How Korn turned tragedy into triumph with The Nothing
Jonathan Davis is sat pondering the idea that, to the man upstairs at least, his life is one big joke.
It’s a sentiment the 48-year-old is unpacking as we point to the song Idiosyncrasy, taken from Korn’s 13th album, The Nothing, and its lyric, ‘God is making fun of me.’
“I almost named the album that,” he laughs when confronted with his own words. “Like, how much fucking more are you going to send at me, man? That’s where I came up with that lyric. I’m sitting there fucking bawling because I’m dealing with all this shit. My kids don’t have a mom, I’ve got a sick kid, I’ve got all this shit. Yeah, you’re a rock star, you’ve got money and get to travel the world, but what in the flying fuck, God?! You’ve got to be up there giggling your ass off.”
The Jonathan Davis we meet is not the man seen night after night, hunched over his infamous HR Giger mic stand. Onstage, he commands audiences of thousands with an intensity that makes even the most cavernous rooms feel intimate. Today, sat opposite Kerrang! in the meeting room of a posh Mayfair hotel, he fidgets awkwardly, fiddling with his hair or playing with his shirt sleeves, the nerves over his choice of words apparent in his voice.
A coffee is never far from his hand. Neither, too, is his iPhone, with which he keeps a close eye on the welfare of his son Zeppelin, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes.
“This is his blood glucose, so I can tell what his number is,” he says, showing us his phone’s screen. “I’ve got to stay on his ass and tell him. He’s at home in America right now; it’s fucking 3am. I constantly have to deal with that. It’s not an easy disease – if he doesn’t get his insulin then he dies.”
Jonathan has been the sole parent of Zeppelin (and his older brother Pirate) since August 2018, following the death of his wife Deven from an accidental overdose. The pain of her passing forms the emotional spine of The Nothing; a record that, even factoring in past bleak form, is his band’s darkest ever.
Yet The Nothing isn’t a ‘woe is me’ record; rather, it confronts attempts to find light in the black darkness of grief. Instead of each track relating to a particular subject or event, Jonathan sees it as a whole body of work, a conceptual piece of art viewed through a lens tinted with torment.
“There’s a lot of pain in the record – I lost my fucking wife,” he says bluntly. “No-one can even fathom that pain. I couldn’t even fathom it. We went through a lot. I always loved her unconditionally – it wasn’t even about husband and wife. I tried my hardest to help her and it didn’t work out – I think that was part of the darkness that grabbed her.”
Pain is not an alien concept to Jonathan. Throughout Korn’s 25-plus-year career, each of their 13 albums to date has been tinged with sadness, suffering and sorrow. From the closing track Daddy on their self-titled debut – a song that deals with child abuse and ends with Jonathan openly crying – to the schadenfreude deity on The Nothing’s Idiosyncrasy, Korn have always viewed life with an aggression and disdain that feeds directly into their music.
This inherent passion for all things gloom could be construed as overtly negative, yet Korn are a positive force in both Jonathan and his fans’ lives.
“If I didn’t have Korn I’d fucking go insane,” Jonathan says without a hint of humour. “I can at least get it out. By doing it a lot, other people can relate and it helps them get it out too. There’s nothing better than when you go through something bad, you’re pissed off, then you throw something heavy on in your car and you drive really fast. You feel better afterwards. I do it myself all the time. Angry, heavy music is really good for that.”
The man himself has nearly 30 years of experience to call upon to back that particular sentiment up.
When Korn crawled out of Bakersfield, California – 115 miles north, and yet many more worlds away, from Los Angeles – in 1993, they provided that angry music for millions of teenagers across the globe. At the start of the decade, disaffected youth were drawn to the Seattle sound of Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana, but the April 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain also marked the death knell for grunge. Six months later, Korn released their debut album. A similarly bleak and misanthropic mindset to the aforementioned bands, only played much harder and heavier.
When the world first heard that snarling ‘Are you ready?’ on opening track Blind, it was clear Korn were up to something special. And, more importantly, something new. The ‘90s hadn’t been kind to metal, but this original sound instantly set them apart from their peers.
“I’d never heard that kind of stuff before. From everything being tuned down to A and playing seven-strings, to [Fieldy’s] hip-hop basslines, there were subtle hip-hop influences but other bands would take it further and try to rap. That wasn’t my thing. We were just so eclectic. I was a kid from the ‘80s into New Romantic shit, so we put all this into a mixing pot full of shit and that’s how you get Korn.
“It was all over the place. I got scatting from listening to old ‘40s music, crazy old shit from back in the day. All the stars lined up and there we go. I remember when the band hit the first chord, I thought, ‘This is so fucking different, I’ve never heard anything like this, this is going to be something.’”
