a long talk

Corey Taylor on 20 Years of Slipknot: ‘Nobody’s More Surprised by Our Success Than We Are’

The OG masked singer. Photo: Joe Okpako/WireImage

Slipknot crept into mainstream renown like burglars. One day, every fourth kid in rural American malls was dressed in black, sporting the same spiked “S” logo. But the nine-piece Iowan metal outfit didn’t enjoy the same MTV visibility that bands like Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Staind would in the late ’90s and early aughts. The Grammys nodded, but the VMAs didn’t blink until 2008. Maybe it was because everyone dressed like a consortium of killer clowns — or because a band with three percussionists, a guy on samples, and another on turntables created a significantly heftier, spookier, and less predictable sound than the comparatively straightforward rap-metal heroes of the day — but you couldn’t be a fair-weather fan of a song like “Surfacing,” which sounded like 20 years of metal history being flayed in a blender, or “Tattered and Torn,” a raw, cacophonous display of anguish. You gravitated because you related. Slipknot grew a sizable following on the road, first as a second-stage act at Ozzy Osbourne’s inaugural Ozzfest in 1999 and later in a series of smart package tours with veterans like Biohazard and Slayer. This is how their 1999 debut, Slipknot, managed to go platinum in under a year without ever breaching the top 50 albums on the Billboard charts.

The band persevered thanks to the creative vision of founder Shawn “Clown” Crahan, the unbridled passion of singer Corey Taylor, and the razor-sharp chops of a murderers’ row of players, including drummer Joey Jordison, bassist Paul Gray, and guitarists Jim Root and Mick Thomson. Iowa (2001) stands alongside nu-metal benchmarks like the Deftones’s White Pony and System of a Down’s Toxicity as a document of the era’s understated versatility. Slipknot’s third album, 2003’s Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, introduced progressive and psychedelic rock textures to the mix, inching away from nu metal as the scene’s mainstream cachet waned. All Hope Is Gone (2008) nearly broke the band, wrenching it into thrash-, death-, and groove-metal territories during contentious sessions in which personal turmoil bled into relations within the band. Hope would be the last album by Slipknot’s classic lineup; Gray died in 2010, and Jordison’s tenure as drummer was cut short by a debilitating neurological disorder. The nine regrouped and returned (with British bassist Alessandro Venturella and E Street Band scion Jay Weinberg on drums), dedicating 2014’s mournful .5: The Gray Chapter to their fallen friend. Despite the crucible of upheaval and loss that forged them, Hope and Gray both debuted at No. 1. The band’s following stuck.

This week, Slipknot begins a new chapter with its sixth album, We Are Not Your Kind. The new music recalibrates the band’s signature blend of terror and accessibility in a more unified manner than All Hope, which foregrounded blunt-force grooves, and The Gray Chapter, whose somber mood often took shape in reflective dirges and clean singing. You can hear the difference in a song like “Nero Forte,” a maelstrom of serrated riffs, warlike drums, and machine-gun poetry from Taylor. “A Liar’s Funeral” offsets its acoustic-guitar and piano melodies with guttural growls throughout the chorus. Finding that balance wasn’t easy; the lyrics capture a period of darkness and depression for the singer, and the band parted ways with longtime percussionist Chris Fehn along the way, sparking a contentious, ongoing legal dispute. (Fehn’s seat in the band has been filled, but no one will say who’s behind the mask as yet, though fans have many theories.)

The show must go on, and to that end, Slipknot’s annual Knotfest Roadshow tour is currently cutting a swath through North America alongside Danish rockers Volbeat, environmentally conscious French death-metal quartet Gojira, and Polish black-metal legends Behemoth. As Knotfest prepared to conquer Salt Lake City, I spoke to Taylor on the phone about the new album, the divisive political climate informing it, and the 20th anniversary of the album that put his band on the map.

June marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Slipknot. Back then, did you see this thing lasting that long?
[Laughs] You gotta remember, dude, we talked about breaking the band up before the first album even came out. We were like, “We’re gonna do one and done. We’re gonna Sex Pistols it and say fuck it.” Ruin the world. And then we gave in to selfishness and decided to keep going. The crazy thing is that years ago I didn’t think this band could sustain itself because of how fucking gnarly it is, how dark it is, how much physicality goes into this music and this band and this live shit and the creativity, just how exhausting it is to max yourself out every time by trying to attain perfection. I wasn’t sure that this could be sustained for that long. I’m pleasantly surprised that I was wrong. Like I’ve said in the past, nobody’s more surprised by our success than we are. On June 29, 1999, if you’d have told me that we’d be 20 years in, dropping a new album and bigger than we’ve ever been, I’d have fucking laughed at you.

What kind of work goes into keeping friendships and business partnerships alive that long when there are nine people involved?
The great thing about the business part of it is that because we’re from Iowa, it all makes sense. You do the work, you get paid. That’s straight-up it. We split merch equally. We split live equally. We do everything equally. And if we’re all working toward the same thing, then it just all makes sense. We’re always taking care of each other. Even though we’re older now, our reasons for making music and continuing to do this are still the same. It’s one of those things that, if our reasoning for doing this had changed, the band probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. But — and obviously I can’t speak for everybody in the band — I know the OGs that are here are all still trying to just make the best music that we can. So we take care of each other.

