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Freaks Unleashed: The Story Behind Slipknot’s Debut Album

Twenty years ago, nine masked maniacs from backwater America unleashed their debut album and changed metal’s history. Paul Brannigan, the first UK music journalist to witness their chaos, journeys back to that most dangerous of summers, where the story of Slipknot began…

One night in the summer of 1997, under the cover of darkness, three men slipped quietly into the Adult Emporium, Des Moines, Iowa’s premier porn and sex toy store, on a shared mission.

The store clerk, 23-year-old Corey Taylor, recognised the trio instantly. All three men – Shawn Crahan, Joey Jordison and Mick Thomson – were long-time ‘faces’ on the local metal scene, having played with acts such as Heads On The Wall, Modifidious and Body Pit. Corey’s own band, Stone Sour, had shared a stage with their current group, masked freaks Slipknot, at a Battle Of The Bands contest organised by Des Moines radio station KKDM the previous summer. Corey looked on with mild curiosity as the trio shuffled self-consciously around the DVD racks for a few minutes before approaching him at the counter with a proposition.

“They basically told me if I didn’t join the band they’d kick my fucking ass,” he recalled.

Everyone on the small, insular Des Moines music scene knew Corey, either personally or by reputation. The pretty-boy frontman of the city’s most popular rock band, the singer had a reputation as a cocky, egotistical motormouth, the life and soul of every after-hours party. That this surface swagger masked a deeply traumatic upbringing was not commonly known, but Shawn and Joey instinctively recognised that the man they mockingly called ‘The King Of Des Moines’ shared their hunger to transcend the stultifying conformity of their hometown.

“We were all tired of being punchlines,” Corey says simply.

The singer stepped into the vocal booth at SR Audio studio for his audition later that same week. He’d written new lyrics for a piece of music titled Me Inside and requested to try that song first. When Shawn Crahan cued the track on the studio desk, Corey began speaking the opening verse: ‘Giving in to what has got me feeling claustrophobic, scarred / Severed me from all emotion, life is just too fucking hard…’ As the song built in intensity, the singer switched to his singing voice. ‘You keep mocking me,’ he roared. ‘But you will never again.’

Behind the mixing desk, an excited Joey Jordison leaned in to speak to Shawn Crahan.

“If we don’t get this guy,” he shouted above the music, “we’re gonna have to kill him.”

Slipknot photo credit Paul Harries

For Shawn Crahan, the idea of Slipknot existed before there was ever a band. Following the murder of his uncle in a gang initiation ritual, the drummer, then running his own furniture business, decided he needed to start a band to purge himself of his anger, confusion and frustration in a world of chaotic random chance. In 1992, though ‘alternative rock’ was fast becoming the mainstream, hair metal tribute bands still dominated the bookings in Des Moines’ only rock venue, The Runway, and Shawn realised that he himself would have to become an agent of change to create a space for the darker, heavier, more violent art he craved. He envisaged a band combining death metal, jazz, industrial rock, funk and thrash, with heavy percussive beats and an art-rock/S&M aesthetic.

It would take two years for the first incarnation of Slipknot, with members drawn from the Des Moines metal and punk scenes, to coalesce, and their first gig, played as Meld, would take place a year down the line, on December 4, 1995 at a club called the Crowbar. But that same month, the band – now featuring vocalist Anders Colsefni, guitarists Donnie Steele and Josh Brainard, bassist Paul Gray, percussionist Shawn and drummer Joey Jordison – sank $16,000 of their own money into making a demo album, Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat.. One thousand copies were pressed, and put on sale on Halloween 1996.

Momentum was slow to build, but Shawn’s obsession with the concept of the band only intensified, and he and Joey would meet each night at the latter’s workplace, Sinclair petrol station, and talk until daybreak, plotting a path for world domination, or, at bare minimum, an escape route from Des Moines. They made an odd pair, the bear-like Shawn and his wired, pocket-sized pal, but they shared an intense, warped world view and almost maniacal drive. By the summer of ’97, both men were fixated on the idea that Corey Taylor was integral to their plans.

