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The Big Read – Slipknot: “I’m just going to tell you the facts: this album is a masterpiece”

Twenty years ago, Slipknot were considered a menace to society. Today, they release a new album – their sixth – that proves the world at large has caught up to the sound of their rage. Fuelled by loss, depression, desperate times, demagogues and demons, 'We Are Not Your Kind' is the band's greatest – and angriest – album yet. As the band tours its Knotfest roadshow around the States, Dan Stubbs talks to founder member Shawn 'Clown' Crahan and guitarist Jim Root about masks, metal and the making of a masterpiece.

There’s an ‘immersive experience’ at Knotfest, the touring Slipknot festival tearing its way across America in support of the Iowa band’s sixth album, ‘We Are Not Your Kind’. Considering Slipknot found notoriety at the beginning of the 2000s for being the band your mother was least likely to approve of and – among other things – for keeping a decomposing bird in a jar to sniff during gigs, the thought of an immersive Slipknot experience might sound about as appealing as taking part in a historical recreation of the bubonic plague. Actually, it’s more of a museum, a collection of artefacts – masks, costumes, equipment, props – that shows the remarkable evolution of this band of outsiders in the 20 years since they released debut album ‘Slipknot’. It’s a period that’s seen them become one of the world’s biggest acts – not just in the sphere of heavy metal, but in popular music as a whole: menaces-to-society to museum pieces in two decades.

The custodian and curator of those artefacts is Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan, the band’s longest-serving member and, arguably, the greatest influence on Slipknot’s music and aesthetic, having founded the group with drummer Joey Jordison, who left under a cloud in 2013, and bassist Paul Gray, who died of a morphine overdose in 2010. We find Clown in Salt Lake City, Utah – today’s stop on the Knotfest tour.

“I always had a dream to be able to share things I’d saved from different tours, different albums: coveralls, drumheads, amps, cabinets, things used in recordings, things used on tour,” he says. “I’ve saved all of these things in hopes that one day there would be a card in front of it with a brief description. And now there is.”

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According to Slipknot legend, a sniff of the bird-in-a-jar usually resulted in instant projectile vomiting. It was, in the words of DJ Sid Wilson, used to “see what death smelled like”. It makes you wonder what state some of the early masks are in.

“Ah, you know,” says Clown, with a chuckle. “Everything has been aired out over the years.”

Reaching a landmark 20 years since their debut has given Clown and his eight bandmates pause to reflect on the journey they’ve been on. “I actually spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” says Clown. “I think about Joey, I think about Paul, I think about the beginning, about the times before we were signed in practice, I think about the life lived in Slipknot. And yeah, I have good memories and bad memories and sad memories and there are painful things, but it’s a life lived and it’s nothing but a beautiful experience for me. You have tragedies but you’ve got to wake up and move on or you have to give up, and I’m just not somebody who can give up. It’s not in my genes.”

Despite the nostalgia, Slipknot have put together what might just be their greatest album yet. ‘We Are Not Your Kind’, out today, is fearsome and fearless, a record that’s as hard and as melodic as anything they’ve done. It’s an album that will both delight lovers of heavy metal and convert those who believe it to be the music of the devil’s bum trumpet. It finds Slipknot folding in QOSTA-like desert rock (‘Critical Darling’), sledgehammer-to-the-face brutality (‘Orphan’), arty instrumental interludes and even a hint of slinky R&B (‘Spiders’). A five star NME review last week dubbed it a work of genius – and Clown is the first to agree.

“I’m not going out on a limb when I say this, I’m just going to tell you the facts: this album is a masterpiece,” he says. “I’m so proud of us for where we allowed ourselves to go, because it’s so personal. This is our life, so why shouldn’t we give it? We’re not going to hide it any more. We’re a lot better at speaking as a band about our ailments and maybe even our insecurities. We’re older, we’re able to let it out more and speak to one another about what needs to be. And right now it’s just a pleasure touring and playing shows, being around the fans. It’s the best time in Slipknot ever.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

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Along with many fans and critics, Clown is comparing ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ to the band’s breakthrough second album, the mega-hit ‘Iowa’. That’s the one with the goat’s head cover art you’ve seen on a bazillion black hoodies, and the one that contained their manifesto track, ‘People = Shit’. The comparison works not necessarily in sound, but in spirit: released on August 28, 2001, ‘Iowa’ was forged in a world hanging on the precipice. Two weeks after its release, the Twin Towers fell, setting in motion years of war, upheaval and unrest at home and abroad. It was a time of great change and of ominous portent – much like now.

