Overheard in the Ozzfest press tent: “If you did 300+ shows in a year and then went back to De Moines, you’d be angry too.”
It’s a warm, crispy afternoon in Mountain View, California. The Ozzfest is in full swing. Two kids, not older than eight or nine, pass by. One’s T-shirt reads, “I’m only wearing black until they make something darker.” The other’s bears a huge barcode on the back, the same that adorns the nondescript prison overalls of the undisputed lords of apocalyptic psycho-core, Slipknot ...
The De Moines, Iowa outfit’s reputation precedes them. The unbridled live rage, the gruesome masks, the disturbingly introspective lyrics, the hospital bills. 26-year-old drummer Joey Jordison (a.k.a. #1) sarcastically quips, “As it turns out, one-piece prison jumpsuits and masks absorb heat.” Live, while Joey mans the kit, percussionists Chris Fehn (#3) and Shawn Crahan (#6) batter monstrous tom-tom racks, beer kegs, and miscellaneous industrial waste on hydraulic lifts that rise over 20 feet into the air. At a gig in Wolverhampton, UK, DJ Sid Wilson (#0) landed on a 19-year-old fan after attempting a back-flip from a 30-foot balcony. [Source: Dotmusic.com] Like the music isn’t loud enough to begin with.
Their equally psychotically-loyal fans (the victim of the back-flip, who suffered a concussion, called the show “the greatest gig ever”) are lovingly referred to as “maggots,” who feed off the Knot’s brutal blend of grinding death metal, turntable scratching, and drum ’n’ bass industrial sampling. Fierce, enigmatic, and unrepentant, Slipknot is a backlash at heartland “Republican Territory” sterility at its most visceral. Their self-titled Roadrunner debut blew past platinum, and the recently released follow-up Iowa somehow finds a way to increase the intensity.
Driving the rhythm of the anger train is metal’s most formidable triumvirate. Jordison, Fehn, and Crahan, respectively donning Kabuki, Pinocchio-bondage, and Clown masks, are the collective equivalent of Dave Lombardo mainlining Red Bull. For kit drummer Jordison, the true anchor of the group (with all apologies to #3 and #6 — please don’t hurt us), it all goes back to the Iowa beginnings when he was preschool age, surrounded by music. “A lot of parents will set their kids down in front of the TV when they’re younger, to calm them down or whatever,” he says. “But my parents always had music on. They always set me in front of the stereo with records. I was listening to old Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Kinks, whatever. And for some reason it just always appealed more to me than television or toys or any of that stuff. Sometimes my parents would have parties on the weekend, and I just remember music always in the household, at a considerable volume.”
Oddly enough, Jordison’s first musical leanings weren’t towards the drums. “I played guitar first,” he confesses. “I started on my grandpa’s guitar that he had at his house, I was probably five or six. And just continued on that for a long time. I’d always make my sisters play with me, pretend bands, and they absolutely hated that. Never took any lessons, I was just a riff player, copping Stones licks. But I always had the beat in my head really well, had a natural ability to catch onto the rhythm of things and know all the accents, all that stuff.”
That natural ability led to his first successful sit-in on drums. At ten years old, Jordison was playing guitar and writing lyrics with a few friends from school, “and the drummer wasn’t able to hang at all. So I just went and did it, and I’ve been stuck with it ever since. That was my first time playing drums in a band, but I’d played drums before. There was a kid that lived down the street from me that had a drum set, and I was always interested in it. But I’ve always stayed on the guitar at all times, and wrote a lot of music for all the bands I’ve been in.
“And around the fourth grade I auditioned for the school band, and they asked me, ‘What instrument do you want to play?’ You know, there’s no guitar to play in school band, so initially I said drums, and they said I had to do piano to even play with the band — and that made absolutely no sense to me. So they gave me some rhythm tests, you know, ‘Play this, count that.’ I schooled it, just did it; it was really easy, so I was fortunate enough to be let into the school band. Then I played snare drum, but when it came time to play a drum kit, I never had to learn. I literally sat down and just played.”
The early drumming influences are predictable. Bonham. Moon. Peter Criss, which makes sense because outside of the school music programs, Jordison found his way into a Kiss cover band. Okay, we’re pretty heavy, and we’re into make-up, but we’re still nowhere near Point B. Somewhere along the line something seriously heavy happened, and it was called Slayer. And it was good.
“My first taste of the real heavy stuff …” Jordison pauses to think, “See, a lot of people’s first taste of the heavy stuff was always Metallica, and I actually got into Slayer before I got into Metallica. When I first heard Slayer, it was the evilest, most fucked-up, weird, Satanic stuff; I was hooked on it immediately. I mean, having a record with a pentagram in the middle, spinning it back and forth listening to this stuff, I was like, f---in’-A. I’d never heard anything like that, and that was like 1986. I distinctly remember being in sixth grade when I first got the taste of that stuff.
