Jonathan Davis is the last guy in America you’d expect to be well adjusted. Think about it: The guy’s whole career has been built on being a fuck-up. For the last 15 years, Davis has battled and exploited his inner demons as the lead singer of Korn, gaining legions of fans that empathize with his tortured childhood and share his dark fascinations. Born with severe, nearly life-threatening asthma, Davis was abused by a family friend as a boy, ostracized and ridiculed by his classmates as a teen, and became a drug addict and a rock star in his 20s. By the time he hit 30, he was one of the most famous singers in the world, with a legendary reputation for drug consumption and skewed fixations. I spoke with Davis the day after he finished his first solo tour, a two-month slog he described as a blur of “shitty little showers and fucked-up shit holes.”Logically, a goth rock deity like Davis should have been clubbing baby seals for kicks or hiring a private detective to bury a bizarre sex video. Instead, he was resting at his Malibu home looking forward to the following day, when he planned to take two of his children camping on the beach. “I love it. I set them out there in the sand and a tent and that’s it,” Davis says.
What? No drugs? No sex? No blood? Sun, sand, and children? Frankly, it doesn’t sound like a day in the life of a rockstar. “I don’t give a fuck. What’s a rockstar? Trying to be a rock star is what got me in trouble in thefirst place,” Davis says.
These days, Davis spends his time off the road earning his World’s Greatest Nu Metal Dad coffee mug. Sober for almost a decade, he is a happily married father of three boys: 12-year-old Nathan, 2-year-old Pirate, and his newborn baby, Zeppelin. During our conversation, Davis’s voice rarely rose above a whisper, but he booms with happiness on the subject of his kids. “I really love my children. It’s the one thing in this world that makes me truly happy, other than music,” Davis says.
Possible that Davis could some day be too well adjusted to sing for Korn? “No chance. I got issues, bro. I’ll always have issues,” he says.
Davis might be living the straight and narrow, but his version seems wider and more crooked than most. His adoring wife Devon is a former porn star (for the record, she was only in girl-on-girl films, which is like the Coors Light of porn). He sings through a microphone set on a $50,000 stand designed by H.R. Giger (the Swiss artist who created the alien in Alien), he’s collaborating on an opera with Clive Barker (the sicko British horror writer behind the Hellraiser movies).
And as a former collector of serial killer art—a topic, he says, he now can’t ??storm lyrics. “I’ve gone to those places and I’ve written what I needed to write there,”Davis says. “I’m not going to go and try to repeat myself, write some fake shit. With each new record, I’m tapping into new things and just exploring different ideas.”
And while he doesn’t party anymore,well,he still kind of parties.“I’m at the parties and I’m chopping up lines of cocaine, rolling joints, and pouring drinks,”Davis says. “I can hang out with everybody, but it’s not for me. I just can’t do it.” When Davis grew up in Bakersfield, his hometown was about as close to the farm town in Footlooseas a southern Californian city can get. While its demographics have shifted a little since then, the town is still called the “buckle of California’s Bible Belt.”Not surprisingly, Davis had a tough time fitting into the sunny, Reagan-loving community, and his tattoos are a testament to that. He has a monstrous bishop on one arm, and HIV—the nickname his tormenting high school peers gave him—on the other.
Even though he grew up listening to English new romantic bands like Duran Duran—he didn’t embrace metal until hearing Pantera in his 20s—Davis was cautioned against becoming a musician by his father, a touring musician him self. “My dad didn’t want me to be a musician because he tried and he went out. It was hard and he wanted to protect me,” Davis says. So he followed his father’s suggestion and, at 17, he became employed in a more wholesome profession; through a high school program, he got a job at a mortuary.
“It was a very fucked-up line of work,” Davis says. “I did it ’cause I really like dark, sick shit. It sounded interesting to cut up dead bodies.” He was in terested, but not entirely prepared for the experience. “The first day … I was terrified. I went back to school and I was ghost white. I had just faced my mortality. The first guy I cut open was in a motor vehicle accident. The guy was smashed the fuck up. I’ll never forget the sound of the scalpel opening up his flesh. It still rings in my ears to this day.”
But despite finding success, or at least stability, as a coroner, Davis re tained his passion for music. He formed the band SexArt, which gained the attention of two Bakersfield guitar players, James “Munky” Shaffer and Bryan “Head” Welch. Impressed by Davis’ stage presence and voice, Shaffer and Welch asked him to join their band. Loyal to his SexArt cronies, Davis con sulted a higher power of sorts. “My aunt’s a psychic and astrologer. She told me all of this stuff was going to happen. It definitely impacted my decision to join the band,” Davis explains.
Welch and Shaffer were experimenting with new dissonant and down-tuned guitar styles. Davis started mining painful childhood memories for lyrics. Korn and the genre of Nu Metal was born. The music was gnarled and aggressive, the vision was dark and personal. Their self-titled debut album was some thing increasingly rare in popular music: a truly original sound. The lifestyle the band’s success afforded them, while epic and dangerous, was stolen whole sale from classic rock icons. “When I first started, I would watch that Doors movie. I wanted to be Jim Morrison, you know? I tried to be as fucked up as I could possibly be, all the time,” Davis explains.
By 1998, Korn had attained a new level of popularity. They headlined their first Family Values tour. Their album Follow the Leader debuted at number one on the Billboard chart. But the years of partying and touring had taken their toll on Davis, and he hit rock bottom in front of the worst possible audi ence. “[My son] Nathan saw me fucked up, and two days later my grandfather passed away. That’s when I got sober. Two drastic, traumatic things in my life happened back to back,” Davis says. “I flew into Atlanta for a show. I sat down at the bar. I said it was my last Jack and Coke and my last cigarette. They all laughed at me, but I haven’t touched them since.”
Getting sober changed his life, but it didn’t make it perfect. In 2003, Welch left the band to become a born-again Christian. In his 2007 book, Save Me From Myself, Welch renounced his wanton rocker ways. Surprisingly, Davis has read it: “It could have been a lot worse. There are a couple of things in there he didn’t need to say, but he did.” But, Davis adds, while most of Welch’s accounts of rock star debauchery were essentially true, some aspects were sensationalized. “He never partied a lot like he said in the book. He never had chicks. That was never his style.”
Davis says Welch is now living in a Christian community in Arizona that main tains a cult-like hold over the former Korn guitarist, and he also believes they prevent Welch from communicating with his former band mates. But despite the apparent rift, Davis wishes him luck. “I’m glad he found something to get him sober and make him happy. And the whole God thing, if he needs that, it’s fine. People need God and all that stuff to do something positive in their life. In my opinion he traded one addiction for another. But at least it’s a positive one.”
Welch’s departure didn’t stop Korn, but while on tour in Europe in 2005, Davis had a health scare that almost did. After noticing a series of mysterious bruises on his body, he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease called Immune Thrombocytopenia Purpura, or ITP. His blood couldn’t coagulate, which posed a unique occupational hazard for a heavy metal singer; head banging became potentially lethal. The six-month steroid cure was as painful as the disease. “Steroids make you just go crazy in your head. You’re aggressive and your body aches when you’re coming off of them. You can’t sleep. And when they start weaning you off of them, your joints ache. It really fucks with you,” Davis says. Now completely recovered, Davis is excited to work on his solo projects and more music with Korn. But even more than that, he’s glad to spend time with his kids. “I’m not saying I’m some boring dude. I’m just an artist that’s a really good father. That’s rare. People trip out on that.”