23 years ago: Korn followed their own path with ‘Issues’

The late 90s was a time of healing for Cereal vocalist Jonathan Davis. After a decade of indulging his most dangerous and depraved rock ‘n’ roll fantasies and suffering a breakdown at the end of the tour, Davis decided to get sober and tone down his recreational activities. In conjunction with that, Korn hired dedicated studio producer Brendan O’Brien to help them stay focused and work at maximum efficiency. The resulting album, Problems, was published on Nov. 16, 1999, and kept the band on an upward career arc.

“I think Brendan was really important in helping us achieve the sounds we wanted on this record,” guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer told me in 1999. “He’s a workhorse and we needed someone like that to motivate us.”

As in their 1998 commercial triumph Follow the leader, Korn maintained their core heaviness while incorporating a flurry of quirky guitar hooks and irresistible vocal melodies. And once again the band hit a nerve through a combination of staccato, down-tuned guitars, booming funk-driven bass lines, tortured vocals and experimental electronic embellishment.

“When we’re working on something, our only goal is for it to be great and still sound like Korn,” Shaffer said. “It is the most important.”

“We don’t want to go in a crazy new direction,” said a fellow guitarist Brian “Head” Welch. “When you listen to this record, you don’t want to go back and ask, ‘Fuck man, who the hell is this?’ You get what you wanted to hear.”

Korn, “Falling Away From Me”

Maybe Problems best described as a variation on a theme. “Falling Away From Me” mined the same brooding, spacey territory as Follow the leader‘Freak on a Leash’, while “Hey Daddy” revives scary themes first dealt with Cereal‘Daddy’ and ‘Beg for Me’, shifting from eerie party anthem to nightmarish demolition party, emerge from Life is Peachy‘s “Swallow.”

“We wanted really heavy, killer guitar riffs that were kind of weird but really banging,” Welch said. “And they had to have a groove. That was really super important.”

Lyrically, Davis talked about the mental anguish he was in before he got sober and started taking anti-depressants. In “Pray for Me,” he screams, “Everyone’s looking at me / I can’t get out of bed there’s evil in my head / Everyone just leaves me alone.

“I took all the weight of the world on my shoulders and I started breaking down and freaking out,” Davis said. “I stopped drinking because I thought it would make me feel better, but it didn’t, and that’s when it really started to scare me. I stayed in bed all the time because I couldn’t handle the world.”

He added: “I wouldn’t eat because I’d be afraid bacteria would kill me. I lost a lot of weight. That’s when I went to a doctor and he gave me some drugs. At first I was afraid to take them because I didn’t know what they would do to me or how they would affect my creativity. Then I started taking them and I felt so much better.”

Shaffer, Welch, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu and drummer David Silveria started writing songs for Problems in early 1999. In June, they entered the rehearsal studio with Davis to fine-tune the material, and the following month began recording with O’Brien at A&M Studios in West Hollywood, California. It took approximately three months to track and mix the 16 songs on the record.

“There were times when we second-guessed ourselves,” Davis said. “But when we heard the final mix, we were all smiling and laughing. We loved it. It’s hard and brutal like a lot of our stuff, but we were really happy with the songs.”

The day before the album was released, Korn played Problems in its entirety at a special show at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY. The show was a celebration of the joy they felt after completing the album, and the band was accompanied on stage by a choir and the New York City Police Department Pipes and Drums section. Coming at the heart of the nu-metal revolution, Problems debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart with more than 500,000 copies sold in the first week of release. The disc has sold more than 5 million units in the US alone and a total of 13 million worldwide.

Korn, “Make Me Bad”

The first single, “Falling Away From Me”, reached No. 99 on the Singles Chart, No. 7 on the Alternative Rock chart and No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock chart. “Make Me Bad” fared almost as well, hitting No. 9 on Alternative Rock and No. 7 on Mainstream.

While Davis remained clean and sober in the wake of the success of Problemsother band members saw their popularity as an opportunity to increase their rock ‘n’ roll indulgences, causing friction and turmoil that peaked years later with Welch’s and Silveria’s departure.

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legendsco-author of Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral Historyas well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthraxand Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, The Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.

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