Rank Your Records: Korn's Jonathan Davis Rates the Band's 11 Albums
ARRRRRREEEEEE YOOOOOOOU REAAAAAAADAAAAAY???
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
With 22 years and 11 records under their belt, Korn have gone from five kids in Bakersfield stumbling across one of the most influential sounds in years to come, to establishing themselves as a natural force in the spectrum of music. Each record shows a different side of what is burrowed deep within the recesses of their minds; Ross Robinson screaming at Jonathan Davis to bring out the clausterphobic and haunting howls at the end of "Daddy," to stomach crushing dubstep drops years later with the help of Skrillex. Korn has transcended being a band into being one of the most polarizing elements in music. We talked to Jonathan Davis about the pains and pleasures of everything they've experienced.
11. TAKE A LOOK IN THE MIRROR (2003)
Noisey: So let’s talk about this one. I remember Head said it was probably the worst Korn album as well.
Jonathan Davis: This record, we wrote a bunch of it while we were on the road in Europe. It was the first record we self-produced and recorded at my house. Head was really messed up at the time, and we were reacting to Untouchables where we did something raw or different, but it didn’t work for me. I think it’s still a good record, like there’s some cool shit on it and I still listen to it occasionally, but yeah definitely my least favorite.
Were there any high points during that time?
It was super fun self-producing it. We had fun doing it at my house with Frank Filipetti and we had a good time doing it, the whole process was fun. But at the time we just weren’t thinking right. I don’t connect to that record.
10. KORN III: REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE (2010)
I remember for this one it was sort of billed as your “return to roots” record, especially with Ross Robinson back. How did recording it go?
Korn III was fucking hard. It was rough, that’s when we had Ross come back in, and he tortured the shit out of me. And I love him, but that’s definitely how he does his thing. It was a very weird album to make and it was a very painful album to make where he’d do a lot of fucked up shit, so yeah. We did the album on tape and dumped it on Pro Tools, but we only did tape edits. It was a return to doing it the old school style, and not having any boundaries or a click track. But I think it was forced and Ross pushed us to do stuff that I was older than, it seemed pointless to try and recapture shit from '94 in '09. It didn’t transfer even though we did well and the record was great.
I imagine it must’ve been awful to return to shit you were dealing with when you were ten years younger.
Yeah. I’d gotten past all that stuff and learned to deal with my problems and my music, but Ross took it to a crazy level I wasn’t comfortable with. But the album came out great. People dug it and felt it.
9. UNTITLED (2007)
I remember this coming off of See You On The Other Side which had pop producing team The Matrix on it, and they were going to do this one but then dropped off partway through it.
When we were doing that record, it was weird. We did it with The Matrix again, and we had Atticus Ross in there to work with us. David Lester too, and Terry Bozzio was in there doing drums and even I was doing some of the drums on there. It’s all over the place, I think it’s an amazing record and I still listen to it, probably our most “artsy” record out of the rest of them, but I think we have way better records than that.
Yeah, Korn going atmosphere was cool and strange to hear.
We were on some weird trip. [Laughs] It was our super, super experimental record. I still love it though, don’t get me wrong.
8. LIFE IS PEACHY (1996)
I’m not gonna lie, I think for a lot of people this is like the Korn record, so it’s surprising to see it here.
This is a great record. I love this record and it’s killer but it was very rushed. We just did the first Korn record and we went out and toured for 18 months, and we had to hurry up and do this record and get the fuck back out there to keep touring, so it’s really rushed. There’s great songs on there, "A.D.I.D.A.S". is on there, "Wicked" was good and it was the second record with Ross which was cool. But yeah, very rushed, very raw, it’s still a cool-ass record. I was so scared when it came out, for the sophomore jinx. But it came out killer.
It seemed like there was a lot of pressure on you guys to capitalize on the first one. Did the pressure weigh on you during that time?