How much has changing players affected the balance of the music?
It’s not like we changed a baseball team. Obviously, losing Paul, we had to have somebody step in there. Parting ways with Joey was tough, but Jay [Weinberg] more than adequately has fucking done that. The less I say about Chris, the better, let’s put it that way. But the creative core of the band is still there. You get two of the best guitar players in the world, Jim and Mick. And one of the most creative minds ever with Clown. So it was never a matter of this wasn’t gonna happen. And honestly it came down to whether or not we wanted to do it, and once we realized we did, the fucking gloves were off.

Is there anything you would do differently, in retrospect, over the past 20 years?
Oh man. There’s so many fucking things, but it’s all from my standpoint. As far as the band goes, though, I think it had to be this way. Obviously, I would want Paul back. But … now you’re talking about people’s personal lives, and as much as I miss him, his health was always an issue. So it’s almost bittersweet. But from a professional point of view, musically, no. I think we had to take those steps to get here. We had to go through that roller coaster and that kind of self-discovery to realize there was so much more that we had to give, and so much more that we could give, and so many different band dynamics that it was inevitable to get here.

Do you feel like this thing has sort of come full circle?
I feel like we’ve come back to a place, creatively, that we were heading [to]. Listening to this album more and more feels like the natural progression from an album like Iowa and Vol. 3. It’s got the creativity and exploration of Vol 3., and yet it’s got the abandon and ferocity of Iowa. I think that’s where we were naturally heading before our own issues kind of derailed us for a little bit. So it feels good to come back to form and start exploring areas that we were eyeing in the past for the possible future. And the fact that we haven’t done anything to compromise, to sell anything short, to water it down, makes me feel better about it.

The new album is definitely your heaviest in a long time, but it doesn’t come at the cost of melody. It’s harsh but catchy. Do you talk through the new direction, or does everyone just jam and go with what works?
Both, to be honest. This band, as frenetic as the tension can be sometimes, is actually very collaborative as well. As we’ve gotten older, that collaboration has actually gotten easier. The communication’s been easier, at least from my standpoint. I am usually a very stubborn person when it comes to going with what I’m feeling first. Nine times out of ten, I usually run with my first idea, which usually feels the best and the freshest. But this time around, we threw different ideas at each other, and we were all very open to trying different textures and different things. I know the chorus from “Nero Forte” was something that I was stuck on. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, and it was because of Clown’s melody that he had written on a keyboard that I actually found what eventually became the chorus there. Everything else was written and exactly what I wanted it to be, lyrically and attack-wise and energy-wise. I just couldn’t find that hook. So I give Clown a lot of credit for that. Sometimes pride will get in the way of a great idea, and that was certainly one of the things I was struggling with, and because I was able to kind of put that pride away and realize that the greater good was what was most important, we were able to tie down what, to me, is one of the best songs on the album.

Talk to me about the title.
It came from “All Out Life,” and it was kind of a rallying cry. Even though this album is deeply personal, dealing with a lot of the shit that I went through a few years ago — the last four or five years of my prior relationship and dealing with that toxicity — the album is a kind of rallying cry about getting people to let go of the anxiety, of the fear and hiding in the shadows, of being different, of being allowed to feel like themselves, and coming together in a place that Slipknot built to ensure that they could feel good about who they are. In a lot of ways, that’s a reflection of what I was writing about, getting away from a situation where I felt like I couldn’t be myself and coming back to a place that felt familiar but was completely foreign.

In this day and age, when there are so many forces trying to take people apart, I felt it was necessary to give people a reason to feel good about having things in common with each other. If not for anything, then just for the fucking love of music. I’ve seen people being eviscerated because of who they are and who they love, where they come from, the language they speak, the color of their fucking skin. And I refuse to stand idly by and let that happen when I know that if I can, I can take the stigma off of those things and let people feel good about who they are. And that what’s We Are Not Your Kind is. It means literally putting our backs to each other and knowing that the person behind you has your back, and looking at the rest of the world, saying, “We’re not gonna let you get in, we are not gonna let you fucking hurt us, because we are not your kind.”

It’s a strange time because people are divided, and it feels like a lot of them don’t even want to come together. It’s noble to stand up and say, “Let’s do something else.”
That’s the thing. [Sighs] Everyone is so hellbent on being right that they’ve not taken a second to wonder whether or not it matters. Everything is dialed to ten right now. Everything is the worst moment ever, and there are real issues going on right now that need to be dealt with. Because they are such big issues, people feel like they can’t wrap their heads around them, so they narrow their gaze and bring things down to a lower level and trump those up — no pun intended — so they can control that, so they have something that they can be selfish about. They can have something that they can lash out at people for, when in reality, we should all be reaching across and pulling together to try and figure these things out. That’s how they control us, by keeping us fractured and compartmentalized.

