When James “Munky” Shaffer split for Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, he was running, like other musicians in the area have before and since, toward his rock star dreams. But he also was running from something — a town that can be hard on kids who aren’t interested in being part of the herd.
And unlike Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, who is raising his family in Bakersfield, Shaffer never returned for any duration longer than a visit. Still, as the guitarist prepares for the release of Korn’s 12th album, “The Serenity of Suffering,” it sounds like the East Bakersfield High graduate has found his own serenity, about his past and his hometown.
“I have some great memories in Bakersfield. I go back there every once in awhile ... our studio is up there, so we see friends and hang out. I’m grateful, I guess, how successful we’ve become and it surpassed any dream that (I had) when I was growing up, you know? We all wanted to do this for a living, but I never thought it would come to this level and last as long as it did.
“And I think a lot of that comes from some of the guidance, some of the teachers out there at East High that really kind of could see — I think a lot of them could see the potential that each one of us had. So, I appreciate that and I want to thank them.”
It was in high school that Shaffer met Brian “Head” Welch, his fellow guitarist and musical soulmate. The two, born just 13 days apart, are acutely aware of their borderline telepathy.
“My wife brings that up a lot, actually,” said Shaffer, 46. “She says, ‘That’s like your other half, your creative brother.’ That’s why we work so well together, you know?
“That’s why that call-and-answer thing between us works so well between us, I think. It’s just one of those things: That chemistry… I met him my freshman year at East High in art class and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Speaking of Welch, the album is a return to a guitar-driven sound that had been missing from the electronic-heavy Korn releases of recent years. Welch famously returned to the band in 2013 after bolting eight years before, citing a crisis of conscience. “Serenity” marks the second album since Welch’s return, and the power of the record — the band’s best in years — lies in the twin guitar onslaught.
“That’s one of the things on the last record, it kind of felt like (the electronics) were too (much) in the forefront. Head and I really wanted to present an album, since his returning into the band, we wanted to make a guitar-heavy album.”
On the track “The Hating,” the guitars are used to chilling effect, creating a haunted sonic soundscape and a standout track from the rest of the album.
“It’s one of my favorite songs on the record,” Shaffer said. “It really takes you on a ride. It starts out with the vocal and a small guitar and then goes into the heavy riff. In the middle, it takes you into this soaring, uplifting moment and the ending is super-aggressive and just a release.”
Thematically, the album is about finding solace in your own self-sabotage. When Davis sings “your tears would arouse me, refreshing my supply” on “Rotting in Vain,” you get the feeling that he couldn’t care less where the drama in the darkness is coming from; it’s there to feed him.
But Korn has always embraced the macabre and the grotesque — totems of the internal struggles that the band members and a lot of their fans have fought their entire lives. These are guys, even as family men in their 40s, who are very much in touch with their dark side.
“I think what really fuels us is the reaction of the fans and how much the music helps them deal with difficult times,” Shaffer said, “and (also seeing) when they have fun seeing us live, (when they) kind of escape the day-to-day troubles of life in general.
“The fans keep us going.”
Shaffer and his bandmates — Davis, Welch, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu and drummer Ray Luzier — recorded the album in hopscotch fashion, jetting between their homes in Southern California (Shaffer and Arvizu), Nashville (Welch and Luzier) and Bakersfield (Davis).
“When we first started writing (the album),” Shaffer said, “we started writing in a small room in Hollywood. It was me, Ray and Brian, and we just started coming up with ideas, like riffs and parts and pieces, not full songs but just sort of, ‘here’s a verse, here’s a chorus, here’s an intro.”
“We (wrote) these little combinations of bits and pieces that could be songs, we came up with about 20 of those and then we got up to a point where we needed to find someone who could help shape these into songs, which is a producer.”
Shaffer and his bandmates made the trek to Bakersfield and the North Chester Avenue studio owned by Davis, the same studio made famous by Buck Owens in his Bakersfield Sound heyday. There, the band began meeting with producers. The gig ended up going to Nick Raskulinecz, who has worked with Foo Fighters, Deftones, and Ghost.
“Nick also lives in Nashville, so he flew out to Bakersfield (to meet us). The first time I met him was in the lobby of the Padre hotel,” Shaffer said.
“We sat down for a minute and talked and then we went to the (studio) that afternoon and he explained to us, ‘Here’s my vision of the album and here’s what I think fans want to hear.’”
Writing and recording the album took the band from North Hollywood to Nashville to Oildale and back.
“The fact that we all have families and all live in different locations, we kind of had to split the load,” Shaffer said. “I want to be home with my family when I’m not touring, so it’s like, ‘OK, I’ll spend a week in Nashville, (then) you guys come out to L.A. — or California — for a week.’ That’s kind of how it was delegated.”
From the ferocious opening track “Insane,” to the resigned closer, “Out of You,” each song has its own sonic identity but the album retains a cohesion. Artistically, the band doesn’t seem interested in reinventing the wheel or even reinventing its sound, just finding depth within it.
“I think we oiled the wheels on the last record when Brian came back,” Shaffer said. “It feels like we’re all really working well together … the musical communication feels pretty effortless, you know?”
“He was like ‘Just do what you’re good at, you know? Fieldy’s great at slapping the bass, let’s hear Fieldy’s bass more,’ which is awesome because you can really hear his bass on this album like you haven’t been able to on the last few records. He just wanted us to do the best at what we’re great at and that’s what the fans fell in love with the band in the beginning. He wanted to polish those qualities again.”
Davis is stronger than he’s ever been, and as vital as any metal singer in his genre. The results feels organic, from that start, with his guttural “boom-chaka” growl/scat style on “Rotting in Vain.” His lower register is deployed on the killer track “A Different World, a collaboration with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, who provides what can only be described as metal harmony.
Korn will take some time off in November before heading to Europe to play six arena shows with Limp Bizkit.
After that, it’s off to Europe in the spring of 2017, followed by a jaunt to South America, back to the States, then Europe again and probably Australia and Asia late next year.
“And hopefully,” Shaffer said, “we get Bakersfield in there as well. I know some friends and family would love to see us play there.”
And when Shaffer does return, don’t be surprised to see him driving around his old haunts.
“It’s a little bit of a bittersweet kind of mixed emotions,” he said. “I have some good and some bad memories there. I graduated from East Bakersfield High School, so when I drive by the school, it’s just bittersweet. Driving by the auditorium where my first band played a talent show … I have so many memories there. My grandmother is buried out at the cemetery there.”
Shaffer still credits East High teacher Ray Ayala for instilling discipline in his playing.
“Head was in it, I was in it, a few of my friends were in that class, and I just have a really great memory of him teaching us the basics on the guitars that I still carry. There were a few great teachers there that really helped me.
“I just have a lot of great memories and sad memories as well. It’s a mixture; I could drive around the whole city and go, ‘And this is where that happened, and this is where I went on my first date,’ you know? Just a lot of crazy, crazy stuff, man. It would actually make a great documentary someday.”