The New Sound of Korn
Korn bassist Reg Fieldy Arvizu (Fieldy) is speed-testing his new boat. The red-and-white '98 Seadoo Speedster is rocketing through the channel off the coast of Long Beach, Calif. Korn leader and vocalist Jonathan Davis sits -- or, perhaps more accurately, holds on for dear life -- next to the bassist/captain. Davis' multi-colored ponytail flaps crazily in the wind as the singer stares straight ahead and clutches the safety rail in front of him.It seems oddly fitting that we're on the water, especially when Davis confesses that sailor Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran was something of a boyhood idol (though there are no nubile young models on this boat, as there invariably were in DD videos). At 27, Davis is boyish still; it's a boyishness that is far more in evidence (at least in the course of this interview) than is his darker, more introspective side. He laughs often, crinkling up his nose as he does so, causing his too-cool-for-words sunglasses to ride up on his nose.The speedometer reads 50 mph, but it feels like we're moving two or three times faster. Clad in a red tank top and matching shorts, Fieldy confidently maneuvers the boat through a dizzying series of twists and turns. As I alternately hold my breath and struggle to catch it, it occurs to me that there really couldn't be a more appropriate setting for an interview with Korn. This is a band that takes risks. This is a band that steers straight for shark-infested waters (though maybe not for jellyfish, but we'll get to that later).In the midst of tanned, blonde jet-skiers and boaters, we must look like a pretty motley crew. Fieldy is stocky and plastered with tattoos, Davis is about as pale as the proverbial fish-belly and has his socks pulled up to his calves, and me, I'm struggling with a tape recorder and trying to comprehend how someone could find this speedboat stuff relaxing. But I suppose for a band poised on the verge of possible super-stardom, it's a good escape.Korn's self-titled debut and the follow-up Life Is Peachy both went platinum. And now the Long Beach-via-Bakersfield quintet are fully aware that their recently-released Follow the Leader has the potential to break them wide [it's currently number one on the charts]. Featuring guest appearances by gangsta-rap legend Ice Cube, MC Tre Hardson from the Pharcyde, Limp Bizkit leader Fred Durst and actor Cheech Marin, Leader is the group's most diverse, heaviest and darkest album yet. It's got funk-inspired thrash rock mixed in with hip-hop, Davis' thousand-and-one voices and powerful lyrics. From the disturbing reflection on the rape and murder of a baby girl in "Pretty" to the demented sex/death fantasy of "My Gift to You" ("It's about choking my chick while I'm banging her," Davis says), there's no question that Davis has earned his parental-advisory sticker this time.This is the album that will most likely determine whether Korn -- which, in addition to Davis and Fieldy, is comprised of guitarists James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch and drummer David Silveria -- have, as they say, "staying power.""You've just got to think -- I mean, this is a crucial fucking album in our career," Davis says, gripping his forehead with his hand. "Making this album, it's the most fucked-up I've ever been in my life, just because of all the pressure and everything. We've pretty much fucked our lives away doing this. If this doesn't come off, what am I gonna do with my life?" "Making this album, it's the most fucked-up I've ever been in my life, just because of all the pressure and everything," Jonathan Davis said.This from a guy who, five years ago, had a slightly different career path in mind. Davis was six years into his mortuary science career at the Bakersfield County Coroner's Office when he joined Korn. Though he'd been making music since he was three -- venturing into techno at age 12 -- he had chosen to work in a coroner's office partly because of his fascination with horror films and partly to please his parents -- a decision he addresses on the Leader song "Dead Bodies Everywhere.""That song is about me wanting to get into the music business, but my dad wanted me to be something else," Davis says. "So I ended up working at the coroner's office, with dead bodies everywhere. And that fucked my head up forever."Davis hardly seems like a guy who spent years "cutting up dead people like pieces of meat," as he puts it. In fact, one of my first impressions of the self-professed "sensitive guy" is that he's, well, a bit of a ... scaredy-cat, I believe is the term I'm looking for.Earlier in the day, as we made our way to the dock from Fieldy's condo the bassist had mentioned the jellyfish that populate the marina. "Fucking gross," Davis responded, twiddling his fingers and making a creeped-out, wormy movement with his shoulders."And if you slice them up with the motor, they just make a million more," Fieldy taunted."Fucking gross," Davis said again.Of course, when I actually get a look at the huge pulsating sacks of gelatin, veins and tentacles for myself, I can't really blame him."Yuck," is what I say."Uh-huh," Davis agrees, as he kneels down on the dock to take a closer look at a particularly gargantuan one.The jellyfish-phobic singer has always been obsessed with music. Even while he was working in the coroner's office, he moonlighted in a group called Sexart, which he describes as a "Ministry-meets-Pearl-Jam rip-off band," and later, another hard-rock band called Bako (named after his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif.). Meanwhile, Fieldy, Munky, Head and Silveria were playing in the metal outfit Creep (formerly known as LAPD, the band had released an EP and a full-length album on Triple X Records). The group recruited Davis, after Head and Munky saw him perform in a Bako show, and began calling themselves Korn.After signing to Epic's Immortal Records, Korn put out their self-titled debut in 1994, but it was through touring (they had opening stints for Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeth, Marilyn Manson and 311) that Korn garnered their loyal following. Their sophomore record, Life Is Peachy, reached number three on the pop charts, even though it received little radio or video support.Korn view Peachy as a rushed effort, an album of half-baked ideas. They're not that proud of it. "When you're a little baby band -- the first album's always good, because you had all your life to write those songs," Davis says. "But the second album, you come off the road and you've got to get an album done, and then you've got to get right back out on the road."The real sign that they'd arrived came when the band scored the 1997 headlining spot on Lollapalooza -- though they later had to drop off the tour when Munky was diagnosed with viral meningitis. This year, Korn are launching their very own rock-and-rap extravaganza, the irreverently titled Family Values Tour, which is scheduled to open Sept. 22 in Rochester, N.Y. Others on the bill will include Ice Cube, fellow aggro-rockers Limp Bizkit, goth-popsters Orgy and German industrial fire-freaks Rammstein. "I love the lineup -- it's the perfect little mix-up," Fieldy says, adding that Korn will keep Family Values going in years to come, whether or not they appear on the tour.Korn plan to simulcast several of the Family Values shows on their website -- www.korn.com -- as part of their resurrected "Korn After-School Special" (a program they developed to share new material with fans during the recording of Follow the Leader). Korn, "Freak On A Leash" (45 second excerpt)As much as Korn are intent on staying a step ahead (they also recently started their own label, Elementree Records, with Orgy as its premiere act), Fieldy and Davis insist that the band is still driven by the same fans-first mentality as always. Not that anyone could really dispute that. Last month, Korn hit the road on a "Korn Kampaign '98" tour, in which the group turned up in record stores across the country to talk to their fans about Follow the Leader and Family Values.Korn spent nine months recording Follow the Leader, enough time to allow them to fully realize their (some would say twisted) vision. While it may be true that the band took a few creative risks on this album in particular, no one could accuse Korn of ever having played it safe."That's how we broke ground in the first place, with the first album," Fieldy says. "We wrote that shit, and we were scared. We were like, 'We love this, but what are people gonna think?' "We're still going fast; Jonathan's still uneasy; Fieldy's still steering in any direction but straight ahead; and I've got the feeling that "what people think" won't ever change any of these things.