Korn’s Jonathan Davis can recall the night he met his heroes. “We were playing [Wembley Arena] and Simon Le Bon, Robert Smith and Gary Numan showed up,” he says, still incredulous at the thought of that many ’80s icons crammed together backstage. “All at the same fucking show. I couldn’t handle it.” Afterwards, he and Le Bon went to Pizza Pomodoro, where they chatted about music and life on the road. “It was,” he saysm “one of the greatest days of my life.”
It’s just after midnight in California and Davis, a notorious night owl, has settled into a string of Zoom interviews from his Bakersfield home to talk up Korn’s 14th album, ‘Requiem’. Thinking back to that star-struck, pizza-filled evening with the Duran Duran frontman, it’s not lost on him that he now inspires that very same reverence in metal fans.
When Korn broke through out of Bakersfield in 1993 with a down-tuned, tar-thick, heavy sound indebted as much to rappers like NWA and Ice T as rock artists, they pioneered nu-metal, a sound that would change the direction of metal for the next decade. “I talk to kids doing trap metal and hip-hop that were totally inspired by Korn,” he says, recognising the influence his band continue to have on the shape of heavy music. “They watched us as kids on MTV and when I meet them, they’re like, ‘Oh my god!’”
In the early ’90s, angsty kids seeking release flocked to Korn’s gut-wobbling mosh pits in their droves, but the band resonated on a deeper level because of Davis’ emotionally charged lyrics. “You have these skinny young kids from a suburban town, they’re playing this very aggressive metal and Jonathan is almost flopping on the ground like a fish, emotionally distraught,” says guitarist James ‘Munky’ Shaffer, remembering those early gigs over a separate Zoom call, from LA. “I can’t imagine what some people must have thought when they first saw us.”
29 years later, that emotional turbulence has long been Korn’s calling card. For Davis, each of the band’s albums has been a way to purge the demons that had followed him his whole life, stemming from a turbulent childhood. Until now. Speaking from a room bathed in red light, like the salon in a vampiric mansion, he tells us he’s in a “better place mentally than I’ve ever been, where I’m not in a constant state of fucking fear or anxiety or depression.. “This is the album where I am in a good spot. I’ve survived and I’ve figured it out.”
‘Requiem’ is a million miles away from the band’s last album, 2019’s ‘The Nothing’, which found him struggling under the weight of grief following the death of his mother and ex-wife Deven, who both passed away in 2018. But a lifetime of sadness isn’t something you can just shrug off like a cloak, a reality Davis alludes to in the lyrics. Over classic, sludge-swilling Korn riffs on first single, ‘Start The Healing’, he explores that push/pull, singing, “But there’s always something fighting it’s way back in / But there’s always something pushing me to give in.”
“There’s always going to be this darkness that slaps me across the face again, until I whip its ass,” he says. “This darkness [is] this blanket of comfort for me for some reason. I’m waiting like, ‘Here’s my happy point. When is this going to be fucking taken away from me?’”
Is he worried that – in the vein of that old Kurt Cobain lyric, “I miss the comfort in being sad” – his pain was his inspiration? “Kind of, yeah,” he replies. “It runs through my head [because] when I go to that dark place… that’s where home is.”
The album’s best and most anthemic song, ‘Let The Dark Do The Rest’ explores this duality. “Portraits of black hang inside me,” Davis sings on the verse, referring to the darkness that has long been a permanent fixture, festering in his head. “Quite divine / They pulse inside.” Later, on a melodic, surprisingly un-Korn-like bridge, he wrestles those negative thoughts into the background, opining, “I just want to see what the future holds.”
“It’s this constant guilt in the back of your head,” he says, trying to explain the perennial mental tug of war. “If you just run at it headfirst and deal with the problem … you’re going to get better and eventually happiness comes.” He laughs. “It took me 50 years to figure that shit out in a pandemic. But it’s helped me. It really has.”
Like all Korn albums, ‘Requiem’ is a snapshot of Davis’ emotional state, but its theme of healing runs deep throughout the camp. According to Munky, all of the band have had COVID: at one point during their 2021 US tour, he was left behind in Salt Lake City to isolate while the tour carried on without him. It took Davis three months to recover from the illness, and when he returned to the stage, still struggling with low energy, he was forced to perform shows sat in throne, using an oxygen tank.
For guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch, making the album was instrumental in processing his own grief. “In 2021, my daughter’s mom passed away,” he says from his home in Tennessee, where he’s also just recovered from a bout of COVID. “[It’s] not been easy but [with] this record I feel that healing, and my daughters getting healing. We’re going to be OK.”
The music, he says, provided an anchor amongst the chaos and pain, and he describes ‘Requiem’ as “more fun” and hopeful, with a “lighter feel”: “I feel like, on this record, we have grown as humans emotionally. Music is healing to all of us. I found my faith; I have music and I take medication for my depression.”
For Munky, ‘Requiem’ brought the band closer together. “We’re brothers,” he says. “Not by blood but whenever [one of us] experience something, we all feel it because we’re so co-dependent on each other.”
