Korn: Remember Who They Are

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There’s a certain irony in the fact that rock critics were busy writing obituaries for Kurt Cobain as Korn arrived at Indigo Ranch studios to record their debut album.

For in time, the music the Bakersfield, California, quintet recorded at the picturesque Malibu studio would kill off grunge just as emphatically as Nirvana’s arrival in the mainstream signalled the death knell for 80s hair metal.

Introduced by Jonathan Davis’s electrifying call to arms, “Are you ready?”, Korn’s self-titled debut album is the sound of a musical revolution – a brutal, thrillingly invigorating re-imagining of metal for a new millennium, which has lost nothing of its power and impact two decades on. Forensically dissected, the source materials for its hybrid sound are easily discerned, with Korn owing a debt of thanks to Pantera, Rage Against The Machine, Faith No More and the woozy, noir atmospherics of West Coast hip-hop. But in collaboration with maverick producer Ross Robinson, Korn created a distinctive, innovative and unique new vocabulary for metal which would singularly redefine the musical landscape. On its release in October 1994, Metal Hammer commented that “throughout the 12 tracks, there is a constant deep, dark groove with a hypnotic sense of melody”.

As the band prepare to return to the UK in July for two special shows at which they will perform their eponymous debut collection in full, Hammer spoke to founding members Jonathan Davis (vocals) and Munky (guitar), about their memories of recording this metallic milestone.

“It was a bunch of kids from Bakersfield living out their rock’n’roll dreams,” says Jonathan. “I remember it as a really cool experience.”

“But if we’d known just how important the album would become, maybe we’d have tried to stay sober for some of it!” Munky adds with a laugh.

BLIND

The birth of a legend, and one of the all-time classic album openers

Munky: “The riff came from Jonathan’s old band, SexArt. Head and I saw them play at some little club and I remember thinking the riff was pretty cool – it was in a different key, but still really heavy. It felt like new territory; like something I’d never heard before. I think it might have been Ross Robinson who suggested doing a version of it, so we rearranged it, and I remember the demo version of it being super heavy. We were like, ‘Wow, this has to be on the album.’”

Jonathan: “When my first band broke up, I asked my friend Ryan [Shuck], who went on to join Orgy, if I could keep the song. The way we did it was completely different to the original version anyway. What was I going for lyrically? I have no fucking idea, brother! This was just a stream-of-consciousness thing; it was all over the place. I think it’s about being blind to your reality; blocking the shit out that you don’t want to see or hear. Every single fucking time we start this up and see how the crowd reacts, it’s incredible. Metalheads love this song.”

BALL TONGUE

Scat vocals, hip-hop beats, dissonant seven-string guitars… the sound of the future. Jonathan recorded the vocals at his father’s Fat Tracks studio while high on crystal meth

Jonathan: “When we moved to Huntington Beach, we rehearsed in Anaheim, at a place called Underground Chicken Sound. The owner then started managing us. We were all doing lots of speed at the time, but when he was tweaking he’d get cramp or something, and his tongue would ball up in his mouth. We’d be like, ‘Uh-oh, he’s getting ball tongue…’

Munky: “His tongue would freeze up and he couldn’t talk. He’d be going, [unintelligible gurgling noise] ‘Guuurrggghhh, gahhh!’ Odd then, but funny now! This has got a great ‘hit you over the head’ riff: it was one of the first songs where Head [guitars] and I developed call-and-answer guitar parts and it worked out cool.”

Jonathan: “When we got signed and went on to get real management, Ball Tongue took it hard, and I felt bad because he was like a brother to me, but we had to cut our links. This was a kind of salute to those early crazy days.”

NEED TO

‘I hate you (Why are you taken?)’ sings an anguished JD on this biting tale of unrequited love

Munky: “I remember Fieldy [bass] and David [Silveria, original drummer] working on this groove in the rehearsal room, and it was really cool and funky, and Head and I wanted to put some dissonant, diminished chords around it. There’s always something really exciting about building songs from the ground up, and this one came together brilliantly.”

