For most people, being fifty means a few things, chief among them being burned out, washed up, and looking towards retirement. Shawn Crahan is not “most people.” The 50-year-old Slipknot founder—who topped the Billboard 200 chart for the third time this summer—refuses to stop creating art at a relentless pace. “I’ve got a warehouse studio that has more work than anybody can handle at the moment” he tells me. He’s just finished touring for the year, and now, all he wants to talk about is what he’s going to make next.
Crahan is the same convention-defying legend he was 24 years ago, when he started the band. Behind the dark and mysterious character he plays onstage, he’s genuinely warm. He’s incredibly focused on his craft, still humble, and still a little naive (self-described). Besides music, he makes photographs, movies, and a little bit of everything else. “Every day, I wake up, I walk outside and look around and just go ‘what the fuck is really going on?’” he says. His voice crackles through the phone, gravelly from 24 years of yelling over pyrotechnics, ten foot tall drums, and tens of thousands of fans.
If loud, angry music that scared your parents was the salve for your anxiety filled teenage years, you might know Crahan better as Clown, Slipknot’s percussionist. At a time when bands like Bad Brains, Slayer, and countless others unleashed their energy and fury at the fucked up world around them, Slipknot was the most energetic and furious of them all. (I still remember the first time I listened to Iowa as barely even a teenager and feeling like I had either just jumped out of a plane, or was being dragged behind a car—maybe a little bit of both.)
Crahan has been the band’s driving creative force from the very beginning, way back in 1995. Everything that is recognizably Slipknot—masks straight out of a nightmare, the Jason Vorhees-adjacent jumpsuits, the demonic album covers—that’s all Crahan.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the concerns of hand-wringing parents, Slipknot has enjoyed countless world tours, millions of albums sold, and six whole studio albums.
Crahan and Slipknot were the godfathers of early-aughts metal, continually defying expectations. They were taking risks like mixing DJ scratching and fast, heavy, distorted metal when other bands were more interested in playing it safe and by the numbers. Musical decisions Slipknot made paved the way for not just modern metal music, but for an entire industry of musicians willing to go against the grain. Even modern rap music is not immune to the influences of 2000’s metal. Hell, Lil Uzi Vert wore cyber-goth pants to this year’s Grammys, and Rihanna once said Slipknot was her favorite band.
But Crahan is humble about Slipknot’s legacy. “I don’t really entertain the Internet that much,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Do you think this project here is inspired by my band?’ and people will be like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It still blows me away every time!” He laughs.
Today, Slipknot are just as relevant as ever—their latest album, We Are Not Your Kind, debuted at Number One in August, and the band’s massively successful shows still draw crowds 20,000 strong. To have a career as long and fruitful as Crahan’s is no small feat, so GQ sat down with him to talk about his artistic process, inspirations, and what he wants for his future.
GQ: Before I ask you anything, I wanted to tell you that a shirt I bought with the Iowa album cover art on it was actually the first piece of clothing I had to hide from my parents.
Shawn Crahan: I was ridiculed for that cover. In the Iowa album case, I had put a mirror inside. So when parents or whoever opened it, they would see themselves first. Kind of like a “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” thing. If you’re a good parent, you’re going to take the CD from your child, open it, and see a picture of yourself. I wanted people to reflect on themselves and think about how they were also a kid once, going through these same issues of navigating their own social scenes, gaining cultural awareness, and figuring out who they were.
That album definitely helped me navigate some tumultuous years. And of course your work has significantly influenced a lot of artists: how does it feel to look at artists today who’ve clearly grown up listening to Slipknot?
It’s always an honor, I’m blessed to see it. I try to stay off the internet because I like to focus on myself and creating my own art, though sometimes I’ll see something that I can tell I influenced, and it blows my mind every time. It reminds me of when I was young and trying to create stuff.
I bet that’s so surreal, being the artist who inspires other artists.
Sometimes I don’t even like to admit that I’m “an artist,” because then maybe I become a cliché, and then my hunger for it leaves. It’s taken me 20 years to convince people of what the word “art” truly means. I use the word very loosely, since to me it represents everything.
Art is everything: what does that mean?
I tell people that I have “artistic schizophrenia.” I used to ask my mom all the time what was wrong with me. She told me that I was a renaissance man, and that I was gonna do a little bit of everything. I do three things religiously every day: I either work with music, work with photographs, or with film. And then on top of all of that I draw, I paint, I collage, I write, I direct, I produce. I harness this core of myself that I expand out to all of that, so it’s all consistent. For example, if somebody wanted me to perform in their video, I would bring them my core. If they wanted me to write a poem for a zine, I would bring that same thing and it would feel like my art.
I’ve really honed in on the art of living. Every morning I wake up, I walk outside, I look around and go: what the fuck is really going on? That’s my inspiration every day. I’m recognizing that we’re constantly living and working in other people’s art, even stuff like street curbs. That’s decades of learning and creating just to make that. My whole thing is to teach myself to appreciate anything and everything around me, and to recognize the artistic ability behind those creations. It makes my life so much more fun.
