Interview: Slipknot’s Clown Explains Why the New Album Is So Artsy
It’s hard for any nine people to get along for an extended period of time, so the fact that the members of Slipknot have remained together for nearly 25 years through various tragedies and tribulations is nothing short of a miracle. It’s not like the musicians learned some secret about how to cohabitate with other volatile, egocentric musicians early in their career.
There were numerous occasions when they barely made it from one city to the next, let alone continued from album to album. There were internal rivalries, spiteful antics and countless destructive tantrums. Everything was a fight and pretty much every battle turned into some sort of victory. Maybe it’s because Slipknot rose from the cornfields of Iowa to stages of arenas around the world, but everyone in the band was too ambitious and stubborn not to fight to retain their role in the group and to make their voices heard, whether they played DJ, guitar or sang.
Pressured by rapid success and the desire to remain popular, some members became dependent on drugs and alcohol. Others had their home lives torn apart because they seemed to prioritize the band over family. Many of the nine sustained serious onstage injuries and in 2010, right when the tension level seemed to reach a boiling point, bassist and songwriter Paul Gray died of a morphine and Xanax overdose.
Ironically, that’s when the wounds that covered Slipknot began to heal. Instead of selfishly striving to be the center of attention, each of the remaining eight members came together to mourn the loss of their brother and lament the personal and interpersonal forces that had created a gulf between them. They began to focus less on their personal desires and concentrate on the needs of the band. That’s when percussionist and artistic director Shawn “Clown” Crahan, who was especially vocally unhappy about his diminished role in the band throughout Slipknot’s career, put his personal desires aside and started thinking about the personal needs of his fellow bandmates and the musical needs of the nine-headed beast that is the Knot.
“As human beings getting older and living a life together, you either learn how to communicate as real men and real artists or you deny that potential and you hold it in and fight and create soap operas,” Clown explains after returning to the U.S. from Slipknot’s European tour. “We’re just over that. We communicate everything now. It has been a life learned and a journey traveled.”
Throughout Slipknot’s new album We Are Not Your Kind, Clown’s experimental approach to music shines through in many of the musical interludes, segues and mid-sections. He couldn’t be happier about how much he contributed musically to the album, but to have his ideas taken seriously he had to lower his defenses and put the music ahead of himself.
“It’s great because now I’m just being allowed to be me,” he says. “But in order to be me, I’ve gotta be a good person now. And maybe I had communication problems in the past or maybe I forced myself on other people because I was so excited about my own ideas and that worked against me.”
During our discussion, Clown talked about the respect and admiration for his bandmates that could only come with time and experience, how he knew the new Slipknot album would be called We Are Not Your Kind two years before the band had to come up with a title, and the effect the songs “Spiders” and “Unsainted” had to trigger the band’s creative momentum and the newfound zones of innovative interplay between nine dudes called Slipknot.
Some have called We Are Not Your Kind the album you’ve wanted to make for 10 years.
It’s definitely a masterpiece. It’s one of a kind. That doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than anything we’ve ever created. All the circumstances of growing older, learning your styles, learning your trades, learning yourself, learning your existence, learning what you love came into play in a big way. Hopefully, when you take all that into consideration you evolve as a human and then hopefully you can offer that to other humans. And I think we’re just getting tighter as a band and we’re getting better at explaining out loud how we feel and what we think and this can translate into the music.
You were on a roll when you were writing songs for the album even though you took three years to write it.
There is so much material written for this album that it could have even been a double LP, and it would have been even more like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which was a very flattering comparison. There are so many songs that got cut and enough atmospheric art pieces to make a whole other album. But we felt like we wanted to really challenge ourselves to whittle it down to what we got accomplished in the time allotted. And we’re very proud of it.
Will the extra material you recorded eventually surface?
We’re in a very good place. Right now we’re gonna enjoy the fruits of our labor and enjoying all the hard work that went into this. Things are great and we’re having a good time, so we’re not worrying about what will come out next. And I think the music will all be presented at the right time for the right reasons.
In an era of singles, you have created a full album that begs to be listened to from start to finish over and over so listeners can unravel all the layers. Maybe that’s why some have considered it a concept album.
When we first started this over three years ago there were talks that labels might not even want to do physical product. I didn’t even take any time to get angry because that’s just not gonna fly in my book even if I have to buy it myself. A world without physical product doesn’t exist in the world of music in my head. I know people want to push the efficiency of the World Wide Web and even people that want to buy the album want to have free shipping and have it delivered directly to their door so they don’t have to be social and make an effort. But in Slipknot’s world you’re gonna smell ink. You’re gonna hold it in your hands. You’re gonna be allowed to bring it to us for a signature. You’re going to manually put it in your CD player or on your turntable if you still choose to own it. You can still put it in an Xbox or a Playstation. I’m not giving up until that all gets taken away from me and the only way to take it away is to shut down the machines that make this shit. And that’s not gonna happen right away.
