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It has been 25 years since Korn’s self-titled debut album was released, yet the pioneering rock quintet still feel like the new kids on the scene.
“We’re still putting out good records and making music that people like today,” says singer Jonathan Davis. “We’re not falling back on our catalog of early music. We’ve still got the passion to stay relevant, but it takes work.”
That work paid off in keeping Korn’s 13th studio album, The Nothing (released Sept. 13 on Roadrunner Records/Elektra), sounding fresh and timely while also evoking the lyrical darkness of its first record. The songs on 1994’s Korn were heavy in more ways than one, dealing with Davis’ childhood abuse and subsequent drug use. Twenty-five years later, he’s sober but still singing about his struggles. In 2018, just months after his mother died, his estranged wife, Deven, died of an accidental drug overdose, and his 12-year-old son Zeppelin has been struggling with diabetes.
“I felt like I had this dark energy around me, which I called ‘the nothing,’ so it’s a very dark record,” he says. “The first record was me getting out all my demons from birth through high school. On this album, death is a theme that runs through the whole thing. It’s this entity, this force, which made me deal with depression, pain, suffering and trying to come to terms with it. It’s me grieving. It was very emotional; I was crying and shit.” (You can hear that emotion on opening track “The End Begins,” during which Davis can be heard sobbing uncontrollably.)
He sees the two albums as companion pieces because they delve into such darkness, and they each helped him face his problems head on. “Getting it out always helps,” he says. “You can’t keep that shit in. Music always has been my outlet. It’s my everything — it’s the way I feel better.”
On the production end of The Nothing, Davis — alongside guitarists James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu and drummer Ray Luzier — was inspired by Electric Light Orchestra, Queen, Def Leppard … and big band music.
“My music tastes are very eclectic,” he says after rattling off a list of musical influences, from 1980s new romantic groups Duran Duran and Thompson Twins to goth bands Christian Death and early Ministry to New York freestyle acts like Stevie B and Company B.
But, he adds, “All I listened to while working on The Nothing was 1930s and ’40s music — Doris Day, Cab Calloway and big band music. I appreciate the way it’s recorded; it’s not overly edited. Everyone had their own style and feel, not a producer making them sound the same. And there’s something dark about it that I really like: dark times, depression, war. I love it.”
When it came to the vocals, that’s where Davis turned to acts like Electric Light Orchestra, Queen and Def Leppard. “They all used to do these crazy, big vocal bits, recording 40 tracks of vocals and harmonies to stack them. I wanted to do that on this record, and if you listen to it, there are some huge choruses with, like, 20 tracks. That’s how Def Leppard got their big vocals and harmonies, because so many people are singing in the background, so many voices. It took a lot of time, but it was well worth it.”
The Nothing joins a catalog of Korn material that has garnered multiplatinum success and numerous Grammy nominations (including two wins). But the group’s biggest mainstream success came with 1998’s Follow the Leader, which featured “Freak on a Leash,” and 1999’s Issues. Both reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200; Leader is certified five-times platinum, while Issues is three-times platinum.
“With each record, we’ve evolved,” says Davis, who’s currently working on the score to a six-part fictionalized crime podcast that Korn wrote with Adam Mason and Simon Boyes that’s also called The Nothing and will premiere in October. (Korn also plans to go back on the road in 2020, he says.) “We don’t do the same thing over and over and play it safe. We try to be creative. And when we get scared, I know we’re doing something right.”
For instance, when it came to the dance-inspired “Got the Life” off Follow the Leader, he recalls, “Everybody was scared. Like, ‘We can’t do that, that’s a disco song!’ But it came out and worked perfectly. If you don’t do shit like that, you’re never going to evolve. Plus, it gets boring doing the same thing over and over again.”
Another way the band has evolved is by trying to move past the "nu-metal" moniker it has been pigeonholed in since it first emerged. It is often seen as the godfathers of the genre, which is kind of a catch-all for bands that mix heavy metal with anything from hip-hop to funk to industrial, encompassing everyone from Korn to Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit.
“Nu-metal was a term for all those bands that came after us,” says Davis. “We started something that was different, and all these bands copied us, and that became what ‘nu-metal’ refers to. It’s just a stamp in time, and that time was the late ’90s. We’re not the same band we were 25 years ago. We’re more of a hard-rock band with funk influences.”
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