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Gray Matters: Slipknot Open Up About Their Most Devastating Record Ever

How metal’s most frightening monsters moved forward after a death in the family

I don’t usually let people see me cry,” Slipknot percussionist Shawn Crahan says matter-of-factly. “It’s too hard. But when I heard what Corey Taylor sang on the song ‘XIX,’ I cried and cried and cried. It hurt so bad.”

“XIX” is the funereal dirge that kicks off .5: The Gray Chapter, the menacing metal screamers’ fifth studio album and first since the 2010 death of their friend and bandmate Paul Gray. Crahan, best known for wearing a bloody clown mask and convulsing his body during the band’s frenetic concerts, had constructed the track as a three-minute eulogy for Gray, the group’s founding bassist who died of an accidental overdose of morphine and the painkiller fentanyl. Crahan spoke the song’s opening words, “This song is not for the living; this song is for the dead.” But it’s the lyrics that frontman Taylor wrote that drove him to tears: “Walk with me, just like we should have done right from the start…. Walk with me, don’t let this fucking world tear you apart.”

For the first time in the four years since their bandmate died, the musicians – whose frightening façades belie deeply emotional men nearly crippled by the loss of their friend – were finally working together on new music. Ultimately, they made a record that paid tribute to Gray while maintaining the seething, heavy hostility their fans love – often at the same time. Where their previous albums found them pointing their middle fingers at the world, .5: The Gray Chapter is their most focused album yet. Also, because of everything they’ve been though, it’s often their heaviest – both musically and emotionally.

“It was always in my head that this was going to be the story of the last four years,” says Taylor, 40, whose stentorian, Midwestern accent suggests bold confidence even when he’s letting down his guard. “We knew it was going to be heavy. We knew we would be asking ourselves if we were prepared to be that honest. But we allowed ourselves to get to that point.”

“Finally, after four years, we looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna cry. We’re gonna hurt. We’re gonna be angry,'” Crahan, 45, says. “We got it out, and it felt good.”

Prior to .5: The Gray Chapter, the emotion Slipknot did best was pure vitriolic anger. When the group put out its first widely distributed album, Slipknot, in 1999, the band members came off like enfants terribles, hurling their bodies across MTV at the peak of nü-metal’s final crest, rapping and growling about hate and frustration on their breakthrough single “Wait and Bleed.” Although the nine-person group – whose members included Taylor, Crahan, Gray, guitarists Mick Thomson and Jim Root, percussionist Chris Fehn, sampler Craig Jones, DJ Sid Wilson and drummer Joey Jordison – came from Des Moines, their jumpsuits, homemade Halloween masks and songs like “People = Shit” rivaled any boogeyman Stephen King could concoct.

Over the next 15 years, the group – like peers Linkin Park and Korn – held its footing even as moshers’ interests drifted away from rap-metal. From the start, Slipknot piqued their fans’ ears with aggressive, throbbing singles like “Duality” and “Psychosocial” and teased their curiosities with wild offstage tales about keeping dead birds in jars to facilitate easier mask-puking. With everything working in concert, Slipknot have sold more than 16 million copies of their four albums and several video releases, won a Best Metal Performance Grammy for the song “Before I Forget” and notched a Number One album with their most recent LP, 2008’s All Hope Is Gone.

For their entire career, the band had maintained an upward trajectory, but everything changed on May 24th, 2010, the day Gray was found dead in an Urbandale, Iowa hotel room. The bassist had been open about his struggles with drug abuse over the years but at the time of his death he had appeared to be clean. The bassist’s widow, Brenna Gray, reported that he was drug-free in the months after his final gig with the band, on Halloween 2009. She found a hypodermic needle the week before he died, alerted his doctor, and then found a bag of needles the day before he died, according to a court statement she made earlier this year. She confronted him on it and canceled his upcoming tour with the metal covers group Hail. But then his death happened quickly. “He was sick and none of us knew about it,” Brenna told Revolver magazine a few months after his death. “I think that was the most upsetting thing to me was that I didn’t know. ‘Cause I always knew, and I always brought him back when things were starting to take a turn. But this time I just couldn’t do it…. What was going on in his life? I have no idea, no clue.”

