Brian ‘Head’ Welch: “I struggled with my thoughts, I struggled with my looks, so I found things to help me like comedy and music”
Growing up in Bakersfield, California, Brian Welch had no idea how his life would turn out. Never fully fitting in at school, bullies gave him the nickname ‘Head’ because “puberty made my head grow big and my body stay short,” he remembers today, chatting to Kerrang! over Zoom. He would eventually reclaim the name at the behest of Korn bandmate Fieldy, who told him, “‘All these kids used to call you that, but it’s a cool name now.’”
Taking the newly-cool nickname on board, Head would be instrumental in Korn’s monumental success in the ’90s, helping pioneer the nu-metal sound that still echoes through the halls of heavy music almost three decades later (not that they are fans of the sub-genre tag at all).
Alongside Korn’s rapid ascension came excess and partying, and for Brian, it was in the form of anything he could get his hands on – from drink to pills to powders. In the years that followed, he would snort and swallow everything he could to get out of his mind, drowning out the demons that lurked within, before eventually turning to God and turning his back on his friends in the process.
That might sound bleak, but this is a redemption story, and one that saw the dreadlock enthusiast depart Korn for an eight-year period (returning in 2013), during which time he worked on getting his life back on track with the help of his newfound faith. While away from Fieldy, Jonathan and Munky, Head released his debut solo album Save Me From Myself, and the Between Here & Lost album under the guise of Love And Death.
Now, eight years later, Love And Death are back, this time with Breaking Benjamin’s Jasen Rauch. The majority their new album, Perfectly Preserved, was written long ago, but with Head and Jasen busy on tour in their day jobs, they simply never had time to finish it until the pandemic put a stop of any kind of movement.
“The new Love And Death has a lot of songs that can be taken in a lot of different ways, without any blatantly ‘religious’ songs,” explains Head. “A lot of the songs are about mental health. The guys in Breaking Benjamin co-wrote the record with me, and we were thinking about quarantine and the pandemic and what people are suffering with mentally. The whole record is about relationships having a difficult time and mental health issues… I let the records go where they’re meant to go.”
Now 50 years old – having lived a life layered with addiction and anguish, but also healing and hope – we sit down with Head to talk about growing up, his darkest hour and how spirituality saved his life.
What were you like as a kid?
“I was always a clown. You hear about comedians who have heavy depression, and being a comedian is their coping mechanism. Not that my life was bad or anything, but I was stressed out growing up; I got bullied a lot, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin… Girls rejected me early on so I had rejection issues (laughs). I was a clown but I had a self-hatred growing early, from second or third grade, like I wasn’t good enough. I struggled with my thoughts, I struggled with my looks, so I found things to help me like comedy and music. And when music hit in fourth grade, I loved it. It made me feel good, and even people that didn’t like me started to like me because I played guitar. My brother and I didn’t get along, we fought all the time, and even he liked it. So I grabbed onto it.”
How did you discover music?
“It was when [my parents] bought the Queen album The Game. I hit 10 years old and was like, ‘What is that?’ Then on Christmas Day 1980, my parents got me AC/DC’s Back In Black and that was it. Angus Young was The Guy, he was the most popular one and played guitar, so I wanted to play guitar. Once I figured out notes, I was learning songs on my own within three months.”
When you started Korn, what did you want to achieve?
“We just loved music and where music had travelled to. Growing up there was AC/DC, Iron Maiden and the harder stuff, but the only thing on TV as a teenager was Ratt, Mötley Crüe and even Ozzy went pretty for a while! I liked it, but I wanted more, so I got into Yngwie Malmsteen – really shredding guitar players like that. When music started to change, the other guys in Korn started to get into the Chili Peppers, Metallica, Faith No More and Nine Inch Nails, all these new bands with new sounds, but I didn’t want to change because I was so into shredding.
“Then one day I thought about it like, ‘Well I haven’t learned to shred yet, so why am I still loving this?’ I started getting into Nirvana and Alice In Chains, the ones with the darker sound and melody. When we formed Korn, we wanted to go into that darker vibe, something that makes you feel. I think a lot of us dealt with dark thoughts in the band: Fieldy didn’t have the best family life, Jonathan didn’t have a good family life, my family was probably better but we had issues, so I think we had dark feelings and were drawn to that style of music. Talking about hard things, and it kind of worked out (laughs).”
