Korn: “We blew the whole metal scene wide open”
In 1998, Korn were already the biggest new noise around. When Metal Hammer joined them ahead of their third album Follow The Leader, things were about to get really crazy
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer Presents The Loco Story Of... Nu Metal.
The Costes Hotel, situated bang in the centre of one of Paris’s more upmarket districts, is, if not the height of luxury, then at least of a sufficient altitude to induce pretty severe vertigo. A once over of the clientele lunching out in the terrace restaurant reveals an impeccably turned out David Ginola, doubtless gathering his thoughts for his next piercing insight as part of the BBC’s World Cup pundit panel, the ever-suave Johnny Depp and an assorted collection of Armani’d up nouveau riche.
In their midst sits a tallish fella with hair like matted straw, decked head to toe in casual sports gear, hunched low over a plate of mozzarella and tomatoes, enthusing in a slightly whiny American accent about the quality of French food. His companion, slightly tanned and sporting chunkier, neater dreads, but looking no more healthy than the first, grunts in acknowledgement, while toying with his multi-storey club sandwich. As the French chattering classes get at one with their déjeuner, you can’t help but wonder what they make of Korn’s Jonathan Davis and James ‘Munky’ Shaffer, enjoying one of the many fringe benefits of being multi-platinum-selling rock stars.
Hammer is in Paris to chat to Korn about their impending new album Follow The Leader, by their own admission the most important of their career to date, but there’s one small problem: we haven’t heard it yet. Or at least, not all of it. However, if the five tracks we have been privy to are anything to go by, then Follow The Leader will be a stormer, the true follow-up to their jaw-dropping debut – as opposed to the disappointing second album Life Is Peachy. This, Korn fans, is the real deal.
“This could be the one, this could be it for us,” speculates Jonathan Davis over a wake-up call Jack Daniels and Coke. “This is the album that makes of breaks your career. If the third album does well then you’re set for life.
“I’m stressed out at the fact that it’s that good,” adds the frontman, and it’s a good thing too, because once the dust on Life Is Peachy had settled, the considered opinion was that it was, well, wanting... After the ground-breaking debut, to be presented with such a similar, and thus ultimately redundant, record was a massive disappointment, which the critics ultimately turned on. Fortunately, Korn know this too.
“Well, yeah, we knew, it was obvious. We know that album sucked,” admits Jonathan, before going on to qualify this statement with: “Well it didn’t suck, there’s good songs on there, but we know we rushed it. We were really upset with the last album. It was awesome, but it could’ve been better. We settled.
“Life Is Peachy is all at one tempo, it’s all the same,” Jonathan continues. “On Follow The Leader, we’ve got a lot of weird things going on, a lot of variety.”
Indeed, across the five tracks we’ve heard, there’s more experimentation and variety than on the whole of Korn’s recorded output to date – probable first single Got The Life grinds away to a disco beat, for fuck’s sake! That extends to lyrical themes as well. Gone are the well-documented childhood stories and anxieties; Follow The Leader is the album on which Jonathan Davis grows up. Well, sort of.
“This is my album of self-destruction. There’s none of my childhood stuff going on any more. This is more about me dealing with pressures I put on myself,” he explains, twisting his dreadlocks frantically, as he is wont to do when talking about himself. “The self-destruction I’m going though, killing myself and doing all the fucked-up things I do just to deal with it. The pressure of what it’s like to be in this band, of being a father, all kinds of shit.”
Parenthood is a big thing with Korn at the moment, four out of the five members either being fathers or due to be any minute. Are they getting to a point where families take priority?
“This is what we love to do – I don’t care if I have a kid, it doesn’t have to stop me doing what I do and what I love,” Jonathan snorts.
How about the partying that goes hand in hand with being in a successful band, though? Are you going to stop doing that?
“Nah, fuck that. I’m schizo, I have two personalities: I’m a dad when I come home, but once I’m out that door, I’m totally changed – within reason. I’m not gonna go fucking kill myself, ’cos I want to be there for Nathan, but I never have any guilt that I have a wife and kid at home and I can’t party – fuck that! I work my ass off, I’m making money and I fucking need to party or I’ll go crazy.”
So if, as previously claimed, the songs on the first two albums were intended as personal therapy, has it worked at all?
“Everybody always has problems, new ones just seem to pop up,” Jonathan answers, twisting on his dreadlocks. “I need to go out and sing those songs again – I haven’t sung in a year and I’m more fucked up than ever.”
And what are the pressures of being in Korn?
