Weep not for Korn. Although they’ve been mostly ignored in their career by MTV and commercial radio, the Orange County, Calif., band has gold and near-platinum sales under its belt, and a sophomore album, Life Is Peachy, that debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200. Korn will be headlining Lollapalooza this summer and have earned an unexpected nomination in the heavy-metal category at this year’s Grammy Awards.
Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis is pleasantly shocked by the industry nod, but he can’t help chuckling at the heavy-metal tag. “They gotta come up with a new name for it,” he says.
Korn aren’t heavy metal, but their music defies any other simple moniker. Their cross-pollinated sound values tone and texture over distortion and volume, incorporating hip-hop rhythms, industrial-strength guitar, violent fantasy and grim reality, macho posturing and sensitive angst.
The latter comes courtesy of Davis. Tall, frail-featured and soft-spoken, Davis in person is the opposite of his seething, dervishlike onstage character. His singing ranges from the guttural seizure scat of Peachy’s “Twist” to Cypress Hill-style chants to Trent Reznor-ian whine. And while the album has light-hearted moments (such as a bagpipe version of War‘s “Lowrider”), it also features the raging “Porno Creep,” the epithet-obsessed “K@#Ø%!” (pronounced cunt) and the nine-minute “Kill You,” a “tribute” to Davis’ ex-stepmother.
“That’s how I deal with life: by screaming about it,” Davis says matter-of-factly. “Basically I just want to capture that fucking-pissed-off 13-year-old: ‘I’m getting hair on my dick; my voice is dropping.’ That period of my life really fucked with me.”
That explains much about the song that finally got Korn on MTV, “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” which is both a nod to Davis’ endorsement-deal Adidas stage wear (“Basically I ripped off Run-DMC”) and the elementary-school acronym (all day I dream about sex). The video features a rain-soaked multi-vehicle accident in which Davis and band members David Silveria (drums), Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu (bass), James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch (guitar) are zipped into body bags and unloaded onto mortuary slabs.
“I was an autopsy assistant starting when I was 16 years old,” Davis says of his pre-Korn night job at the Kern County coroner’s office in Bakersfield, Calif. “I could cut up flesh and not have to go to jail. I think it gave me some kind of weird power over people.” Unfortunately, “Pulling too many dead people out of cars spooked me,” he says (the singer hasn’t driven in five years).
Davis was “working on becoming a deputy coroner” when his future band mates, all fellow Bakersfield natives who had already migrated to Los Angeles, saw him perform in a bar back home and drafted him on the spot. Having since toured relentlessly with everyone from House of Pain to Marilyn Manson, Korn are a shining example that performing remains a viable path to success and a reminder that even major-label bands need grass-roots support. They have coupled that experience with a ’90s sense of marketing, using a Web site as a vehicle for broadcasting live performances.
And even on a day when they are meeting investment advisers and buying tuxes for the Grammys, Korn stress the importance of staying close to their fervent fans. That’s whether they are “skate kids . . . industrial kids . . . hip-hop kids,” says Munky. “They’re hardcore.”
This story is from the April 3rd, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.