ex- KORN guitarist/solo artist Brian “HEAD” Welch talks about his old band, his new band and his journey
Brian “HEAD” Welch (he got the nickname years ago when his friends joked his head was too big for his body) has scaled the heights of rock stardom in ways many artists only dream of. As a founding member of KORN he spearheaded a new way of approaching the guitar as an instrument and is in the top 30 of GUITAR WORLD’s greatest heavy metal guitarists of all time. In the 1990s Korn rose to the very top of touring and recording acts and have sold over 25 Million albums worldwide but in 2005, following the release of their greatest hits album, Brian quit the band. His addictions came close to ruining or even ending his life and Brian credits a spiritual awakening as the only thing that could rescue him. He has written a couple of acclaimed books, released an album with his new band HEAD and is currently recording a new release with producer Jasen Rauch (Breaking Benjamin, RED) while promoting his latest single “Paralyzed”. I’d heard lots of things about Brian’s new pursuits and new music including how he’s gone from “Freak on a Leash” to “Jesus Freak” but I personally found him to simply be an incredibly open minded and interesting guy. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: You have a single out and are finishing up a new recording but have also been playing some gigs. How has that been going?
Brian Head Welch: It’s been good, the shows have been amazing and people have been very cool. It gets hard sometimes, it can be a grind just because I’ve basically been on the road for two decades between Korn and solo. The crowds have been getting more familiar with what to expect when they come see a HEAD show, as far as we do our new stuff some Korn stuff that I always love playing. It’s really fun when you know the fans are getting more familiar and coming out to see your act versus just seeing you based on who you’re touring with. It makes it much more alive, and after all those years of playing in KORN and seeing crowds go absolutely nuts, it is an adjustment sometimes when the crowds are still feeling you out or standing still or whatever. It’s awesome when they are there to go crazy.
LRI: I have to be honest, I am just getting familiar with your solo stuff as well and of course compare it to KORN like many people will but I really, really like what I am hearing. It’s got the same heavy guitars but everything is dosed out with a certain amount of melody and the songs are really memorable, as memorable as the Korn hits. I really wasn’t expecting such melodic vocals.
BHW: Thank you John. Melody is beautiful, we really like that. I love melody. I’ve been trying to find this sound since I left Korn between the sound we had and that music I wrote then and the music and sound where I am now. It’s really been fun to hear how it’s changed over the years but it still has plenty of the familiar guitar sound and heaviness.
LRI: I know that there was much notice made of your finding God and that you’ve even written a book and done some music that lyrically touches on some of that but this new music seems to be a little more mainstream lyrically, is that accurate?
BHW: Yes. My first solo cd was very personal and very much a solo thing. I had really just changed my life and started focusing on being a father and this is a little more of a full band project.
LRI: I think there’s a place in the world for Slayer and Stryper and don’t really have a problem with either but it’s probably easier to reach people by just meeting them somewhere in the middle (laughs).
BHW: (laughs) Yes, like I AM a really spiritual person and whenever I write it’s bound to seep into my music but I think this new music is really easy for ANYONE to relate to. I’m really just writing about normal human things, not trying to push an agenda or relate to only ONE type of person. We’re all just people and I think the cool thing about writing personal things about your life is that people can take the lyrics and apply different meanings to them. One person might have a totally different interpretation of a lyric than another and that is perfect. It could mean something totally personal and special to me and something 360 degrees opposite to another person. That is how art SHOULD be. I am totally down with that. I am getting a lot of cool feedback from the old KORN fans which is amazing.
LRI: Well, you ARE on the Guitar World list of greatest HEAVY METAL guitarists ever along with Munky. You grew up as a little metal kid right?
BHW: Totally John. I was an OBSESSED metal kid. Loved OZZY.
LRI: I know. The first time I met you and Munky was sitting on a couple of road cases backstage at Ozzy ironically. You guys were starting to break bigtime but were opening on the OZZMOSIS tour and I had no idea who you were. We just hit it off and immediately started talking to you guys about OZZY for a while after my friend nudged me and goes “Hey, those are the guys in the opening band”.
BHW: No way!!! That’s awesome. Sounds about right. (laughs)
LRI: It was in Madison, Wisconsin. I was a little embarrassed for thinking you were roadies or something when I saw the crowd of thousands go bonkers as you went on. I do also remember you warning me not to bug OZZY while he was in pre-gig jogging suit mode. (laughs)
BHW: (laughs) Totally. Yeah, you don’t wanna upset him when he’s got the robe on and gearing up.
LRI: What was it like to be opening the festivities on an Ozzy tour? That had to be insane EVERY night.
