Backstage at “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in Hollywood, it’s another moment of chaos and anticipation for the members of Korn. The heavy metal band’s dressing room is crowded with friends and family, and two long-haired little boys are banging against a practice drum as a TV blares with a comedy skit from the show.
At the center of this noise is Brian “Head” Welch, sitting on the floor with eyes closed and head bowed, long dreadlocks hanging over his bearded face. “Jesus” is tattooed across his knuckles. The guitarist is lost in an unlikely moment of tranquillity as he prepares to step onstage with the band he abruptly left for seven years in 2005.
“I was thinking about where we go when we die,” Welch says with a smile. “The place I believe in is really peaceful so I just chill, and I put my mind there and meditate.”
For fans, Monday’s “Kimmel” appearance is another reminder that Welch is back in Korn, the raging hard rock quintet from Bakersfield that enjoyed a long run of platinum albums as a leader in the ‘90s nu-metal movement. And this week marks the release of “The Paradigm Shift,” the band’s first album with the guitarist since 2003.
Korn performs Thursday at the Wiltern, where long-suffering Korn fans can witness the grinding dual-guitar attack of Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer back in action.
Welch’s return has been a new experience for drummer Ray Luzier, who joined the band in 2007. “When he came back, I remember he turned his amp on and he hit one chord, and Munky hit one chord, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is in stereo now,’” Luzier says. “The little subtle things they do are magical.”
Welch left Korn for many reasons, he says now. At the time, he was a recovering meth addict and had just become a Born Again Christian. He was also a single parent to a young daughter.
“I was so trapped in this lifestyle. The party just went on forever. At first it was fun, and then I couldn’t get out of it,” says Welch, 43. When he quit, Welch left Los Angeles for Phoenix, and then Nashville.
“I did have a real spiritual awakening, and it’s a deep foundation within me right now,” he says. “I wanted to be the normal guy. I took my daughter to school and made her breakfast and helped with her homework.
“Some parents called the principal on me saying ‘There’s a weird guy with black hair and tattoos in the parking lot,’” he adds.
The founding members of Korn had arrived in Los Angeles together in 1989 dreaming of the kind of rock stardom they would eventually achieve, but Welch didn’t speak to singer Jonathan Davis and Shaffer at all most of his years away. Both sides communicated occasionally through angry comments in interviews. (Welch remained in touch with Korn bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu.)
The break only increased Davis’ long hatred of organized religion.
“Me and Munky took it the hardest. We were just hurt,” says Davis, 42. “It was definitely traumatic for me when he left. We had to learn how to do this all over again. We were always a unit.”
Welch moved on, and maintained a solo career with his own band, Love and Death, but part of him couldn’t let go. Whenever a new Korn album was released, he was drawn to it: “I tried to stay away, but I listened to every one.”
He reconciled his friendship with Davis during a tour stop in Bakersfield, and last year Welch joined Korn onstage at the Carolina Rebellion festival in Rockingham, N.C., to perform “Blind.” Most surprising to him was the reaction.
“People were getting emotional,” Welch recalls. “Jonathan cried, people in the crowd cried, they were tweeting people across the world. My dad hit me up: ‘Brian, I got teary-eyed watching you play with your friends again.’ I was like, something’s going on here.”
He soon got a call from Shaffer inviting him to join Korn in the studio for a new album. The band reunited at Korn’s studio in Bakersfield, the same facility on Chester Avenue made famous by local country music icon Buck Owens.
“I was nervous the first two days, and then it was just like when I left but better,” Welch says. “We were all laughing and nobody was hung over. It was crazy. I remember telling Jonathan, ‘This is really going to happen, huh?’ And he was, ‘Yeah, man, it’s so cool.’”
While the old drug and alcohol habits were long gone, the creative tension remained. The recording sessions were Korn’s first since its surprising dubstep experiment with Skrillex, 2011’s “The Path of Totality.” Davis was still hungry for electronic sounds. Welch wanted to make a rock record.
There was compromise, and the final blend of rock guitars and electronic elements can be heard in the album’s single, “Never Never.”
“Me and Head butted heads a lot,” says Davis a day after the “Kimmel” appearance. He’s on a tour bus parked outside Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, where the band was just inducted into the store’s Rock Walk. Davis’ 6-year-old son, Zeppelin, hovers nearby. “That’s good to have that kind of creative conflict. That’s what made the record that much better.”
Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Thu.