“I Thought I Was Going To Fucking Die. I Was Pouring Blood Out Of My Ass…”
It’s fitting that Jonathan Davis’ debut solo album is entitled Black Labyrinth, because the iconic vocalist has been navigating darkness for the past 25 years. Even the most cursory look back at the story of the now 47-year-old reveals a life full of the kind of troubling recesses he’d come to share with the world through Korn, the nu-metal legends that have released 12 albums to date, and sold more than 35 million records.
A child with severe asthma whose parents divorced when he was young, Jonathan was bullied both at school by classmates for being different, and at home by a domineering stepmother who resented him. Despite such treatment, he didn’t spare himself further harsh realities as a teenager, working as an embalmer and coroner’s assistant, exposing himself to death in its more visceral form. Jonathan’s inability to shy away from pain continues to this day. In 2015, Korn toured relatively intimate venues to play their 1994 self-titled debut in its entirety, the album that introduced the world to the singer’s lyrical preoccupations with drug abuse, bullying and, in the case of one track, something even more devastating. The track Daddy is about the sexual abuse Jonathan suffered at the hands of his babysitter when he was a child, and his parents’ refusal to believe his story. Despite the incredibly difficult subject matter, and the fact the band hadn’t played it for 20 years, the singer stood onstage and delivered that song on every date of the tour. Jonathan’s reluctance to pull, or avoid, punches makes him a fascinating interviewee – although those expecting the aggressive gruffness he embodies onstage are in for a big surprise.
In truth, he’s warmth personified, the softness of his voice making the incredible things he speaks about, and the extraordinary levels of swearing peppering his conversation, all the more shocking. One of the most interesting things about Jonathan is how far from jaded he is. Despite being in the same band for almost three decades, the rollercoaster of fortunes that has brought him, and the demons he’s had to conquer (he’s been sober since 1998), he still possesses a child-like giddiness when it comes to the topic of music. Black Labyrinth is an album that’s taken him more than a decade to share with the world, so there are clearly still challenges and goals that keep Jonathan in the creative game.
How does it feel to be considered something of an icon these days?
That shit trips me the fuck out! It makes me think of when Korn were touring with Ozzy [Osbourne]. To me, Ozzy is the dopest, most badass motherfucker there is, and I look at him like a mentor. When I did my first tour with Metallica and I met James Hetfield and he says, ‘What’s up, JD?’ I was that little kid again, because those dudes are icons – I’m no motherfucking icon. But I just did this [solo] show and there’s this band, Palisades, that I say hi to and they were all shaking. I thought back to when I met Ozzy and realised, ‘I’m one of those dudes now.’ Fucking weird…
You’re part of the lineage…
Definitely! [Korn] is one of the last of our kind: those bands from the ’90s and [’00s] that had big record budgets and did big, great shit. I don’t see any other bands that are doing shit like that. Hip-hop cats and young mumble rappers are more rockstar than anyone else right now. I can’t wait for it to come back around.
What rockstar traits do you think your Scottish heritage has given you?
I know – and this is a fucking fact – that Scottish folks have got the funk like a motherfucker. Average White Band are badass, so having that [blood] definitely gives you some swag.
Your father had some swag too, given that he played keyboards with late singer-songwriter Buck Owens. How aware were you of what your dad did for a living?
I was just a kid then. He came off the road when I was three when my sister was born, because he couldn’t stand being away anymore, but him being on the road ripped my parents apart, and they got divorced. I went with my dad, and my sister with my mum. He’s a badass keyboard player. I’d come home from school, grab an instrument and he’d show me how it worked. He still jams with some buddies that play old folks homes. He used to tell me, ‘You don’t need to be in a band, you need to go to college.’ Well I showed him (laughs)!
You’ve described Black Labyrinth as an album you put on “to make you go somewhere”. What was the first album that had that effect on you?
There were two: Peter Gabriel’s Passion [1989 soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation Of Christ] and [1988’s] The Serpent’s Egg by [Australian band] Dead Can Dance. They were both cool, worldly records that took me to a different place. You could put them on, immerse yourself, and forget about your life.