The shock of Gray’s death overtook the group. “There are so many stages to dealing with grief,” Taylor says. “There’s a goddamned avalanche, a roller coaster, that comes with it, where there are days that you don’t understand why you’re crying because you’re watching a fucking commercial about car insurance, and you’re just like, ‘What the fuck!’ You’re like, ‘Where did this come from?’ All of these things slowly but surely make their way to the surface.”

“Paul taught me so much, he’s the bottom line,” Crahan says. “I lost both my parents and it wasn’t as hard as losing Paul, because you’ve got your whole life with them – you know it’s going to happen. With Paul being my best friend, I just didn’t see it coming.”

As they mourned, the band members turned their attention to side projects for more than a year. Finally, in June 2011, they were ready to reform as Slipknot, and they hired a guitarist from one of the band’s early lineups to play backstage while Gray’s empty mask, jumpsuit and bass were displayed to the crowd. But even then, most of the band members said they weren’t interested in making a new record anytime soon.

Taylor asserts it took Slipknot so long to begin writing an album because of poor communication among the many members of the group. “We’re more of a freaking football team than a band,” he says with a laugh. “I think it just happened spontaneously. One day, we just started talking and it was like, ‘Well I’ve got some stuff.’ And we just started sending ideas to each other. Getting on the same page can be very difficult with this band, but it just came from conversation.” As they reconnected, they realized they were indeed capable of attempting a record that could do right by their fallen friend.

But before that could happen, the band had to sort through even more personal strife. In December 2013, Slipknot announced that “with great pain but quiet respect” it had parted ways with Jordison, the man whose death-rattle drumming and songwriting contributions had been a defining part of their sound since the beginning of the band. After the news broke, Jordison released a statement to explain that he had been fired. “I want to make it very clear that I did not quit Slipknot,” he said. “This band has been my life for the last 18 years, and I would never abandon it or my fans. This news has shocked and blindsided me.”

Crahan tells Rolling Stone that the band will not comment on why it separated with the drummer to avoid “reality-show politics” and that “things happen, people need to go on,” but he maintains he still has “respect” for Jordison despite whatever circumstances prompted the change. “Fuck the world for not thinking that seven other crazy bastards can’t step up and fucking take on the war,” he says.

For Slipknot, the decision also meant finding a replacement drummer – rumored to be Jay Weinberg, the son of Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg – and decamping to Los Angeles, while mustering the courage to write their first record without Gray and Jordison, two major songwriting contributors. They did so with help from Greg Fidelman, who had mixed their 2003 record Vol. 3 (The Subliminal Verses) and who became the co-producer of .5: The Gray Chapter. Together, they reinvented Slipknot.

Crahan immediately went about indoctrinating the new drummer into Slipknot, as they migrated west to the City of Angels, requesting he fly to Des Moines and taking him to the cemetery where Gray’s body is buried. “I made him pay his respects and say hello,” Crahan says. “I told him what we’re gonna do, and we got on a fucking plane and flew to fucking L.A.” In the coming weeks, both Crahan and Fehn would be standing in front of the drummer, yelling at him and flipping him off as he played. “They were coaching him,” Fidelman says. “It took us a while to figure out that Crahan and Fehn needed to be out there in front of him yelling and screaming and being a part of it.”

“It was like we were afraid to be excited about making a record at first,” Taylor says. “Slowly but surely, we started to let our guard down in the studio and get to the point where we could be a little more gregarious and a little more open-minded and open-hearted.”

For the duration of recording, Crahan ensured that Gray had a presence in the studio. He placed an Ibanez bass that had belonged to Gray in the middle of the tracking room – though “no one could play it because Paul was left-handed,” Fidelman says with a laugh – and he hung up a taxidermic boar’s head that resembled the fallen bassist’s pig-snout mask.

“At first, we were going to try to cut the record without bass, and just have Jim or Mick do overdubs,” Fidelman says. “But I felt we needed bass to be part of the basic track from a sonic place.” Eventually, the group found a bass player, whose identity, like the drummer’s, was not revealed at press time. (Although not official, Taylor has confirmed online rumors that the bassist was former Mastodon roadie Alessandro Venturella, after fans recognized his tattoos in the group’s “The Devil in I” video.)

“They were just looking for him to fill a void,” Fidelman says. “If he overplayed, it would have brought up more shit for them to deal with and that wasn’t what they needed.”

