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The Year Of Living Dangerously: The Making of Follow The Leader
Alcoholism, speed and suicidal depression - the world of KoRn was not a happy place when the band released their classic 1998 album, 'Follow The Leader'...
"All those times I said I was going to die -this time I really am." Sitting in Hollywood's plush Sunset Marquis Hotel, Jonathan Davis was genuinely afraid for his life. He had, after all, spent the last few years chugging Jagermeister and honking speed - despite his natural anxiety problems.
"I've had heart palpitations," he muttered, his voice as wispy as ever. "I've had hangovers so bad I couldn't get out of bed for three days. That's no fun. So I don't do speed no more. I do coke and stuff like that, sometimes."
Clearly, then, all worries were over. .. Still' KoRn were starting to look at the big picture. Three-fifths of the band now had kids. They could no longer
afford to piss out a flawed album that would garner acclaim purely because it was still better than 90 per cent of the other music out there. This time they had to record a bona fide classic.
Part of this gargantuan task, as they saw it, would involve severing ties with more than just Davis' amphetamine sulphate. They needed a new producer, which made for an awkward conversation with Ross Robinson.
"Fucking awkward wasn't the word!" said Davis. "It was terrifying. It was a matter of saying, 'Ross, we've done two albums with you. They were great, but it's time for us to move on'. If you do the same thing enough , times, kids get bored and so will the band."
Robinson was typically philosophical as he reflected on their parting of the ways.
"I'm totally proud of what I did with KoRn," he said, "and I'm grateful that they didn't wanna work with me any more. It pushed me to create a new thing."
That thing was, of course, a nine-headed beast from Des Moines.
"What happened to KoRn gave bands the opportunity to make it, through me," said Robinson. "They totally opened the door for Slipknot."
Back in the KoRn camp, the man in Robinson's shoes was Steve Thompson, the New Yorker who worked on Guns 'N' Roses' 'Appetite For Destruction' and Metallica's '...And Justice For All'. He was destined to be replaced by engineer Toby Wright, however, and Robinson would unofficially be drafted back in to act as Davis' vocal coach.
"When we heard the first mixes," Davis said, "it sounded foreign. I'm glad we made the change. It was good for us, we deserved it."
The result was arguably KoRn's best-sounding record; delivering their alien tones with an unsurpassed clarity. And this time, the album's September '98 release would be bolstered by a year-long run of memorable publicity.
The band threatened to take legal action against a Michigan high school when they banned a student from wearing a 'KoRn' T-shirt -on grounds that their lyrics were "extremely offensive". KoRn, offended by this move, aimed a lawsuit at the school district for their defamatory remarks. Cue a shitstorm which nicely re-positioned KoRn as a band of the people, a band who'd go so far as protecting their fans' rights with courts and barristers.
Even more controversially, the band pulled out of their scheduled show at the UK Ozzfest on June 20 that year, on grounds that Head's wife was due to deliver their first child. The news of the band's cancellation broke mere days before the festival, and this time disgruntled fans had rather less respect for KoRn's fabled band unity. Jonathan and Munky eventually hit the UK to meet up with Kerrang! readers on July 1, who got an exclusive earful of the new album in a room at Sony's London HQ while their heroes sat rocking back and forth mere feet away. Then the interrogation began...
"It was all set up," explained Jonathan of Ozzfest, "and then Head was like, 'Shit! When's Ozzfest?! He kept changing his mind about whether or not to do it. Finally, we told him, 'Man, there's gonna be tons of Ozzfests and only one time when your child's born'."
The inaugural 'Family Values' tour was the perfect vehicle for KoRn to take 'Follow The Leader' around America. The trek, which kicked off on September 22, was a canny crystallisation of all that was great in rock and rap, kicking down musical barriers by having KoRn headline over Limp Bizkit, Rammstein, Ice Cube, Orgy and Incubus, with DJing in-between sets. It proved a massive success -as did 'Follow The Leader' itself, which debuted at Number One in the Billboard album charts. Nu-metal had well and truly arrived, and the positive effects- although some would call them 'repercussions' -would ripple for years to come.
KoRn further hammered the album into US consciousness by flying around the country in a private jet, Metallica-style, and signing as many autographs as possible at various key record stores. At New York's Greenwich Village alone, around 8,000 people turned up and predictably brought about mayhem. All the time, the new album's most commercial tracks were crawling allover MTV and radio.
Yet as KoRn's success mounted, so did Davis' anxiety -still compounded by the alcohol abuse which was part and parcel of the party atmosphere on 'Family Values'. He ended up spending many days bed-ridden, suffering massive panic attacks while his band mates tugged their braids with helpless frustration. Said Munky: "I wanted to help him so bad, but nothing I could say or do would make him come out of it. I'd tell him I love him and hold him and hug him... but it just didn't matter."
Davis' personal hell became so pronounced that he contemplated suicide. Around the time he and his wife broke up, however, he kicked the devil's firewater, replacing it with prescribed mood-enhancers. By early '99, he was a sober, happier man, coping well with the heavy onslaught of road-work which took in Australia's 'Big Day Out' tour with the warring Marilyn Manson and Hole; the US 'Rock Is Dead' tour with Rob Zombie and Videodrone; and Woodstock beside a whole heap of rock peers.
So KoRn had opened the floodgates for all kinds of music to live side by side, on a piano keyboard. Or something. Now, all they had to do was cling to this level and maintain their - sanity. Issues, quite literally, lay ahead.
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