After all the tragedy and uncertainty, it may have once seemed that Slipknot’s fifth album might never happen. Now, rising from the abyss of a six-year studio absence and ready to explode in a ball of metallic rage, Jim Root and Mick Thomson reveal why they think .5: The Gray Chapter has the “meanest fucking guitar sounds” they’ve ever recorded...
It’s not been an easy few years for Slipknot. First there was the tragic passing of bassist Paul Gray in May 2010. Then came the surprise departure of drummer Joey Jordison back in December last year.
But suppressing an ungodly force like Slipknot was always likely to be temporary, and the masked monstrosities have assiduously resurfaced with .5: The Gray Chapter, the group’s fifth studio album and first since 2008’s All Hope Is Gone. Emotive and eclectic, .5 revels in the mood shifts that began with 2004’s Vol.3 (The Subliminal Verses).
Heavy bruisers such as ambitious opener Sarcastrophe and the crushing Custer run rampant like demented sociopaths, while downbeat introspections The Devil In I and Goodbye yearn with what vocalist Corey Taylor recently described as “gorgeous melodies”, the latter utilising an ambient lead guitar sound that may not sound out of place on a Radiohead record.
We caught up with twin guitar terrors Mick Thomson and Jim Root (the latter assumed principal songwriting duties on the record), to discuss what makes .5 tick, and to fathom the secrets behind that meaty, new guitar sound...
All hope was gone
Was there ever a time when you questioned if there would be a new Slipknot album?
Mick: “When you part ways with a drummer, you don’t know anything for a while. My desire was always there, but there’s a lot of people in the band and a lot of different shit that goes on in everyone’s lives.
"But when we got back together it was like we’d never been apart. The love was still there. It’s like hitting pause on your life and resuming it and nothing’s changed.”
Jim: “It was always in the back of our minds to do another album. There were roadblocks, the main one being that we lost Paul. When we started touring soon after Paul passed away it was to see if we could carry on.
“We found out that we could, so the next step was to make a new record. But we had to wait for Stone Sour’s record cycle to finish first, and that kept getting prolonged to the point where I decided not to wait any more. We couldn’t keep putting the Slipknot guys off for another band.”
Jim, you quit Stone Sour to write the new Slipknot record. Have you quit for good?
Jim: “I don’t have any plans to return... I haven’t even spoken to anyone from that band except Corey. I don’t really have any interest in it anymore.”
The next chapter
.5: The Gray Chapter flits from metallic brutality to pervasive melancholy. How vital is it that every new Slipknot release now embraces multiple facets?
Mick: “There are many personalities in the band, and we like different things. We’ve musically evolved to do more than simple bludgeoning.
"When some bands break away from that, people are like ‘what the fuck?’ But we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can change gears, and I’m glad because shit gets boring playing the same thing over and over.”
Jim: “We have many different approaches to writing. I don’t consciously think of any certain direction when I’m writing. I only try not to be repetitive or redundant. It’s important to evolve without ever straying too far from your roots and what established you.
"Some bands can [stray], like Green Day who went from being punk rock to a radio pop band. But I think it’s important to remember where you came from.”
Mick: “We’re also amazingly lucky to have a singer like Corey. Some people don’t like the softer shit, some people do... whatever. Corey’s aggressive shit is perfect in my opinion, but he can also sing like a motherfucker. It would be a travesty to stunt any of that. He’s got the range, so why not use it?”
Writing the record
All Hope Is Gone was the first record to feature songwriting contributions from (then) all nine members of Slipknot, but the new record has predominantly been written by Jim and Corey. What was the process like?
Jim: “I’m constantly writing, maybe a little more than other guys in the band. I find it a very therapeutic thing to do on the road, where you’re estranged from your hobbies. But there are many cooks in the kitchen, so I never really had much opportunity to put my stuff forward before.
"When you had Paul and Joey writing, you had to find your place. They didn’t write a lot of material for All Hope Is Gone, so more of my songwriting came out. With .5 it seems like I basically did the whole record. That’s why last November, I really put my nose to the grindstone and put together enough arrangements so that we could finally get going.”
Mick: “This record had a weird songwriting process. We ended up in the studio sooner than we had intended. Jim and Corey had a bunch of stuff demo’d, and other stuff came together in the studio.
