THE CREEPY SIDE OF KORN
Inspired by his brief career as a coroner and an eerily-accurate psychic reading, Korn's Jonathan Davis reveals the band's deep, dark secrets.
By Jaan Uhelszki
Many bands claim to be Goth, or death metal, but few bands can authentically wear that crown. One that can is Korn, a five piece hardcore band hailing from Bakersfield, California. The reason that Korn are true Goth is not because they're the American equivalent of Siouxie and the Banshees or even a jack Nick Cave, but because Jonathan Davis, their charismatic lead singer, was recruited from the Kern County (California) Coroners Department. No, he wasn't brought back from the dead, rather he was working there as an assistant coroner and moonlighting as an undertaker at a nearby funeral home, having recently earned a degree at San Francisco's School of Mortuary Science. And he was making good money, too. What lured him out of the morgue and into the stage was because an astrologer/psychic (who he insists on calling an astrologist) predicted that he would become notorious, if not downright famous, fronting a rock band -- and she didn't even know he was a musician. That propehcy took seed in Davis' fertile subconscious (things seem to take root and flourish with an uncanny expedience in this town at the southern end of the rich San Joaquin Valley) and within two years he was fronting SexArt, a local band with a small following. SexArt was playing some of the lesser lights of Bakersfield's music scene when two members of Korn sauntered into the dive where the band was playing. Unbeknownst to Davis, these former cronies from his junior high school days were about to offer him a job; a job that would mean he'd have to give up the cadavers and move to Huntington Beach, where these former members of that metal hairband, LAPD -- drummer David, guitarists Brian Welch and James Munky Shaffer, and bassist Fieldy -- would welcome him into the bosom of their dysfunctional family.
Davis wasn't a tender-footed rube about the music business when Korn recruited him. His father owned a musical instrument store, and later took over the Bakersfield recording studio once owned by country music great Buck Owen. His son studied classical music from a tender age, but the elder Davis continually disabused him of the notion of a career in the music business, having witnessed so much heartbreak first hand. If that weren't discouragement enough, young Jonathan, in the throes of teenage rebellion, vowed to be anything but his father, as young boys are wont to do, and chose an occupation as remote as possible from the family business. But we wouldn't want to take anything away from Jonathan's propensity for the strange. his own eccentric makeup had much to do with his career choice, as it does with the haunting and disturbing lyrics he writes for Korn.
The band is not just a vehicle for Davis' particular brand of weird, rather they're a solid outfit that trades on their hammering intensity and fervid lyrical doses of anxiety and rage, that recall an early Tool, a less political Rage Against the Machine, with the quirkiness of Primus thrown in to garner new fans. Davis has a compelling vocal style; he seems to breathe out his lyrics, wavering somewhere between vituperous rage and solemn regret, sining on such topics as sexual abuse, the cruelty of high school, and painful personal experiences. This band has taken their psychic traumas and transmuted them into an art form, framing their early pain with slashing guitars and barbaric drumming. They have carved a healthy following out of middle America with their constant touring -- they were on the road for over ten months last year alone -- which has finally sent their self-titled album (released in October of 1994) into gold status. One listen to the Korn album and you know they didn't get where they are with a preponderance of radio-play, like their brethren before them -- Metallica and the aforementioned Rage -- this is not a radio-friendly band. But no matter. Fans are turning up at shows with their deranged logo (fashioned by Davis in a single setting, writing the band's name left-handed so as to resemble a Stephen King title) tattooed on their body parts. Silverchair's Daniel Johns sports a Korn sticker on the body of his guitar, and Korn counts fans among Biohazard and House of Pain.
ATN's Jaan Uhelszki caught up with Jonathan Davis by phone from his hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and discussed his preference for fluorescent nail polishes, Korn's pre-stage rituals, and some horror stories from inside the morgue. Let us introduce you to the real Alice Cooper, Jonathan Davis.
Addicted To Noise: You have this unprecedented success for a hardcore band, almost like a mainstream band. Why your band, and why now?
Jonathan: It's just what the kids have turned us into, how we've been brought up, how we came was by just playing live shows. That's how we got signed was by playing a lot. We built such a big following, and such demand came around since we've been all around the states about five times, that we were pretty much were forced into that mainstream thing by the kids. Requesting it on the radio, wanting to read articles on us. All the kids want us, so people start jumping on it. It's all the kids, but what's really funny is when you get that mainstream success people start bagging on you for it. And it's not really your fault. We're on a lot of radio now. It's crazy, I never, ever thought this would happen, it's pretty cool though.
