Jonathan Davis (Korn): his battle against do-nothingness

With guitarist Head’s return, it can be said that Korn was eagerly awaited by the crowd. But if there is one thing that Korn doesn’t listen to anymore – or at least pretends not to listen – it is what the audience expects. A few ranting people demand that the band forget about its dubstep experimentation and come back with a fundamentally metal album? Thus Korn offers them “Never Never”, one of the poppiest songs of its career. « I like going against what is expected, I like doing what you’re not supposed to do, » explains singer Jonathan Davis in the following interview.

But the main tasks undertaken by the band was on one hand seeing how Head’s return would work out and on the other hand going forward with their new album. The result is The Paradigm Shift, neither another version of The Path Of Totality, nor a renunciation to its roots. It is first and foremost an album full of contrasts where Korn puts to practice the know-how it acquired over the years more than ever before.

« With this band, we can’t do the same record over and over, we would go crazy! »

RadioMetal: Did you have some kind of certainty about Head’s come back in the band, about the chemistry and the musical success of his return? Was everybody in the band sure that the magic would happen again?

Jonathan Davis (singer): No, we didn’t know what’s going to happen. I had no clue. I just knew that we really missed him, and I think the band was excited to get him back. We didn’t know what it would make. We had no clue. We didn’t know if it would take off again, we didn’t know what was going to go on, so… coming back and doing the first little tour that we did together, here and in the United States, it was kind of a testing ground to see what’s going to happen. And it was awesome! It was like he had never been gone! So, yeah, we’re really happy that he’s back!

All the fans were hyped about Head’s return in the band and have put a lot of expectations on it. But from your point of view isn’t it a bit frustrating to see people kind of disregard what you have done in between?

No, I guess it’s normal. It’s exciting for those fans, that have been fans that long, to get his return. I mean, they’re the public… I mean, it’s exciting and it’s just what they originally, you know, discovered, it was us four. I think it’s natural for them to be excited but we did just fine when he wasn’t here… So, this is a bonus for them.

Last time we spoke, you said that the band was always trying new experiences with each album. What was the experience this time and how would you describe it?

We did this the other way around compared to The Path Of Totality where we started out with DJs. We wrote the songs with them first and then we had the guitars in, Munky came and did what he does and Fieldy came and did his things… This time, the music was written first and the electronics were added in a second time. It really worked, really good, and having Head back… he was always the guy that put over line melodies and guitar melodies over the top. Having him back really brought his style back into the music, because I missed how Munky and Head go back and forth on the guitar. Now that that was back, it made it that much better.

In a way we can say that The Paradigm Shift has the melodies of Untouchables, the aggressiveness of Take A Look In The Mirror, some electronic elements reminiscent of The Path Of Totality… Would you agree if we say that this album is a combination of all the different elements of Korn’s career?

I do think that, yeah. That just happened naturally. You know, we experimented and experimented, and we did all these certain kinds of records and once Head came back, all those things melted themselves together. It all came together in one kind of record.

Was it intentional?

Hum… Yeah. It was intentional to keep the electronics but it wasn’t going to be like the dubstep record, it wasn’t going to be like The Path Of Totality, but we were still going to use elements of that. And that’s all I could say from the start. We had no idea what it was going to turn out like, until we got actually in it and started doing it.

« We’re finally at that point where we’re not scared to do whatever the fuck we want. We’re not necessarily writing the record for any particular fans, but just to challenge ourselves. »

The Path Of Totality was a controversial album, yet The Paradigm Shift still features some dubstep elements and rhythms. Was it a way to make profit of this experience and to make a statement saying that you still, today, stand behind what you did with The Path Of Totality, when some people might have expected you to sideline it?

Yeah. When we did The Path Of Totality, we had too much fun, it was an amazing record. It was so different. We took a chance of doing it, and it really turned out in something that was great and a lot of people loved it. So, we’re not keeping doing that, but we’re doing it in a different way. With this band, we can’t do the same record over and over, we would go crazy! It’s always about experimenting and doing different stuff. It’s fun to push the envelope, try to do things differently and not worry about what the fans and other people are going to think. Because if you start doing that, you start making every record sound the same, like AC/DC or stuff like that, those bands that make the same… That works for them and I think their albums are amazing, but that’s what they do, they do that same thing over and over again. For us, it’s more of a challenge and it’s a lot more fun to write like that, and do different things. You don’t want to get boring, get stagnating and do something that’s dated… You always have to change. In this band, it’s all we like doing.

You actually chose the song “Never Never” as the first single which is the most pop oriented song on the album and features dubsteps elements. Could this choice be seen as a way for you to play with your audience?

