From The Archives: Korn’s 1994 Debut LP: The Oral History of the Most Important Metal Record of the Last 20 Years
The original five members and producer Ross Robinson remember the pain, joy and wheatgrass
Though it never charted above No. 72, Korn’s self-titled 1994 debut has had unparalleled influence over the last two decades of American heavy music: the rise of nu-metal’s whomping pain-stomp, the road to platinum genre-smashers like Linkin Park and Slipknot, the popularity of the 7-string guitar, the emergence of superstar producer Ross Robinson and his method-acting-style techniques and even the mosh-centric rhythms of stadium dubstep artists like avowed Korn fan Skrillex.
Guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer, Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu and drummer David Silveria had been playing together since 1989 in funk-metal goofs L.A.P.D., a band that relocated from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. Their friend Brian “Head” Welch carried their gear and says he “waited years for them to get through their stupid funk phase.” Ultimately, the four men united as Creep and, with a new lead singer, recorded a demo with their friend Ross Robinson. But after the band’s guitarists went back to Bakersfield to visit some family, they caught sight of a spindly singer who would change their trajectory forever. Two weeks after Jonathan Davis’ audition the band had a new name, cut a four-song demo that would ultimately get the group a record deal and began one of heavy music’s biggest paradigm shifts.
Twenty years later, Korn have released 11 records, seven of them platinum, and will be playing their landmark first full-length in its entirety on select 2015 tour dates. Silveria, who left the group in 2006, won’t be rejoining the band for the occasion, but is currently working on getting a wider release forEchoes and Traces, the debut from his alt-metal project Infinika. We caught up with all the players to learn about the making of this monumental LP. Are you ready?
Brian “Head” Welch, guitar: We were into everything, from Pantera to Ice Cube. We liked the samples on the Cypress Hill stuff. The first record was about mimicking some of the hip-hop stuff that was going on in that day.
James “Munky” Shaffer, guitar: We were trying to sound like a DJ had remixed our guitars, y’know, and cutting them up and scratching. That’s kind of how that sound was born.
Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu, bass: When I would want to slap my bass, I wanted it to sound like it was being slapped. I didn’t want it to sound like a bass; I wanted it to sound like if you slapped a string. I don’t even like bass, to tell you the truth – it makes me nauseous.
Jonathan Davis, vocals: Dude, I never felt I was a metal dude to begin with. I grew up…my favorite band was Duran Duran. I was a child of the Eighties, and I loved more of the gothic and romantic kinda shit.
Ross Robinson, producer: Basically, he was a goth kid with kind of this funky, dry hair, wearing Monkey Boots, and he was wearing Robert Smith makeup. The band wasn’t dark yet; it had, like, killer grooves and good riffs, but there was some happy edge to it. And when he walked into the room, it went dark and goth. Basically, during the first song, to audition in the rehearsal room, he started freaking the hell out [laughs]. You couldn’t hear his voice, but you felt chills all over your body, and it was instantly like, “Oh my God, yeah – he’s the one.”
Head: When we had this scarecrow, depressed-sounding singer, and we’re doing all these noises, it just kind of went together and it made it sound even weirder.
Davis: After two weeks, we were doing a demo. Fucking crazy-ass Ross. I remember sleeping in a garage with him when he was living in a garage. I had to fucking quit my job where I was making great money as a mortician, had my own house, to fucking having nothing, working at a pizza place as a shift manager living under some stairs.
Robinson: We spent $14,000 on that first album – that was our budget. The reason I picked [Indigo Ranch Studio] was because Neil Young was there, Neil Diamond, all these really killer old-schoolers. I think Lenny Kravitz recorded there, Nick Cave. I knew that recording raw and vintage, the album wouldn’t sound dated ever. So we didn’t have any of the Eighties reverbs.
Davis: Walking in there and seeing all the crazy, old-school analog gear…I knew what this shit was because my dad had a recording studio. The shit that was in that studio, my dad dreamed about, and I just saw in pictures. I’m sitting there looking at it, going, “Oh my God, that’s an API Console!”