Jonathan obviously works through a lot of his demons through his lyrics. Even though you weren’t vocally conveying feelings, were you working through stuff?
“I love to watch him work through it, but personally, I was just covering it up. That’s why I had the crazy explosion 10 years later. I dramatically left and changed my life because I never worked on it, I just pushed it down with almost-everyday drinking. I partied as much as I could, whenever I could I would drink, and when I got into crystal meth and coke, I would do that at the weekend and be thinking about it all week. When we got a job as professional musicians I thought, ‘I don’t have a boss, I can do what I want.’ So I started drinking every day. I would go into seasons, where I’d drink every day for a month, then just drink three days a week thinking that I’m being healthy. And I wouldn’t just have two beers; I would drink at least eight to get really buzzed. That was life for many years.”
A lot of people drink and take drugs to escape from issues in their lives. At the time, did you feel like you were running from something?
“I didn’t feel like I was running from anything, I liked it. For some reason, in my mind, I was thinking, ‘Well, I guess if I drink too much I can stop when I’m a man. I’m in my 20s, I can quit when I’m 40!’ Some of my friends had health issues because of partying too much. I had it in my mind that I didn’t want to hurt myself, but that I’ll be fine, I’m young. Around 1997, before my daughter was born, I started working out and going to the gym, and lost a bunch of weight. Then I went back to drinking and it all came back.”
Korn shot to superstardom in the late ’90s. How did you comprehend that success?
“It was crazy. It was that movement of music that struck right to the core of society at the time. There’s a bunch of kids that struggle with depression and they wanted to let their aggression out, and Korn was the darker emotional band of that. Limp Bizkit was the party version, Linkin Park was more of the mainstream ‘pop’ version, so everything exploded at the same time. I watched MTV every day as a kid, and to then have MTV wanting us to come on for interview… We got a private plane for promo of the Follow The Leader record and [MTV reporter] John Norris came out and flew with us for two weeks on this huge promotional thing. It was a dream come true to be a part of that channel, but I did drink my way through it because that’s who I was.”
Then you went on to make Untouchables, one of the most expensive albums of all time…
“I trusted the record label and manager to manage that stuff. Michael Bindhorn, who produced that record, was known for balloon budgets and going over budget. I was like, ‘Well, that’s not my deal. I play guitar and write music with the guys.’ But for that record, I decided to get sober for the first time, but the other guys did not decide to get sober for the first time (laughs). We rented houses in Phoenix, Arizona. Fieldy had a house where he had a stripper pole put in, so after any strip club they went to, they’d invite everybody for an afterparty that’d go on until the sun came up. One house was meant for the band to write and record demos; I lived in that house so it was more chill. Jonathan had his own house, David [Silvera, former Korn drummer] had his own house… We were just spending money. Munky and me shared the equipment house, but I was secluding myself away from everybody because I was getting up and going to the gym and trying to be healthy. By that time I’d had my daughter and I lost my wife – she took off and left my daughter and me – so I was figuring shit out. I’ve gotta deal with this depression and I have to get myself right for my kid.”
Is that what spurred you on to quitting the drink and drugs, or did you go back to it?
“Yeah, I went back. This family were really good friends of mine and they helped take my daughter in, because what am I gonna do when I go on tour with Korn? They had kids of a similar age to her, so she’s taken care of, she’s going to school, but I’ll pay for her lifestyle and be with her when I come home, but I don’t have to worry as much. That’s when I started drinking again and it got bad to the point where I went from pill addiction – taking dozens of Vicodin a day, taking Xanax every day, drinking every day – to doing coke again. A lot. When I would come home [me and the dad of the family] started doing coke ’cause he wanted to live the rock’n’roll life too, right? We just went for it and it was bad, man. His wife was like military mom, she’d get up early and take the kids on adventures, so we had to be functioning alcoholic drug addicts.
