“Korn, Manson, Bizkit—that was the golden age of music, I believe. And after us, it died.”
Jonathan Davis, who at 47 has been Korn’s lead singer for more than half of his life, does not sound wistful, or even boastful. He is matter of fact, as though he were describing how his tangled locks are now flecked with strands of gray. The commercial prime of nu metal—more or less ushered in by Korn’s third album, the quintuple-platinum Follow the Leader, released 20 years ago this week—certainly was not a golden age for him. After indulging in all manner of rock ’n’ roll debauchery during the album’s creation, fueled by “cocaine, speed, and just constant gallons of Jack Daniel’s,” Davis got clean for that fall’s inaugural Family Values Tour, with its pioneering mix of metal and rap (and rap-metal) support acts. But sobriety sent his anxiety and depression spiraling into overdrive. Korn’s founding guitarist, Brian “Head” Welch, who departed in 2005 with a methamphetamine addiction and rejoined eight years later as a born-again Christian, later told me that Davis was put on suicide watch during this period.
Davis seems happier now. After divorcing his first wife in 2000, he settled down four years later with former porn star Deven Davis, and had two sons, Pirate and Zeppelin. (Davis’s first son from his previous marriage, Nathan, will turn 23 this fall.) He is now, literally, a dad rocker. Occasionally, this middle-aged chill is disrupted and his conservative streak flares up—like in 2014, when he went on Infowars and called Barack Obama “an Illuminati puppet.” But for the most part, Davis is happy to still be here, so many years after metal was nu, with his band intact.
“Holy fuck, I can’t believe it’s 20 years,” he says of Follow the Leader’s anniversary. “In all honesty, that’s some shit in the past.”
Davis insists he only ever thinks about the ’90s when an inquiring journalist or nostalgic fan brings it up. That’s the reason he’s taking a break from a songwriting session for Korn’s forthcoming record during a recent afternoon in late July to revisit the so-called “golden age” that at the time felt like the opposite of musical Valhalla. In the wake of Follow the Leader, you couldn’t turn on MTV or rock radio for years without hearing petulant, self-obsessed bros awkwardly rapping their grievances over bludgeoning music that approximated Cypress Hill being violently worked over by Pantera out by the dumpsters in the parking lot. Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, P.O.D., Mudvayne, Linkin Park—the tumultuous union of metallic guitars and hip-hop attitude that Korn midwifed bore countless troubled children. In the media, calling something “nu metal” instantly became a reductive way to portray young male malcontents, like Tony’s slow-witted son A.J. on The Sopranos, at the dawn of the 21st century.
Like so many things concerning Korn, Davis’s “golden age” assessment initially seems ridiculous, even offensive. But over the course of two decades it has sort of proved true. Davis shares a story to illustrate his point: Right as Follow the Leader achieved critical mass—when the video for the album’s second single, “Got the Life,” garnered more requests than any other clip in the history of Total Request Live, eventually forcing MTV to “retire” it from airplay—the band’s label, Epic, organized a promotional event at Tower Records in Manhattan. (Davis couldn’t go because his grandfather had just passed, which further exacerbated his mental-health issues.) Around 9,000 kids showed up, slowing downtown traffic to a standstill. Naturally, the scene turned unruly. Korn Nation had arrived.
“The police literally picked [the band members] up and drove them out of Manhattan and said, ‘Don’t come back,’” Davis says with a chuckle. “It was like being in the fuckin’ Beatles or some shit. That’s when we were like, ‘OK, we’re a fuckin’ big band now.’”
As the most recognizable member of Korn—with his horn-rimmed glasses, wispy French-waiter mustache, and gangly frame draped in Adidas track suits—Davis couldn’t go anywhere without a bodyguard. His fame was so pervasive in the late ’90s that he still needs a bodyguard.
“It was Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and fuckin’ ’NSync at the time,” he says. “We were the only rock band on TRL that was doing that shit. I had people showing up to my house trying to jump the fences to get in, all kinds of crazy shit.”
This is what Davis means when he calls the nu-metal epoch a golden age: It’s probably the last time that a rock band will ever be put in the same context as the era’s top pop stars.
The level of Korn’s reach at the time transcends sales—they were a genuine movement in a way bands cannot be now. What was once commonplace—hearing a caustic song like “Freak on a Leash” in the midst of future bubblegum classics like “I Want You Back” and “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”—seems impossible in 2018.