BHW: Dude, early on it was just surreal. I had the guy plastered on all of my walls as a kid. I used to draw him John (laughs). The very idea of being invited to be on a tour with him was totally surreal. Like you said, I couldn’t believe that I could just see him back there walking around (laughs). I used to try and go backstage all the time as a kid, you know? That’s why we felt the same way you guys did being back there. The idea of me being backstage with Ozzy was just awesome. After the years went by and Korn got bigger and stuff got crazier it was a little sad how that became less and less special.
LRI: You start becoming a celebrity yourself and meeting all of those dudes all the time and get jaded.
BHW: Yeah, and that sucks but I’ve started getting some of that excitement BACK over these last few years since quitting drinking and getting sober. I would turn into an ass as the years went on and the drinking and drugs and fame escalate but then as you give that garbage up you start rediscovering all of your passions and the way you USED to feel. When I met you in 1994 on that Ozzy tour I was still wide eyed and it was a wonderful opportunity and memory. When you get sober, you are basically getting ressurrected and I find that I can get stoked about stuff like that all over again. It’s really cool.
LRI: So, at that point in 1994 was it a nice, steady build? Had the craziness started to seep in?
BHW: I think it was just starting to barely seep in. It took another two albums before we just became absolutely massive and BLEW up. We put out “Life is Peachy” and it was put out so quickly that I think it was good but not as good as the debut album. It did make a big splash on the charts at #3 and had some really strong songs on it that ended up being signature tunes but I think it could have been better. We had some definite buzz but there were still some shows that were less than packed or whatever until we got towards the end of that tour and got on LOLLAPALOOZA and things just went nuts. We were on tour with TOOL and on MTV and in press constantly and it all just set up perfectly for the next album to come out REALLY swinging. Everything was starting to click and make sense as far as the band breaking wide open. That third album was when we just got totally huge and I was like ” I just don’t understand how this is happening or why we’re so big right now”. That’s when things started getting crazy, sometimes TOO crazy.
LRI: Did you get a chance to enjoy that whole building up process of playing support gigs and climbing the ladder on the way to the top?
BHW: Totally John. I did and I know for a fact that I can speak for the other guys in Korn and say we ALL enjoyed that growing period much more than we did when we actually reached the top. It was just so much fun and we were just hungry kids trying to do our thing. Our band was just our whole life, nothing else mattered but the music and the band. It was SO incredible to be a part of that build process because we were just a bunch of kids who were all friends who were just laughing and drinking beers. Everything was FUN and nothing was difficult or forced. Once we got to that upper, upper level and millions of sales that was when it just seemed like the problems started and the band started to wear down or break down a little bit. It sounds cliche or weird even, actually it WAS weird but that’s what happened.
LRI: You start getting tired and wired, suddenly some beer and guitars aren’t enough to get you off anymore by themselves.
BHW: Right. The drugs and also just the pressure of being on top like that started to ruin us. We didn’t game plan for any of that, it was like “What do we do with all of this attention? how do we act?” and all of that.
LRI: It was sort of shocking to the fanbase and I’m sure your bandmates in Korn when you announced you were quitting but I think it was sort of inevitable and understandable given the fact that you were lost in addiction and trying to raise a daughter.
BHW: Yeah. I really enjoy the music stuff we did, I really, really love the tunes and the music end of it all. I’m really stoked that we accomplished as much as we did musically and I love it, I STILL love hearing and playing that music. It was really cool to have been a part of that whole part of Korn. I just personally think back to some of the stuff I did back then, the way I treated people and the things I did and I am really, truly sorry. Some of the things I did to people, to myself even, were just horrible things to have done and that’s what I am ashamed of, not the music or the guitars that me, Fieldy and Munky did. I’m proud of the whole band musically, all of us, including Jonathan who really was on some other level with his performances but SOME of the lyrics, even back then I was like “Why are we singing about that? We could be trying to sing about something more deep or more real, ya know?” Having said that, I will totally admit that MOST of the time I LOVED what he was writing and coming up with AT THAT TIME. He and all of us were just doing what came naturally to us as angry, drunk kids. That’s all we were. On the surface we were laughing and having a good time but all of us had our issues and the lyrics of those early Korn albums were really an outlet to express some of that anger and issues we had. Jonathan knew better than anyone how to tap into that angry place and let it all out.
LRI: I remember when the first album came out that the cover art was a little shocking. The whole child predator vibe to it with the little girl on the cover. Was that ever an issue with the higher ups at the label?