“I knew I was the best singer in town,” says Corey, in a totally matter-of-fact manner. “That’s why so many musicians either wanted me or they wanted to join me in Stone Sour. When Slipknot came down and said, ‘We want you to be our singer,’ it was such a change from what I’d done before but it felt so right. I was at their very first show and I remember standing in the audience going, ‘I’m going to sing for these guys.’ A year later, it ended up coming true.”

Corey’s first gig with Slipknot took place on August 24, 1997, a charity all-dayer held at the Safari Club, a live music venue Shawn Crahan had taken ownership of six months previously. A 45-minute video of the performance was uploaded online exactly 20 years later, in August 2017. It’s a fascinating historical document. The footage begins, creepily, with a masked man handing out soft toys to the audience, before Shawn Crahan – wearing a Clown mask – attacks his beer keg drums with an angle grinder and Corey Taylor zombie-walks to the mic, in a priest’s frock coat, with liquid latex Xs drawn on his eyes and mouth. The 11-song set commences with the band’s theme song Slipknot, later reworked as (sic), with Me Inside, Prosthetics and Only One among the stand-out tracks. Corey speaks only once, to mention the purpose of the gig, and salute the crowd for “showing that all you fuckers care about what happens in this goddamn town.” Both those in attendance, and those onstage, knew that something had changed forever.

In November 1997, Shawn Crahan sold the Safari Club to focus on Slipknot full-time. The band now had a manager, local DJ Sophia John, and were practising up to five times a week. As and when they could afford studio time, they would return to SR Audio to have Corey re-record Anders Colsefni’s vocals on pre-existing demos. They were also refining the idea of Slipknot. Each member already had their own bespoke mask – now it was agreed that the band would dress uniformly in coveralls, labelled with the barcode of Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat.. “That’s when the numbers started coming up,” recalled Corey. “We were like, ‘Fuck our names, fuck the bullshit. Let’s go by numbers.” Corey became #8, Shawn #6, Joey #1.

As talk turned to making a second album, Sophia John asked the group, “If you could have anyone hear you, who would it be?” The unanimous choice was producer Ross Robinson. Having produced Korn’s first two albums, Sepultura’s Roots and Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill Y’All$ debut, Texas-born Ross was fast carving out a name for himself as the hottest studio technician in metal. Such was his reputation and golden touch that Roadrunner Records had newly granted the producer his own label imprint, I Am, for which he would be given complete autonomy to scout, sign and produce three new acts per year. Ross had made Amen – a ferocious, nihilistic punk-metal quintet fronted by former skateboarder Casey Chaos – the first signing to his label, and he was on the lookout for more fresh blood. A new four-track Slipknot demo landed on his desk at just the right time.

On February 2, 1998, for the first time, Ross Robinson witnessed Slipknot play to a live crowd. The Safari Club was packed when the band stormed into the venue through the rear doors.

“They barged through the crowd like destructors,” he marvelled. “Joey was on Mick’s shoulders, kicking people and hitting them on the back of the head. They were ready to rip their audience apart.”

Blown away by what he saw, Ross agreed to work with the band. There was just one snag: as he was already committed to producing new albums from Amen, Machine Head and, er, Vanilla Ice, Slipknot would have to wait up to 10 months before commencing work with him. Every few weeks, an excitable Joey Jordison would place a call to California, asking Ross if he had a date in mind yet. Each time the reply would be, “No, not yet Joey, I’ll let you know.”

On September 23 Joey checked in again. “You know what?” said Ross. “Fuck it. Drive out here now.”

Clown Kerrang

Slipknot arrived in Los Angeles on September 26 for pre-production with Ross. The producer had booked them into Cole Rehearsal Studios, which, much to the band’s delight, was also being used by KISS, in preparation for their upcoming Psycho Circus tour. God only knows what Gene Simmons made of the real twisted freakshow now sharing the facility.

