The big review: Download Festival 2023
Celebrating an incredible 20 years with a whopping anniversary spectacular, here’s all the best stuff from Download Festival.
Slipknot DJ and daredevil Sid Wilson reflects on his British upbringing, rave culture, spirituality and the origin of his Starscream alter-ego…
It’s not often you see a member of Slipknot crying, let alone in the middle of a London pub. Then again, nothing about Sid Wilson is ordinary. At the end our time together, he wells up when discussing his love for all people, no matter who they are. It’s a touching moment.
Despite his intimidating exterior both on and offstage – tattooed face, gold tooth, and an extravagant hat/cane combo – he wears his heart very much on his sleeve.
“Like I said, I’m honest,” he tells us, wiping away the tears. “I don’t hold back, ever. I don’t care if someone sees me being passionate about something. You know it’s real. I’m not lying.”
Sid is in the UK visiting family. His mum was born in Portsmouth, his dad in the village of Nettlebed, before they met in Oxford and subsequently moved to Iowa. Nowadays Sid returns to see his extended family whenever the opportunity allows. This morning, he was spending time with his 94-year-old grandmother, and he excitedly shows Kerrang! the Animoji of her on his phone, laughing at all her classic nan mannerisms.
Onstage he might be a maniacal DJ who hurls himself off every available surface, infamously breaking both his heels in 2008, but away from the spotlight he’s calm, collected and chatty. Smoking a joint he hastily rolled while sheltering from the rain pre-interview, he reveals that he was once able to skin up in the middle of a mosh pit, which sounds like the most Sid Wilson thing imaginable.
The man otherwise known as DJ Starscream and #0 remains an elusive figure, however. When Slipknot are in town, all eyes fix on Clown and Corey Taylor, leaving us all to guess what the rest of The Nine are really like. But today, with Sid in high spirits and ready to embrace his deep-rooted Britishness in a good old-fashioned boozer, we get a rare glimpse behind the gasmask.
You grew up in America with English parents. What influence did that have on you?
“It had a huge affect on me. I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, which at the time was all farmland, so exposure to music was radio stations playing what we now call classic rock. There was some ‘80s stuff coming through or whatever, but as far as mainstream music? We didn’t get a lot of that. Since I was three months old, I’ve been travelling to Oxford to visit family with my mum and dad. I would come here and listen to the BBC, hear a variety of different genres, which was crazy to hear, then go back to the States. When I started going to school I knew all this different music and people looked at me funny. I got judged as a weirdo because I listened to all this obscure stuff. Going to Oxford as well, there are students from all over the world, who live together and listen to different styles of music. As a kid growing up there, seeing all these people getting along, being into different things and sharing it with each other was a huge deal to me. I would also hear The Beatles, the Stones, Otis Redding and James Brown through my parents’ record collection.”
Do you immerse yourself in British culture when you visit the UK?
“I grew up English. My parents had an English pub when I was born, which was the family business. I came to the UK frequently as a child, and we had a few other relatives who had emigrated too, so I grew up doing English things – I drink tea and eat crumpets like everyone else! I talk about the same boring religion, politics and history stuff as everyone else. Going to Oxford, even the regular schooling system there does a lot of in-depth education, so I was being exposed to a lot of things that most people weren’t privy to where I was from.”
Obviously you wear a mask in the day job, but how does it feel to come here and walk around relatively unnoticed?
“More recently I’ve gotten more noticed because I’m doing more solo music, hip-hop and DJing. As time goes on, the band just get found out (laughs). There’s still a lot of mystique that we’ve held onto, though, without a lot of effort. I get noticed when I go out, but not as much as Brad Pitt! It’s not like everyone would recognise us unless they were a diehard fan. I think that’s allowed us to not worry about mainstream pressure and just rely on our own creativity.”
Did you want to be famous when you were growing up?
“Yeah, always. In school they were trying to make me do debate class, sociology and psychology, but I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in music. When I was a kid, I trusted musicians; I trusted John Lennon, I didn’t trust politicians. I knew there was something weird about politics. I wasn’t buying it, but musicians seemed to be truly speaking from the heart. Whether they were talking about good or bad or whatever, it was authentic and it was real, and I could decipher it for exactly what it was. I always wanted to help people and I love talking, but music was a bigger platform than politics. I feel like people listen to what we have to say with genuine attention. Growing up, the biggest problem I had seen was segregation between people – whether it was styles or colour, political or religious views – and I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t all be together and accept what each person believes. The best way to get that message out there is through music. It’s the universal language, so that’s what I chose.”
You’ve spoken previously about your youth being full of crazy partying and excess. What were your experiences?
“I was heavy into the rave scene and learning to DJ, and all that kind of stuff. Let’s just say I partied pretty hard. If you see the amount that I put in to the Slipknot live show, it’s 100 per cent, so just translate that to partying. It’s really intense. I have this energy that’s a combination of patience, strength and wisdom. If you put all that together and when it’s directed in the right place, I’m unstoppable. When it’s directed in the wrong place, it can also stop you quickly. Let’s just say I went as far as one possibly could, but my family brought me back. Ever since then, I dropped all the craziness, and I went forward with my mission in life. I lost sight of it somewhere, as you do through your youth and teenage angst. You want to be validated as an adult, so you do all these things that you translate as being ‘adult’, but they haven’t been presented to you properly by the people that influence your life, either because they didn’t have the knowledge or didn’t care to. I made my way out of that, so that high energy and focus was about wanting to help people. How can I use the talents that I’ve acquired and the platform I’ve chosen, to start speaking and letting people know what kind of person I am? Well, I was inspired by musicians, so now I’m all about trying to live by example.”
