15 Years of 'Iowa': How Slipknot Purged Themselves to Create a Masterpiece of Suffering


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15 Years of 'Iowa': How Slipknot Purged Themselves to Create a Masterpiece of Suffering

As a relatively well-behaved youth from suburban England, I’m not sure why the lyric “I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound" spoke to me, but it did.

(Illustration above by Ella Strickland de Souza)

When I first heard Slipknot, the internet was little more than an Angelfire website and the terms and conditions held inside an AOL CD-ROM. Music videos weren't available to stream online, lyrics could only be found in liner notes, and – besides the few homes that had been blessed with MTV or a magazine subscription – it wasn't always easy to know what the musicians in the band were like away from their instruments. You just connected with songs that seemed to mirror something within yourself.


With their weird-ass masks, Slipknot dented culture with such force it caused the mainstream to gravitate towards them, rather than the reverse. They had the power to bear deep into the crevices of your soul and make your insides quake. For me, an awkward teenager from a small town whose mum still bought my clothes, a group of nameless men performing extreme metal in costumes tailored to look like the offspring of every fictional serial killer to date was just about the weirdest shit I'd ever seen. And, as someone who wasn't anything like the teens who doused themselves in Lynx or spent their weekends pashing to Scooter at under 18s club nights, these masked overlords were the pinnacle of what rebellion looked like – or at least my own adolescent conception of it.

Slipknot's second album, Iowa, is now a few years older than I was when I first heard it, having turned fifteen last month. As far as albums go, it was a runaway success: it debuted in the top ten in nine countries, its two lead singles were nominated for Grammys, and it birthed the infamous phrase, song and Camden market t-shirt slogan: "People = Shit". In the years since, it has been recognised by Metal Hammer – as well as a large swathe of angsty individuals – as "The Greatest Album of the 21st Century". As far as the band themselves are concerned, Iowa surpassed the astronomical expectations set by their self-titled debut.


Named after their home state, Iowa has the rare accolade of being different and shocking in a post-Marilyn Manson, post-Slipknot world where everything felt seen and heard before. With it, Slipknot altered the landscape of metal for the interminable future. But what exactly is it about that record that made people like me, a relatively well-behaved youth from suburban England, surrounded by other relatively well-behaved youths, identify with lyrics such as "I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound"? Or "I fill your mouth with dirt"?

Between the release of the band's debut and Iowa, I had left the comfort of a local, friendly school to be swallowed up by the cold reality of an enormous secondary. When I showed up for my first day, these new school children seemed different. They weren't kids of the primary school variety, but fully-fledged, weird-smelling teens who gelled their hair and effortlessly fell into the top tier of a preordained social hierarchy. Whereas kids like me, who liked skateboarding and cutting holes in the sleeves of our jumpers, were left to fester in the lower ranks. It was the peak era of townie vs grunger.

I figured it would be social suicide to admit I was a grunger, so I ignored the baggy jeaned, long-haired groups and hoped that my dismissal would make me popular by default. It did not. Instead, I blended into the background; I was a lonely teenager without a social tribe. During this time I'd stick a ripped CD of Iowa in my Discman, put my headphones in, and convince myself that my social isolation was down to the world's failure to engage with me, not the other way round. And for the most part, I was fine with it. This extreme and cathartic music that revelled in its own contentiousness was speaking directly to me, one teen in a million who felt out of step with everyone else. Sure, some of the lyrics were deprived and gross, but they were born out of an almost theatrical hatred and desperation that appealed to me, and on some level I could understand.


Have you ever wondered why Slipknot call their fans maggots? One early theory comes from the appearance of a crowd at a Slipknot show; when fans jostle for space, they look like maggots wiggling around. But another, more pertinent theory relates to those emotions imbued within Slipknot's discography. In an interview with Revolver Mag, Shawn (the clown-looking one) explained that the term maggots can be a metaphor for the fans that feed on the pain in their songs, hoping that they can one day transform and fly away from their troubles. It's this definition that encapsulates the deep adoration for Slipknot, and how many fans use their music as a coping mechanism. Plus, it's amazing how lyrics about spitting in the face of life can make you feel unstoppable if they're backed up by blast beats.