Oh, I always do that, to fuck with them! Fuck yeah, I did that for sure on purpose! Because I knew all the metalheads would be pissed off! The strict metal dudes are always like that. Everybody else is loving it. I think it’s about 80/20… But I like doing that, I like going against what’s expected, I like doing what you’re not supposed to do. Everybody expected some banger to come out, because Head was back, and we did the opposite. With this band we do what’s not expected. It’s working and it’s great, people love it. I mean, that’s a good song. You can be pissed off and say it sucks, but I know in the back of their head, they’re singing it, because it’s so catchy! (laughs)

Don Gilmore, as a producer on this record, seems to have made the link between some recent electronic stuff, like what we could find on The Path Of Totality, and a more traditional approach of Korn’s sound. How would you measure his contribution to this record?

I can’t really tell. He really was fun to work with. He did things and brought things out in the coolest way. There wasn’t really any negative or arrogant thing, no ego, no “you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do that”. He did it a really nice way. This guy is a genius and I love to work with him. He’s really, really good at what he does.

The Paradigm Shift has some of the most positive moments in Korn’s careers as well as some of its darkest ones. The musical spectrum of this album is quite wide. Does this symbolize the band’s sense of musical freedom?

I think it does. We’re finally at that point where we’re not scared to do whatever the fuck we want. We’re not necessarily writing the record for any particular fans, but just to challenge ourselves and it’s all about taking chances. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you know, every time we make a record, it’s amazing and it’s fun. Plus, as artists, doing something different and creative… We’ve done eleven records, it’s pretty tough to be different with each one! But somehow we pulled that off. It’s amazing just to be eleven albums deep, still passionate and more into writing different stuff…

« It’s amazing just to be eleven albums deep, still passionate and more into writing different stuff. »

The album sometimes gives the feeling that you wanted to play with your voice, whether it’s with the contrast between the melodic and aggressive parts that goes almost in the death metal realm or with some experiments like what you do in “Lullaby For A Sadist” or “Spike In My Veins”. Did you want to test your voice and experiment a bit with it?

No, I’m just singing from the heart! It really wasn’t anything conscious. At the time, I was in detox, I was on anti-anxiety drugs and stuff to kick the heroin out. And my youngest son also got diagnosed with diabetes, so that totally changed my life. I wasn’t there… It’s pretty much this album on itself, lyrically and my voice, singing wise… I was removed, I wasn’t there. Seriously, it was really hard. I moved myself into the studio, I brought my two younger sons in to help me out. They were my muses, they were the ones that kept me going, that kept me positive, when I was falling down that hole, that rabbit hole, because I didn’t feel good, I was shaking because of the detox, I had nightmares all the time, I had a lot of crazy shit going, plus I was dealing with Zeppelin giving him insulin shots, checking his fingers… There was a lot of shit going on so… I checked out for a while. Really. It was a very intense moment and I guess that helped me to strip some shit subconsciously, but I didn’t sit out. I was just there, doing what I do and not thinking about it, and half the songs I didn’t even know what the fuck they were about… (laughs) It was really crazy, it was a crazy experience, but positive and fun. I had a good time.

Recently, Fieldy said you’ve made around 20-25 songs for this album and only put the best on the record. Finally there are only 11 on it with two bonus tracks…

Yeah, we recorded a total of fifteen and then the other ten, we just left them out, because I didn’t have the time to sing them all. So I just picked the fifteen that I thought were the best and singles.

What will you do with the rest of the songs?

They’re going in a vault. I’m sure when I get bored and I get home, I’ll get some time off, so I’ll start working on them. They’ll see the light of day someway.

There’s a song on the album called “Mass Hysteria”…

Yeah, I know you guys like that, I know it’s a French band! (laughs) They worked with one of my engineers, Tim Harkins, on one of their records. They came and recorded in my studio. That song was totally a joke for me, because I had Head constantly going (imitating Head) “What the hell, I’m a metalhead, I wanna do metal music, I wanna have guitars, guitars!” And there was me: “I wanna do more electronics and do something that’s different, more modern!” So that song came up and I was like: “I’m gonna write the most metal lyrics I can think of in my life!”, and that’s how that song came out. It was a joke at the beginning but it turned out great! I was like, “Fuck, it backfired!”

So there’s absolutely no relation with the French band…

No! When I did it, I thought: “Yeah, there’s a band in France called Mass Hysteria. They’ll like that.” But it was more about the state of the world right now, all this crazy shit’s going on, economically, all these revolutions going on in the Middle East… It’s like the world right now is in a mass hysteria kind of thing going on.

« I do think a lot of music now is stagnating. »

Korn was the first band to mix dubstep and rock or metal. Since then, many bands have followed in its footsteps by including dubstep into one of their songs or more. Like Muse for example. Did that make you feel like being a leader again?