In the past, you had some frustrations that your voice wasn’t being heard and that it was the same artists who producers were constantly turning to for musical input. There seems to be more of you and your style of artistic creativity on the album.
It’s always hard to talk about these sorts of things because you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. You don’t want to disrespect anybody. There are never enough words to convince someone of what the truth is. But the truth is it’s not a Slipknot album until everyone is in on it. Everybody has different traits and strengths.
One trait I’m very proud of is that the core band — the three string players and the drummer — recorded this whole entire album without using a click track. That means they didn’t have the beat going on in their headphones the whole time they recorded in order to make sure they kept the right tempo. To do it the way they did it takes lots of time, lots of rehearsals and lots of effort using the click to actually feel comfortable enough to play the shit without the click. So this is a milestone for us. And milestones are what we strive for.
You mention the core band and what they achieved. What did you bring to We Are Not Your Kind? It seems like a considerable amount judging from your interest in avant-garde music, alternative rock and experimental industrial.
While the core band was in there doing their thing, I made sure that I was in another studio working as hard so that the sounds I created would have the respect of the guys working on everything else. I demanded time for this album.
Me, [guitarist] Jim Root and [drummer] Jay Weinberg got right to work after .5: The Gray Chapter’s album cycle was done. Mainly it was my job to get in there, take everything we worked on out on the road — all these live recordings and jam rehearsals — and take everybody’s demos and ideas and run it through my brain and bring it into the second studio.
We recorded at EastWest Studios. They have several studios within the complex and we had two of them, one where we were making the major record and then the open lab, where we experimented with all kinds of things. After we had the basic arrangements for the songs, someone like Greg Fidelman, who produced the album with us, might say, “Hey, this bridge needs something.” And he would send it to the open lab where we would crush our brains for weeks or months to figure out the right color to complement the song.
Was everything created in an obsessive, perfectionist manner?
Not so much. One great gift we gave ourselves was we didn’t listen to what we were recording on this album. We spent more time working than we did listening. On previous albums, we were constantly listening to the songs. This time, we said, “No, fuck that.” We threw it up and we worked on it all day. When we weren’t working on it we’d work on another song.
You’re not wrong when you say there’s more of me in this. This is the most of a voice I’ve ever had in my entire life on anything I’ve ever done. My voice is all over the music, the videos and the art. I really learned how to be able to communicate with someone like Jim Root in a way that is constructive and keeps the potential congruity between the two. I believe music is about “we.” I don’t want to make it all about myself.
I think I have an incredible gift to be able to acknowledge what other people aren’t acknowledging. So, I’ll go in and dig deep on something Jim Root or Mick Thomson has done. And I’ll see what else could go with it and I’ll go in and finesse it for four days and then present it to them with the highest of respect and integrity that I feel toward them. I’m thrilled to be involved. I’m being allowed to cherish my gifts when it comes to color and purity and these guys are really recognizing what I am. And I think that’s happened because I’ve changed so much.
I’ve worked so hard at being selfless over the last four years in order to be able to communicate [with] people and be able to create God’s music with them with no word of me or I or talk of publishing or credit or percentages or work or job or corporate. It’s all just fucking art.
I have a clear line of communication with my brothers now, and we’re really capitalizing on the best of our abilities. There is not one bar of music on this album that has not been looked at thoroughly even though we recorded it without listening back to it. This is all very, very thought out and it’s very personal and very unworldly. It’s out of this fucking solar system.
The influences in the interludes are so multifaceted. You can hear Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Coil, Adrian Belew…
Thank you. Yes. That’s right on point, brother. Saying things like that — you totally get it! You might not hear that in the total piece. But bridges are different than breakdowns. Breakdowns are sometimes anthems. You get crowd participation. But bridges are supposed to take you from where you’re at to somewhere else and then bring you back. And the only way to do that is to sit there and ask yourself, “What the fuck did we create? What is this.”
All the poets always say, “Everything in my head is already out there.” We live in a very unoriginal world because we live in somebody else’s idea that we’re trying to perfect, not only for longevity, safety, love and pleasure, but sometimes anger, fear and pain come into play. To capture all of that we looked at every measure and if an Adrian Belew kind of solo could contribute to what we were trying to say then it made sense because of what we grew up with and we loved. So we’d harness that energy. We don’t want it to sound like him, specifically, but goddamn it, we will take the inspiration from everywhere and try to use it to contribute to beautiful songwriting.
Back when you worked on All Hope is Gone over 10 years ago, you, Jim, Corey and Sid were frustrated with what was happening in the main studio, so your producer Dave Fortman put you in another studio and gave you equipment to record more experimental, psychedelic tunes, some of which made their way into the songs in one way or another, but most of which didn’t make the cut. The seeds of that seem to have sprouted with We Are Not Your Kind.