ATN: What about the logo for Korn, it looks like the cover of a Stephen King book. How did it come about?
Jonathan: With the backwards R, I did it in about two seconds, the whole gross story about our name had a very kid vibe about it (Korn got it's name from an urban myth that was made the rounds in Bakersfield's underage set. It had something to do with a homosexual encounter that went awry when one of the participants came down with a virulent case of diarrhea, during the act of passion. What transpired was the "catcher" was left with a mouthful of, how-you-say, feces, and one shining, pristine kernel of corn glistening on his tongue). The whole basis for that album was growing up and being a kid, so I took a big black crayon and did that in two seconds left-handed, when they told us that they needed a logo.
BAD CHILDHOOD? THESE GUYS?
ATN: This album seems to treat childhood in a strange way, pointing out the cruelty rather than the lighthearted aspects of it...the horror of childhood. Was your childhood particularly bad?
Jonathan: Yeah. I think everybody forgets how bad childhood can be, but I remember it when I meet a lot of the young kids that come to our shows that are going through that right now. It was just something I had to get out.
ATN: When you were young, did you have problems more with your peers or with your family?
Jonathan: It was probably a little of both. The kids would fuck with me, and my parents would make it worse.
THE MAN BEHIND THE EYELINER
ATN: Are you an only child?
Jonathan: No I have a sister, a half-brother, a half-sister and one step sister. I was living with my real sister and my step sister, so I had two girls in the house.
ATN: That's where the eyeliner came from?
Jonathan: Yeah. When I was in high school I wasn't a jock, I was into art, drama, and music and I wore eyeliner, so I wasn't accepted. People used to call me a faget and a queer, so I wrote this song to get back at them.
ATN: What brand did you use?
Jonathan: Mary Kay, or that really cheap shit, what's it called, Wet and Wild.
ATN: I thought they just made nail polish.
Jonathan: No, but I do have all kinds of their crazy nail polishes now.
ATN: I envision you with black nail polish, maybe that's because the music is so dark.
Jonathan: No, I have fluorescent pink and green on. I've got a whole bunch of metallic colors, but I like the enamels better because the' fluorescence shows up better.
ATN: Did writing about the horrors of childhood prove to be cathartic? Are you better for exorcising these demons?
Jonathan: Yeah, it felt great. I feel great all the time now.
KORN, PAINTED IN WET AND WILD #236.
ATN: Do you write most of the songs yourself?
Jonathan: I do a lot of writing but it's the whole band together. I do most of the lyric writing. Me and Brian are a writing group and Fieldy and Munky are a writing group and we bring our ideas together at practice and rip them all apart.
ATN: So all the songs are written by all five of you.
Jonathan: Even if one person wrote an entire song, we split it all evenly. If it was published I'd get fifty percent of everything because I write the lyrics. So it's everybody. One for all, all for one.
THE ONLY ROCK AND ROLL CORONER IN THE WORLD
ATN: This wasn't your first career path.
Jonathan: No, it wasn't.
ATN: I know everybody asks you that question, but isn't it a little like a Stephen King novel, given that you were a funeral director and a Kern County coroner who gave it all up to become a rock star?
ATN: So your dad owns this music store -- he has Buck Owens old recording studio -- didn't they look at you like you were crazy when you wanted to be a coroner?
Jonathan: No, my dad and mom both thought I was a problem child or something that wanted to cut up dead bodies. But from the beginning, since my dad owned a music store and was in the music business, he always preached to me, I'm not letting you go in the music business. You can't be in a band. You can't go and do that." Because he was in it, he didn't want it for me. You're poor one minute, you're rich the next, I don't want that kind of life for you.' So I knew he'd be really pissed off if I did that, and I didn't want to piss him off anymore than I already had. So when I was sixteen I started working at the coroner's office. After I graduated I went to mortuary school to become a mortician or a funeral director. After that, I came back and worked at a funeral home, did my internship for two years and decided to say 'fuck you' and got in a band. I said to myself, I'm young, I can come back to this, I don't want to kick myself in the ass for not doing it. So here I am. And he's very proud of me.
ATN: Maybe that's what he had in mind all along, but if he suggested it, you naturally would have rejected it. The only odd twist is the time you spent as a coroner.
Jonathan: But I really loved it.
ATN: You're probably the only rock and roll coroner in the world.
Jonathan: I probably am.
ATN: It might be an advantage if you were in another band.
Jonathan: Yeah, if I was in a crank-core band.