“And then kids at school started lending me records, and I found out about Mercyful Fate, of course Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth — the whole thrash metal movement. That’s when I got my next kick drum, started working on double-bass techniques, and basically said, ‘Fuck all this other music I’m listening to,’ and formed my first thrash band. It was like the traditional ’80s heavy metal, but just stepped it up a notch.” And like most that follow the thrash route, there’s one name that is consistently mentioned with utmost reverence: Slayer’s Dave Lombardo. “He was the man at that time, no doubt about it,” Jordison states pointedly. “People can say what they want, but he was the king, and still is. He’s the forefather of that whole style. I did everything I could to learn it.”
And learn he did. The grind-core influences roll off his tongue: Terrorizer, Immortal, Dark Throne, Dark Funeral, Satyricon, Mayhem. As soon as you realize the underground nature of this particularly extreme sub-genre of metal music, it makes Slipknot’s success — covers of most major rock and musician magazines, TV appearances on Conan O’Brien, platinum-selling albums, and a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance — all the more startling. Where Metallica brought thrash to the masses, Slipknot seems poised to do the same thing with hardcore death metal. Think about it, when was the last time you saw Slayer on The Tonight Show? Not bad for such humble Iowa beginnings, which Jordison remembers to the date.
“September 15, 1995,” he declares, “is the first time I saw the first little incarnation of Slipknot. All it was, our old singer [Anders Colsefni], who was playing toms and singing at the same time. He had more of a traditional death metal voice, nothing like Corey [Taylor, a.k.a. #8]. And then there was Shawn and Chris, ‘The Clown,’ who was initially playing drums on a little five-piece kit. He wanted to move up to toms and singing and be more of a front man. And Paul [Gray] played bass. Basically it was Paul and Shawn that started this little thing, and I came in and joined ’em.”
As it turns out, Chris “Clown” Fehn did move to the front, and Jordison took the drums over, “That day. Learned all the songs in like an hour. They only had four songs at the time, so it was easy to learn.” Nowadays things aren’t so easy. Jordison’s drumming on Iowa is pummeling and precise. “People=Shit” starts out with thirty-second note flurries, settles into a meaty groove, and then at around two minutes Jordison violently lashes out with a series of blinding fills that are there to remind you of the impact metal drummers have made. Other album highlights include “Left Behind,” which flows through tasty eighth- and sixteenth-note feels, and “The Heritic Anthem,” whose breakneck double-bass footwork would have Lombardo nodding in approval.
“‘Heretic Anthem’ is probably one of my most amazing performances on the record — that’s one I’m proud of,” Jordison muses. “Sixteenths through the whole song. I break it down on the choruses and take it out. And there’s a riff in the middle where I don’t do it, but it’s everywhere else. I can honestly say I’m very proud of every song. My performance on the entire record is something I really strived and worked hard for.”
You might think all the double-bass histrionics imply that Jordison isn’t particular about bass drum sound, equipment or tuning. Far from it, but can you believe at one time he played a double pedal? Sure doesn’t sound very metal. “That’s what I did for the whole first Slipknot tour,” he says, “and I did do that for many years, but for this tour I just went back to the two kick drums. With the new record, this stuff is so fast — a lot faster than the first record. The songs where I play sixteenth-note double bass almost through the whole thing, the vibration is just a lot fuller with the two kicks instead of one. Some people say it sounds different, but if you know how to tune them right and you use the same heads on both kicks and you’ve got a consistent stroke in each foot, it’s never been a problem for me.
“A lot of people muffle because they can’t tune,” he continues. “From very early on, if a drum sounded bad I’d do everything I could to make it sound good. I didn’t have a really good drum set at first, so I just learned that way. I’ve tried every head, every tuning technique, every muffling system. It got to the point where I don’t have to muffle everything anymore.
“I tune depending on the diameter and what the shell is made of and how many plies, generally. I have both heads off the drum and tap on the inside [of the shell], record it, and I try to tune it to the tone of the shell. Pretty much, I tune the bottom head the same as the top. The current kit I’m playing, it’s acrylic, like Vistalites, you can see through it. They’re made by Orange County. They’re so punchy sounding, I don’t ever have to use any muffling.”
As intense as the music gets, don’t forget about the costumes and masks, you’d think Jordison would have to be in serious shape to pound it out every night for the Knot. Does he work out? “Nope,” he laughs. “Nothing at all. I never used to really party, ever, you know? And I’ve always been really skinny-framed and smaller, kind of like a smaller version of a Tommy Lee, I guess. I mean, I take vitamins and eat as healthy as I can, and that’s about it. I don’t go out and jog and do all these weightlifting programs. It just naturally comes out of me, is my only explanation. For some reason, I can just do it.”