“I look at ‘Iowa’ as a bit of an anomaly because the world really flocks to that album – and I refuse to believe it’s just the album,” says Clown. “I am absolutely convinced that it was the environment in the world at that time. That was the music of that time, and the world was in a serious place that we could all feel. And I’m here to tell you that the world is feeling a lot like that right now. We never sat back and thought, wow, this feels like that time, let’s make something like ‘Iowa’. This is ‘We Are Your Not Your Kind’ and it’s its own monster, but the world is in a serious state of disarray and we all feel it. It’s agitated. People are agitated. The system is agitated. People are fed up. And it’s feeling really dangerous.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Slipknot were forged in Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa, a midwestern state too easily characterised by the British press as the other America, somewhere you’d expect to find people wearing red Make America Great Again caps with unironic pride. I ask Clown if he understands the sentiment behind the current political situation better than some, living outside of the coastal metropolises. He twists the question a little.

“We feel it all man,” he says. “The political caucuses start in Des Moines, Iowa. The whole ranting and raving starts in my hometown. We’re a huge agricultural state, supplying a lot of cattle grain feed to the whole world. Get rid of the food, get rid of the people – and we supply the food, man. It’s very political and we’re in the midst of it. But we feel it all: the political remit, the spiritual realm, how we’re accepting things and allowing things and not allowing things and changing laws… This place is on fire.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Five days pass before I speak to guitarist Jim ‘#4’ Root, by which time the Knotfest tour has rolled into Denver, Colorado. In less than a week, things in the States have got that much more bleak: two days ago, there were separate mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. America is reeling at the deaths of at least 30 citizens. The El Paso shooter is believed to have been acting on racist motivations, the Dayton shooter on “violent ideologies”.

A notable thing in the media coverage is the choice of scapegoat. Just over 20 years ago, the music of Marilyn Manson was (ridiculously) implicated in the massacre at Columbine in Colorado, in which two teenage boys murdered 12 of their fellow students and one teacher. One notable headline described Manson as a “devil-worshipping maniac” who “told kids to kill”. In reality, the two were barely even fans, and Manson is a rock star, not a messiah. Now, in 2019, video games are taking the brunt of blame for these shooting events – rock music is no longer mentioned. Albums like Slipknot’s latest instead seem to vocalise the sense of sheer frustration, offering catharsis not cause.

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“I don’t like to really dive too deep into politics,” says Jim. “I have my own beliefs and I think those are personal to me and, you know, in a perfect world the gay couple down the street can protect their marijuana crops with their automatic weapons and not be taxed for them, but it’s not a perfect world. But yeah, in the ‘80s, when I was growing up, it was Parental Advisory stickers on heavy metal, Tipper Gore taking everybody to court and people trying to sue Judas Priest. Now, it’s video games. People aren’t looking at what the real issue is here – they’re trying to find a scapegoat for what it is. And the issue isn’t heavy metal music or video games or violent movies, it’s that these people have emotional or mental problems and they slip through the cracks.”

Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor has explained that the album’s title is “me kind of putting my foot down as far as the divisiveness, not only just the culture right now, but the world at large.” ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ is a title that unites the band and their fans – who identify by the term “maggots” – as something different, something other, which in itself could be seen to be divisive. Is feeling different essential to Slipknot fandom?