"But we didn’t have an ‘all-in-the-same-room’ jamming thing that we hoped for. But we didn’t need it. The first two records, we wrote shit together in a basement. Now everyone has identical Pro Tools setups on their laptops, so we can work on stuff while we’re touring.
"It enables us to have songs in the can already before we go in a studio to work on a new album. We hope to do our next record sooner after touring .5. We don’t want to spend the same amount of time between albums as we’ve done with the last two.”
How do you think your relationship as guitarists has evolved as a unit?
Jim: “It’s still evolving. We still play guitar very separately from each other. There will come a time where we will need to start working together a lot closer.
"Of all the bands I’ve been in, Mick is my favourite guitarist to collaborate with - he’s so technical. He writes riffs that blow my mind. We’ve maybe always been a little bit ‘uhhhh’ around each other guitar- wise. But we’re growing up, and we can put all that competitive bullshit behind us.”
Has there been competitiveness in the past?
Jim: “Not really on the surface, but if Mick got a new amp or something, you think, ‘shit, that’s going to change the dynamic.’ But the sound guy would have to make sure that the amps are set so that they jive with each other. Anyway, I think that competitiveness is healthy and makes the band better.”
In the tone zone
The guitar tones on .5 sound bassier and richer, especially on heavy tracks such as The Negative One. Was anything radically different this time?
Mick: “Yes! Finally I have a guitar sound that I’m extremely fucking happy with! There are so many other people in this band that we always had to make concessions with our sound, like losing some of the bottom end and lowering the gains in order to keep it clean and distinct in the mix. But holy shit were we able to get some good guitar sounds this time.”
Jim: “This is definitely the best guitar sound we’ve ever recorded. I’ve been comparing our mixes to previous albums. Vol. 3 (The Subliminal Verses) is my favourite album song- and direction-wise, because we showed genuine evolution. But the guitar sounds were scratchy.
"I didn’t think All Hope Is Gone is that great song-wise, and I think the producer and engineer mixed the record with drum sampling and even some guitar re-amping, which I’m adamantly against.
"It takes away the heart and soul in everything you do. We’re a unique band, so why have a generic producer lumping you in a box with other bands that sound the same?
"The guitar sound on .5 is closer to our live sound. There’s a lot of good midrange; it’s barky, with a British tone, which I love. When you tune as low as we do, it’s hard to get the guitars to cut through.”
Mick: “When I heard The Negative One through my home stereo it was instant fucking goosebumps. They are the meanest fucking guitars we’ve ever managed to record.”
What do you put the new sound down to?
"You don’t know what you’re going for until you start going for it. That’s why the guitar sounds are a little different on every record we do" - Jim Root
Jim: “With previous records, it was sort of ‘throw and go’. ‘Hey, here’s a good guitar sound, let’s go!’ But Mick and I spent longer on this. You have to find a balance, because the guitar tone you’re happy with might not sit in the mix, or might get messed by other frequencies.
"A lot of it has been trial and error. You don’t know specifically what you’re going for until you start going for it. That’s why the guitar sounds are a little different on every record we do.”
Mick: “I don’t know what we did wrong on the previous records, but we nailed the sound on this one. There were a few spots on the record where I played a six-string bass through a Big Muff, which we dubbed the ‘tractor bass’ because it sounds like a brutal tractor ripping out tree stumps!
"It was something we did with Ross Robinson on the first two records, like at the end of (sic). It’s usually done to add some additional beef to the end of tracks without being jacked up in the mix and sounding distinctively different. When the end of the track sounds louder and fuller, it will probably be the tractor bass.”
Jim, as you’ve already mentioned, you were very critical of the production on All Hope Is Gone. Has having Greg Fidelman back for .5 made a difference?
Jim: “Greg Fidelman was the engineer from Subliminal Verses, and that record was the most together we’ve been as a band. Greg wants everybody to have a voice and an opinion. He knows the dynamic of the band and he’s also worked very closely with Paul on Subliminal Verses, so he knew what Paul would bring to the table.
"The only other producer who could do that was Ross Robinson [who recorded Slipknot and Iowa]. Ross was mentioned, but I don’t know if we would reach out to him - there are different relationships with that dynamic as well.”
Guitar Rig .5
Did you evolve your guitar rigs for .5?
Mick: “I use my Ibanez signature guitar models for everything. But with the amps, I blended my Rivera KR7 signature amp with an old Marshall JCM800.
