Brian Welch: From Korn to Christ

Q Magazine, Jun 2005

From Korn to Christ: Sweet Jesus! Brian “Head” Welch was guitarist with US rock band Korn and a drug addict. Then he gave it all up for God and to save cannibals…

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It’s mid-June and Brian ‘Head’ Welch, the former guitarist for Korn, is surrounded by cannibals. At least he thinks they’re cannibals. That’s what his people tell him. But he’s no expert. All he knows for sure is that it’s his first time in India and he has trekked deep into the jungles of the state of Orissa, in the sweltering heat, to meet the local tribe. And now he is surrounded by about 1500 of them and they’re “way primitive, dude, living in mud houses and stuff.” And they’re not Korn fans. Especially not the guy who’s marching up to him right now, yelling furiously and carrying what looks like a meat hook over his shoulder.

“Oh God, soften his heart,” says Welch, terrified, as the man advances. “Please Lord cast out his demons in Jesus’s name…”

Of course he’s scared. This is hardly familiar territory for a metal guitarist. But then a lot has changed for Brian in recent months. Until February he had spent over a decade in a band best known for debauchery in the Californian metal tradition. Then he turned Christian and left – he quit drugs, drink, girls, pornography, the use of “cuss words”, jerking off and ultimately, the band. Instead, he took up bible study, got some new Christian tattoos and set out in search for good deeds to get involved in – which is why he’s here in the jungle, half-expecting to become lunch.

“So the meat hook guy comes right up to us and grabs some dirt,” says Welch, reminiscing about his trip a week later, back in the safety of California. “He said ‘I need to feed my 5 daughters but all I have is dirt.’ And he starts crying and I start crying, everyone starts crying. And I saw that his anger just came from a lack of love, basically.” He stops for a moment and breathes. “Man, I’m about to start crying right now. It was awesome. There’s me in India and I came from a dark metal band, partying and wanting cars and stuff. But now I just want to live what God is, and that’s love.”

Rock stars turning to Jesus is nothing new. In the 80s, Alice Cooper went from chopping up baby dolls on stage to embracing the Baptist faith of his parents. And before him, Bob Dylan converted in 1978 and recorded the albums Slow Train Coming and Saved, which upset about as many of his fans as his “going electric” did 13 years earlier. But when Dylan and Cooper converted it was considered a huge leap for people who made “the devil’s music”. These days, however, the rock charts are just riddled with Jesus-lovers. U2 are openly Christian, as are Athlete, POD, Creed, Lifehouse, Disciple and Switchfoot. The Killers’ Brandon Flowers is a Mormon. According to a recent Q interview, even Liam Gallagher has started going to church.

“There are so many bands, it’s hard to keep track,” says Mark Joseph, author of “Faith, God & Rock n ‘Roll”. “In the past, Christians have typically withdrawn from entertainment culture and bands have gone through exclusively Christian labels in Nashville. But the last 10 years has been about Christians re-entering the culture. Some bands are already Christian and refuse to go to Nashville, so they wait for a deal from a major, like POD. Others convert like Brian Welch, Lauryn Hill or Dave Mustaine from Megadeth.”

Mustaine is unusual in that he kept the band going – yes, a born-again Christian is the lead singer of Megadeth. But Welch had had enough of the band’s unChristian ways, so he walked – “from the darkness to the light” is how he describes it. Certainly, the dark part is in no doubt. ‘Dark’ has always been Korn’s thing. The lead singer, Jonathan Davis had worked in a mortuary, he sang about being abused as a child and now he’s married to the porn star Deven. Neither drugs nor groupies were ever in short supply at a Korn party – guests had to sign confidentiality waivers to protect their depraved secrets.

For Welch, though, the appeal of life on the road, addicted to crystal meth, had run dry. “It was fun for the first album,” he says, sipping an Evian at a Christian recording studio in the San Fernando Valley. “But fame changed us. We started thinking we were better than other people, getting big headed with all our money. And then the dark side took over. Jonathan got hooked on alcohol and almost died – he was throwing up in toilets and eating his throw-up afterwards. I was doing coke till 12 the next day and taking a Xanax to get to sleep. Everyone in our band and crew was destroying themselves. And then my wife left me, which I thought would never happen – how can you leave your kid? But she was hooked on drugs.”