“Epic really spent a lot of fucking money on us and believed in us, and we wouldn’t have got where we got if they wouldn’t have pushed and done what they did,” Davis says. “At this time, the labels don’t have money like that. I mean, they don’t for rock. They do it for hip-hop now and pop music. I think we were the last guard.”
Korn’s rise represents the end of rock as a form of pop music—and the beginning of genre distinctions like “rock,” “pop,” and “hip-hop” becoming obsolete. Korn’s ability to transcend those barriers made them extremely successful, and made those barriers seem irrelevant. Korn’s legacy is creating a future in which the traditional archetype of a super-famous, riot-inspiring rock band no longer had a place in the record industry, because what exactly was a “rock band” now anyway? They epitomized rock’s last great “imperial” era. And unwittingly brought it to a close.
Before there was Korn, there was L.A.P.D. Formed in 1989 in Bakersfield, California, by drummer David Silveria, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, and guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer, L.A.P.D. (short for Love and Peace Dude) was one of approximately 40,000 bands on the West Coast trying to emulate the good-time funk-rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and leaven it with the experimental weirdness of early Faith No More. The specter of ’80s hair metal also lurked in the band’s DNA, as Munky was a devotee of David Lee Roth’s Zappa-weaned guitarist Steve Vai. Steve played a seven-string ax, which meant Munky also needed a seven-string ax.
When L.A.P.D. fell apart and the core three drifted south toward Los Angeles and a more aggressive sound, they hired Head for extra guitar muscle. Together, Head and Munky experimented with down-tuned riffs and a battery of pedals that enabled their new band, then called Creep, to approximate the surly rumble and jackhammer rhythms of hip-hop producers like the Bomb Squad (best known for working with Public Enemy and Ice Cube) and Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs. The result didn’t resemble conventional rock music—there were no guitar solos, or obvious hooks, or even discernible melodies. It was all about the musicians closing ranks, like a fist, in service of the groove.
They had an original new sound, but they didn’t have an appropriately unique frontman. Enter Davis, the weirdo lead singer of yet another local funk-metal band, Sexart. While his future bandmates were raised on metal and the knuckle-draggiest alt-rock bands, Davis’s early inspirations were Duran Duran and Jesus Christ Superstar. Later, he became enamored of the Cure, and took to wearing eyeliner and trench coats in high school, making him an easy target for the local asshole-jock population. He claims he didn’t listen to metal until he heard Pantera’s 1992 groove-oriented classic Vulgar Display of Power.
“I was a mixture of Jim Morrison, fucking Robert Smith, and Rakim,” Davis says of his early performing style. The guys in Creep immediately tried to hire him away after catching a Sexart gig. After consulting a psychic, Davis finally relented.
In the realm of rock frontmen, Davis truly was unprecedented. He wasn’t macho like Roger Daltrey, faux-macho like Joey Ramone, macho-intellectual like Joe Strummer, macho-sensitive like Axl Rose and Eddie Vedder, or macho-clownish like David Lee Roth and Fred Durst. He wasn’t a preening mastermind like Mick Jagger or a born showman like Freddie Mercury. He wasn’t a post-modern comment on the classic-rock ideal of a frontman, like Michael Stipe or Morrissey. And he wasn’t into The Lord of the Rings or sex like Robert Plant.
Davis’s act was emotional terrorism—he weaponized feelings. He made oversharing seem threatening. Or completely revelatory, if you happened to be on his extremely intense wavelength. He turned weakness into a source of strength.
Two albums, 1994’s Korn and 1996’s Life Is Peachy, followed. The band’s early success wasn’t meteoric, but it was a steady and frankly incredible climb, given the mainstream’s indifference and the outright hostility of music critics. Robert Christgau of the Village Voice dismissed the self-titled debut—now credited with (or blamed for) the invention of the nu-metal genre—as “death industrial,” and suggested that “If their name isn’t short for kiddie porn they should insist on a music video where they get eaten by a giant chicken.” Nevertheless, Korn went platinum two and a half years after it was released, right as Life Is Peachy made inroads on MTV. By the summer of 1997, Korn was a headliner on Lollapalooza’s summer tour. They were on their way.
