We’ve Got A File On You: Korn’s Jonathan Davis
Mention Korn to most people, and they’ll immediately and reflexively think of nu-metal — the late ’90s-early ’00s musical movement known for heavy music and even heavier lyrics (along with not-small doses of rage and misogyny.) However, time and hindsight have proven that the Bakersfield, California, band is far more versatile and enduring than their JNCO-wearing peers. Credit Korn’s penchant for interesting collaborators — Skrillex, Ice Cube, Evanescence’s Amy Lee — and a willingness to view heavy music as a malleable thing. Dubstep, synth-pop, hip-hop: Over the decades, Korn have incorporated it all.
Out Friday, Korn’s new album Requiem is yet another formidable, boundary-busting addition to the band’s catalog — in no small part because pausing their tour afforded them lots of time to experiment. “Some songs have 20 different vocal tracks on there,” frontman Jonathan Davis says. “There’s a lot of vocals going on. And I did them all on different mics and all this different layering and all this stuff that takes a lot of time. But that’s all we had.” He laughs. “It really shows, at the end.”
Davis has been keeping busy outside of Korn, releasing a solo album (2018’s Black Labyrinth) and a 2021 cover of Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin.” On the eve of Requiem‘s release, Davis checked in about his early DJ career, his fondness for country music and Duran Duran, Korn’s penchant for covers (“We’ve been talking about doing a covers album forever”) and the band’s place in modern music.
Korn’s Requiem (2022)
Requiem was made differently because you weren’t able to play live shows while making it. How did that change your creative process?
JONATHAN DAVIS: There was no pressure. Usually when we make records, we just get together and knock it out. [We] spend four months, five months, six months sometimes, and go into the studio and write until we have 15 songs recorded.
[With] this one, we got together in blocks of 10 days, and then we’d go home for a month. And we did that with the band, right. Once they were done, and came back and recorded all their parts, I spent a long time working on vocals. It was just the feeling of… [there were no] pending tours coming up or [the feeling of] you have to do this or that. [It was like we were] on a forced timeout. It was really creatively amazing for us. There’s always that pressure, and it usually falls on me, because I’m always the last to go because I need the music done completely for me to plug in and do what I do over the music.
Sound-wise, too, the way we made it — we did a lot of analog recording, which I love. I prefer that medium when we do Korn. Some bands, it’s good in the digital realm. For us, performing it and doing it in analog, and capturing it with digital, it really sounded amazing. And you can tell the difference. If you turn on the radio, you hear modern rock bands, they sound almost exactly all the same. The songs are different, obviously, but the actual sound sounds the same. So this one, instantly, when you hear it, it’s a little bit different, which I really enjoy.
For Requiem, did you find yourself bringing in any different or surprising creative inspirations? Were you listening to anything that really inspired you?
DAVIS: The thing that’s really inspired me lately… I’ve been listening to a lot of ’30s and ’40s music, like Cab Calloway and the Andrew Sisters and all this stuff like that. Maybe with all the harmonies and stuff I did, that kind of inspired me. But that also was pulled from inspiration from listening to old ELO records, ABBA, Def Leppard. All the ones that really layered to get real big vocal tracks. I love doing that shit. There’s an art to it. That really inspired me, and I went full blast on this one.
It is true — not everyone can get the Mutt Lange effect and have it sound good. It can sound like a real mess.
DAVIS: Yeah, there’s a secret delay, and you can’t use the same mic. You have to do all kinds of things… you know, [there are] different ways of capturing it or it phases out. It starts to sound really muddled, and you can’t really hear. It just gets washy, I guess.
Also when we do Korn records, I’m the production nerd. I love all that. So working with Chris Collier on that was really, really fun. Most producers these days, they like working in the box, which is a computer, and they have every kind of plugin. [But] I prefer hardware. So it was fun to see him trying to go load up a plugin, and I go “Wait, man, though, what are you doing here? It’s right here,” and I point to the hardware. [Laughs] He’s like, “Yeah, man, let’s do it.” So it was fun to explore all that stuff.
After being in a band for 30-some years, you know, it’s nice to still have that inspiration and that excitement to be like, “Alright, let’s do it this way.” That’s always gratifying.