Robinson: Richard [Kaplan, Indigo Ranch Studio owner] had a big ol’ box of Seventies guitar pedals. That first Korn album was the first metal album to really use guitar pedals. I’m such a fan of that feeling you get when you hear [Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s] “Blinded by the Light,” when that phaser kicks in – Indigo had that exact phaser. I really believe that is the first metal album to start the pedal trend, for sure. We didn’t walk in there like that; it was ready and waiting for us.
Fieldy: I had to battle with Ross because I knew the sound I wanted – that real percussion-y, click-y sound. He would mic up my cabinet and I’d go in there and I’d play. I’m like, “That’s not my tone, that’s not my tone.” He’d move it in another part of the speaker, I go, “That’s not my tone.” Finally he just grabbed the mic and put it right in the center, right on the horn. I go, “That’s my tone.” He just got tired of my mouth.
Robinson: I didn’t know what the hell I was doing at all [laughs]. When I didn’t know the answer to something, I would go to the bathroom and put my head on the floor and ask for help until I got this chill in my body. Then I would go out and have all the answers to know what to do.
Davis: I remember when we started up “Clown,” David was refusing to start the song, ’cause he didn’t understand what was going on and I was getting frustrated and talking shit to him. It was irritating.
David Silveria, drums: One guy was telling me four clicks, and another guy was telling me no clicks. And I was saying, “How are we supposed to start the song if there’s no clicks?”
Davis: Ross loved just keeping the tape recorder going and capturing that shit.
Robinson: I actually edited it down to however long that was on the album, but it was a lot longer
Fieldy: Why can’t everybody just put their instruments on, and give us four clicks, and start the song? We even do it to this day. We’ll be in the studio, rehearsal’s at 2:00, nobody even gets started until 5:00 at least. Everybody’s just kind of standing around with their instruments on and it’s just weird.
Silveria: On the same piece of property [as the studio] was a cabin that was just an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs had four or five beds – like single-sized beds – and the downstairs had the same, that’s where everyone slept.
Davis: It was one big fucking party. Always just out of our minds drunk. By the time it was bedtime, we were just hammered. Staying in the chateau I remember waking up and it was sweltering hot. The sun would just bust through that fucking place. Head took over my vocal booth and he slept in there – he was smart.
Head: I think I slept in Jon’s vocal booth sometimes, and then I slept outside in the drum room. We would get these foam things, the ones that would deaden the sound. I’d put them on the floor, then get blankets and stuff and sleep in there. We were drinking a lot, so I didn’t really care about comfort.
Davis: We were 24 years old. I was 23, I think. That’s when you’re Superman, when that shit doesn’t affect you. I got sober when I was 28. Around 27 is when I started getting the bad hangovers and couldn’t do that shit no more or I was gonna die. But the other guys, their tolerance lasted a little longer.
Munky: At that time, I don’t think any of us knew that we were going to have severe addiction problems, so it was all in fun at that point.
Fieldy: You’re in the middle of nowhere in the middle of kind of a forest. It’s up in these hills and it was a long drive just to get out of there. So you’re kind of trapped. And as I learned over the years, they want you to get away from distractions every time we record – but you just find new distractions. We just made a distraction right there. We would bring all our friends up there. We’d have massive parties.
Robinson: It’s funny because that’s how they built their fan base was having parties in their rehearsal room
Munky: We had barbecues every other day…I remember just eating healthy in the afternoon, then partying really hard at night. Ross would kind of have to wrangle us into the studio ’cause we started to get drunk and shit and not really work. But he was good about getting us into the room to record.
Davis: I was a meth addict when I was doing that fucking record.
Head: I was trying not to [do meth]. When I was 10, 12 years old, I didn’t think about doing drugs while doing my record – I thought about doing a record, you know? So I was trying not to ruin my experience. But I was addicted, so it was off and on
Robinson: I was so full-on into working that I was always busy, and chaos was always happening around me, so I didn’t focus too much on it. But the studio owner, Richard Kaplan, he was stressed: He threatened to kick us out.
