“People like listening to me being horribly in pain”: the oral history of Korn
Jonathan Davis is bathed in blood red. Thankfully, it’s merely the lighting in his home office, where he keeps suitably vampiric hours, surrounded by a treasure trove of Korn memorabilia that confirms his status as his band’s most ardent fan. “I am,” the 51-year-old agrees with a laugh, as he runs AP through some of the items closest to hand from their 30-year career. “I’ve got so much shit.”
He holds up the seven-inch promo Korn put out in Europe and the U.S. to herald the release of their 1994 self-titled debut album, which introduced the world to their unique cocktail of tortured lyricism, downtuned riffs and clicky, low-end bass — kick-starting the nü-metal explosion in the process. The promo’s white sleeve is in mint condition and features the iconic logo the young Davis hurriedly scrawled in crayon as a visual signifier for those early shows in and around their native Bakersfield, California.
And while that emblem, with its backward “R,” has remained the same over the years, its ubiquity has not. It’s gone from being slapped on flyers and road signs to the front of the 40-million-plus records the band have sold to date and the enormous coffee cup Davis, who’s been sober since the age of 28, is drinking from. It’s a Simple Modern tumbler, to be precise — 24 oz. and stainless steel — and the perfect receptacle from which to drink Korn Koffee, available, at the time of writing, in dark and “wired” roast varieties. There’s no denying the Korn machine is a juggernaut.
The large bottle of hand sanitizer on the singer’s desk, meanwhile, is symbolic of the elements that have tried to derail said juggernaut over the years. Most recently, it was the case of COVID-19 with which Davis struggled from the lingering aftereffects, resulting in him performing from a throne onstage, the use of oxygen tanks and the cancellation of several shows in support of Korn’s 13th album, The Nothing. It was the continuation of an incredibly challenging period.
The Nothing was made in response to two painful losses, the deaths of Davis’ mother and his estranged wife, Deven, the mother of two of his children, and is undoubtedly the band’s darkest to date. “It was me grieving and accepting and healing from that,” he says of its relationship to its follow-up, Requiem, released this February. “After that process [on The Nothing], I’m starting out my new life and my new me.”
Requiem is indeed the sound of a band three decades into their career continuing to find inventive ways to express themselves. All the hallmarks are still there, of course, but its words and bountiful melodies are steeped in a sense of hope — albeit Korn’s pessimistic version of it. They’re not standing still, either; during the course of this upbeat trawl through the band’s story, Davis reveals that he and guitarists James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch, and drummer Ray Luzier, are already working on record No. 15. And while founding bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu remains on hiatus, the stresses of the past few years causing him “to fall back on some of [his] bad habits,” according to his statement last June, Korn endure.
“We’re always going to persevere,” Davis says. “To be this many albums deep is a huge feat.”
Requiem is a powerful word. What does it refer to in the context of this record, and how does it fit in with its overall concept?
For me, it was about [saying] goodbye to the old and hello to the new. A “Requiem” is a thing for the dead, which is why I liked it so much. It’s out of respect for all of the people we lost throughout the pandemic — there was so much death going on. There were so many different meanings going on, and I just liked the way it sounded. The vibe just seemed right.
On the whole, Requiem finds Korn in a more positive place. It’s dark and heavy, but unlike previous outings, it seems to suggest things can get better. Did you ever imagine you’d arrive at the collective headspace to make a record like this?
No, I never thought in a million years I’d be able to. I thought I’d be stuck in that hole forever. But a lot of things changed for me… all of these opportunities opened up for me… a lot of bad shit went away and out of my life. That put me in a different place — other than the fact the world likes to fuck with me. The moment I finally get happy and get to tour and do the things I like, I get slapped across the face with a fucking virus that takes the world out.
But, with that, you just make the best you can out of the situation, and with us, we took time to write. Then we got the record done and finally get to go on tour, and nine days later, I get fucking sick. I had to do a whole tour where I could barely walk from the bus to the chair. I got through it, and it was amazing, but the whole thing was fucked up.
So, too, were Korn’s early records, made with producer Ross Robinson. Do you think the confrontational way he worked with you to obtain the rawest performances possible would wash with young bands starting out today?
I hope that young bands would get Ross because you’ve got to go through the Ross Robinson thing as an initiation into rock ’n’ roll. I don’t care about cancel culture or any of that shit. This guy is real and a sadist and likes to see people hurt to get those performances out of them. And you know what? More power to him. Let’s be honest: A lot of people like listening to me being fucking horribly in pain. At that point in time, I was in a very dark spot, but by doing that and putting it out, a lot of people got some kind of relief out of it, so it’s a good thing.