“I just went further into it. I started getting suicidal, like, ‘What if I ended it all? What if I died from drugs?’ I was mixing coke and Xanax all the time, and we’d had friends who died from that. Then I started telling myself that it’d be really good to just sleep forever, you know? Never having to wake up and worry about hating myself, being weak or being a shitty dad. Then I got back into crystal methamphetamines and it got really bad. I did crystal meth every day for two years. That’s when I had the dramatic change. I so wanted to end it all that I went to the last place that I wanted to go, I went to hang out with the people that I despised most – which was Christians. I thought all Christians were like Ned Flanders, but these people started coming into my life, and one person was the opposite of Ned. This guy was Christian but also the cool guy in town, he built monster cars and hotrods. He invited me to go to church and that’s when I opened myself up like, ‘Okay, I’m going to start praying and see if this works. I’m weak, I’m a loser, I’m a horrible dad and I can’t stop on my own.’ And it worked.”
What did religion do for you that you couldn’t do yourself?
“It gave me the faith and power to love myself. The self-hatred I had, I felt it start to go away for the first time. When I went to that church, I went high on drugs, but I started to realise that I was loved, that I’m deserving of love from God, and I should be able to forgive and love myself. And if I can love myself, I can be a proper dad to my daughter. I went home and I started talking to God like, ‘God, if you’re real, then show me that,’ because I won’t believe it unless it feels real to me. I had an experience where I felt it. It was a spiritual awakening and revealing that it was all true. At that moment in my house it became real.”
After you found religion you quit Korn in quite a public spat, trading comments with Jonathan in the press. How did that feel at the time?
“I’d done crystal meth for two years, so when I left, I wasn’t the most understanding or the most kind; I wasn’t the friend that they needed me to be. A good friend would be like, ‘I’m a mess, I’m thinking about suicide, I have to go, please hope that I get well.’ Instead, in my immature emotions and addiction, it was easier for me to leave in anger than to leave in kindness. Nowadays, when you’re older, you soften and you can have conversations like that. We didn’t know how to communicate and it was easier to be like, ‘I’m out. Don’t contact me. We’re not friends anymore.’
“I really did want them out of my life at that point, because everybody was a drug addict or an alcoholic, besides Jonathan. I wanted to separate from them because I needed to be around sober people, I couldn’t see people around me drinking every day. Not because they were bad and I was good, but because of my health and my addiction I couldn’t be around them. It was all my fault. If I had communicated with them better, we wouldn’t have had this back and forth.”
The working title of your debut solo album was It’s Time To See Religion Die. Which feels like the opposite of what a born-again Christian would say.
“I was trying to get the message across with [the song Die Religion Die, where that phrase comes from] that religion in America can be destructive. It can be judgemental. It can be hypocritical. It can be controlling. Churches that say heavy metal is like Satan. That’s religion. But to me, I was following spirituality, I wasn’t following religion. People who say you have to dress like this or you can’t do this or this, that’s religion. It’s time to see that die.”
How do you feel about the term ‘Christian metal’, because it feels like a dirty word for a lot of people?
“I know what you’re saying because I’d probably have been the same way, although, when I was a kid, I listened to [’80s Christian metal band] Stryper. I wasn’t a Christian but I liked their sound. I went to their concert and so did Jonathan, when we were kids, and they threw out bibles into the crowd (laughs). But the term ‘Christian metal’ is a weird name because people assume a Christian metal band is going to be so different to them. I didn’t wanna label myself that. I learned from my hero, and that’s Jonathan Davis. I learned from Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain, they talked about dark stuff and I wanted to sing about dark stuff. I tried to make the majority of [my first solo record] about real stuff. I was figuring things out; who do I want to be.
“Nowadays, with the new Love And Death album, everybody knows that I’m a Christ follower and that I’m not shoving it down your throat, so I just let the music go where it needs to go without really thinking about it. I don’t think you can call this new album Christian metal, but people can call it what they want. We didn’t want people to call us nu-metal back in the day either (laughs).”
From finding God and quitting Korn, to going solo and rejoining Korn, you had quite a transformational period of your life. Does it feel like you have a new purpose?
“I have something to live for. My purpose is the music; my purpose is connecting with my friends and my family, to connect with fans all over the world. Jonathan’s lyrics have helped people with depression for decades. My purpose is to be a father and to guide my daughter. My purpose is to watch my parents and walk with them at this stage of their life. I wake up with a smile, I live my day with a smile, whether I’m doing music, with my daughter or doing an interview with you. I have total peace in my life.”
Love And Death’s new album Perfectly Preserved is out February 11 via Earache
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