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s important for me for everyone to understand what’s really fucking going on. And it’s important for us as a family to not deny ourselves who we actually are. And I’ve just learned a lot that I’ve denied myself my own potential. It might be because of how I acted and how I presented myself. And now we care about nothing more than creating the most brilliant art for ourselves. We don’t know how it’s going to pan out for the fans. But when you have a song like “What’s Next” going into a song like “Spiders” and then a little bit later you go into a song like “My Pain,” with all these art pieces, there are so many questions people need to ask.
We’ve gone out of the solar system on this album, and there’s a fucking choir on it. There’s a chick on a song. There’s more questions than people can ask or understand or dissect. We went there, man, and I’m not going out on a limb to say it, but this album is a masterpiece. I say that because we worked so hard not only on our own art ability but our own human integrity toward one another. There were a lot of apologies, a lot of hugs, a lot of love, a lot of tears, a lot of tragedies, a lot of hard work, man.
What happened to the All Hope is Gone outtakes?
We have a whole other album that four of us wrote when we did All Hope is Gone. We have 11 songs that we’re gonna release sometime in this album cycle. But it’s never been about just getting it out. It needs to be out when it’s right and by coming out during this album cycle people will even understand more what we’re doing on this album and what first led to it.
Given that there’s so much heaviness and experimentation, was it a real challenge to put this jigsaw of an album together?
It’s always exciting to challenge yourself and go with it to see where it takes you. That never changes. Any color, any paint brush that gets brought out, there’s always a challenge and it’s always fun. But it’s like we knew exactly what we wanted. This is a true story. We had a bunch of music. We worked for about three years or a little bit over on this. Mostly me, Jim and Jay worked on this. But getting it ready was a lot of work. Arrangements change and ideas fluctuate. But the minute “Unsainted” hit the floor before vocals were already on it, I was already saying this would be the first song on the album. And this was a year and a half before we even had to decide that stuff. I already knew because of the guitars. I’m like, ‘That’s the farthest out we have ever been away from ourselves with the guitars, but the art is still written in Slipknot language. I said, “That’s it. Song number one.”
Did you already picture the choir on there?
Man, I fought for the choir forever and it wasn’t until the very end. Time wasn’t on our side and it wasn’t looking like it was gonna happen. Then Greg Fidelman came up to me and asked, “How fuckin’ serious are you about the choir?” And I was like, “Dude, I’ve been talking about the fucking choir since Day One. I’m so serious.” And he made it happen. He got it organized. He talked to the label for me and for us. We got it organized and recorded and we got to express ourselves.
You said Corey didn’t start working on the lyrics until you were 18 months into the music. Was that frustrating at all?
It was good. He had a nice break and he came back ready to do his thing. And it’s up to him to decide when he wants to start the lyrics. We’re not gonna push him. A year and a half in, he showed up and sang [the Japanese bonus track] “All Out Life” and in the breakdown, he sang, “We are not your kind.” I was like, “That’s it. That’s the album name.” And Corey said, “I was wondering if you were gonna think that.” And I said, “You will not come up with a better line than that and if you do it’s because you’re trying to. Don’t try.”
The minute I heard that line I got a board and wrote the songs in order that come on and off the tape. And at the top of it, I wrote, “We Are Not Your Kind” as the title. That was two years ago! We were on this shit. We were riding this wave and loving it. This is what we signed up to do. We executed it, and it was great. I don’t know if it’s a bulls-eye, and I don’t fucking care because I love the journey we’re on. For me it just keeps getting better because of our awakening and our epiphanies on living as human beings and how we’re going to throw everything we learn into this.
Corey said "Spiders" was the point where everything solidified and the microcosm of the record was formed.
As you can see, “Spiders” is a greatly different song for us and the best thing you can ever do to Slipknot members is challenge us. As I said, a lot of music was taken away to make this album as perfect as it can be in an imperfect world. “Spiders” is a rock song that’s gonna infuriate people because they think they know what hard rock and metal is. Everyone thinks it’s simple and poppy. But what no one realizes is the song is in 7/4. Try counting it out. It’s not Poison or some shit. It’s easy to make something simple sound crazy but it’s almost impossible to make something crazy sound simple.
If people listen to that song, whatever they say about it, someone should ask them, “Try and figure out what the mode is? Try to figure out what the song is all about?” So yes, that was a pivotal moment for us. It’s in a minor key. It’s fucking haunting and creepy. Wait ‘til the video comes out. It will probably be one of the biggest songs we’ve ever written. Does that mean we set out to do that? Absolutely not. I just sat down at the piano one day and wrote the piano line. Someone commented, calling it “Clownpenter” and I loved that. It’s Clown mixed with John Carpenter [who wrote the theme song for the movie Halloween]. And we just kept the keyboard part going through the song because it feels like when we were kids. And it’s 100 percent Slipknot. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t have blast beats and if the guitars don’t come in for a while. It’s Slipknot!
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory. You can look out for his next release featuring unflinching stories from metal legends in early 2020.
Thanks to Slipknot's Shawn "Clown" Crahan for the interview. The band's 'We Are Not Your Kind' album is currently available here. You can catch Crahan and the rest of Slipknot performing at these stops.
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