In the UK, the illegal rave scene was massive in the ‘90s. Did that translate overseas?
“I used to go to tons of warehouse parties. I used to go to Chicago a lot. Des Moines didn’t really have a huge scene. They were building one for a moment, but it got shut down by the city. We had to travel for hours to go to a party or even buy records. Road trips could be anywhere between two to 13 hours, just to see a DJ play. One time I rode in the trunk of a car to Chicago to see my favourite DJ play for an hour. I dropped out of high school because there wasn’t a DJ class in college, and no-one was teaching that, so I had to use whatever means there were to learn. Riding in the trunk of a car to Chicago was one of those things! I went to a lot of legal and illegal parties, clubs and house parties – anywhere where I could absorb that kind of knowledge.”
What was the wildest party you ever DJ’d?
“There’s so many of them, man. At one party I’d had some mushrooms. I’m not gonna say what kind, but let’s just say I was hungry. At some point I passed out with my head inside the bass bin. I had my head stuck into it and my body was crawled inside. Someone came to wake me up and by then I’d fully digested my supper, so I’m feeling bonkers, and they’re saying, ‘You’re up! You’ve gotta DJ!’ I’m like, ‘What? Oh, okay then.’ So I went up, opened my crate, and went for it. That was a really good set (laughs). Everyone was saying I wasn’t going to be able to do it, because I was passed out, but people that knew me knew. Like, ‘He’s good, he’s always like this!’”
Did you have a reputation for being the hardest partier?
“For a minute, yeah. I was just showing off. I’m an entertainer. I like seeing people have a good time. Unfortunately, during that period of my life it was at my body’s expense. It still kind of is, it’s just physical now with all of the jumping off of stuff I do, meaning I might break a rib or something. My DJ name’s Starscream – the guy you love to hate.”
Starscream, named after the evil Decepticon character from Transformers. Why did you identify more with a ‘bad guy’ character?
“The first scratch I learned was called The Transformer Scratch. At the time it was the fastest scratch, and I wanted to be the fastest scratcher. My favourite cartoon as a kid was Transformers. I’ve always been obsessed with it, and my favourite character was Starscream. So it all made sense. It’s like God was speaking to me through a cartoon and DJing. You’ve gotta watch out for stuff like that. It’s too peculiar that it all lined up.”
Are you a spiritual guy?
“Absolutely. I believe in something and everything. I study all religions and any kind of spirituality. Even science comes into play: how people are in the world, how they react to everything chemically to make them feel certain sensations. I study it.”
As well as partying hard in your DJ life, when Slipknot broke they were known as the most dangerous band on the planet…
“With Slipknot I was already done partying. I was a rock star before I was a rock star, so when I came to them I was straight and ready to go.”
Even though you were setting yourself on fire?
“That’s controlled chaos.”
Because there was such hype and danger surrounding the band, did you feel like you had to bring it and step your game up?
“I was always kinda crazy. I was a punk rocker at a young age – sort of a B-boy punk rocker. I always saw the fusion between reggae, ska and punk – it was this bridge that was the first step in breaking down musical segregation for the alternative scene. I always had this rougher edge, with the punk stuff. Coming to the UK, I got to see punk bands play in the street and all kinds of wild stuff. I had a first-hand experience of that, not like the punk rockers in the States who were translating it in their own ways and interpreting what they were seeing overseas.”
Is it true that you had a tattoo of the World Trade Center on fire before 9/11 happened?
“Yeah, it was in progress. The tattoo was drawn out. We started it and I got most of the outline done, but we couldn’t finish it because other guys in the band were trying to get tattooed too, so we waited. Then when 9/11 happened we immediately contacted each other like, ‘How weird is that? We’ve got to finish that tattoo!’”
How did that feel?
“It was super crazy, man. There are wavelengths in the air and if we could all learn how to get more in tune to that stuff, who knows what we’d be capable of as human beings. It makes you feel like you’re not doing enough, it gives you a drive to seek deeper into what’s doing that for you. Are you just seeing a pattern of things, an equation that’s happening in your head, so you know all these possible outcomes that could happen? It’s not necessarily predicting the future – you’re just seeing a chain of events that could only result in a handful of situations. If you’re able to recognise that, who knows what you’d be capable of doing for people. When things like that happen, it freaks you out.”
You always seem to be doing something or going somewhere, according to Instagram – from shoe shopping to watching Oxford United FC play. When do you relax?
“My dad is a retired SAS for the English army, 22nd regiment. Growing up, he wasn’t hard on me, he was just very to-the-point. He was a great teacher, an architect, a painter, and he used to race motorcycles. He’s kind of a Renaissance man, and he taught me so many things throughout my life. He taught me to really understand things fully before attacking them as hard as I can. That way you can take things all the way to the edge, to where you feel like you’re gonna fall off, but you can ride that edge for as long as possible.”
Have you ever been worried that you’ve gone over that edge?
“Sometimes you feel like that, but I’ve got such a good strong confidence and faith. I’ve given my life over to an energy that I know is pure and honest. No matter what I do, I just have to know that it’s all for the right reasons, and it’s only going to help me help more people. If I stay true to myself and true to everyone else, it’ll carry me through anything in life.”
Do you ever think about legacy? What do you think yours will be?
“Not in terms of, ‘I want people to remember who I am,’ but I want to leave a legacy so that people remember what I’ve said. I have a huge heart for everybody out there. Even the most troubled ones. I love ‘em all.”
Slipknot's new album The End, So Far is out now
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