“Walking to the rehearsal space every day in LA, we were passing crack addicts, junkies, dudes that looked like they’d cut you up for your shoelaces,” Corey Taylor later told Kerrang!. “But we all rolled together. There was all nine of us walking down the street, these weird-looking Iowan kids and all those people stayed away from us because we looked fucked up, too. We were outsiders in Des Moines, we were never going to fit in in fucking Hollywood.”

Within a week, the action had shifted to Indigo Ranch in Malibu, Ross’ studio of choice, an hour’s drive from West Hollywood. “We all left our families,” Shawn recalled. “I left my kids, my mom and dad, my friends. You go out there with this expectation of yourself, and you’re not coming home with your tail between your legs.”

The remote location was teeming with wildlife – coyotes, skunks, rattlesnakes, spiders, and mountain lions. “We ended up with nine burly, insane-looking dudes, scared shitless,” Joey Jordison later laughed. Throwing the band out of their comfort zone, though, was all part of Ross’ methodology. Before they had recorded a single note of music, the producer sat them down and asked Corey Taylor to explain the meaning, and stories behind, his dark, often horrifying lyrics. The vocalist detailed his traumatic, displaced upbringing, growing up without a father, shunted from state-to-state between family members. He told them of his cocaine and speed addictions, of his drug overdoses and unsuccessful suicide attempts. He told them how, aged 10, he was sexually abused by a boy from his neighbourhood. No-one said a word.

When Corey finished speaking, Ross asked the band to watch a film with him. Harmony Korine’s Gummo offered a dark, surreal, uncomfortable vision of modern America, touching upon drug abuse, violence, mental illness, poverty and dysfunction. This, Ross said, was true art, uncompromising and uncompromised. Now it was Slipknot’s turn to step up.

None of this, however, prepared Slipknot for the chaos of working with Ross Robinson. The producer would body-slam the guitarists as they were tracking, hurl plant pots and food at the percussionists, and aim kicks and punches at the astonished musicians. At one point, he offered to hand over the keys to his BMW in exchange for ‘points’ on the album – a percentage of the profits – to demonstrate his belief in their music. “It was spontaneous, it was violent,” Ross later enthused. “It got crazy really quickly.

“There was a real sense of a lifelong dream being realised,” he continued. “They were so grateful to be there, and we were all so open to suggestions, just wanting to make it as extreme as possible, without caring what people thought. There was a lot of magic around.”

“We were so on fire and so insane,” recalled Joey Jordison. “I just remember everyone playing like it was a show.”

“Ross told us we were the hungriest band he’d ever witnessed,” said Shawn Crahan. “We did all the drums in three days. We were just so hungry for this album, because we had been so fucking sick of waiting to be signed.”

“To this day, [that experience] is why I love working with producers,” Corey reflects. “It sometimes takes that outside person who isn’t removed from the material, but isn’t so close to it as those who wrote it, to look at it and take things in different directions. You need that person. There are so many things a good producer can throw at you that can take a song from being good to being fucking phenomenal, and luckily we had Ross to do that.”

For his part, Corey delivered his vocals from a booth smeared with vomit, animal faeces and dried blood, the latter courtesy of Amen’s Casey Chaos, Indigo Ranch’s previous incumbent. “I can still smell it!” the singer says. “It was gross, totally gnarly. Ross pushed me harder than anyone has done in my whole life. He taught me that vocals don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be perfect for you. He taught me to go with your gut, to push yourself until you fucking get it, to bleed for it. That’s what makes it real.

“That album,” he concludes, “is the sound of war.”

“The energy that went into it was brutal,” Clown recalls. “There is so much emotion being thrown around the instruments. We were real.”

