.5: The Gray Chapter and the rebirth of Slipknot: “This band will never, ever f*cking die”

On the anniversary of .5: The Gray Chapter, we look back at a genuinely pivotal moment in the life of The Nine: Knotfest 2014.

.5: The Gray Chapter and the rebirth of Slipknot: “This band will never, ever f*cking die”
Sam Coare
Originally published:
Kerrang! issue 1542, November 2014

2014 was a landmark year for Slipknot. In the six years that passed since their fourth LP All Hope Is Gone, bassist Paul Gray had died, while founding member Joey Jordison left the band three years later, resulting in a fractured line-up and two new (at the time) unnamed members going into fifth album .5: The Gray Chapter. One week after the release of the record, Kerrang! flew to Knotfest in California to see a band seemingly going through a rebirth in real-time at the most important show of their career so far. This is that story.

It starts like it has so many times before. In so many venues, in so many cities, in so many countries, for so many years.

In the corridors of the Slipknot ‘compound’, mere yards from the stage, Corey Taylor unites with his band. Slipknot’s pre-show huddle is a tradition so old the frontman can’t remember when it first started. It’s here that the band channel all of their emotions, their frustrations, their anger, their energy, into one. It’s the moment, Corey says, that gets them “charged”. The moment they forget everything else, except for “doing what we’ve got to do” that night.

Corey, as always, speaks loudest and longest. He doesn’t ever know what he intends to say; he’s not one to prepare for situations that might dampen spontaneity. He doesn’t even know if anyone else is listening, or whether he’s simply talking to himself. But for the best part of a minute, the message he reiterates is deafening.

“This is Phase Two of Slipknot,” he’ll tell his brothers. “And this band will never, ever fucking die.”

Because while tonight may begin like thousands more before it, come its conclusion nothing will be the same again. “This,” Corey will acknowledge, “is the most important show of Slipknot’s life.” The closing of one chapter, and the beginning of the rest of their days. It’s the letting go of the past. It’s the introduction of new friends. New songs. A new Slipknot.

For the first time in four years, nine hands – as it was when they began – meet in the middle of the huddle. It always ends like this; a count of three and a proclamation that whatever city, venue or event the band find themselves in on that given night can, simply, go fuck itself.

“On three,” Corey commands. “One, two, three – ‘FUCK KNOTFEST!’”

The time is now. Here we go again, motherfuckers…

The San Manuel Amphitheater – little more than a hole in the ground – is the first place that can go fuck itself. Located 60 miles east of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, California, it’s an isolated, exposed expanse that sits under the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains, encased in the dust that kicks up off every gravel-strewn path that winds around it. It is, frankly, a bizarre setting for a festival, even by Download’s airport-cum-racetrack pedigree; a place where Wild West ranch meets Butlin’s holiday camp.

“I first came here in 1998,” percussionist/creative visionary Clown tells Kerrang!, as he eases into a leather sofa in one of the compound’s identikit dressing rooms some four hours before his band’s scheduled stage time of 11pm (“These places are all the fucking same,” he’ll moan, “with white walls and some piece-of-shit table that some cocksucker’s gonna break. Goddamn, why isn’t there a mural of fucking Tupac on the wall or something?”). “We played the side stage at 11:30am. I cut my fucking head open and some label rep had to take me to the local hospital.”

Today, a trip to A&E is about the only thing not troubling Clown – a man who, by his own admission, “likes to stay busy”. And hell, has this past week been busy. Last week, Slipknot released .5: The Gray Chapter – their first new album in six years. Today, Saturday, marks Day One proper of Knotfest 2014 (the weekend-long festival – in the second year of its infancy following its 2012 birth and subsequent no-show last year – kicked off last night with a party for those in attendance early).

Five stages play host to a Slipknot-curated line-up of bands, touring partners and friends. Fairground rides perch ominously atop a hillside; a Slipknot museum, featuring all manner of oddities from the band’s storied career, is nestled in the valley below. Skinned goat heads are impaled on posts outside, attracting the attentions of wasps and insects that crawl across eyeball and flesh. And in 30-degree heat, it’s a relief that the advertised barrels of burning camel shit – a proposal designed to give Knotfest its own unique ‘stench’ – fell foul of local authorities.

Clown brushes down his shirt. He’s spent the past 24 hours troubleshooting teething problems, showing guests around the site and ensuring that each of the 50,000 fans in attendance this weekend have “somewhere they belong, something that can inspire them and challenge them and leave them something they can remember”.

What Clown needs from Knotfest, though, he describes in one word: pain.

For Slipknot, that’s not been in short supply in recent times. From bassist Paul Gray’s passing in 2010 through to drummer Joey Jordison’s acrimonious departure from the band last December, the foundations of Slipknot have not so much been shaken of late as reduced to rubble.

“A redwood tree has roots,” as Clown, with the strains of not just the weekend, but of the past etched across his face, puts it. “And the more of those roots you rip up, the harder the big strong tree is going to fall.”

