KoRn SpIn

by Neil Strauss, SPIN
November 1998

Raging male hormones and crippling self-doubt may not be a prescription for maximum emotional stability, but two million Korn fans wouldn't have them any other way.

Transcribed from a phone-in contest on Chicago's Q101 pitting a new David Bowie song versus a new song from Korn:
Caller: Can I vote for Korn -- because I don't know who David Bowie is.
DJ (incredulously): You don't know who David Bowie is?
Caller: Isn't he like 50-something?
DJ: Yes...
Caller: He's like a dinosaur. I'll vote for Korn.

Backstage, the band's five members sit in a semicircle, decked out mostly in track suits, hair piled in dreads, looking guilty of being lower-class white boys from Bakersfield, California. Over the course of the two-day festival, Korn bassist Fieldy (Reg Arvizu) will pick a fight with a member of Primal Scream by repeatedly insisting, "You look like my uncle Bob." An hour later, he will exasperate Garbage diva Shirley Manson by incessantly sticking a toy key chain in her face and setting off annoying sounds without a word of explanation. Meanwhile, Korn singer Jonathan Davis will yell at Goldie, "Fuck you, dick," when the loquacious junglist doesn't recognize him, and he'll hurl insults at nice-guys Ben Folds Five every opportunity he gets. Even Junkie XL, a friendly Big Beat dance band from Amsterdam, will turn down dinner with Korn because, although they like the music, they've heard Korn are a bunch of assholes. But they're wrong. Korn aren't assholes. They just want some love, and when they don't get it they act out.
"We go to these goddamn festivals, and no fucking goddamn band will love us," the good-naturedly angst-ridden Davis gripes in his Tokyo hotel room after a drunken night on the town. "We get no fucking love at all. It's like we're in our own little world. We're not that goddamn scary. What the goddamn fuck? For once in my life, please love me: I'm in Korn."
Korn's previous album, 1996's Life is Peachy, entered the Billboard pop charts at No. 3. Today, Korn has its own label, Elementree; its own arena festival, the Family Values Tour, with Limp Bizkit, Ice Cube, Rammstein, and Orgy; and, the most impressive fuck-you to the gatekeepers of pop-taste who have shown them no love, their own No. 1 album, Follow the Leader, which topped the Billboard pop charts in its first week, selling 268,000 copies. This means that Korn are no longer an underground phenomenon, playing heavy, low-end, hip-hop-conscious, Gothic-leaning thrash-rock for skate-kids and misfits so intensely b(r)and loyal that they stopped wearing Stussy and started wearing Adidas in emulation of their antiheroes (who, thanks to a new sponsorship, now wear custom-designed Puma). Korn is now officially part of the major leagues -- members of an elite cadre of rock bands that have had No. 1 albums this decade, bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews, R.E.M., and Skid Row.
But Korn and the elite just don't seem to be mixing.
"We're nothing like that, man," Davis screams the night before the band's performance, leaping off his hotel-room chair.
"Like what?" I ask.
"Any of that shit!"
"Any of what shit?"
"Any shit that's out there. There's so much rehashed shit. You see it around us at the festival: musicians fucking hate us. FUCKING HATE US!"
"Why is that so important?"
Davis ignores the question and switches tack. "What can you call it?"
"Call what?"
"The music. What can you call it? It's like the Clash. What the fuck can you call the Clash? Fucking punk, pop, reggae? That's a great band." "People call you heavy."
"They do?"
"I'm talking about your music."
"We just want to be heavy," Davis says, as if hearing the word for the first time. "All we want to do is bring heavy back into rock'n'roll. Because goddamned Ben Folds Five sucks. It's fucking Cheers music. With us, it's fucking special. We're all completely different. I'm a sissy. [Bassist] Fieldy's hip-hop, [guitarists] Head and Munky are Head and Munky, and [drummer] David's got tits" -- big biceps to most people -- "but he's a great drummer. All we have in common is that we're total freaks."
