When I showed up on the first morning of secondary school, all the new kids were quickly sorted into two social circles. If your gelled hair shimmered like an oil slick and the pervasive musk of Lynx followed you from the gates to the classroom, you were fast-tracked into a group that was referred to as 'townies'. If one of your eyes was obscured behind a lank fringe and/or you wore skate shoes resembling abandoned furniture, you were a 'grunger'. If any of this sounds familiar, you already know that grungers and townies loathed each other. These tribes probably took shape over months and were far more diffuse than I remember, but there were times when the differences between them were so entrenched it was as if they formed prior to the very first assembly of the very first term. Born rivalries. It was the millennial equivalent of mods versus rockers, only instead of scooters everyone had Myspace accounts.
Slipknot was the incarnate symbol of these differences, because they jarred with everything the townies deemed cool. Even if you didn't think people = shit, townies were quick to bring up the band if you did or said anything that failed to satisfy their social norms. Chain attached to your wallet? Slipknot twat. Pentagrams meticulously Tip-Ex'd on your backpack? Slipknot twat. Landed a pop-shuvit? Slipknot made you do it. So, even though I was more likely to read Sidewalk than Kerrang! when I was at school, hearing the opening chords of "Wait and Bleed" still makes those years flood back.
The other day I got the chance to get on the blower with Slipknot frontman, Corey Taylor, ahead of the band's headline slot at Download Festival this weekend. Realising I was speaking to the accidental architect of my adolescence, I figured I'd see if Corey also battled the comforts of a suburban upbringing by defending pop punk and avoiding eye contact.
"I grew up in a trailer park; we were just gnarly fucking kids." Perhaps not. But even so, Slipknot's music has resonated with English fans in a uniquely intense way. This year's appearance Download is actually the band's third at the festival, and four of their five studio albums have cracked the Top 5 in the UK charts. So, as the lead singer of a metal band from Iowa, why is there such a strong connection with Britain? "I hold England responsible for everything that has happened to us. It seems like America always takes its cues from the UK, because the UK cut through the bullshit to get right to what was poignant, what was relevant. The same thing happened with Metallica and Guns N' Roses. I can remember the excitement that was surrounding us when we came over and played the Astoria in '99. We were blown away. It almost scared the shit out of us."
Corey puts the UK's greater appreciation of his band down to a different "listening sensibility" that us Brits apparently have by the butt load. That's a vague thing to pin down though, so I thought I'd ask the man who keeps bloody booking Slipknot to account for their British popularity. Andy Copping, who has been the head booker at Download since it started in 2003, explains: "The UK embraced them very early. You'll find with a few international acts that their popularity seemed to grow in the UK more exponentially than it did elsewhere. Download festival, the magazines and their record label all contributed to making them bigger here than they are in their home country."
Basically, our early adoption of bands like Slipknot is thanks - at least in part - to an efficient music media machine. It may also have something to do with the UK's general tendency to not react to the kind of controversy courted by bands like Slipknot as intensely as the US does, especially when you compare our religious differences (over 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christian, whereas the UK is one of the world's least religious countries). Perhaps our history with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden has made for a more welcoming modern landscape when it comes to metal. However, Copping is quick to account for the fact that "Slipknot fans in general are unbelievably loyal. They are consumed by it."
Looking at the line up of Download 2015 (KISS, Judas Priest, Faith No More), it's clear that rock and metal fans do tend to stick with bands for longer than most, clinging on like noble limpits. I can't really account for the Gene Simmons generation, but I've always figured most Slipknot fans discovered the band when I did: during the rapid pivot between childhood and those tough teenage years, when you're looking for things to care feverishly about or not care about at all. Slipknot was one of those things. For many people, the band represents the first moment music governed their life, picked their mates and shaped their wardrobe. This loyalty has helped Slipknot to return in recent years after the loss of their late bassist and founding member Paul Gray, and the band might have crumbled without it.
"There was almost a sense of PTSD after we lost Paul," Corey says, "We all wondered into our own dark corners of our lives for a little bit. Going out and doing the subsequent tours helped, because it reminded us that we weren't the only ones hurting. The fans were just as crushed as we were." When Paul Gray died of an overdose in 2010, the band continued to tour following his death, but Corey says they all suffered from "a tendency to crawl inside and push people away."
"For some of us it was a little easier to come out of and for some of us it wasn't, and it's one of the reasons we ended up parting ways with Joey. If we hadn't made that decision we wouldn't have been able to make The Gray Chapter, It's just that simple."
The Gray Chapter went to Number 2 in the UK and Number 1 in America. For all the talk of Slipknot being alternative or just downright weird, their album sales are resoundingly mainstream, exemplified last week when Spotify eventually discovered that heavy metal is more popular than pop. According to Corey, their album single "Skeptic'"- a pounding salute to "crazy motherfucker" Gray - even outsold Taylor Swift on iTunes, albeit "for one day". But even when they're not sharing airspace with T-Swizzle, they're still packing arenas and headlining festivals - an accolade Corey reckons that's more to do with metal - and the myriad other 'heavy' genres attributed to them - as a whole.
"For us it's a legacy, not just a trend. We're carrying it on from the bands who passed it to us and hopefully there will be bands who pick it up from us. Metal, rock and punk is still the music on the street, it is still the noise you hear in the background."
Because of this, he hates the impermanence of a term like 'subculture' - which is frequently applied to fans of his music. "There's nothing 'sub' about it," he says. But then why doesn't it get the same exposure as other genres, even if it's beating them in the streets and the charts? "Because they can't use us to sell anything, or shill any shitty consumer product that's going to break down in two years. They can't use us, so they continually try to marginalise what we do. That's why the fans are with us and that's why they remain with us for years. They know the struggle we have to go through because they go through it too."
When you look back on the catalogue of cruel insults that may have been directed toward kids at your school just because they were outwardly miserable and wore jeans wider than the entire width of their bodies, you can probably recognise the struggle, too. For Corey, it's created something bigger. "It makes us a stronger family, there's a bond there that will never be broken. Trends are going to come and go, but metal will always be here. I challenge anyone to show me how that's going to be different in the future."
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Catch Slipknot at Download Festival this weekend.