Brian Welch – Freak OFF A Leash
by Tammy Moore aka Metal FreaktressIt’s approaching 8 years to the day that Grammy award-winning Korn made the announcement that guitarist Brian “Head” Welch was leaving the band to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ. Cue the collective eye roll of legions in the metal world. The guy had the life countless undiscovered rock faithful were scratching and clawing to get to. He was in a multi-platinum selling band that had traveled at warp-speed to fame and all the coveted trappings that come with it. Their 5th record was called ‘Untouchables‘ and that seemed legit in light of the cushy life fate had dealt the five eclectic artists from Bakersfield, Cali. The point of a finger and hoochies were theirs for the taking. Easy money, world-travel and adoration were the mystical counter parts to all the alcohol money could blow. It seemed the Universe had wrapped the gift in white powder ribbons and overnighted it in a private jet to some clearly favored sons.
Their success was undoubtedly ignited, in no small part, by the sensually dark guitar sound crafted by Welch and James ‘Munky” Shaffer. Theirs was a sonic scheme in league with high priests Tipton and Downing, who had given demagogic measure to the definition of an actual signature guitar sound. Distinct to the degree that it had to be sub-categorized within the metal genre and purists were mortified at what they’d conceived. But the architects of nu metal were no doubt laughing all the way to the bank, thanks to the reception it received from the rest of the planet. On that note, critics, raise your hand if you’ve actually conceptualized a new sound in music. Right. Short list. So he’s chained to glory most mortals will never know and the story goes that he was unhappy despite it all. He’d been proverbially knifed through the heart by, surprise, a punk rock chick with an affinity for skinheads, and he was self medicating nightly at levels that would send most of us to the morgue. Right before he went on stage and slayed the masses with his 7-string… only to be subjected to god-like exaltation in return. But he was human after all and he loved the girl despite the gaping wound left in her wake. He was watching the bottom fall from the perch protruding from his broken heart, but there was a child that the tumultuous union had produced. He had to protect her and he had to start by saving himself so he said good-bye to the band and the life and went in search of something more for them both. It was pretty touching on one hand. But, really, Rock Star, what are you thinking? What kind of freak walks away from that?
The tale is well known by now. A high-profile baptism, in the Israeli river that uber-punk rock Jesus himself took the same plunge in, kicked off Welch’s journey into a wilderness where he would face down pain and trials he hadn’t known would be part of the deal at the onset. And here’s where the story gets incredibly interesting because the relevancy isn’t in whether or not you believe in what he found. It’s the fact that he had the courage to pursue it to the extent that he did that makes Welch an artist worth examining. The guitar mastery is impressive, for sure. And in the band he’s nurtured since leaving Korn, Love and Death, he’s emerged as a charismatic front man. But he has an impressive pedigree to draw inspiration from there so it’s the temperament, will and free-falling abandon that drives him that’s really affecting. He’s hardly the first to find his way to inner peace. But Welch’s private journey was so excruciatingly… public.
He had to endure the blow back from the Korn nation. The anger of his beloved brothers and fans who felt betrayed. He was recovering from a merciless meth addiction and a love gone haywire. He was navigating a new relationship with this Entity that had touched him, all the while tending to the needs of a baby girl that was completely dependent on him. As an artist there was still the need to express himself through his music but reality came crashing down on him the first time he went out on a club level tour with a new band and a string of promoters that understood little of what to do with them. He thought he could easily pack mid-size venues. But it didn’t work out that way. Probably only those that have actually attempted the climb to recognition in music and started at the club level, where most artists stay for years and years because of the enormous difficulty to move past it, can appreciate the magnitude of the fall Welch took when his self-induced stage dive from arenas and stadiums to club platforms and sub-par sound systems landed him in front of crowds of 20. Welcome to the deep end of the hero’s journey. If you haven’t been there, there’s no way you can imagine the blood equity that goes into the pursuit of this particular dream. Was it a culture shock? Hell yeah. Was it humbling? To the point of tears. But did it defeat him? No. He stayed in the ring… kept searching for truth.
“It was the best thing for me, ” he says, “but it was the hardest thing for me. One of the things I had to face was that pride of life. A lot of my emotions were telling me ‘this sucks. I hate it’ because I was used to the big time. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go home. But I just felt inside of me, you know ‘you can’t quit.’ I actually did once. Flipped out, threw my mic, broke some stuff, went right to the runner’s van and quit a tour. But it was the best thing for me. I’m telling you, seriously.” Because you grew as a person? “Yeah. Exactly. It’s all about that.”
He took comfort from the Christian community that embraced him. They were somewhat ecstatic when he broke away from Korn and embraced their God as his own. Welch was more dogmatic in those early days and they were his defenders when the secular world questioned his sanity. And they are incredibly important to him now except that even within that sect, he deals with small groups of the opposite extreme… fans, supporters that judge him harshly at times. I started paying attention last year after I read his second book, Stronger. That was when I saw the condemnation. It seemed like he was getting it from both sides and that’s when I decided I needed to save him. Not from himself but from the religious right fanatics whose cranial circuitry seemed to visibly blow Jihad style fuses every time he appeared in an Instagram with a sinner like Nikki Sixx or posted a joke with a word like, hang on to your seats, ass in it. “I talked to Nikki Sixx about our struggles and triumphs with drug addiction and it’s just awesome. That’s where we need to be… in all those places where all those other bands are.” He’s talking about reconnecting with a world he understands and maybe being able to help other musicians that might be struggling with something like what he’s experienced but…
Whoa! What was happening to Christianity’s dread-locked poster boy? He was starting to resemble some sort of free-spirit and was it really wise to hang with that lot? With feverish strokes to their keyboards they hammered out insults on social networks and blasted him with the fervor of Roman centurions, full on persecution style. His predicament was one that reeked of a bigger issue in society and seemed worthy of addressing… intolerance. I wanted to convince those free-basing on the Holy Water that he wasn’t doing anything wrong by embracing the secular world once more… if I could get them to recognize the genius in the fearless expansion of his world… if I could show them that what he’s doing is exactly what God would want for him… and them… to create and experience the biggest life possible in this realm of existence, built on genuine concern for all and tranquil co-existence… then that would be my own little contribution towards steering the human race in a better direction.
