With new fans aboard, Korn shows how to metal in middle age
At the FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine in late August, the SoCal metal band Korn walked offstage from its sold-out co-headline set with Alice in Chains. The five members were sweaty but relaxed, freshly changed from their all-black denim and leather stage outfits into all-black sweatpants and T-shirts.
In a small trailer where they stashed their Chinese takeout and coconut water, guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer, 49, popped in for a beverage. Behind him, a 16-year-old guitarist gingerly followed, introducing herself to say she had been working on her own Korn-inspired chops.
“I’m here for my lesson, then,” Shaffer said, grinning.
“I got a seven-string guitar so I could play like you,” she said, pulling out her phone to show him an Instagram video of her rough-and-tumble rock band. She could, indeed, shred.
“Now you’re making me feel old,” Shaffer joked, as they took pictures for her friends back home.
For 25 years, Korn stood stalwart in metal, “nu” or not (a genre they despise but have made peace with). Their then-radical sound incorporated goth, funk and hip-hop with blisteringly miserable lyrics. Disenchanted teens sent them up the album charts. Korn was ubiquitous on countdown video shows like “Total Request Live” and the biggest stages of the era (including the calamitous Woodstock ’99).
But after years of chugging along as a theater act and metal-fest fixture, the band has a fresh wind of relevance among Gen Z artists. Underground rappers like Denzel Curry, Ghostemane and Scarlxrd have embraced their bloodletting lyrics and scabrous noise. Even pop acts like Billie Eilish have put their own spin on Korn’s baggy, goth-rap fashion.
With a modern and painfully personal new album, “The Nothing,” out this week — and a recent documentary about the band’s struggles to rebuild family after tragedy — Korn is primed to take that old malaise to bigger and younger crowds than they’ve seen in a generation.
Kids can “smell bull ... a mile away,” said singer Jonathan Davis, 48, after the show. “If a band makes me feel something, I’m down forever, and it’s hard to find that today. [The late ‘90s were ] a very potent time for American culture, when things were more real. Of course kids will pull from that.”
Korn, founded in nearby Bakersfield, was one of the biggest bands in the world in the late ‘90s, with the two No. 1 albums (1998’s “Follow the Leader” and 1999’s “Issues”) and seven more top-five albums. Songs like “Freak on a Leash” and “Got the Life” regularly did battle with Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and Britney Spears for “TRL” dominance. But after a long, turbulent midperiod defined by heavy drinking and drug use, guitarist Brian “Head” Welch quit the band, turning to evangelical Christianity. (He’d later keep the faith but return to the band in 2013).
The group turned to pop producers like the Matrix and heavy dubstep acts like Skrillex and Noisia to refresh their sound for the EDM era. Crowds dwindled. Nu metal, the genre they’d reluctantly helped invent, became shorthand for the sins of toxic masculinity.
“When I came back, we were doing theaters,” Welch, 49, said. “I did think ‘Wow, it’s not like it used to be,’ but we held on and tried to just grow.”
Today, if you peruse Gen Z-beloved resale sites like Depop, you’ll find dozens of “Follow the Leader”-era tour tees sold by fans who were barely alive back then. Rappers like Curry and the British throat-shredder Scarlxrd saw through nu-metal’s dated connotations to rediscover the power that lies at the center of heavy metal and rap’s rhythm. Eilish’s drapey-‘90s fashion and fluency with rap beats, nightmarish imagery and digitally tangled vocals draw from Korn at its commercial peak.
The band’s new album “The Nothing” is well timed to ride those tailwinds, a crisp refresh of their sound. Producer Nick Raskulinecz wrings deep and potent performances from the band, evoking their ever-present rage but also feelings of loss and isolation. Shaffer and Welch’s guitar work is tasteful and imaginative, and the rhythm section of bassist Reginald Arvizu and drummer Ray Luzier give the songs a contemporary swing and weight.
Korn has always traded in rage and fear and angst. But now it’s a different kind of self-loathing, because middle age has raised the stakes.
Last year, Davis’ estranged wife, Deven Davis, mother of his children Pirate and Zeppelin, died from a suspected drug overdose after long struggles with mental illness. Davis wrote at the time that “I loved her with ALL of my being… She was an incredibly nurturing, giving, loving, and hilarious person.”
“The Nothing” is his first music to grapple with that loss, and though it’s often alluded to rather than depicted, lyrics from “Finally Free” like “Where are you now? / I tried to get through to you, nothing is saving you / How could I fail? / This life betrayed you, and you are finally free” show a singer grappling with perhaps the deepest, most confounding loss of his life. Sometimes it resulted in literal, live-to-tape tears in his Bakersfield studio.
“I went through hell last year and had to purge what I was going through and bring the listener through that experience,” Davis said. “I don’t know how to explain it but it takes me over. When you hear me break down and cry, that’s not fake. It’s how I get it out. Some people go to a shrink. My music is that for me.”
Welch, meanwhile, starred in a well-received 2018 documentary, “Loud Krazy Love” about mending his relationship with his daughter Jennea. Rock stardom took a toll on him as a dad, but sobriety and Christianity revealed other, more complex dynamics in their relationship that needed deep repairs. The documentary is a story of a father seeking redemption, and what it means for a daughter to trust again.
“It was healing,” Welch said. “It was really difficult but it made us closer. She could see me and the other Korn guys in our 20s, and she’s like, ‘You guys were just kids, you didn’t know what you were doing and then you had babies yourself, and you’re trying your best but you’re a wreck, you know?’ It really helped her forgive me.”
As Korn enjoys this unlikely resurgence, the band isn’t planning on changing how they work. Maybe they end up on a Coachella bill, but as their aesthetic has waxed and waned in pop culture, perhaps all they had to do was wait until a new class of fans rediscovered them. Teen angst has never gone out of fashion, after all.
“We’re almost 50 and we just sold this place out,” Welch said. “Jonathan’s lived every one of these lyrics. This generation can smell a phony a mile away and he’s not a phony.”
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