“I can’t begin to tell you. It’s stuff you bring on yourself as artists. It’s our third album and we’re scared whether people will like it or not, the shit we went through with producers… it just wracks your brain.”
“The shit we went through with producers”, refers to the tortuous problems Korn experienced during their protracted stint in the studio. While it’s true that after their experience with Life Is Peachy, the band wanted to take more time on this album, a major factor contributing to the nine months they spent hold up recording was the breakdown of any sort of working relationship with original producer Steve Thompson.
“He took us to the level that we needed to be at and then we didn’t need him any more,” sniffs Munky.
“Yeah, get out!” hoots Jonathan. “We started bumping heads in the studio. Once we got into the studio, things started to change. We’d do our beats or something that we thought was best and we’d leave that and then I’d come in and he’d changed it! Without telling us! He’d be like, ‘That grooves,’ and we were like, ‘No! Put it back!’ He puts it back, we come back in later and he’s changed it again. We were like, ‘You know what, man? Get out. It’s time for you to go.’ He didn’t have the same vision that we had for our album – he wanted to make it all… just not us.”
So out went Steve and in came… Ross Robinson, the man Korn were adamant they didn’t need any more. “He didn’t produce anything on the album, he was just there as my cheerleader,” says Jonathan, twisting away like Chubby Checker.
“I love Ross to death and working without him was a big awakening for me – it was like me jumping out of a cocoon, because I really didn’t have that much self-confidence in myself. Working with Ross, he’d keep trying to take me back to those first two albums, but I didn’t want to go there, and he’d be adamant about it and it pissed me off. Finally I got to the point where I thought, ‘I don’t need Ross, I don’t need anybody.’
The concept behind Follow The Leader refers to the oft-forgotten fact that when Korn broke back in 1995, they tore a Godzilla-sized hole through a metal scene wandering aimlessly in a post-grunge wilderness. Of course, since then, innumerable bands have followed them through, many of them clinging to Jonathan Davis and co.’s coat-tails for all they’re worth.
“We blew this whole scene open, I don’t care what anybody says,” states the frontman bullishly. “We did all the work, and now there’s this new market, all these Korn bands are popping up.”
“Which is flattering,” nods Munky.
“Which is totally awesome, ’cos we created a new scene. It’s like when Nirvana came in and the grunge scene happened, it’s happening now with this new music. It’s flattering and everything but we were just throwing that out there. Some of the magazines I’ve looked at even have a Korn section for all these different bands that sound just like us. That’s fucking awesome, I see something happening.”
The flipside is that you’ve now practically killed metal stone dead – now everybody takes the easy option and tags the Korn sound for instant success.
“Yeah, but we will always be one step above them,” grins Munky knowingly. “Just when they start to nail the sound of our first two records, bands going, ‘Oh, we’ve got what they’re doing figured out now,’ now this record comes out and they’re gonna be like, ‘Man…’ We’re one step ahead.”
And then there are the bands Korn have dragged through kicking and screaming themselves, like Limp Bizkit and Deftones. “We liked helping those bands out,” smiles Jonathan before changing tone (twist, twist).
“Deftones is a big misconception – we don’t even talk to them now. We’re pissed off with them. They talked some stuff about us. Korn and Deftones were out at the same time and we used to be really good friends, but now all this shit has torn us apart. It’s sad. From the media saying that they sound like Korn, I don’t hear anything similar at all. I think they’ve got totally sick of it and have shut us off completely, Chino especially.”
Well, the rules for friendship change when you start counting your album sales in millions.
“People start changing and tripping out, expecting us to change. We treat ’em the same, but people take the shit so fucking personally. We don’t have very many friends. I have four of my best friends in my band and then these other bands… success starts changing them, you start changing, jealousy comes into play and then they’re gone. It sucks.”
And for the record, where do you stand on the Coal Chamber issue?
“I’m not going to go there,” is the deliberate response, before a smile cracks out. “You fucking British fucking press motherfuckers!”
Jonathan And Munky - Truth And Lies...
With success inevitably comes gossip and rumour. Korn have attracted both in spades, the rumour mill going past overtime and entering into a seven day week as the wait for their new album intensifies. Seeing as Jonathan and Munky are talking freely, we thought we’d take the opportunity to throw one or two of the juiciest titbits at them…
That Fear Factory almost killed Fieldy.
