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How Korn finally found inner peace

After the catharsis of The Nothing, Korn have – for the first time – found themselves in a positive space. In a world-exclusive, Jonathan, Munky and Head explore this renewed and refreshed appreciation for existence, plus how it formed the blueprint for their new album and the rest of their lives...

How Korn finally found inner peace
Words:
James Hickie
Photos:
Tim Saccenti

Jonathan Davis is currently in San Luis Obispo, a city on the central coast of California known for its relaxing pace. It’s his first holiday in several years. He’s here with his “girl”, who he affectionately describes as “a partner I love more than anything in the world, who lifts me up for the first time in my life and has my back”. His frequent smiles are framed by a beard flecked with white. He is a picture of happiness and satisfaction.

This is Korn’s frontman as we’ve never seen him before.

Some things are the same, of course; Jonathan remains an ardent night owl who likes a daytime walk on the beach but would rather roam the streets in the dead of night, avoiding the kind of attention you get when you’ve sold more than 40 million albums. He’s still partial to twisting strands of his hair when he talks, too, his voice no more of a whisper, its tone warmer and more buoyant these days.

He looks healthy. He’s considerably better than a few months ago, when he spent 10 days holed up in bed with COVID, his slow recovery necessitating the use of a throne and oxygen tanks once Korn returned to live performances. Several shows had to be postponed on the tour in support of their 13th album, The Nothing. Arguably the darkest offering of the band’s career (which is saying something), the record explored Jonathan’s grief for his estranged wife Deven, the mother of two of his children, who died of an accidental overdose in 2018. One naturally wonders whether the constant interruptions of touring that album impeded the catharsis the singer so desperately needed, though his positive demeanour now suggests he managed to achieve it. “I was fully healed and through what I needed to be through, mentally and emotionally, once I finished [The Nothing],” he clarifies. “That was my chance to get it out, record it, and share it with the world.”

By his own admission, Jonathan can listen to a song he wrote 15 years ago and understand what he was trying to say at the time. And while that means he’s still some 5,475 days from a similar sense of perspective about the material on Korn’s new album, Requiem, in the here and now the singer suggests it’s broadly about being “healed” but grappling with questions of how long these good times can last. As a result, it features some of his most intriguing lyrics in years.

“The dark, to me, has been a very familiar place,” he explains. “That’s comfortable to me. But now I’m going through this new life, having had that [darkness] all go away, I don’t know how to react to it and I don’t know what to do. It’s hard for me to let go of that place. I always want to go back there because it’s familiar, but I’ve got to let it go. I’m not tortured anymore. I had to break free from that place – it was going to fucking kill me if I stayed there forever. But I don’t know how to react to being happy. I really don’t. I feel all goofy and weird.”

"When you listen to the record, I'm coming from a different place"

Hear Jonathan Davis discuss his headspace going into Requiem

There’s evidence of that goofiness. The singer guffaws at our attempts to studiously evaluate Requiem in the context of other Korn albums – “The look on your fucking face…” – and later, when asked about the track Let The Dark Do The Rest, a firm highlight, he familiarises himself with it on his iPad before serenading K! with its titular hook. It’s unexpected to say the least. So, too, were the difficult periods that have punctuated Jonathan’s life, episodes that make it difficult for him to believe his joy won’t ultimately be undone, the spectre of pain never far away. “My mind is always being pulled back to that place and I feel guilty if I’m happy. It’s as if the hurt is pissed off that I’m trying to leave,” he ponders. “Whenever I’ve been happy, there’s always been a negative that fucking comes and takes it away from me.”

Jonathan has a theory why his life has been besieged by so much suffering – that those who help others often fall prey to bad luck. “I’m not saying that in an arrogant way,” he says of his use of the word ‘help’, “I’m talking about Korn. We help a lot of people and make them feel less alone. People that heal are constantly attacked by the universe. I don’t know the fucking logic behind it, but bad shit is thrown their way.”

But what if his luck has changed? What if happiness prevails? Does Jonathan think it could alter the fabric of his writing? “Right now my life is amazing and perfect, but there’s a lot of dark shit in there too,” he suggests. “I’ve got all kinds of fucking horrible shit that I have to deal with every day, but I’m trying to choose to look at the brighter side of shit, so that’s what I’m doing. There are always going to be things I can pull from.”

There’s a meme working its way around the internet. ‘When Limp Bizkit, Slipknot and Korn release new music weeks apart from each other,’ it says, above a picture of a cat wearing a backwards red cap, a speech bubble protruding from its mouth exclaiming, ‘WTF YEAR IS IT?’

Meow.

Despite the somewhat disparaging tone, you can kind of see the point. Who would have thought we’d get a new Limp Bizkit album (Still Sucks), Slipknot’s first new track in two years (The Chapeltown Rag), and in Start The Healing, the first taste of Korn’s 14th album, all in the same two-week window? Furthermore, who could have ever predicted these purveyors of heavy, confrontational music would be going so strong in 2021?

