[Interview] Korn’s James ‘Munky’ Shaffer Talks Fear And The Nervous System

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Bloody-Disgusting is thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with guitarist James ‘Munky’ Shaffer (Korn) about his side project Fear And The Nervous System. We discuss how the band came together, how director David Lynch influenced the music, what made this music different from Korn, and much more. We also got word of when Korn is entering the studio to record their next album! Check it all out below!

Bloody-Disgusting: How are you doing?
James ‘Munky’ Shaffer: I’m good! Just chilling at home. Been home for a couple of weeks. I was with Korn doing a lot of Eastern European shows and we went to India as well.

BD: What’s new and exciting?
JMS: Launching this record Fear And The Nervous System, which is something that’s taken me a long time to get off the ground. The physical CD is finally released in the US and we’re working on getting it released worldwide. It’s a slot process but it’s exciting because this is sort of my brainchild and it’s taken a long time to do because I’ve almost done it all on my own.

BD: I read the biography on the official website but I’m hoping you can tell me a bit about Fear And The Nervous System and how it came about.
JMS: Yeah! We were recording a Korn record called Untitled and we were using Atticus Ross, who was producing it, I remember him saying, because we were using Brooks Wackerman to track a lot of the drums for the record. And so that was the beginning. I just remember Atticus, when we were recording in Hollywood, saying, “That drummer with those drums in that room are some of the best drum sounds I’ve ever heard.” Brooks was the first person who I wanted to be part of the project.
Then I wanted Leopold Ross helping with some of the editing. Then we had a small team that was working really well together. And of course, sitting over Atticus’ shoulder, watching how he works and his brother picking up on a lot of his big brother’s mojo and his skills, that’s how it all started.
Zac [Baird] is the touring keyboard player of Korn. And he and I have never really ever had a chance to do anything other than Korn songs. He’s always just playing the stuff that we wrote in the studio. So this was an opportunity for him and I to work together on some downtime on the road and he’s super talented and he has great song ideas.
Then it was Billy [Gould]. My guitar tech for 15 years used to tech for Faith No More. He was Jim Martin’s guitar tech back when Jim Martin was back in Faith No More. Him and Billy had a relationship and I was saying, “Man, I gotta get someone to play bass on this thing,” and he said, “Do you want me to ask Billy?” and I said, “Well, yeah! I’m a huge Faith No More fan!” Ever since they had Chuck Mosley in the band and the first record, I’ve been a fan.
So, that goes way back. And Korn and myself and everyone that has anything to do with this band have been Faith No More fans. And Billy said, “Let me come down and I’ll fly down.” He came down and I picked him up from the airport. He liked a lot of the tracks and started working on them later that night. So that came together.
Then, I wanted Wes Borland to be involved in it. I had him come down to the studio and I was scattered. It was an unusual time in my life. We did a couple of tracks but we didn’t have time to work on them later. So we kind of pushed those tracks aside. But I wanted him involved so he painted the album cover and some of the other artwork. He’s always so inspirational what he does with his visual art.
And Leopold played some guitar, I played most of the guitars on the record. And then the record stopped for a while after all the instrumentation was done. Because initially I was going to sing on it. Then I realized I’m not good at lyrics, I’m not a singer. So I kind of avoided the whole thing.
Then, when we [Korn] were recording Remember Who You Are with Ross Robinson and he was listening to the tracks and he was saying, “Man, this music is so good! You can’t just let it sit! Are you going to sing on it?” and I said, “I’m not going to sing on it. I’m just thinking about releasing it as instrumentals.” He said, “Oh man, I got this guy in Long Beach in a band called Repeater. He’s not a big name, he’s super talented.” I said, “Bring him in!” He made the call and Steve [Krolikowski] flew up to the studio. He was behind the mic within an hour. He didn’t have any lyrics but he sang some melodies and “Ooh’s” and “Aah’s” over some of the tracks that we had and he was really excited to do it.
That’s how everything sort of…There wasn’t really a band to being. I just went to the studio and said I’m going to make a record on my own time with my own money and with the musicians I want. And that’s what it was really all about.

