A few minutes after the scheduled time, Brian “Head” Welch’s voice appears on the other end of the phone line. “Hey, it’s Brian! Sorry I’m late!” I’d prepared for this interview by watching some of Head’s TV appearances from the past few years, noting the 51 year old’s good-natured demeanor. Still, his warm greeting takes me aback. I mean, this is the guitarist from Korn, the Bakersfield nu-metal band that rocketed to stardom by making some of the most terrifying music ever to grace MTV.
As our conversation unfolds, I come to realize that Head lives in a place of gratitude. He speaks of his bandmates with a real fondness and sense of awe. He acknowledges how lucky he is to still be making records and touring after all these years. And he spends his free time—what little he has between authoring books and splitting songwriting duties between two bands—surrounding himself with friends and loved ones. After a tumultuous period he describes as a “decade-long trial by fire,” one marked by battles with addiction, a seven year break from Korn, and a sharp turn to Christian faith, Head feels content.
That contentedness shows up on Korn’s latest album, Requiem. That’s not to say the record isn’t dark, it absolutely is—there are songs called “Worst Is On Its Way” and “Hopeless and Beaten.” But mixed in with Korn’s hallmark heaviness is a warmth heretofore not present in the band’s work. Some of it is even downright pretty. A lot of Requiem’s (slight) softness comes from the band members simply being excited to see one another, as it was largely written and recorded during the quarantine portion of the pandemic. Because everything was on hold, the band was able to be more present with the process than a normal album cycle would allow.
As Korn embarks on a massive arena tour to support Requiem, Head looks forward to feeling that same presence as the band “synchronize(s) with the crowd.” It’s the feeling he loves the most and the reason he keeps touring—the aspect of the music biz he politely admits is not his favorite. Ultimately, what he most looks forward to are the ways he can interact with his fans, even as COVID remains a nebulous threat. He’s amazed and grateful that his band has been able to both retain and expand their fan base. As we wrap up our conversation, there’s a pause on the other end. “Hey man,” he says with the same sincerity as before, “It was really great to talk to you.” – Dash Lewis
Requiem is Korn’s 14th record in 27 years. How’s it feel to have such longevity?
Head: Man, I’m thankful for my bandmates in Korn because I bolted for almost a decade. I needed a break. I needed to get away from it and they kept going. Our singer, Jonathan [Davis], loves to put out records because it’s therapy for him. Most musicians struggle with some kind of mental health issue—maybe mild to severe depression, substance abuse, whatever. Instead of all that stuff—drinking or substances—for Jonathan, he’s addicted to music.
So, when the leader of the band is addicted to music and doing records, he gets everybody in gear. I’m like Avenge Sevenfold or Metallica: put out a record and disappear for seven years. [Laughs] They tour and everything, but that’s what I like to do. I like to give people a rest and just come out of nowhere when they’re least expecting it. I think it’s helped Korn by doing so much.
Your other band, Love and Death, also put an album out last year, so it seems like you keep pretty busy yourself.
Head: Yeah, totally, that’s true. The pandemic came and we’re sitting at home, twiddling our thumbs and that was it. I was like, “Let’s do a record. We’re always complaining that we never have time. Here we are with nothing but time.”
That’s a pretty common refrain these days for musicians. Were you working on both of these records at the same time?
Head: Yes, actually. Korn was off and on; it was like two weeks on and then a month off. When I was home that month off I would be working on Love and Death. So yeah, I was definitely working both of them through that similar timeframe.
Did you find that working on the two separate records was a good way to keep yourself fresh?
Head: I think it was that I was focusing more on Korn musically and guitar wise. For Love and Death, I gave the guitar duties to J.R. [Bareis] mostly. So, it was two different things which made it cool. I’m working on lyrics and melodies and recording my vocals with Love and Death. Then with Korn it’s all guitar, all songwriting, so it worked out really good to where I wasn’t overdoing one thing.
You could just turn that part of your brain off and compartmentalize it a little bit more?
Head: Yeah, exactly. Or, I’m like, “I’m running out of riffs because I wrote so much with Love and Death.” It wasn’t like that at all, which was really kind of cool.
What was the process for writing Requiem? You said you had a two week on, one month off situation. Would you all get together in person?
Head: Yes, all five of us in person. Maybe not Fieldy every single time, but we all definitely got together in person. It was the most present record for Jonathan. He was there every day. Jonathan’s a night owl—we all are—he’ll wake up at 4:00 or 5:00 pm and we’re at the studio at 1:00 or 2:00.
