Kids like their Korn

MIKE ROSS

, Last Updated: 10:02 PM ET

To give you an idea how much Korn values its young fans and why the band's latest album, Follow the Leader, inexplicably became the top seller in North America a couple of weeks ago, consider the case of Eric VanHoven.

The 18-year-old student was given a one-day suspension from Michigan's Zeeland high school in February. His heinous crime: wearing a Korn T-shirt. Assistant principal Gretchen Plewes said the shirt was offensive simply because the band's music is offensive - "indecent, vulgar, obscene and intends to be insulting," as she told a local newspaper.

Korn didn't argue - not for nothing do "parental advisory: explicit lyrics" stickers get plastered on Korn's albums. But the band did threaten to sue (proceeds would've been donated to charities concerned with preventing child abuse, they said) and then settled for sending a truckload of free Korn shirts to Zeeland high school after classes one Friday afternoon.

JUST A RUMOUR?

"I didn't know Korn was a bad word," says guitarist Brian (Head) Welch, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles yesterday. "I don't know if that principal ever heard us or just heard a rumour ... she wasn't that kid's parent so I don't think she had the right to do that.

"We haven't heard nothing since. I'd like to talk to that kid, though."

Not since Garth Brooks - whose hat would curdle given a momentary exposure to Korn's music - has such a popular act taken such a personal interest in their fans. The T-shirt fracas is just the tip of the iceberg. Before the new album was finished, Korn staged a series of televised "After School Specials," inviting teenage fans inside their recording studio. To launch Follow the Leader, there was a pair of "Korn Kampaign" stops which drew huge crowds in New York and Toronto.

The album, a ferocious combo of heavy metal and hip-hop that's riddled with scathing sarcasm and social criticism (plus loads of cursing), debuted at No. 1 in both the U.S. and Canada. No one, least of all the band members, expected that to happen.

"It's trippy," Head says (so nicknamed, he explains, because his head is physically larger than normal). "Overwhelming, you know? That's a big mark, even if it's only for a week. We're all very pleased."

And even with CDs flying out of the stores and videos saturating MuchMusic and MTV, Head maintains Korn is still an "underground" band.

"What it means to me is not being too far out, not too far away from our fans," he says. "We feel pretty close to our fans - so we're still underground."

VICIOUS IRONY

Head doesn't particularly care to discuss Korn's lyrics, written exclusively by singer Jonathan Davis, though he will allow that they've made a powerful connection. Follow the Leader is no different. From songs like Cameltosis (obvious anti-smoking message here) and Dead Bodies Everywhere to even the cover art (by Calgary's Spawn creator Todd McFarlane), depicting a child hop-scotching off a cliff and a throng of kids waiting to follow, there's a distinct message offered, even if it is framed in vicious irony. It's really pretty simple: life can be harsh, so be good to each other.

"It's reality, you know?" Head says. "What Jonathan writes about is what actually happens. If parents think their kids are too young to hear it, then the parents shouldn't let them hear it. But I think Korn fans that are into us get what he's talking about. They can relate."

Musically speaking, Head says he's much happier with Follow the Leader than either of Korn's previous two albums. Most of all, the band had more time to craft its fusion of hard rock and rhythm. The process was easy: "Anything we wrote, if we could picture the crowd hopping up and down and just grooving, we'd keep it. We're all influenced by hip-hop, and we like to mix up different types of music. On this record, we got rock, we got jazz, we got hip-hop, we got crazy noise, we got a disco beat in one song, bagpipes. Throw it all in there."

Guest artists include rapper Ice Cube (on Children of the Korn) as well as Cheech Marin, who performs on a secret bonus track of the Cheech and Chong classic, Earache My Eye (written by Gaye Delorme).

Korn will launch its typical ironically titled Family Values Tour on Sept. 22, with Limp Bizkit, Ice Cube, a "death-pop" band called Orgy and a German industrial rock artist named Rammstein, who sets himself on fire and takes crowd surfing to its next level by using a rowboat.

"We just wanted to throw something fun together," Head says. "We thought this would be fun. People can go to this and just have a blast."

Now there's a concept. No wonder Korn is for kids.


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