BD: It sounds like this album was very much a labor of love and passion. I also read that the recording of this album came at the time of the passing of your father. So this must’ve been a very personal journey for you.
JMS: Yeah, I mean…Once we came off the road from touring the Untitled album with Korn, I came home and my dad was very, very sick. Jonathan [Davis] had gone on to do some touring with a solo band that he put together. I felt frustrated that I didn’t have that outlet that I normally have.
When I was at his bedside, I would be wanting to play music because that would give me an escape from the world around me. That’s really what motivated me to get into the studio. Then, when I was in the studio, I was so worried about him the whole time. It was definitely a hard time for me mentally and emotionally. I think it made me write some pretty unusual stuff, made me take some chances and experiment with some different sounding guitar sounds and melodies that I wouldn’t normally have probably gone into had it not been for the situation.

BD: With the music in Fear And The Nervous System, did you feel that Korn was unable to do it justice or was it just not meant for Korn?
JMS: Well, I think at that point everyone had just come home from touring and it was like, okay, let’s get away from each. We’ve been on the tour bus and seen each other for 400 days straight [laughs]. So it was like, okay, let me dive into something…I guess, I wasn’t really looking for approval from anybody except for my own tastes. [Laughs] I think artists always need that, to create something on their own. This was to satisfy my own musical tastes without having to compromise. And that’s what I think a lot of people do when they go solo, they want to be their own boss. It wasn’t about that for me. It wasn’t about being my own boss and not getting the okay or the thumbs up from the other band guys. It was just, I needed to get into the studio to use it creatively because I was using it as an escape rather than writing songs for Korn.
At that point, it was eight records of Korn albums that I had written. It was difficult too because every time I picked up a guitar, it sounded like Korn! [laughs] That’s just how I play! One of the biggest challenges was to not play like Korn. That included using a bunch of different vintage amps, different guitars, effects, alternate tunings, and six-string guitars.
So, every time I played something, I would ask one of our producers Jim Monti, who did a lot of engineering for Korn, “Does it sound too much like Korn?” And he would tell me yes or no. And if it did, I would alter it a little bit just because I wanted to take a step aside with this project.

BD: It sounds like it wasn’t only an artists separation from Korn, where, as you say, you weren’t looking for validation from them. It sounds like a physical separation where you were using different amps, different guitars, and the such. You were really putting yourself into a new place.
JMS: Yeah, and it was personally challenging! Not only was I trying to create a new sound but some new…I was trying to push myself on a new creative direction I had never…and it was hard because you get comfortable in those situations where this works, writing songs for Korn works. I don’t know, I just felt like I needed that push to grow as a musician.

BD: Reading through the biography, you were quoted as saying that the album was heavily influenced by cinema and directors, such as David Lynch and Peeping Tom. What draws you to these darker images and emotions and, in the end, how do they inspire you musically?
JMS: For me, I think music is the soundtrack to people’s lives. When you listen to the songs you heard in the 80’s or early 90’s, it takes you back in time. And it’s sort of like a little time capsule or vessel and it’s the same way when you watch cinema. It’s an opportunity. It’s put the emotion. Without the music, there is no emotion in film.
Basically, I wanted to do the reverse of that. I wanted to make some music that projected imagery into your head. That’s sort of where my mind lies. I always want to create something that makes you think or visualize something. That’s why I think cinema plays a big part of my inspiration from films. I think if you could turn off the picture of the film, you could still enjoy the scary music or the intensity and know what’s going on just by the audio.
And Lynch, I think in particular, can do things, can put such an atmospheric, intense tension in a film when there’s nothing there really in the frame except whatever he sees. His artistic vision, he sees something. It could be a TV with snow static or a lamp on a table but it’s the underlying atmosphere, musically, that he can draw on. Something is surging and going to happen.