For Follow the Leader, Epic handed Korn a pile of money and an artistic blank check. Whereas the first two Korn albums had been produced by Ross Robinson, nu metal’s own Phil Spector, the band opted to write the new record without outside input. This was a relief for Davis, who had come to rely on, and then resent, Robinson’s ability to provoke emotional vocal performances by dredging up Davis’s childhood traumas, explored in songs like the infamously excruciating “Daddy.” (“No disrespect to Ross, because I love him dearly, but he was a sadist,” Davis says.)
Revisiting Follow the Leader all these years later, it’s sort of amazing to note how catchy it is. Forget the Battlefield Earth–style trappings of Korn’s visual aesthetic for a moment—“Got the Life” and “Freak on a Leash” are extremely hooky, well-constructed pop tunes that you could easily slip into a house-party playlist without losing the dancers on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that Follow the Leader took Korn to a whole other level of superstardom. But Davis claims that the band wasn’t conspiring to make more accessible music.
“It was just partying and doing shit to inspire us,” he says. “We weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, this needs to be a single.’ That’s one thing I love about our band. We just wrote the songs and handed it to the label, like, ‘Here you go, take it or leave it.’”
The party is what lingers with Davis. It was his last bender before going on the wagon the same month the album came out. (Davis was subsequently treated in 2013 for Xanax addiction.) The liquor bill for the three months of sessions was astronomical: Davis estimates that it topped out at $60,000, though Korn’s buddies in Limp Bizkit and Deftones helped to partake in the copious amount of beer and Jack Daniel’s flowing through the studio.
“That’s not even counting the fuckin’ drug money I spent on blow,” Davis adds.
The decadence went up a notch during the recording of Leader’s caterwauling opener, “It’s On!” Davis refused to sing until a Scarface-sized pile of cocaine was placed in front of him at the mic. Meanwhile, an orgy featuring some of the band’s rock star friends surrounded him in the studio.
“It was the pinnacle of rock and roll excess,” he says. “I’m singing on a record, I’m high on cocaine, and there’s some bitch blowing an amazing fucking musician that’s in an amazing band—I’m not naming names, I don’t fucking tell. But it was a one of my homies and one of those porn stars. It was amazing.”
Naturally, this rampant sordidness also resulted in music that’s come to embarrass Davis in later years, particularly the album’s most controversial track, “All in the Family,” a duet of sorts between Davis and Durst that devolves into a lame iteration of the dozens of songs punctuated with homophobic slurs. When Korn performs three Follow the Leader anniversary shows next month in San Francisco, L.A., and Las Vegas, “All in the Family” won’t be included in the set list, Davis says.
“We were fucking out of our minds, insanely drunk and high when we did that,” he says. “It’s like that scene out of Boogie Nights, when they were all fuckin’ on crank and they’re like, ‘No no, this is the best shit ever!’”
(Davis also dismisses “Cameltosis,” an unfortunate exercise in self-explanatory juvenilia featuring Tre Hardson of the Pharcyde. “What the fuck was I fucking thinking? I was 27. I was still really immature,” he says.)
While Davis doesn’t apologize for being a knucklehead in the ’90s (or now), he also doesn’t think this boorish behavior reflects his otherwise quiet, introspective demeanor. Looking back, he says he was playing a role.
“I used the movie The Doors with Val Kilmer as my textbook in rock ’n’ roll school, to be a rock star,” he says. “I thought I had to be what that was—being all fucked up, doing drugs and getting drunk, fucking as many fucking chicks as I could, the whole nine.”
There are certain narratives in rock history so familiar and entrenched that anyone who has ever seen a documentary in which David Fricke appears as a talking head can recite them recite them from memory.
Take the one about how punk killed prog rock in the late ’70s—in a standard-issue rock doc, there’s always that scene showing Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman playing an ungodly Moog solo in a fog of dry ice. Cue the record scratch, and suddenly we see grainy footage of Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols howling “Anarchy in the U.K.” Voila, instant cultural revolution.
And yet these narratives are often incomplete, if not downright wrong. In reality, the Sex Pistols were finished by early ’78, while prog bands like Genesis and Yes rebooted as pop acts in the ’80s and became bigger than ever. Something similar happened when grunge supposedly “killed” hair metal in the early ’90s. In spite of being “dead,” Mötley Crüe didn’t play their farewell tour until 2014—the same year that Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–ultimately grossing $86.1 million.
