The story behind Korn's Follow The Leader album

Korn
(Image: © Getty Images)

It seems crazy to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Korn’s groundbreaking third album, Follow The Leader, and yet here we are. Twenty years – quite literally a lifetime to younger readers who have grown up with the band. And perhaps those sounds that the band created all those years ago seem almost normal by today’s standards, a template that’s been endlessly copied, but rest assured they are not normal. Korn were – and still are – one of a kind: ever evolving, always leading where others follow. 

It began in 1994, with their phenomenal self-titled debut album, a bolt out of the blue that was, to all intents and purposes, the birth of what became known as nu metal. An album so darkly brilliant that, even for Korn, it was difficult to supersede. By comparison, 1996’s Life Is Peachy seemed formulaic and rushed, by the band’s own admission a “fast food” album to capitalise on their success. “It had its moments, but half of us didn’t really like Life Is Peachy compared to the first album,” guitarist Head admits today. 

But still, the eyes of the music world were upon Korn. Playing the Lollapalooza tour in 1997 with the likes of Tool, Snoop Dogg and Tricky, they were all over MTV, their audiences growing from clubs and theatres to ‘sheds’, playing to thousands of people. The big question was, what were they going to do next? Would they sink or swim? With Korn’s trademark sound already being aped by other bands, would Korn just sound like a copy of themselves?

“It kinda felt like we’d coined this sound and then we were trying to follow it up with something we’d already done,” agrees guitarist Munky. “So when Follow The Leader came around it was like, either we’re gonna make the same record for the next 25 years or we’re gonna be a band that evolves. I think that was the turning point.”

As the title suggests, Follow The Leader was intended as a raised middle digit to the copyists, proof that Korn couldn’t be left in their own wake.

“Now we think it’s cool,” says Munky. “But at the time we were like, ‘Man, this is bullshit, people trying to sound like Korn.’ We’d created something that was different, but right after the ...Peachy album we were starting to hear bands that sounded like us, so we took a left turn. They thought they knew the formula, and all of a sudden we put out this record that’s hip hop, rock, metal… If you listen to the first album and Follow The Leader, it’s almost like two different bands.”

Having written future classics Freak On A Leash, Got The Life and a handful of other tunes, Korn made camp at NRG studios in Los Angeles in spring 1998. They were experimenting with the latest technology and working, for the first time, with producer Steve Thompson. Given that Ross Robinson had produced the first two albums and was known to be an integral part in creating their sound, it was a bold move to say the least.

“We just wanted to try something new,” explains Head. “Ross was an awesome, ground-breaking producer who taught us a lot, but he was like a leader, and the best leaders should be able to train people and then send them out. And I feel like that’s just what Ross did… and then we wanted to go and do our own thing. Ross had really trained us well with melodies and doing weird sounds with the guitar, so we took it another step. The band wrote all the music together and a couple of producers worked on the record. It’s been said in a blog that our songs were a mess when we sent them in, but they were not a mess – they were just like they are. There were a couple of tweaks, but the structures were all in place for almost the entire record.”

“We went in the studio with Steve, and he was kinda going through some personal stuff so he kinda wasn’t showing up and wasn’t really engaged,” Munky continues. “The engineer, Toby Wright, took over from that point and helped us engineer and produce the album. But Steve was there when we were doing three or four big songs on the album, and he was a big part of that. And we were fucking around a lot, too. It was chaos! So I can see why somebody would think, ‘This is bullshit.’”

By all accounts, chaos is something of an understatement. Aside from putting out Korn TV on the internet every week – a show with guests including everyone from the Deftones to Marilyn Manson and porn star Ron Jeremy (another inspired move, given that household internet access was in its infancy) – the tales of partying, drugs, alcohol, and “random groupies”, as Munky says, are legendary. Sessions would go from three in the afternoon until three at night, sometimes with nothing getting done. Rumour even suggests that frontman Jonathan Davis wouldn’t sing unless he had cocaine.

“Yeah, he’d want some Jack Daniel’s and a line of blow,” nods Munky. “He got sober immediately after that album, that’s how fucked-up it was.”

“I just remember craziness, fucking drugs, alcohol, chicks – you name it, I did it,” says Jonathan.

“We were 25 to 28 years old, so it was like party central,” recalls Head. “There was a lot of alcohol. Thousands and thousands of dollars! We were out of control! When you party so hard at that age it’s a lot of fun, but it was the beginning of a lot of messed-up lives.” 

Remarkably, in the midst of all this mayhem, a classic album was somehow taking shape, with Jonathan writing some of his deepest and darkest lyrics, like Freak On A Leash and Pretty – the horrific tale of the rape and murder of a baby, prompted by his time working in a coroner’s office. Not that this darkness was any surprise to the rest of the band.

“What he sang about was always dark,” says Munky, “and even when he sings something uplifting, the band leans towards a minor key. It’s just who we are. We always have a darker sound, whether it’s lyrically or melodies. I’m used to him writing that way, and none of us have ever said, ‘You shouldn’t say that.’ As a lyricist and singer, you have to be very vulnerable and expose part of who you are, and that takes a lot of courage. He exposes a lot of fear and anxiety, and ultimately that helps people because it makes them feel less alone. He’s digging so deep that nothing he pulls up cannot be gold or diamonds.”

