Korn’s Jonathan Davis on ‘The Serenity of Suffering’: ‘I Feel Comfortable in That Dark Place’

Yahoo Music
SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 23: Vocalist Jonathan Davis of Korn performs at Aftershock Festival at Discovery Park on October 23, 2016 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic)
SACRAMENTO, CA – OCTOBER 23: Vocalist Jonathan Davis of Korn performs at Aftershock Festival at Discovery Park on October 23, 2016 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic)

By revisiting the bass-slapping, guitar-churning core sound that they exhibited on their first two or three albums, Korn have reignited the hard rock community, some of whom had grown complacent by the band’s clean production and electronic experimentation over the past few years.

Korn’s 12th album, The Serenity of Suffering, is filled with the type of self-loathing sentiment and aggressive musicianship (possibly their heaviest ever) that made the band heroes of the nu-metal movement in the mid-‘90s. And fans have reacted. The record entered the Billboard 200 at #4 and reached #1 on both the Top Rock Albums and Hard Rock Albums charts. Add to that the million-plus views the video for “Take Me” has received since Oct. 26, the nearly 7 million views their “Insane” clip has gotten over the past two months, and the 9 million-plus views “Rotting in Vain” garnered since August and it’s clear that the Korn are still connecting with fans, that grew up with the band, while bringing a younger crowd to the party.

“There’s a cross-generational appeal to the kind of music we make,” says vocalist Jonathan Davis. “This new album is very real and very dark. And there’s something in the kind of issues about f—ed up relationships and hypocrisy that people from all age groups can relate to and it really draws them to us.”

The overwhelming heaviness of The Serenity of Suffering is largely the result of the renewed working relationship between guitarists James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch. While the guitarists worked together on the band’s 2013 loud but polished album The Paradigm Shift, this time they’ve connected in a way that’s reminiscent of their groundbreaking work on Korn’s 1994 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 1996’s Life Is Peachy. While The Paradigm Shift marked Welch’s return to Korn following a nine-year departure from the band that began when he became a born-again Christian and quit the band to kick drugs, his full reintegration into the Korn fold was gradual.

“When we were doing The Paradigm Shift we were just getting used to each other again,” Davis says. “We had to knock the dust off the wheels. But this time it was full-on. It was magical, and Munky and Head did some really great stuff.”

Shaffer and Welch wrote the songs for The Serenity of Suffering together with bassist Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu and drummer Ray Luzier, and with the encouragement of producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Deftones), they constructed songs that echoed with experimentation and spontaneity.

On “Insane,” chiming guitars and a clanging ride cymbal build into a surging, swaying mass of rhythmic chaos. Then, as distorted guitars stab through the progression and synth noises swarm overhead, Davis utters unearthly vocals that sound like a combination of scatting and turntable scratching. And “A Different World,” which features guest vocals by Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), blends guitar effects with prototypical surging, seven-string rhythms, and embellishes the groove with layered guitar and a melody that sounds like a door chime.

As excited as Davis is with The Serenity of Suffering, he admits it took him a while to vibe with the material his bandmates had written. “I had to fight myself tooth and nail on this record just to understand what was going on with the songs,” he singer says. “I didn’t get it, and I had real problems coming up with creative ideas for the songs. It took me a long time and lots of tearing my guts apart to come to terms with the music and help make this record what it is.”

YAHOO MUSIC: You’ve talked about being a magnet for other people’s pain, which is a theme that echoes in the record’s title, The Serenity of Suffering.

JONATHAN DAVIS: I feel comfortable when I’m in that dark place, and I draw from those feelings when I work on music. And other people relate to that, which is why the songs strike a nerve with them.

Haven’t you been doing that since your first album?

There are different kinds of problems. They’re not 1994 problems that I had when I was getting out all the bulls— I went through when I was bullied as a teenager. They’re new, more adult problems about family and band life and people in general. There’s so much weird, f—ed up s— that happens in my life, and all this betrayal so when I was making the record it all just to pour out.

Did writing about such confessional subject matter make this a difficult or painful album to create?

No, I can deal with the subject matter. What tripped me up was the music. It was like learning to get back onto a two-wheel bicycle again after not having ridden one in forever. The heaviness and the way the songs were arranged threw me off and caused me to doubt myself.

Shouldn’t you be able to write this stuff in your sleep at this point? 

That’s just the thing. I wanted to do something different and not make it sound like all the old s—. I’ve done records in the past where I’ve sung all the vocals in one session in a week. This one took three different sittings. This is our 12th record. I was like, “How do I do something different? I’m an artist, dammit. I need to find something!” I was battling myself and I was really critical of everything I did.

Between the disjoined music and the pained lyrics, a lot of this album sounds like the unspooling of a fragile mind.

I don’t try to make myself feel like a victim, but I’m a very sensitive person and I take a lot of things to heart and I feel very deeply. I get my feelings hurt a lot and I just keep the s— bottled up. So when it comes time for a record, I let everything out. Between me being so sensitive and my brain being on overdrive all the time, this is how the records come out.

Does that make recording albums therapeutic, or is it just an ugly purge?

It’s definitely a release. It’s how I deal with these negative feelings. Some people go out and get f—ed up and get in fights to deal with their problems. I write lyrics and sing. And it might mean I have to sing for the rest of my life, but I love making music, so it’s a good trade-off for me.

You worked on the vocals at your studio in Bakersfield, California, which Buck Owens used to own.

I love the place. It has a great history and a lot of amazing people recorded at that spot and made some incredible music. I’ve been getting really into listening to old country music from Bakersfield – stuff by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Billy Myers. They had a lot of honky-tonks around there where these musicians would play, and people would go out, get all dressed up, and listen to these bands. It was an amazing scene back then, and in this world of social media that we’re living in, humans have forgotten about doing that. Everyone just explores the world through their phone and they don’t experience anything that’s real at all. I’m on this quest to get people to leave their iPhones at home and start coming out to shows to see how exciting the process can be when they’re fully immersed in it and not distracted by some new technology.