I think that’s a really healthy outlook. Instead of trying to take things for yourself, you’re appreciating their beauty and letting them inspire you. It’s sort of a collective vision of how everything can contribute towards the one thing that you’re trying to make.
I was having this conversation with an employee of mine the other day. They were having this identity crisis about their job, and their title, and what they do. For me it’s similar in the production as it is in the art; everybody has different titles and jobs, but every single person is as important to the show as the next. Everybody and everything is valuable to the canvas. I work with a ton of people to make these shows, and then 20,000 people show up to see the show, and they give me all the credit. That’s not right! There’s all these wonderful people with these amazing imaginations and creativity who make this a reality. I try to live in a world where everybody has the opportunity to be beneficial and contribute positively.
Is that attitude a recent development in your artistic practice? You’ve been an artist for so long, so I’m curious about how you maintain that creative drive and positivity.
I grew up kind of living in my own imagination. My mom recognized that and fostered that from an early age. She told me that I was going to be one of two things: a teacher or a gardener. My mom was a master gardener, and when I asked her, “Why a gardener?” she told me that I’d learn how to harness life, and make life. I’ve always felt that I could do that, and that I’m able to harness this connection to people and things around me. I’ve always talked about it kind of as a dream. You know, the guys around me all said that our dream was to get Slipknot signed, and get a record deal, and I was always like, “Wait, what does that mean?”
You just wanted to make art, right?
[Laughing] Yeah, exactly, and they were all like, “Yeah a record deal dumbass!” I was like “Oh yeah, I guess we need one of those.” I’ve just always been like this my whole life—a little naive and curious. I’m only where I am now though because of one of my best friends, Paul Gray [former bass player for Slipknot] who passed away. He was the one who saw what I am. He was the one who recognized all of these things that I was doing. I remember so vividly him telling me, “Your art and music, we can get away from all the things that are just brainwashed to be the same.” He was the one who harnessed my ability and pushed me to get better as an artist.
I want to ask you about this photobook you released, Apocalyptic Nightmare Journey. It’s made up of all hand-manipulated Polaroids. Something I really appreciate about your art is how physical it is, whether it’s the giant custom-built drums or you playing with the caustic chemicals inside Polaroid packs. Your art feels more often about that process, and your presence and involvement with these materials.
It is 100 percent like that. When people talk to me about my Polaroid book, I usually talk about it like this: opening up those Polaroids is exposing me to caustic and cancerous chemicals. So, while I’m manipulating my art, my God, my sex, my love, my drug, my euphoria, my whole purpose of living, I’m fighting the possibility of severely injuring myself. Everything that I do is very physical and upfront. Sometimes I’ll go to create—like, I’ll paint—and I’ll put so much into it and I’ll get choked up, and just start crying.
That’s very humanist though.
I’ve always joked that if I had one of those one-in-a-million voices, I don’t know if I’d ever be able to sing like that, because the songs I write take such an emotional toll on me sometimes. They’re so personal to me that sometimes I just lose it. I could never be someone like Britney Spears or Prince, these pop legends that are so open about their struggles. I like to do a lot of my art in hiding, and keep my process a secret from the world.
So if you keep your process to yourself, do you find that you end up doing a lot of the work, too?
I gave up on using makeup artists, hair stylists, fashion stylists. For my shoots, I’ll go to a thrift store and buy all the old, fancy, colorful shit. I’ll do the makeup myself, and then I’ll say, “Let’s go, let’s make art, let’s get real.” Otherwise I’d have to deal with too many other people making art within the curves, and I don’t live within the curves.
At a certain point there’s just too many cooks in the kitchen.
Absolutely. I would shoot all day long if I could. The world doesn’t even know that I’m a professional photographer. They just know me as Clown. Before this album cycle, I asked my wife, “I have to ask you something, and I need a straight answer from you on this—am I going to be best-known in this world for being the Clown in Slipknot.” She looked at me and said, “Yes, get over it.” And now, that’s where I am! I had a totally different dream before Slipknot, you know. I was going to move to New York, become a painter, sleep on people’s floors, go to gallery openings, and all that. But here I am!
Your career has spanned decades at this point. When you look back on it, do you try to resist the urge to self-correct your past?
I’ll tell you this: I love everything I’ve done, I love how my life has turned out, I could never imagine that I’d sit where I sit today. I’d never ever go back and do things differently. I’m blessed to have had this be my life, and it’s just getting better each day. That’s it though. Once I turn something in, I’m done with it. I just let it go, and move on to the next thing. I’m kind of known to constantly be working on something. When I need to make an album cover, I’ve already been working on it for two years. I’m working on my art every freakin day. It’s always in progress.
What is that next thing, then?
Lately I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself that exact question.
I’d love to make more books, have some gallery shows, and stuff like that. I love making our music, but now that the album’s out and it went Number One, I need to take some time for myself and go do some other shit. Above all else, I really want to push myself to make some fascinating art this year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