Before Christmas, with the album almost in the can, Slipknot returned home to Iowa. Then guitarist Josh Brainard dropped a bombshell, announcing that he was quitting the band. When they returned to Indigo Ranch, Jim Root was their new number 4. He played on just two songs before Ross announced that the album was complete.

Slipknot Album

In April 1999, Kerrang! cover mounted a CD of “New, rare & unreleased independent tracks”, featuring artists such as Atari Teenage Riot, Feeder, Neurosis and Liberty 37. Track number 13 was an unmastered version of Slipknot’s Eyeless, an early preview of the nonet’s forthcoming, self-titled Roadrunner Records/I Am debut. With ‘nu-metal’ gaining traction, 1999 had already seen new releases from Staind (Dysfunction), Static-X (Wisconsin Death Trip) and a bunch of masked freaks from Ohio named Mushroomhead (M3), but nothing sounded quite like this. ‘How many times have you wanted to kill?’ Corey Taylor screamed. ‘How many times have you wanted to die?’ No-one knew exactly what the singer meant when he spat ‘You can’t see California without Marlon Brando’s eyes’, but it sounded terrifying.

The following month, on May 27, this writer became the first UK journalist to see the band play live, at the opening date of Ozzfest ’99 in West Palm Beach, Florida. By then, the Kerrang! office had been playing the Slipknot album constantly, but nothing could have prepared us for the explosion of rage and violence that unfurled from the tour’s second stage. Aware that something special was happening, myself and photographer Ross Halfin cornered the band after their set. Ross asked where the band were from. Upon receiving his answer he said, “That place is a shithole.”

“We know,” came the reply. “That’s why we formed this band.”

Slipknot was released on June 29, 1999. Reviewing the record for Kerrang!, we hailed it as “the most venomous, apoplectic and vein-poppingly furious album since Korn’s 1994 debut, and easily the best metal debut of the year.” Four months later, along with photographer Paul Harries, we were dispatched to Des Moines to interview and shoot the band for their first cover story, ahead of their scheduled UK debut at Kerrang!’s X-Fest at the (now bulldozed) Astoria in London on December 13. Unmasked, Shawn and Joey were the perfect hosts, inviting us into their homes, showing us places of significance in the Slipknot story – SR Audio, the Sinclair garage, even Shawn’s parents’ home, in whose garage the album’s cover photo was shot. Given the dark, nihilistic vibe of the album, we were disarmed to discover that the duo only had positive things to say about their hometown, but an undercurrent of frustration and alienation was tangible.

“We always remember where we came from and how hard it was to get here,” said Joey Jordison, as we hooked up with the rest of the band at the 1,500-capacity Supertoad Entertainment Center, “which is why we’ll kick 100 per cent of your ass every night. If you keep a baboon in a cage for 24 years, the beast has got some shit to work out when it’s released.”

Unbeknownst to us at the time, even in the eye of the developing storm around them, Slipknot were already talking among themselves about the possibility of killing the band off, in what Corey Taylor imagines would have been “the most punk rock move of all time”.

“I distinctly remember sitting outside of a hotel room on the [U.S.] East Coast with Clown and Joey specifically talking about the fact that we should just tour the album and then break up,” he laughs. “To this day I wonder if we made the right choice by continuing. I sometimes think how wonderful that would have been.”

For once, common sense prevailed. On February 2, 2000, two years to the day after playing their Safari Club showcase for Ross Robinson, the members of Slipknot were presented for Gold discs for 500,000 sales of their debut album. It would go on to sell 2 million copies worldwide.

“To this day a lot of us are still, ‘How did this happen?’” Corey says. “And I think it’s a lot of things. Some people say we had a great mixture of musical diversity that people were attracted to. Others said it was the masks and the mystery around the band. But I think the world was looking for something like us. And luckily, Slipknot was that band.”

Slipknot’s new album We Are Not Your Kind will be released on August 9 via Roadrunner Records.

Posted on June 29th 2019, 1:00pm
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