“The word different is a catch, because what is different?” argues Clown. “We can separate Slipknot fans and say they’re different from other bands’ fans, but how different are they? They fly planes, they’re police officers, they’re in the military, they’re gay, they’re adopted, they’re black, they’re white, they’re Asian, they’re Mexican – they’re human. By saying they’re different we’re saying they are different humans, and really there are none. So I think it should be acknowledged that we’re saying the state of mind you’re in when you’re listening to Slipknot – that’s what’s different. The unity that people share as Slipknot fans, it is a different world. It’s very separate from our peers, from everyone we know. It’s not that we hate anybody or we don’t like anybody, it’s that we are our own little experiment and it’s a rare experiment.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Asked about the inspiration for his new mask, Clown explains that it’s meant to – quite literally – reflect his shifting perspective on the world, and a sense of inclusivity. “I’m older, you’re older, a lot of the fans are older, and I’m trying to unite my selflessness with the world,” he says. “I call the mask ‘fashion’, and the main inspiration behind it, first and foremost, is it’s a mirror, so no matter how far away you are you can see yourself in it. If you’re a photographer and you’re in my face and you’re shooting me, you’re actually in the mask as well. And that’s really important to me these days – that people feel closer, and I feel closer, and that we know that we’re in it together in this thing called life.”

“I’ve worked really hard on myself for the last four years, lots has happened and I’ve transformed myself pretty drastically. I’m in shape and I’ve worked really hard mentally, physically and spiritually to be in a certain place, so this mask – ’fashion’ – is a very sharp, very clean, crisp, new outlook on everything – all of it.”

As Clown alluded, ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ is influenced by the times in the wider world, but it’s also the product of tough times for band members in a personal sense. Lawsuits, divorces, ill health and depression have cast a pall on individuals in the group since the release of 2014’s ‘.5 – The Gray Chapter’, which was titled in honour of their late bassist.

Most headline-worthy was the departure of percussionist Chris Fehn – aka Dicknose, the one with the mooning eyes and long, phallic nose – who left in March 2019 having filed a lawsuit against his bandmates citing withholding of payment.

Meanwhile, frontman Corey Taylor, who weathered a divorce in 2017, has spoken about recent battles “shirking the chains of depression”, and he and Jim Root had beef to work through themselves. Following the recording of ‘.5…’, Root was ejected from Corey’s other band Stone Sour, and reacted with vitriol towards his bandmate in interviews. It sounds like it would make for a toe-curlingly awkward reunion in the studio. Did they hug it out?

“We never honestly sat down and really just, like, talked about it – Corey and I never really just talked about things – but I think we have an understanding,” says Jim. “And at the time when all that stuff went down, I was really pissed off and bitter and I said a bunch of shit that probably didn’t need to be said in press, and that was what I had to learn from that. But the biggest thing that I learned was I shouldn’t be in that band anymore, because I wasn’t able to give 100 percent to either Slipknot or Stone Sour.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Though the rest of the band don’t give interviews as frequently as Clown, Corey and Jim, you suspect there are nine similar stories of the kind real life difficulties that a middle aged man in a mega-sized rock band might encounter. Typically, each member describes the relationship between them as being like brothers – with all the complex interactions that implies.

“I’m an only child and never had any brothers or sisters, and now I know what it feels like 100 percent to have brothers – we can argue, we can fight, but at the end of the day, we love each other,” says Jim. “But I think we’re typical dudes when it comes to [emotions]. If each one of us is depressed we just kind of bury it deep down inside and kinda truck on through it, you know. Like, honestly, I didn’t know Corey had been feeling that until I heard that quote. I knew he’d been going through some shit – we all know what each other is kind of going through and it’s the sort of stuff that can lead to not just depression but anger and sorrow and all kinds of crazy emotions – but depression is real and it’s tough.”

Jim says he, himself, struggled with depression following his ejection from Stone Sour. “I fell into it, you know,” he says. “One of the downfalls of not being in Stone Sour was I sat at home for two and a half years, and I hadn’t ever done that since we started touring in 1999. I was really nervous and freaked out. I don’t really have a support structure at home. I have a few friends, whatever, but I had neck and back surgery and I started getting a little too intimate with pills. Luckily, I’ve got my head on my shoulders enough where I was like, Hey, this is stupid, what are you doing, you’re driving around trying to get these pills?! I was kind of in a dark place. You spend 20 years doing something and when you’re not doing it, it’s hard to figure out what it is you’re made of. Am I the guitarist in Slipknot and that is it, or do I have more dimensions than that? And that’s something that each one of us are still kind of trying to struggle with and figure out.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Where Clown is prone to talking about the band in abstract terms, Jim is far more down to earth about what that fraternal bond really looks like. It means, essentially, tolerating stink.

