Slipknot, unmasked: the horror and heartbreak behind metal's most vital band

'A metal version of Earth, Wind & Fire comprised entirely of serial killers': Slipknot in 2019
'A metal version of Earth, Wind & Fire comprised entirely of serial killers': Slipknot in 2019

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In June of 2011 Corey Taylor, the lead singer with American metal band Slipknot, addressed the Oxford Union Society. Joining a roll call of previous speakers that includes Winston Churchill, Desmond Tutu and Salman Rushdie – and, lest we forget, Kermit the Frog – Taylor had some advice for the audience that ran contrary to the normal platitudes issued by a rock star. 

“Too many people chase dreams that they don’t understand,” said the then-37 year old, channeling his inner Prince Charles. “Too many people go for things that they’d like to do, but they’re not realistic enough to know that they don’t have the talent [to do them].

Corey Taylor was one of the Oxford Union Society’s more unusual speakers. A high school drop and a recovering drug addict who had overdosed twice on cocaine by the age of 16, the singer had endured a troubled early life. 

Raised by his mother in Waterloo, Iowa – a place he described as “a hole in the ground with buildings around it” – and then by his grandmother, Taylor later revealed that at the age of 10 he was sexually abused by a 16-year old who secured his victim’s silence with the threat “to hurt me and hurt my mom.” Eight years later he attempted suicide only to be resuscitated by doctors at a local hospital.

Invited to speak at the Oxford Union Society by 19-year old physics major Matthew Clayton, Taylor told the audience that “if you follow the path of least resistance, where you discover what you’re good at and you go with that, the love, the passion, the drive, the career will open up for you.” This, he reasoned, is better than “chasing something that you’re just not that good at” because that’s “like beating your hands against the wall – the wall’s gonna win.”

Corey Taylor performing in Rio de Janeiro, 2015 Credit: getty

But not always. In the case of Slipknot - who this week release We Are Not Your Kind, their sixth studio album - the wall lost, by knockout, in the first round. At the start of their career, Rihanna's favourite band (yes, really) simply smashed straight through it. In doing so they followed their singer’s advice and played to their strengths, offering chaos and excitement in heroic quantities.

With a line-up that featured nine masked men dressed in boiler suits, the band resembled a metal version of Earth, Wind & Fire comprised entirely of serial killers. The idea for the masks came when percussionist Shawn Crahan brought a clown mask to one of the group’s early rehearsals, in 1997. Taylor, who remembered seeing the trailer for John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween, featuring the masked murderer Michael Myers, approved. 

A look was born. 

The singer described the masks as “our way of becoming more intimate with the music. It’s a way for us to become unconscious of who we are.”

Slipknot performing in Chicago, 2001

In 1999, it was dynamite. With market leaders Slayer suffering a midlife crisis, and Pantera in decline, the group’s entry into the world of very, very heavy metal could not have been timed better were it manufactured by Cartier. As a result their self-titled first album, which this year celebrates its 20th birthday, became the fastest selling metal debut in US chart history. 

The attendant chaos was pronounced. At Slipknot’s first UK concert turntablist Sid Wilson dived from the balcony of London’s Astoria theatre onto the unsuspecting heads of a thousand people 20 feet below. At a subsequent magazine awards ceremony the band upended their table and became the targets of a food fight that resulted in the actress Britt Ekland breaking her leg. Onstage, their command of the audience was such that they would often instruct a crowd of many thousands to crouch on the floor – a showpiece that still forms part of their gigs today. 

Back then everything about them seemed different; somehow stranger and more extreme. Slipknot hailed not from a major US city, or even state, but from Des Moines, Iowa, an unknown land of cornfields and OxyContin. As was the case with Kiss in the 1970s, the band took pains to protect their identities and by doing so created a blank canvas onto which supporters could project whatever they pleased. 

Unmasked: Slipknot (with Corey Taylor, centre) in 2012 Credit: getty

Remarkably in the internet age this blackout lasted for three years. Corey Taylor and guitarist Jim Root were the first to break cover with their other band, the more melodically inclined, and more mediocre, Stone Sour.  Since then, as a singer, author, actor and speaker, Taylor in particular seems to like the sound of his own face. Soon enough, each member’s secret was out. Today Slipknot still wear masks when performing live, as well as in videos and photo shoots, but with varying degrees of success. 

