Korn's headlining gig on October 27 at the Fillmore Auditorium will find a band that's always looking to the future taking a rare glance into the rear-view mirror, as lead singer Jonathan Davis acknowledges in a frank and revealing interview.
The show is among the last batch devoted to celebrating the 20th anniversary of Korn, the group's self-titled debut (which actually came out in 1994). The plan calls for the thundering five piece — vocalist Jonathan Davis, guitarists James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch, bassist Reggie "Fieldy" Arvizu and drummer Ray Luzier — to play the highly influential album in its entirety, That means not only staples such as "Blind," which put the group on the map and jump-started what became known as the nu-metal genre, but also "Faget," an exploration of bullying over perceived homosexuality that broke new ground, and "Daddy," a song of abuse and torment so painful for Davis that the band avoided playing it live until this run of dates.
In conversation, Davis admits that he's already looking beyond the current tour to the band's next album, as well as a couple of highly intriguing side projects, including a possible collaboration with Marilyn Manson and, believe it or not, a country album that will find him singing alongside the likes of Big & Rich while covering artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Along the way, Davis discusses key tracks from Korn; the unwanted burden of being identified as the standard bearers for nu-metal; continuing misunderstanding about the elements that make up Korn's sound; work with artists as disparate as Dem Franchize Boyz (which scored a 2006 hit by mashing up Korn's "Coming Undone") and Skrillex (a contributor to 2011's The Path of Totality); and the benefits of a fan base willing to follow wherever the band leads.
Westword: You're continuing to mark the twentieth anniversary of your first album with this tour — which is interesting, since you guys strike me as a band that's more about looking ahead than looking back.
Jonathan Davis: We just wanted to celebrate the fact that we've made it for twenty years. I can't believe it's been fucking twenty years. I look at the journey we've been on and I can't believe it's been that long. So we wanted to go out and celebrate it. We started out doing select dates. We did one show in L.A. and a whole bunch overseas. But we really wanted to do something cool for the U.S. fans, so we're doing a little one-month tour. We're going to play the first album in its entirety and then it's done. We're not doing that ever again.
What song on the first album do you think sounds the freshest, the most vital, twenty years later?
It'd probably be "Blind." That's the first one everybody heard — and I like playing it, don't get me wrong. But it's our first body of work, and would you want to re-write the first paper you ever wrote, and then go back and let everyone read it again? So it's bittersweet for us. We're doing this because we love our fans and our fans love that record. But we were just kids when we made that record. It was our first shit.
[Here's the video for "Blind."]
How do you make it feel as contemporary as possible so it doesn't feel like a nostalgia trip?
There's no way. We just do our show and play and have fun. And we're having fun. But there's no way for it not to be nostalgic. This thing is twenty years old (laughs). But thank God we actually cared about making good records and pushing ourselves — and we continue to make records. So this is just a little tour to celebrate the record that started it all.
There are a lot of tracks on that first record that really stand out. "Faget" is a song that was way ahead of its time. I imagine you hear regularly from people who tell you how much that song means to them.
Oh yeah. People didn't believe that I would write about something like that. Back then, when I wrote about it, talking about that was so taboo. They were like, "You can't call a song 'Faget.' What are you doing?" But I really didn't care. I think the 2015 version of that is "Hater," the song we put out last year. But bullying goes on. It's just human nature. Unfortunately, it's still happening, and it's not just kids. Fucking adults bully other adults. It just goes on, period. And I feel shit deeply, so I wanted to write a song about it. And that's how it came out.
[This video features a live version of "Faget" from the 1999 Woodstock festival.]
As the years have gone on, are you happier and happier that you completely ignored those people who said you shouldn't release a song like that?
Yeah, I'm glad Korn has always done what we wanted to do. We've never compromised on stuff. Well, I guess we've compromised on stuff here and there, but not on the integrity of the music. I'm happy I can look back twenty years and know we did what we wanted to do all those years.
And then there's the song "Daddy," which is not only an epic, but it also deals with particularly painful subject matter. Is that tough to sing?
It is tough to sing. But I'm not doing it for me. I'm doing it for all the fans who that song helped. I've seen lots of people who that song helped get through tough times, so of course, I want to do it for them.
Are you able at this point to find a place of emotional distance to help you get through it?
Yeah, every time I do it, it gets a little easier. That's one of the reasons I didn't want to play the song live. We've never played that song live, ever. It's only been on these twentieth anniversary shows. I've only got seventeen or eighteen more times to do it. I'm counting. And then it's done.
[The following clip finds Davis singing "Daddy" earlier this year.]
Historically, the first album is seen as a launching pad for the whole nu-metal genre, which critics absolutely hated. Did it ever ever make sense to you that your band was made the poster children for this whole movement? And did the baggage that came with that bother you?
I mean, whatever. It's flattering that there was this whole new genre that we created, or helped create. But call it what you want. I was there twenty years ago and I'm still here twenty years later.