And it was. Korn’s 1994 debut is now regarded as ground zero for the movement that would attract the moniker of ‘nu-metal’. We’d heard collisions of hip-hop and rock before (Anthrax and Public Enemy, Aerosmith and Run-DMC, the Judgment Night soundtrack), but nothing quite like this.
So where do you go if you’re the only band making this sound?
“We were ultimately just outcasts,” remembers JD. “We were doing tours with No Doubt, Pennywise and KMFDM, but the metal community took us in. We had distorted guitars and were heavy, but no-one knew what to do with us in the early days.”
Of course, he wasn’t fully on board with their newfound metal status, regarding it to be the refuge of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, preferring to see Korn as a “funky groove fuckin’ rock band”.
Growing up on a steady diet of New Romantic and goth music, Jonathan describes himself as “a fucking vampire” and has always felt out of place in the world, believing there to be nobody else like him out there. “We didn’t fit in anywhere. Who’s this guy with a fuckin’ tracksuit playing bagpipes? It’s the weirdest fucking shit.”
Jonathan needn’t have worried about being lumbered in alongside Rob Halford and co though, as Korn were soon ascribed an entirely new category – much to his frustration.
“It’s crazy. I used to hate being called this and that, I hated labels,” he recalls. “When we first started we were like, ‘We’re not a metal band, y’all’, then they’d go, ‘Oh, then you’re nu-metal!’ Well, fuck you!”
Over two decades later, however, JD is much more comfortable with the dreaded ‘nu’ prefix.
“If we invented nu-metal then fuck yeah, cool,” he laughs. “It’s pretty cool to say we helped invent some kind of movement, that’s pretty insane. The last big movement was us. Other bands helped along the way, but we spearheaded that whole thing.”
But it’s not just the innovative instrumentals or the sportswear-meets-greebo look that got a generation hooked on Korn: it was their message. Their darkness and depressive attitude to life tapped in to the angst-ridden teenagers of the United States and across the globe. At a time of life where it feels like nobody is speaking your language, to hear not just music that opposes the status quo but also the twisted voice of real pain, Korn’s music helped countless fans to process and grow from their own hormonal feelings of confusion and anger.
Now older and wiser, Jonathan still holds a deep-rooted connection to those kids.
“When you’re a teenager and going through all that angst in your early 20s, I get it. But does it ever really go away?” he muses rhetorically. “As you get older we learn how to cope with it differently. Bullshit happens every day in our lives and the older you get, you learn how to cope with it differently. But it’s always there. I can always relate to that.
“People ask me, ‘What do you have to be upset about anymore?’ And I’m like ‘Being alive!’” laughs Jonathan, not altogether jokingly. “Not that it’s bad, there’s a lot of great shit too, but it’s what I write about. I don’t get inspired by the good stuff; Korn doesn’t sound like a happy band to me. It’s the dark stuff that I need to get out; it’s the way I deal with it.
“When kids tell me, ‘You saved me from hurting myself’ or, ‘I’d been having a hard time and you helped me get through it,’ that’s amazing and it’s the reason I’m still here doing what I do.”
Today, Jonathan might be fully aware of the affinity and passion Korn’s fans have for the band, but he didn’t pay attention to the hype at the time, barely acknowledging they might actually be the voice of a generation. Not through any modesty, but because he was “so fucked up out of my mind I had no idea what was going on half the time anyway”.
While admitting that he was “a wreck” and “out of control” during those first three records, JD is quick to assert that he is not filled with regret for those years. Still, now sober for 21 years, Jonathan is glad to be out of that vicious cycle. Today, instead of hard drugs, he’s popping Nurofen to combat vertigo. “Twenty-five years of banging my head, bro. I live on this shit.”
It’s remarkable to think that after a quarter of a century, Korn are still doing it with almost the exact same line-up as their debut record (Ray Luzier replaced David Silveria on drums in 2007). Few of their ’90s peers can say the same – Pantera are no more, Sepultura are unrecognisable, and the wait for new System Of A Down music is pushing 15 years. Sure, guitarist Head departed Korn in 2005 after finding God, but was never formally replaced and returned to the band in 2013.
Describing Korn as more of a family than a band, spending more time with each other than anyone else over the past two and a half decades, one thing has remained a constant throughout.
“We’ve all had each other’s back,” says Jonathan, matter of factly. “I love those guys. The only thing that’s changed is all the excess – the booze and drugs and shit’s gone, thank God. When I got sober, those guys were going so fucking hard. I’m glad that they’re still alive, because it was nuts – drinking and partying non-stop. But now we’ve gotten old and had to stop.
“I got out early, but I watched those guys kill themselves for years. I was always in the parties, I was helping them pour drinks and chop lines or whatever, I was one of the guys doing it because I like the ritual of it,” he says, miming racking up lines of coke. “In the band the only thing that’s changed is the partying, there’s no stupid shit going on.”
