Nu Religion: I Went to AA with Korn’s Head and Found Redemption
Watch the band's new video for "Take Me," and bear witness to guitarist Brian "Head" Welch's journey through addiction and nu-metal.
By the grace of God, there I was, in midtown Manhattan, standing in front of Korn guitarist Brian Welch, better known as Head. We don't walk this path alone, and mine had begun months prior, when I'd read news that he was releasing a new book, With My Eyes Open. As a lifelong Korn fan, someone who had read Head's first book, and an addict myself, I was interested in his story, and I pitched my coworkers on taking Head to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. No sooner had I gotten the go-ahead, I returned to my desk to find an email asking if I'd like to interview him. And so, Head agreed when I told him the story, it was preordained.
"That's a sign from God if I've ever heard one," Head said, laughing, as we met for the first time outside of his hotel. He should know. For Head, signs from God have been the name of the game for the past 11 years. In 2005, he left Korn, the demented, zillion-album-selling, nu metal pioneers, in order to make himself a new man, get sober, and become someone who could provide and care for his daughter. His first book, Save Me From Myself, opens with a passage where he hears his daughter reciting lyrics to the band's 1997 hit single "A.D.I.D.A.S."—the chorus of which goes "all day I dream about sex / all day I dream about fuckin'." It was the catalyst that led to him leaving the band.
The difference in the band's output was immediate. Their next two records were produced by big-time pop guys, and, to breathe life back into the band and give it a more current sound, an array of dubstep producers like Skrillex and 12th Planet co-wrote for 2011's The Path of Totality. The fat, drop-tuned riffs that made the band popular with fans of heavier music seemed to have disappeared, and the band seemed to be a different entity altogether. Head's newest book, With My Eyes Wide Open is a continuation of where the previous one left off, recounting his time through various regrettable business deals, being a father, seeing his addictive tendencies materialize themselves in his daughter, and, then, finally, coming back to Korn. Throughout it all, religion is a guidepost, a constant counterweight to darkness and drugs. Head knows his shit. Later in the day, he told me about his favorite verse, Matthew 11:28, and his worldview clicked into place.
"I was on meth and Xanax for two years, and drinking all the time," he explained. "I went into the church with some friends who were real estate partners. And there was a scripture verse there, Matthew 11:28 and it said 'come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.' I instantly knew that it was rest for your imminent life. What caught me was my broker sent me an email a couple days before that said 'hey man, I don't want you to think I'm weird but I think this verse might mean something to you,' with Matthew 11:28. And then a couple days later someone from the church gave me a card with the same verse. And I was on drugs, and I was tripping. Cause the signs, you know, they're there if you're looking for them."
Korn and drugs always seemed to go hand in hand for me. As a kid, my dad used to purchase military surplus equipment, and our road to the base took us through their hometown of Bakersfield, California, a trip soundtracked by a newly bought copy of Follow The Leader. It was the first time I saw people strung out on the street, passed out in driveways of dilapidated suburban homes. Teenagers wandering nowhere with paper-bagged 40s, my dad explaining to 12-year-old me that the gross smell was marijuana smoke. I understood that Korn's world could be a dark and druggy place, and, as I began to try drugs myself, the association continued.
Ten years later, I would find myself in my college dorm room in the darkness of 1AM, waiting to talk to Jon Davis. A bottle of bourbon and a baggie of weed sat on my desk. I watched old videos of Korn from the 90s, taking a shot every time Jon did that scat-vocal thing. I don't know how I got through our interview, but my intoxication made his words extremely poignant, his desire to want to reach out and help kids, hoping they could learn from his past mistakes. I hung up the phone, rolled onto my bed, and teared up a little, both in shock that I was at a point in my life where I could talk to the voices of my childhood, and scared that I might have been wasting these opportunities with booze.
"I'm trippin' out right now, man" Head said, walking through Manhattan to catch a ride to our AA meeting. "This is the most hanging out in the city I've done."With each passing building he would slow down and examine top to bottom, his long dreads swaying like chimes, taking in every detail of the steel megastructures. I realized I had never walked around with anybody as slow as him.We caught an Uber and sailed down 9th Avenue toward the meeting. His daughter Jennea, who figures largely in the book, was about to graduate, he said, and they had started to look into online college programs for her to do creative writing. Even though he had toured the world without her and had sent her to a Christian boarding school, her being away at college by herself was a scary prospect to him.
