How a blizzard of drugs, violence and record label tensions inspired Korn's Freak On A Leash

(Image credit: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Jonathan Davis has a surprisingly clear memory of making Korn’s third album, 1998’s Follow The Leader. Surprising, because of the lifestyle he and his bandmates were living at the time.

“Everyone was out of their fucking minds,” recalls Jonathan today. “Alcoholic drug addicts… ha! I just remember all the excess: we’re kids, living our rock’n’roll dreams and having the time of our lives.”

By that point, Korn could do no wrong. The mutant metal/hip hop/funk mash-up of their self-titled 1994 debut album and 1996 follow-up Life Is Peachy had rewired heavy music, opening the door for an army of likeminded bands in the process, among them Deftones, Coal Chamber, Snot and Limp Bizkit. 

Bacchanalian extravagances aside, the Bakersfield outfit weren’t about to rest on their laurels. Follow The Leader hit the turbo button on their career, its out-of-the-box success transforming them from metal’s most talked-about new band into one of its biggest. And in the album’s second single, Freak On A Leash, they delivered one of the recently christened ‘nu metal’ scene’s definitive anthems – as well as one of the most memorable videos of the era.

Freak On A Leash connected with the kids who shot Korn to where they are today,” says Jonathan. “There’s a lot of great Korn songs, but that’s the one most people seemed to hear and really identify with.”

Korn were buzzing in every sense of the word after wrapping up the tour in support of Life Is Peachy. That record may not have had the shock-of-the-new impact of their debut - and it wasn’t as good musically – but it had sold more than a million copies in the US. Were they feeling the pressure of delivering a follow-up that would be even more successful while the competition were biting at their heels? Not a chance.

“We were young, cocky kids,” says Jonathan. “We knew we were the kings of that shit and nobody was gonna take that away from us. Also in our heads was that the bands that were emulating us, we took that as a compliment. It was like, ‘If you love our shit that much you want to copy it… fuck yeah!’”

Korn’s confidence was bulletproof when they entered a small rehearsal room in Redondo Beach, Orange County in the summer of 1997 to write material for Follow The Leader. “We’d done two successful albums but we wanted to push boundaries and go somewhere else,” says Jonathan. “Getting in the room together, we just came up with stuff.”

One the first things they came up with was Freak On A Leash. “Oh, we loved that song from day one,” says Jonathan. “I remember coming up with all these lines. It came a lot easier than other songs.”

Korn’s Jonathan Davis playing bagpipes onstage

(Image credit: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect)

Korn guitarist Brian ‘Head’ Welch has previously said that the song’s title was “sort of a kinky dominatrix thing”, but Jonathan insists the meaning was much simpler. This was the singer lashing out at the music industry for the way it treated artists, taking away their personal agency and stripping the whole endeavour of any sense of fun - he was the freak on a leash.

“Even down to our band name, we’ve always been the guys that are like, ‘You don’t tell us what to do’, this super- punk rock mentality,” says Jonathan. “We just wanted to do what we wanted to do, and if you tried pushing us one way we’d go another.”

With Freak On A Leash and the other songs that would appear on Follow The Leader in the bag, the band entered LA’s NRG Studios in the spring of 1998 to record the album. There was one significant change in personnel. They’d worked on their first two albums with Ross Robinson, the talismanic producer who played a huge part in shaping the sound of nu metal. This time, though, they elected not to use him.

“It was really scary, but we knew we needed to do something different,” says Jonathan. “We didn’t have a producer for damn near the whole record, we just had people coming in and out, and we weren’t vibing with any of them.”

The album would be credited to two producers, Steve Thompson - who bailed after a few weeks due to “personal stuff” – and Alice In Chains associate Toby Wright, who saw Follow The Leader across the line. Sessions were chaotic – at one point, Jonathan refused to sing unless Toby brought him an ‘eight-ball’ of cocaine (roughly three-and-a-half grams).