BD: My personal favorite song on the album is “Chosen Ones”. Is there anything you can tell me about that song?
JMS: Hmm, let me think about that. You know, lyrically I think it’s something different. He [Steve] drew on a lot of cinematic stuff. Steve and I actually have a lot of similar likes in films and cinema.
The beginning of the song starts out kind of pretty and something that appears perfect on the outside. But when you go deeper into it, it becomes more imperfect. And that’s like people’s lives as far as everyone having that dark side to them. That’s what I wanted to touch on. As you go deeper, you find different things.
I think that’s the beauty of the world. It’s those imperfections that creates the beautiful, unique things about the world.

BD: There’s a saying that goes, “We enjoy people for their qualities but we love them for their imperfections,” and I think that goes directly with what you’re saying.
JMS: Yeah, you have to appreciate all sides of things and I think the good and bad is what keeps the balance.
But yes, we do like to go to those darker sides because, for some reason, they’re more interesting to me. I want to investigate that a little more. What drives that? Is it something from childhood? Is it from a past life? Can it be something that’s spiritually or religiously driven?

BD: From what I understand, a great deal of the music was written and put together years ago. Even though the debut album just came out, is there material ready for a sophomore album?
JMS: We have some ideas and we want to start putting together another record. I reached out to everyone that was a part of this record and they’re into doing a second one. So, the talking part is done. It’s just about getting in there and working.
However, Korn is the priority in terms of writing and recording the new record. But once that’s done, there’s gonna be some time. And on the road, there’s time to write ideas and songwriting and hopefully, at some point next year, we can collaborate with everbody and take a different approach. Since I know that the combination works really well, that eliminates a lot of the “Who is going to do this?” and “Who is going to do that?” It’s more that this worked well for everyone and I’d like to follow it up soon, while there is still some momentum behind it.

BD: In a way, even though it will be the sophomore album, it will almost be the debut album in that you will be recording as one unit rather than the disjointed approach taken with this release.
JMS: Yes, I think that’s going to provide for some interesting tracks. It’s going to have everyone’s ideas at the same time.

BD: What does the future hold for you, for Fear And The Nervous System?
JMS: Well, we’re making a new Korn album. We’re actually going to go into the studio on Monday [Editor's Note: Monday, Oct. 1st] and start writing. That will take a bit of a different approach as well, which is being everybody back in the room starting to write as a band.
So that, and then next year is going to be a great touring year. Fear And The Nervous System is doing some live shows. So that’s exciting! That’ll be the first time that we’ve recreated the album and these songs live. I’m excited to see Steve live in this situation as he’s so good in Repeater and I’m kind of spoiled by Jonathan [Davis], so I hold the bar pretty high! [laughs]

BD: Of course! Especially with something that is this personal to you.
JMS: Yeah, I couldn’t have been more lucky in the way the musicians fell in place. I’ve been really fortunate.

BD: I’m really glad to hear that things have been going so well for you. And the result is fantastic. I’ll admit that when I first put in the album, it took me two or three spins. The first spin, I was thinking that it was good. But by the second or third spin, I was hooked. I understood what was going on and it made a great deal more sense. It resonated and connected.
JMS: I’m really glad to hear that. I think that lyrically, his lyrics are…man, they’re so great. And you really get that visual sense when you listen to those lyrics. He puts together words that I’d never heard in that combination, these words that make this visual mindscape that he uncovers or that makes you think of something spooky.
You know what? This whole thing is a dedication in the memory of my father. He passed away in the middle of the making of this thing. That’s what really keeps me going with it.

BD: James, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and I wish you the best of luck with Fear And The Nervous System, going into the studio with Korn, as well as the upcoming birth of your son!
JMS: Yeah! I got so caught up on the business end. That’s in two weeks. That’s incredible! I’ve got a lot going on! [laughs] It’s all really good stuff!

BD: It’ll be the next step on your journey!
JMS: Definitely!

BD: Alright sir, take care!
JSM: You as well!

Fear And The Nervous System on-line:
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  • Ayatollahofrockandrolla

    “Side” project? How’s about “only” project.

    • JonathanBarkan

      He’s still very much a member of Korn.