“Oh my God, that was the funniest thing I ever saw!” laughs Jonathan upon being reminded of the incident. “Dino [Cazares, Fear Factory guitarist] and Fieldy have always had a problem with each other. After we went out on tour with Megadeth, Dino went out and got a seven-string guitar, did his hair like Head’s and started wearing Adidas. So there we go. And then he starts talking shit about us in the press in a couple of interviews I read. Me and Burton [C Bell] stayed friends pretty much, but I know he was talking shit behind my back as soon as I turned my fucking head. I don’t think Raymond [Herrera]’s like that, he’s quiet and cool, and Christian [Olde Wolbers] is a good guy, but Dino is like the ticket. And Fieldy’s different from most people – he holds grudges for life.
“We were at the Limp Bizkit show and Dino came on the bus to say goodbye to the guys and Dino popped off at Reggie [Fieldy]. He said something about him saying goodbye to everybody, apart from that ‘stuck-up dickhead rock star’. So Reggie jumps up and goes, ‘What, you motherfucker?’ and his sister’s boyfriend Josh takes Dino, picks him up and throws him down the stairs – he fell on his ass outside the bus! All I can see is Dino bouncing and rolling off the bus, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’
“And then Josh walks out and I see him punch Dino in slow-mo. You know how big Dino is? He flies up in the air and bounces of the ground and rolls off. I’m like, ‘Oh God, it’s on…’
“So all of Dino’s boys roll up, and all of the Bizkit guys and Reggie roll out, and it’s a full-on gang rumble brawl, people running and shit – it was full-on chaos! Then Fieldy runs up to Dino and they’re sitting there throwing punches, then Christian runs up to Fieldy and kicks him right in the head. Fieldy later told me, ‘He got me, ’cos if someone was fighting you, Jon, then I would go up to that guy and cheap shot him too, ’cos that’s what you do for your bandmate,’ so it was all cool.
“By this time, the Bizkit guys have attacked Dino’s friends, and those guys don’t play – they’re from Jacksonville and they’re crazy. They pinned those guys against the bus, and they were kicking their faces in. Their lips and shit were flipped and broken, they were beating the piss out of them! There was blood everywhere, three guys just kicking this guy in the face as hard as they can with their sneakers, over and over again. Shit’s just flying… After that they all bailed, we’re all getting out of there.
“I guess these guys came back with a whole big truckload of their gang friends, all turned up with guns ready to blow us away – they wanted to cap Fieldy, they were gonna blow his brains out. So we heard this was all happening and we were like, ‘What?’ So we called up Dino, and at that point, Fieldy had got it all out, Dino had it all out, we were all friends, but the gun issue was still in place. So I call up Dino to find out what the hell’s going on and Dino’s like, ‘Dude, I can’t control these people, they want to kill you!’ And I go, ‘You know what? The only one from Korn in this was Fieldy and the Limp Bizkit guys,’ and all that stuff. So I called their manager, called Dino, and said, ‘If anything happens to us, they will be dealt with…’ – whatever that means.”
What does that mean?
“I dunno, I’m not gonna go there,” says Jonathan shiftily, “but we get a phone call that says everything’s fine. And that’s that. The Fear Factory thing had been a long time coming, man. It was just building up and building up, and I’m glad they got it out. I wanted to tell Dino off too, but I’m not a physical person and Fieldy is – when his bodyguard’s there!”
That Marilyn Manson claims he got Jonathan very drunk on tour once and proceeded to have sex with him using a banana.
“No, that’s the wrong story!” exclaims Jonathan, after much laughing. “This is the story: I was on their bus, drunk out of my mind, with Ginger Fish, Twiggy Ramirez and Zim Zum. They were fucking with me, ’cos I was doing shots of tequila and I asked for a Coke to chase it and they were pouring Jack Daniels in it bit by bit. So I was doing a shot of tequila, a shot of Jack, and I was like totally pissed out of my mind. So I grab a banana and Ginger just bends over, pulled his pants down and showed his asshole to me. So I said, ‘Do you want some?’ grabbed the banana, jumped on Ginger and shoved this banana up his ass!
“And he’s screaming with a banana in his ass. So he’s bent over screaming and the thing blew up all over the bus! It was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life! The bus driver was freaking out! Usually when I hook up with those guys, crazy shit happens, but that was the craziest.”
So Marilyn twisted the tale a little bit?
“Of course! You can’t take that guy seriously sometimes. I’m sure he’d twist it around to say that. I think he was trying to shag some chick at the time. I have plenty of stories about him, but I’m not like him, I’m not gonna sell out my friends! I’m not like that, you know. I am just so thankful that he left me out of his book!”
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