DAVIS: It is fun. I mean, all the music that I really enjoy and love was done in the ’60s and ’70s, in the ’30s and ’40s, before the computer and before everything was perfect. I hate music that’s perfect. But when you really go back and listen to old records, you hear little inconsistencies and things here and there that made the listening experience that much more. There was like a pulsing soul to the music. It flowed. There’s no click tracks, none of that stuff. So I kind of really miss that. When we do our next one, we’ll probably do it just full-on right to tape and then just do stuff digitally. I love that. It’s like the human element’s been ripped out of rock music lately.
“What It Is” Country Version (2020)
You released a country version of your solo song “What It Is” in 2020. What inspired you to do that? Was it just the lockdown?
DAVIS: When I went on my solo tour, my band are all from Nashville. They’re all country session players and amazing musicians. The whole thing was about musicianship. At any given time I could call out — and I do it in my show — I do versions of songs, right, “Let’s just do it ’70s funk,” or “Latin feel.” I could call out anything, and they’d play it. They’d do the chord progressions but in that style of music. I did a country one, and we ended up doing “What It Is,” and it sounded so good. It was so different. I just rolled with it.
At the time, I asked Nick Raskulinecz, who was producing the Korn record [The Nothing] “Can we record this in Nashville?” because his studio’s in Nashville. And we did it the old way. There [were] three mics on the kit, which is how they did it back in the old days. It was all done on tape, and there were about eight tracks. I really loved that.
I mean, our studio in Bakersfield is Buck Owens’ old studio. I’m just embedded in country. It was fun to do.
Since you did grow up in Bakersfield, I was going to ask you if that also had an impact on it because the city is ground zero for a certain strain of country music.
DAVIS: Yeah, the Bakersfield sound — the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s explosion that came out of the West Coast. They call that Nashville West. I love the history here. The Rolling Stones talked about Bakersfield, the Beatles did a cover of “Act Naturally” by Buck Owens. It was a huge time in music, and then it came out of Bakersfield.
I have the place where it all came from. They all recorded there. They all did stuff there. So it’s exciting. I love the history there and the vibe. It really is inspiring for me. And the band; they love it there.
How long have you had that studio?
DAVIS: I got it from the Owens family, but I grew up in that building. My dad had a recording studio before me, so I literally was there since I was a child. It was a trip for me. My kids run around in there. And I’m making music there just like my dad did, so it was full circle. It’s an amazing place. [Ed: Davis took over the studio in 2010 after his father shut it down in 2008.]
They did this studio in 1967, so it’s all art deco. Well, it’s in a movie theater — the theater was built in 1938, and it was an art deco movie theater and it’s beautiful. They preserved everything on the sides of the walls. Buck came in and he made it that ’60s groovy, with spheres on the ceiling and weird, like, baby blue carpet. There’s wood paneling all over the walls. So it’s like full-on early ’70s amazing vibe there. And we’ve kept it like that the whole time.
When you were a kid running around the studio, what was the impetus that you’re like, “I want to get into music.” What was your earliest musical memory?
DAVIS: My earliest musical memory is going and seeing my dad play. He played in bars around there. He toured; he was a touring musician. It was an amazing time when I was a child.
The first thing that made me want to really, really go and do that is I watched the musical Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. I was three years old. My father and mother were in it, and then my soon-to-be stepfather played Judas.
That musical — I don’t know, there was something about it. I wanted to be a musician from then on. [My dad and I] used to jam together. I started playing drums when I was like three or four years old. I actually got to go play in his bar sometimes. He’d sneak me in and give me a Shirley Temple. I played two songs with them, and then I had to leave. I was starting when I was a child.
Playing Bagpipes Because Of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)
And then you started playing bagpipes inspired by Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Is that true?
DAVIS: Yeah, it was when Spock was dying and his casket was coming out. But I grew up listening to bagpipe records from my grandparents.
When they did “Amazing Grace,” I’m like, “I want to play bagpipes.” The high school I went to had a pipe band. That’s when I learned started learning how to play bagpipes. I went and competed a couple times and did all that it was fun.
Then I ended up being a rock & roll bagpiper. [Laughs] In the early days, people were freaking the fuck out. First of all, they didn’t understand the sound that was coming out of our speakers and what we were doing. And then my skinny little ass would come out playing bagpipes and I just put it over the edge. Everyone was just like, “What the fuck is going on?”