Jonathan: “Do you remember the band Human Waste Project? Well, this song is about their singer, Aimee Echo. No one knows that, but you can print it. We were really good friends back in the day, and we never hooked up, and never did anything, but the vibe was there. I don’t think I ever told her this, but I guess she’s going to find out now…”

CLOWN

Jonathan Davis attacks smalltown intolerance and prejudice. The video for the song revisited his memories of being bullied in high school

Munky: “Head and I wrote the main riff for this in our neighbour’s apartment in Huntington Beach when we were pretty high: we had been up all night doing crystal meth. I’m not sure that drugs opened our minds creatively, but they made us push our abilities to our limits, and pushed our boundaries in terms of making the sounds we heard it in our heads a reality.”

Jonathan: “I remember the show that inspired the lyrics. We were playing this club in San Diego, and this fucking old skinhead punk kept screaming, ‘You’re not from HB [Huntington Beach], you’re from Bakersfield!’ I was like, ‘I don’t give a fuck where we’re from, bro.’ Eventually he took a swing at me, and Ball Tongue jumped up and knocked him the fuck out; laid him out right there. They dragged him out of the club, and halfway through the set I could see him out back, jamming to the music. That tells you what kind of fucking clown he was.”

DIVINE

A filthy, rolling riff accompanies one of Jonathan Davis’s creepiest lyrics; a revenge fantasy borne from obsession

Munky: “This was one of the first songs we wrote at Underground Chicken Sound. I remember [future Metallica bassist] Robert Trujillo coming to the studio because we were considering having him produce our first record, and he said, ‘Let’s work on one song to see how we work together’, so we picked this one. We didn’t form a relationship with Robert to the point where he got to produce the album, but we liked the ideas that he had, and the song structure we created that day is the one that’s on the album.”

Jonathan: “The song is about sadism and stalking. It’s a really dark song about basically torturing this poor girl psychologically. I’ve been known to do that… I was definitely letting some demons out on this album.”

FAGET

The album’s first truly jaw-dropping moment, as Jonathan Davis lets rip at the homophobic bullies who made his adolescence so miserable

Munky: “When people first heard this, they were like, ‘Holy shit!’ It’s kinda like Rage Against The Machine on steroids. Sometimes people need to be told to fuck off.”

Jonathan: “Growing up, I was a New Romantic. My favourite band was Duran Duran, so I’d wear make-up and long shirts, and in Bakersfield – an oil and farming town – there were a lot of macho jocks who took offence to that. I got my ass kicked and got called a ‘faggot’ all the time. I wasn’t gay, but it got to the point where I thought that maybe I was gay, and just didn’t know it. It really fucked with my head, and I had to get that shit off my chest. Still to this day, it feels so good to be able to scream it out. Bullying is not some rite of passage that people should accept, it’s bullshit, and I hope this song has helped people. Every time I sing this I relive that shit. It’s my therapy, I guess.”

SHOOTS AND LADDERS

Bagpipes, nursery rhymes, atonal riffs… no other band on the planet sounded like this in 1994

Munky: “Jonathan is an amazing bagpipes player, and the first time we heard him play we were like, ‘Holy shit, we have to put this on the record!’ We knew AC/DC did it, so we tried to figure out the tuning and mould the riff around it. This song, for me, fed into the idea of the album cover: it’s this playful nursery rhyme, but you know there’s something dark and mysterious behind it, and you can kinda sense the monster emerging in the middle of it…”

Jonathan: “I guess I was in a twisted state of mind when I wrote this, thinking about hidden evils and the corrupted innocence of childhood, and the dark meanings behind some of the nursery rhymes we all grow up with. I mean, Ring A Ring O’ Roses is about the Black Plague, which is kinda fucked up. Now I get to see big, buff, macho men sing nursery rhymes at rock shows, which is kinda fucked up, too!”

PREDICTABLE

One of the album’s heaviest tracks sonically, with an appropriately downbeat, dead-inside JD lyric

Munky: “This is one of the more metal songs on the album; the riff kinda reminds me of Pantera meets Alice In Chains. I remember thinking it was cool that it started with this simple figure played on one string through a clean channel, and then the riff comes in and hits you over the head. It’s a great song, but not one of my favourites on the album.”