James 'Munky' Shaffer throws his head back and laughs at the question. The guitarist – who, unbelievably, is 51 – has to keep the noise down though, as it’s 1am in the downtown Los Angeles home he shares with his wife and three young children. “The people making the music still have their hearts in it,” he explains in hushed tones. “[Limp Bizkit and Slipknot] love what they do and we love what we do – and the audience senses that. No matter how much certain people are negative about it, the listeners are the ultimate judge and jury.”

In February, those listeners will be able to preside over Requiem, which may well be the band’s best album in a decade. It’s a tricky job evaluating a new Korn release, of course, given the various contingents they have to appease. There are those who want the band to stick religiously to the ingredients that made them famous, while others – including the authors themselves – desire a fresh approach. This is arguably why, some notable exceptions aside, so many of Korn’s albums lack a general consensus. Whatever side of the fence you fall on, though, Requiem will have something for you. The band have made albums that sound like more drastic departures, notably 2011’s dubstep-inspired The Path Of Totality, but this one feels different. It has the requisite heaviness, sure, but it brandishes that heft with the fleet-footed energy of a younger band, while dispensing dense melodies like confetti.

In the 1997 Korn documentary, Who Then Now?, there’s a moment when the rest of the band, including original drummer David Silvera, are standing around outside the studio, idly drinking beers in the sun while Munky toils inside. “He is all that,” someone declares admiringly. Munky will today suggest the moment was “sarcastic”, but there’s no denying he’s a workhorse. “When it comes to songs, I have to work for it, to dig and keep looking for that melody or rhythm that I haven’t found yet,” he says of a process that generally involves sitting in a hotel room with his guitar, riffing on and off the tick of a metronome and recording videos of the results, should something exceptional materialise. That’s how Start The Healing was born. “I love the song Breathe by The Prodigy,” says Munky. “I found a similar tempo and was away.”

Korn have been known to cleave a little too closely to their points of inspiration. Occasionally, what initially appear to be shiny nuggets can turn out to be old gold, inadvertently recycled from another band (and sometimes their own). “In our career, we’ve probably thrown away five or six songs because they sound too much like Deftones,” admits Brian 'Head' Welch, Munky’s brother in riffs. Head is currently at home in Tennessee, sat by a roaring fire, his dreadlocks and facial tattoos making him look like he’s on the cover of an album by one seriously unconventional crooner. The sweet-natured guitarist, who asks as many questions as he answers, is a big fan of Spiritbox and Bring Me The Horizon, his daughter having introduced him to their music. He’s yet to ape their stylings yet, though.

“Another band we ripped off a lot was Tool,” he laughs.

That’s where Chris Collier came in. The producer, who worked as engineer on The Nothing, has an ear for music that would give Shazam a run for its money, so was well-placed to scrutinise ideas as they emerged and veto with extreme prejudice anything with a whiff of familiarity. “I’m thankful for it,” says Head of a tough-love approach, which he occasionally fell foul. “We have so many records and songs that sometimes we can’t remember which riffs we’ve already done. Sometimes I’d get bummed out because I was really into something we’re doing, but then we’d work harder to make it something new.”

"I discovered '30s music and it's all I've been listening to 'cause it's fucking real"

Listen to Jonathan discuss the unlikely influences behind Requiem

There are some things that feel intangibly ‘new’ about Requiem, a source of freshness that’s evident but difficult to pinpoint exactly. It may well have something to do with the way in which Jonathan interacted with the material this time around. On The Nothing, the vocalist, who was going through “fucking hell”, didn’t travel with his bandmates to Nashville to work with producer Nick Raskulinecz, instead waiting for them to send him the completed songs so he could write lyrics and craft melodies in his home studio. This time, however, with greater peace of mind and an unhurried schedule, things were different.

“This is the first time I got to write with the band,” beams Jonathan. “I got to orchestrate and lay the bed down for what I wanted to do with the music. We were writing as a unit, which was really exciting.” The singer is full of praise for drummer Ray Luzier, a member of Korn since 2008, who he worked closely with on compositions and has a gift for the kind of grooves he thrives on. “It’s nice to have someone in your band who’ll take direction like that without getting an attitude,” Jonathan explains, apparently alluding to difficulties with the previous occupier of the Korn drum stool.

If Korn are revisiting the past this time around, it’s less to recapture the sound of their youth as it is to recapture the conditions of making records, right down to recording using tape. “It sounds better,” says Jonathan of why. “Music is supposed to breathe. It’s supposed to speed up and slow down and have a soul.” Meanwhile, old school methods called for painstaking craft, particularly for Jonathan, who employed six microphones to build up his multi-part harmonies a layer at a time, fulfilling his ambition this time around to “paint with sound”.