And that same can-do attitude carries over to the rest of the band. How else do you think nine guys, including three percussionists, a DJ, and a sampler, could ever finish an album, let alone make it work live? “Everything’s specifically placed,” he insists. “We never put anyone in a part that’s not required. It takes all nine people to get the Slipknot sound. All I can say is we’re that choice band, dude. We’re just that one band that can make it work.”
Still, somebody has to be the ringleader in the studio. And for Iowa Slipknot spent two-and-a-half months at Sound City Studios in L.A. with producer Ross Robinson, who helped oversee the madness on the first album.
When trying to explain the seriousness of the music, Jordison chooses his words carefully, concerned much more with the substance behind the style, “Basically we just all try and channel the same vibe before we track anything. We always have all the guitar players really close in my face, and Ross is right there in the tracking room with us. He doesn’t sit in the control room, he comes out with us. Basically, Ross just gets into your head and makes sure you understand the vibe of the song and why we’re all there, what the intention is. He’s really spiritual about bringing that out. He also sometimes helps with guitar effects and tones and placement of new guitar lines in the songs. Sometimes [he critiques] how hard I’m hitting or what a part needs, you know. Like if I’m playing a little bit too busy, he might have me back off on certain parts and have me play a bit heavier backbeat to let the vocals breathe. He’s really good.”
And as for working out three-way drum parts with Chris and Shawn, “We’ll get the structure of the song usually done first, and then we’ll start placing the other drums in there. Sometimes a guitar part might be inspired by a drum part, specifically. On the song ‘Metabolic,’ halfway through there’s a drum part that inspired a riff. There’s this one thing at the end of ‘Skin Ticket,’ with us three. It’s completely on a weird time signature, and we’re rotating the same beat, we’re going in thirds when the song is in fourths. Chris will play and then I’ll come in, and I’m dropping in halfway between each of their parts while they’re trading back and forth. It’s cool.” Something else that’s cool is the album’s eerie closer, “Iowa,” a one-take wonder that was tracked live in a small room with the entire band, producer Robinson, engineer Mike Frasier, and various technical assistants. Jordison’s tone, once prideful, turns acutely reverent. “Yeah, we did all the drums in one take for ‘Iowa,’” he sighs. “We all tracked it together live with the band. When it was done we listened back to it. It was magical. Nothing sounded off, nothing was missed. They lock in with me really well, but we’ve been doing that for years. It was just really weird. It was dark. We were all in that zone, and we hit it, man. We forgot about even recording. The tape ran out three seconds after the last note — the song is 15 minutes long.”
By the time you read this, Slipknot will be knee-deep into the Pledge of Allegiance tour with metal brethren like System of a Down, Mudvayne, and Rammstein. Impressive as that sounds, it was something else to see the Knot exploding onto the Ozzfest stage in front of Marilyn Manson and Black Sabbath. As arguably “out” as Manson’s stage persona can seem, Slipknot’s presence is far more aggressive, its nine members engulfing the stage in fury — a far cry from the humbling experience it must have been to actually meet Ozzy himself. You know, the guy who started all this.
“It was pretty surreal,” Jordison ponders. “The first time I met him, I spilled a Coke on his back because I gave him a hug, right? I was so nervous, I had a big cup of Coke and I spilled it all the way down Ozzy’s back. I was like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’ He didn’t care.” After a moment of laughter, Jordison whips out a shockingly good imitation of the heavy metal Godfather, “He said, ‘It’s all right, mate, s’all right.’ It was weird, dude. But his son Jack is a big Slipknot fan.”
And therein lies Jordison’s (and probably the whole band’s) softest spot. For all the rage against the adolescent pain, the music industry, or “Republican Territory,” when it comes to fans, he knows Slipknot owes everything to the maggots. “I mean, when we go to places like Japan, those fans are fanatics, man,” he exclaims. “They’re really glad that you’re there, that you flew all the way out there to play for them. People were bringing me dolls of myself — they make you all these really extravagant gifts. That someone takes the time to do that, because you’ve changed their life or touched it some way, the mutual respect — it’s really awesome. You can go to all these different places and have people respect what you do.
“We’re very fortunate. My whole life has changed since I’ve been doing this. I have to leave my family at home; Shawn has to leave his family at home. This ain’t easy, man, but you’ve always got to suffer a little bit to make something great. And this is our gift, we respect it a lot. We’re so thankful. It’s the only thing we’re here for, it’s the only thing we know how to do.”