Another story that’s become popular in recent years is about how the early-’00s wave of sharp-dressed garage-rock bands from New York City, spearheaded by the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol, unseated nu metal. For what it’s worth, Davis also despises “nu metal”—at least when it comes to applying the nomenclature to his band.
“That was something they fucking came up with to lump us in with what we started,” he says. “All the bands that followed, those are nu-metal bands. You don’t call fucking Metallica some thrash band. They helped fucking usher in that kind of music.”
As for the music writers who were quick to bury Korn as soon as a crop of cooler bands came along, Davis is surprisingly perceptive. “I think critics, mostly the older ones, it just went over their heads. If I tried to fucking write shit about the new shit going on now, I’d have no fucking clue. I watch my kids get into it and I love seeing them light up and just be passionate about music, but I think it’s horrible. That’s just how it is.”
Here’s a fascinating counter-narrative: What if the nu-metal bands represented new ideas and youthful progressivism, while the garage bands were burnished by older, inherently conservative forces looking to reinstate a familiar continuum? Admittedly, I’m a person who at the time loved the cool NYC bands, and loathed Korn and the legions they inspired. I’ll probably never like Follow the Leader as much as Is This It, though I appreciate Korn more now than I did then. But if I remove my biases, the counter-narrative seems pretty credible. Is it possible that Korn was right all along?
Perhaps judging these things as “right” or “wrong” is misguided. Pop culture is ultimately ruled by the laws of nature—what goes up must come down, every season ends so another can begin, evolve or die. Looking back, the nu-metal era seems like an environmental inevitability. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, hard rock and hip-hop mostly existed as separate but equal phenomena enjoyed by a shared audience. The raw materials of nu metal already commingled in the collective imagination. Korn was a product, rather than the cause, of that. And though the nu-metal wave eventually crested, the larger shifts the trend hinted at remained in place.
What can’t be refuted, no matter your personal taste, is that Korn remained huge long after they became unfashionable. Consider the band’s fifth album, 2002’s Untouchables, which was released around the time that Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond Jr. brought their leather-jacketed insouciance to seemingly every music magazine cover. The massive scale of Untouchables puts the relative smallness of the NYC bands in perspective—it cost a whopping $4 million to make, in part because Korn had to keep its 15-person road crew on retainer for two years as it tinkered with “the heavy-metal Aja,” as Davis puts it, a reference to Steely Dan’s 1977 yacht-rock masterpiece.
The first album ever recorded in 96kHz digital sound, Untouchables was as excessive sonically as Follow the Leader was chemically. Fifty mics were set up to record one drum kit. Davis spent almost six months tracking his vocals. No expense was spared to make Korn sound elegantly ugly. “I know tons of soundmen who use that record to check their P.A.s,” Davis says proudly.
Then there’s the matter of influence. No significant contemporary band looks or sounds exactly like Korn. Their impact is less obvious and more diffuse. If you’re looking for dreadlocked-and-tattooed hooligans belligerently showing off their sensitive sides over genre-defying music, look no further than the ascendant generation of SoundCloud rappers that has upended hip-hop’s power structure in 2018. At the opposite end of the musical spectrum are ubiquitous bands like Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots, which cop dirge-y, bombastic rap gestures in the guise of nominal “rock” music. Neither trend seems possible without Korn.
Perhaps the surest sign that we now live in a Follow the Leader world is that a funky metal band fronted by a guy who grew up loving Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Paid in Full seems more logical as a commercial entity, especially 20 years later, than a band of five trust-fund kids who sound like a simplified version of Marquee Moon. The way Korn integrated so many different influences into a semi-coherent whole has become the norm. The magpies won the war against the purists. We’re all Jonathan Davis now.
For Brian “Head” Welch, the most mind-blowing aspect of Follow the Leader debuting at no. 1, shipping millions of copies,and turning Korn into a cultural phenomenon is that, against all odds, it made his father respect him.
“My dad and I butted heads a little bit, because of the long hair and the makeup,” Head, 48, says. “He was just more traditional. He became so proud of me. How many musicians actually make it? It was a cool time, man.”