DJing In The Mid-’80s
You started DJing in the late ’80s.
DAVIS: I loved old New York freestyle music. The shit they play in roller rinks now. [Laughs] And old-school hip-hop and all that. I really got into it.
Before that, in junior high I was listening to Mötley Crüe and Dio. And then my dad became a born-again Christian and burned all my tapes. Then I moved on to Skinny Puppy and Ministry and all the Wax Trax Chicago stuff. And then after I went through that phase, I wanted to DJ, and so I started DJing and listening to all this music.
What really inspired me were these two guys out of Bakersfield called the Baka Boyz, who went on to [Los Angeles radio station] Power 106. They’re big-time DJs, but they used to make mixtapes and I listened to them. And then I started DJing I used to go battle with them. That was a good part of life too, the high school dances I’d play.
That was fun. I’d practice for hours. At that time, it was turntablism, beat-matching, and beat juggling. So I really got into that and went through that phase in my life musically.
How did you go over at high school dances and parties? I mean, being a kid doing that — that’s pretty incredible. Did you play proms?
DAVIS: School dances and parties and stuff like that. I mean, people dug it. I was a little bit different at school. Everyone thought I was gay, for one, and then two, I was totally into the New Romantic music in the ’80s. So the eyeliner and the pink pants. You know, my favorite band was Duran Duran. [Laughs] Going in there and doing those dances, people didn’t know what the fuck to think of me. On top of that, I was working at the coroner’s office doing autopsies. I was all over the fucking place. Nobody knew what to think of me.
Working As A Coroner’s Assistant In The Late 1980s
How did you get into working as a coroner’s assistant? Did your high school have a program?
DAVIS: Yeah, it was called ROP, the regional occupation program. A lot of people need respiratory therapists or EKG techs and shit like that. And it was a program to get your foot in the door if you want to pursue that as a career.
My sick ass, because I had loved horror movies and dark shit since I came out of my mother [Laughs], I was like, “Oh, I want to go do autopsies. I think that’d be amazing.” And that’s what I applied for. I had to go through three different fucking interviews and psychological [tests] and stuff, because I was a kid. I was 16, 17 years old. And they let me go through all the interviews. They loved me and they let me go [into the program].
I showed up the first day and that first day changed my life forever. I came face to face with my own mortality. Everybody’s mortality. Us as Americans… we think we’re going to fucking live forever. And I saw my first dead body and I was just white, pale, kind of freaked out. But then I went in there the first day and I did my first autopsy and that was just like, I was hooked. I loved it.
Little did I know I would get PSTD from it later on in my life because I was doing, like, babies and stuff that was really intense that I shouldn’t have been doing. I mean, they wouldn’t let me do the murder cases and stuff like that. But doing kids — there was one baby I was doing an autopsy on and we found a huge bag of rock cocaine in the poor kid’s stomach. He got into his mother’s stash and ate it. It was heartbreaking.
At the time, I became really numb and I didn’t know if I just [should] blow it off as a joke, or I’d have to make jokes to make myself sane. But it was too much for a kid my age to go through. But I really enjoyed the time was there I mean there was there’s good and bad in everything, right?
When did you end up exiting the profession? What was the impetus for you to say, “You know what, I can’t do this”?
DAVIS: I got this Korn gig [Laughs].
That’s a good reason [Laughs].
DAVIS: I did the coroner’s office. And then I applied for a full-time position, because I worked part time when they needed help. And I didn’t get it. So I went and enrolled at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. That’s when I became a mortician. I started embalming. And I did that for two years. And then I got the Korn gig, and then I was done.
And you created the band’s logo, the very iconic logo.
DAVIS: Yeah, really quick with my left hand and a black crayon. And that became the logo. We took it later and traced it out. The studio where we used to rehearse was called Underground Chicken Sound. [There was] a screen printing press business where you pull T-shirts. We tightened up the logo, and we started pulling stickers and making T-shirts.
That’s how we brought up the awareness the band at the time. There was no internet. So we went around and stuck Korn stickers on every stop sign in Huntington Beach and gave tons of them to fans and they’d slap them in every town up and down California. To the point where people were like, “What the hell is this Korn band?” [Laughs] It was a good time. I’d sit there for hours and just pull stickers.