Korn rank among pop's more beautifully volatile bands, a collision of egos, insecurities, and drastically different personalities. The jittery Davis is the band's nerves, the self-confident Fieldy is its brains, the "I-got-goosebumps-watching-Bjrk" Munky (James Shaffer) is its heart, the obsessive-compulsive David Silveria is its muscle, and the much-smarter-than-he-pretends-to-be Head (Brian Welch) -- the Angus Young-loving, Randy Rhoads-emulating teen who jump-started the band in ninth grade -- is its soul. Like most successful bands, they get along like brothers; and like most brothers, they don't always get along. At one point, in the midst of privately rocking out to his band's new album, Davis hands me his headphones and cues up "Reclaim My Place." "That song's about how I thought I'd become a rock star and not get picked on anymore," he says, "but my band still calls me a fag." Davis pauses and reflects for a moment. "Everyone thinks I'm queer," he says with a sigh. "And I kind of am -- except for the dick part." Spend any time with Davis and one is likely to be subjected to an endless barrage of queer references and gay jokes. But what might initially come across as small-town homophobia turns out to be something more, a by-product of a lifetime of sexual confusion. One Davis-penned song, entitled "Faget," reflects on time spent as a Duran Duran-loving New Romantic, when the singer would don makeup and hang out at gay bars. "Everyone thought I was gay my whole life," says Davis, "so I have to joke about it just to deal with it." (Davis is engaged to the mother of his three-year-old son Nathan.)
More to the point, Davis seems to have internalized his persecutors. Those who have heard Korn only in passing may easily imagine Davis as a strapping Glenn Danzig character, screaming, growling, and raging against the world. But anyone who's spent time with the music knows that it is as much about him breaking down as it is about him fighting back. On record and in conversation, Davis is constantly discrediting and undercutting himself, as in "BBK," where one voice orders that it's "time to die," and the next voice wonders, "is that what I want?" It is this portrait of Davis as a swaggering rock frontman riddled with bullets of self-doubt, coupled with his willingness to deal with ur-'90s issues such as family dysfunction and childhood abuse, that has helped bond Korn with its audience. In "Daddy," on the band's first album, from 1994, Davis writhes, "You raped. I feel dirty / It hurt. As a child.... / My god, saw you watch / Mommy, why? Your own child!" The song ends with an emotionally-wrecked Davis screaming at his mother and his molester (whom he declines to identify except to say it wasn't his dad), "I fuckin' hate you...you fucking ruined my life!" "I've always been into working with the kid who was beaten up and kicked around," says producer Ross Robinson, who wrung the tears from Davis on the band's first two albums, "because the most creative stuff will come out of them. And that's Korn."
Writing and performing such intensely personal songs has never been much of a problem for Korn; reaching a mass audience, however, has been a different story. Ignored by the mainstream press, radio, and MTV, the group over the years has cultivated its loyal fan base by touring relentlessly, creating a much talked-about Web site and weekly internet after-school special (Korn TV), and devising stunts like crossing the country on a mock political campaign via private plane to promote the new album (it worked: MTV's John Norris dispatched regular reports from the jet). In the process, Korn has spawned its own mini-scene, with bands like the Deftones, Limp Bizkit, and Coal Chamber following in Korn's post-metal footsteps, not to mention the scores of dirty dreadlocked imitators that have cropped up in Bakersfield. "The cool thing about Korn," says Al Masocco, VP of marketing at Epic Records, "is that they take more fans in at the top but don't lose any at the bottom. That's the design of the band -- they're built for the road. They're street tough."
Though maintaining their faithful following is important to Korn, so is success. During one of many band meetings at the Tokyo hotel to determine their video concept (keeping it real), their stage design (audience members in cages behind the band), and their Family Values tour rider (a live abalone, a death-metal CD, and a local celebrity), the band receives a four-page printout of radio stations playing Follow the Leader's first single, the death-disco stomp "Got the Life." "I can't believe we're finally a radio band," Silveria chirps as he thumbs through the list, giving credence to one metal magazine's assertion that Korn are the "Backstreet Boys of metal."
Ambition flowing, conversation turns to the selection of the album's second single. "Freak on a Leash" is a band favorite and a logical choice, but there's a noisy guitar break in the middle, and radio hates noisy guitar breaks. It's during moments like these -- stay true or sell out? our way or the highway? -- that legends are born. "Everybody who wants to take the Biohazard part out of 'Freak on a Leash,' raise your hand," yells Fieldy.
Four out of five Korns raise their hands. Davis, the lone holdout, tries to protest, but he's drowned out by Head, who is busy chanting, "I want a bigger house. I want a bigger house." The motion is passed; on to the next matter of business. "Manager," bellows Munky, "get me some coke! That's what managers do, isn't it?"