I connected with Head about a week after I spoke with Davis. Naturally, there were Rashomon-like inconsistencies in their accounts of Follow the Leader’s origin story. For one thing, Head wasn’t eager to share any drugs-and-porn-star stories. This could stem from his religious beliefs—he became a born-again Christian after leaving the band and getting clean; Fieldy also became a born-again Christian in the aughts—though Head says that the wildest anecdotes involve “mainly Jonathan.”
“My thing was, I kept trying to stay the same. I didn’t want to become this person that people don’t like. I wanted to show people that I was kind,” he says. “My parents are just really kind and nice people, and I think that was instilled into me.”
Publicly, however, Korn’s reputation was the opposite of kind and nice. Their bad-boy image was bolstered by a 1998 Spin profile by Neil Strauss, who depicts the band members as brutish and spoiling for a fight backstage at a music festival. Their targets read like a list of extremely ’90s references: Primal Scream, Garbage, Goldie, Junkie XL, even the harmless nice guys in Ben Folds Five.
But what really tanked Korn’s reputation, and nu metal’s standing overall, was Woodstock ’99. Press accounts noted the high number of drug overdoses and sexual assaults that took place during Korn’s set—though, to be fair, the organizers’ greed and poor organization created chaos throughout the festival, culminating with widespread riots and fires on Saturday and Sunday, most famously during performances by Limp Bizkit and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Dude, our day went perfect. Korn had the best show, we fucking killed that shit,” Davis asserts, noting that Korn played on the festival’s opening day. “It was the second day when all that shit [happened], when Limp Bizkit went on and told them to ‘break stuff.’ Of course, they were just being punk rock—you didn’t need to take that literally and fucking tear the place down.
“They got blamed for that shit, but [festival organizers] were selling a bottle of water for 10 bucks,” he adds. “You had to walk around in piss, because no one was there dumping the fucking porta-potties. So piss and shit was everywhere. You get that many people in an area and that shit goes on, people are gonna get in a bad mood, so it was just natural for that shit to happen.”
For Davis, the end of Korn’s commercial prime wasn’t brought on by Woodstock ’99, but rather an existential record-industry calamity: the rise of the internet. Korn’s expensive masterwork Untouchables, the album that Davis still considers the band’s best, leaked four months early. It still sold 1.4 million copies, but after that, it was “an ‘OK, the party’s over’ kind of thing,” he says. Three years later, Head left the band. In 2006, Silveria followed. Camelot crumbled.
“Any band that’s together this long is gonna have peaks and valleys,” Davis says. “We went through our down period, but now we’re back up on the rise.”
If the internet brought about the “… and then everything changed” part of Korn’s Behind the Music story, perhaps the internet can also be credited with the band’s longevity. The days when cultural movements would come along and sweep away yesterday’s news are over. Any band with grassroots appeal, no matter how maligned by critics and the mainstream media, can stick around forever. Over time, controversies fade and stigmas evaporate. At some point, future generations will come around to discovering you. “Freak on a Leash” now has nearly 100 million spins on Spotify. When Generation Z hears bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park the music registers as classic rock.
Institutions, meanwhile, can be more stubborn—next year, Korn will be eligible for induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When even Radiohead can’t convince boomer voters to put them in on the first ballot, Korn’s shot at enshrinement seems remote at best. But the upside of never being accepted by elites is that you eventually get used to it, and you find other, arguably deeper forms of affirmation.
“I’ll give you an example,” Head tells me. “I fly all the time, even when I’m not touring. Usually, people look at me at the airport like I’m a scumbag—because they don’t know Korn. They don’t know anything. But the last few days were just so strange. All of these people were coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey man, I’m a fan of your band.’ And there were African Americans coming up to me, asking for a picture. There were white people, and Hispanics. We just hit so many different types of people. Because we wanted our music to make people’s heads bob.”
Living in a world in which the guys from Korn are now elder statesmen is, well, a little bizarre. And yet they seem to be aging gracefully. Davis, for one, doesn’t pretend to be hipper than he is. (Mumble rap is at the top of the list of music his kids love and he can’t stand.) Rather, he’s content to be the subject of your awe and, yes, even admiration.
“It feels fucking good, to get that respect,” he says. “I walk in the room with younger bands and they’re like, ‘Holy fucking shit!’ I remember that feeling, like when we got our first gold record from Ozzy. Now that we’ve stood the test of time, I ain’t gonna lie: It’s fucking dope.”