Korn's Human Connections Are the Source of Its Enduring Popularity

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Korn's new album — its twelfth full-length in a 23-year career — is recorded and mixed and set for release later in 2016. While no details are available ahead of the release, it's certain that the record will be informed by the band's diverse musical roots and the thoughtful sensibilities of its lyrics. While lumped in with the origins of “nü metal,” Korn has endured precisely because its music defies clichés associated with the genre and demonstrates strikingly sensitive and compassionate takes on its subject matter.

Whereas many heavy bands of the nü-metal era engage in bravado and tough talk, Korn has, since its inception, never been afraid to talk about what hurts deep down, often buried because the experiences are that painful. Whether writing songs about childhood sexual abuse, homophobia or other harrowing personal experiences, Korn's truthfulness feels like the band is reaching out to people who have been through those difficult times. Songs as powerful as “Daddy” and “Faget” are the work of sensitive musicians capable of self-honesty and relating to others in deep ways. Korn has thus garnered a highly dedicated fan base that identifies with the band. 

Korn's mixed musical DNA is rooted in its upbringing in Bakersfield, California, where for kids in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn't much accessible music and art culture. Singer Jonathan Davis was exposed to more adventurous, contemporary music via MTV. From the regular programming heavy on new-wave and new-romantics bands, Davis became a fan of groups like Duran Duran and the Cure. He embraced that sound, as well as heavy metal and hip-hop, always open to a broad spectrum of music. Bakersfield was not close enough to Los Angeles or San Francisco for Davis to catch much in the way of live rock music, but he did get to see live hip-hop in the late ’80s, including a Def Jam Records tour that included L.L. Cool J, Whodini and Erik B. & Rakim.

“I [saw] my first shootout in Bakersfield at that Def Jam show,” Davis says. “The times were crazy, and it just made want to like that music even more. It was more even punk-rock to me then.”

Davis started deejaying at the end of the ’80s, and he spun records by artists like Newcleus, Egyptian Lover and Rob-O & Joe Cooley. No surprise that the band he would form with some friends in 1993 would be steeped not just in rock culture, but also that of hip-hop — and not as a mere affectation or clumsy cultural appropriation. That ability to relate to various music subcultures rendered Korn relatable immediately to a fervent audience, and this initial acclaim grew into international stardom. That connection has in fact been part of the bedrock of the band's appeal — a real, human connection.

“We started out that way,” says Davis. “When we toured for our first two albums, after every show we would go out and hand out cassettes to fans. We'd hang out with fans and we'd go back to their houses, where they had keg parties and this and that. The fans were everything to us. If we were hungry, they gave us food. Anything! They were always good to us. Fast-forward to [1998's] Follow the Leader, and boom, we're huge as fuck, playing arenas. Now I've got bodyguards tailing me. We can't go anywhere, we can't do anything, because fights would break out, with people rushing us. So we had to instantly think about how we showed appreciation for the people that were always there for us. That's the kind of band we are. We just can't physically be there like when after every gig we hung with the kids that were at the show. All night, we just hung out and did whatever. So it was our way of keeping people involved and saying thank you for coming. We're always trying to think of interesting and different ways with technology to keep our fans involved.”

In turn, the fans have shown their loyalty, including supporting a fundraising campaign to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, an organization with which Davis has become involved because his young son Zeppelin suffers from Type 1 diabetes. To date, sales for the single “So Unfair” have raised over $100,000 for the charity. And Davis doesn't just donate to JDRF; he is connected with other parents of children with Type 1 diabetes.

“It's cool to be able to talk to people going through the same things I do,” Davis says. “We run into the same problems, like kids eating things they're not supposed to. It just helps. There's no breaks. I can't say, 'Hold on, I don't want to deal with this today.' I do that, and he's dead or in a coma. It's intense.”

Korn, with Rob Zombie and In This Moment, Tuesday, July 19, 6:30 p.m., Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, $25-89.50, all ages.

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