Interview: Chaos, Heart, Tears + Fate Guided Korn’s ‘The Nothing’
Tomorrow (Sept. 13) will mark the release of Korn's 13th album, 'The Nothing.' In this interview with frontman Jonathan Davis and guitarist Brian "Head" Welch we dive into the band's continual pursuit of authenticity and the release of grief that guided their latest work.
Some artists are meticulous. They plan every note, every story arc, every beat. That is not what Jonathan Davis does. That is not who he is. That is not Korn. Korn, as guitarist Brian “Head” Welch says, is “chaos.”
The musical and emotional chaos that is Korn has perhaps never been more truly represented than with their 13th record, The Nothing, which in true Korn fashion, comes out on Friday the 13th. The significance of the notoriously unlucky day is not lost on singer and songwriter Jonathan Davis, who is fascinated by numerology and the cosmic order.
“Our 13th record comes out on Friday the 13th, which is a full moon, and I think Mercury comes out of retrograde,” he says. In both a physical and metaphorical sense, he surmises, “All the stars are lining up.”
But for all that Davis likes to observe the mysteries of the human experience and the universe surrounding it, he never presumes to interfere with fate—which is the exact attitude he takes to songwriting.
“I never know what’s going on until that moment,” Davis says of the recording process. “That’s why I love records. Each record is different because it’s a different moment in time. That’s how I’ve always done it. It drives producers crazy sometimes…[but] it’s better to do what’s in your heart and walk away.”
This come-what-may approach is more poignant than ever on The Nothing, a record he was writing as he was grieving his wife’s untimely passing. When he wrote lyrics and recorded vocals in the studio, he was walking up to the mic with nothing but pure, unpolished suffering. On the intro track, “The End Begins,” and at other points throughout the record, Davis can be heard crying, pleading, wailing and screaming in despair and frustration. And it’s not done purposefully for the aesthetic of the album—it’s 100 percent real.
“I didn’t know that was gonna happen,” he reflects. “I don’t try to fake emotion. That was the first time performing [those lyrics]. I get overemotional sometimes. I don’t try to do that. I don’t wanna fuckin’ cry. It just overtook me. It happens to me live. Do you know how many times I’ve cried on this tour? I’m not Mister Macho. If I have to cry, I cry. I let it out. If you don’t, you build up and get all kinds of other problems. It’d be a better fuckin’ place [if people understood that].”
Listening to him endure real agony on record is an extremely visceral experience, especially for Davis’s bandmates.
“Jonathan really uses his lyrics and writing records as therapy for himself,” Head says. “It’s like he processes his pain with music and creativity. The thing he went through last year was the worst you could go through, losing someone like that—the mother of your kids. It’s just another level than other records. It’s really special, really raw, and extremely authentic.”
“It wasn’t a fun record for me,” Davis admits, “but I worked really hard on it, the band worked really hard on it, and I’m really excited to get it out. It’s definitely an amazing record, I feel.”
On the subject of his grief, he continues, “It’s off my chest. I’m still healing and still going through everything, but I’m learning to cope. I do what I have to do. I go on tour and get an opportunity to vent what I’m feeling. It’s always been my refuge, my escape, my church. Some people go get a shrink, I’ve got my music.”
But songwriting isn’t the only creative outlet for the musicians in Korn. This time around, they are exploring new avenues, from changing the visuals of their live performance to writing the score for a podcast series also called The Nothing.
Despite sharing the name of the new record, however, the actual story of the podcast has very little to do with it.
“It’s just representing what The Nothing is,” Davis explains. “It’s an unseen force that tips the scales. I got the name from The NeverEnding Story when they have this Nothing come, taking [the world] and destroying it. It’s this dark energy that’s not completely evil but not completely good either.”
As for the live show and the album artwork, Head says it’s the brilliant result of work done by both Korn’s creative team and the creative team behind Twenty One Pilots.
“They gave us a bunch of different visuals and we told them what the record was going to be about,” Head explains. “The chaos of the wires—the guitar cables or something—just caught our eye. They honed in on what we said we liked and the next thing you know we have the wire guy that’s hanging there just looking defeated and devastated, just suspended in nothingness. When you lose so much, you’ve got to face so much trauma. That’s a perfect visual, in my opinion, to speak to that.”
Whereas other bands might tire after record number three, Korn seem to be getting more ambitious as they age and release record number 13.
“I’m 49 now,” Head says. “We started in our early 20s. I didn’t think we would get as big as we did and then to do it all these years later...we thought that [would] be too old. All these bands that I like...Mötley Crüe, they kind of faded away when Nirvana came out. They were in their mid 40s and they were gone. So that’s what we thought: when you get older, you just go away.”
But it doesn’t suit Korn’s style to simply fade into the past. As one might expect of one of the most influential rock and metal bands of all time, Korn keeps striving to be at the forefront of their genre. In fact, settling into adulthood might even be more beneficial for the band. (Not that they still don’t act like kids sometimes: taping a picture of Post Malone’s face to their soundboard, hanging out with Ed Sheeran for the first time and watching Keith Urban damage his multi-million dollar Bugatti in a Hollywood parking lot, for instance.)
“Everyone has a great outlook on life right now,” Head says. “We got past all that stupid drug addiction and rockstar mentality—all that stuff’s gone. [During this record cycle] people got closer who weren’t close before. It put things in perspective. There was just a lot of love.”
While it was no doubt an excruciating process to write and record their 13th album, it also was enlightening. It reminded them exactly why they bother to keep making music more than two decades after they began. Not just why they want to create, but why they need to create. In one simple, sweeping assessment, Head says, “It’s just how we’re built, us humans.”
Korn's 'The Nothing' will be released tomorrow Sept. 13 via Roadrunner Records. See if Korn are playing a show near you here.
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