Music has always been a place of obsession and salvation for Jonathan Davis. It's where the Korn frontman has long confronted the traumas of his life, from the bullying and sexual abuse he suffered in childhood to the staggering, grown-up crises of more recent history. Life experience has fueled some of his most meaningful, most disturbing work, as he rages through the bad memories, and toys with them.
For Davis, there is personal, life-affirming value in not being idle. And that has never been truer than over the last year, since the accidental overdose death of his wife, Deven, the mother of his two youngest children. The tragedy hit soon after the release of his first solo album, 2018's Black Labyrinth. He had a season of touring his solo music ahead of him, as well as a run of Korn shows for the 20th anniversary of Follow the Leader, and the band had begun writing material for their next album. No one would have blamed him for tapping out under the circumstances, but Davis didn't want to stop.
"If you cancel, it's going to kill me," Davis remembers of his need to stay busy. "I've got to do this." He continued with the shows and mourned onstage. And Korn, the band of Bakersfield, California, misfits he's known most of his life — still largely intact a full quarter-century after their self-titled debut album — were right behind him: guitarists James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch and bassist Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu. (Drummer Ray Luzier joined the group in 2009.)
"When it happened, they were there in a second," Davis says of Korn in the hours and days after his wife's death. "We've been through a lot together, and deep down we're brothers. Families fight, but I would go to bat for any one of them."
When the band reconvened to begin recording, things had changed, as Davis knew they would. Tragedy had inspired his lyrics once again for Korn's The Nothing, a fittingly bleak title that Davis borrowed from the villainous entity of The NeverEnding Story. "That tragedy fueled a lot of great lyrics for me," Davis says.
While the rest of Korn worked on their instrumental tracks in Nashville with producer Nick Raskulinecz, Davis completed his lyrics, vocals and other musical ideas virtually in seclusion in his Bakersfield studio, accompanied only by a recording engineer. And this time the singer insisted that he be given the time he needed to complete his work, with no deadlines or other pressures. He spent nearly six months before he was done, after taking some unexpected turns. For the first single, "You'll Never Find Me," he collaborated with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.
The result is an album of renewed intensity and meaning from Korn, beginning with a sweeping prelude called "The End Begins," launching what is likely to be remembered as one of the band's most emotionally searing recordings. Things have evolved and deepened since the world first heard the band with the release of Korn, but there's a through-line of fried nerves and creepshow guitars that connects most of it. So, when we meet up with Davis at his studio, our discussion goes deep on both the new album and their 25-year-old debut.
In recent years, he returned to the hometown that he grew up hating. But after two decades in Los Angeles, and living the rock-star life in Malibu, he was ready to raise his sons in a place recognizably down to earth. Davis also took over the old studio of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, where the country music superstar established the renowned Bakersfield Sound in the 1960s. Davis' father eventually worked there, and the future Korn singer occasionally visited as a child.
Davis has a local's pride in Bakersfield's corner of American music history, and he figures that turning the studio into his personal laboratory is keeping that tradition alive. Davis has vintage oil paintings of the country music star on the walls, right beside platinum record awards from Korn albums. But Buck was no vampire; he was known to perambulate in the daylight hours. Davis is of another species, working deep into the night and early morning hours, turning in just before dawn, and waking again somewhere between 2 and 4 p.m.
"Most of the time I'm just tinkering with my shit and I'm not even writing," says Davis, soon after greeting us at the front gate, only a little bleary as he begins a new day. As we talk, Davis is just a week away from beginning writing for his next solo album. "I'm just soaking up the vibe. I'm nocturnal. I like the night. Everyone is asleep, so I can be alone."
LET'S GO BACK TO THAT FIRST KORN RECORD IN 1994, WHICH YOU MADE WITH PRODUCER ROSS ROBINSON AT THE INDIGO RANCH STUDIOS IN MALIBU. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF THEN?
JONATHAN DAVIS I was so lost, depressed, scared of the world, heavily using meth and alcohol, whatever I could get my hands on. I never was a pill guy or got into heroin. None of that shit — I can't sit down. That freaks me the fuck out, being still. It was just a wild, weird time in my life. There was a lot to be happy about, but there was a lot of bad stuff going on, too.
WERE YOU STILL FEELING THE EFFECTS OF BAD THINGS THAT HAD HAPPENED EARLIER IN YOUR LIFE?
