Only in America could a band like Korn simultaneously be so adored and scorned. Borrowing from a myriad of musical styles and cultures, the Bakersfield, California rap-metal-funk-alternative quintet adopts hip-hop fashion, surfer-dude attitude and heavy metal partying in order to create the most anticipated heavy rock record of the year, Follow the Leader, which debuted at number one on the Billboard album charts. At the same time, lyrics to songs like "My Gift To You," about choking someone to death while having sex, didn't endear them to Bible-thumpers and school administrators, while their liberal use of the word "faggot" hasn't won them fans on the Left either.
Not that the band cares. Threatening to some, inspiring to others, the band is indifferent to the hype and hyperbole around it. Most important to band members -- it seems -- is that the perception of them not change. They don't want to seem stuck-up; they want to keep it real for the kids. Korn (which also includes Jonathan Davis, Fieldy Arvizu, David Silveria and James "Munky" Schaffer) understands who buys their records and that sales will drop off if they "sell out" or seem to change because of success. Illustrating that desire to stay cool, one of the first things to come out of the mouth of the band's guitarist, Brian "Head" Welch, is, "I used to deliver furniture to rich people, so I can't complain much at this job."
This low-key attitude spills over into the band's anticipation of the record's initial impact. "[The record company and the band's management] were telling us that it probably would [debut at number one], but I was still like, 'No way,' " Head exclaims. "We're the same; we're just playing bigger places now. We're still the same clowns, messing around and shit." He adds: "You know what I trip out at? That we were playing those big places [on their most recent tour], the arenas and stuff. We were the last band of the night and there are people way up in these seats four miles away just grooving up there, jumping and shit."
Head also admits to being excited for his ability to share his good fortune with what would seem to be an unlikely person. "That number one shit was good, too, because I could call my dad (and say), 'We're number one in the country right now.' It was cool; it was gone quick though. Seems like right when we heard about it, it was gone, because it was just for that first week. I was proud because we've been working hard with this band, without hardly any breaks, for four years straight. It was a payoff."
The vindication for the quintet results from their continued appeal to disenfranchised kids from the suburbs. Their fans also listen to people like Snoop Dogg and Marilyn Manson without regard to genre or the artist's socioeconomic background; they just want to hear from people who understand and give voice to their frustrations. The sound isn't pretty, but it's honest, and the just-started-shaving set can detect that sincerity a mile away.
While Korn haven't been resting on their laurels, they did take their time in getting Follow the Leader to sound how they wanted. During the two years between their last album, Life is Peachy, and Leader, similar bands like the Deftones and Coal Chamber have sold records while Korn was away. But, as the title implies, Korn proudly declares that they are the leaders of the heavy genre. As such, they command respect while branching out a bit, bringing in heavy hitters like Ice Cube, Tre from the Pharcyde, Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong and Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst.
Korn knows very well what it takes to keep the kids happy. Head explains what it is about Korn that is appealing, first and foremost: "the intensity." After that, he adds, people are drawn to Davis's pained lyrics and the fierce live show. "They relate to Jonathan's lyrics because the stuff he talks about happens to a lot of people. It's just a crazy live show; all of the fans get into it just as much as we do," he says. "It's fun; it's an outlet.
One of the ways Korn gave something back to their fans was their Korn TV web site (www.korntv.com). It gave surfers a chance to see the band recording the record, hanging out and partying with friends. Guests included members of 311, the Deftones and Sugar Ray. Steve Vai and porn star Ron Jeremy also made appearances. Again, it showed the band raw and mostly uncensored, something which helped them maintain street credibility while keeping their name out.
"[With] Korn TV we just wanted to take it to our fans and show them how we were recording the record and what we do in our off time," explains Head. "We did a weekly special, gave them a little piece of the songs, showed them the studio, showed them the hangout room, put our little gags in there, little tricks. It was just an idea we had to keep close with our fans while we were off."
The band has had a chance to hone their live chops through incessant touring, doing time with Ozzy Osbourne, Danzig and Megadeth in the past four years. Most recently, the band put together its own package tour which included German noise-merchants Rammstein, Ice Cube, Korn disciples Limp Bizkit, and Orgy, the first band signed to Korn's Elementree boutique label. [This hectic schedule took its toll; with Davis suffering from "exhaustion," the band was forced to cancel a Troy, New York show on November 4.]
With a nod to their detractors, the tongue-in-cheek titled "Family Values" tour was an eight-week tour and the first time Korn was headlining arena-sized venues. Taking a revolving stage on the road -- one band set up while one played, and then the whole thing spun around -- was a first in rock and roll. Head says that it was the funnest tour ever. "We just kind of threw it together. We wanted to take [Limp] Bizkit because they're a good live band, and they are friends of ours. It was about having fun, mainly, for us, and giving the crowd a good variety of music that would blend in together. Ice Cube, we've been fans of his forever and our manager started managing him about eight months ago. And Orgy is on our new label, and they are friends of ours too, so we brought them. Rammstein -- they kind of ended up there at the last minute after [Rob Zombie dropped out]. We were going to do it with Zombie, and the managers for Zombie and our manager got into a little thing, I guess. It had nothing to do with Rob Zombie or Korn; it was a management, fucking ego thing or something. They used to be friends or something and they got in a fight and, you know how like friends get in fights; I think they were pulling little kid shit or something."
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Additional fighting has swirled around the band because of their lyrical content and the less than wholesome perception of the group. Korn made national headlines when a student in Zeeland, Michigan was suspended for wearing a T-shirt with the group's logo; the school's assistant principal later declared their music "indecent, vulgar and obscene." The band, in turn, issued a cease and desist order and threatened a libel suit.
How the band reacted next says as much about their rock and roll attitude as their beer consumption and tattoos do. Says Head, "We got together with a radio station there and one Friday, a couple of weeks after that happened, we sent over a truckload of free Korn shirts. When [students were released from school], anyone who wanted a free Korn shirt that went to that school could have one," he laughs.
The band tends to ignore their critics, hoping that, like a bully who only wants attention, the religious groups et al. will look for more willing participants. Of the people who complain that the band is vulgar or unsuitable for adolescents, Head says, "That's just people that don't understand the band. They're bored or something; they just want to bitch at somebody. We don't really care when people say something. It's ridiculous; they want to spend time picking on someone or picking someone apart. They think they know, but they don't know. If you give someone a reaction, then they love it; that's what they are going for. So we're just like, 'Yeah, okay.' It pisses them off more.
"I think we're real, you know," he continues. "If Jonathan is angry about something, then he cusses, just like anybody else. It's just words, man. Who doesn't cuss in this world?