Ahead of the heavy rock legends' 13th album 'The Nothing', singer Jonathan Davis and NME's James McMahon go deep on the death of Jonathan's wife and his mother, serial killers, ghosts, abuse, the legacy of nu metal, and how to grow up well...
Jonathan Davis has just come off stage at the FivePoint Amphitheatre in California when NME speaks to the 48-year-old singer of Korn, for over 25 years one of the most consistent and durable bands in heavy music.
He’s sweaty, the endorphins are raging, and he wants to talk about the bagpipes: “The greatest instrument in the fucking world!” He has, after all, just played to 12,000 people. But what we need to talk to Jonathan about is ‘The Nothing’, the new and 13th album from the Bakersfield, California, metal veterans. It’s a record that deals primarily in death, and also explores the dark and peeks into the shadows. What transpires is perhaps Davis’ most revealing interview, ever…
Jonathan. Korn albums are rarely places of light and joy, but the new one is unquestionably a very dark record. Last August, your wife Deven died at the age of 39…
“Well I think the new record is really about all the processes of grieving. There’s sad songs. There’s angry songs. There’s everything I was going through. Emotions I was feeling, things I felt were conspiring to stop us from making the record. It really was the worst year of my life. I was basically trying to work it out as we made it. There was no plan. No blueprint. It was really honest like that. It was just a man, totally distraught, trying to make sense of something terrible. I don’t know whether you know this, but my mother died two months prior too…”
“Yeah, so other than my sister, I basically lost all of the women in my life. I’ve always considered making music my therapy so what I tried to do was flood my life with music. I went on tour with my solo project. I did the 20th anniversary stuff Korn had planned for [1998’s, hugely influential-within-metal-circles third album] ‘Follow The Leader’. And I wrote. I just wrote it all down. They became the lyrics to the new record.”
You say music has always been your refuge. Do you think it helps with processing pain? Or does it just put dealing with it on hold?
“What music does – what it’s always done – is give me a place to put the shit that’s in my head, that stops me from just… exploding. All the shit that has happened to me is in Korn records. Each one is like a time capsule of shit. I don’t like listening back to them because that’s painful, but getting it out of my head, onto the page – I write lyrics like I’m in a stream of consciousness – then into the music… that’s kept me going”.
You’ve always had death in your life. You used to work as a mortician. You’re famously interested in serial killers and the paranormal. Did those interests help or hinder your processing of pain when you came to lose people who were very real to you?
“I don’t know. I’ve just always been drawn to the dark stuff. As I’ve got older I’ve started to understand the importance of balance. My house, which is full of some fucking crazy dark things – is actually quite a peaceful place. People always say that when they come to visit. There’s a good balance between light and dark. For me, peace is that fine line between the two. But I can’t deny that I haven’t always be fascinated by really dark things, although as a person I think I come from a place of light. I’m kind, I’m not mean or cruel, I want to help people…”
Tell me about the dark stuff.
“Well, I fuck around with [America’s most prominent TV paranormal investigator – think Yvette Fielding gone emo] Zak Bagans, right? I have seen some serious paranormal dark entity shit. And I love it. And I don’t know why. That stuff… the paranormal… it’s real. I swear, it’s real! It’s like, it’s all about death – but it makes me feel alive…”
“I’m lucky, man. Life is a fucking gift. People would give their fucking nuts to be me. I don’t feel sorry for myself, it’s just how it is”
How did you come to meet Zak Bagans?
“We both collect creepy shit so we knew each other that way, but I really wanted to go to his museum in Las Vegas [a thirty-three-room mansion in downtown Vegas that’s filled with what Bagan’s says are the ‘world’s most haunted items’ – NME has been. It’s a trip…]. I reached out and he took me on a tour. That led to us becoming good friends. He’s a great dude. He comes to the shows. You can see the effect his paranormal investigations have had on him though. He carries it around. It’s in him.”
Did you believe in the paranormal before you met Zak?
“Dude, I’ve been seeing ghosts since I was a little fucking child. I believe. I totally believe…”
You’ve had a long history with mental illness and trauma. Respectfully, is that a more likely explanation for what you’ve seen than what you’ve seen being ghosts?
“I don’t think so. I mean, I’ll see things in the corner of my eye in my house. I’ll just be, like, “oh hey” because at this point they’re there all the time. There’s bangs on my walls all the time. Shit flies off the walls. At this point it doesn’t even scare me, they’re just there. All I wish for them is peace. I wish they could cross over. I was scared when I was a kid.”
You’ve had some seriously horrible shit happen to you in your life. You were sexually abused as a child by an adult. Is there any connection with you seeking out dark stuff now do you think?