I was 24. It wasn't that long after. I had my whole life to make that first record, a lot of aggressions and stuff that I wanted to get out. It was very near and dear to my heart — and fresh wounds. … I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I was just young and hurting and living out my dream.
DID YOU GUYS TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU DIDN'T WANT TO DO IN KORN?
We can't do solos. No hair-metal kind of stuff. No singing high. If it wasn't dark or menacing and giving you that vibe, it was not good. Anything happy was not good. But that was just the vibe we all had at that time. Everyone was struggling.
WHAT WERE YOU WRITING ABOUT ON THOSE FIRST SONGS?
I was bullied, alienated, being called a faggot my whole life. It's just because I was different. In this town you're eaten up for being different. This is more like machismo, farmer, oil-field type people.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT YOU THAT THEY PICKED ON?
I liked Duran Duran and liked to peg my pants and wear eyeliner, the New Romantic thing. And I was frail and small and skinny and I had horrible health issues because I had asthma. So, I was that geek with the inhaler. In high school, I was getting my ass kicked in the hallways. No one frowned upon it. That was your rite of passage in high school.
WAS IT JUST SOMETHING YOU HAD TO ACCEPT?
I just accepted it, but inside it really hurt me. I feel things really deep obviously. At that time, I just shoved it down, just tried to get through it. I wasn't a great student. I barely passed. I excelled in all fine arts. I didn't really know anything other than hospital health, when I was doing the coroner stuff because that interested me.
IT'S INTERESTING THAT YOU AND DEFTONES' CHINO MORENO WERE BOTH INTO DURAN DURAN AND LATER BROUGHT SOME OF THAT INTO HEAVY MUSIC.
I'll never forget my Jim Morrison moment. Remember in The Doors movie, when Jim Morrison and another cat who looked exactly the same walked around each other? Me and Chino really fucking did that in '93. Ross was like, "There's this band from Sacramento, you've got to see them!" And then when we first met, he's in an adidas jumpsuit with the dreadlocks and we just circled and looked at each other. And we then became really good friends. We were kindred spirits.
WERE YOU DOING MUSIC WHILE GOING TO MORTUARY SCHOOL?
I started playing drums when I was three. My dad was like, "You need to go get a trade because you're not going to be in the music business" — because he toured and he knew the life and what it entails and he just wanted to save me from any kind of heartache. I get it, but it was in my blood.
WHY MORTUARY SCHOOL?
I was a huge fan of scary movies. With my mother, we'd go over to the VHS rental place and get a movie for the weekend. I loved all the horror films. I loved the gory ones. So, I'm like, "Man, it's gotta be cool to cut up dead bodies and see what's inside!" I was coming from a dark place, I guess.
WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?
I had just turned 17 when I started doing autopsies in the coroner's office. Reality just punched me in the face. The first time I saw a dead body, I was like, "This could be me anytime." I was working on kids my age. I was working on kids younger than me and I was working on babies. And it kind of fucked me up. After I stopped, I started having bad dreams and post-traumatic stress. I went through counseling for it. I don't think a kid my age should do that, but looking back, I learned a lot. It helped me face mortality and I really saw some dark shit, too. I saw how dark human beings can be. Really dark.
ANOTHER THING YOU DEAL WITH ON THAT FIRST ALBUM IS BEING MOLESTED AS A CHILD.
I don't have great memories of that. I blocked most of it out. But in the music, I let whatever came out of me come out. I think a lot of people that happens to, they're embarrassed about it and don't know what to do. Honestly, some people totally erase it from their minds. I can't tell you exactly in detail what happened. I know it happened, but I don't want to face it. It's hard for me. It came out one day when I was writing lyrics.
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU HEARD THE FINISHED ALBUM?
I was just like, Damn, this is so good. I can't wait to go out tour. I know people are going to freak out because this is some new-type shit that I don't think anyone is going to understand. At that time, we were just emulating our influences, Sepultura meets Cypress Hill. We were confident about our band and our sound, but we didn't know what was going to happen. From the first tour — with House of Pain and Biohazard — to getting a gold record presented to us by Ozzy and Sharon [Osbourne] within less than a year, what a crazy ride. We went out with Danzig and Marilyn Manson and that was my first introduction to rock & roll. Just excess, bro. I won't ever speak about it to this day, but I got to see some real rock-star shit on that tour. It was pretty intense.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE FANS SHOUTING ALONG TO A SONG LIKE "FAGET"?
