- Amid his bandmates' exotic hairstyles, David Silveria (second from left) stands out like an unpopped kernel.
"Leslie!" he snaps at an assistant, "Will you get me some Red Bull? I'm fading. I ate a big barbecue lunch, and I've gotta get some Red Bull!"
Silveria is phoning from a dressing room, where Korn petty much lives these days. The band is ensconced on its Back to Basics tour with Limp Bizkit, which features the two nü-metal forebears playing more intimate venues, as they did when they first hit the road together in 1996. In addition to a wealth of Korn classics, the new show features material from the band's sixth album, Take a Look in the Mirror, which was released last Friday. After the somewhat disappointing sales of last year's Untouchables (the album sold a healthy 1.5 million copies, but far less than its quadruple-platinum predecessor), Korn is looking to reestablish itself as one of the biggest bands in rock.
"I always hoped, but there's no way to imagine what it would be like," Silveria says, remembering Korn's gradual rise to fame in the mid-'90s. "We saw other bands that were big and thought it would be cool. We tried and tried, and it just kind of happened."
Korn formed from the ashes of several acts in its native Bakersfield, California, relocating to Los Angeles "to become rock stars," Silveria says. The band struggled initially, trying to fill clubs under L.A.'s notorious pay-to-play scheme, in which aspiring groups shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of gigging at a particular venue. With determination and a grinding, ominous sound, Korn eventually built a large enough following to demand reimbursement for its services.
"We were packing the clubs," Silveria remembers. "And we finally had to take a stand and say, 'We're not playing here unless you pay us, 'cause we know how much money's coming in.' Once one club did it, it started a chain reaction, where the other clubs were like 'Why are you playing there?' And we were like 'Because they're paying us; they're doing it right.' Then we were selling out all the L.A. clubs and getting paid."
Bigger paychecks started rolling in after the release of Korn's 1994 self-titled debut, which made a splash via such anguished anthems as "Blind" and "Clown." Lyrically, frontman Jonathan Davis detailed the harrows of child abuse through the evil nursery rhyming of "Shoots and Ladders" and the haunting "Daddy," which contained the album's most shocking revelation: "You've raped/I feel dirty/It hurt/As a child/Tied down/That's a good boy/And fucked/Your own child." It was a record that connected with disaffected youths around the world, many of whom gravitated toward Korn's self-mutilating misery.
"We're on the same level as anybody else," Silveria says, sipping his just-delivered Red Bull while reflecting on the group's of-the-people appeal. "We don't want to feel like we're on a different level than other people; they're just as cool as we are."
Korn became a household name in 1996 with its sophomore effort, Life Is Peachy, on which the group further explored the connection between rock and rap. Among Peachy's highlights was a brain-bending cover of Ice Cube's "Wicked" that featured a slurry appearance from Deftones vocalist Chino Moreno. Korn also scored with "A.D.I.D.A.S.," which juxtaposed Davis's creepy singsong style with the seven-string shredding of guitarists James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch. Peachy's success secured the band a main-stage slot at Lollapalooza, alongside Tool, Snoop Dogg, Tricky, and others.
Korn went mainstream with 1998's Follow the Leader, which cemented the group's reputation as rap-rock superstars. Spurred by the singles "Got the Life" and "Freak on a Leash," the album topped the Billboard charts and sold more than five million copies. Korn also launched the Family Values tour, a hugely successful affair that teamed the outfit with Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit, and Rammstein.
Korn's fourth album, Issues, sold millions of copies, but alienated some longtime fans with its nods to electronica and other glossy production touches. It also featured four different album covers, angering devotees who felt compelled to purchase quadruple copies.
Criticism and Korn have always gone hand in hand, and the group has been subjected to some of the most venomous barbs ever fired at a commercial rock outfit. Some of them center on an endorsement deal with Puma. Other wags malign occasional A&R man Davis for inflicting Orgy and Limp Bizkit on the world. But the harshest words are reserved for the band's music, which has been skewered for everything from whininess to faux angst to pandering commercialism.
Take a Look in the Mirror, easily Korn's most aggressive effort, stands in stark contrast to the dense, expansive Untouchables. "I'm feeling mean today," Davis snarls at the outset, setting the tone for an album on which he screams himself hoarse over stripped-down production. Fieldy Arivzu's rumbling bass is loud enough to set off car alarms. There's a nod to Korn's rap-rock roots on "Play Me," featuring barbed rhymes by Nas, and Davis returns to the bagpipes on "Let's Do This Now." Throughout Mirror, Korn flaunts the album's lack of accessibility. "Ya'll want a single?" Davis bellows at one point. "Fuck you!"
"I really don't care what they have to say," Silveria says of critics. "If they like us, fine; if they don't, fine. We've never been looking for credit from critics or awards -- just the support of our fans is proof. It's the most rewarding award, so to speak, that we could get."
That, and maybe a few cases of Red Bull.