Munky: We would go hiking. We’d sweat out a lot of the alcohol or whatever it was we were doing the night before.
Fieldy: I remember one time [Robinson] decided, “Let’s go under this shrub.” We’re crawling on our knees through it, it took 45 minutes of crawling just to come out the other end. It was the suckiest thing I ever did in my life.
Davis: He’s a fucking sadistic bastard, that motherfucker. I love him, though; don’t get me wrong. But yeah, I think it gets him off. When I was 23, I didn’t know any better. I thought all producers were like this until after, when we did all the rest of our records where they started becoming fun. He had his way and was digging in to me and pulling shit out. I was already writing stuff about it, but to get the performance out, he really just poured salt on the wound.
Robinson: It was simply 100 percent belief in everything he was saying and 100 percent loyalty to being in an extremely comfort place for him, where he felt so safe with me that nothing bad would ever happen. I was doing a lot of my mom’s [self-help author Byron Katie] early workshops — she was starting back then, but now she’s world-famous — but those early workshops with her, it was normal to see people reveal the deepest, deepest, darkest secrets that no one’s supposed to know.
Head: I think Jonathan doesn’t give himself a lot of credit. A lot of us have things that come to the surface that we maybe have to deal with later in life – childhood things come up. Jonathan was going through that then, so he was singing about it, and it was like therapy to him. So it was coming out of him anyway. Ross would try to bring it out of him. But it was a team effort, definitely…Back then, he didn’t beat Jonathan up. He pulled it out of him. I think later on, in other records, he was, like, trying to abuse him [laughs] to get that twisted vibe out.
Davis: Honestly, I don’t think it was that bad on the first record. I think I was just letting shit go and he was just going with it. He didn’t start to get into that shit until the second Korn record [1996’s Life Is Peachy]. I remember him starting to bring up my stepmom, which I hated, and all kinds of shit like that. Shit that he knew pushed my buttons and got me going.
Fieldy: The only thing [Robinson] did for me: If I’m sitting down, he’s like, “You gotta stand up!” He wanted me to get into it and rock out. And y’know, being younger, I just did it; I thought it was stupid. I’m like, “I can record it just as good sitting down.” When we worked with him later when we did [2010’s] Korn III, he did the same thing. I was like, “Man, I forgot about this. I should’ve just been standing and he woulda told me to sit down.”
Davis: He figured out his production style on us. And then he just went and took it to the next level with other bands. But I don’t think he quite fucked people up like he did me. I think I’m his favorite.
Robinson: I think [the drum machine-inflected “Helmet in the Bush”], Jon and Brian put it together themselves. I think Brian played all the guitars on it as well… On that song, after we’ve done most of the album, he was playing really, really good. I’m was like, “Dude, why were you playing so soft on everything else?” He goes, “I didn’t want it to go out of tune.” I’m like, “What?” I wasn’t experienced enough to just know. I just thought, “Oh, he’s just not a good guitar player.” I went back and re-did all the guitars.
Silveria: He was basically like an educated cheerleader, if you will. He would cheer us on, when we were doing something great, and he would tell us when we were on to something that wasn’t so great. Does that make sense, like, an educated cheerleader? I guess that’s what a producer is.
Robinson: I was always pushing my health stuff on them. They’d try it. It was really sweet.
Davis: Aw, fucking Ross and his wheatgrass. That motherfucker would sit there and make us drink wheatgrass. He came and knocked so much to my head when we did Life Is Peachy that I went vegetarian for a year. We did this shit called the “horsey trough” and all I ate were fucking live sprouts, blackstrap molasses and some vegetables all stirred together. It was fucking disgusting.
Head: Like, “What the heck is wheatgrass? Why is it healthy for you? Why does it taste like this? This is horrible!”