BHW: Not really John. It kind of went along with the theme of the album. Lyrically, a lot of that first album, which is one of my favorites, had to do with like bullies and getting messed with or picked on or even child abuse, so it sort of fit with theme of that. We were on the Immortal imprint of Epic and that label was pretty wild and handled a lot of rap artists and pretty shocking stuff. In fact, that little girl on the cover was the niece of the A&R guy who signed us (laughs). It was kind of their idea, they at least came up with the concept along WITH us. It is kind of a trip though (laughs). The label itself was used to dealing with “edgy” bands and definitely weren’t scared by anything we’d present.
LRI: You mentioned being picked on and stuff. That wasn’t just a “Jonathan” issue as anyone who’s read your book knows. Looking back after all these years how much of an effect did that really have on the band and the bonding of you guys as a group?
BHW: I think it had a huge effect. I think it was kind of a newer concept at that point just to even acknowledge. Now, every time you turn on TV you see entertainers talking about bullying or whatever because it really is important and it does effect kids. I think also that some of us didn’t have the greatest relationships in our own homes. Like, my relationship with my dad wasn’t great and you just bond over music. All these feelings and weirdness come out of you as a teenager and go into your making music as you grow into being an adult. When I was a kid, all I could think about was how much I wanted to get out of that town and out of that place. I wanted to get out of the house to go and party and play music with my friends and laugh because I really didn’t like growing up at home. I WASN’T “happy” like other kids were or I was supposed to be. All that strife and drama and being singled out or messed with during the teenage years absoultely made it into our music without even trying.
LRI: Going back to that teenage “Ozzy” kid. Even before Korn, hard rock or metal was your outlet?
BHW: Totally dude. I LOVED it, it was EVERYTHING to me and EVERYTHING I was. I was consumed by metal. It was my escape growing up for sure John and I was totally your stereotypical “metal” kid. It was my ONLY outlet as far back as I remember, wayyyy before drugs or alcohol or even PLAYING music. I remember being ten years old and AC/DC “Back in Black” having such a profound effect on me, I wanted to be that, I wanted to DO that. I loved everything about the look, the sound of it and knew that was what I wanted to try and do although I had no idea how and I REALLY had no idea that I would actually succeed at it. I really had no clue at all that I could even dream of actually doing it for a living. I gave up music so many times because it seemed so unrealistic. I actually moved to L.A. for a while and tried to go to school and make it as a recording engineer because I thought that might be a tad more realistic. It was like “Ok, I’ll try this because who actually survives the odds of trying to be a rock star, who actually makes it besides a select few?” I just thought it was such an unrealistic pipedream and I had no chance so I tried the recording stuff. The trouble was that I was miserable not playing and the engineering thing wasn’t working out so I just started playing again and that’s when I started hanging around the guys who would eventually become KORN. We all just became friends and things fell into place.
LRI: Now, that you’re in the studio all the time with your own band and have a clearer head do you ever think back to those Engineering School days and think maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea or maybe that’s something you’d like to get into some day? Producing or engineering?
BHW: Yeah, because I just love creating music so much and I think I have more confidence now than I did back then. That’s a good question, I don’t know man, maybe someday I will be doing that, who knows? We shall see.
LRI: What’s the plan for the new release from HEAD? Is it going to be where you keep releasing singles to iTunes and Amazon or are you looking to do an official full length or physical product?
BHW: I want to do an official EP. I really want to make as BIG of a deal as possible and get behind it as much as possible because I think it’s some of the best material I have ever done. We are label shopping and considering all that but I’m not gonna sit around and wait, I want to have the actual product for people to get at shows or get online and put out this EP. The music we are recording is incredible and we are really stoked so I wanna get it out there and print copies as well as have it on iTunes. We ARE label shopping but for this band but as for the EP we are doing it through a digital label called InGrooves. They have a lot of the bigger selling stuff on iTunes and are a really good label as far as digi-labels go. The business is just so much different these days. Everything has changed.
LRI: It’s interesting you mention that. I was wondering how much you guys from Korn think about the fact that you were part of that last great, golden wave of music sales. There’s a whole new generation of kids who have no concept of midnite record release parties or massive sales displays and one of the first bands that comes to MY mind when I think of 90s or 2000′s record sales is KORN. Does that take on significance to you?
BHW: That’s a trip John, really. You’re right though. There were record breaking numbers too in that era of cd sales. The industry was selling at an UNBELIEVABLE clip. It is crazy to me that I was a part of that. My bass player never “made it” or whatever, financially in music and is always telling me, “You should just be walking around smiling all the time. You really have no right to ever be unhappy or depressed about anything Brian. You wrote books, you were in KORN and sold MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of records back when music actually sold and have all this respect from people based on all that. The money was perfect and your timing was perfect, you have lost all rights to be angry at anything for the rest of your life dude”. He’s happy to be making really cool music in our band and everything but he’s always reminding me of how grateful I should be and I am. It was and is a special thing for all of us.