His daughter Jenea was two at the time. And for the next four years, Welch raised her single handed, often bringing her along on tours. He became depressed and began to spiral slowly, withdrawing more and more from the band. Rather than go to the parties, he stayed alone in his tour bus sniffing crystal.

“I wanted to die, man. I had everything. My own personal tour bus, money, packed out arenas, but I was so miserable. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t buy happiness, I couldn’t be a good dad with money. I couldn’t buy freedom from drugs. I didn’t have a single friend I could even pay to come help me.”

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So he went to church, to the Valley Bible Fellowship in Bakersfield. It wasn’t the first time he had reached out to God – he had dedicated himself to Christ in 1982 at the age of 12, in the basement of his house in Torrance, California. That first time he came to the idea himself, not coerced by his parents, both of whom ran Chevron stations and didn’t go to church. But he was young and curious, on the verge of adolescence and his faith faded fast.

Twenty years later, however, as an addict, he turned to Jesus as his last hope. He bought a bible and started reading. It took some nudging from his real estate broker, of all people, who sent him a verse or two in the mail, but Welch was soon fully immersed. For days on end he would pacing about his house alone, snorting crystal, reading the bible and calling out to God to free him of his addiction. And it worked. He threw his drugs away and went clean. He had one relapse binge a week later, but otherwise he has been clean ever since.

“Psychologically speaking, turning to religion is a way of defending yourself from what happens in the world of celebrity,” says Leo Braudy, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Southern California, and author of “The Frenzy of Renown – Fame and its History” (Vintage). “The self gets corroded. Norman Mailer, who became famous at an early age, put it well – he discovered that he was the source of more emotion in people that they were in him. That’s where the feeling of emptiness comes from. And you particularly find it in young people. Religion fills that space. It subordinates the ego which has been thrust upon you by fame and which is constantly fed by adulation. And that’s what they teach you in the 12 step program, to submit to a higher power. So the combination of fame and addiction makes you particularly prone to these radical conversions.”

It wasn’t long before Welch left the band. He had thought about leaving before, “but every time I mentioned it, the guys said, ‘yeah, yeah, just stay for one more record,’ and I did. But Jesus was the nail in the coffin as far me leaving Korn.” Couldn’t he be a drug-free Christian and remain in the band? How bad can it be?

“I know it sounds crazy,” says Welch. “Oh poor rock star, everyone loves your music and you got all this money. But I had to leave for my daughter. I heard her singing perverse Korn songs, like ‘all day long I dream about sex’, and I thought, man, I don’t belong here. I got a little girl.”

Leaving wasn’t easy. After over a decade with Korn – he joined at 22, in 1993 – the bandmates had become his best friends. “And that band was like my dream since I was a kid,” he says. But Welch’s born-again ranting made the split all the more difficult. With all the zeal and arrogance of a new convert, convinced that God was speaking through him, he renounced Korn’s music as pollution and said that “Korn helped me witness the tricks the enemy makes you do with music”. Naturally his former bandmates took umbrage. Jonathan Davis described Welch as being on a “false crusade”. He lost touch quickly with the others.

Today, Welch shies away from his earlier statements. “Aw man, I said a lot of stupid things when I first got saved,” he says. “It’s not about an enemy. That’s church talk – ‘oh that person’s demonic, stay away.’ Satan is just a disobedient son. God deals with them, not us. Our job is just to love.”

And if possible, to convert gangster rappers – one of Welch’s more sustained outbursts since finding God is his comical attempt to convert 50 cent. It began, fittingly enough, in Israel, in March, while he was getting baptised in the Jordan river along with 20 other members of his Bakersfield church. “Man, it was the weirdest thing,” he says. “I felt like God was saying, I’m going to tell you the lyrics and you’re going to sing them to him. That’s when I wrote ‘Cheap Name’. It’s really to the whole gangster rap thing, not just 50 cent. Want me to sing you some?”

He thinks for a moment. “My little boy, bow your head in shame. You’ve disgraced your father’s name and it’s time for you to choose…” Twice Welch wrote to 50 Cent, explaining how “you’re a huge force for the devil right now” and “I’m just the messenger, all I know is God told me to tell you he loves you”. 50 Cent is yet to get back to him.