I know critics hated that shit. And it was the same when they used to call us a metal band. Twenty years later, Korn is still not just a metal band. What happened is metal fans embraced us and we play in the metal scene. But as for us being a metal band, I don't see it. We're more of a funk band, like groove-metal, than anything. I remember back in the mid-'90s, we were all like, "We're not a metal band, we're not a metal band." And there's all this nu-metal shit, too. Everyone misunderstood us. But I don't care anymore. Call us anything you want. We're still here and we're still playing shows and I'm happy.
A lot of bands are destroyed when they get pigeonholed like that, and yet you guys just kept going. Was that because you were able to just tune out the noise and focus on the things you wanted to do?
Yeah, we didn't let any critics or anybody else get to us and change our ideas. We just kept experimenting and writing new stuff and keeping shit fresh — and we're getting ready to write and record our twelfth album. So it's working. We're still doing it.
Over the years, you've been very open to collaborations. Is that something you always liked? Or simply by doing it, did you discover how well it worked for you?
The collaboration stuff was just us partying back in the day. We were a party band, we were out of our minds, and we just invited our friends over. We'd be partying and stuff, getting fucked up, and we'd say, "We want to try something on this song." It just kind of ended up that way. We haven't collaborated with people for a long time, but it's fun, it's nice to do it.
There were reports earlier this year that you were working with Marilyn Manson and Big & Rich.
I was talking about Korn. I collaborate with all kinds of people. Those are solo projects.
The Big & Rich thing, I'm doing a country record. It's a record to commemorate the Bakersfield sound. I'm not going country or touring as a country artist. But it's a compilation of a whole lot of Bakersfield-sound songs that I'm covering with country artists.
That sounds fascinating.
It's pretty cool. Big & Rich did "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line" from Buck Owens. They're doing the background harmonies and all that shit. It's not like I'm trying to go country, though. I'm from Bakersfield, and it was a huge thing back in the '60s. I wanted to pay homage to that.
Are you doing any Merle Haggard?
Makes sense. In a lot of ways, he is the Bakersfield sound. Can you give us a preview of any Merle Haggard songs you're tackling?
I need to work on it some more, but I just sang the "Kern River" song. I'm looking for the darker kind of stuff. That's the vibe I'm going for.
There's a lot of darker stuff in his material.
Oh yeah, tons of it. And the stuff with Manson, we're going to get together and write some music and see what happens.
That project is in the really early stages?
Yeah. I'm going to get back and start working with him on ideas and shit. We hadn't talked for a long time and we recently hooked up again. He was one of my best friends back in the day. We just rekindled our friendship and started talking a lot about doing something together. I love the dude to death. He's a great guy. So I'm down to do something cool.
Another artist you collaborated with in Korn was Skrillex. You worked with him before the mainstream really had any idea who he was. How did you connect with him?
He was in a band called From First to Last, and I've always listened to dance music and was following what he was doing — the whole dubstep thing. There was a guy named Excision who collaborated with us on our album, and he wanted me to sing on one of this tracks. So I really started getting into dubstep and I thought it would be awesome to mix metal music with dubstep. That's when I called up Sonny [Moore, Skrillex's given name], and he said, "I'll do it." He was a huge fan. He came down and we did a couple of songs together and he hooked me up with Noisea and all the other guys we collaborated with for the record. It was a really cool experience.
["Chaos Lives in Everything" features Skrillex.]
At the time, you were quoted as saying Korn was dubstep before there was dubstep....
I was just trying to say there were elements of that in our music. But that came to bite me in the ass. It was a misquote. Dubstep's dubstep, and I'm not going to say we invented that shit. That was taken out of context. But there were elements of it in our music.
That goes back to you talking about Korn as a groove band, which helps explain why your collaboration with Dem Franchize Boyz worked so well, too. Is it at all frustrating to you that people don't seem to realize how many different things mix together to make your music?
It's up to each person. It's awesome when someone gets it. But not everyone is going to get it, and what's most important is that we get it. We write music that makes us happy as a band. If people get it, that's awesome. And if they don't, maybe after a few years it'll smack them in the face and they'll see what we did.
[The Dem Franchize Boyz mashup of "Coming Undone" is called "Coming Undone Wit It."]
Another influential moment for Korn was the creation of the Family Values Tour, which you revived as a one-day event at the 1stBank Center back in 2013. What was that experience like?
It was fun. We had a good time and all the bands on it were awesome. We just went in there and did our thing and we had a good time.
Is that something you can see doing again here or there?
Maybe here or there. I don't think we'll do it every summer, but we may do it every once in a while.
In the meantime, you're working on a new Korn album. Where are things at on that?
The guys have some songs written and I'm starting to work on the vocals, and then we're going to get with a producer and start recording after the tour's through. I'm thinking we'll have something done and out probably somewhere next year.
How would you describe it so far?
I have no idea yet. It's heavier, but I have no idea. I have to really get into it, start listening to the songs and breaking shit down.
Is that the way you like to work? Instead of going in with a preconceived notion, just seeing what comes out?
That's how I've always done it.
When you're writing music, do you ever think, Korn fans expect it to sound a certain way, so we need to make sure some of that is in there? Or do you trust the fans so much that you feel they'll follow wherever you want to go?
We figured that out a long time ago. We trust the fans so much. We just try not to repeat what we've done and make good music. That's the main thing with us. We want to keep putting out better records and challenging ourselves.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.