Fieldy: I drink it here and there. But not really. I don’t really like the taste of grass
Davis: That started because when we were doing the demos, I think it was W.A.S.P. was doing their record or some shit. So when W.A.S.P. went home at night, we’d sneak in and use their shit, so we’d be up all night. And he gave us wheatgrass to keep us up. Yeah, the demo of “Blind” was one of Blackie Lawless’ guitars, I believe. Fucking funny, huh?
Silveria: I drank the shit out of [the wheatgrass]. If we were working through the night, we would drink chlorophyll — it’s like plant juice — and we would add it to our water and it gives you killer energy.
Robinson: David was a hardcore health guy and his fire on the drums absolutely, 100 percent made that album. His attitude was, “Fuck you, I’m going to do it the way I want to.” His confidence… He wasn’t, like, the perfect drummer or anything, but his timing was based on listening to the lead vocal and following the pulse of the words, rather than following the sterile, electronic click that most people depend on. It was based on the pull and push of Jon. And that’s the magic behind it: It’s all breathing… If I “knew” more about production and I fixed him, then I would have ruined the album.
Head: [The recording of Korn] has like an emptiness feel when I think back to it. I was in a place of just emptiness. [My girlfriend was pregnant and] I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. Do I tell my girlfriend to get an abortion because I’m getting ready to do a record and hit the road? I don’t even got any money. We just started. So I can’t raise a kid. Should I tell her to keep it? Should we stay together and keep it? Should we adopt the baby out? It was crazy.
Robinson: [For, “Daddy,” I remember] just telling Jon, “You know what to do.” That’s all I said.
Davis: It was just a special moment that I did not know was being recorded, for one, because Ross is a prick and kept the fuckin’ tape running.
Robinson: And it’s all live. No overdubs.
Head: It was one of the most intense things I ever witnessed in my life. It was so crazy; I thought he was joking at first ’cause he was really bawling and everything. But it was very, very intense.
Silveria: When we ended the song, Jonathan was still crying…I could see him through the window, from the drum booth. He was actually on the floor crying and Ross was in the control room, talking in our in-ears, going, “Keep going!” making a rolling motion with his hand. So we just kept going.
Davis: That’s me throwing my headphones and slamming the door on the fucking vocal booth [laughs].
Robinson: You’ll hear the door creaking at the very end, and the tape rolls off the machine. I put a delay on that last little bit of tape and we mixed it. We had to mix it letting the tape roll off like that. One of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced. And James continuing the song with the sobbing… They were so good at jamming. That whole long ending is just a jam. The engineer, Chuck Johnson, was so great, not thinking about pressing “stop” on the tape machine.
Davis: And I remember that moment, when I came out of there, and I was fucking sobbing, my whole band was crying, and they just all hugged me and shit. It was a crazy fucking experience… It was the good ol’ days, dude. We were all a band of brothers. We were like the fucking Three Musketeers – everybody was there for all their parts. Now, we got families and shit and we’re grown up, so everybody comes and does their parts and leaves. But at that point, the whole band was there. Except for David; he never was there [laughs]. He always did his parts and bailed.
Fieldy: I remember crying on that song. I was just crying on of how heavy and powerful the song was, and it just made me emotional.
Davis: Then Ross finding that crazy chick singing at the end?
Robinson: That was a lady from my mom’s workshop. It was in Death Valley in a trailer outside of a mineral bath. She was singing to my sister, and I’m like, “Can you record that for me and send it to me?” And she sent me a cassette because I knew that’s what I wanted to put on the end of “Daddy.” She sent the song, and she goes, “I don’t know why, but I want to sing this other one too.” And that‘s the one that we used. I was playing the cassette in my car, just sobbing. Just fucking broken down, man, knowing how powerful it was. It was freaking me out.