LRI: I occasionally listen to radio and am always blown away by the stuff that’s on my local classic rock radio station. I was amazed when I heard Metallica or Motley Crue and now I’m amazed when I hear Sublime or Pumpkins or Korn. I don’t even know if some of you bands ever dreamed that would be the case but, for better or worse, it’s the TRUTH…. I tuned in the other day and heard “Freak on a Leash”. Does THAT blow your mind?
BHW: That’s insane. You’re crazy John. (laughs). That makes me feel so old (laughs). I remember hearing Cheap Trick or KISS on those stations, that was classic rock to me. I guess it’s good right? But it’s crazy. It’s just a different age I guess. I don’t think any of us in the band would have EVER dreamt such insanity. To me a band like Korn or Slayer could never be considered that but who knows…..To me, Metallica is a little more classic rock but the fact that they are including us on those stations now is just a trip. It is really crazy how the world goes round. This whole new digital age is just showing us all how short life is and how FAST it goes. When you and I were younger we would look at pictures of our parents or family and the photos looked like they were from 100 years ago and now I can show my daughter pictures of herself from birth to now and they’re all like perfect quality and digitally available. It’s insane and it trips me out. It proves how fast life passes us all by and I think it’s truly a great wake up call for all of us to be like “Ok, maybe it’s time to really focus on what’s important and focus on other things besides just our immediate surroundings and material possessions”. We’re all gonna be gone from this place very sooner than we all think or thought and life isn’t so slow and plodding it’s really whizzing by at a record clip.
LRI: I’ve seen the tip of the iceberg as far as the sex, drugs and insanity behind the scenes in the rock world and I’ve got three little kids myself so, like I said, I DO understand some of your decisions to get straight and all that. Do you ever look at your daughter and think “Thank God I got off the roller coaster when I did, while she was around to look at me and identify with me”???
BHW: Oh my GOD dude, I am SO thankful. That’s right up there on the list of reasons of WHY leaving KORN was the ONLY choice for me at that moment. I thought I could try and get clean and keep playing the money machine rolling and the insanity going or I could really try and make a personal stand for myself and my kid and be like “You know what, I’m cool with leaving it all. I wanna raise my kid in a decent environment and keep my head and have her see her dad as someone she can respect.” A lot of the stuff we did and were involved with wasn’t respectable and I walked away from all that. I truly sucked at so much as a father and as a person but at least I could do that one thing for the sake of my kid to at least be able to have her see that and think about that. I truly think that was the one thing I could have done to positively effect my daughter for the rest of her life.
LRI: Well, it is true that it doesn’t really matter how famous dad’s band is or how much money dad has in his bank account if your kid just looks at you and thinks their dad is a total jackass or piece of crap.
BHW: Totally. That’s exactly where I was and where that was headed.
LRI: Korn certainly burned bright and wild. Your bassist Fieldy ALSO wrote a book and cleaned himself up, have you had a chance to compare notes?
BHW: Yeah, he did. I’m actually gonna buy that and read it really soon. I’ve read some of it and I’m cool with all of those guys. I know Fieldy is a Christian now and he’s sober and happy. That’s all that matters to me. He’s just a totally different and awesome person and ALL of those guys are like really important to me personally.
LRI: Since so much of the sniping and disrespect is in the rearview now the inevitable question is always going to be “Is HEAD gonna reunite and get back for another Korn tour or album”?
BHW: You mean like a big, classic rock Motley Crue reunion tour thing (laughs)?
LRI: (laughs) Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m driving at…..
BHW: It would have to be a situation where we all agree on things and be for a real purpose and some concrete, higher power reason. I’m happy right now doing my stuff and I feel really content doing it and those guys are really busy and content doing their thing. I have no PLANS to do such a reunion but if it were for the right reasons and we all felt the same way about it I would definitely keep an open mind about it.
LRI: I talk to lots of “ex” members of bands and the general consensus seems to be that whatever’s good for their former band seems to be good for them personally or business wise. Do you sort of feel the same way?
BHW: Oh yeah, without a doubt. I am very happy for those guys and proud of that music and totally past the point of holding an ill will for ANY of them. I just hung out with Jonathan and his wife the whole night a few months back and hung out with Fieldy some time after that when I was out on tour with my band. It is without a doubt ALL GOOD. I have nothing but good vibes for them and I’m sure we will always stay in touch.
LRI: That’s very cool. That is way cooler than a bunch of old friends hating each other over stuff that happened ages ago. Thanks for talking to us Head.
BHW: Thank YOU John. I had fun talking to you, it was like talking to an old friend and it was good that we had a chance to catch up after meeting on that Ozzy tour almost 20 years ago (laughs). Hopefully we can catch up again much sooner than that.