In 1996, Metal Hammer travelled to Portland, Oregon to interview Korn just weeks after their second album, Life Is Peachy, had been released. In an in-depth conversation with Jonathan Davis opened up about the band’s rise, his autobiographical lyrics and how fatherhood had impacted on his party lifestyle.
Salem, Oregon, is the sort of town that Korn were made for. Despite being the state capital, it’s a dead-end, nowhere city, overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbour, Portland. Consisting principally of nondescript streets lined with endless processions of car dealerships and burger joints, fuelling and feeding North America’s twin obsessions of driving large cars and putting on weight, the uniform suburbs are the spawning grounds for a hundred real-life Beavis And Butt-heads. The obligatory shopping malls in what passes for a city centre teem with overweight mothers hustling for a bargain in the day-after-Thanksgiving sales. This is the ultimate manifestation of the American Dream gone wrong.
It’s also the superficial society that conceived Korn, only to wish that they’d drowned the child at birth. The irony is compounded by the rather archaic board announcing the bill for a show at Armory Amphitheatre, the state guard’s basketball court and venue for Korn’s latest attempt at cracking their home market wide open before heading out with Metallica. The 50s style stick-on letters have taken a bit of a battering from the whipping West Coast wind, causing a vital ‘P’ to fall off, and the legend now reads ‘MONQUI RESENTS KORN’. Welcome to the American Nightmare.
“In America you can do anything you want. We’re fucking living proof. We beat the system. We’re out there making money and we’re doing what we really believe in,” states Jonathan Davis, in-between swigs from his second bottle of cheap peach wine, a potent firewater that has become his aftershow tipple of choice. “But America’s so fucking uptight. Take Amsterdam, for example. That’s a fucking free country right there. You can smoke pot, go down the red-light district, buy a fucking whore, get smacked around and go to jail maybe overnight.”
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The majority of your lyrics are heavily, almost uncomfortably autobiographical as you rage about your childhood and upbringing. How does it feel to bare your soul to hundreds of strangers night after night?
I wouldn’t say fun, but very rewarding and relieving. Every time I do it, it makes me feel better – the comeback from the crowd and seeing all that madness out there. I’m touching something, I think, that people wanna talk about, that people can relate to. It’s hard night after night, but I need to do it, I have to.
Why do you feel the need to be so confessional?
I’m like a Coke bottle: if that shit builds up for so long, it’s gonna explode. So with my music, it gives a chance for those feelings to go.
How does it feel knowing that some of the kids in the audience are only there to get loaded?
Here, that’s a given. There’s kids who just come here to pick up on chicks. But I think if they come to our shows, they’re gonna get a rude awakening and realise what the fuck I’m talking about and what we’re really about.
Do you never think: “Why am I putting myself through this for kids who don’t give a fuck?”
No, I guess it’s for me. I guess I’m a selfish bitch. It’s like art – at least artists have the fucking pleasure of painting a fucking picture and putting it on a wall for everybody to see time and time again. They don’t have to repeat that, but musicians have to do that. That’s the whole fucking beauty of it: it’s gonna be a different show every time.
When you’re singing, do you think about the events that inspired the lyrics?
I think about that a little bit, but I’m just letting my brain do what it does. You can only think about that so long before it becomes stale. I do remember those times and that does piss me off, that fuels my ass, but it’s something fucking crazy. It’s like doing a drug. When we’re up on stage, it’s like going to that place where you’re not even aware of it, and once the show’s over it’s gone, you don’t even remember it.
You should bottle it. You’d make a fortune.
I wish I could! If I could record the essence of what I feel on stage, we’d all be millionaires.
Does singing about those experiences every night negate the emotion, reducing the original events to the status of just another lyric?
It doesn’t become reduced to another lyric, but I think it does become like that. And that’s part of the therapy. I wanna get this shit out, so when you think back and look at it, it’s like: [sharp intake of breath] ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ That’s helping what I’m trying to fucking do. But I would never consider them just lyrics, cos those feelings are very meaningful to me and I consider what we do to be very meaningful.
Is there anything that you know regret being so open about in your lyrics?
The only thing I regret is that with the song Daddy everybody thought that my dad fucked me. All I’m going to say is he didn’t fuck me.
How about the sentiments behind the song Kunt? Have you had a lot of flak for the attitude towards women expressed in that song?
Yeah, in America. In Europe you call each other cunts – “You bloody cunt!” – all the time. [In America] they thought cos I named it Kunt that it was against women. But I just wrote that song. It is toward women, but women that have hurt me in my life: ex-girlfriends and stuff like that; women go around talking about men all the time – ‘Men are pigs!’ Well fuck that!
I can fucking talk shit about women, because women do fuck men over a lot. All women in America or wherever always want guys who will treat them bad and make them fucking go: ‘Okay, I’m gonna try and get him to love me more.’ They thrive on that ‘fuck you’ complex. Yet I write a song about women who hurt me and I get fucking bashed for it!
