Ask a musician what his band sounds like and if not short, such as "blues," or "rock and roll," the answer will likely be a reflection of unclassifiable originality, maybe goosed by familiar antecedents. In other words, you'll get some blather akin to "It's kinda like the Beatles' songwriting with ZZ Top's groove, mixed with Diamanda Galas's vocals."
Few bands are able to answer as succinctly as Korn does when they're asked what they call their music, and few bands have to answer that question so often. Speaking from a St. Louis hotel room, guitarist Brian "Head" Welch says his band's musical scheme is simply "Korn." "I don't know what else to say about it," he stresses groggily. It's 3:30 p.m., he has just woken up, and he is parrying a question he is obviously still struggling with. "Anyone can decide what they want to call it. Anything will work. They can just call it metal, or just Korn, like people just say 'Dio'"
In fact many fans say Korn has created a new genre with their curt, heavy riffs; their hip-hop, heavy metal, and punk overtones; and their impassioned vocals that soar from whispers to screams. "I hear it all the time," Head says. "We don't really think about it. But I do hear bands that we influence or that just try to rip us off." Whatever their music is called -- be it grindcore, heavy metal, new metal, alt-metal, thrash-hop, Adidas rock, or skate rock -- Korn's mission is simple, says Head: "We just want to put more heavy music out there instead of the bullshit that's being played."
The band was well on its way to achieving that goal when their first two CDs, 1994's Korn and 1996's Life Is Peachy, both went platinum. But they bested those triumphs with their latest release, aptly titled Follow the Leader, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 and is now in the twenty-four slot, after eleven weeks. Korn is perhaps the only heavy band in recent times to blow fresh wind into the stale metal market and to attract legions of fans.
Of course, fans are necessary for a band's success, a fact that Korn readily acknowledges. Even though "alternative" anything is a hot commodity on most radio stations, and video channels are receptive to acts outside the mainstream, Korn is still a little too outside any stream to have received much exposure in the media. Despite strong sales, the band was pretty much ignored by the media after their first two discs were released. "They just didn't get it," Head says. "But we got it, and our fans got it. And we took it to our fans and we made it sell. Our fans made the sales by word of mouth. We don't really need the attention now, but we'll take it."
Media recognition is coming, if a little reluctantly. Furious songs about unsettling topics such as dead bodies and being raped are never big hits. Not all of Korn's songs involve such intense subjects, but the few that do can intimidate. "Radio is still scared of us," Head says almost happily. "Some stations will only play us after eight o'clock, but a lot more stations overall are playing us." Calls to MTV's Total Request Live show boosted their play on that network, he brags.
Korn's devotees not only call MTV, they're also active on the Internet. While vocalist Jonathan Davis is known to join late-night chat sessions, most of the band's Internet action takes place at korntv.com, a popular Website on which they host a show called After School Special (now on hiatus while Korn is on tour; it's scheduled to resume in early 1999). The shows feature videos of the band interacting with various guests, ranging from guitar virtuoso and Frank Zappa alum Steve Vai to kinky porn star Randi Savage.
According to Head, the band's appeal is simple: "Loudness, intensity, and Jonathan's lyrics." Intensity may be an understatement, especially regarding Korn's live performance. Davis basically freaks out nonstop. He treats the mike like an extension of his body as he contorts recklessly. Guitarists Head and James "Munky" Shaffer thunder around while bassist Reginald "Feldy" Arvizu stands stolidly by with his instrument in an almost upright position. Drummer David Silveria pounds away with piercing precision.
Even though Korn is known for ferocity, in the high-testosterone world of heavy music some people grouse that Davis is too effeminate. The complaint is fueled in part by his lyrics, which sometimes mention that he has been perceived as gay (he isn't). His tattoo -- "HIV" in block letters on his upper arm -- further complicates matters. The tune "Daddy," from the band's debut, provides more ammunition for the homophobe; the lyrics have Davis singing about a childhood rape. He ends the song crying hysterically.
An ex-mortuary worker, Davis also has some problems with panic attacks, which began in Miami on their 1994 tour, and which have occasionally prevented him from going out in public. The past two and half months (coinciding with the band's headlining stint on the news-making Family Values tour featuring Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit, Orgy, and Rammstein) have been an improvement for Davis, particularly, Head reports, because he cut down on his drinking and smoking. "He was pretty bad when the Family Values tour first started. He always got the job done, but he sounded a little weak because he'd be hung over every night. But now he sings so good, he sounds very strong. He's just insane." Although the Family Values tour (so named to poke fun at conservative politicians and other loudmouths) isn't coming to Miami, Head says to expect "craziness and fan participation" at Korn's appearance at Bayfront: There will be a two-story "Korn cage" behind the band. Forty or fifty lucky fans will be put in the cage, and as Head puts it, "they won't want out."
The band has been busy with their touring schedule and the tour, and they recently launched a record label, Elementree. They've signed two bands: Orgy and Video Drone (formerly Cradle of Thorns) described by Head as similar to Faith No More.
Korn also has a new look. Long known for their Adidas clothing and the tune "A.D.I.D.A.S." (or in Korn-speak, "All Day I Dream About Sex") from Life Is Peachy, the band is considered largely responsible for a boom in sales of that brand's apparel. Now, however, they have changed their stripes a bit. Head says they switched to Puma because everyone was wearing Adidas and the band wanted a new style for their new record.
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The clothing is probably the biggest change attendant to their third disc. The twelve songs on Follow the Leader are a little more polished and a bit more hip-hop than their predecessors, but for the most part that album continues in the same heavy direction. "All three of our records are good for what they were at the time. I think they all came out with their own vibe. I think we grew on Follow the Leader because we experimented with different sounds more. Jonathan even uses some guitar pedals on his voice."
Korn thrives on forceful, rebellious, and weighty music, but how long can they keep up the exhausting pace? Head assures us that Korn will continue with their rugged ways, "We're already talking about the next record and how we want it to be heavier. I don't know how we'll do it, but we'll find a way. We have tricks."
Korn performs with opening acts Orgy and (Hed)pe Saturday, November 14, at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd; 305-358-7550. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $22.50 in advance and $25 the day of the show.