How does it feel 30 years on to see the band’s logo, which you created, on everything from T-shirts to posters to bags of coffee?
It trips me out that something I did has blown up so big. It’s the same thing with lyrics — there wasn’t a lot of thought put into it; it was just like magic that came from someplace else. I did it, boom, there you go! There’s not a lot of overthinking going on. Ross taught me early in our career that overthinking things can really ruin songs. You’ve got to go with your gut and trust your gut. I think on [Requiem], that’s what I did.
Actors talk about having their most famous lines shouted at them in the street. When was the last time someone shouted “Are you ready?” to you? Did you feel at the time that those words, the first from the first track on your first record, were the gateway to something very special?
I had no clue. Whenever I walk down the street, if someone notices me, they’ll shout [adopts iconic JD growl], “Arrrrrre you ready?” And I’m like, “Oh god, here we go!” But I had no idea [what would happen back then]. That’s the magic — how it blows up. It comes from this place of making art, and then all of a sudden, the whole world knows, and then you’re known for that fucking line. It blows my mind.
Which bands you toured with back in the day taught you the most?
My favorite bands to tour with were Ozzy and Metallica. Metallica treated us so nicely. There was no bullshit, and they treated us with the utmost respect. When we were coming up on our first tours, bands treated us like shit. They’d take our fucking catering and our dressing room, telling us to get the fuck out. There were a lot of bands, and I’m not going to name names, who were really shady to us. When I got my first gold record [while on tour], Sharon and Ozzy wheeled in a cooler of champagne and presented me with the record, which was the classiest shit.
When Korn’s success exploded, did you feel you were in a difficult position? Your painful experiences fueled the lyrics, and people wanted more and more music from the band. Did you feel any pressure for emotional bloodletting to keep up with demand?
Maybe after the first record [1994’s Korn], when we went into [1996’s] Life Is Peachy and it was rushed, I started thinking that, but I can’t make up the emotions I have. I can’t make up that angst — you can tell — so I didn’t ever really think about it. When I go into the studio, I shut myself off and try not to beat myself up. That’s one of the beautiful things about writing [the lyrics] and walking away. I’ve seen people beat themselves up — “we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that” — but you’ve got to trust in yourself and your ability and just go.
What’s the one thing you miss most about Korn being a young, hungry band that you can’t get back now?
My old fucking body! Can’t I have my 23-year-old fucking body, where I don’t hurt like I do now when I play? And I wouldn’t drink. I could just go hard and not be hurt. I miss that — and that’s the only thing because the rest of it was all bullshit. It was fun, don’t get me wrong. I had the time of my fucking life being a crazy, drunk rock star and all that. That shit was amazing, but it’s good that I got it out of my system early, and I got [sober] at 28 because I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
The band quickly embraced new developments. For instance, you had a website two years before The New York Times had one. Were you well advised or listening to your fans about the ways in which they wanted to interact with you?
I’m a nerd and was into technology — and we listened to our managers. We took advantage of the internet really early. On Life Is Peachy, we did “Korn Mangling The Web,” where we partnered with this new company called QuickTime, and you could take your mouse and look around Indigo Ranch, the [now defunct Malibu] studio where we made [the record]. We were in TIME Magazine because of that.
Then after that, on [third album] Follow The Leader, we did the “Korn After School Specials” once a week, which was like a TV show. We had this chatroom, that was like the metaverse, where everyone had their own avatar and chat. Fans would wait for hours to see if a band member would come in — if you had a little asterisk by your name, it meant you were a band member and a god in that realm. As things went on, we got away from that and lost our way, but that has to do with managers and all this other shit. But we’re going to start embracing the new technology and doing things within that realm again soon.
Returning to your past once more, 2022 marks 20 years since the release of Korn’s fifth album, Untouchables. What do you see the record’s legacy for the band as?
It is the dopest record, sonically. It is my favorite Korn record because of the amount of work we put into it, what I learned and getting to work with my favorite producer, Michael Beinhorn. Everything that went into that record was magic, and if you listen to it today, I’ve always said it, it’s the fucking heavy-metal version of Steely Dan’s [sixth album, 1977’s] Aja. If you put Untouchables on, it’s just massive. It was the first 96kHz recording at the time. It was way ahead of its time.