The Bakersfield studio of Jonathan Davis is both a haven and hellscape of creativity. To try to maintain cosmic order and tread the invisible line between good and evil, the space is decorated with both Jesus figures and Baphomets, working in tandem to not sway JD’s life force one way or the other. He jokingly describes the middle ground in which he sits as “like Switzerland”.
He isn’t consciously religious, chuckling as he refers to himself as a Christian Satanist. “I believe in both, man,” he says with a knowing tone. “I believe there’s a creator and someone that controls the positive shit around us, and someone that controls the negative part.”
Trying to straddle the opposing realms of morality isn’t always easy – or, even, possible at all – with negative forces rife while recording The Nothing. Almost daily, something in the studio would break, like a sinister spirit was actively trying to stop Jonathan from exorcising his pain.
And he was alone in it all. The rest of the band recorded separately and would Dropbox music to each other, as Jonathan worked through his grief in solitude, screaming some of the most fatalistic lyrics he’s ever written. He describes pain as the equaliser in his life, lamenting the “bad shit and darkness” that have followed him for almost five decades. He uses music as a way of working through tragedy and the “bullshit life throws my way,” reciting that age-old adage: “All great art’s born through suffering.”
The Nothing is an album drenched in agony. As the intro track fades out, Jonathan is heard sobbing in the booth, before launching into the crunching Cold that flits between the up and downbeat, dealing with abject bleakness and an ‘endless nightmare’. Elsewhere he questions ‘How does one start healing?’ on the chilling The Darkness Is Revealing, and feels the ‘darkness haunting me with its embrace’ on the ironically jaunty The Ringmaster.
It’s at times an uncomfortable listen, dripping with raw emotion, created in the shadow of death. Is it possible this record could help Korn fans deal with loss in the same way their debut helped the dispirited youth?
“Maybe… it’s how they take it,” considers JD. “It can help them deal with loss, help them answer the questions of ‘Why is everything fucking with me? Why do all these bad things happen to me?’ That dark force, whatever is doing that. But then there’s the positive force that equalises it, which could be way worse.”
But don’t go thinking The Nothing is Korn’s Road To Damascus moment, taking them into some wishy-washy spiritual healing commune where they don white robes and practice hot yoga – this remains very much a classic Korn album. Experimentation has been at the band’s core since the beginning, embracing everything from bagpipes to dubstep throughout their career, and while every record sounds like them, no two albums sound alike.
“That’s the biggest thing for me,” says Jonathan on the topic of reinvention. “I always pound on my bandmates like, ‘Let’s not do the same thing that we do.’ It works for some bands. AC/DC are one of them – it’s the same song over and over again, but it’s fucking brilliant! For us, why would you play it safe? You want to take chances, you want to get better as an artist, you want to challenge yourself. Those are all things I like to do.”
Admitting that he’s often his own worst enemy when creating music, having to overcome issues of self-doubt, JD says he’s the primary force of Korn wanting to push the form and the sound into uncharted waters – citing The Nothing’s interludes as his album highlight, rather than a particular song.
“I just want to make good art so I don’t care,” he says with a smile. “That’s my mentality, but there are equalisers in the band. Some people want to do what people will like, but I want to push. There’s that dynamic where we come together and check each other and it comes out alright. It’s good.”
Recognising that Korn were “the last of the bands that labels spent money on,” it’s been their ability to adapt and transform that has ultimately led to their survival. From the band’s beginnings in the basements of Bakersfield through the booze-fuelled mayhem of the ‘90s, to the splitting of the ranks in the noughties, to the tragic events of last year, it’s enough to push any band to breaking point. But Jonathan can’t stop.
“I have to make music or I die,” he says with a stern expression. “That’s what we do. I don’t know what I would do, I love it that much. I just want to fuckin’ play music until I can’t anymore. It’s to make people feel like they’re not alone, to give hope. It’s a place you can purge your bad feelings. Music’s a universal language and it’s something everybody can relate to.”
It’s a curious crossroads Korn find themselves at today. Partly looking to the past as their debut record celebrates its 25th anniversary, but also to the future with their darkest ever record – and Jonathan’s favourite. They’re a band that mean so much to so many people across the world, being that outlet of anguish and aggression whenever it’s needed. But what does Jonathan Davis feel when he hears the word Korn?
“Honestly,” he pauses, slowly breathing in. “I laugh my fucking ass off that my band is named ‘Korn’” he bursts out, practically convulsing with laughter. “That’s the whole reason why we named it that, it was a ‘fuck you’. Your band name doesn’t have to be mysterious; we were being fucking stupid drunk kids. But we made it cool, so fuck it.”
And just like that, in three short words, Jonathan sums up the Korn doctrine that has lasted a quarter-century.
This interview was originally published in September 2019.
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