Fear and the Nervous System exists in the space between beauty and brutality.
Korn guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer began formally building this space in late 2007. Along the way, he enlisted Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Bad Religion drummer Brooks Wackerman, guitarist and programmer Leopold Ross, and Korn keyboardist Zac Baird to populate this sonic realm with their own signature flourishes. However, the missing piece was the right singer.
While working on Korn III: Remember Who You Are in the winter of 2010, producer Ross Robinson played mixes from Repeater, another band he was working with at the time. The vocals instantly spoke to James, and he knew that singer Steve Krolikowski would be the missing piece for Fear and the Nervous System.
Steve immediately stepped into the vacant spot and took the music to new places. Now, the final album is on the way, and it’s as vibrant as it visceral…
Steve offers some insight into Fear and the Nervous System in this exclusive interview with Dolor author Rick Florino.
How did you initially get in touch with James?
That’s an easy answer [Laughs]. My band Repeater was doing a record with Ross Robinson. At the time, Ross was producing Korn’s last album—Korn III: Remember Who You Are. So, he played one of the Repeater mixes for James. James thought my voice would work really well for Fear and the Nervous System, which he’d already finished. I was contacted the same day and asked to do some work on it. I tentatively said, “Yes”, and it turned out to be a really good fit.
When you first heard the music, did it speak to you?
I really like alternative metal or whatever you want to call it. It moves. The musicianship inherent in Fear and the Nervous System really hit me, and I wanted to be a part of it. It was super challenging, but I felt I was up for the challenge. I thought I could do the music justice. It’s very humbling listening to the drums, guitars, and keyboards. These are fantastic musicians, and I pushed myself to match that level of expertise and experience.
Did you feel an instant chemistry?
It wasn’t instant, I can tell you that. I listened to these songs over and over again. I think one of my special abilities is to find the melody that’s hidden in a song. In many cases, that melody might not even be there already. I used everything I had to be able to pull out the melody. I tried to write lyrics that fit the tone of the song given everything James had told me about what the song felt like already. I listened to these songs dozens of times. I’d strain over one song for hours and hours at a time in order to write the lyrics and figure out where everything went. Some of them are quite complicated even though they have really good hooks.
How would you describe your sound together?
It really isn’t a metal record, per se. It’s more than that. They wanted someone who sounded right. James was looking for a singer who fit the mold. When I was asked to do it, it started moving pretty quickly. We finished one song every couple of weeks for several months. That was good for me because I had a lot of time to write, listen to and analyze the songs. I got to really figure out who was doing what. In fact, I feel like that album’s part of me even though I wasn’t there for the recording of all the instruments. It’s a fantastic recording.
As a lyricist, is it important for you to tell stories and paint a visual picture?
I think it’s my responsibility to write the best lyrics possible. When I had my first meeting with James, I was really intimidated [Laughs]. He showed me one movie, and it’s the basis for the title of the project and the album. It also has a connection to the entire theme of the project. I’m not going to reveal what everything is about. However, everything has a subject. The songs aren’t about me. I wrote about things that other people can relate to. In every single song, there are clues to what the song is about. Often, they’re either about films or history. Sometimes, they have to do with personal life, but I have my own band and I can write personal stuff for that. This project is for James and all of the people involved. It’s sort of a cinematic experience. I want to be as colorful as possible with the themes I throw out. I don’t want to talk about love, hate, and emotion. I want to talk about the images I see that make me experience those things.
Your writing is very evocative, and listeners can definitely take their own meanings from it.
That’s the idea, and it’s why you don’t tell everyone what the songs are about. If you’re a good writer, you don’t have to tell someone what it’s about. If you’re a good artist, you don’t have to explain your painting.
Is “Choking Victim” a fitting introduction to the album?
It is. That song has a bunch of weight to it. The subject matter isn’t important. The lyrics are somewhat abstract. They simply impart a feeling of abandonment and frustration. That’s what it’s supposed to show. It turns out really catchy and super heavy. It’s a good indicator of the direction of the rest of the songs on the record. It isn’t just a collection of songs. It is a record. It sounds like it was written for a purpose. That’s one of the reasons I’m really proud to be a part of it.
What makes this record special?
It’s everybody’s record. I think that’s what makes it special. James wasn’t trying to make some sort of glamour page for himself. This is a good record. Everyone’s parts stand out. Everything locks in so perfectly. It sounds like a real rock album. It’s almost a time capsule of elements from ten or fifteen years of rock put together. It’s really amazing how it came out to what it is. Jim Monte did an incredible job mixing. The recording is immaculate. They used the best equipment for everybody.
Were you a Korn fan before Fear and the Nervous System?
I was listening to a lot of thrash metal, indie, punk, and alternative when I graduated high school in 1994. I caught the tail end of what Korn was doing. I didn’t realize the impact Korn has had on the entire world until now. They’ve been a massive influence on pop culture and written a ton of amazing songs. Before I started working with Ross, I didn’t realize how huge Korn was. I became a fan recently. Being chosen to do this was an amazing surprise. It’s a really great world filled with amazing people. I love working with James and all of these guys. I’m from Arizona, and it seems like this would’ve been obvious. When I came out of high school, I didn’t experience that subculture. I wasn’t a metal guy for a little while. I was a huge fan of thrash. I love Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer of course. For some reason, I started moving away from that when I graduated high school. I started like goth and indie rock. My vocal style wasn’t influenced by the late ’90s.
Where do you feel like your intensity comes from?
I moved into post hardcore music. When you listen to Fugazi, At The Drive-In, and The Mars Volta, that’s a different branch of the tree. People like that are incredibly intense, and that’s probably where I got my ability to sing in an intense fashion, of course it also came from Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, and Peter Gabriel.
What was the movie that James showed you upon your first meeting?
The movie was called Peeping Tom, and it was written by a very enigmatic character named Leo Marks. Before he was a writer, he was a photographer, and he did a lot of work for the British government in World War II. The movie is a pretty good British thriller. It has a really weird plot. If you watch it closely enough, you’ll figure out the connection to the band. The protagonist/antagonist is tortured by the life of his father who was a psychologist that did a bunch of experiments on him. The main character of the story is a murderer. It’s a lost classic. Seeing that movie and where the philosophy of the record was going helped me. I looked for other related topics to write about. There are a lot of movies in there.
What are you most proud of about this?
When I got messages from Billy Gould and Brooks Wackerman telling me the record was great, that changed my outlook on life. Everyone involved really put their souls into it. They’re all happy with the result and that makes me happy. The fact that people put trust in me to be the final piece of the project was the greatest compliment. I’m proud to just be a part of this. The drum parts are insane. I can’t believe the way the drums are played. You can tell that Brooks is an amazing drummer. Then you get to the bass, and it’s so incredibly solid. The tone is perfect. Billy moves around flawlessly throughout the entire song structure. If you jam these songs on headphones, you can hear every note he plays. He keeps it in a low range. He reminds me of Geezer Butler in Black Sabbath. The guitars are everywhere. It doesn’t sound like Korn. A lot of the parts are atmospheric. A lot of them are repetitive jamm-y riffs. There’s a lot of half-time medium tempo stuff you wouldn’t hear in a Korn record. Zac’s playing is on top of it. I love the keyboard parts. Everything works together.