The Nothing, Korn’s 13th studio album, is one of the most despairing and nihilistic records in the California band’s back catalogue, but it’s not the heaviest piece of work they’ve produced.
2016’s The Serenity of Suffering was a conscious attempt from the nu-metal pioneers to create something exhaustively heavy and hair-raising. The Nothing isn’t worlds apart – gone are the flirtations with dubstep that marked 2011’s The Path of Totality, and there are no signs of the guest rappers that showed up on the band’s turn of the noughties output. But The Nothing tempers its throat-clenching misery by emphasising the band’s melodic potential, an ingredient that has played a huge part in their enduring success.
Consequently, the band are garnering some of the strongest reviews of their career. Korn – along with nu-metal more generally – had become something of a punchline ten years removed from their commercial peak. With these past two records, however, critics might finally be ready to take the Jonathan Davis-led alt-metallers seriously.
It’s going to take a bit more than that to ease Davis’ inner pain, however. The Nothing’s penultimate track, ‘This Loss’, contains the line “happiness is a club I’ll never be in”, which is the sort of conclusion that could be drawn from listening to the album from start to finish.
Music Feeds spoke to guitarist Brian “Head” Welch about The Nothing’s dark demeanour, as well as last year’s Follow the Leader 20th anniversary celebrations and Korn’s relationship with their fanbase.
Music Feeds: The lyrics on The Nothing paint a bleak picture. Has the band always been a necessary outlet for you guys to purge your inner pain and torment?
Brian Welch: I think Korn’s been therapy for especially Jonathan. He does have good days and he does have happy times, but he does struggle with the pressures of being him and having massive social anxiety and also sometimes just regular anxiety with a little depression. I think he feels like that when he writes these songs. He feels like that and it’s therapy for him.
But when he’s with his kids and they’re riding motorcycles or shooting guns or whatever they do, he has good times where he’s laughing and enjoying life as well. So it’s not like he’s a guy with a cloud over his head all the time, although that cloud is there. Again, he uses the music as therapy to get all that dark out of him and that’s why I think a lot of fans cling onto it because they feel those things too and it’s therapy for them. It’s this thing that we have with our fans that it works, people feel something. That’s pretty special.
MF: Do you think that through all the darkness on The Nothing, there is something hopeful and empathetic listeners can take away?
BW: I think the underlying message with all the darker lyrics and everything is that it just screams, “You’re not alone”. We’re in this mess together called life and there’s good times and bad times, but we’re not alone. There are other people that feel like you.
MF: You celebrated the 20th anniversary of Follow the Leader last year. It was your commercial breakthrough, topping the charts around the world. More than anyone, Follow the Leader appealed to a teen audience. Are you, to this day, attracting confused and angry teenage fans?
BW: We just did this tour in America with Alice in Chains and Underoath and there was just a mixture of younger people, older people. It’s like one day there are really young people in the front screaming the whole show and then there are these boring older people that I wish would’ve stayed home because they looked so mellow.
So it’s different every day, but mainly there’s all these people in the mosh pit in front. It’s just crazy to see the different ages. With music out released on YouTube and streaming and all that, young kids are still drawn to bands like us and the Slipknots. We’ve been around so long, but they still feel that we’re relevant and everything so it’s cool.
MF: Did the Follow the Leader anniversary make you think about how unique it is to remain hugely popular 20 years down the road and still be making records that get people talking?
BW: I never would’ve guessed it in a million years that we’d have that first run for 11 years and then I leave for almost a decade and then we come back and we’re still doing good and growing. I never would have guessed it. It’s a gift.
MF: Performing the record live and reflecting on a time characterised by drug-fuelled recording sessions, sweeping indulgence, sexual promiscuity – did it give you vivid recollections of your younger self?
BW: We did the 20th-anniversary shows and we played the record almost in its entirety. We played 80 per cent of the record. The first half of the record, it just feels like it was yesterday. The songs feel current and we play those songs a lot – ‘Freak On a Leash’, ‘Got the Life’, ‘Dead Bodies Everywhere’.
But then when we start getting to the second half of the record, we didn’t play some of those other songs because that’s the only record that we had guest rappers on. It worked at that time, but it’s just not really us today. ‘All in the Family’ with Fred Durst and the Ice Cube [song], ‘Children of the Korn’, that feels adolescent and not as true to Korn, who Korn started out to be.
The first half of the record feels like Korn evolving and the last half of the record feels like adolescent Korn, drunk in the studio doing things. It was a learning curve, but we’re proud of the record either way because it’s just a part of the journey that we’re on. We were [in our] mid-20s when we made it.
MF: Not in a conventional sense, but ‘Freak On a Leash’ and ‘Got the Life’ are pop songs – they charted upon release and still get played on mainstream rock radio.
BW: They are kind of poppy, but it works and it’s weird. When we wrote ‘Got the Life’ it was like, “what are we doing? This has a disco beat, we can’t do this!”
MF: The Nothing also shows off the melodic powers of the band. Is balancing the heavy intensity with melodic clarity something you take quite seriously?
BW: We really like to feel the melodies. It’s all about being real and feeling something real. I love melody and music and notes that move me musically, but I also love really heavy groove where you can picture the crowd bobbing their heads or jumping up and down or having a crazy mosh pit, and that moves me as well in a different way and moves all of us.
So I think it’s a combination of feeling the wonder of melody and the intensity of heaviness. That combination is what we want to do and it’s not like we’re trying the manufacture something; it’s a feel thing.
MF: The older you’ve gotten and realised how much this band means to people, have you started to feel more responsibility towards your fanbase in terms of what you give them, how you treat them?
BW: I think just in general how I treat or value people that are strangers, even enemies, or fans or family, I’ve learned so much getting older and wiser. We’ve been given this gift for the fans. We have a gift to give to people and it’s all for them. Yeah, we make good money and we travel well and everything, but at the end of the day, the musical gift is for them.
I did a six-week tour with these guys in Korn and we’re exhausted – with rehearsal we did seven weeks – but it’s all for [the fans] and it’s amazing. We all have our focus pretty straight and we try to treat them well and we try to interact with them and engage with them. We really appreciate our fans a lot.
The Nothing is out today.