We usually put together at least half of a song before he comes in and then we let him hear it. “Do you like this? Do you like this direction, or no?” Usually, it’s like 99% he’ll want to work on it. “That’s cool. Why don’t we try this?” He comes in like a producer. And then when we’d finish the song, have some dinner. It was really relaxing and fun. Dude, we needed it. We were stuck at home without nothing to do and to come and hang out with our friends was really cool.
You’ve said that for Jonathan, making records is therapeutic. Do you find it therapeutic as well or is it a simple creative release? Or is it even something else?
Head: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit something else for me. I enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes the writing process is kinda like birthing something. Some days you’re frustrated, some days you’re elated because it was a success. I feel like there’s a bit of a pressure to come up with something great. I think I put too much pressure on myself. No one puts pressure on the other guy, it’s something I do internally.
So, yeah, I like it. I have fun writing records. When we’re done songwriting, that’s my favorite part, because I’m like, “Okay, the hard part’s done.” I just come in and lay down the tracks and kind of hang out.
Do you like playing music more than writing it?
Head: I kind of like them both about the same. Touring can be fun, but it can be really intense for the emotions. You get burned out on the road. You gotta remember, “Man, there are people that would die to have this. You’re making good money and the fans still love you.” So sometimes your mind plays tricks on you and tries to make you feel like the travel is too much or whatever.
Most of the time, it’s amazing. There’s a little portion of it that’s kind of hard mentally and emotionally. So, I guess I like writing and recording a little bit better than touring, but not the shows, not the actual shows. I’m just talking about the travel and being away from family and whatnot.
You’ve been doing it a long time, so I would imagine you must be able to figure out new ways to experience presence on stage.
Head: It’s like playing chutes and ladders for the 9 millionth time. If the crowd isn’t good, then the song’s not really fun to play. If the crowd is good, any song is fun. As we get older, it’s great, because we’re getting a little bit more chill on stage. You can have physical problems with the headbanging. [Laughs] I mean, we still rock it, it’s still very energetic, but we gotta remember the crowd gets older too. It’s not going to always be mosh pits and stage diving or whatever. People gotta calm down. It’s a crazy thing, growing older, but it’s also nuts seeing 20 year olds in the front row screaming. It’s still a wide variety of fans’ ages.
It must feel really validating to know that you’re still reaching people of all ages.
Head: Yeah, to still be going after all these years and to have young people still getting into metal and discovering us. And that our old music is new to them. It’s a dream come true beyond what I ever thought. I thought at 50 we’d be way done by now. [Laughs]
It sounds like you have a lot of gratitude as an operating mechanism.
Head: I think all of us do. Everyone’s grateful. And we know that we can’t do this forever, you know, but we’re just like, “Wow, we’re still successful at this time of our career.” If we have another 15, 20 years left…
When you get older, you start to hopefully gain your wisdom, start to see what really matters in life, you know? And being a fricking egotistical rock star—which we all were, all of us—it’s pointless. To find gratitude in life, that’s the big thing. Humility. Humility brings a lot of contentment and peace to a person. That’s what I’ve found.
I feel like that plays into how you described making the record a little bit. You called it relaxing and said it was something you needed. Was it interesting to make a record in this very shaky time, not have any kind of timetable, and rediscover what you love about making records?
Head: Yes, definitely. I think we’re all put on this planet to do something, to create. Either we’re creating babies or creating work. If you look around, everything that surrounds you right now, whether you’re in an office or something you look at the house, you look at the windows, the chairs, TV, computer, everything started in the mind of a human. Everything started in imagination. So I think while we’re creating, it’s what we’re meant to do—all of us in some way or another. It just feels good. But like I said, I have my friction sometimes within my own self. Am I going to be able to come up with some cool stuff? As a band will we? But yeah, it’s really cool to create.
When you’re having those moments of tension, what do you do to pull yourself out of it?
Head: Just patience. Keep trying, keep going. We do an old school, man, we get in a room and jam and just make noise. Then we’ll be like, “Hey, check this out! What do you think of this?” Sometimes you go in, and there’s nothing, but you keep trying things. Or you’re working on someone else’s idea where it’s like, “Man, I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere,” but you’ve got to play it out. Sometimes that whole day is taken on this idea that you feel isn’t going to make it, but people are digging it. But that’s part of it: you gotta totally hear everyone’s ideas.
I think we’re actually getting better at listening for what’s good and what’s great. What would be album-worthy or what would be a throwaway or b-side, we’re getting better at that. When I first came back to Korn in 2013, half of the songs we wrote were trash. [Laughs] We were getting to know each other again; I was back after all these years. So a lot of them got trashed, but now a lot less get trashed. I guess it’s a good thing, right? We’re making progress.
