Jonathan Davis of Korn Pulls Listeners Into New Direction With Debut Solo LP ‘Black Labyrinth’ (INTERVIEW)

When you’re in a busy, non-stop band like Korn, it’s sometimes hard to find blocks of time to work on anything but your main band. For singer/songwriter Jonathan Davis, he’s been sitting on his solo album for close to ten years now, with songs just waiting to come out into the light. With some label-oriented setbacks, Davis bided his time. Until now, as Black Labyrinth prepares to hit shelves on May 25th, preceded by two intriguing videos for “What It Is” and “Everyone.”

“I’ve bared my soul for so fucking long, I thought it’d be really cool to pull listeners in a different direction for once,” Davis explained upon the first video’s release in January. “I’m taking them out of that dark place and into somewhere that’s spiritual, positive and makes them really think.” If it’s one thing this amalgamation of songs consists of it’s deep thoughts, surreal worlds and vivid imagery. Despite the majority being a decade old and virtually untampered with since they were put down onto tape, there is no feeling of outdatedness. The sonics are crisp, the lyrics are timely and the feeling of anguish and ultimately hope are sincere. “I’ve changed lives with Korn but I wanted to open minds with this shit.”

When Korn exploded onto the music scene in the mid-1990’s, they were hailed as raw innovators of a new kind of metal. Their songs bended minds, their concerts created mosh pits of unreleased angst, their albums gave a vocalized embodiment to teenage feelings. Rolling Stone Magazine even dared to call the band’s self-titled debut as “the most important metal record of the last twenty years.” And playing at Woodstock ’99 in front of 400,000 people, for Davis, was an “insane” moment of his career so far.

For Davis, Korn gave him an outlet for all the things that had happened to him as a kid growing up about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles in Bakersfield. Now with Black Labyrinth, he continues his search for meaning, understanding, enlightenment, as well as musical exploration, on such songs as “Basic Needs,” “Medicate,” “What You Believe” and “Final Days.”

Glide spoke with Davis a few hours before his solo show in Sacramento a few weeks ago about just what this album means to him and what he did to make it more than just another Korn-like record.

Black Labyrinth will finally be coming out soon. What’s it like trying to put a record together over a long period of time?

It really sucks (laughs). The majority of the record I had done. I think I did two new songs recently and then I re-sang some stuff but pretty much the record was done ten years ago, recorded and everything. It just hadn’t been mixed. Here’s what happened: I had a major label sign me, things were going great and the president left the company, and he was the one that signed me, so they didn’t have anywhere to put me. The guy that he wanted to produce the record, he became the president of the label and he had no time so I just asked them for my record back and they gave it to me. In that time period I had some time to go and tour it but then Korn started up and you know how Korn tours – we haven’t stopped. So now I’ve got some time off cause Korn’s taking a little break, and now I can do this. So I want to finish what I started and I’m very excited that it’s out.

You didn’t tweak any of those original songs at all?

No, not really. They’re just how you hear them. What you hear was done ten years ago, vocals, everything. That’s been sitting in the fucking computer for eleven years.

It certainly does not sound outdated

Right, that’s a good sign (laughs). I wanted to do a rock record and just incorporate World Music and all the kinds of gothic kind of shit that I do and it came out good. I’m excited.

You said you had a couple of newer songs that you went in and did. Which songs are those?

One was called “Walk On By,” and a B-side was “Can You Hear Me” and it’s not out yet. It’ll be on the special edition.

There are a lot of things going on on this record – a lot of emotions, a lot of thoughts and outspokenness. How much is you and how much is the world around you?

You know, when I was making this record I was going through some crazy shit. It’s when Head left the band and I was very angry at religion; still am. I don’t like organized religion. I have no problem with the ideology of Christianity or any religion. I mean, who the fuck am I to tell you what to believe in. But for me, I think this record and everything that is going on in it, is me trying to figure out why are we here and is there something after death; the age old questions of why am I here, is there a God, all that kind of stuff.

Have you figured it out yet?

I think a little bit. I’m in a better place spiritually. I mean, I was inspired by this thing called the Ganzfeld Experiment. It’s where you put ping pong balls on your eyes. You cut a ping pong ball in half, and they actually made these goggles that work better, and it’s like robbing yourself of those senses. Your brain has to be stimulated so it starts stimulating itself and you start to hallucinate. It’s crazy shit. I’ve seen tons of crazy shit and you’re totally sober. So that to me says there is something else, that we don’t know everything and who knows. I wanted to put this experience together with the music, cause it seems to me like when you get a record and yeah it’s cool when you listen to it and then you forget about it. This, I wanted it to be an all-encompassing experience and that’s why I started with the videos. I do “What It Is” and then the next one is “Everyone.” I’m telling the story backwards. It’s kind of like a concept record. “Everyone” is explaining the first video, and it’s going to continue to tell the story of just my path and trying to figure out everything, enlightening people to other kinds of thoughts or what I’ve been through. I just wanted to make something that was entertaining and something that was different than just grabbing a record and listening to it and just forgetting about it. I wanted people to have an experience they have never had. Like the Ganzfeld thing, if I make you hallucinate listening to white noise and then watch this stuff, it’ll stick in your head I think. I just wanted people to open their eyes and just check out my little art project and enjoy the entertainment. And that’s what it’s basically down to.