Overall, Taylor and Crahan both acknowledge that making .5: The Gray Chapter was a major part of the band’s healing process. “That’s actually when we started having conversations about what we had individually gone through after Paul’s death,” Taylor says. “When you’re on the road, you’re so focused on the gig – especially with us, when every show is a goddamned war – that we hadn’t really allowed ourselves time to for reflection or to engage one another, people dealing with the same pain.”

The singer recalls lyrics he had written about Gray sparking conversations about all the “dark shit” each musician had experienced. “That allowed me lyrically to come at it from the standpoint of the emotions that we all felt, whether we wanted to or not,” he says. “They’re very human emotions. Things like regret, guilt and anger all focused on yourself, because you don’t know if there was anything else that you could have done.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this honest,” he continues. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this introspective or focused. I was trying to show that just when you think the hardest part is losing someone, it’s sometimes even harder to move forward.”

Taylor cites “The Negative One” – the spasmodic track the group released first from the record – as having the heaviest and most “honest” lyrics of the album – even if they’re still mired in metaphor. “You had to be set free,” he growls in the song’s chorus. “Opposing sides, your choices are the negative one and me.” Taylor says the song is about himself as he came to terms with Gray’s absence and that the powerlessness he felt after Gray’s death left him with what he calls a “malignant anger” that came through in the song. “It’s about, ‘Why didn’t I think of something?'” he says. “‘Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I try to be a better friend, to be a better brother?’ You’ll keep yourself awake nights thinking that shit. You have to turn on yourself and go, ‘You can mourn this person. You can keep this person in your heart, but life is life. It’s just something that you can’t control.'”

Although “The Negative One” was difficult to work through, Taylor says the Gray Chapter song he’s most wary of singing live is the sentimental hard-rock ballad “Goodbye.” The song’s chorus goes, “A long time ago, we believed that we were united/So the last thing on earth I’m ready to do is say goodbye.” When Crahan first heard it, he interpreted it to mean that Taylor was quitting. “That’s how emotional we all were,” the percussionist says. “You never know when someone’s just gonna throw their arms up and go, ‘I’m done.'” But that was not what “goodbye” was about.

“It’s about the day we lost Paul,” Taylor says. “It’s specifically about sitting in my house two hours after we found out, just shell-shocked, completely numb and then completely overwhelmed with what we were dealing with. It’s a heavy tune, and it’s on a whole other level for this band.”

In the end, Slipknot came out with the most multi-dimensional album of their nearly 20-year career. Songs like “Goodbye” and “Skeptic” pay reverent homage to their fallen comrade, and metal ragers like “Custer” and “Sarcastrophe” fire on all the usual headbanging cylinders while still maintaining the LP’s emotional gravitas. It may have taken them four years of grieving and serious decisions, but the band had indeed reinvented itself.

Days after .5: The Gray Chapter comes out, Slipknot will be headlining their own music festival: At Knotfest, a three-day carnival on a campground in San Bernardino, California, groups like Danzig, Anthrax and Carcass will perform amid zip-lining fans, stilt-walking performers and – if state officials will allow it – oil drums full of burning camel shit. Crahan likens the event to the group’s version of the Lollapaloozas he went to in the early Nineties, and it will provide a fitting venue for the first renditions of many of the new songs.

When they finally get to tumbling and seizing about the stage here and on their fall tour with fellow nu-metal stalwarts Korn, their membership will feature many of the same grotesque masks that first captivated metalheads 15 years ago. But what won’t be visible is how they are now a changed band, aware of their own fragility.

“When we were younger, we took each other for granted,” Taylor says. “We didn’t allow ourselves to – for want of a better word – love each other. We loved what we did together, but we didn’t allow ourselves to appreciate each other for who we are individually. We learned the hard way that you can paint yourself right out of a picture, if you’re not family. I think that’s the biggest way that we’ve changed. We’ve started listening instead of screaming. We’ve started reaching out and showing appreciation for each other, whereas before we might have been a little too proud, a little too stubborn. Losing Paul shook us to or foundations, but luckily that foundation held.

“We didn’t realize we were taking our time with Paul for granted,” the singer says. “I’ll be damned if I do it with these guys.”