Retrospectives of the album suggest there were tensions within the ranks of the band. Was that purely personal stuff, or was anyone opposed to its direction?
We were in Arizona and in four houses. Me and David [Silveria, former Korn drummer] were in one house. Then there was a studio house where we would write. Then there was Munky and Head, and Fieldy had a house. There was all kinds of craziness going on, parties and other nutty shit, so I would lock myself in my bedroom with Beinhorn, and every night when everyone was partying, me, the sober guy, would sit writing. I wrote “Hollow Life” and a bunch of songs on that record, working while those motherfuckers got fucked up.
It was fun. Then we’d all get together and sit down in this basement of this other house and write music. It took a year to write and another year to record it. And then another four months for me to do vocals because I went to Canada for a little bit, where I rented this house and turned it into a studio, and I did a couple of songs there, but the vibe wasn’t right, so I left and I went back to L.A. There was so much money spent on it. It was the pinnacle of our career — we were riding high.
You mentioned the amount spent on Untouchables. The recording costs were astronomical…
That was Fieldy just opening his fucking mouth, not knowing what the fuck he was talking about! Yes, it cost $4 million, but do you know why? Maybe the record cost $1 million, which was normal at that time, but the other $3 million was spent because our fucking band insisted that we keep our entire road crew on retainer for fucking two years! And there you go — that’s where the money went. So our crew got to kick back for two years and not do shit and got full pay. That was us not being good businessmen.
On your sixth album, 2003’s Take A Look In The Mirror, you famously featured the single “Y’All Want A Single,” which rallied against the request you were getting for more obvious, ready-made hits. It must have been difficult, a decade into your career, to have your creative judgment questioned like that.
It wasn’t really the label; it was our management. They’d say, “You guys, we’ve got to do the single — I’m not hearing the single.” We were working on that song, and I just said, “Y’all want a single, say fuck that.” It was a joke, and we were going to record just to give to our managers because we’d always fuck with them like that… and they loved it! It became a fucking single. It was this super punk-rock thing. It’s a great song — everybody loves that song.
Seventh album See You On The Other Side was the first record you made following the departure of Head. Did you feel lost creatively, or did you quickly close ranks to give the impression that everything was fine?
We quickly closed ranks, and we were lost with him leaving. But at the time when he was around [in the band], he wasn’t really helpful because he was so fucked up. He was lost, and it was hard to get him to concentrate and do things. I’m glad that he left… I was pissed because I wanted him to be healthy and alive. But yeah, we were scared. It all fell on Munky, and he had to bear the pressure of writing all the riffs. That’s when we got together with [writing and production team] The Matrix and Atticus Ross. And it all worked out.
Every Korn fan will have their preferred and less preferred moments, as will you. What do you consider to be Korn’s lowest moment, creatively?
Probably [ninth album, 2010’s] Korn III. That’s when we had Ross [Robinson] come back, and we were trying to capture something that shouldn’t have been captured because those were our young years. Ross has even told me [since] that he had another project going on, and he shouldn’t have pushed me so hard. Don’t get me wrong, I like the record — I love the song “Oildale” — but it just didn’t feel right. I think that was the lowest point for us. That’s why we did The Path Of Totality right after that because we needed to do something completely different.
At the time of The Path Of Totality’s release, you described it as “possibly the most well-proportioned Korn album of all time.” What did you mean by that?
I have no idea — sometimes I say shit, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m saying! I just think it was really Korn-style. When we write, we try to innovate and do things differently. But doing that record was the biggest risk we ever took. And hey man, it paid off. It’s dated itself because that was when dubstep was at a certain point, early on, but the genre’s still doing great. My son Nathan has got a huge fucking band called Hi I’m Ghost, and right now, he’s on tour doing it. [That record] spawned him getting into electronic music, and now he’s killing it.
Fieldy is on hiatus from the band, and David left many years ago. There is always an appetite with popular bands to regroup with their classic or original lineup, but is that something you have any appetite for?
Not really. I love David and wish the best for him, but he left. And Ray [Luzier] has been in the band longer than David ever was. He’s a joy to play with. I’m not going to say never — who knows? — but right now, everything’s good.
You’re already working on your 15th album. At this stage in your career and relationships, what conversations do you have going into a new record?
We think, “How are we going to beat the last one?” I’m not going to beat The Nothing for intensity or darkness. There’s no fucking way, so how are we going to beat it? We have to come at it from a different way. That’s the fun — that’s the puzzle.