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Born To Be Riled: The Making of KoRn
It really shouldn't have worked. A gangsta-rap worshipping crossover metal band with a singer who fancied himself as California's answer to Simon and Yasmin Le Bon, all in one package. The band themselves were hardly confident, with Fieldy and Munky in particular taking exception to Jonathan Davis' cross-dressing tendencies. But it seemed as if Davis' presence in the band brought out a side of the four Creep musicians which they hadn't previously been aware even existed, and the new, heavier, more disturbed musical direction most certainly brought something out of the new lead singer. "They had a happier groove before I joined," explained Davis to Kerrang!. "I brought out the darker elements in them. It clicked."
Davis moved into a squat in Long Beach, California, cutting off most of his ties to Bakersfield. Already heavily into met amphetamines, he quickly befriended a speed dealer, and his drug dabbling soon spiraled into addiction, fuelled by his desire not to waste his life by sleeping. And it was in this wired state that Davis and the band began to write songs. Within a fortnight of the singer joining the band, in June 1993, they recorded a demo with the four musicians' long-standing friend and admirer, a hitherto unknown producer called Ross Robinson. Entitled "Niedermeyer's Mind," the demo included "Blind" and "Daddy".
Things were getting serious, and the band decided they needed a new name. As Davis tells it, the moniker was inspired by an incident at a party in Bakersfield. "There were these two homosexual guys talking about how they were having sex with each other," he explains. "One was eating the other's butthole and he blew diarrhoea all over the other guy's face, and when he opened his mouth he had a corn kernel on his tongue. I used to walk around to people who knew the story and say 'corn' just to gross them out." To fit in with Davis' obsessions with childhood, he spelled the name as a five-year-old might, and came up with the band's logo in a matter of seconds, scrawling the name in crayon with his left hand, and including a backward 'R' to emphasise the pre-school aesthetic. "It doesn't matter what your band's called," said David Silveria. "The music makes a name, cos 'KoRn' is a dumb name, but once a band gets established then it makes a name cool."
Contrary to what you'd expect, the band's social time was typified by high spirits and much juvenile goofing around, but the 'songwriting process was revealing more and more about Davis' past, and his tortured mindset. Despite being one of the first songs they wrote together, "Daddy" remains to this day the band's harshest moment, wherein Davis reveals that he was sexually abused as a boy and finishes the song sobbing uncontrollably, saying "I fucking hate you, you fucking ruined my life". At first he refused to talk about the song (and has only attempted to perform it live once, with disastrous emotional results). But when people assumed the title meant it was his father who violated him, he felt the need to set the record straight, and did so in a Kerrang! article in 1996.
"People think 'Daddy' was written because my dad fucked me up the ass, and that's not what the song's about," Davis explained. "It wasn't about my dad or my mom. When I was a kid I was being abused by someone else and I went to my parents and told them about it and they thought I was lying and joking around. They never did shit about it. They didn't believe it was happening to their son."
As KoRn began to tour California's clubs and Ross Robinson began to help them peddle their demo around record companies, the band's sound started to gel. Although no-one could predict that this was the start of a new I musical movement, it was obvious that KoRn were not your average metal band, they were fusing Davis' goth and dark pop influences with a heavier, dirtier take on Faith No More's crossover sound. "The sound just came out," Head is quoted as saying. "We never tried to do anything special. Fieldy's into a lot of hip-hop, and me and Munky are hip to guitar shit like Mr. Bungle and old Cypress Hill."
In the days of Creep, Fieldy had suggested that Munky should try out Ibanez's seven-string guitars - with an extra low string tuned for maximum heaviness. The guitars began to define KoRn's sound -with filthy, pounding riffage, the likes of which had never been heard before. Fieldy perfected a bastardised form of slap bass-strumming the strings with the back of his fingers or pulling them all at once to create his trademark, ugly sound.
Despite the fact that at the time heavy music was about as fashionable as a fur coat at an RSPCA fund-raising event, record companies were aroused by this musical hybrid. Offers of deals came in from Atlantic and RCA, but KoRn were scared of making the wrong move and held out for someone they really trusted. That person was Immortal Records A&R Paul Pontius, who had been turned on to the band by their demo and had been to a number of their shows. He promised that Immortal, the subdivision of Epic records, would back the band to the hilt. "Immortal just felt like home," declared Davis.
The band began pre-production on their debut album almost immediately. The rehearsals were so good, even KoRn themselves couldn't believe it, and their confidence was so high that they even came up with the idea of Davis dusting off his bagpipes for 'Shoots And Ladders', with bizarrely successful results. The songs were written from the music up - first the riffs, then the drums and arrangements, and finally, once the music was written, Davis would lock himself away, alone, and unleash his inner demons in the lyrics.
Treating his words like an autobiography, he wrote about being bullied at school ("Faget"), about a skinhead in one of the crowds at a show trying to punch him ("Clown") and about his view that US culture sullies the innocence of youth (the twisted nursery rhymes of "Shoots and Ladders"). "It came from my gut," said Davis in 1996. "It cleared a lot of the shit out of the way; things that were bugging me before I was in a band. I'm so passionate about these lyrics that I'll sing them convincingly forever." Davis was still hooked on speed, to the extent that it was now becoming a problem (the lyrics to "Helmet in the Bush" were about this). He was snorting speed to help him get out of bed, snorting more to help him stay up at night and, as a result, was having hallucinations and panic attacks on a regular basis. But despite this, by the summer of 1994, the album was written and ready to be captured by Ross Robinson.
Initially, the band were sceptical about Indigo Ranch. Its beautifully picturesque location high in the Malibu hills didn't sit with their oppressive, bleak music, but the fact that the recording studio had no windows helped them get over their misgivings and soon they were having a blast -getting wasted together and carving out one of the most influential debut albums in metal history. The music was recorded without a hitch. But when it came to recording the vocals, and tapping into the emotions of his fucked-up childhood, Davis needed a different setting, one which would bring it all back and make him face his fears. He went home to Bakersfield, to the white- trash setting of most of his traumas, and to his father Rick's Fat Tracks studio. But it wasn't just the studio that helped Davis pour out his twitching soul -the singer believes that without Ross Robinson, he could never have performed the way he did. Through near psychoanalytical prodding Robinson tapped into Davis' insecurities and captured them on tape in brutal, uncomfortable fashion. As an exorcism of sorts for Davis, he struggled to confront such powerful emotions. "It was a hard time for me," he later recalled. "But liberating. I feel better now, definitely."
With the album recorded in under four months, the band knocked ideas about for the cover, eventually coming up with the image of a little girl on a swing, with the ominous shadow of a man looming over her through the sunshine. The lyrics, they instructed, were to be left out of the liner notes -feeling that without the power of the music and the emotion of the performance they would lose their meanings. The LP was complete - a 12-track therapy session-cum-horror movie with a sound track like a planet imploding, it sounded like no other band on earth. Immortal were confident they had something big, but still, as the band were packed off on tour supporting House of Pain before the album's release, no-one really knew just how much of a monster they had birthed. In fact, the true significance of this incredible debut would not make itself clear for at least two years.
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