It’s a hot summer afternoon one Thursday in Los Angeles and Korn, the band who once threw a tour launch party in a cemetery, are in their element, filming a video in an abandoned brothel that looks like it should be part of a Halloween horror maze.
The Dean Karr-directed clip for “Rotting in Vain,” starring Sons of Anarchy’s Tommy Flanagan, is vintage Korn, combining elements of horror and shocking theatrics with explosive, aggressive rock. In that sense, it’s a perfect introduction to the band’s 12th album, The Serenity of Suffering.
Despite behind-the-scenes changes that have taken them to sign a management deal with Three Six Zero and Roc Nation, the guys feel that they have made a classic Korn album. We sat down, in the band’s trailer, with frontman Jonathan Davis and guitarists Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer to discuss the new album, the video and the one cartoon Korn (who were once featured in South Park) would like to be immortalized in.
Has this been one of the more exciting video sets?
Brian “Head” Welch: For me, I got here at like 8:45 [in the morning] and I came in and Tommy is right there doing his makeup and he’s been doing this a long time, all of us are fans of his work in some way. It’s just a cool set, it’s really cool to see the art direction of the set and how cool it’s looking. It just feels fun to me.
You’re going out with Rob Zombie and there are a lot of package tours these days. Do you feel like there is more camaraderie in rock again?
James “Munky” Shaffer: I feel like there is, because there was that disconnection for a long time. And I think the whole Internet and everybody was struggling so hard to find their place.
Head: I think rock music needs that right away. We’ve been doing it so long, it’s funner to tour with bands and do package tours, co-headlines, bigger places, bigger hype, bigger crowds. All the guys in Zombie are great guys, great people, and Zombie loves us too and we got history with them, so it’s a no-brainer I think.
Jonathan Davis: It’s way changed. All the f—ing real rock bands and real rock stars, we’re all parents now, and there’s no new guard that’s come up because of how things have changed. There aren’t those bands anymore with the way the record industry and everything has gone. So we’re it. We’re waiting for that. I don’t know if, with the way things are, that’s ever gonna happen ‘cause with no money back there, the labels aren’t able to do the cool sh– they used to do back then.
Rob mentioned selling more tickets and to younger fans. Are you seeing that as well, and how much does that energize you?
Munky: We’re definitely seeing a generation gap being bridged because we’re seeing, even at our meet-and-greets that we do, dads and moms bringing their kids, and that’s exciting. They got their Korn swag on.
Head: It’s just really cool because you see those two or three faces down there and you’re like, “They’re here for the first time, this is their first experience.” It gives you like a refreshing energy. It’s exciting because I remember being that kid in the crowd at shows going, “This is amazing. They came just for me.” They gave you that special feeling. That’s what we want our fans to have, just an experience.
Munky: The music you grow up on sticks with you forever. Whatever those bands and the music between ages 14 to 20, that’s what you remember.
Head: We just played Canada, just the excitement… There were so many young people there and we played with Sum 41, Blink-182, Underoath. We were like, “We should not be playing this day, we should not be here.” We go out there, and it went incredible and all these people were going nuts.
Who would be on your dream festival?
Head: He’s huge, but Kendrick Lamar, ’cause look at the energy he brings live.
Head: Gojira would be a cool band. It’s not just heavy metal, it’s really unique. They changed on this new record.
Do you think your different tastes lead to the experimental sound?
Munky: I think that experimental sound comes from the things that we’re inspired by, those are the types of music we pull. “Let’s make this guitar part sound like Portishead or a horns part on Cypress Hill.” That experimenting comes from the inspiration of different music that we love.
Was pushing your limits a focus for you on this new album?
Jonathan: I always thought this was the album that’s in the same vein as Untouchables, ’cause that’s my favorite Korn record in totality. Sonically it’s massive; the production on it is over the top; I love my vocal sounds, everything in the music is amazing. It’s still old-school Korn with the heaviness and the grooves, but there’s something new and fresh about it that I like. I can’t stop listening to it. In the beginning I didn’t really know what I thought. There’s still electronic stuff in it, ’cause I love the electronic stuff. I’m really proud of the record. That’s what differentiates it from the last one; there’s a lot of cool, subtle stuff in there. So it’s not overbearingly electronic, but it’s still heavy ’cause we wanted to make a heavy record. Everybody in the band wanted to make a heavy record. I think we pulled it off.
Munky: I think, for us, it was about going back and looking at our catalog, going, “OK, let’s take the strong and our favorite moments of some of those albums and redo them in a current way.” A lot of that, for me, is still trying to maintain a level of melody, take those heavy riffs and build on that.
Head: To me, it was just live shows. It was just like, “What would the crowd do?” We did that in the beginning with Korn. When we wrote songs, it was like, “What would the crowd do?” So we always used dynamics to bring it down and then, “Raawr,” ’cause we love that interaction, just with the energy and that unity with the fans. So that’s what we focused on with this record a lot. Like he said, it was going over our catalog and what were the fun things, what did the fans love, what do we love as fans? I always tell Jonathan, “I’m in a band with one of my favorite singers, if not the favorite singer, so what would I want to hear from Jonathan as a fan?” ‘Cause I’m a fan. I was in bands with him, Fieldy, David back in the day, and we always seemed to try to put a band together and we didn’t have a singer. Without a singer you go nowhere, but once we found Jonathan, I was like, “Man, it’s like my favorite singer in my band. This is it.”