“You’re living on a tour bus with a bunch of people. It’s like, you’re tripping over people’s shoes, you gotta smell their farts, you look at their dirty socks. If they open their bunk window or their curtain in the middle of the night you’re looking at their hairy ass or whatever. You know, maturing and getting older, you learn that instead having a knee jerk reaction and blowing up on somebody for leaving a half drunk Mountain Dew can on the couch or whatever, you kind of take a breath and go, OK, maybe they had a long day…”

Clown’s MO in the studio is not quite the same as Jim’s newfound tolerance. When writing and recording ‘We Are Not Your Kind’, Crahan encouraged his bandmates to use the pain of recent experiences for the good of the band. “We’re very good at giving ourselves to our music – we’re very honest when we write,” he says. “It gets really heavy – heavy in thought. People get sick. It’s a really interesting experience because I make them go there. If there’s something disturbing, I let everybody know it’s disturbing, and we live in a disturbing world while we’re indulging in that disturbingness.”

It sounds, I say, a bit like therapy, everyone exorcising their demons together.

“I don’t know if it has anything to do with demons, but if you’re going to bring painful vibrations from your insides and share that with the world, you might as well put it out on the table and discuss it,” says Clown. “You might as well take it home to your AirB’n’B, you might as well wake up with it, you might as well bring it back, you might as well live it, because otherwise what are you doing? You’re just making an album like everybody else in the world right now, which is not interesting.”

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Though he’s entirely affable and friendly on the phone, Jim concurs that they’re complex, troubled people. “We’re just kind of dark as humans, generally,” he says. “I mean, think about the irony. If you’re sad, or you get dumped by your girlfriend, what do you do? You listen to really sad, depressing music and watch sad, depressing movies. Wouldn’t you think that you’d want to do the opposite and to listen to like some B-52s? But as humans, we’re dark, and we go to dark places. And, you know, maybe that’s what creates this beautiful, passionate artistic drive, that a lot of our kind of people have.”

I tell Clown it sounds like quite a painful process to go through for the sake of a record.

“It is painful, man. You don’t even want to know. It’s extremely painful, the sacrifice of this lifestyle. And when I say lifestyle, I mean choosing to be a pirate horde and spending six months in a studio, 14 hours a day, wracking your brains, tearing your artistic self out so you’re not a cliche.”

I ask if he feels lighter once he’s worked his darkness into a record, then instantly regret it. In May this year, as work wrapped up on ‘We Are Not Your Kind’, Clown’s 22-year-old daughter Gabrielle died of a suspected drug overdose. It’s one of three topics I’ve explicitly been told not to mention ahead of the interview, along with the departure of Chris Fehn and – on a lighter note – the identity of the mystery new member fans are obsessing over.

“Well, I would like to feel lighter, but my personal situation in life has not let that happen,” says Clown. “It’s got darker.”

I apologise for the insensitivity; Clown brushes it off.

“In reality, when you live a certain life and you’re honest with your peers and the people you choose to be creative around, you can’t help but tell the truth, and the truth is shocking, and then you start living it and everyone around you has to understand what you were saying to begin with. All of a sudden you’re in it, and you’re like, man, it’s not a movie. It’s just my life. And music is hard, and this album is hard. I’d like to say I enjoy it but it’s really hard for me to listen to at the moment because it’s so locked into who we are.”

Though Corey writes the lyrics, Clown says the frontman tends to speak for the band as a whole. “My favourite thing about Corey Taylor is his lyrics are so personal but he writes for all of us, so you can listen to it and make it your own,” he says. “So, like, he’s my brother and I love him and I think I have a pretty good idea of what most of it is about, yet I can apply it to exactly what I’m dealing with right now. And it makes the album really sensitive.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

If Clown is the band’s myth maker, Jim Root is it’s pragmatist, and the way they talk about Slipknot is remarkably different. Jim’s mask, tellingly, is the only one that doesn’t cover the whole face. Instead, it allows his long, black beard to flow out below, hinting at the human being underneath. Tentatively, I put it to him that some members of the band are more into the whole masks-and-mythos thing than others.