After the band’s ‘90s heyday, nu-metal eventually grew into a world-dominating behemoth in the ‘00s, known for exuding toxic masculinity and misogyny. While Davis declines to be drawn on the abuse allegations against Marilyn Manson (“I don’t want to comment on it… I’m just going to wait to see what’s going to happen, because there’s two sides to every story. I don’t condone abuse of women of any kind… so get that”), Korn were always a cut above their nu-metal peers, the outliers who were willing to wear their emotions out front.
“Obviously it was a taboo; you’re supposed to be a man,” Jonathan says bitterly. “‘Man the fuck up – don’t be a pussy. What are you fucking doing?’ That was the mentality.”
It’s not a mentality Korn have ever shared. While bassist Reginald ‘Fieldy’ Arviz does play on the album, he announced last June that he would step away from the band for the foreseeable future to deal with “bad habits”. “Originally we were saying, ‘Just take the year off and we’ll talk in 2022,” says Head. “Now we’re starting those conversations, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve heard he’s just having a good time at home with his family and that’s healing, you know how healing family can be. I bet you he’s just loving it being with his kids every day.”
It was it was Munky who picked up the phone during the pandemic and broached the idea of recording a new album. Today the guitarist is mellow and chatty, hanging out in his studio in the “gritty” Arts District of Downtown LA. “It reminds me of New York in the ’90s,” he says. “It still has little pockets of crime but [it’s] inspirational to come down here … it’s a good little vibe.” He admits that he struggled during lockdown. “I have three kids and they’re all crying and screaming, they’re home from school; it was chaos in my home. The garage was the only place I had any alone time.”
He wasn’t the only one desperate to get out of the house. In June 2020, along with producer Chris Collier, the band convened at their studio in Northern California; the album came together over the following six months. The recording sessions marked the first time in a while that Davis had been in the room with his bandmates while the music was created.
“In the ‘90s, so many bands were trying to copy us. It was frustrating…” – James ‘Munky’ Shaffer
“Having him there every day was such a relief because he’s in so much of a better place spiritually, emotionally, physically,” says Munky. “He was just so present. He was singing ideas into his phone while we’re jamming. It was something I’d love to get used to.”
Discussing the collaborative nature of the sessions, during a recent interview, when discussing the input of current drummer Ray Luzier, Davis told Kerrang!: “It’s nice to have someone I your band who’ll take direction … without getting an attitude.” While the frontman denies there were tensions with Korn’s previous drummer, David Silveria, who left the band in 2006, he confirms that having Luzier in the ranks has led to a more synergetic environment.
“David was his own thing, Davis explains, “he had his own attitude and that’s great, that’s how we created… But it was just nice to work [like], ‘Ray, can you try this beat, because … that might inspire me to do something better. I don’t want to hear, ‘No I’m playing this beat.’ ‘Oh, OK cool then – if that’s how you feel, cool. Fine, I’ll just deal with it.’ It just feels nice to be able to [collaborate].”
Now three decades into their career, Korn are continuing to grow. At the height of nu metal in the early ’00s, the band commanded arenas, headlining Wembley for the first time in 2000. By 2005, the genre had fallen off a cliff, taking Korn’s major league pull and relevancy with it: the band dropped down to Academy-sized venues for the next decade. Looking back, Jonathan admits he was concerned that the band’s career might be winding down. “That went through my brain,” he says, “But I was also like, ‘Who cares? We’re still playing and I’m happy I make a living playing music.’”
But last year they headlined Louder Than Life Festival in the US and, pre-pandemic, had long returned to arenas in the UK (indeed, their American tour kicks off at Springfield, Missouri’s 11,000-capacity JHG Arena in March). “It feels like there’s this resurgence,” he says. “[This] is how bands who last this long go: there’s a lull where you dip for a while, and then … you just keep going and going until you go out.”
They’ve also come to terms with the nu-metal tag, which they vehemently dismissed in the past. “At one point in the late ‘90s, when there were so many bands trying to copy us, it was frustrating…” says Munky. “Now we look back and it was such a compliment that so many musicians were trying to capture what we had captured, which I think was the innocence of pure anger.”
“Nu-metal? I don’t give a shit anymore. Call us what the fuck you want” – Jonathan Davis
More and more these days, they’ve come to consider that legacy. “In the early 2000s, it was all about the party,” continues Munky. “We didn’t care about tomorrow; we didn’t care about what we left behind. Now we care and we took that into the studio on this record.” He says the band want to be remembered “as the band who helped people” with Davis’ lyrics, pointing people to “the light at the end of the tunnel”.
For Davis himself, ‘Requiem’ ties in with a wider sense of self-acceptance, helping him to keep his focus on the future, and to celebrate the past. “We were so against everything and everyone,” he says, thinking back to the nu-metal label that was thrust upon them. “We were young, punk kids: ‘Fuck you and fuck the world. Don’t fucking label us!’ Now that I’ve calmed down, I don’t give a shit anymore. Call us what the fuck you want.”
– Korn’s ‘Requiem’ is out now via Loma Vista Recordings