Jonathan: “This is just a song about being bored with life, about being down in the dumps and thinking life sucks. This whole record is super dark, and comes from a dark place. Making it was fun, but it stirred up some dark shit, and going back to songs like this for the 20th anniversary shows is a real reminder of those times.”

FAKE

One of the album’s less celebrated tracks, partially inspired by the bullying Jonathan used to suffer at the hands of Fieldy

Jonathan: “That’s about fake people… in part about some of the shit I had from Fieldy back in the day. There are still plenty of fake people out there, particularly in this business, but now I don’t really give a fuck – I stay well away from them, and they’re not in my life. But when you’re a kid, 23 years old, it’s harder to deal with, and harder to understand why people do what they do.”

Munky: “I remember we wrote this song in San Diego, on a boat. We had a gig in San Diego and my dad had a small houseboat in a slip near there, so he said we could stay on it, so, of course, we partied all night. But we came up with most of the riffs that night. It’s one of my favourite songs, because it has so many parts but they all make sense when played properly.”

LIES

More self-flagellation from JD, on one of the album’s more low-key tracks

Munky: “I always loved how Fieldy and David would think left whenever they heard stuff that Head and I were writing, and when we were working on this they said, ‘Let’s do something that when you turn up your car stereo, the fucking licence plate is going to rattle.’ They wanted almost like a hip-hop beat, and I loved what they came up with. We didn’t always know what we were doing on this record, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

Jonathan: “This is as much about me lying to myself about my problems as hearing lies from others. Looking back, I wasted so much time and energy not dealing with problems, but when you’re young you don’t always have the confidence to address shit in your life.”

HELMET IN THE BUSH

Twisted industrial darkness, inspired by drug-fuelled anxiety

Munky: “This was written towards the end of the studio session, on a little drum machine. It was mainly Jonathan, Head and Ross. I remember being gone from the studio for one day, and when I came back they said, ‘Listen to this!’ and they had this fucking killer track. I was blown away, and I was just like, ‘Let me put my shit on it, too!’”

Jonathan: “This is about good old meth amphetamine – about doing so much speed that your dick is so small that it just looks like a helmet in the bush! I remember people fucking freaking out about us doing electronic shit on that song, but I think it’s stood the test of time. After we did this record I did crystal meth for about three more weeks and then I quit, and never did it again: I thought to myself, ‘I have a drug problem, and if I don’t stop it’s going to kill me.’”

DADDY

The album’s most harrowing, raw and disturbing song, closing the album with the sound of Jonathan Davis sobbing uncontrollably in Indigo Ranch’s vocal booth

Jonathan: “That song is fucked up. It’s about abuse, obviously. Not from my parents, but from a babysitter, and unfortunately the scars still remained. That song needed to be done.”

Munky: “We knew what this song was about, and we wanted to create a spooky, heavy foundation for Jonathan so that he could open those doors. When we were tracking the song, Jonathan really took the memory and relived it, and I remember Ross telling us to just keep playing when he broke down, so we were totally improvising for the last couple of minutes. I remember worrying that the tape would run out, and it did, literally 30 seconds after the end of the song. It’s a scary song.”

Jonathan: “In the studio I was properly freaking out and bawling, and I had no idea Ross was getting it all on tape until I came back a couple of days later and he said, ‘Listen to this…’ I couldn’t even listen to it. I listened to it to learn the words for this tour, and even now it’s still raw. It caused a lot of pain in my life, but it’s worth it if it gave other people some strength and helped them to deal with the same sort of shit. I think the family we have, helping and caring about one another, is magical, and that’s why I still do what I do. The money and the big house is cool, but the real pay-off now is making people happy. I know that sounds cheesy and not very rock’n’roll, but I don’t give a fuck. I’m old now and I can say what I feel.”

Korn play their debut in full at Manchester Apollo on July 15, and London Brixton Academy on July 16