"My Rivera is set with a huge bottom and a nice defined top, so when that was coupled with the barking midrange of the Marshall, it sounded fucking amazing. I also had a Maxon OD-820 pedal, which sounds magical with the Rivera. Jim, Greg and Jim’s tech would all be in the room and the look on their faces when that got used said ‘hell yes!’
"I also boosted the Marshall, which contrasted our last two records, where my gain came from just picking really hard so it’d be cleaner and sit nicer in the track. Now I’ve got the most gain and the most bottom end I’ve ever been able to put on a record, and I’m happy as hell.”
Jim: “For my main guitar and solos, I used the same number-one Fender Telecaster I’ve toured with for years. I used eight or nine guitars for third-guitar tracks.
"I didn’t use many pedals, apart from some Way Huge pedals and my Carbon Copy delay, which made it onto some stuff. The biggest piece of gear I found was an HBE Friedman head, which ended up being the clean sound. All the solos were done with that head.”
Did that include the ambient ‘indie’ guitar lead on the new ballad Goodbye?
Jim: “The Radiohead-y sounding stuff is Guitar Rig 5! Corey wrote Goodbye and I toyed around with it on my laptop in my hotel room, and the only thing I had to record with was Pro Tools 11.
"I found a nice ambient, airy patch, so I put on my Jonny Greenwood hat from Radiohead and went for it. Some moments on the record are my actual demo versions, because they captured a vibe that was hard to recreate. Goodbye was one of those moments.”
"You wouldn’t have expected me to state Blur and Radiohead as influences. But I get bored and I sit around and play along to songs that I like" - Jim Root
Mick: “We originally thought about using Goodbye as the album opener. Like in Vol.3, where we had some noise shit and then the vocals came in. Goodbye was originally like that; it was an intro that blew up into being more of a song.”
Given some of your earlier experimentation, could Radiohead be an unlikely influence?
Jim: “Radiohead and Slipknot may not be in the same genre, but they are influences in the way they approach guitar. Blur are another band I love; their new stuff as well as the old. A lot of my favourite guitarists are British rock ’n’ roll guys, from Jimmy Page up to Graham Coxon.
"As a writer, I’m interested in how guitar fits into pop music because pop music historically, and recently, isn’t very guitar-driven. So when you have Coxon in Blur, who can make guitar fit seamlessly into that style, to me that’s pretty amazing.”
Yet your playing styles are very technical...
Jim: “My technical style comes from when I first got into guitar and was listening to Metallica, Overkill, Exodus and Megadeth, and trying to nail Dave Mustaine’s riffs from Killing Is My Business... which is basically learning scales in a groovy way. But I never took the time to understand what I was playing or why I was playing it.
"You wouldn’t have expected me to state Blur and Radiohead as influences. But I get bored and I sit around and play along to songs that I like, not just working out the chords, but also what part of the neck the guitarist is playing them on.
"I was doing that today with Robert Plant’s Big Log. All that stuff helps expand your mind. It’s important not to stick to one facet. There are some ripping new players that can harmonise scales up and down the neck and all that shit, but there’s more to guitar than that.”
Mick: “My music is who I am; I play what I play. It’s always fun to branch out and do different stuff, but it’s usually an internal process. There are a few newer death metal bands who are pretty fucking good, who are more technical and aggressive than what we usually do. Bands like Gorod, from France, and Deeds Of Flesh, whose new record Portals To Canaan is bad as shit.”
Did you try out any different tunings?
Mick: “No, it’s the same as we’ve always done. The first record was drop B, some songs on Iowa were in drop A, such as Heretic and Skin Ticket. We still just go back and forth between drop B and drop A, and at no point did Jim and I have a different tuning on the same song. But experimenting with radical tunings is something I might want to try next time. It’s something we’ve never done before.”
Did either of you guys play the main basslines on the new record?
Jim: “I played bass on six, maybe seven tracks. I can’t even remember which; I’d have to sit down with the guy who played bass on the other tracks to find out.
"Some of the lines were taken from the demo versions that I recorded in my garage, because they were moody, and had a unique vibe that was too hard to recreate. Goodbye uses the full bassline that Corey recorded for his demo.”
Was it always your intention to play bass on the record?
