The band that everybody wants to hate - Slipknot in conversation
Slipknot's "consciousness" and signature Clown on life, love, and two decades of pandemonium...
“Hi everyone, Clown is on the line.”
JOE: Hi. Is that Clown?
CLOWN: It is.
Not how most interviews start, admittedly.
This one is different.
In truth, I always wanted to interview a clown. It's a fascinating vocation, with the potential for strange, poignant duality always in play.
Who would willingly be a clown? What draws a human being to this domain? Can you ever leave it behind?
In the case of a theatrical troupe from Des Moines, Iowa with a proclivity for beautiful cacophony, what does it mean to devote your days to masks, make-up, and a relentless, brutal brand of mayhem?
Maybe it isn't your choice at all.
"Let me give you a scenario, okay?" the voice announces. "You may not like this..."
There's a brief chuckle in the middle, sardonic yet oddly warm, the kind of noise you can likely produce easily enough after two-and-a-half decades of punishing body and mind in the name of art, now facing up to a burning world that feels explicitly familiar.
That's the reality for M. Shawn Crahan, also known as #6, best regarded as Clown, resident macabre court jester percussion machine and hype man for one of the biggest, most enduring, and perhaps most necessary bands on the planet right now.
But reality itself comes with its own tricks and traps, even for the souls that resolutely don fright veils in order to fully inhabit Slipknot.
"Have you ever gotten up and had that sort of cliché subject matter that’s been brought into all our heads about life being your own movie?" the Clown continues, expanding on his vision.
He's mulling over a simple yet troublingly pertinent query. Are we doomed?
"Like you get up and you swear to God that it’s some sort of weird programmed movie that just revolves around you? You’ve had that, right?
"So, wouldn’t it just be obvious that you get to see the end? And what would you do if you saw the end? Would you invite it, openly, with open eyes, so you could move forward through it?
"Or would you cover your eyes and bend over and not want to take it and then possibly lose the chance? But these are all just thoughts. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not."
Crahan believes that the space he occupies is especially irritated. It bothers him. He tells of passing through airports, spying the agitation of others. In his opinion, we're generally not great at being calm, maybe even at the best of times.
"The world is in a very strange place in my eyes," he says.
"And it’s scary. Definitely scary. You don’t want to wake up and hear that major decision that other people who aren’t even in your family have made for all of us. It’s just getting to be a little much.
"Are we doomed? Hey, life always finds a way. I know that’s probably the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard but I know that when we’re all gone, some flower will bloom eventually. It’s proven to do so. Even if this world does go up, supposedly there are other worlds growing.
"I don’t know, really, what’s most important in life. I think it’s just to live it. Just live life, because it is a bizarre experience."
Though not a definitively political unit, the state of the rock upon which we reside has always seemed to inform Slipknot.
Over the past 20 years, they have resonated as a furious reaction; scarred, certainly, but often a source of healing from the inside out.
How does a clown view his place amongst it all?
"I think about this a lot," Crahan begins.
"You’re an artist, a performer, a musician; you get in this racket, there’s no manual and you have to abide by a system that’s already been laid out decades before your entrance. So I just figure it out myself on life’s journey.
"I just think we’re doing exactly what we did when we started a band. We got together to make music, be together, feel that connection of live interaction. Musicians play together and that magic happens. We’re just getting better and living our lives and accepting our ages, accepting the environment around us.
"I never look at it any other way than this is my life, so what else am I going to do, you know? This is what I do. This is who I am. So instead of regressing into something that doesn’t make sense, I challenge myself and I believe we challenge ourselves to the harder things in life, which is to evolve, which is to take chances, which is to allow what is inside."
Considering the commitment and particularly his own specific role within Slipknot, it's difficult to imagine him doing literally anything else at this stage.
"Well, we’re always the band that everybody wants to hate," Crahan posits.
"At this point, I mean I don’t really give it any mind. What I used to care about and what used to bother me and the angst that used to get on me, it’s just irrelevant. We’re just on a journey called Slipknot and really there’s nothing else or nobody else. This is what we do. What else would Slipknot do?"
Does he really still feel despised? One could make the fair argument that Slipknot has more than justified its approach, aesthetic, and identity through an enviable oeuvre, not to mention the conviction required to power it for this long.
"Because I’ve changed so much, I don’t really need to talk about it," he offers, evenhandedly.
"It’s just, you see it. What little bit I get on the Internet and what little bit I’ll subscribe to, you know, you just see it. And you feel it, you can hear it in condescending ways. You can look around at the change in music. I’m just dumbfounded all the time.
"But I’m more concerned about myself and the band I’m in to worry about any of that. I’m trying to be selfless. Every human has their own path. I don’t want to spend any time snagged up on somebody else’s decisions."
"This is the most I’ve ever worked for anything. I've gained the most and I've lost the most."
- M. Shawn Crahan
A great deal of time went into We Are Not Your Kind - the band's sixth album proper, and a legitimately essential listen in 2019. It marks the 'Knot's most successfully realised vision since 2004's Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, and, in certain respects, stands as one of their braver statements.