The singer hadn’t completely cut his ties with Ross Robinson. He briefly brought the producer in to act as his vocal coach during the Follow The Leader sessions. Ross’s previous approach to coaxing a vocal performance out of Jonathan was a mix of mind-games and violence that bordered on the physical. This was no exception.

Freak On A Leash was where Ross was digging his nails into my back!” remembers Jonathan. “That was some weird shit, real fucked-up. Once I got to that moment I was like, ‘I’m done with this, this is fucking stupid.’”

While Freak On A Leash was instantly recognisable as a Korn song, it played with the formula as Jonathan had suggested. The track began with guitarist Munky wringing strange, high-pitched noises out of his instrument while Jonathan whisper-muttered the track’s opening line: ‘Something takes a part of me’ – a pot- shot at the music industry that the singer had grown to resent. When the chorus kicked in with Fieldy’s gigantic clacking bass sound, it was as funky as Faith No More in their prime and as filthy-sounding as any grunge band.

Yet the most memorable moment came two-and-a-half minutes in. Korn were never a guitar solo kind of band anyway, and where most other bands would have dropped in a solo, Freak On A Leash stopped for a scat-style vocal breakdown from Jonathan.

“We were jamming and I started mixing beatboxing and this scat thing I do,” says the singer. “I loved vocal percussion – dudes like [old-school rapper] Doug E. Fresh and his beat- boxing from back in the day. I listened to a lot of old school hip hop and New York freestyle – that’s what I listened to with all the 80s new wave stuff.”

Follow The Leader was released on August 18, 1998, selling more than a quarter of a million copies in the US in its first week and peaking at No.1 on the Billboard charts (it would eventually be certified five times platinum). Freak On A Leash was the album’s second single, following Got The Life. It was accompanied by a spectacular, part-animated video, directed by acclaimed comic book artist Todd McFarlane (who was also responsible for the album’s cover).

The clip follows the path of a bullet accidentally discharged from a cop’s handgun as it flies through a suburban neighbourhood and into a Korn poster, where it begins to careen around the band as they perform in a darkened room that’s illuminated only by light streaming through holes in the walls. Midway through the song, Jonathan yells, ‘Go!’ and the bullet reverses its trajectory, eventually ending up in the cop’s hand. The video cost upwards of $800,000 to make.

“I felt like how the producers of The Matrix felt when they were handed the script to that movie: ‘We’re gonna use this technology that doesn’t exist to make this movie,’” says Jonathan. “We showed up and there was the big box with all these light holes in it, which is where we shot the performance part – that was all we saw. We were on tour in Australia, and they beamed [the finished video] to our hotel room on satellite TV. We watched it together, and our jaws hit the floor.”

Freak On A Leash was already a hit with Korn fans by the time it was released as a single in February 1999 – it was the very first song the band played on the landmark Family Values tour, which had kicked off the previous September. By that point, Jonathan Davis had quit booze and drugs, realising that the potential outcome if he didn’t could have been dire.

“I took it too far,” he says of the partying. “It was time to stop the stupid shit or I was going to die. I had a child and things to do, so the things that happened helped me get sober.”

Today, Freak On A Leash remains Korn’s most popular track, with more than 300 million Spotify plays and almost as many YouTube views. In 2006, they teamed up with Evanescence’s Amy Lee for a startling, string-led version on MTV Unplugged

“The whole experience was amazing,” says Jonathan of the collaboration. “We practised for months, we brought in one of my dearest friends, Richard Gibbs, who helped arrange all the strings – we knew we wanted to take it over the top and do something different. Getting Amy to do that song was amazing.

“When I wrote Freak On A Leash, I was a kid and very emotional,” he continues. “It was a snapshot of where we were at the time, but lo and behold, after that record we never had to depend on a record label again. That was the vehicle to get where we are now, so playing that song these days represents that time period and what I was going through. It took us off the leash!” 

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.