And the musical Jesus Christ Superstar had a profound effect on your life, too, didn’t it?
When I was about three years old, my parents were in the local production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Bakersfield. During rehearsals, my mother met the man who was playing Judas, and he took her away from my dad. He’s my stepfather and has been for 43 fucking years. Little Judas…
But you also loved the show?
Oh, I love the theatre. When I was young I’d go to Bakersfield Community Theatre, where I’d watch Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, The Music Man… That shit was pounded into my brain at a young age.
Would you like to write a musical?
I would love to write a musical! A long time ago, I was talking to [English writer, director and artist] Clive Barker about doing a dark, fucked-up musical, but people get busy and it didn’t happen. It’s definitely on my bucket list to do a really dark, metal musical – not some stupid-ass one.
Other than providing fuel for your art, what other residual effects has the bullying you suffered as a child left you with?
I have a lot of hatred and aggression that builds up in my body when I see anyone being picked on for being different. It doesn’t make me any better if I see someone getting picked on, and then go and pick on that other person – that’s not going to solve anything. It’s about having the facility to take a deep breath and try to teach that person how what they’re doing can hurt another person. It’s about restraint and teaching kids that that’s not how to treat people. No-one is born racist or homophobic – that behaviour is taught.
What did being an embalmer and working at a coroner’s teach you? What makes a teenager want to do that?
I got into it because I liked horror movies and all kinds of dark shit. I went on this regional occupation programme where they taught you skills, and of course I wanted to learn how to do autopsies, because I thought it would be fucking cool. But lo and behold, little did I know that that shit would fuck me up for a long time. I saw some really fucked-up shit, which at the time made me a really hard, no-emotions motherfucker. I had post-traumatic stress from seeing dead babies, and young kids that had died after finding a parent’s stash of drugs – shit that I shouldn’t have been seeing at 16 or 17 years old. I had to have a lot of therapy to make the nightmares go away, but I got through it and it made me appreciate life a lot more.
What do you appreciate now about Sexart, your pre-Korn band?
I liked jamming with them, but those guys would tell me what to sing, and would write the lyrics – well, the drummer [Dennis Shinn] did. I was insecure with my singing to begin with, so he took advantage of that. Once I got into Korn, I had no-one doing that shit, so I got to do what I wanted to do. I opened up and became a vocalist – I wasn’t trying to do what these other fools wanted to do. That was other people in the band – I’m not talking about Ryan [Shuck, Sexart guitarist] or [Dave] DeRoo [bassist].
Was there a pivotal moment that made you realise you were on the crest of a very big wave with Korn?
The moment I got in the fucking band. Seriously, the minute I sang the first song with them, we all looked around at each other and they said, ‘You’re in the band.’ When I heard the demos with Ross [Robinson], I knew in my heart of hearts that we had something different. When we’d play shows we’d go out there and hit the first chord and everyone’s jaw would drop – they’d never heard anything like that before. Now everyone tunes to fucking A (laughs)!
You’ve said of Korn’s debut album that you had “no idea that so many people felt the way I felt”. Did that realisation make you feel more normal, or sad that so many other people were going through the same difficulties as you?
It made me feel not so alone, but sad that a lot of people were going through the sorrow that I went through. You come to the realisation as you get older that life is not easy, no matter what you’re doing. I’m living my fucking childhood dream, but there are consequences. People say to me, ‘You’re a big, bad rockstar who’s rich, you don’t have anything to worry about.’ I have to grit my teeth and smile, because I’ve got more shit to fucking worry about. With every great thing there’s an equally bad thing that’s going to happen. That’s how the universe works.
Given that you’ve described Korn as “a band of outcasts”, did you ever worry that mainstream success would take that away, or did you feel you were having the last laugh against the detractors of your past?
Inside I was smiling, thinking, ‘Look at me, motherfucker!’ How could I not? It was the best revenge ever. All those people that used to call me a f****t and all that shit when I was in school could go eat a great big fucking dick. I didn’t want to hurt anybody, but I wanted to flaunt my shit in front of them to say ‘fuck you!’ All those tough guys ended up being loser fucks, while the people they called f*****s ended up being successful.
