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“It Just Sounds Alive”: Jonathan Davis on Korn’s New Record and His Newfound Peace

The legendary nu metal singer talks about the process that went into ‘Requiem,’ how he worked through some of the toughest days of his life, and the lasting influence of his genre

Ringer illustration

When we last heard from Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, life was weighing heavily on him. In 2018, Davis lost both his mother and wife. Those twin tragedies formed the backbone of his band’s 13th album, 2019’s The Nothing—a record dark even by the standards of Korn, with songs like “This Loss” and “Can You Hear Me” mining his fresh wounds. But amid the heart-on-his-sleeves agony, Davis laid out a path forward: “Once you pull the bandage off, you feel the sting,” he sang on “The Darkness Is Revealing.” “Only way to fix it is through painful suffering.”

Today, Davis is if not fully healed, then at least more at peace. On Friday, Korn will release their new record, Requiem, and despite its funereal title, it finds Davis in a better headspace than The Nothing did. While it’s still a Korn record—titles like “Hopeless and Beaten” and “Let the Dark Do the Rest” dot the tracklist—there are moments of hopefulness. For example, take “Start the Healing,” where Davis sings, “Are you ready for the fear to leave / So that you can breathe and not live with the danger?” The pain is there, but he’s learning how to survive with it, something he credits to being able to work through his emotions on records like The Nothing.

“I had to take all these feelings that I still have from the past, and shit that I was going through, and meld them with this newfound happiness,” he says.

Aside from Davis’s mindset, Requiem is also the result of other shifts in Korn’s process. First, the singer worked directly with his band in Nashville, something he’s avoided for the sessions for the past three albums as he’s finished up his parts in his home studio in Bakersfield. But perhaps more significant for the sound of Requiem, Korn recorded to analog tape. The results are warm and inviting and steeped in grooves—not exactly the first things that spring to mind when discussing the kind of nu metal and heavy music Korn has peddled for three decades. “It just sounds alive,” he says of Requiem.

The Ringer recently caught up with Davis to discuss the album, as well as the impact COVID has had on both him and his band, the influence that nu metal and Korn has on music today, and how after 14 albums, he feels like he’s got more left in the tank.

How are you doing today, Jonathan?

I’m really good, man. How are you?

I’m doing great. Thanks for asking. How are you feeling a couple months after COVID?

Oh, I’m recovered now. But it was fucked. I had what they call the mild case. It didn’t go into my lungs, thank God. It really fucking zapped me of my appetite and my energy, [I had] horrible fucking anxiety. It made me go crazy. I was really fucking scared, I didn’t know what was going to fucking happen. I’m asthmatic, I got all kinds of other issues going on. And I was pretty much terrified.

And then a couple days in, I started to relax. I went to the hospital, they took blood tests, and I didn’t have the markers that would say that I was going to have the severe kind of COVID. So I got through it. But it was definitely scary. And then I tested negative on day 10. I had a day off, and then I played a show the next fucking day. So I went right back to work. And that was a bitch. I couldn’t climb up stairs. It just took everything out of me just to get from the bus to the fucking stage. That was the shitty part. I never felt anything like that in my life. But it was fucking so worth it.

I remember at the time there were videos of you having to use an oxygen tank, but that was actually related to your asthma, not COVID, right?

I’ve been doing it since fucking ‘98, I think. I suck down fucking whole pounds of oxygen each show, because it gives me superhuman fucking powers. Oxygen, when I’m exerting myself, it gives me energy. So when I oversaturate my blood with a lot of oxygen, it helps with recovery, everything. So it’s not because I can’t fucking breathe. Sometimes I can’t breathe, because I do have asthma, I have to hit my inhaler and shit like that. But it helps me recover almost instantly when I hit that thing.

How did the pandemic affect the creation of this record? You weren’t able to tour in 2020, and you guys have practically lived on the road. Did the extra time give you a chance to experiment?

We were going crazy being stir crazy at home. We’re usually on the road. We had just dropped The Nothing. We did that tour and then the album hit, and then we did the Breaking Benjamin tour. And then right at the end of that is when COVID hit. So we were like, “Fuck, we didn’t get to do this album.”

And so we’re sitting here going crazy, I don’t know, three-four months later, because no one is leaving their house. We’re like, “Hey, man, let’s get together and write a fucking record.” So we did all this shit, taking—there was no tests at the time, we just had to be really fucking careful, we all wore masks, and did all this shit. And we set up three or four writing sessions. And everybody came in, and we’d sit down, and we’d write for 10 days, and then go home for the rest of the month.

It worked out well. We got everything written and done. The band got all the shit done. And then I started working on vocals. And that took a couple more months. Then we had this record. But it was really cool being in there, because we had no fucking clue what was going to happen, what’s going on in the world, there’s no fucking tours booked.

So what’s the end result? After so many years and so many albums, what makes this one different?

To be honest, man, it’s hit or miss. I mean, we’ve been a band 27 fucking years. This is going to be our 14th record. You knock it out of the park sometimes, and other times you just miss the fucking mark. I think we get in, and there’s certain times, places, and time where we’re all firing on all five cylinders, and everything lines up right and we make a great record. And I think this is one of those moments. Sometimes you got it, sometimes you don’t. It just seemed like everything was happening correctly.

I love what Head and Munk did with the guitars. I spent a lot of time doing crazy shit with my vocals. There’s songs on the record that have 24 fucking vocal tracks and shit, and it’s all shit that I’ve used different microphones, and we did it all on analog. It was the way it was recorded, it was the medium.