Yeah definitely. We didn’t have that much time, and it was crazy, we had to beat the clock. I remember some pressure but I was so fucked up, I don’t remember. That’s when I was drinking. [Laughs]
7. SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE (2005)
So I know the song didn’t come directly off the record, but I remember at my eigth grade dance I got the DJ to play your cover of “Word Up,” and it was the biggest sense of achievement to have a fucking Korn song playing then.
Awesome! [Laughs] That’s so cool.
But even though it didn’t come off the record, it seemed like with this album, there was a purposeful shift to make the songs slightly more accessible than previous works. What was your headspace like going into it?
We were going in wanting to work and try different shit, and we always wanted to experiment, so we figured hey let’s work with a fucking writing team. Let’s get some pop writers, what the fuck could happen? They won’t change the sound, but they could bring different things we wouldn’t think of. So we came with The Matrix on that and came up with some really good shit. That was right when Head left, so we were already freaked out and wrote different on the record. Munky went into a studio for a couple weeks and just wrote riffs. Scott put the riffs into songs and recorded them, then we worked on melody lines with Lauren and it was a totally different way of doing records because we wanted to do because we wanted to keep experimenting, and we wanted to do different things. It seemed like shit worked out, and yeah it was kind of poppy but I don’t think it was a wrong move. We got all kinds of shit from people but it was like, we’re artists, we’re going to do what we do.
6. THE PARADIGM SHIFT (2013)
So this is the newest record, and Head’s back on it and along with that, there’s still some of the dubstep elements left back from The Path of Totality. What was it like reconnecting on a record and writing these songs?
It was awesome, man. I wasn’t there during the writing sessions when he was there because I was going through hell coming off of benzodiazepines and all kinds of shit, trying to get my mental shit in check. I’d been on that medicine for a long time and it really gets you fucked up when you come off it. It makes your brain rewired one way and then it shifts back to another way. So I was whacked out of my mind. But I was just happy to have Head back, and I was trying to get my shit together and my life together. It wasn’t like I was a drug addict, but I was medicated by a doctor for so long and it was time for me to come off. If you’re on for too long, you have to take them for the rest of your life. And I wanted to do the record using some of those elements from The Path of Totality and taking it a little bit farther. It really is one of my favorite records.
Yeah, even like “Hater” which came out later had a lot of energy back that people loved.
Right, that came off the reissue where we got off the road and wrote that, had the band play on it and we just put it out. I think “Hater” became the “Faget” of 2014. With the first Korn record, people were getting called queers and faggots, they didn’t have the term "hater." They were just bullies and shit like that. So something that connected on that same level as “Faget” but for now. It touched so many lives, where people got through the bullshit. It was really the first time I’d ever written an empowering, positive Korn song.
Do you want to write more positive stuff? Like a lot of Korn’s stuff comes from trauma or pain, is it hard to keep doing that?
You’re human, I’m human, there’s fucking always bad shit happening, it’s just how it goes. I just use my music to deal with those things. Usually the shit that inspires me is when the dark and horrible shit happens. [Laughs] The bullshit just keeps coming, it don’t ever go away.
5. ISSUES (1999)
That sort of ties into this record because it seemed like a reaction to Follow the Leader. Like you guys were fucking huge at the time, and this record was so angry and dropped a lot of the hip-hop stuff from Follow The Leader.
There was some, but me and the crew just worked with a different producer, Brenden O'Brien, and we just came off Follow The Leader which put us in arenas. I remember working really hard on it, it was a concept record because after Follow The Leader, it was my first record sober. And I was dealing with horrible panic attacks and anxiety disorders. I made it this concept album about myself going crazy through all the anxiety and shit. So we did all the interludes with Brendan and we made it really crazy, and it’s one of my favorites.
I’d say it’s probably my favorite, like every song on the record is so concise and thought out, like even non-singles like “Trash” were so beautiful and heavy.
That was the beauty of that record. Brendon was like, “You don’t need that part,” and was making stuff so simplistic and keeping shit simple and not thinking so hard about everything. It all just hit home and people could wrap their head around the record quick because the songs were so simple. That’s what I loved about Brendan, he’d just be like, “OK that’s good man, but we need to go! What’s the next part?” He just made it so simple and touching.