Some people misunderstood me as that being anti-gay, and that was far from the case 'cause I'll hang out with mostly gay people because they got it. They were different. I was different. When that came out and people just started telling me stories — "I got bullied. I was called a faggot" — I just started to feel really overwhelmed.
HOW DID YOU COME TO PLAY BAGPIPES ON "SHOOTS AND LADDERS"?
We were working on the song and I remember David [Silveria, Korn's original drummer] said, "Hey, what are those?" I had my bagpipes in the corner. "Why don't you play those on the song? I went to this school here called Highland High, and they had a pipe band. I got to learn how to play bagpipes. My grandma got me my first set. My great-grandmother was from Scotland. I remember being little and hearing her play pipe records.
BETWEEN A LOT OF THE LYRICS AND THE COVER WITH THE LITTLE GIRL ON A SWING, THE ALBUM PAINTS A DARK PICTURE OF CHILDHOOD.
It was innocence with evil lurking behind it, and we really captured it. The genius of that cover was from Munky, who came up with that idea: "You see a shadow, you don't know what it is." Amazing. That freaked some people out. That's what rock & roll is about.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT FIRST RECORD TODAY?
It was just the beginning. It was a very dark-ass record. And when we did the 20th anniversary tour, I remember coming off stage depressed, reliving all that shit. Once I got sober, playing it in its entirety was like, "Damn. I was in a very dark place." All of us were.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF TODAY COMPARED TO THE PERSON WHO MADE THE FIRST KORN ALBUM?
JONATHAN DAVIS I'm a lot wiser. I learned the secret of being happier and getting out of your depression — you've got to deal with the things above you. It's like pulling a Band-Aid off and it's going to sting like a motherfucker. Once that sting's gone, you'll heal. I wish I would have done that. I wish I could have saved myself all of that heartache just by learning to deal with and talk about things. I've been through a lot of tragedy. The cards I've been dealt are pretty fucking intense. I've just got to be honest and deal with them and I'll get through it. My sons are No. 1 in my life. I love them more than anything in the world. Having that gift has kept me alive and having a reason to have my shit together and be a role model to my kids. But everybody's got to go through their own trials and tribulations. If I could ever go back in time and tell that 24-year-old me to just deal with what you're going through — just deal with it — it would've saved me a lot of grief.
THE CHALLENGES YOU'RE GOING THROUGH NOW ARE DIFFERENT THAN THE CHALLENGES YOU WERE DEALING WITH AS A YOUNG PERSON. DOES IT PUT THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE?
Problems don't ever stop. It's just how we deal with them as adults. I'm always going to have bad things happen to me. I have a lot of good shit happen to me. Some people go to a shrink, some people go work out, some people go to church. I come here [to the studio] and this is my therapy. This is my outlet now. Other times it was run to a bottle or do a line. Now it's dealing with problems in a positive way within my art.
A LOT OF SUCCESSFUL MUSICIANS CREATE A STUDIO FOR THEMSELVES, BUT THIS PLACE HAS A LOT MORE HISTORY FOR YOU. BUCK OWENS BUILT IT, AND YOUR FATHER RAN IT.
I've been here since I was a kid. This is my church. All the stuff that happened in this building before I was born, the whole Bakersfield Sound was born here. I feel the energy here. I feel Buck's spirit and I feel that he's happy his building is being used to create, because it sat empty for so long. I feel his vibe and his presence here and I do my best work here.
WHEN DEVEN DIED, AND YOU DECIDED TO MOVE FORWARD WITH A NEW ALBUM, DID YOU SENSE HOW THAT WAS GOING TO AFFECT YOU?
All I could think of was my kids. And I had a solo tour coming up. I'm like, "I've got to go to work or I'm going to go fucking crazy." I grieved a lot on that tour and then when it came time to write the record, it wasn't necessarily just about the loss of my wife, which was tragic and fucked up and killed me. I felt like, spiritually, there's this bad shit around me and has always been fucking with me my whole life. It's the culmination of being picked on to the abuse I had as a child. All this dark energy has always fallen around me, from when I was a little kid seeing ghosts and feeling entities around me. That's what "The Nothing" was. I didn't need to name it. I bit it from fucking NeverEnding Story, but that's the only way I could describe it. I was coming to grips with the whole grieving process, but it wasn't just Deven passing. It was everything coming to a head and me realizing [it] all. that.