That makes that record sound so different too. Turn on Octane, or any of these modern rock channels, and listen to the music, and then listen to this record. I think everyone is so fucking used to art made in a fucking computer, which I’m not knocking, it’s an amazing medium. But the way we did it, going just strictly analog to tape, just gave it more of a vibe.

Analog tape is quite the inspired choice, and to my ears, it makes a huge difference here.

It’s like a painter, acrylic on board, or fucking oil on canvas. You hit a guitar string, and that guitar resonates, and electricity is flowing through the cables, the electricity flows through the board and it goes into a tape machine where it’s slapped against magnetic tape, and that energy is transferred there. When you go digital, all that magic is there and then it’s captured and turned into 1s and 0s.

It’s like filming digitally versus filming on 35 millimeter, or 70 millimeter. It gives it a different feel. In a lot of ways, it’s warmer. In some ways, it might be like it’s not as pristine, but—

It’s not supposed to be.

Exactly. Back to the sessions for the new record: For The Nothing, you wrote your lyrics away from the band, by yourself. And with this one you were crafting your lyrics with the band. How does that change manifest itself here?

It’s been three records since I had been involved with the writing process in the band. I was dealing with issues at home that wouldn’t allow me to be with the band. They’d write me some songs, send them to me, and I’d pick out the ones I like, and I’d go into my studio here in Bakersfield, because they were recording in Nashville. I’d do my parts, and then I was out, because that’s how life was at that moment.

With this record, I was there from day one. And it made the workflow a lot easier, because they’re not guessing, “You think he’ll like this one?” I’m in an amazing band—they were like, “Yeah, if you’re not feeling it, let’s do something else.” I love that about my guys. So I’ll pick out the songs that I’m feeling something, I’ll hear something right away, and then I’ll say, “Yeah, let’s record that.” Me writing lyrics, that’s the last thing that happens. We record the songs, get the production done, and then I’ll come in when I start vocals, I’ll do a melody line. If I’m digging the melody line, I’ll just go out there, and I’ll write the lyrics. It takes me a half hour, 45 minutes. And then I’ll sing that bitch, and it’s done, and I don’t go back. I don’t like overthinking shit. It’s really easy to overthink shit, and just go down this hole and destroy a song.

The Nothing was made at a tough time in your life, and that manifested itself in the music. I come back to a line like, “Happiness is a club I’ll never be in”—that energy permeates the record. But on this one, it seems like you’re coming in with a better mindset.

Oh, dude, I’m in a way different place. I’m fucking way happier. No one knows the hell I was going through here, at home, and everything that was going on it was just fucking sheer hell. It would turn anyone’s stomach. Now that that’s all gone and I have a new girl who takes care of me, and my kids are OK, I got to a point where it’s like, “Fucking A, I figured it out, it took 51 years. I couldn’t run and put Band-Aids on problems forever and not face them.” I finally got smacked with a huge reality and a lot of things changed. And now I’m in a completely positive place, and I love it.

I have my days. I’m fucked up sometimes. Life throws curve balls. But I’m not in a place where it’s unbearable. I’m fucking way happier than I’ve ever been. And it took 51 fucking years, but hey, I’m going to take it.

I use making records as therapy for me to deal with whatever problems are going on. I’m going to have material for the rest of my fucking life. It’s not going to be a problem. But it’s nice to do that, and deal with it, and feel better, and go on with life, and be overall generally happy.

A lot has been made over the past few years about the return of nu metal. As somebody whose music is considered heavily influential in that genre, do you see that directly? Do you see a younger generation interacting with this music and being influenced by it?

I don’t think kids and people that were around in the ‘90s and early aughts never forgot about it. What we did at that time in history was pretty fucking incredible. At that time, we were going up against boy bands, and fucking Britney Spears, and all that shit. Everyone that I’ve met, rappers, fucking all these people that were from that time, they lose their shit—they’re like, “Fuck, dude, I loved your shit.”

I see it in the underground rap scene, or trap scene, or whatever the fuck you want to call it. That shit is like nu metal, but with big 808 beats, and just beats. There’s not even really any guitars. I mean, there’s trap metal I’ve seen. There’s all these subgenres coming out. Not saying that we invented that, because there were a lot of bands that did that shit. But I’m sure we had a part in it.

Korn has steadily put out records. Limp Bizkit just put out a new album, Slipknot put out some new songs. Can it feel sometimes like that golden age never went away?

I don’t think anything is going to ever be like it was then. One, we were young as fuck and dumb as fuck, and destroying ourselves partying and living that super rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. And two, the amount of money and effort that’s put into bands now is so minuscule compared to what it was back then. So those days, I think, are over. But it’s just evolved into something else. And it’s pushing boundaries into new and unexpected territories where people are selling fucking music NFTs, and doing all kinds of crazy shit using the internet. And there’s a lot more avenues to get your music out there and do cool shit with it.

I don’t want to sound like a dated old fuck—there’s lots of cool shit out there. I’m just waiting for that band to be like us, or Disturbed, Slipknot. There are no real big bands now that I see. I kind of miss that, the old school rock stars.

But Korn keeps putting stuff out. You guys are releasing your 14th record—I had to do a double take at that number. I think of classic bands like Kiss, that have 20-plus records, and now Korn is approaching that. What keeps you guys going?

It’s weird. If you want to keep being creative, if you want to still make music, and is that your passion to be creative? Or do you just want to go fucking out and play? I get that too, because playing is fun as fuck. There are all these different things involved. But for us, it’s everything. It’s playing live, it’s just being creative, and making music, and hanging out, and creating something together that makes you fucking scream, and jump up and down like you’re fucking 13 years old again. I still do that shit to this day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.