I've never seen you drink this early," says Davis to Fieldy. "YOU ARE fucking nervous." Korn is piled in a van, on their way to the Fuji Rock Festival, and for seasoned rock warriors, they don't look too good. Davis, for one, has been up since five in the morning writing out his lyrics and trying to memorize them; the band hasn't played in front of an audience in over a year. "I threw up this morning," Fieldy grumbles. "I took a whole bar of Xanax."
"My heart's beating 100 miles an hour," Munky yells from the back of the van, "and I can't feel my hands."
Even the cool-headed Head is anxious. "I had a dream that Caco [the guitar tech] fucked up my pedal board," he drawls. "Then I had a dream that you guys switched the songs around on me and didn't tell me. Then I had a dream that Rosie O'Donnell was our accountant."
"Whose dick hurts from jacking off?" shouts Munky, but even a bon mot such as this fails to relieve the preshow pressure.
In fact, Korn's set is a disaster. The show starts late; Head cracks his noggin open on his guitar; and the blackened stage is so sun-baked that the band is forced to spend much of the show with their backs to the audience, playing to actual metal fans -- turned on high, they are blowing a lukewarm breeze on either side of the drummer. Though the tens of thousands of Japanese kids at the festival, never having seen Korn before, go crazy -- they even open up a mosh pit (a rarity at Japanese shows) -- the band is thoroughly miserable.
"We sucked," Fieldy snaps on his way off stage. "And you can print that."
The show takes the hardest toll on Davis, who stays up all night getting drunk in the Roppongi tourist area of Tokyo. The next day, during a group interview with the Japan Times, Davis suffers an anxiety attack and is rushed back to his hotel. The rest of the band covers for him, then later plunges into the exotic foreign culture, going to landmarks like the Hard Rock Cafe and Tony Roma's. Meanwhile, Davis is laid up in bed. He is watched over by Loc, the band's self-described "doctor, psychiatrist, brother, bodyguard, and father," who was hired four years ago when Davis endured his first panic attack. Back at the hotel, Munky stands outside Davis's door. "I feel so bad for Jonathan," he says soft-heartedly. "I just massaged his back. But sometimes I just don't know what to do for him." Inside the room, Davis is smiling feebly in bed, complaining about how much the shot in his arm hurts and trying to talk Loc into blowing anal suppositories up his ass.
"My psychiatrist says he should be helping me, but he's just looking for ways to get me high," says Davis. "But maybe I should start taking antidepressants, or go to AA. Because when the band's joking around, the only time I feel comfortable -- like I can join in -- is when I'm drunk."
Davis's anxiety attacks began while on tour in Miami, a direct result of too much stress, Mini-thins, and alcohol. But to get to the root of Davis's disorders -- not to mention his talent for expressing them -- you need to head west, to the place Davis, not without a little love, calls "hell."
A week later, we're in Bakersfield, a beat-up, blue-collar, mining town roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles, a town, according to Davis's 19-year-old half-brother Mark, where "there's nothing to do but drugs and drink and fuck." Jonathan and Mark, accompanied by band ombudsman Loc, are providing a guided tour of their hometown. Jonathan points out the former site of his father's music store (where Fieldy got his first guitar), the now-defunct clubs where Korn took shape, and the dilapidated places where he used to work as everything from a DJ to a floor-mopper. "Oh man, it freaks me out to come back here," he says. "David Lynch could come here and have an orgasm. Everywhere I used to go is either torn down or destroyed. No wonder I'm so messed up."
"We could go stop off and pick up a couple of hoochies if you want," his half-brother offers. "And they're not bad looking, either -- asses tighter than a motherfucker."
Jonathan passes on the hoochies. "I've been with the same bitch for seven years," he says. "My mack went bye-bye."
This is the most time Mark has spent with his brother in ages. It's the most they've bonded since discovering at their grandmother's house tapes of phone calls documenting the divorce of their mother and Jonathan's father. They listened to them all night, got drunk, cried, and wondered what could have possibly motivated their grandmother to make those recordings.
Later we drive past the theater that bore witness to the opening act of the divorce. It was there, in a staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, that their mother started sleeping with a Mexican actor, whom she went on to marry. The actor was cast in the role of Judas. "Before I got in Korn, I tried out to be Jesus Christ just so I could face his ass," says Davis. "He was such an asshole to me, but it still made me cry to watch him hang by his neck."