You’re a huge fan of Duran Duran. How does it feel that Korn, like Duran Duran, have reached such a level of fame that they’re a byword for an entire genre?
It makes me feel fucking awesome. How crazy is it that I went to a club, met [Duran Duran singer] Simon Le Bon, and we hit it off? The next time we were in the UK, he came to our fucking show. I got to party all night with my fucking idol. That’s the shit; Simon Le Bon knows who the fuck I am – it doesn’t get doper than that.
You intended to have some of your musical heroes, and your peers, in the video game Pop Scars, in which they would all fight each other. What went wrong with it?
I had it all set up with a video game company called THQ. We had a bunch of people that were going to be in it: Ozzy, Rob Zombie, Limp Bizkit – they’d all signed off – but at the last minute THQ decided to use their design team on a WWE wrestling game instead, so there was no-one to do my one. They paid me a little bit of money and made me go away, basically.
How does it feel when a project you’ve invested so much time in doesn’t come off?
It fucking sucks. The learning experience from it is: don’t get excited until you see the thing finished and done. There are so many people involved when you’re trying to do something cool, and it can often feel like pulling teeth. I wish I had a bajillion dollars so that I could do everything in-house, but unfortunately I don’t got that.
Why are video games so important to you?
It’s pure escapism. When I was a teenager I’d go to my room, put on headphones and stick on a record. Now video games do the same thing for me. I don’t think about my life, and the pain of missing my family because I’m on the road – I’m just immersed in this game and it helps me relax. I’ve got gaming systems everywhere. It’s how I work: I play games, I write music, I play games, and so on.
Presumably having so much to take up your time aids you in your sobriety. Did you ever think that your old habits would stop you from being a touring musician?
No, because I got sober really quick. I was sober at 28 years old. In August it’ll be 20 fucking years since I had a drink. I had to stop because I was drinking a gallon of Jack Daniel’s or a litre of Jäger a night – I was out of my fucking mind. Two things made me stop: firstly, my band started to hate me; and secondly, I had a son. I would come home drunk and my son would see that shit. I stay sober for my three boys now, because I want to be an example to them. I don’t want them to see me being a fucked-up dumbass. I switched the addiction out for music. When everyone else would be going out and partying, I’d be on the bus, writing on my laptop.
Yet still dangers present themselves. You missed Korn’s Download performance in 2006 because of serious illness. It must have been a terrifying time…
I thought I was going to fucking die. I had this shit called ITP [Immune Thrombocytopenic Purpura], which means I had no platelets, which are the building blocks of your blood. I was pouring blood out of my ass, my gums were bleeding, and I had bruises all over my body. Someone was looking out for me, though. I got to London and was sent to a doctor’s office where they did blood tests. I got a call saying, ‘Get your ass to the clinic right now.’ It was fucking horrible. With most people, ITP is just something that comes on, but an antibiotic called Keflex brought mine on. I took that shit and it nearly killed me. Unfortunately my bass player Reggie’s [Fieldy] father took it and it killed him.
How much does an experience like that make you think about the legacy you’ll one day leave behind?
I’m happy with the body of work I’ve been responsible for, from Korn to this record, and the ones I’m going to release in future. I never wanted to conform or do the same thing over and over. I wanted to push the envelope.
If you had to select one proudest musical achievement, what would it be?
One of them would have to be when we performed with The Cure [Korn’s MTV Unplugged performance], because that’s my teenage years right there. When we got to mix [The Cure song] In Between Days with Make Me Bad and Robert [Smith, The Cure singer] looked at me and said, ‘Oh, I like it minor [key] like this,’ and dug what we were doing – that was everything to me.
If you had the chance to do it all over again,would you do anything differently?
Nothing. It all led to something that led to something that led to something that got me here, so I wouldn’t change a fucking thing.
Words: James Hickie
Black Labyrinth is set for release on Sumerian Records tomorrow (May 25). Jonathan Davis plays Download Festival in June. More info here.
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