I keep going back and listening and I’m hearing new things each time.

Yeah, I put a lot of crazy shit in it. There’s a lot of different instruments. Everything is real in it, even the tabla playing. I had Mike Dillon come out and play tablas. There’s not really many samples in that thing. All the World instruments were played by real people in order for it to be real and organic. I miss the times where you threw a record on the record player and you listened to it and there was no fucking pro-tools or any of that shit tuning the vocals and the tempo fluctuated. It was a living, breathing thing. It seems like now the way people make records is like computerized, everything is perfect.

And we loved the mistakes in those old records

That’s the best part! (laughs) That’s what I was going for doing the record. I did use a computer but I wanted to use real music, real musicians and stuff like that. We cut stuff live and we didn’t fuck with it so there is that aspect too. We had to use some stuff for the keyboards and some of the instruments but we just cut it live and had that vibe.

The song “Final Days” has those exotic textures – “Basic Needs” has that as well – but why did you bring those sounds into it?

That’s the World Music vibe and I love it too. Those tablas in there, that is my favorite song, “Final Days.” The tablas, it’s kind of inspired by, I was having this Vangelis moment. If you’ve ever listened to the score of Bladerunner, there’s some Vangelis influences in there and Peter Gabriel. The violinist is Shankar and he played with Peter Gabriel for years and he played with Frank Zappa and he had his own band called Shakti; he’s a master violin player, Indian violin player. I am really into what you call exotic but is Indian music because it is so different from Western music. Our music has half-steps and in-between each note is called a half-step; the whole step is a full note and a half-step is in-between the note. In Indian music, for every half-step there is two semitones in-between that so it’s like alien to me but it’s really cool how they do all this really cool stuff and then the tablas and they could have thirty bars and each bar is different and they memorize them all. Just amazing musicians and I like bringing that into my music. Why not? I love all types of music.

When you write, do older songs ever influence you when trying to create something new?

I just write from the heart and don’t really think about the other stuff. If I just played it safe, I’d write Korn records over and over, the same record. AC/DC are awesome but they are all kind of the same and that works for some bands. But for me, I always have to change it up cause it’s more challenging. If you’re not taking risks you’re not going to go nowhere. And it’ll be boring. So I don’t ever think about that. If something comes out that I’ve done when I’m writing, that I’ve repeated myself, I can’t help it, I just forgot. I just want to be clear and just write. And I do it out on the road all the time. I don’t really write at home.

How do you do that with all the chaos around you?

I don’t really have that much chaos. I keep to myself. I stay in my own dressing room and I have my own bus and I stay away from everything. That’s my escape and that’s what I like cause I’m not taking care of kids and being dad. It’s the only time I have cause kids are a full-time job for sure.

Do you think, when you’re writing, that you will always be working out your past in your future songs? Is that something that is always going to be with you?

I think it will always be with me. It’s just how I deal with them. It’s my healthy way, my art is the way I deal with my problems. As you know, they don’t go away. The older you get, they still don’t go away. I mean, you learn how to deal with them better but they don’t go away. So whenever I have something that needs to come out, I sing it out. And when I write, I really don’t think and I really don’t know what the song is going to be about. It’s stream-of-consciousness. I put my pen on the paper and just write. Sometimes I’ve wrote songs I have no fucking clue until a couple months later what I’m trying to get out. But that’s the beauty of my art. That’s how I do it.

Of all these songs that are on this new record, do you remember which one changed the most from it’s original conception?

I think “Basic Needs” changed a lot. It was just a drum loop, it started out as a drum loop and it just built and built and built and built and turned into all the crazy middle breakdown with all the different instruments and the tablas. “Medicate” is also one of those that started as just a drum loop and a bass line and I built all this stuff around it. They change for the better, of course, but it’s this whole metamorphosis.

What are your plans for this year?

I’m going to be just touring, putting this record out and touring on it, and in-between tours I’m going to be going home and working on the Korn record cause we’re all in the studio working on a new Korn record. We’ll probably have a Korn record done sometime late next year. But I’m going to be spending time doing this cause I’ve been waiting patiently for so long.

In your book, what is rock & roll?

I don’t know if anybody has ever asked me that. I think rock & roll is everything that pulls that rebellious spirit out in you, you know what I mean. It’s something that you turn on when you’re pissed off or when you’re sad and it just makes things all better, in my opinion (laughs). That’s rock & roll to me. I don’t think it’s a style, I just think it encompasses that thing that gets in your heart when you need it and it’s there for you, be it happy, be it sad, whatever. That’s rock & roll to me.


Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

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