We arrived at the spot about 20 minutes before the meeting was to begin, so we went on a hunt for food and decided on a combination Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin Robbins. We walked in talking about religion. Even though the band drama had blown over years ago, and Head wrote about reconciling with Davis and the rest of the crew in the book, the mechanics of a band with both born-again Christians and a staunch atheist still seemed very strange to me. Particularly given my experience with my own acquaintances who have approached their own salvation with sanctimony, I was skeptical it could work, and I asked as much.
"I don't even know," he responded, laughing. "It's like, I love the guy. He's family. I respect him and what he wants to believe. I also know when he talks negative, it's because of his experiences with man who claim to be representing God. I know the negative comes from that. But he loves the way we think, he knew we were weird in the beginning. We're all clear on that. We're all clear that I got nutty, and [bassist] Fieldy did too. But as we are now, he's like I love that. It's just the religion stuff." He looked me in the eyes. "He believes in God. He totally does."
To Head, the Bible is a foundation, but it offers room for different relationships with God. "It's not about do's and don'ts," he said. "Some people think it's restrictive, but really it's about what you can have. There's God and the creator of the universe, and he's so humble, and almost childlike sometimes, he just wants to have a relationship."
Head approached the counter and asked the cashier about the Bavarian cream donut, which he then ordered along with a cup of Snickers ice cream, a bottle of milk, and a bottle of water. He paid, and we walked toward the meeting, with him scarfing down his ice cream. We turned a corner by a park, and to our right a guy was taking a piss in between two cars towards the street. Mid-bite, Head leapt back, eyes wide, stunned.
"New York City, man," I said.
"There's a park right there! Even dogs go in the park," he said, confused. We continued down until we reached the meeting venue.
"Do girls go to AA meetings?" he asked.
"Never been to one with any." We arrived at a stairway down to a basement. He hesitated. "You trying to kill me out here?"
"Not yet, at least. Let's head down." I motioned for him to go ahead, but he let out a nervous laugh and gave me a joking shove.
"You first, I'm not about to get stabbed by some crazy New Yorker." We walked into the room, where we were the only men. So much for Head's theory. The moderator was as taken aback as we were, but she waved her hand over to two seats at the table. We sat down, and the meeting began.
I didn't want Head to know, but I had stacks of Korn magazines at home. I had promo posters ripped from walls when I was in middle school, stacks of CDs, handed-down VHS tapes of concerts past. In my head were the rush of emotions I felt putting Issues into a stereo for the first time, the bewilderment of how a guitar could pack in so many feelings in a quick, spectral riff of disassociation in the opening seconds of "Falling Away From Me." Yet beneath all the mythology built in my head after decades of collecting artifacts and totems, we were just two addicts in the same room, ever thankful to be around others we could relate to.
A year and a half previously, my best friend was shot and killed in a robbery. We had grown up listening to music together, swapping Korn CDs and the like. I didn't know how to handle his death, which lead me to drink harder than I had ever before, losing inhibitions to the point where I went so far as to start smoking heroin for a brief period of time. A month after my interview with Jon, I hit rock bottom with alcohol. A night of hard drinking resulted in me wrecking my entire room. I woke up to vomit filling every computer port and record sleeve. It was an addiction I felt partially inherited from genetics, as a third generation addict from my father and his father. Knowing Head's story and that of his daughter from reading his book, I wondered how he might relate to my story. Seeing the echoes of your own addiction in your child seemed more terrifying than combatting your own, an unfathomable sadness.
For obvious reasons of respect, I'm not going to recount what other members of the meeting said, but Head focused in on what the speaker was recounting, nodding and in deep focus. When she finished, the round robin discussion began with me and Head, ostensibly the new guys. He spoke a bit about being thrust into too much at a young age, everything from alcohol sponsorships, to doctors who exchanged blank drug prescriptions for friendships, to getting married far too young. But in that mistake of a marriage, he and his then-wife had their daughter Jennea, who would be the catalyst of him turning his life around and getting clean. In the pits of their worst moments together of drug abuse and constant drinking, this daughter would become a symbol of God reaching down to pull him out of his darkness. There was hope. It was an arresting moment, the weight and near-absurdity of the scene kicking into full gear in my mind, watching one of my heroes grapple with the same familiar narratives spiraling down through generations.