Believe it or not, the theater is one of the less traumatic stops on the official Korn tour of Bakersfield. More poignant sources of Davis's anxiety include the home of his stepmother, who is the subject of the Korn song "Kill You," about how she constantly harassed, punished, and tormented Davis. Then there's the patch across the street from Highland High, where, not unlike at the Fuji Rock Festival, Davis hung out in the loser section. And finally there's the mortuary, where Davis worked as a coroner's assistant and lived on-site, the overflow corpses part of his kitchen decor. After seeing victims of car crashes, suicides, and sexual abuse -- including people he had known or talked to the day before -- he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and has nightmares to this day, one of which is exorcised in the Follow the Leader song "Pretty," about a young incest victim.
Exploring Bakersfield -- meeting Jonathan's parents, sister, step-siblings, and former bandmates, seeing the gas station that Head's father owns, watching the forty-and-over alcoholic pick-up-scene at local bars -- Korn begin to make more sense. Korn began long before anyone in Korn was born. This becomes clear when we stop to pick up Jonathan's father, Rick Davis, the spitting image of Jonathan and his sister, Alyssa, at the public television station where he works. Mr. Davis and Fieldy's father were local musicians who played together at bars and clubs around town. Their relationship was more or less the same as Jonathan's and Fieldy's. Best friends and bitter enemies -- Fieldy's father thought Jonathan's dad was gay; Jonathan's dad thought Mr. Fieldy was an arrogant cocksucker.
"When I was Jonathan's age, I had hair down my back and was traveling around the country playing music," the elder Davis remembers. "Who'd think I'd become old and fat, working at a government-funded TV station."
We drive to the recording studio that Rick Davis runs, in a theater owned by Bakersfield's human mascot, the country singer Buck Owens. The studio is rustic, with a Hammond Rhodes organ sporting a sign reading nightclub welcomes back Rick Davis, urinals clogged thick with dead cockroaches, and a box full of Jonathan's old possessions, including a blood-stained coroner's smock.
Considering that Jonathan has portrayed his father as an abusive enemy of all that he was and wanted to be, the two seem to get along surprisingly well. I ask Mr. Davis about "Dead Bodies Everywhere," a song on the new album about how he didn't want his son to be a musician. "Initially there was a nervousness on my part," he says of first hearing songs describing his relationship with his son. "But it forced us to sit down and go over all the issues and resolve them. And we did, didn't we?"
"Yeah," says Jonathan obediently.
"I had lost everything in bankruptcy, and I was going through a divorce, and at that moment I looked at my son and said, 'Always have a day job to fall back on.' And fortunately he didn't listen to me. But everything's okay now." "We were both fucked up," Jonathan concedes. "I still remember when I drove back home after you moved to Long Beach," his dad says. "When I saw you were living in one corner of a garage, you have no idea how many buckets I cried driving home. But I thought, at least he's pursuing his dream.
"I'll be damned," dad continues, "now you're a little drunk in front of your kid, making music and touring all the time, just like I was." When his father leaves the room, Jonathan marvels at the exchange. "Since I was 13, all we talked about was pussy. It wasn't until I started writing songs about him that we started talking about all that other stuff. He's not that bad now. But at that time it felt horrible. When he asks me, 'I wasn't a bad dad, was I?' What am I going to say? 'You were an asshole'?" But the truth is that Jonathan now does understand, at least a little. "Ever since I've had a kid I totally have new respect for my dad," he marvels. "He did fuck me over, but I can understand why. When he left to go on the road, he needed to put food on the table. He needed to pay hospital bills: I was asthmatic, I was in the hospital every month from the age of three to the age of ten. When you're three years old you don't think about that shit. It really freaked me out when I left to go to Japan and my son said, 'You got to go to work? Bye daddy.' Then he rolled over, like 'don't talk to me.' It hurt my feelings more than anything in the world." As we drop off Mr. Davis on our way back to Los Angeles, Jonathan's dad shoots his son a look before he leaves the car. "I'd tell you that I'm proud of you," he says with a smile, "but you already wrote a song about it, so I don't know what to say." Jonathan waves good-bye to his father, sits back, and directs Loc to the highway.
"So, what did you think of Bakersfield?" Jonathan finally asks as we roll out of town.
"It's a shitty place to live and a shitty place to visit."
"Now you understand," he says triumphantly, "and you've only been here a few hours. Doesn't it make you want to start a band called Korn?"