4. FOLLOW THE LEADER (1998)
So with this one, you guys were the biggest band in the fucking world, pretty much. You won a Grammy, even. What was it like being Korn around '98?
It was insane, brother. Making that record, for one, almost killed me. Our booze and alcohol budget... like, we spent $60,000 on alcohol to make that record. [Laughs] Last record of me getting fucked up, and it was insane. First we started out and wrote “Freak on a Leash” and “Got the Life” and all this other stuff in a rehearsal studio in Gardenia or some shit like that. We did it all ourselves, and we had all these producers come in trying to sell us shit, and we ended up going with Steve Thompson. We picked him because he actually did his homework and came into the studio with a couple cases of Coors Light. And because he did that, he got the job. [Laughs] Eventually we got in the studio with Steve and he’s a great guy but it just wasn’t working out. So we had the engineer Toby Wright come in and he got us through everything. It was also the first record without Ross. Like, that record would’ve never been made without Ross. He’s into that guttural and emotional real shit. I love it too and I appreciate it, but it was time for us to do different types of songs. And it paid off, man. It worked.
What was your reaction at that time to the grouping of nu-metal with like you guys and Limp Bizkit. Did you feel like you were a part of something or was it just weird to be in that space?
Yeah, that nu-metal thing. It was funny how they came up with that shit, because when we first came out, no one knew what the fuck to do with us. I’d like to find that fucking writer that coined that term, nu-metal. When we came out, we toured with everyone from No Doubt, Pennywise, Cadillac Trance, Sick of It All, KMFDM, it was all over the place. So finally someone came up with “nu-metal” and everyone copped our shit. I didn’t understand it, like I never thought of us to be metal to begin with. Yeah, we’re heavy and downtuned, but metal, to me, is like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, that’s metal man. I always thought of us as a funk band, that funky groovy shit. When they came out with that nu-metal shit, like, I’ve always been fighting that shit. Then Limp Bizkit came up and we found them and took them on tour and blew them up, and all the other bands came and we had a scene which was really good and solidified with the Family Values Tour.
One other question about the record; “All In The Family,” what was that like to record, because it’s just so crazy?
It is the dumbest fucking track Korn ever did. [Laughs] That is what drugs and alcohol will do to a motherfucker. [Laughs]
3. THE PATH OF TOTALITY (2011)
I’m really curious, what was the first dubstep track you had heard and what was that like?
It was probably an Excision tune.
Awesome. Yeah, listening to "Shambala 2008" to what he does now is incredible. I thought my room was going to turn upside down when I first heard it.
Totally. He like singlehandedly made his own genre out of dubstep. When it was in London, it was just more dubby, it was more reggae, and completely different. But this guy took it and made it metal. When I first heard it, it just clicked in my fucking mind, how do we marry these two things? 'Cause it was some of the heaviest shit I’d ever heard in my life. So I took it to Munky, and was like, “Yeah, let’s fucking mix this up with what we do. See what happens.” First person I called was Sonny Moore, Skrillex, and asked if he’d be interested in doing something. Originally it was going to be an EP, and he had just dropped Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, and that shit was ridiculously heavy. I remember him from From First to Last, he interviewed me for Revolver where he picked me as his favorite singer, and I was like, “Why would anyone pick me at this point?” So I called him and he came out, we did a couple songs, and I’m like, “We gotta keep doing this with more producers,” so he hooked me up with Kill The Noise, and Excision, and Datsik, and Downlink, Noisia. Then went onto John of Feed Me, they called him Spore with his old drum and bass shit. And it was cool 'cause that was the shit I was into, back in the day. I’d DJ hip-hop shit but I was more into that electronic shit. We just wanted to experiment to meld the two worlds. We didn’t know it was going to work or not, but we got in there to do something cool and fresh and it’s just one of my favorite records still.
Yeah, with The Paradigm Shift coming after, it definitely seemed like it breathed a ton of new life into the band.
