’s challenging. It’s not something we’re really used to, but when everything’s locked up and we’re tight, it slams. Really, sonically it’s like some of the best shit we’ve played live. The new songs translate really well live. So far everything that we’ve played translates really well. So it’ll be interesting once the fans and people have the record in their hands and they have time to digest the songs and pick out their favourites. It’ll be interesting to see their reaction to the new stuff live, because I really think the majority of people are really going to love it.

What guitar gear did you use on the album? 

I have this Marshall amp, I think it’s an old Plexi from the 80s. I used that to do most of the heavy rhythm stuff in combination with an octave pedal, a Micro Synth… basically we record everything analog then put it into the computer.

Did you use your Ibanez Apex 100 signature model? [Buy it from Musician’s Friend]

I used a few different guitars. That was one of them. And I used an older custom Ibanez. Those two guitars were the main rhythms. The more atmospheric stuff, the atmospheric verses and bridges and stuff, that was vintage Fender, Hofner, Gibson. I love doing that, laying the rhythms down with what I’m familiar with. On one track I used an eight-string that Ibanez made me a long time ago. It was fun to try to get the eight string into some of the songs. It was successful on a couple of tracks.

A lot of folks are really into the Apex 100. I know a lot of players who feel it’s the perfect 7-string. 

The newest one? Yes! I love that thing. Just the option to have that single coil in the neck position really sweetens up the clean sound for me, in contrast with having the humbucker in the bridge position. And it’s a modern Ibanez body shape but with the classic finish. I just wanted to combine the two together. I recently played an Ibanez Universe, a white one, one of the original ones. A friend of mine had one in mint condition. I really wanted him to sell it to me. It’s about 20 years old, this guitar, and it just plays sweet. They kept changing it through the years, and they kept on making the neck wider and reinforcing the neck. We kept sending them back to Ibanez with broken necks, and they said “What are we gonna have to do to stop you guys breaking necks?” They started pressing them together from three pieces of wood, and I think a lot of other guitar companies adopted that too.

You recently released your Fear and the Nervous System album. It must feel good to have it out there. 

Finally, yes! There was a minute there where it didn’t seem like it was really going to do anything or go anywhere. I was thinking about releasing it as instrumental tracks. But thanks to Ross Robinson, he discovered this band [Repeater] and this singer, Steve Krolikowski. He came in to sing on it and he just killed it.

It’s a really unique sound. It still sounds like you but it definitely sounds like its own band. 

It’s completely different to Korn. Which is good, because I think people are expecting a lot of Korn sort of sounding riffs, and I purposefully used a lot of six-string guitars – all six string guitars actually – on the record, and alternate tunings and different things to make sure I wasn’t sounding like that.

So what guitars did you use? 

I used a Paul Reed Smith baritone on some songs. They made me this baritone, I don’t know the model number, if it even has one… I used a Gibson Thunderbird, and there’s a guitar that Gibson made called a Les Paul BFG and it’s really cool. It’s got a humbucker in the bridge position and then a P90 in the neck position. I guess I kinda stole that idea and put it towards the Ibanez, with the single coil. I used that on a lot of the tracks. For amps we used a VOX AC30. For the rhythm tracks I think we used… oh man. I don’t even remember. I think it was Bogner amps and a VHT amp.

It’s a cool-sounding album. It’s very direct but there’s also plenty of atmosphere. A good headphone album.

Yes! It’s definitely one of those records you listen to it with headphones. You kind of discover something with each different listen.

Do you have any plans to take it on the road?

We’ll see what happens. We’ll just let people kinda discover it on their own. Really, the hardest thing about touring is scheduling, because everybody who played on the record has other band obligations. So that’s probably the biggest challenge: trying to get everybody to free up their schedules to do shows. I want to! I want to.

The Path Of Totality is out now on Roadrunner Records.

LINK: Korn