The design of each member’s mask is changed with each album cycle, and come the end of a tour the smell from them is reportedly atrocious. Tom Savini, the horror director and special effects maestro famous for his work with George A. Romero, designed Corey Taylor’s current model; the response from Slipknot’s core constituents was not wholly positive. One supporter posted a picture of himself with a milk carton fastened to his face, alongside a picture of the mask itself, and the words "nailed it!". 

Undeterred, Corey Taylor defended the design, adding that, anyway, he didn’t intend to change the mask because he was enjoying the extent to which it was annoying people. 

Corey Taylor's divisive new mask, designed by Hollywood effects artist Tom Savini

The music, however, endures. Over the course of 15 years sales of the band’s previous five albums have been recognised with no fewer than 23 gold and 13 platinum discs. At least one of these albums, 2001’s excoriating Iowa, was recorded in supremely trying circumstances. “There was drugs, bitches, alcohol, rock’n’roll, all that shit,” said Shawn Crahan in a statement that has not aged well. It was even reported at the time that Corey Taylor recorded his vocals naked and covered in vomit. 

“The biggest mistake [I made] was to give in to my addictive personality,” the singer told the Oxford Union Society. “A lot of my problems stem from chemicals and whatnot. When I was growing up it was always easier to follow the pack and get involved with drugs and alcohol and stuff like that. I let the drugs go when I was 15 or 16, but kind of got caught up with alcohol as well. [But] I was lucky enough that my dream [of singing in a band] was also an anchor as well.”

Not everyone was so fortunate. In 2010 Slipknot bassist and founding member Paul Gray was found dead in a hotel room in Johnston, Iowa. The subsequent autopsy revealed that the 38-year old had died of an overdose of morphine. The report also revealed traces of Xanax in his system, as well as signs of "significant heart disease".

Speaking to the press Shawn Crahan described Gray as “a really great friend and a great person,” and Slipknot duly titled their next studio album, released in 2014, The Gray Chapter. Other tributes were less conventional. At the first concert the group performed after the bassist’s death, at Terra Vibe in Malakasa in Greece in 2011, Paul Gray’s boiler suit was hung at the spot on the stage at which he would normally stand. Prior to the night’s first song, Sid Wilson crept up to the garment in order to fondle the crotch. 

Slipknot member Paul Grey, who died in 2010, aged 38 Credit: ap

Given that today Slipknot feature just one member from their earliest days, their durability is striking. Even the removal of the band’s most recognisable faces seems not to have detained them. In 2013 popular drummer Joey Jordison was ejected from the ranks and replaced by Jay Weinberg, son of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, who had first seen Slipknot with his father at the Tweeter Center in New Jersey aged just 11. The younger Weinberg has also performed onstage with Springsteen, surely making him the only player in the world that has kept a beat to both Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and People = Shit.  

At their best, Slipknot are representatives of a genre that is capable of changing both the shape and sound of the mainstream in ways that drag its centre of gravity in stranger and heavier directions. In this, metal’s capacity for innovation is as enduring as it is undervalued.

Later this month, LA’s Tool will unveil Fear Inoculum, their first album for 13 years, and are likely top the charts the world over with the year’s most complex and bewildering release. In Europe, Berliners Rammstein have been busy wowing audiences in the largest stadiums on the continent with music that is perverse and wholly bonkers.

If Slipknot are seen to equal these high water marks then for them 2019 will be a very good year. The band’s constituents have been waiting a full five years for We Are Not Your Kind, and the advance word is justifiably strong. As ever, the record offers plenty of aggro as well as a superior, if occasional, ear for melody. It is much edgier, and far more provocative, than a band of this vintage has any right to be. 

Corey Taylor onstage at Donnington, June 2019 Credit: wireimage

Inevitably, the album also offers a safe space for themes of alienation and dislocation that, if acted upon, would get their authors arrested. In this, Slipknot hold the keys to the kind of noisy playpen beloved of anyone in touch with their inner adolescent. 

Corey Taylor himself no longer lives the chaotic life that he once did. From a vantage point of abstinence and sobriety that he has maintained for many years now he once told this reporter that he would celebrate an upcoming New Year’s Eve by drinking non-alcoholic cider, albeit while chain smoking cigarettes. 

Even so, on We Are Not Your Kind he still manages to sound convincing when he tells the listener that “there’s still a part of me that’s dying in a dumpster,” a reference to the time the singer overdosed on cocaine and other drugs at a party he attended as a younger man.

If this is the “path of least resistance” that Taylor has sought to steer throughout his adult life, it is to his credit that, here, it sounds like nothing of the kind. 

Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind is released on Friday on Roadrunner Records