Collaborating With Ice Cube On Korn’s “Children Of The Corn” (1998)
Both solo and with Korn, you’ve collaborated with hip-hop icons: Ice Cube, Xzibit, Q-Tip, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Which have been most memorable for you? Does one stand out more than others?
DAVIS: Well, Cube because I was a huge N.W.A fan back in the day when I was a DJ. That was surreal having him coming in and working with us. Another one was Nas.
We were inspired by hip-hop music. We subtly would sprinkle it in. We weren’t like a rap-rock band like Limp Bizkit or anything like that. But we were fans of it. And to be able to work with those guys — those were all legends. They were all different, but the one that hit me the hardest was probably Ice Cube.
What was it like working with him?
DAVIS: It was awesome. He came in and listened to the song and he had an idea. He’s like, “What do you think about ‘Children Of The Corn’?” I’m like, “Go with it, man!” And he came in and wrote his parts, and I did my part, and we had a good time and then he split. It was quick too. He just came in, wrote lyrics, did it, and he was out. We were blown away. But he had already been doing it for so long. With us, we were still kids being dipshits drinking and partying and doing all this stuff. So it was really inspiring to see how he worked.
There is something to be said for being like, “OK, I’m going to come in and get things done.”
DAVIS: From that time, if I did a collaboration, I just came in and did my shit. I’ve always been like that ever since. I’ll come in, and I’m in and out in less than an hour.
South Park‘s Episode “Korn’s Groovy Pirate Ghost Mystery” (1999)
How did you end up having your own South Park episode?
DAVIS: I think the label or our management contacted us and asked if we wanted to debut our new single on South Park. And we go, “Oh, hell yes.” We actually went in and recorded it. And, funny story, someone forgot to hit record on the recorder. So we had to go out and do it a second time. But we got it done.
Appearing On TRL (1999)
During the ’90s, Korn started taking off, and by the end of the decade, things are going in a really good direction. And you ended up on TRL a lot. I was watching TRL at that point, and it was boy bands and stuff — and then it was Korn and your videos. What was that like?
It was very surreal, because it was mostly all pop. Boy bands, pop artists, hip-hop artists — and then us. We didn’t really fit the mold of any of them. Some people laughed and called us a metal boy band [Laughs]. But we weren’t. We were new and we broke open a lot of doors for a lot of bands at that time. But that whole experience was very surreal.
I remember the times we’d show up at Times Square and we tried to get out and they had to, like, pick us up like footballs and throw us in cars. Cars were getting almost tipped over and people were getting slammed. There were so many people. At one point, we showed up there and they made us leave town because there were, like, 10,000 kids in Times Square. Traffic couldn’t get by, and it was a big scene. It was it was insane. It was so different.
Why do you think the band connected like that then? Because, I mean, that’s like Beatlemania right there.
DAVIS: It was. I think there was no band at the time that kids really could… I think they connected with, one, the sound and two what I was singing about. It felt like camaraderie of people that felt the same way. And “Hey, this guy’s singing about this, I’m not alone.” And there was a real deep emotional attachment to the band at that time.
And I think it’s proven to now — here’s 27 years later, [we’re] still making records still selling out sheds, and doing big, huge things. When it usually doesn’t happen. It wasn’t more, “Oh, this is my band.” It was more of an emotional attachment and became more of a lifestyle. It was weird.
I was watching last night, the contest where we revealed the cover [of 1999’s Issues] and just… everything that was going on. It was insane. It was a great time.
Yeah, I found a video where you are in a Hummer, and you’re being ushered out and it’s total bedlam. There are police getting you guys into the studio. And then they interview a fan who is so incredibly nervous. She’s so excited to ask you a question, and you could tell that she’s a teenager and it’s everything to her. It’s really touching, honestly, when you look at it now.
DAVIS: To this day, there’s fans that say, “This band saved my life,” or, “This band helped me get through a horrible, horrible hard time in my life.” That’s what makes it all worth it to me.
When people tell you that, what is that like? I mean, how do you feel when people say that?