Davis: I haven’t listened to [“Daddy”] in 20 fucking years. It makes me cry. Every time when I was first listening to it, the first couple times it just made me fucking just lose my shit. So I stopped listening to it. It’s a painful, fucking five minutes…
We got done at Richard’s – I think you could buy a pizza and a two-liter Coke for, like, three bucks because we didn’t have any money at that time – we took one of the pizza boxes, and we wrote “Korn” on it, and we put it on the wall ’cause there were gold records on the wall. And we said that our shit went cardboard [laughs]. And for all those years, when Limp Bizkit and Deftones, anyone went up there and recorded, it still stayed there…
I still had a lot of vocals to do, so we just drove down to my dad’s studio. I recorded “Ball Tongue” at my dad’s studio, which is my studio now, which was originally Buck Owens’ studio.
Head: We tricked Ross into taking us on a drug run, and then we ended up tracking the vocals for “Ball Tongue” high on drugs. When Ross found out, that he drove us on a drug run without knowing it, he got pretty upset with us.
Davis: Went to my dealer and got a big ol’ fat rock of meth, chopped that shit up and I did vocals. “Ball Tongue” was about our close friend and kind of manager, from Huntington. That was his nickname because when he was tweaking, he’d just sort of seize up and his tongue was like a ball. All that crazy, scatting shit, that was all from me probably being up too long [laughs].
Robinson: He was hitting one of those black music stands with a guitar cord. During that vocal he was like — Bam! “Uurrragghh!” Bam!, “Uaaaggggh!” Anything that happened by accident, we kept.
Fieldy: I think I was the most excited and emotional – ’cause I’ll cry when I’m excited – I remember recording “Ball Tongue” and it kinda felt like we finally hit that song that everything Korn stood for was in this song.
Munky: We were all sitting in the car, listening to one of the rough mixes [of the whole album], and I just remember all of us like getting goosebumps. We called it “the Watch,” ’cause you kinda look at your arm and you look like you’re looking at a watch. We all had goosebumps.
Stephen Stickler, photographer: So in the image itself, that’s Dante [Ariola], the creative director’s shadow. He was experimenting with making, like, a claw, shadow hand – messed up, scary shapes or whatever. What we were kinda going for, but didn’t really have the technology to do it, was kind of give it like a retro, kind of smutty magazine from the Fifties, Sixties type-of-look overall. So for the cover image, I wanted to de-saturate the film and try to match it to the older film stocks. That’s something you can do in two seconds now. I don’t know how successful that attempt was to do that. Epic was very wary about putting this out there. I’m wondering now if they would even let that album cover out.
Munky: Fieldy and I were talking today about our first tour, when we were touring that album…with Biohazard and House of Pain.
Fieldy: We got an RV for, like, $10,000. It was just old.
Munky: I remember we were really stressed out. We thought, “Oh, here it is, we’re gonna blow it, the first show, our first real tour, and we’re not gonna make it.”
Fieldy: It caught fire multiple times and I think we broke down nine times on the way. We barely made it to the first gig. We pulled up as we were unloading to go on stage.
Davis: That’s when I kicked speed. I kicked speed in that RV. I did my last line, I fuckin’ jumped in there, they built a bunk for me, and I slept all the way from Huntington Beach to Atlanta. I think it was four days ’cause this fucker kept breaking down and shit. You stay up fuckin’ two or three days at a time, your body just needs to sleep. Your body needs to repair itself and it goes down for a long time.
Munky: [The RV] ended up, about a week later, catching on fire and burning — all melted, basically.
Silveria: I remember the lead singer of Biohazard was a jerk to us. And I don’t even know why. And I remember the head guy of [House of Pain]. He was a jerk to us too. Yeah, I don’t even know why they were. They just came up with all these rules and if we were around they’d be like, “Hey you, get out of here,” or whatever. They were just mean; I didn’t understand it.
Fieldy: We left the RV on the side of a road and had to get in a van. As we’re touring, we see all of a sudden our record sales are flying, it’s just taking off so fast. The merch was just selling huge. Within no time, everything unfolded really fast. But I remember telling my band – we were in a van for, like, two weeks – “Hey, you guys. I’m going to call the record company, I’m going to tell ’em if they don’t give us a tour bus, then we’re gonna quit the tour and go home.” We played it ’til the end and we got a tour bus. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like it was back in the day. You try and pull that card now, you’re going home.