People have been lost along the way. Some exited in acrimonious fashion, while others have been buried in tragedy. You can't fully prepare for such eventualities, but you can both hear and feel the impact, often unflinching and undeniable, on what follows.
There's a distinctive rage on this record, sprinting in tandem with admirable ambition. It bleeds together in a way that few Slipknot narratives do, revealing character that Clown is largely responsible for.
"He's an amazing songwriter," affirmed guitarist Jim Root when speaking to Kerrang! for a cover story in August.
"I don't think he gets a lot of credit for being such, but there's a couple of songs here that came from his brain, heart, and soul, which are probably some of the best songs on the record."
Next to that you have Corey Taylor, who sounds rejuvenated and reborn. His vocal performance throughout is violently reminiscent of a career highlight. This is no coincidence.
"People always have said that they love the album Iowa and I have always said the reason why that is, is where the world was at in 2001," notes Crahan.
"The world was in a real place. Everybody can go back to that time and honestly say they felt it. And honestly, it’s exactly like that right now.
"Someone’s got to make an album sometime and it’s interesting that we do make albums at pivotal times in history. You can feel the world where it’s at and if you apply our album to the world, you understand it more."
For Crahan, who has always felt like both consciousness and conscience in this strange beast, We Are Not Your Kind is an unquestionably passionate proclamation.
"This is the most I’ve ever worked for anything," he confides. "I’ve gained the most and I’ve lost the most."
Reflecting further, he sounds genuinely grateful.
"I’m very blessed to have been allowed to be myself, which is to create art and suggest art and deliver art. I am the oldest and at this point if you are looking at the timeline, I’m the OG, so to speak. So there probably is a consciousness there.
"There probably is a mindset there. It doesn’t mean that people buy into it. It doesn’t mean I force it, but I do believe that there is a certain conceptual sense that lingers around me that I enforce.
"But like I said, I’m a very lucky person to be in an establishment that is allowed to utilise my gifts. I have more of a voice now than I ever did, and I had the voice from the beginning. I’ve had a lot of great peers, a lot of great teachers, a lot of artistic people around me opening my head to possibility, helping me activate my ideas.
"There’s a lot of Clown all over this and these days I’m just a much better person. I’m much more aware. I do believe there is a heavy consciousness of Clown."
When all is said and done, putting oneself so much into this thing, is the balance worth it?
"I don’t know, because life is random and circumstantial," Crahan muses.
"You wake up and you open your eyes and you have no idea what is there waiting for you; who has died, who has been born, who has quit, who is next in line, what I’ve lost, what I’ve gained, where I’m going, where I’ve been. Every day is this constant reminder of this thing called life.
"At this point, I’m 20 years into this thing called Slipknot. I would have never guessed, but it is what I wanted to do from the beginning and I keep continuing to do it. Worth it? I don’t know if that’s even a really good concept because I just do what I do. I don’t care about those things that people might think I care about, so I’m just getting up trying to live every day.
"Do I love Slipknot more than life itself? I guess, yeah, of course it’s worth it, but that being worth it seems easy. Where I’m at in all of this is next level in a life lived with lots of sacrifice, lots of work, lots of loss. It’s a lot."
Slipknot have always been good at subverting expectations, whether on an acoustic ballad like 'Vermillion Pt. 2', a heartfelt lament like 'Snuff', or 'Spiders', the John Carpenter meets David Bowie funk-pop stomp that struts in as We Are Not Your Kind enters its final act.
It may sound ridiculous to some, but there's a lot of love in this music.
"I’m absolutely positive that people are surprised," offers Crahan as he considers the more sentimental nature of his life's work.
"People forget that they’re human. Imagine a 14-year-old kid, girl or boy, entering high school, looking for their social scene and social acceptance. Maybe the boy paints his nails, grows his bangs, wears really intense t-shirts by bands that he actually gravitates to at the moment, but he still loves his grandma. He’s still got a dog or a pet that he would die for, or she would die for.
"We forget all these things. We get narrow-minded and think just because we wear all black that we are all black; our thoughts and our mind and the anger and this and that, and heavy aggressive music and these sorts of things - it can be a big part of us that we forget that there’s all the other stuff like when you cry, it feels good.
"So why don’t you cry? Maybe you want to be tough for a while and you don’t want to cry but the point is when you do, it feels good.
"I think people are surprised, but once they let it in, because it’s us, they’re like, wait a minute, this is perfectly natural. What I’m hearing and what I’m experiencing is exactly what I expect from Slipknot. Surprising? At first, yes, because everybody wants heavy but what is the definition of heavy?"
End credits of his own movie in sight, the Clown barely skips a beat.
"You take some of the songs on the new album," he nods.
"They’re emotionally heavy and yes, they will surprise people, but like I said, many listens and a deep breath and the acknowledgement comes that it is exactly what you would expect and exactly what you would want.
"And, most importantly, what you need."
We Are Not Your Kind is available now via Roadrunner Records