DAVIS: At first, it was overwhelming. I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I’m just singing and getting out what I need to get out. But as I got older, it’s amazing. It’s a reward. It’s anything better than money or anything else to actually help a person get through a dark time like that. And they sincerely mean it; you can see it in their face when they’re telling you. It’s magic. It’s amazing.
Scoring Queen Of The Damned (2002)
At the height of Korn’s success, you wrote and produced the score for Queen Of The Damned. How did you get involved in that? And what was that like for you as an artist to do that?
DAVIS: I wanted to branch out and do different things, and I wanted to try scoring movies. And so I went with my manager. I walked into his office, and Richard Gibbs was sitting there. And he’s like, “Hey, this is Richard Gibbs. He scores movies, I think you two should get together and see what you can come up with.”
So I went over to [Gibbs’] house. He wanted to see if I had the knack… to paint emotions with the music is basically what you do. He threw up a cue for me and is like, “Write what you feel there.” I did and he’s like, “Yeah, you can do this.”
We started hanging out and just messed around. He was teaching me film scoring. And then the opportunity for Queen Of The Damned came up. They wanted to have us write original music for the movie because that was going to dictate how they shot it, because they were going to do three music videos. And then they’d cast it. So we wrote the music, got that done, they shot the movie, and then we got hired to do the score too. We took the basic themes from the rock songs and made them to score with a 103-piece orchestra.
It was an amazing experience. It was mind-blowing, just having that many musicians and everything that went into it. It was a huge thing that took a year-and-a-half of my life to make. But I’m very, very proud. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments, because I did that score with Richard. To this day, people love that soundtrack and people love the score. And it’s stood the test of time.
Unfortunately, Aaliyah passed. Me and Richard, we were going to write a song for her. That never got to happen. But it was all-around this amazing experience.
And you also had a bunch of other vocalists sing on some of your music.
DAVIS: We had to do that. It sucked and I was pissed, because [Korn’s then-label] Epic wouldn’t release me to be on the soundtrack. They said I could do the movie, but you can’t be on the soundtrack. So the only other option was, hey, we’ll get Warner Bros. artists and we’ll have them sing the songs and that’ll be on the soundtrack. And it worked; people liked it. I still hope one day I can release those.
Korn Covering Metallica’s “One” For MTV Icon (2003)
You really nailed that, and that’s an intense song to begin with. Did you choose to do that song?
DAVIS: We chose to [do that]. We [had] recorded it, and then they did the MTV Icon [special on Metallica]. Everybody gets to choose a song and we go, “We’re doing ‘One.'” And we did it, and it was fun. We like doing covers, it’s fun. It was cool to play it in front of them and see their faces.
Korn Covering Cameo’s “Word Up!” (2004)
Did you ever get to meet the band after doing the cover?
DAVIS: I didn’t. That was unfortunate. We used to do that cover all the time, even back in the early days when we’d soundcheck, people were like, “Whoa, that’s so badass.”
The funny thing about “Word Up!” — I sang the vocals at Peter Frampton’s studio at his house [Laughs].
How did that happen?
DAVIS: We were on the road, and I had to fix some stuff. And we said, “We need to find a studio where we’re at.” I think it was in Connecticut.” They go, “Well, there’s this studio here.” And I show up, and it’s Peter Frampton house. The vocals were done there at his house. So fucking awesome.
Was he home?
DAVIS: No. But it was Peter Frampton’s house, it’s so cool [Laughs].
You know you’re going to sound good because it’s Peter Frampton’s house. Your vocals will sound awesome. Did he have his platinum awards on his wall?
DAVIS: His guitars were in there.
Korn Covering Radiohead’s “Creep” For MTV Unplugged (2007)
I think this cover surprised a lot of people, because they might not have realized your vocal craft. Most of the covers of the song you hear are really heavy and people really lean into it amplify the grunginess of the song. You almost went the opposite direction and tapped into something different.
DAVIS: I mean, that’s an amazing song. That song is about [how] people picked on you and made you feel inadequate. So that was awesome to do that project. Whole thing was insane too. We did that with Richard, my scoring partner, and incorporated all kinds of stuff to make it work. But I really did love that that version. And it was right there with just me and a glass harmonica. It was really fragile.