Like many seminal records before it, Iowa, offered a soundtrack to that uncomfortable, you-don't-understand-me-mum pubescent stage of life when things don't always feel terrific. Slipknot, in turn, responded with terror. Wearing their wounds on their boilersuit sleeves, they offered kids an alternative to internalising their problems. Instead, they offered empathy and release – albeit in the most aggressive manner possible. But when you're dealing with an onslaught of hormones and trying, probably for the first time, to navigate a social fabric that feels inherently against you, that aggression feels wholly necessary. It also feels authentic coming from Slipknot specifically – a band comprised of nine kids who almost definitely got the shit kicked out of them at school for being "weird", now armoured in their own weirdness. As an album, Iowa may be ageless, but age has everything to do with it.


"For us, it was really about being rabid, being wasted, and still being young enough to back it up," frontman Corey Taylor said. "Our whole goal was to go in and make this dense, destructive album. We had no idea how destructive it was going to be." Even the stories behind the recording of Iowa are enough to make your eyes pop in shock. At the very least, they prove that Slipknot were never a novelty; they were a really intense group of artists. In an interview with Metal Hammer earlier this year, Taylor revealed the lengths he went to to lay down the sprawling 15-minute title track: "The biggest memory for me was recording Iowa naked, cutting myself up with a broken candle." It's a weird, almost grotesque image, but one that kinda makes sense when you hear the album. A few years before he left the band, drummer Joey Jordison said watching Corey purge Iowa from his bleeding body was one of the scariest things he's ever seen. "I'd get the fuck out of there and listen from another room. When someone's in a zone like that, they don't wanna be interrupted."

Amidst all of this, most of the members were struggling with the trappings that can come with commercial success. In 2011, the band's dick-nosed percussionist, Chris Fehn, told Revolver: "We got a little bit of pocket change and we can afford certain drugs that we couldn't before. It got weird and I didn't think we were going to be able to hold it together." While Slipknot's fans are generally thought of as alienated and disenchanted, the band themselves were living like rock and roll royalty. In the same interview, Taylor paints a scene that my sordid teenage mind could have only imagined: "One night we were having 'Patio Furniture Olympics', throwing shit through the patio doors into the L.A. River. We threw chairs, all my dishes, we tried to get the bed over there at one point. It all culminated with a threesome in somebody's hotel room."


If Slipknot – with their masks and boiler suits and a guy whose instrument is essentially a bunch of glorified bins – sometimes seemed like a bit of a pastiche, then the stories behind Iowa prove otherwise. They were the band the Christian right warned you about; the band who were deemed offensive post 9/11; who both inspired and purged outrage and disgust. The success of their first album, and the self-destructive hedonism that followed, wrought a second release intense enough to stand up to something as tortuous as puberty. For their fans, Slipknot was the definitive sound of those turbulent years. From my memory, their influence was so powerful they even infected the minds of the clique that was supposed to hate them.

Shortly after Iowa's release, we went on a school trip. On the way to a museum, our minibus drove past a skatepark. No one was using it, but one of the cool kids still shouted, "Waheeyy skaters, Slipknot, slit your wrists!" Looking back, it feels good to know that the band was so brutal, so bizarre, that they became a by-word for anything that didn't sit right with this kid's view of the world. I remember feeling a sense of pride in the fact that they represented the "other". To some kids at school, they were the anti-everything.

What Slipknot mean to people is always going to vary, but if you were to ever conduct a survey I'm sure similar misanthropic themes would emerge: They pissed off parents; they riled up the dickheads at school; they're heavy AF and they wear masks and they're incredible live. These are indisputable. But above all else, Slipknot embody the brutal side of art. By purging the dark spectrum of human emotion and laying it down on tape, they captured the raw and chaotic essence of life that few artists have touched upon with such honesty.

In the years since Iowa, Slipknot have overcome addiction and death to cement themselves as one of the biggest bands in the world. When I listen to it now, I'm partly transported to those confusing times at school. I'm reminded about my refusal to be a social, fun guy who was into cool stuff because I was too scared that people might think I was an asocial, boring guy who was into lame stuff. Then I think of the kids who turned up on non-uniform days in People = Shit merch, who seemed to be impervious to the insults of their peers – thrived on them, even. But more so than that, I'm reminded that things change as you get older and, above all else, life has a habit of improving. And after all this, I still listen to Slipknot.

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