Life on the road used to be a lot different for Korn.
"We’d be at a rest area or a truck stop," says Jonathan Davis, the band’s frontman, slumped in his chair in a conference room at VICE’s Brooklyn office. "I’d have a ten-dollar roll of quarters, fucking sitting there in those fucking paybooths, calling home. Then we got bigger, and we got the fucking AT&T calling cards."
For those who’ve grown up with iPhones and Skype, what Davis describes might sound positively archaic, like weathervanes or cotton gins. But as a decades-spanning tour veteran with the good fortune to still be fronting one of the most popular heavy metal bands in the world, he enjoys a lot more creative comforts when gigging nowadays. The same goes for guitarist Brian "Head" Welch and drummer Ray Luzier, both of whom slouch to varying degrees around the same table.
"We play outside in the hot weather, but we have a tube for the air conditioning, coming and blowing in my face the whole show," Welch says. "I get, like, a fever where I feel sick on stage if I don't have a fan blowing on my sweat. I chew on ice the whole show."
With all of the band’s members pushing 50, Korn are well past the stage of suffering for their art, an art that is admittedly fixated on suffering itself. (Their last album, helmed by rock producer Nick Raskulinecz, was called The Serenity of Suffering.) The Nothing, which drops this Friday, is their first record in three years; it continues Korn’s mission of probing the hidden corners and harsh realities of life within a shroud discordant darkness. Lead single "You’ll Never Find Me," captures the Korn ethos quite succinctly, with its overarching theme of spiraling self-doubt and depressive self-destruction. Welch and fellow founding member James "Munky" Shaffer steer the ebb-and-flow momentum with their dueling guitars, while bassist Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu and drummer Luzier maintain the devastating tumult of the rhythm section.
With its jagged twists and grim lyricism, The Nothing certainly invites comparisons to Korn, the album that introduced the Bakersfield, CA quintet and ushered in the metal’s nü wave 25 years ago. A mix of Faith No More and N.W.A., the band’s 1994 major label debut was a document of angst and agony that connected with young listeners on a different level than the thrash mastery of Metallica and Slayer or the groove metal hedonism of Pantera. It never charted higher than No. 72 on the Billboard 200, and critical opinions varied wildly, depending on one’s view of the rising tide of nü-metal precursors like Rage Against The Machine and Tool.
Yet Korn songs like "Daddy" and "Faget" tackled topics painfully close to kids who didn’t fit in—people who coped with abuse at home, who felt utterly alone and helpless.
"On the first record, I was just getting the shit out," Davis says of his choice of subject matter. "I didn't know it was gonna spark or so many people were going to be taken back by or feel some kind of relief by it."
Korn went on to sell more than two million copies in the U.S. alone, a testament to the impact it had on a generation of misfits. The album gave nü metal its most meaningful blueprint, and before too long, it prompted a millennium-adjacent revolution marked by acts like Limp Bizkit, Mudvayne, and Slipknot, among others. "I was twenty fucking four—who the fuck knew? I didn't know it was going to be such a big thing," Davis says.
While Davis feels comfortable enough drawing parallels between that album and The Nothing, he stresses that it’s not some gimmicky return to form. "If you make the same record over and over again, then you become like a nostalgic act," he says, bringing to mind the group's work earlier this decade with electronic acts like Noisia and Skrillex, synthy collaborations that left a lasting impression on their subsequent albums, including The Nothing. "You have to roll with the times and just keep stuff fresh and new to stay relevant." Luzier, who joined the band after original drummer David Silveria departed in 2006, concurs. "It sounds like Korn 2019," he says. "It’s us now."
Even with the improved studio conditions and greater songwriting experience, listening to the creeping dread of "The Seduction Of Indulgence" or the twisted desperation grooves of "Harder," it’s hard not to see the connective tissue that tethers The Nothing to Korn’s past: the signature blend of gothic gloom, the primal screams, the heavy metal thunder. "It's got that same emotional darkness as the first one," Welch says, before getting a facetious dig in at the relative newbie Luzier. "The drums are way better on the first one, but we do what we can."
"Life doesn't get any fucking easier. High school does not stop. People still fucking bully and pick on you. Bad things constantly happen through life. It's just how you react to them, how you deal with them."
Five years ago, for its 20th anniversary, the band embarked on a tour where they played Korn for fans in its entirety; to make the experience as intimate as possible, they choose venues that were smaller than the sports arenas they typically headline. Davis says that playing those songs night after night caused him to relive the personal traumas he experienced back then—experiences he is now able to process with years of hindsight.
"Life doesn't get any fucking easier," he says. "High school does not stop. People still fucking bully and pick on you. Bad things constantly happen through life. It's just how you react to them, how you deal with them."
For Davis, as well as the rest of Korn, making music has proved one of the best outlets for dealing with pain, even if the rockstar lifestyle and its constant temptations have not infrequently created new problems, including drug abuse and dependency. The chemicals and chaos proved too much at one point for Welch, who quit the group amid a religious awakening in 2005. While becoming born-again proved life-saving for the guitarist, he found his draw was significantly diminished outside of Korn as he played heavy music that contained Christian themes. Recalling the unglamorous nightclub slog of touring behind his 2008 effort, Save Me From Myself, and short-lived band project Love And Death, he says, "I left the band for eight years and I did that for five—I'm good. They don't have good air conditioning."
Still, Davis romanticizes the old days of roughing it in the van or on the bus and playing non-arena venues, even those smaller than the seated theaters and standing room-spaces he performed at last year in support of his own Black Labyrinth album. "There's something about a hot, sweaty club gig,” he says. “Everybody’s just right fucking there.” "Nothing escapes in the club," Luzier adds, prompting collective laughter around the table.
Welch returned to the fold in 2013, and for the last six years, the core Korn lineup has been essentially fixed. "We're still appreciative of what we do and that we're still on this level," Luzier says. "We're in this for life. It's in our blood."
In other words, there’s simply nothing Korn’s members would rather be doing with their lives. "I mean, I could be stuck sitting in one of those cubicles," Davis says, gesturing toward the rows of communal desks visible from where he’s seated in the conference room. "I'm living our dream."