Korn also had some impressive guests on the album. Along with Fred Durst – hey, it was a big deal back then – and Tre Hardson from alternative rappers The Pharcyde, they managed to get NWA’s Ice Cube and no less a legend than Cheech Marin, with whom Munky smoked more than a few joints.

“I think the Cheech thing came about from Fieldy,” Munky smiles. “He loves smoking weed! It’s the funniest thing, because he used to hate it, and then he went through this weed phase, watching all the Cheech & Chong movies. Then we were messing around in the studio playing [Life Is Peachy’s War cover] Lowrider, and he was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could get Cheech in the studio!’ He was a super-nice guy and he brought his family to the show, later in that tour cycle. Then Ice Cube came into the studio and that was the first time I’d witnessed a real pro, someone that came in and killed it. He listened to the track a few times, studied it, didn’t talk much and was very serious about his craft. I was blown away and it was really inspiring.”

“My heart was pounding!” confesses Head, completely starstruck by meeting Ice Cube. “I had to come up with a cool riff and not let him down, and I’m shaking! Pressure! It was surreal, dude. When I was 19 or 20 I was all over NWA. The realness and the rawness… And Ice Cube’s voice tones were just the best.”

With the album completed and iconic artwork done by comic book creator Todd McFarlane, who later directed the award-winning video for Freak On A Leash, it wasn’t long before Korn, too, experienced those dizzying levels of fame. Follow The Leader was released on August 18, 1998 and went to Number One in four countries, including the US, making it their biggest-selling record to date. And while the band had been primed to expect huge success, confident that they’d made a great album that was unlike anything else, they had no idea how huge it would be. Head remembers that they were on the Korn Kampaign meet-and-greet tour when they heard that the album had reached the top of the charts. 

“I was in a record store signing records,” he says. “I don’t remember the city, but I called my dad, like, ‘Dad, we went to Number One!’ He was always the type who was telling me to cut my hair, so he got to a place where he was like, ‘Man, I was wrong about you. I should have just let you be you.’ That was really cool of him to say.”

But if the album was big, then the singles – Got The Life and Freak On A Leash – were arguably bigger, and they propelled the band to “a whole new level of fame” remembers Head. Got The Life was actually the first video to be officially ‘retired’ from MTV’s Total Live Request show, because fans wouldn’t stop requesting it. Korn were everywhere.

“Yeah, it got pretty crazy, and the fame did go to our heads a little bit and made us a little crazy,” says Head. “Jonathan got suicidal because he was drinking so much Jack and Coke and doing cocaine. He was losing his mind, and he decided to stop it all and get sober during that tour cycle.”

In September 1998, the band went out on their own Family Values tour, taking along Rammstein, Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit and Orgy. The partying continued, but Jonathan sat out on the sidelines.

“It was detoxing,” he says. “All I remember is a lot of pain and anxiety and horrible shit. I would lie shaking in my bunk, and I’d get out onstage, and I could perform but then I’d go back to going through hell again. My therapy was that I’d hang out with my dear friend Rigger Dan. He passed away a long time ago, God bless him, but he taught me how to tie different kinds of knots, and I’d help him rig the show every night. I got involved with the crew, because everyone else was partying, and I couldn’t be part of that.”

Meanwhile, Head was still keeping up the lifestyle, struggling to reconcile the guy he was before Korn with this new celebrity rockstar. He put up a decent front, but behind the scenes he was troubled.

“The friends I grew up with, and the guy I looked in the mirror at, they all became different people. I just couldn’t control the habits,” he admits. “I wanted to drink alcohol and have fun, and maybe do drugs once in a while, but I didn’t want them to rule me. Also, my personality… I was good with the guys and I could have fun, but in relationships I was insecure and I never felt good enough. When the fame came, it just magnified all those insecurities.”

“It was good in the sense that we were able to buy new cars and upgrade from apartments to condos,” adds Munky. “But it was also bad to give five guys money – we were all addicts, just buying alcohol and not thinking about tomorrow or our future. I didn’t really deal with it very well. The money was new to us – we didn’t grow up with money – so it wasn’t like we had some financial advisor sitting us down and going, ‘You need to put money away.’ None of us had any of that until a few years ago, which is kinda sad. It was tough; you have all this money and a lot of addiction problems, and you buy dumb shit when you’re fucked up! Cars and boats, there’s no appreciation. And all of a sudden you have this crew of 10 people, all these guys who wanna leach off you and pretend that they’re helping you. But the only person that’s gonna help you is your mom. Everybody else is out to fucking take your money and it took me a while to see that.”

Older now, and much wiser, the band have had time to reflect upon the extraordinary success of the record, and its legacy. There can be no doubt that it dragged a new (or nu) sound into the mainstream, and its influence is still heard today.

“There’s also a lot of hip hop guys who got into that album,15 or 20 years younger than me, and that stuff influenced a lot of urban kids, which is cool,” agrees Munky. “And it’s tricky keeping people’s attention and keeping them as fans, but we had hardcore fans from the first records and Follow The Leader blew us up. I’m floored by it.”