Yet fall Slipknot never did. Buckle, maybe. Stall, absolutely. Paul’s passing led to an intense period of soul-searching for the band as they sought to find out not only if they wanted to go on, but if they even could.

“We’ve all been on our own trips these past years,” Clown says. “I’m kinda like the last [original member] left. Joey is gone. Paul is gone. We had to fight hard for this band. It’s been an amazing trip, just one motivated by different circumstances. Life. Death. It’s fucking sucked, but getting here, to today… It’s been a journey. A sad, beautiful journey, full of anger and pain and all that good stuff. Fear, too. Fear is the greatest motivator in my life. It’s instinctive, primal. I like blood. I like hurt. I like dudes buckled over, exhausted. That’s what Slipknot is. We just keep pushing.”

Corey Taylor’s own journey is one of many small steps. For the frontman, the first of those was getting back into the studio with his band; the one place that, since Paul’s passing, they couldn’t bear facing. If infrequently taking to the stage in intervening years taught the remaining bandmates – Corey, Clown and fellow percussionist Chris Fehn, guitarists Mick Thomson and Jim Root, DJ Sid Wilson and sampler Craig Jones – that they wanted to continue, whether they could or not was a question they could only answer by trying.

By now you will, of course, have heard the results. .5: The Gray Chapter landed at Number One on the U.S. Billboard Chart and Number Two in the UK, matching the performance of their most commercially successful album, 2009’s All Hope Is Gone. Its 14 songs deal with, as Corey says, the past four years of grief, frustration and despondency. It bleeds chaos, hurt and inner turmoil. It might not musically be their heaviest work to date, but its emotional weight bears down with irrepressible force.

Corey sighs a heavy sigh of relief when asked if it’s good to finally get these songs off his chest and into the wider world. “Yes… God yes.” It’s a record that’s carved from unimaginable grief and the toll the world has taken on its creators, and it’s one of which Corey is endlessly proud. And not just because of the quality of material from a band who were by some written off in the wake of losing key songwriters Paul and Joey, but because of its conquering of a different, necessary type of pain to that of which Clown speaks. Namely, growing pain.

“We knew it was never going to be easy [to move on from Paul and Joey],” the frontman, dressed in his pre-show, pre-boiler suit attire of shorts, T-shirt and thick, lime-green socks, admits. “This album is such a big part of our history that it made it even more important [to get right]. We wanted people to know how we were feeling, and where we’d been. And to do something so poignant, and so thoroughly, without falling off the edge…” He tails off into his own mind.

Work began in earnest this past January, when Clown instructed the band’s new drummer (even now, despite widespread speculation about their identity, and K! seeing them with our own eyes backstage, the band refuse to name names) to join him at his Iowa home. There, the pair took a visit to Paul’s grave, before decamping to Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood, California, with producer Greg Fidelman, who mixed the ’Knot’s 2004 album Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). Between its walls, across four months, the band would develop the catalogue of material guitarist Jim Root had brought in preparation, marrying those rough outlines with Corey’s own visions and contributions from the rest of the band. “We were stirring vomit and war,” as Clown so colourfully puts it. “It was good to get in there and cry in there together, rather than outside it, individually.”

For Corey, those months in the studio was “Step One” on both his own journey and that of what he calls Phase Two of Slipknot. Yet while the experience cost each friend a heavy price, Corey’s eyes light up while talking of being back in that creative environment with his brothers again. Of Slipknot being a band again. Of working with two new members, “relieving any tensions or uneasiness” that unfamiliarity in what had forever been the tightest of groups might have brought. Of excitedly discussing how their new material would work on the live stage – “Something we hadn’t done in a long time, since even before All Hope Is Gone.”

“We had to come together as a family and figure shit out,” Corey concludes. “We had to let go of some history, embrace each other, and admit, ‘No-one is going to do this for us…’”

This weekend – “Step Two” – has been weighing heavy on Corey’s mind. Slipknot haven’t united onstage together for over a year, since a show at Monsters Of Rock Brazil last October, let alone done so with new members, new material and a new production in tow. Outside the arena’s main entrance, a small group of placard-waving religious nuts preach salvation (and offer free pizza for those who give up their tickets). One struggles with a wooden crucifix bearing the unintentionally apt phrase ‘Judgment Day Coming’.

“The anticipation of today has been fucking with my mind,” Corey sighs. Seven days of intense rehearsal – beginning in Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena before heading to San Manuel a few days prior to Knotfest’s opening – have seen the band dissect every inch of their live performance. Slipknot, as Corey states, are a band that have always existed first and foremost on the stage, and the pressure of unveiling Slipknot 2.0 is something that, when discussing the evening ahead, causes him to nervously fiddle with a flat cap that otherwise sits in his lap.

“You don’t,” the frontman says, “get another chance at today.”