“Our image kind of backfired on us,” he says. “We wanted to do this kind of anti-image – it was anti-fashion, anti-politics, anti-industry, anti-everything, with masks and coveralls, but that became this thing, you know, and for me that was hard. I was like, it’s hard enough for the general public to take somebody wearing leather and studs and cut-off jeans seriously, you know? And now here we are with masks and coveralls. What kid who’s aspiring to learn guitar is gonna take advice about a guitar and an amp from a monster?”

For Clown, conversely, you sense that the Slipknot identity is deeply felt and intrinsic. Shawn Crahan, the man, has been married for 25 years and lives a quiet life on a “big old houseboat” where, he says, he spends most of his time sitting in the sun and thinking. But Clown is a pervasive character that creates a schism in his personality.

“Not only do i have the best nickname [in the band], so to speak, but I have the best identity,” he says. “Everyone says it that Clown holds himself a certain way in the band, but the individual, the human – Shawn – is different. I speak in third person all the time, and sometimes I confuse myself. My wife will put me in check. She’ll literally be like: ‘This ain’t Clown time now.’ My wife lets me know, ‘Hey, you need to let that shit go.’ So obviously there is some split stuff happening. But it just so happens I have artistic schizophrenia, so it fits perfect for me.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Despite the differences in personality, there’s a strong bond between Jim and Clown. Sessions for a new Slipknot album tend to begin in the reassuringly humble environment of Jim’s garage, where the pair begin working on ideas. “Clown also has this artistic vision for the band,” says Jim. “He’s the type of guy that has like 1000 ideas at once, and he’s trying to get them all out, and sometimes it might be hard to understand where he’s coming from but you just gotta understand his gears are turning so hard in his head.”

One thing that lands squarely in Clown’s wheelhouse is overseeing the new costumes and masks ahead of a new campaign – though it’s up to individual members how much they run with it. This time, the biggest change is probably in Corey’s image – he commissioned horror artist Tom Savini to design a truly gross mask, a sallow, dead-eyed, semi-translucent face, mouth gaping open in an endless scream. It was a reflection of his mindset at the time – deliberately uncomfortable to wear and deliberately uncomfortable to look at. “I’ve been made to feel like a villain,” he told Kerrang! recently. “I’ve always tried to be a good father, be a good man, be a good person. I went through some shit a few years ago and in that time a lot of people had a reversal of opinion on who I was… I said, OK, if you want a villain, you’ll get a fucking villain.”

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Fans tend to go wild on the reveal of new masks and outfits. I ask Clown if that excitement is echoed the first time the band get together in a room and show off their new looks. “Creating the masks is always interesting, always a lot of fun and there’s always a lot of tension,” he says. “It’s great when we finally get together as a unit and you get to digest each other’s world.

Do they try on each other’s masks?

“Honestly, it’s kinda funny you said that because I’ve never actually in 20 years thought about putting on anybody in the band’s mask. You made me think. I don’t think I even had a thought to do that. I may have tried Paul Gray’s mask on, but those are very private worlds and we like it that way. I work with people around me that have a lot of respect and I always feel like if my mask were on a table and you were in there, I would expect that you would respect me and respect my mask enough not to just grab it and put it on.”

Clown, I would not dare.

At Knotfest, and in a short run of European festivals that preceded it, Slipknot have been playing some of the greatest shows of their career. “I have so many people telling me right now that when they watch the show they get transcended into some other space and time,” says Clown. “It’s never been expressed to me like that before.”

Other audience members have been so energised that, on the second night at Knotfest, in San Bernardino, California, Corey Taylor decided to halt the show, fearing for the crowd’s safety such was the surge to the front. “It was scary – it’s really hard to watch people being smashed by the dozens,” says Clown “It’s a hard thing to say, but we’ve had people die at our show. It happens – people get exhausted, it’s just the way of life, and it’s a horrible, horrible, horrible feeling to have people get hurt.”

One of the things that’s most delighting maggots right now is working out the identity of the band’s mystery new percussionist, Chris Fehn’s replacement, who’s playing his first run of shows with the band.