“I think it all comes back to balance. I know I keep saying that, but I think it’s a real thing. There’s a lyric [on The Nothing’s closing number, ‘Surrender To Failure’] that says, “for every good thing I’ve done there’s a price to pay…” I think all of the positive stuff I’ve done for kids with Korn has meant I’ve had to live the life I’ve led. I lost my wife, my son has type one diabetes, I’ve had shit thing after shit thing happen in my life. But that has resulted in some real good elsewhere. And I’m lucky man. Life is a fucking gift. People would give their fucking nuts to be me. I don’t feel sorry for myself, it’s just how it is…”
You’ve talked about your house a few times, it’s obviously an important place to you. What’s the creepy shit you own?
“I have the remains of at least seven people in my house. I’ve got shrunken heads. Skulls. I’ve got swords that have been used to decapitate people. I have a huge haunted doll collection. I’ve got them from all over the world and they’ve all got different stories, which I find fascinating. I get them from antique shops. I like giving them a home! I know a few owners at various places and they’ll normally give me a tip off if they get something in that they think I’ll like. I mean, you can feel shit in these dolls. You get up close and it’s in them. So I take them home and put what I’ve bought with the other dolls. I had a spiritual barrier made with certain stones and sage that fences them off and protects me.”
“Some people collect cars. Some people collect baseball cards. I collect remains”
Is there anything that’s too dark – that you wouldn’t want in your home?
“I dunno man. If I’m interested in something then I’d probably look into it. I’m an equal opportunities collector! Some people collect cars. Some people collect baseball cards. I collect this shit. I do feel a bit differently about serial killers to how I used to though. I used to be obsessed with trying to understand why they did what they did. I was a mortician. I did autopsies. Of course I was interested in them! But I think there’s something a bit gross about that now. I think I’m much more affected by the victim’s stories now and less into fetishizing insane, broken people.”
You’ve been talking about balance. Where does the light come in your life?
“Being a father. From being someone who’s gone through a lot of shit and come out the other side – as have many of my bandmates – who kids can look up to and take strength from. I want them to think, “hey, this motherfucker has fought through stuff, I think I can too…”’ That’s why we keep doing Korn. It isn’t about doing a job. It’s about putting some light into people’s lives. Be the change you want to see, y’know?”
Korn in 2019 does feel like a real success story. Formed in 1993, you’re still here, still doing what you do. Who else from that era can say that?
“I think so. We’re on our 13th record. How the fuck did that happen. Fuck. FUCK! I mean, we’ve made some records that some people didn’t like along the way – but we loved them. During that time we’ve taken chances. We haven’t always conformed to what people want. And we’ve always given it our all and really loved doing what we do. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be about, right? And we’re not slowing down. I’m thinking about the next Korn record already…”
Do you ever feel misunderstood? Korn unquestionably invented what became known as nu-metal. Maybe you could say Rage Against The Machine played a part, but… I never saw you as the douchebag, macho ‘bro’ that populated other bands in the scene. You were a freak! On a leash!
“Oh man, that scene was full of misogynistic, opportunistic dickhead jocks. The sort of people who’d be bullying me at school if they weren’t supporting my band at shows. I’m about the art. We got lumped in with that stuff kinda because of the way we dressed. We were kinda hip-hop, but there was nothing really hip-hop about Korn other than the basslines to an extent. I didn’t rap! In the beginning nobody knew what we were – we’d play shows with No Doubt or Pennywise and then when the metal community embraced us we went with it because it felt like we’d found a home. But I hate thinking that some people hear the name Korn and think we’re some douchebag, misogynistic, fucking macho dickhead band. I think the fact that we’re still here says a lot…”
The world is just so fucking pussified right now”
In old Korn interviews, around the time of the first album [1994’s ‘Korn’], maybe even more so the second [1996’s ‘Life Is Peachy’], you talk about the massive success you achieved being a ‘fuck you’ to those who doubted you, people who bullied you, people who did bad things to you. Do you still feel like that now?
“Oh no. I don’t give a flying fuck what people like that think now! The difference is that I’m a 48 year old man now, and I was 24 when I said that stuff. What did I know, really? I do not give a single bit of energy to anyone I would have been bothered about back then. But back then it really, really mattered to me. Everything we achieved felt like a ‘fuck you’ to people who’d done us wrong. Time helps introduce wisdom to you. My advice? Let that shit go…”
You say you’re thinking about the next record already, it feels like Korn are far from done. What is next for you?
“You know, this is a strange world right now. The world is just absolutely out of control. Donald fucking Trump is president! Think about that! I think that when I get up every morning and every morning I think, ‘I might just go back to bed…’ Back in the day things were amazing. There was so much artistic freedom, record labels had money and you could do cool shit, bands were all over the radio and TV, everything felt so big and exciting and fresh, ideas were everywhere. It’s just not like that anymore. And it’s hard with metal because the world is just so fucking pussified right now. But I think the thing with Korn, is we’ve always done what we’ve wanted to and never followed anyone else. I think we’ll work out a way to make sense going forward. We’re survivors. We transcend.”
Korn’s new album ‘The Nothing’ is out now