I have no animosities towards women at all. I fucking love women! Women are great, they’re great, they’re great, great, great, man. If I come home and talk to my girl about personal things, she makes me feel better about myself: ‘Don’t forget who you are…’ and all that. And I go: ‘Thank you.’
Do you still find it hard to form relationships?
Fuck, yeah. It’s a trusting thing. I mean, I love my girlfriend now, cos I trust her and she’s been with me since I was nothing. She lived with me in a fucking closet in my house. She borrowed money from her parents to keep me and pay our rent. She believed in me. Now if I met some girl, it would be different; I would always have that thing in the back of my mind that she’s with me because of who I am.
How has bringing up your son Nathan affected things? Has it made you re-evaluate your own childhood?
Fuck, yeah. Growing up, I had all these aggressions, because my father and my mother were doing all this shit. But now I have a kid and I’m in their shoes, I kinda fucking know why shit happens. I can understand now. No one knows what it feels like to be a parent until you have a kidof your own.
Do you find that you have to stop yourself going down the same road as your father?
I am going down the same road my dad did. It’s killing me, cos I’m doing what my dad did to me, in that I’m always on the road. But I tell myself that I’m making his life better in the future. He’ll be pissed off with me, probably get in a band and write songs about me, and that would make me the happiest man in the world.
Has it affected your lifestyle at all? Can you still party like you used to?
I’m responsible. I don’t party while he’s around. I don’t drink while he’s at home. If he’s at grandma’s house, then I can go out and party and get fucked up and still go home. Once I came home fucked up drunk, high on speed, looked at him and it killed me – that look in his eyes. I felt like a little piece of shit. I’ve never done it since, I cannot look at him. I think he saved my life, cos the way I was going I was gonna kill myself, dying from drinking.
How emotionally or mentally stable are you right at this moment in time?
I went to a psychologist who said I wasn’t ready for the asylum, but I do have problems. I’ve got a way to deal with them and I have an outlet. Everybody does something, be it killing people, be it writing poetry, be it doing art, whatever. Everybody needs an outlet. If someone has no outlet, they’re gonna crack.
So it’s Korn or mass murder.
I delved down and fucking cut up dead bodies. What would be the difference if they were alive?
A long jail sentence?
That’s the only fucking thing. And that goes down to what society says is wrong. Lions kill deers to be able to eat. We’re all fucking animals when it comes down to it. The only difference between us and animals is that we can communicate.
Are you running out of personal experience to draw on for future lyrics?
I dunno, man. I’ve never ever thought about shit. On this album we just went into a hotel, I got shit-faced drunk. And when you get drunk, emotions come out, you know that, and I wrote five songs. I’ve done songs sober, too, and I’ve done songs fucked up on speed. You need stuff to bring things out of you, cos your body naturally hides stuff away because you don’t wanna deal with it. I’ve done songs about band members, I’ve done songs about friends, I’ve done songs about childhood shit. I’ll just dive deeper into what’s up.
Would you say that you have a depressive personality?
Oh yeah. Ever since I was little, I’ve always had to bear that shit anyway. It’s always what I’ve been taught – nice people keep quiet, or whatever. I’m not gonna walk around ‘fuckyoufuckingfuck…’, that’s not right.
Unless you’re on stage… What demons still drive you to write and perform as you do?
To prove that I am who I am. The press has always come out and said I’m not this and I’m not that. I’m just basically struggling to prove what I am. That keeps me going. A lot of people don’t take me seriously.
The English press has generally been sympathetic to your cause. Is the American press not so?
I got one from Entertainment Weekly saying: ‘I’m glad Jonathan Davis can capitalise on his bad childhood, like everybody had in this fucking country, to make money out of it.’ And that really made me fucking mad. Who’s this fucking bastard to say that? These are my feelings you’re talking about. And I’m not putting my feelings out to make money at all. I’m putting my feelings out for myself and other people. If I get money, that just comes with it. But I’m not one to be money-hungry. Fuck ’em. Fuck those scared little bastards.
Whenever I think of Korn, I’m reminded of the Denis Leary joke about the American trend to whinge about coming from a dysfunctional family. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you want, so get fucking used to it.
That’s human instinct, just to fucking look the other way. You make fun of anything you’re scared of: dying – oh you’re gonna die now, HAHAHAHAHA! It’s a human emotion. And I say really, really real things, people get scared and there’s a backlash, cos they don’t want to deal with the reality that’s in front of them. The truth hurts.
Playing Devil’s advocate, a lot of people choose not to go through their therapy in public and inflict it upon others.
[Sarcastically] I guess I’m a big tanking motherfucker. I’m going out there tanking people, telling them my problems and hoping they’ll feel sorry for me. I don’t want their sorrow, I just want them to appreciate what I’m doing. Don’t feel sorry for me, that’s the last thing I want.
Are you worried about being seen as just another whining American?
Not at all. There’s 1,700,000 people that like us. Fuck that.
Originally published in December 1996