In the absence of a name, fans have come up with their own: Tortilla Man or Tortilla Face, working on the basis that his mask looks a bit bready. “I grabbed a hold of that hashtag and used it on my photos,” says Jim, with a laugh. “I mean, I never would have came up with that name.”

Though the band are, officially, still not commenting on Tortilla Man at all, Corey recently told Beats 1’s Zane Lowe that he is “killing it” on stage. Does Jim agree? “He absolutely is killing it because he hits those drums so hard. In the new stage [set-up], he’s kind of above me to my right a little bit, and I can hear his drums without putting him in the monitors. His timing is impeccable, he locks in with the band really well and his backup vocals are great.”

“It’s just, it’s weird. I’m not trying to take anything away from, you know, previous members, but you don’t know what you’re missing until you have this other thing happening and it’s like, Oh, that’s how that’s supposed to sound!”

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Two decades in, Clown likens Slipknot’s success to “an infantry group that had to make its way onto the beach, through the sand and onto the hills to actually have a chance to live.”

“Back in the day, we were like sneered upon,” remembers Jim. “Like, record executives would listen to our demo and say, ‘If this is the future of music, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.’”

Now, headlining their own festival, winning mainstream critical praise that matches the fevered fan adoration they’ve long enjoyed, they’re a long way from that beach. Do they get special treatment at Knotfest? Golf buggies and champagne everywhere? “I’m banned from that kind of stuff,” says Clown. “You can’t have a clown clowning around, you know. But that’s what part of Knotfest is though – there’s no special treatment. It’s supposed to be a meeting of the minds, not a corporate thing.”

Clown confirms there are plans in place to bring Knotfest to the UK, but not for some time (“Right time, right place – it definitely will happen but it has to be the right thing,” he says). In the meantime, Slipknot have announced plans for a major UK tour in 2020, with venues yet to be announced – only the cities are named. Don’t bet against them being stadium shows – with this brilliant new album and such a fearsome live reputation, Slipknot are set to ramp things up a gear. Could it even be time for a Glastonbury headline set? “I would love to [headline Glastonbury],” says Jim. “I would absolutely love to do that. I listen to metal, I’m a metalhead, but I also listen to Muse and Jethro Tull and Beatles and Stones, that’s kind of like where my heart is, and Glastonbury exists in that world.”

They may no longer be considered a menace to society, but Slipknot still have the power to pull teenagers into their world. I ask if Clown thinks the masks help make them timeless, because while the people underneath age but the band as a unit doesn’t.

“It is a very special thing for an older male to be able to wear a mask and an outfit,” he says. “It’s cool that 14 year olds can come in never knowing me, just getting involved with Slipknot now and not worry about how old I am or if I have grey hair, what I wear or what my skin colour is or any of it. It all goes away because Slipknot is being reflected through the mask, through the body language and through an idea. It makes it very intimate and special for you. If you take the mask off, it could become more intimate, but it would get watered down. We’re all human, we’re all ugly, we’re all beautiful, we’re all special, we’re all not special at all. But you look at Clown and it becomes special and emotional.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Harries/ Getty

Corey – the band’s second frontman, though the one who’s been there throughout all their mainstream success – recently said that the band could carry on without him. Does Clown think the same?

“It’s a life awareness, man,” he says. “Slipknot is a very special thing and it just keeps giving unto itself as it’s disappearing. It’s disappearing like everything in this world, but we’re doing the best we can. There’s a lot of moving parts and it’s absolutely certain that the parts will quit moving and need to be replenished or refurbished, but whatever, man.”

Slipknot have, for many years, been a band it’s been easy to look at and think: not for me. This album might be the one that changes all that. Yes, on the face of it, there’s something faintly, well, silly about a band of grown men wearing high-end Halloween costumes. But it’s hard to take the piss out of something when the people involved are so serious and passionate about it, and when the art is as vital as ‘We Are Not Your Kind’. For every parent that might have looked at Slipknot and thought they were ridiculous or damaging or just plain nasty, there are a thousand maggots who feel like the band have given them life. Slipknot in 2019 are both a museum piece and a force to be reckoned with. Long may they replenish, refurbish and rock.

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