ATN: Was there anything you learned being a coroner that has helped you now as the lead singer of Korn?
Jonathan: The only thing I learned is to appreciate life more. I cut up a lot of my friends, and have seen everything that I could possible imagine, every kind of heinous crime you could imagine.
ATN:I did read that you found a dildo inserted in a corpse...
Jonathan: I've had even worse, I've had a ten month old baby who was fucked by his dad. With it's legs totally broken back, just totally killed by fucking him. I've seen many things like that, so I've learned you just have to appreciate life and I've learned how people really are, and how this world is. But I don't know, I didn't really incorporate it all in my lyrics.
ATN: Maybe it's just that you have an awareness there is a dark side.
Jonathan: Oh, definitely. I've seen it. Other people don't see it first hand they read about it, or see pictures but when you see it staring you right in the face, it's an eye-opener.
WHAT'S REALLY SCARY
ATN: Do you have any time off for the holidays?
Jonathan: We get twenty days off and then we start a tour with Ozzy. After Ozzy we're going to take a month and a half off and start writing, and get something going on our new album. I don't know if we're going to do another tour.
ATN: What do you miss when you're on the road?
Jonathan: I've been out so long I don't know what I miss.
ATN: How long this year?
Jonathan: Over ten months.
ATN: What about relationships? Do you have someone back home?
Jonathan: Yeah, I have a girlfriend and a little baby boy.
ATN: Do you bring them out on the road?
Jonathan: No, I just had him. He's two months old. They live in Long Beach.
ATN: Have you toured the Queen Mary? I saw a segment of Unsolved Mysteries where they purported that it was haunted.
Jonathan: We played on it, but I didn't see any ghosts.
ATN: Do you like scary things?
Jonathan: I love scary movies, I haven't been able to watch any in a long time.
ATN: I'm not surprised, since there's something a little threatening and scary about Korn, like a horror movie.
Jonathan: We just try to bring out the hidden evils of innocence. Innocence is very evil and that comes across in our music.
ATN: What are you going to do to make your son's life better, and hopefully untouched by the evils of childhood?
Jonathan: Try to teach him everything I know, early, and not repeat the mistakes my parents made. Let him make his own mistakes but not overstep
ATN: What do your tattoos say?
Jonathan: I have one that says HIV on one arm and the other that is a clown pope with Christ on the cross; it's a pope laughing at Christ.
ATN: Are you Catholic?
Jonathan: I was. I renounced my religion.
ATN: What religion are you now?
Jonathan: Jonathan's own. I believe in reincarnation and higher powers and stuff.
ATN: Where do you go when you die?
Jonathan: I think life is like growing experience. You start out as a baby and you just continually grow. At least your soul does. And after so long you cross over to Nirvana or whatever you want to call it. At least that's what my aunt taught me. She's an astrologer and I've got all these psychics around me. It's fun.
ATN: Do you go to psychics regularly?
Jonathan: That's how I got in the band. I went to my astrologer, my aunt's teacher, in Bakersfield, she told me about this band and told me I'd be dumb if I didn't get in, she totally predicted the whole thing. I have the tapes to prove it.
ATN: Is it exactly as she predicted?
Jonathan: Yeah, it all came true, every detail.
ATN: You knew the rest of the guys in the band before this?
Jonathan: I knew Brian from Junior High but I hadn't met Munky yet, and they came to the bar where I was performing with this other band. They stayed and I didn't even have a clue that they were checking me out. They just said they liked my band a lot, and then I got a phone call the next day from another band giving me their phone number to call them. So I did it. I didn't want to leave my first band, I was all loyal and stuff and it took me a month to get down there, but once I heard them it was 'Bye, guys.'
ATN: When the astrologer told you about getting in a band and making your fortune did you think the band was Sexart, the band you were already in?
Jonathan: I had no clue at that time, I didn't want to betray my band, but I really listened to what the astrologer said and it made sense.
ATN: Given that your entrance into this band was a little surreal, I don't think it's out of line if I ask if you guys have rituals before you go onstage?
Jonathan: We used to. We used to get pumped up and pump each other up, we'd get in a big group hug, now we just drink beers and each have our own ritual. Me and David always shake hands and the rest of the guys just pick up their beers and we all g o, "Let's go do this!" So that's kind of a ritual.
ATN: There seems to be a camaraderie among the members of Korn. Would that be accurate to say that you all get along?
Jonathan: Yeah, we love each other. They're my boys, I wouldn't dream about losing them.
ATN: Food group you most identify with?