It’s telling that Welch has no regrets about “Cheap Name”. He’ll be releasing the song later this year on his forthcoming solo album.

It seems he can’t stop writing songs these days. Typically his music is all Jesus-based – he talks and thinks about little else these days – and much of the rough guitar-heavy sound of Korn has given way to choirs, tinkling pianos and strings. “The lyrics are all positive man,” he says, gleefully. “I feel like God’s given me the words straight from heaven. You could feel the anger in Korn – and don’t get me wrong, anger serves its purpose – but where I’m at, I’m the opposite.”

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He stands up and pulls up his shirt, revealing a swarm of tattoos on up each arm and all over his shirt and back. Several are new, he points out with pride. “JESUS” on his knuckles. “Mark 9:43” on his hand – “if this hand causes you to sin, cut it off”. “And right here, I got Matthew 6:19 – don’t store your riches on earth. That’s why all the money I make I’m going to build orphanages. I got a few million and I want to give it all away. No church is going to get it.”

Through his new manager Steve Delaportis, he came across an organisation, called Good News India, a Christian charity organisation affiliated to the ultraconservative Assemblies of God church – anti-evolution, anti-abortion, anti-nude statues, the brand of Jesus favoured by the former US Attorney General John Ashcroft. Welch funded the building of one of their orphanages that houses 200 children, which was what his trip to India was all about. He was there to take a look at how his ‘Head Home’ was progressing. The only trouble is, the home is a mile away from the Munda tribe, which isn’t exactly thrilled with a bunch of missionaries moving in next door.

But it’s not only orphanages that Welch is fired up about. “I’m talking about building drug rehabs or an urban arts institute, or a skate park right here in Bakersfield, the crystal meth capital of America. Just invite the kids down and let them skate, share the gospel with them…”

Welch has a thing about skating. A week later, he can be found in Huntingdon Beach, in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac, where the back yard has been converted to a small skate park. And there, standing around the rim are some 11 or so skaters, in knee pads and helmets, among them several pros, all waiting their turn to swoop into the bowl.

Welch isn’t a skater himself. He’s just here for the fellowship. This is a Bible Study group of all things – Skateboarders for Jesus – run by Pastor Jay Alabama, a pro-skater in his day, who became a crackhead and served 6 months for possession. Besides Alabama is Christian Hosoi, a skating legend who served 5 years in jail for attempting to transport a pound and a half of crystal meth from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Both are in their late 30s – counterculture heroes who crashed in a blur of drugs, girls and commercial pressures. It’s a story Welch can relate to.

“Skateboarding was all about breaking out of the norm,” says Alabama. “So is punk rock. And today, Christians are like that – we’re going against the grain. Society tries to promote sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and we’re against that. We’re hardcore Christians. We’re rebels!”A natural preacher, urgent and relentless, Alabama has an incessant way of talking, rising in pitch like the commentary of a horse race. “The rebellious life we were bent in, God’s not going to extinguish all that,” he cries. “God’s not going to make you wear a robe and sing like Tiny Tim! God’s going to use our gnarliness for righteousness!”

Welch calls out “Amen!” and claps his hands. This is his plan, too – to use his rock star credentials to win over angry kids to Christianity. But pulling it off will be a challenge.

“I think the key is to bring your audience along gently,” says Mark Joseph. “Not to pull a Cat Stevens. And it’s hard for religious people to do that because they get so excited. But these days, artists are learning to pivot carefully and to make sure the music stays hard. Dave Mustaine is probably the best example of how to sustain your audience. No one freaked out when he became born-again because he didn’t make an album of hymns. He still rocked.”

Whether Welch will rock or not is yet to be seen. The soundtrack on his website, headtochrist.com, begins heavy but then quickly descends into a drivel of choirs and plinky piano – as though he hasn’t yet made up his mind. Whichever way he goes, Welch appears to be having the time of his life.

“Man, I wrote the best song I ever wrote after those cannibal tribes,” he exclaims. “It’s just crazy intense. It’s called Lost World and I wrote it on my laptop. It’s got all these orchestras. God gave me the best song right in the jungle. And you know what? This is only the beginning. You know people who say ‘life’s a bitch and then you die’?” He holds his arms out, Jesus style. “Life doesn’t suck, man. Life’s beautiful.”