Working With Skrillex On Korn’s The Path Of Totality (2011)
You chose Korn’s The Path Of Totality in this Amoeba Records video. Why do you gravitate toward that album? What makes it special for you?
DAVIS: Just because it was so different. It was a mixture of electronic and heavy music, just the perfect match between both. And when I first heard, you know, bass music, it was so heavy and I was like, “Oh my God, we got to do something like this, mix these two things together.”
And the first person I called was Skrillex to see if he would do it. Because I was a big fan of his band From First To Last. He’s like, “Sure.” We didn’t know if we were going to make a record or not. But when we did “Get Up!” and “Chaos Lives In Everything,” we were like, “We have to make a record.”
So then we hooked up with Excision and then those guys hooked us up with Kill The Noise and all kinds of different other bass-heavy music. It was just such a huge departure, and that’s why I loved it.
I think people forget how mind-blowing that music sounded when it came out. Like when dubstep was coming up — it sounded like nothing else out there. It was like rock music had been several decades before.
DAVIS: Yeah, it was something different. And that’s what Korn does: We try to do different things. I mean, so many people copied what we did early [Laughs]. We’re always coming up with new things and new ways to present ourselves, but that’s what makes it fun. If you do the same old thing, it’s going to get boring and it’s not gonna be good.
What did you learn from collaborating with Skrillex?
DAVIS: I love his sound design and he’s really musical and I liked working with him. He’s just a good musician. I don’t know if I learned anything from him, but it was fun playing with him.
Covering Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf” With Asking Alexandria (2014)
What was it like channeling your inner—or not-so-inner—Simon Le Bon?
DAVIS: The first time I met Simon Le Bon I almost fell over. I met him at this bar in London called Browns, I think it was called at the time. I walked up and said, “Man, I just want to meet you. You were my idol when I was a kid, and I love Duran Duran.” And he goes, “Name a song.” I’m like, “Jesus, OK, what song?” He goes, “What’s your favorite song?” I go, “The Chauffeur.” And he goes, “How old are you?” And I told him how old I was, and he did the math and goes, “Yeah, about right.” That was the first time we talked! [Laughs.]
And then later on, when we sold out Wembley Arena — Simon and Robert Smith and Gary Numan all showed up. So I’m having a fucking heart attack. After that I made the connection with Robert Smith to do the Unplugged thing.
So I have to go back and ask: Gary Numan, Simon Le Bon, and Robert Smith showed up. What did you do? Did you talk to them?
DAVIS: I was losing my shit. I really quickly said hi, because I had to get ready, and it takes a while for me to get ready for a show. But it was cool.
And then after that I got to hang out with Simon, so that was awesome. Another time, me and my agent went out. We went to this place called Ciro’s, which is in London. It’s a pizza place. And I got to go out and hang out with Simon all night. We ate pizza and hung out and watched people play. It was amazing when you get to meet your idols. That was fucking amazing. I’ll never forget that.
Did you guys talk about music? What did you talk about? That’s incredible.
DAVIS: Just music… and [we] just hung out. Like dudes hang out. We were eating pizza, just talking about tour. It was one of those nights I’ll never forget. And plus I don’t want to talk too much — I don’t want to bug him [Laughs].
As a musician, what kind of musical tricks did you learn from Duran Duran?
DAVIS: I was inspired by the melody. I love their melody. It was very poppy and different. Within Korn, there’s this heavy music against these poppy melodies. Finding my voice, it all worked out.
Guesting On Suicide Silence’s “Witness The Addiction” (2011)
You did a song with Suicide Silence, and they’re just one of the younger bands that’s really been inspired by Korn. Where else do you see the band’s influence in modern music?
DAVIS: I don’t like to say, because then I come off like a pompous ass a little bit. I think we inspired a lot with the seven-string guitar, that sound, and I think I made it OK for people to deal with their emotions and sing about them.
I’m not saying I was the only one who did that — the fucking god of that was Kurt Cobain. Even before that in all this rock music. I just think I touched on something was a little bit more intense, and people were inspired by it.
But I don’t want to claim any kind of credit like that. I think we started a new sound and a new kind of music, yes — but I think it was all the people that were inspired by it that took it, ran with it, that made it what it became. And then here I am later — and we survived it all.
Requiem is out 2/4 on Loma Vista/Concord.