It absolutely did. 'Cause the rock was tired, we needed new stuff to change things up. We want to be leaders not followers. We always take those chances and experiment and do some cool shit. A lot of bands are too scared to do that.
2. UNTOUCHABLES (2002)
So tell me what it was like jumping into this one. I know it was super expensive.
We were coming off of Issues, and we wanted to make an amazing record. That’s when we hooked up with Michael Beinhorn, and Beinhorn’s whole vision was to make an amazing sounding rock record that could never be made again. Untouchables cost us four million dollars, we did shit that couldn’t ever be done again. And I wanted to shoot a documentary about that record. We spent so much money, the drums alone we spent a whole month just getting drum sounds. There were 50 mics just on the drumset that they picked out and tested. It took two years making it, four million, and it was the very first 96k recording done at that sample rate, so there was some shit that hadn’t been done. We had to get someone to make clocks to clock the sample rates. It was crazy. Usually I do my vocals and it takes me a month or two weeks, but just vocals it took me five, almost six months. With Beinhorn, sometimes I’d walk in and sing and he’d just say, “Go home, your voice ain’t right.” It was ridiculous, all the shit we did. I can’t explain how crazy or scientific it is. To this day, when I turn it on in a big system, it’s the most thickest heaviest sounding record Korn has ever made. It was the peak and pinnacle of everything in Korn. I still can’t believe how much work went in on it. It was a lot. [Laughs]
1. KORN (1994)
So this is the start of the legacy.
Yeah, the record that changed everything. At the time in rock, there was nothing new or different, and it felt so stagnant. And here come these guys from Bakersfield with this bouncing sound, and I’m screaming my throat out, being super emotional and bringing up all this weird shit. That album was a very fucking dark record, I didn’t realize how dark until we started playing it 20 years later. It changed everything, man, and I’m not saying that because I was in the band, but I started seeing kids in baggy clothes and metal kids in Adidas. It was fucking crazy, we never knew it would blow up and I’d be here 20 years later talking about all of this shit.
I don’t know why I’m so hung up on this, but it seemed like a record that could only be made by kids from Bakersfield. Like, you’re about an hour away from Los Angeles and there’s the trickling down of their hip-hop and hardcore influence. And there’s always something off about growing up in a small town and then having both those elements coalescing.
Absolutely. Totally, man. It’s what we were all doing. I was into hip-hop, Freddie was into hip-hop, James and Head were doing the metal thing and it all mashed together. I don’t think anyone else could’ve come up with that shit. In Bakersfield, either you were a drug addict, or you got someone pregnant and had to get a job. There was no place to go, so the only thing you could do was really get into music or do something like that. My dad had a music store and recording studio, so I really got into it then.
When you were writing that first record, did you know you were on some different shit?
Oh yeah, we all felt like we were on some different shit but we didn’t understand or know how people would relate or understand. It was my fucked up crazy life and what I was thinking about emotionally, and then the sound and the groove, it just mixed together so well and turned into something that was magic. It made people feel something and move them. That’s what good music is. It’s the purest art form we have on this planet. People around the world get together because of their love of music. We can all say we love it. It’s the most amazing art form, and I love it.
Korn’s seen so many shifts and turns throughout the career. Is it weird thinking about your discography or is it exciting to think what’s next?
Oh I can’t wait to do the next record. I’ll keep doing this until I can’t do it no more. That’s just how I am, and I love music that much and that’s how much it means to me. I’m down to do another ten records, shit. [Laughs] I’m never gonna run out of shit. I don’t know who I fucked over, or what dog I kicked, but bad shit always happens to me man. I’ll always have fuel. [Laughs] I see how it helps kids and I love writing lyrics and what I do and what it does for people. It’s not about the money or fame anymore, it’s just about seeing people really hurt and damaged and upset over shit, and somehow our music makes some people feel better. That’s why I’m still here.
John Hill is a writer living in Brooklyn, and is always feeling like a freak on a leash. Follow him on Twitter - @JohnxHill