So I set up the interview, intent on savoring whatever pearls of wisdom he offered and regurgitating my message of tolerance for all to the masses but, as it turned out, he didn’t need saving. And you want to know why? Because he doesn’t care. The spark of absolute amusement that popped through his bloodshot eyes when I brought up the subject that Fall night, in a small town on the outskirts of San Antonio, made that crystal clear. Welch hadn’t slept for two days… he was dealing with a crisis I’d been told by his handlers, and I offered to reschedule the interview, but he insisted in the end, for my sake since I’d driven all the way from the ATX, so we found a tiny room in a church he’d come to speak at, chaperoned by very decent Christian bodyguard types (courtesy of the church in case I turned out to be a serial killer). We talked about God, trusting the process of life and heavy metal. To say he doesn’t care means he’s not fazed by the disapproval. “It’s like kicking a hornet’s nest,” he told me. “And if they get too crazy, I just delete those people and kick them off my facebook. I’d rather they go somewhere else and leave my people alone. Leave me alone.” In truth, the flak is small by comparison to the support he gets. He does wish his detractors might realize some of the truths he’s come to know but he respects that we’re all on our own journeys and that serves a purpose in the evolution of things. “If you do your own thing, I don’t judge anybody. But then don’t judge me for the way I look or the music I play or for spreading the anti-organized religion thing because that, as a whole, has scared people away from God and I want to break that.”
In his case, he’s let the trials teach him and is grateful for all that the experiences have taught him. “I love it. Even the controversial stuff.” He came face to face with his own spirit and the more he conquered setbacks, disappointments and losses, he realized what he was really capable of as a human being and that mattered more than ripping apart a stage to the sound of the worship of thousands every night… but clearly, he realizes now what a gift that was too, and he’s going back to claim his spot among the elite. Within a couple of weeks after our interview, Korn announced that Welch would be reuniting with them for some European dates scheduled for this summer. It’s interesting that the opportunity comes just as he releases an album that drives home the fact that he’s a talent to be reckoned with in his own right, with or without the flanking of Korn.
His prowess as a songwriter blasts through on the new Love and Death record, ‘Between Here & Lost,’ where Welch both exorcises some demons and finds a peaceful coexistence with the presence of others. Recorded in Nashville, and produced by Jasen Rauch, the album was released on 1/22/13 to rave reviews. “I did this with the band. They wrote some stuff, I wrote some stuff, Jasen wrote some stuff and we got some outside writers to help with lyrics. They know what I’m about so they gave me ideas and we would work together on things… it was ‘ah, yeah, that’s what I’m feeling’… that type of deal. And some of it I wrote myself so it’s a mixture.” So, the writing process was collective? “Yeah, and I’ve never done that before. It’s cool because outside writers do stuff you would never think of, with different flavor, and it went well. I loved that team we worked with. I’d like to do it again. I’m really excited about the record.” What made you choose Tooth & Nail Records? “They really believed in it and they were willing to put their necks on the line to get it out there. They put their heart into it. I can tell.”
What might be the perfect analogy for where he is in life right now might be the Rock On The Range show roster, a U.S. festival that Welch has agreed to also reunite with Korn for before they head to Europe. Out of 48 bands confirmed, he joins the ranks of the headliners with Korn at the fourth position from the top and is an opener at third slot from the bottom with Love and Death. There’s a whole lotta room to move in the middle there. He doesn’t have to endure the climb of the newer band but something tells me he might be in a place where he enjoys the challenge. It’s a great place to be when you realize that struggle serves a purpose and you can actually embrace it. Still, it’s hard to believe he won’t go back to Korn full time. Those concerned need only watch the footage of their brief reunion at the Carolina Rebellion last summer and check Jonathan Davis’ reaction after they played “Blind” together for the first time in years. It was one of the greatest moments in rock and roll. Emotion like that comes from genuine brotherhood and Brian will be in good hands. I asked what that moment was like for him? “It was emotional. It was intense and I loved it.” Did it feel like coming home? “It felt odd. It felt weird and I was nervous but it felt right.”
Here’s hoping he finds the energy to devote his time to both projects because it would be interesting to see what inspiration he taps into next. No matter what the emotional pull of the past may be, it must be incredibly exciting for him to explore the future, and bring forth all he’s learned. I saw him in Austin a couple of weeks later. He said, “there’s a path down the middle and that’s where you’ll find peace.” He’s found that his path of totality is the one where he operates unchained by either side and that doesn’t mean his spiritual life has taken on less meaning. It means everything. But he’s beaten back the darkness and dismisses intolerance from the right. He’s off the leash. With no fear of existing strictly as his tattooed beautifully freakish self. Of his natural high, Welch says, “There’s a spiritual high that you wanted the drugs to give you but there’s no down side. It’s really cool. I was created to be high and I’m still high. I’m higher than I’ve ever been. I’m not recovering. I’m changed.” Embracing the spoils and the struggles equally, with a mind-set that understands the value in both now. In this world of vapid fascinations, I think it makes this artist’s trip extraordinary and one worth…watching.