"It's sad," he told me after the meeting, elaborating on his relationship with Jennea. "I never got to grow up, being a rock star. Getting drunk and high for so long, you don't go anywhere. It was more like a brother-sister relationship a lot. But somebody awesome came into our lives that really helped her, and I'm really happy about that. She gets to graduate next week." He grinned ear to ear. Every fear he had had about raising a daughter had happened before his eyes: getting into boys too young, self-harming, and doing drugs. "I'm thankful it didn't get as far as it could have," he mused. "But I lived my fears. When I was lost in Korn, millions in the bank, I was hopeless. If I didn't have that little girl, I would have killed myself. When I saw her go through all of that, it was more pain than I could imagine. Deep down there was a peace and a patience to wait for it to turn around, for her to be happy again."
At the end of the meeting, we all held hands with one another, said a prayer, and left, thanking the other attendees. To continue our sobriety power-hour, Head and I started walking toward a Chipotle, even though his stomach had been giving him problems (unsurprising given the sugar he had ingested about an hour earlier). A woman passing behind us on the street was screaming on her phone. In an odd Boston-Australian mashup accent, a put-off Head yelled, "why are we talking so loud! I woke up at 6 AM today!" and then started cracking up.
We walked into the Chipotle, and I offered to grab him something. He asked for a quesadilla, but it turned out the restaurant was entirely out of cheese for the night. Amused, Head started riffing: "How can you be out of cheese at Chipotle? That's like the best part. To me that's when you gotta put up the 'sorry we're closed' sign." He turned to the people waiting in line. "You guys, they're out of cheese. Go home!"
He settled for a bag of chips, and we sat down to discuss the book. One of the major conflicts he discusses is being swindled into doing bad business deals with a former drug dealer who had also turned man of faith and took advantage of him, investing Head's money into areas with little return. Yet he spoke about the man with compassion. I noticed that, after accepting God into his heart, it seemed like more than anything Head wanted to see the good in people even if it went against gut instinct—an impulse that might seem at odds with Korn's dark worldview but in a way now offers a refreshing counterbalance to it.
"To me, I wasn't perfect," he suggested. "I was bad, real bad. I had a life change, and I was really pure in my motive. I wanted to know God, and I wanted to do good in the world. So I met this guy years ago, and he was also touched by me, so I figured he had the same good motives as me. I saw him do good stuff, but the old him got the better of him. Even though I wasn't perfect, I just assumed he was as into it as me." I asked what he thought the book was about, overall.
"I mean, it's a lot of things man. It's about my life of having every bad thing turned around for good. Watching everything heartbreaking turned around and seeing good from it. Because that's what God does: He takes horrible things and painful situations and changes them. If you wait for him he will come. But it's also a book about the Korn reunion and all that. It's a lot of things." I thought back to his daughter, the light out of the darkness. One of the bigger turning points in the novel is when their relationship disconnects to the point where it made the most sense to send her to that religious boarding school, which ended up making their relationship stronger, but regardless was the biggest decision he had to make.
"Honestly man, I think on the whole this book is about you and your daughter both growing up," I told him. "I don't think addicts get to do that." He looked solemnly at the table and gave a half nod.
"Watching my daughter start to go down those roads... I kept her secluded from all that, but I don't think you can stop it. It is scary."
We drove back to his hotel room in an SUV. Our time was wrapping up. He was beat up from a day-long press junket, and he was going to decompress later that night by watching a bunch of whales on his Samsung VR headset before going to bed.
I suggested, given his interest, that he remake the "Freak on a Leash" video in VR. He flashed a huge grin.
"That would be so sick." That wasn't the only thing on my mind, though. My dumb, unanswered nu-metal mythos questions needed answers.
"Did you ever get in a physical altercation with Fred Durst, or have to restrain somebody from attacking him?" He laughed.
"Nah, man. We wrestled onstage and stuff but never anything serious. He's kind of a weird dude," he paused. "But then again, I guess we all are," he said, staring out the window.
We reached the hotel and got out of the SUV, our time coming to an end. I thanked him and went to shake his hand, but he put his arm around my shoulder.
"I want to say a prayer for you."
He thanked God for everything that day, asking him to be with me in all problems and hardships I might face, and for my continued sobriety. He was unfazed by the people walking by and starring, not pausing for anybody. At the end of his prayer, he also asked for God to look after my lost friend, to show him love in the afterlife. The moon and whatever else was in the sky seemed to shine down hard on both of us. Brian turned to face me, and I gave him a big hug, thanking him for coming to the meeting with me, for showing me his big, strange heart.
Korn's new album, 'The Serenity of Suffering,' is now available from Roadrunner Records.
Cover photo by Julia Dunham
Group photo by Jimmy Fontain
John Hill is staying true and staying nu on Twitter.