James “Munky” Shaffer James “Munky” Shaffer may be best known as a founding member of the two time Grammy award-winning legendary band Korn, who have sold over 40 million records worldwide and created a new genre of heavy music in the process, but that's just one aspect of the guitarist's storied musical career. Shaffer got his start in the funk metal act L.A.P.D. In the late eighties (which later morphed into Korn), spearheaded a record by his own project Fear And The Nervous System alongside members of Faith No More and Bad Religion in 2008 and has been an advocate for disenfranchised youth throughout his career. Funny enough, the detuned guitar sound that would go on to twist the axis of metal music ultimately came out of a gory ATV accident one night in the early eighties when the Hollywood native was a rebellious 12-year-old growing up in Bakersfield, California.
“One night around one in the morning I snuck my three-wheeler out of the garage and was rolling it down the street with a friend because I didn't want to start it up and wake up my parents or our German Shepherd,” Shaffer recalls. Unfortunately the chain between the front and rear wheels was loose and when Shaffer reached down to silence the rattling sound, his finger was trapped in the front sprocket and the rear tire locked up. “I tried to pull my finger out but it was stuck, so I just tried to rip it out of the sprocket because I was in so much pain.” Shaffer's father rushed him to the hospital and after a few months of healing time and meetings with a reconstructive surgeon what was left of his finger was salvaged and the surgeon left his father with the recommendation that he take up an instrument. Shaffer, who at the time was listening to Black Sabbath and Van Halen, suggested guitar.. and that's how his musical career was born.
“Now that I look back ailments always become blessings or a gift and that was definitely a moment in my life like that,” Shaffer recalls. “You don't see it at the time. You're like, 'Why is this happening to me?' and then later it's revealed.” Shaffer's injury may have limited the chords he could play but it also forced him to get creative and build up the strength in his other fingers, which ultimately lead to him pioneering the detuned riffing that would become a hallmark of his sound. However this sound wasn't fully realized until he moved back to Los Angeles at 19 and saved up the money to buy a Steve Vai signature sevenstring guitar during the nascent days of Korn's career. “I loved Steve Vai's solo album Passion & Warfare but he didn't really touch on something that I was craving to hear which was some really low riffing,” Shaffer recalls. “Maybe subconsciously I needed to compensate because I didn't have that finger but for whatever reason I felt like I needed to experiment with this one particular instrument.”
Shaffer also credits producer Ross Robinson for helping him develop his signature sound which is immortalized on legendary albums like 1994's Korn and 1996's Life Is Peachy. “A lot of what Ross taught me back in those days I still use on a daily basis,” Shaffer says, adding that he keeps his set-up as straight-forward and analog as possible to this date. “Ross really helped shape those early albums and together I feel like we created a sound that was unlike anything that was happening at the time.” Throughout the course of their career, Korn has gone on to release twelve albums, most recently 2016's The Serenity Of Suffering, which reestablished Korn as a trailblazing force in heavy music. “I’m really trying to pay closer attention to the gaps between the notes and create space. I’m finding it almost just as important, oddly,” Shaffer explains when asked how he manages to remain innovative with Korn. “I also have a newfound passion for analog synths, which has been inspiring me. That's where I've been lately as far as creating stuff.”
The most unfiltered version of Shaffer's vision is his project Fear And The Nervous System, a collaboration between his peers such as Billy Gould (Faith No More), Brooks Wackerman (Avenged Sevenfold, Bad Religion) and FATNS producer Leopold Ross (Io Echo ) that grew out of the sonic space the band were experimenting on with the 2010 Ross Robinson-produced return to form, Korn III: Remember Who You Are. “It was a really tough time in my world when I was making that record,” Shaffer explains. “My parents adopted me and were such selfless people; my mom passed away in 2001 and then my dad went through about a year of depression and when he came back he lost weight and his health started to deteriorate. The only way I could deal with it was to go into the studio and write music.” The result is a cathartic, groove-driven album that sees Shaffer stepping outside of his comfort zone and using his arsenal of vintage six-string guitars and amp set-ups to create a sonic representation of what he was experiencing during this tumultuous time. Although it was originally tracked in 2010, the album sat around for two years until powerhouse vocalist Steve Krolikowski entered the fold, and helped resurrect this powerful collection of songs.
In addition to his ongoing duties in Korn, Shaffer is also returning to another creative fold soon, although it won't be under the name Fear And The Nervous System—the only guarantee is that the still-untitled project will be dedicated to the father of two giving back to people less fortunate than himself. “I want to tie my current project into a charity that gives hope to kids who want to try to further their education or follow their passion for art because there's so much negativity out there right now,” he says, adding that as a child of adoption he specifically wants to help foster children who haven't been as lucky. “Musically, it resonates toward those darker, spookier sounds because that's just naturally what I lean toward.” The journey that Shaffer has endured over the past two decades both musically and personally hasn't been easy, but it has been a unique learning experience that is still unfolding with each new day. “That's just life, you experience it and hopefully you don't have to learn the same lessons again,” he summarizes with a sense of perspective that can only be gained by following your dreams no matter how impossible they seem at times. “You never stop learning... but hopefully you get the lesson the first time if you're smart.”