“It took a fucking long-ass time,” he says of his efforts, before turning his attention to the doubters. “I saw some kid on Twitter bitch and say I’d used autotune. I wanted to slap him.”

A fashionista with a penchant for streetwear, in Korn’s early days Munky would wear grubby overalls onstage to embody his band’s music. And no, before you ask, Slipknot didn’t steal his look. According to the guitarist, everyone pilfered the idea from Mike Patton’s band Mr. Bungle, him having done so after a gig at a venue called the Celebrity Theater in the Californian city of Anaheim on April 17, 1992, during which the experimental rockers covered both Tom Jones and Ennio Morricone. “Everyone’s life changed after that show,” recalls Munky now. “They stood there in [overalls] and masks, their guitars feeding back for five minutes. We were thinking, ‘Why is this so awesome and they’re not even doing anything?’”

It’s heartening, then, 30 years on, to be building to the release of a Korn record that will have a similarly inspirational effect on a new generation, even if that celebration seems incomplete without a key component. Bassist Reginald 'Fieldy' Arvizu, whose clicky, low-end playing has been a sonic hallmark from day one, has been away from the band since the summer. In a social media post dated June 21, Fieldy addressed “all Korn fans worldwide” with the news he’d been dealing with personal problems that had resulted in him falling back into “bad habits” that had caused “tension with the people around me”. Live appearances since have been carried out by Suicidal Tendencies bassist Roberto 'Raz' Diaz, while Fieldy is notably absent from the artful promo shots with Requiem’s press release.

For those wondering, yes, Fieldy did play on Korn’s latest album. And anything he didn’t play were minimal tweaks, covered by Munky and Head to save the bassist having to make the five-hour drive from his home to the studio. They would clearly do anything for their brother and understand what he’s going through better than anyone else in the world. When the news of his “indefinite hiatus” broke, his bandmates were quick to show support, sharing a message that read: ‘We love and support our brother, Fieldy. Health and family always comes first.’

Indeed, it was family that got Munky through his moments of debauchery and disillusionment. “The first few times I was onstage was incredible in a way I’d never felt before,” he says of the “new high” he experienced when he finally stopped drinking, having been inspired to do so after a chance encounter with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington back in 2010, at a U2 show in Australia. (Munky would repay that kindness by appearing with Head on Amends, the album by Chester’s first band, Grey Daze, released after the singer’s death in 2017.)

"It seems like I'm having trouble letting go of that dark place, because it's familiar, but I've got to let it go"

Hear Jonathan explain why he has to move on from the darkness of his past

Head found his solace outside of Korn, leaving in 2005 to embrace his faith and detailing his journey in the book Save Me From Myself: How I Found God, Quit Korn, Kicked Drugs, And Lived To Tell My Story. He would, of course, return in 2013. “The best thing to do is stay at home, be with your family, and start processing,” Head says of the path to realising that being in a band and in control of your demons needn’t be mutually exclusive concerns. “He’s got to find that healing. I still struggle with it. I had a few slip-ups with my ‘bad habits’ three-to-four years ago, so I understand it, but I dealt with it by hitting it head-on and stopping it from becoming a problem. I’m not concerned because I know he’s going to be okay.”

Jonathan is understandably more worried. Given what he’s been through in the past few years, his response is the most emotionally charged and momentarily punctures his good mood. “I love him; he’s my brother. But I watched somebody I care about die and I’m not going to fucking do that again. I refuse to. I will feel guilt for the rest of my fucking life because of that. I tried my hardest but perhaps if I’d been a little bit tougher there’d have been a different outcome. I pray that he can figure it out and get better and come back and be a huge part of this band again.”

If Fieldy does come back to the fold – and any card-carrying Korn fan will surely hope he does – he’ll find them in a remarkably positive place, where small pleasures the band had lost sight of in the fug of sustained success are now the subject of renewed wonder and excitement. “It’s those little things that were removed from our lives,” says Munky. “Like going out to get food and coming back to eat a meal together.”

While Head was more cautious about the lunchtime run, given that the studio was in an area synonymous with the sale of methamphetamine, he’s enthusiastic about the bonhomie and his only vice these days: junk food. “We were going to [hotdog chain] Wienerschnitzel so much that ‘Wienerschnitzel’ was a working title of one of the songs on this record.”

For Jonathan, meanwhile, the increased closeness Requiem afforded him with his bandmates intensified his love for a process he was already fairly in love with. “We’ve been together 27 fucking years but I still get excited to see them,” he grins. “We’re still like those 24-year-old kids making that first record, we still get that excited.

"Working together is like doing drugs for us now – we’re continuously chasing that first high.”

Requiem is released February 4 via Loma Vista. Korn play Download Festival next June.

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