Head: I was homeless and had a tour bus; that’s it. My girlfriend was staying at someone’s house and we had our stuff there and then a lot of it, for some weeks, was in my car, too. Somebody broke into our car and stole things that were really special to us. The baby did get adopted and we had pictures and stuff like that. So it got broken into and [the photos were] stolen… It was a very strange period. Like, “Dream come true; since I was 10 I wanted to do this!” I’m doing it, then I have all this other heartbreaking, crazy, stressful life things piled on top of me, you know?
Davis: [The album] sold 1,100 copies in the first week. I was fucking soexcited. And then shit started going more and more… When we went out on Ozzy’s tour…it was ’96? Ozzy walked in with a bottle of champagne with Sharon and a gold record and presented us our gold record. I’ll never fucking forget that ’cause Ozzy’s my fucking hero.
Silveria: I guess our managers had sent the gold records out on the road for them to surprise us with. And when we saw that we had sold half a million records, that was the first time I really felt, “Wow, this was really going to take off.”
Robinson: I think it was in Denver, they opened for Ozzy and nobody really knew who they were. I think it was during “Predictable,” Jon started wiggingthe fuck out, so hard. Like, so hard. I’ve never, ever in my entire life seen anything like it, ever. Flailing his body and his arms; he was just out of his mind. The whole crowd stood up, started cheering. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life. And it was during a music part; he wasn’t singing. That’s when I knew – it was on.
Fieldy: I started seeing everybody’s showing up wearing Adidas.
Silveria: Honestly, when we were labeled the band that invented the style of…what do they call it, “nu rock?” I guess people say we invented this nu-metal sound or whatever. I never really thought of it like that. I just thought we were doing our thing. That’s just what came natural from all our influences as musicians. I never really thought, “Hey, we’ve invented this new kind of music, this is going to be huge.” Thought never even crossed my mind.
Davis: Indigo burned down in the Coral Canyon fire in Malibu, I think four or five years ago. I went up there and I actually fucking started crying because I didn’t know it burned down. I was taking my boys up there, I wanted to show them where daddy did his first record. I drove up there and the place was fucking burned to the ground. There was a cactus up there that everybody signed. And I went up there and saw the cactus all burned up – my name survived, but it was really sad.
We’re doing select festivals and people are booking us to just do the first record in its entirety. It’s gonna be a trip…I think it’s going to be a bittersweet experience. Back then, we were all fucked up [laughs]. I think playing it in its entirety is gonna bring back a lot of memories. Some I don’t want to remember…
Head: I’m OK ’cause I’m not broken anymore over everything; I’m made whole again. I think I’ll have some thoughts and some feelings, but I don’t think it’ll be a difficult process or anything like that. I’m strong enough to where it’s in the past and it’s all healed up.
Silveria: I feel like it was wrong to go play this record without me, because I was just as much of a creative input as any of these guys while writing and making this record. So I think it was wrong to do it without me, but it’s not really weird. They’ve been playing and touring years without me. I just think they should’ve asked me to come play the tour.
Davis: I’ll be playing “Daddy,” but that song is just so old news to me. It’s not going to affect me like it did back then. There was abuse there, I dealt with it, and the person who abused me is dead now. Karma took them [laughs]. And, y’know, I’ve buried that. I’m just going to play the song for the people that need it, you know what I mean?
I only played it one time live. In New York at Coney Island High. That’s right around the time we were doing that Marilyn Manson/Danzig tour. When was that, ’95? I lost it and they had to pour a fucking bucket of ice on my ass, snap me out of it. So I was like, “I’m not playing that, fuck that song.”
Munky: [Playing the whole album will] definitely bring back some good memories. I think, on a personal level, everybody had their ups and downs with girlfriends or whatever. But as far as the band, it was always great – we always had a lot of fun together.
Fieldy: I think it’s going to be every emotion we can think of.