And distracted.
Exactly. Keeping us in our tiny little groups, in our microcosms, so we’re not talking to each other and realizing that some of this shit is just not that big of a fucking deal. If we all could get on the same page, we could all look at some of these bigger issues and work toward fixing them, or at least compromising to find better ways. And yet we’re playing right into the fucking politicians’ pockets.

How do you stay positive in that climate? You’ve written a lot about depression. I was struck by the last line of the last song, “Solway Firth,” where you say, “I haven’t smiled in years.” What kind of work does it take to get your head out of that space?
It took a long time, and I’m still not quite there. I found myself again in a time where I was so fucking lost. I didn’t really know who I was. It took a lot of therapy, a lot of self-exploration, a lot of time getting away from some certain circumstances and certain people and realizing that it was okay to be me. I’m actually a pretty fucking cool person. I’m reconnecting with friends, people who had been extricated from my life. Another reason that I’m a lot happier is my family right now, from my fiancée to my kids. I rediscovered the life that I had been wanting in the first place, and it’s been great. It’s one of those things where you don’t realize what you want until you realize you don’t really have it, and once you see it and feel it, it’s easier to attain than you realize. So it’s taken time. It’s taken work. There was a lot of damage that was done, but I’m getting there. Slowly but surely.

What is the physical toll of pushing yourself in a band on tour for 20 years?
Fuck 20 years. [Laughs]

Yeah, you had Stone Sour going before Slipknot.
Absolutely. It’s one of the reasons why I try to stay in shape, which was made harder because of my recent surgeries. After my spinal surgery, I had to take a lot of time off. I gained a lot of weight. I was out of shape. Adding that to the depression didn’t do me any fucking favors. And then the surgeries on my knees definitely set me a little bit back. It’s hard because your spirit is still right there, and every night, it’s just pushing your flesh to its absolute fucking pinnacle. Go harder. Do this harder. Be this hard. As long as the spirit’s there, you’re still gonna put on a good show. But am I 27 anymore? Fuck no, and I’m so glad I’m not, because I’d probably fucking kill myself out there.

At the same time, it’s not the same band. It’s not the same audience. It’s not the same message. We’ve been through so much that I would be lying to the audience if I were trying to be something else other than who I am right now. Who I am right now loves being onstage, loves performing, loves singing, and loves just going for it as hard as I possibly can. I’m not trying to set myself on fire anymore. I’m not trying to fucking kill myself anywhere. It’s a different time, but it’s the same fire. You learn, over time, how to take care of yourself. Or you don’t and you end up looking like one of those busted guys onstage who’s in so much fucking pain.

The hard part of getting older is consolidating physical resources.
You play to your strengths, and as long as you can realize that, you can. I mean, look at the fucking Stones. Those guys are in their 70s. It’s crazy. If I could be half of that, I’ll be all right.

You quit smoking after The Gray Chapter, right?

That makes this your first album with this band as a nonsmoker?
Yeah, I smoked my whole life, since I was 10. [Stone Sour’s] Hydrograd was actually the first album I made without smoking. But this is the first Slipknot album.

Am I imagining things, or did it open up your range?
It absolutely did.

It seems like you’re using your upper register more.
It’s crazy. I’m getting a lot of my range back. I used to have a really high range. But over time, just touring as much as we did, it slowly eroded the top half, and then smoking and drinking didn’t help. Even though I quit drinking, continuing to smoke the way I did fucked it all up. It destroyed my lung capacity. But I’ve gone about five years without smoking now, and you can definitely feel the difference. I love it. I get pissed now because I’m like, “Fuck, I wish I’d done this 10 years ago.” Like, what’s it gonna sound like in five more years? Honestly, it’s one of the things that keeps me from even touching cigarettes anymore. I listen to my voice and, Jesus Christ, my recovery time is half of what it was before. I can consistently sing longer and harder than I could, even when I was younger. It’s definitely kept the tonality and the strength in my voice. So I keep telling singers, “Dude, do yourself a fucking favor. Get rid of that shit because the difference is fucking night and day.”

How’s this tour treating you so far?
The audiences have been fucking packed and screaming their tits off. Our band is playing killer. After 20 years, to be on the road, in this genre, with this much anticipation for a new album, and to see that many fucking people — averaging 14,000 to 20,000 people a night — that’s a fucking great thing.

I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but there’s a writer who says he once met Rihanna and she told him she was a huge Slipknot fan.
Yeah, I heard about that. That’s awesome. The funny thing is that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More and more people from these different genres have come out of the woodwork and name-checked us as influences, which is fucking nuts. Everyone from SoundCloud rappers to a couple of country artists … Ed Sheeran.

XXXTentacion had a song called “Slipknot.”
It’s a hell of a compliment, and it makes you realize that all those years when things felt hopeless, when things felt like nobody understood what the fuck you were doing … you forget that the fans do. The fans get it, and that’s why you’re still where you are. To see those fans come into their own and turn their music into something even bigger than yours — that’s fucking fantastic. Knowing that you inspired them to do something bigger than themselves, that’s the whole point of this band.

Corey Taylor on 20 Years of Slipknot and Rihanna Being a Fan