ON "H@RD3R," IT SOUNDS LIKE BEING ENGULFED IN MANY VOICES AT ONCE.
It's just painting a picture, man. "I've done all I can/Tell me why my life keeps getting harder and harder." You just put it out. I was just letting go of all this shit coming on down, crashing down on me.
WAS THE MUSIC COMING FROM THE SAME PLACE IT ALWAYS DID OR WAS THERE SOMETHING DIFFERENT ABOUT IT?
The only thing that was different is I wasn't pressured. I always get fucked in this band because I'm the last one. I basically told everyone, "Just leave me the fuck alone and I'm going to do my shit." It'll be done when it's done. And I just locked myself in here and they stayed up in my little makeshift apartment upstairs and I did this shit.
WAS THERE A POSITIVE SIDE TO DEALING WITH ALL THIS?
Oh yeah. I purged all this stuff that I needed to purge. It's still hard and I still bawl onstage, but when we do new songs it's very emotional for me. It reminds me that there was a lot of good times with her. But with mental illness and addiction, she had a lot of bad times, a lot of scary fucking times. It was bittersweet, tons of emotion.
WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THE CLOSING SONG, "SURRENDER TO FAILURE"?
"Surrender to Failure" is the most beautiful thing that I think I've ever wrote. It's just me coming to grips with — I tried the best I fucking could to help and save everyone, but in the end it didn't work out. I felt like I failed her and that I failed my children. I failed everyone around me. So, I put that to bed. It's helped me heal and I don't dwell on it, but it was a piece of art in that moment in time.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE NOTHING AS A RECORD AND WHERE IT FITS INTO KORN'S HISTORY?
I love it. I haven't been really proud of a Korn record in a long time. This one, slam dunk. Everybody in the band loved every single fucking song and we all came together really tight on it. Already I can't wait for the next one. I'm scared shitless. What am I going to sing about? What am I going to do? But that's part of the challenge.
THE FIRST SONG RELEASED FROM THE NOTHING WAS "YOU'LL NEVER FIND ME," WHICH HAS THAT CLASSIC KORN SOUND.
I enjoyed doing that one because I got to write with Billy Corgan. That was amazing. We went to his studio in L.A. and we sat down with an acoustic guitar. I was singing the melodies and he helped me craft the chorus. The guy's a real badass musician. I liked his approach about simplicity — that witchcraft of a melody you can't get out of your head.
"CAN YOU HEAR ME?" FEELS LIKE ONE OF THE ALBUM'S MORE PERSONAL SONGS.
I wrote that in 2014, but it rings so true. Sometimes you feel like there's a roadblock everywhere you turn, you feel lost and you're never going to get out of it. It really spoke to me on that level, but it was one of my solo songs. And Nick [Raskulinecz, producer] says, "Let me please, please take it. And if you hate it, just tell me to fuck off, but let me do it." And I'm like, "I'm just telling you that, right now, I'm going to tell you fuck off. But if you want to go do it, go do it." So, he goes back to Nashville and then he sends it back: "OK, man, tell me to fuck off, but just listen to this." And I heard the band kick in and I got chills. I wanted to hate it. My version of it was more synth-Eighties. They did an amazing job and it just worked.
HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING SINCE FINISHING THE ALBUM?
I stopped for a long time because I was so depressed, but I just did the score for The Nothing podcast and that was fun. And next week I'm coming here to start writing for my solo record. I'm still grieving for what happened, but I'm moving on. What's done is done. My boys, one starts in high school and life goes on. I need to be happy. It's always in the back of my head. There's dark motherfuckers behind me fucking with me always. Creativity and this place is my salvation, man.
WHAT IS IT LIKE SINGING THESE NEW SONGS LIVE?
You'll see Munky, Head come check on me a little. It's emotional and they feel it. Everyone knew her. Everyone knows the challenges I've had. We're like family. I still lose it. All summer we did "You'll Never Find Me," and I broke down a lot. Those wounds are there. Most of the time I'm cool, but sometimes it just hits me. I can't help it.