Oh yeah! That’s awesome! I mean, you can’t not feel good about that. When I was saying I wanted to do it, I wanted to do it right, that’s why I wanted to get all those guys that are big DJs, they knew what they were doing. Some of the new stuff is cool, but I can tell that they did that shit by themselves! I mean, I wouldn’t know first-hand but now I can do it myself, but I wouldn’t. I had to go working with those guys to learn and I still got a lot more to learn, making and producing that style of music.

These past years you have done some shows as a DJ, do you intend to go further with this or with electronics in general?

Yeah! I mean the JDevil stuff… I love it. And I have another band, Killbot, we’re working on another EP that we’re going to set soon. It’s funny, the Killbot EP did better than Korn III! It sold more than Korn III, that tells you everything. (laughs) So I’m really excited about it, I love it, I’m passionate about that music and this could be fun.

In 2012, you made two visits to a US armed forces camp in Ramstein, Germany. With the perspective of a few months’ time, how would you analyze what you saw and did there? Why did you choose to make such a visit?

I wanted to do that just to say “thank you” to those guys. I mean… This whole war thing is wrong, but those guys are doing what they’re told, you know? And they’re fighting for our freedom. There are places in the world where you have no free speech, you’re not allowed to go on the internet, there are tons of places like that in the world. And when that comes under fire, it’s time when you do have to go to war. That’s necessary. And I just wanted to go thank those guys for putting their lives on the line and giving up their legs and limbs, all the stuff that I’ve seen, so that we do have those freedoms. Those guys are doing what they’re told, and so I just needed to go there and tell them that I appreciated, “thank you” for me and the band, my kids and everything… Because what they’re doing is really, really special. And I grew up with both my grandfathers who were at World War two. Many times, my grandfathers threw me on the ground, thinking there was incoming fire and all that stuff. I understand what those guys are going through. So it was something for me that was necessary for balance, I wanted to personally go there and thank them.

I recently talked with Abe Cuningham from the Deftones, a band you shared the road with at times, about the golden age of rock and metal in the 90’s. He said he misses that period, for him it was a great period with great bands and creativity. This is also when you reached the top of your popularity. How do you now see those times?

I think it was good times. The music industry was healthy, things were going good… And then it all changed, everything was different. And I do think a lot of music now is stagnating. I’ve always been into electronic music, but that’s what draws me more into it and Dubstep, the bass driven music that is going on now and all the electronic stuff. To me that’s what rock was in the 90’s, it’s exciting, it’s new, it’s different. And that’s what drives me towards it. I really do love it.

« If I didn’t have kids, I would have been dead. […] Having a responsibility and then having three little dudes depending on you to live, It really changes the way you look at life. »

With Head retuning to the band, wasn’t it tempting to call David Silveria back too?

Not one bit. (taking a half-serious, half-mocking face)

Are you still in contact with him?

No. That guy’s got problems. (laughs) No, we’re really happy with Ray, he’s our drummer now. He loves playing drums, he’s very opened to… When we write, he tries everything. Everything we never got to do with David, he does it, and so it’s fun. It makes a good, very positive, atmosphere.

You have three kids, with one who is almost 18 now. How do they live your celebrity and kind of “special status” regarding other parents?

Nathan, he liked it and now he’s a DJ, he’s been playing gigs, he’s producing music, he has his band, Brickhouse, which is doing good. Then there’s my other minions, Pirate and Zeppelin, and they love it! They’re telling (he takes a very proud and smiling look): “Hey Dad, you’re a rock star!” They love it, they’re so funny. If I’m going through a drive-thru or something, they just go “Hey, that’s Jonathan Davis from Korn!” and they say shit like that and then everybody in the restaurant or the place come to me asking “Can I have your autograph?” Hey, don’t put me on blast all the time! They’re little pranksters. So, I mean… they really do like it. My two little ones dig it. Nathan was really withdrawn and shy when he was young and it really bothered him when people wanted to take pictures of me and stuff like that. These two, they love it. They blow my cover all the time, any chance they can get, because they think it’s cool! (laughs)

Did becoming a father help you in fighting the evils of your own childhood?

Oh, definitely. If I didn’t have kids, I would have been dead. I mean, having a responsibility and then having three little dudes depending on you to live, It really changes the way you look at life. I love my music, and that’s why I do that, but I do it also so they can have a good life. It kills me to leave them, I miss them dearly, but you know… Here I’m working so that they can go to a good college and do the things that they need to do. I love being a father. I love that, it’s equal as… With my music these are the two most important things in my life. Everything else is second.

Interview conducted face-to-face on Tuesday, August 13th 2013 by Amphisbaena
Transcription: Amphisbaena & Spaceman.
Introduction: Spaceman

Korn’s official website: www.korn.com

Album The Paradigm Shift, out since October 8th 2013 via Prospect Park

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