Not that either Corey or Clown are anticipating any problems, of course. Corey beams with pride when discussing how his band’s new charges have taken to fitting in onstage. There’s bullish confidence in their live abilities – something that was of paramount importance when considering Joey’s replacement in particular (“With the bass player, that was more of a happy accident,” he laughs). And if doubt ever did exist, Clown simply won’t allow it to play out onstage.

The new pair have spent that past week asking questions, constantly seeking assurances that the band are happy with their contributions. In return, Slipknot’s leading men pass on words of advice, tell them to relax, point them in the right direction. Rehearsals have taken place in full stage attire to condition them for the endurance test that isn’t only two hours of intense performance, but done so under the weight of a leather mask and boiler suit. “They’re both really good dudes,” Corey smiles. “We’re trying to keep them on their toes, but we want them to know they can come to us with anything they need.”

“Well, they know there’s one friend they don’t have,” bristles Clown. “And that’s me. I’ll kill both those guys right during this set. I don’t care if their mom is watching from the side of stage, or whatever. I’m gonna fuck them up, and they know it. They need to know how to drive the ship. And if I’m slinging coal in the engine room, they better drive it right. Because if they don’t, I’ll throw them the fuck off and do it myself.”

“Slipknot has always been about losing yourself in the moment,” Corey adds. “That’ll be a learning curve for them, but if there’s one thing I keep telling them, it’s, ‘Enjoy it,’ because when you do, then it becomes a show. And then anything can happen.”

Losing himself in the moment, though, is something Corey is more aware of, especially where the new material is concerned. The studio environment affords time and space to gather thoughts and feelings, harness emotion and channel it into performance. Live, without a safety net, all bets are off.

“There’s some really heavy stuff on this record, and, for the most part, you have to compartmentalise,” Corey says, his gaze wandering into the distance. “You have to keep it together for the show and pay your dividends afterwards. Some nights, I don’t know what to do. You write it off until you get off the stage, and then you break down. And, man, there are songs on this new record that will be hard. Goodbye, for instance [written about the day Paul died]. I can picture that day, in my basement, just sitting there, and it’s emotion you can’t fathom unless you’ve lived through it. That song might never see the stage. Skeptic, too. I know the fans will want to hear it, but that song is so much about Paul and his spirit, that it might take us a while to get to a place where we can perform it.”

A sadness fills his eyes. “Even thinking about it now…” he mumbles, before composing himself.

Later, Corey will flick his head in the direction of a giant mirror hanging across the room from us. At its centre are pinned two A4 pieces of paper – tonight and tomorrow’s set list. Save for a few crossovers, each mine different areas of the band’s arsenal to purposefully give fans in attendance for the full Knotfest weekend something different on each of the two nights that Slipknot headline.

Four new songs, plus intro XIX, are listed. The words ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Skeptic’ are noticeable by their absence.

Knotfest is, Corey surmises, a bittersweet occasion. The juncture between the past and the future; the point where, for the first time since Paul’s passing, Slipknot are nine onstage once more.

“It was time to say to ourselves, ‘If we’re going to move forward, we do so as a band,’” Corey says. “No more having Donnie [Steele, live bassist since Paul’s death] backstage playing Paul’s parts. Slipknot should be a band. With eight of us, there was a certain dynamic that was missing. There’s a different energy with these guys onstage with us, as a nine, which I don’t think we’ve had since Paul died. It was just a matter of getting our heads around it. In some ways, you feel like you’re cheating [on Paul and Joey]. There’s a part of you that’s afraid to move on, because the unknown scares the shit out of all of us. This is the hardest step, harder than the album, because it just isn’t going to be the same. But every day, it becomes easier, more familiar. And it has to be that way.”

In the hours leading up to the rebirth of Slipknot, Corey will admit to being nervous. Yet nervous with excitement; the good kind of nerves that bubble in the pit of his stomach. Because in the years since Paul’s passing, Slipknot have existed only in stolen moments on festival stages. Now, there are plans, ideas and schedules. There are venues booked across the world; America first, until Christmas, followed by the UK, Europe and Australia to welcome in 2015. There’s a future for a band who have had to fight against a world doing everything to rob them of one. There’s hope where once it was all gone. There’s joy in the little things – for Clown, in waking up in a bunk on a bus opposite his friends, or exploring a new part of cities he’s visited countless times – where for too long the darkness of the bigger picture has swallowed the band whole.

“It’s time we started to enjoy ourselves again,” Corey says, a smile gently easing its way across his face. “That, touring the world, is Step Three. The fact that we’ve made it to a point where we can begin to be excited for things again is such a golden feeling. It’s what Paul would have wanted. He’d be stoked for us.

“It might take some time to get our spirit back,” he smiles. “But it’s good to feel alive again.”

Slipknot’s performance four hours later is phenomenal. There will be many more steps in their journey, and the pain might yet go on. But, as Corey says, Slipknot will never, ever fucking die.

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