Jim: “I was prepared to do it if it had to be done, but I didn’t want to do it. Both the band members and, according to management, our fans, wanted to see somebody in there.
"No one will ever replace Paul, and Paul will always be a part of what we’re doing. But for me, if we’re going to have a guy onstage - which I’m not sure if we will yet, but most likely we will - then it should be all or nothing.
"There was a speck of me that out of respect for Paul didn’t want somebody new to play everything. But at the same time, if we’re moving on in this way, why hold on to things? I also didn’t want to play bass because of the workload. I was already writing most of the songs, so that’s a lot of playing, arranging and layering just for guitar.”
Did you guys try anything unconventional on the new record, guitar-wise?
Jim: “If Rain Is What You Want has a Jimmy Page-style triad riff with fingerpicking. We’re labelled as a metal band, so for a guy in Slipknot to play fingerpicked triads, which is more rockabilly, that was definitely thinking outside of the box.”
Mick: “Death By Audio sent us some cool pedals, like the Soundwave Breakdown and the Fuzz War, which are shit tons of fun to play around. I recorded bits with them in Pro Tools for Craig to sample later.
"90 per cent of the time, you’d never even know it was a guitar. I don’t even know where Craig ended up using anything! We just created a soundbank, and had fun experimenting.”
Custer is incredibly intense with the “fuck me up” refrain. Do you think that’s your latest live anthem?
Mick: “I think Custer is going in our live set immediately. We’ve been mouthing ideas about what our setlist should be for our two nights at Knotfest [in California, end of October]. Obviously, we don’t want to play the same set twice, but I think Custer is on the list for both nights.”
Jim: “The riffs in Custer were written in a 15-minute jam with our drummer in the Sound Factory studios. The chorus and pre-choruses were cool, but for me, the verses weren’t thinking outside of the box. But you never know what a song’s going to do until everything comes together in a studio.”
Mick, you seem to keep a low profile away from Slipknot...
Mick: “Yeah, it’s just the way I am. I’m just me. I’m not big into attention. I don’t like all the extra stuff, I just love playing. I like writing and recording and playing live and talking to the guitar players. I remember being a 15-year-old kid and wanting to know all sorts of shit about guitars. Now the internet enables you to learn a lot more than I could when I was 15.
"I was just in my bedroom reading Guitar World and trying to figure stuff out. The internet has made being a learned musician fucking way easier, so I expect the next generation of guitarists to be fucking amazing. They’ve got all the collective knowledge of the planet right there at their fingertips when it comes to the guitar. I’m assuming we’ll see new bands who make Dream Theater seem technically blase!”
You’ve still got to be able to write songs...
Mick: “That’s the thing, you’ve got all the paints, now you’ve got to paint a picture. That’s my problem with most technical players, they don’t move me in any way, it’s just gymnastics.
"I’m all about learning the gymnastics - I have - and if you can execute it, you can do whatever you want, but you also have to be very conscious of writing a song that you don’t just want to play, but that other people want to hear.”
Back in black
Finally, are you all happy to be back together again? Are you moving on from recent turmoil, a new ‘chapter’, so to speak?
Mick: “It’s weird, we don’t play a show for a couple of years, but the moment we’re all back together, working on ideas in a studio, it’s like we’ve never had a day off. I don’t do other bands, so I’ve been so pent up for so long, just wanting to play guitar. People ask me how I still have fire, but when you get up on stage it’s an incredible feeling. I don’t ever want to quit.”
Jim: “I’m proud of the entire record we’ve managed to do. Clown has been listening to it religiously to devise visuals for the live show and he was saying that he thinks this is his favourite record that we’ve done.
"I think it is too, but I’ve got much more at stake. I’ve been a lot more involved with this record than anything I’ve ever done before, so it’s very personal to me. It’s been a lot of long, arduous hours in the studio but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. I’d gladly do it again.”
Slipknot will be joined by Korn and King 810 for the Prepare For Hell tour this month on the following dates:
14 Dublin 3Arena
16 Sheffield Motorpoint Arena
18 Glasgow SSE Hydro
19 Newcastle Metro Radio Arena
20 Manchester Arena
22 Liverpool Echo Arena
23 London Wembley SSE Arena
24 Cardiff Motorpoint Arena
26 Nottingham Capital FM Arena
27 Birmingham Barclaycard Arena
Tickets available from www.livenation.co.uk