I think that’s what’s fascinating about bands or artists that have such long careers. Hopefully, there’s a constant joy in discovering your craft all over again.
Head: Yes, totally. That’s what it is. It’s awesome, man.
You’re a pretty well known [guitar] pedal enthusiast. Is there anything that’s been striking your interest these days?
Head: I keep to my faithful DigiTech Whammy. It’s an old school pedal. I got the Boss Chorus, I got the Boss Reverb, and I have Tonal Recall. That’s an amazing pedal. It’s freaking whacked—it’s got so many weird sounds. The drummer for Avenged Sevenfold that did the Hail to the King record, Arin Ilejay, started playing guitar. He’s working building guitars right now with his stepdad, they got a guitar company. He played “Falling Away From Me,” the Korn song, with the Tonal Recall pedal. He goes, “Dude, this sounds pretty close to your record.” I got one immediately and started playing it ever since that video he sent me. It’s been amazing.
I got the Boss Flange—I’m like a Boss junkie. I think that’s about it. I keep it the same, I don’t get a lot of new pedals. Sometimes I’ll try some new ones in the studio when we’re doing a record but I usually try to use one of my pedals that I’m already using to mimic the sound live. I don’t I don’t want to get too much going on. I like simple, I like to the point. Munky has probably double what I have.
How do you prepare for a tour now?
Head: Not really anything, I don’t work out. I mean, I gotta start working out, but I’ve messed my neck up so I don’t really work out right now to get physically ready. I kind of go slow when we start the tour, try not to give it too much, try not to mess my body up the first week. Matt [Heafy] from Trivium gave me and Munky one of his signature guitars, so I got one of his in my living room right now, getting my fingertips ready.
I’m not playing guitar a lot, my fingertips will get sore the first week on tour, so I just want to be prepared. I go see my daughter before tour starts and have some family time. That’s pretty much it—just have some family time and prepare to be gone for a minute. My daughter’s 23, so it’s not like I have young kids like Munky running around.
Do you get much of a chance to interact with fans while you’re on the road?
Head: Not now with COVID.
Yeah, that’s true. That was kind of a dumb question. [Laughs]
Head: Nah, not a dumb question. I mean, things are gonna start going back to normal, but it’s kind of hard. This is why it’s hard for me on the road: I can’t sleep very good on a tour bus—on American tour buses. I sleep better on the European tour buses, but I pretty much can’t sleep on the tour buses in America, so I go to sleep at like 9:00 AM and wake up at like 5:00 or 6:00 PM. So all the fans are usually inside in mosh pits by the time I get to the venue, and then afterwards, everyone goes home, so I don’t really see many fans.
In Europe, it’s a different story. There’s fans hanging by our buses and stuff like that. In America, there’s a chained off area that’s far away from the fans. We’re always trying to do something with the fans, not so much on the road lately because of COVID, but we come up with ideas to include them a lot.
That must be really intense to switch your circadian rhythm so much. You must have some wild form of jet lag when you get back to a regular life.
Head: Oh, 100%. My sleep schedule’s all over the place. I like to mess with my sleep schedule so that I can change it if I want. For instance, I’m going to bed at 9:00 AM on the road. After the last show on the tour, I’ll book a flight for 6:00 AM and then stay up all night and not sleep. I’ll get on the plane at around like 10:00 or 11:00 AM. I’ll pass out on the plane, then I’ll get home and go do something all day so I don’t sleep. Then I’ll go to sleep at midnight that night and I’ll try to readjust my schedule.
That takes a lot of training. What do you do when you’re not writing records, you’re not writing books, you’re not touring?
Head: Just kind of chill at home, hang out with friends. I got a movie theater I built during COVID. I’m a movie buff, I love Netflix. I do a lot of reading and meditating, too. I’m a spiritual guy. Honestly, like, I like to be normal. Our lifestyle is so not normal so when I get home, I just like to have friends over and spend time with my daughter. I go visit her, she visits me. It’s just gotta be normal. That’s what makes me feel the best.
Before we go, what’s your favorite song on the new album?
Head: Oh man, my favorite song on the record is “Worst Is On Its Way.” I love that song.
Why is that your favorite?
Head: Because I love when Jonathan does the scat thing. He doesn’t do it every record. He does it when he feels it and doesn’t want to overdo it. It was time for him to bring it back and it’s just heavy. I need music to make me feel something. That bridge part of that song and the ending makes me feel something amazing. We played it live for the first time two weeks ago and it’s freaking crushing.
Are you connecting with something beyond yourself when the music takes you over?
Head: Yup. And also majorly synchronizing with the band and the crowd. That’s the biggest thing. When the heavy parts come and everyone’s feeling it together, that’s my favorite part of our music.