Munky: He can sing, he can rap if he wants, he can scream, he can do the whisper. He really does have every trick in his bag.
Was it creatively freeing to let the band do most of this album and then come into it?
Jonathan: It was kind of like that; that’s why I liked it. It’s our 12th record. I’ve got to do different things just to get inspired, and by them doing that, it’s inspired me in that way. I’m the kind of guy who needs a producer and someone to pull that creativity out of me. I worked with a couple different people and the end result was awesome, just hearing the songs and then first listening, like, “What am I going to do? I know this is heavy and this is awesome, but what am I going to do?” And then I just had to let go and let whatever was going to come out, come out.
That can be so hard to do.
Jonathan: It is hard, but it was fun. And I’m so stoked at the end result because it’s so heavy and the band also does that really catchy poppy sh–, which is what I like — mixing those two and making them work. It’s hard, but I think we pulled it off in this record.
Do you ever do karaoke as a band?
Head: I did with Sinister Gates, from Avenged. It was after the show, it was on the Mayhem Festival tour, and me and him did [Young MC’s] “Bust a Move.” We have it on video too, I have it somewhere. He totally rapped it all, because I guess he used to like that song. So he just looked at the monitor and rapped it and I was just his hype man.
Who would be the dream artists to work with, collaboration-wise?
Munky: We did a remix for Rihanna not long ago.
Head: And we wanted to do some collabs on this record, but I think timing and stuff just didn’t work out. But in the future, hopefully some stuff.
Jonathan: Right now, I’m not even thinking about collaborators. Honestly, I’ve taken a break from writing. The last year, I stopped writing. I used to write every day and I had to take a break. I’m not even in that space right now. It’s been nice because for the last 21 years, I wrote almost every day. I just needed to take a break and recharge the batteries. I took a year off, but I’m getting the itch. Maybe next time around, I’ll find someone. So I’ve been spending more free time hanging out with my kids or just watching movies, doing stuff I never did. I don’t really watch movies; I’m a cartoon guy. Maybe next time around I’ll find someone. I had fun collaborating with Corey Taylor from Slipknot, but there aren’t really that many people out there that I want to collaborate with. It’d have to be out-there, just weird, different sh–. I like doing off-the-wall sh– that still makes sense and see what happens.
Munky: I would still love to do a track or two and work with Rick Rubin and Jay Z. That would be the pinnacle. When someone asks, “What was the highlight of your career?” I have yet to get there because I am still climbing for that moment.
Head: You come up with ideas and you try to make things happen. I think it’s meant to be for this record what it is right now, ’cause it is like old Korn, but it’s got the future thing. So I think it was something we had to do ourselves without the collaborations right now. But I think that next record, already talking four years in advance now [laughs], we gotta do something different, out of the box, and that’s what Korn has always done. They excite people, but they piss off others because Korn is always trying something new. And I was gone for a while and they did new stuff and it pissed some people off and it brought excitement mainly to the band though, cause it’s not the same old, same old. So I would love to do a lot of collabs next record.
What cartoons are you watching right now?
Jonathan: Anything on Boomerang. I have that on constantly, so whatever’s on. Scooby Doo, Tom & Jerry, I love those, all those cartoons. It drives my wife crazy, the kids love it, but that’s all I watch.
What would be the one cartoon Korn hasn’t appeared in you’d like to still be in?
Jonathan: I love SpongeBob, that’s my favorite. I love all that stuff.
Did you have that feeling when you were making this record, that you were having a creative resurgence?
Jonathan: I think so. I mean, it’s just different from the other records for me personally because I really wanted to let those guys do what they do and see what happens. I had to battle a lot of stuff. I had a lot of sh– going on mentally, all kinds of stuff with this record, and I wasn’t really there, to be honest, in all aspects of it until I started listening to the music and they came down and I started doing vocals, and it took me halfway through that even to actually grasp it and get what we were going for. Towards the end and after I started singing, the best thing I did was to not even think. Some records I really overthink. And I think this record was straight from the heart. I didn’t think, I just sang, and I can’t really say anything special about it, other than I just didn’t think about anything, I just let whatever came out, come out.
Was this record, with the timing of it, therapeutic and helpful then?
Jonathan: Always. That’s why I’m in music. It’s my therapy. Honestly, music is what’s saved me and kept me alive and on this planet. It gives me a sense of purpose and all kinds of stuff, so every time I do it, it’s like a big session and I get to get out what’s going on in my life and scream it for the whole world to hear. But it helps me and it helps other people, so it’s a good thing.
Are there songs that you have written that have really changed for you over the years as your perspectives have also changed?
Jonathan: Basically it’s a f—ing catalog of my life and problems, all those records. I go back and I can’t believe what I was going through. It reminds me of when I was going through that problem, or that problem. We all have problems, and that’s just the way I deal with it. It’s not necessarily the same problems, not the high school bullsh– from my first two records. Sh– evolves and becomes more about relationships and just dealing with people in general and just everything around me at times, and the way I see the world. It’s pretty cool I’ve got a way to get that out. I got an F in English. Failed, it’s so f—ing funny. I had to beg and plead and do extra credit and go to f—ing summer school three years in a row to get a passing grade in English so I graduated high school. And now that’s what I do for a living.