Slipknot: The Futility of Hope
Originally printed in Guitar World, October 2008.
As rivers rise and civilization falls, Slipknot guitarists Jim Root and
Mick Thomson find a patch of dry land and talk about their group's
apocalyptic new release, All Hope Is Gone.
Many Midwesterners refer to their homeland as “God’s Country,” but lately God has seemed intent on repossessing His property. This past June, tornadoes, thunderstorms and floods swept across America’s heartland, wreaking nonstop havoc on any shred of civilization unfortunate to lie in the path of destruction. Nowhere was the devastation more evident than in Iowa, where extreme flooding affected Sioux City and Cedar Rapids. In the center of it all, Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines (French for “the monks”) looked as if it had been sliced in two by the swelling Des Moines River, which threatened to spill over its banks the moment the clouds opened up once again…
Such is the scene as I make my appointed interview with Slipknot, the Iowa-based group that evangelical Christian ministers love to hate. Those ministers would probably argue that sinners like Slipknot brought the wrath of God upon this land, but as I arrive at the height of the flooding, all nine members of the band are dry, unscathed and enjoying a little relaxation after completing their fourth album, All Hope Is Gone, due out August 26. Slipknot have been on home turf since November, when they started work on the album, which was recorded at an actual farm—Matt Sepanic’s Sound Farm Studios— in rural Iowa. It’s hard to imagine Slipknot’s unique brand of aggressive, apocalyptic metal being spawned in such an idyllic environment, but it’s an appropriate anomaly for a band that never really conformed to normal expectations from the beginning.
All Hope Is Gone is full of aberrations and surprises, most notably the presence of copious amounts of bona fide shred guitar solos. Thrash metal songs like “Gematria,” “Vendetta” and the album’s magnum opus title track burn with swept arpeggios and killer displays of technique that Slipknot guitarists Jim Root and Mick Thomson always warned us about but rarely ever revealed, like the identities they hide behind their macabre masks. The band also displays a mellower side on the slow(er) burn of songs like “Gehenna” and the acoustic-guitar driven “Snuff,” which still manage to maintain the band’s intensity while taking the mayhem down a notch.
From beginning to end, All Hope Is Gone is an apocalyptic album and, in that respect, a suitable soundtrack for the inhumanity of our times. That thought first occurs to me the day before the interview while en route to Iowa. With the riff of the album’s first single, “Psychosocial,” ringing in my ears, I race through Detroit Metropolitan Airport with only 10 minutes to catch my connecting flight to Des Moines. When a Mike Ditka lookalike blocks my path, calling me an asshole as I squeeze past him up the escalator, I deflate his face like a sack of Stay Puft marshmallows, bloodying his nose. This act earns me a few hours in the Wayne County gray-bar hotel, but somehow it seems like the only logical way to behave in a world where common courtesy died along with Emily Post.
While Slipknot are unaffected by the destruction going on around them, they have sensed the presence of impending doom for quite some time. Reflecting on the album’s title, Thomson says, “If we’re looking at end times, let’s do the earth a favor and let the bombs fall. Wipe it all away and start fresh. We’re a failed experiment, and we really fucked up. There’s some great, beautiful shit in the world, but the ugliness overtakes the beauty. The best people on earth don’t deserve to be wiped away, but at some point it’s got to happen.”
If judgment day should come sooner than later, there’s probably no more appropriate way to go than blasting All Hope Is Gone from the stereo of a Dodge monster truck while waiting for the fallout to fry your face off. Then again, if the nine crazy minds behind Slipknot could manage to get along and remain creative for all these years, there may be hope for mankind yet.
GUITAR WORLD How tough is it to get the nine members of Slipknot together to make an album?
JIM ROOT We’re like three power trios— like Green Day, Rush and the Police all stuck together. And you know how well the Police got along. It’s pretty tough, especially when you’re in the state of mind that I’m in. I haven’t really had much of a break since 1999. Whether it’s insanity, obsession, work ethic or whatever you want to call it, I’m not the type of person to sit on the couch and watch TV. I get anxiety when I’m not doing anything, because I don’t have a regular nine-to-five job. Until I was 27 years old, I worked at jobs where I had to be up a six in the morning and work until five or six at night. I’m used to being on a regular schedule, even after 10 years of touring. Everybody has different mentalities. I can’t stay up until five or six in the morning and sleep until two or three in the afternoon. It’s not just a matter of trying to line everybody up to make this album; it’s also a matter of lining everybody’s schedules up, because there are a few guys who stay up until five or six in the morning and sleep until five at night.
MICK THOMSON This record was more chaotic in that we weren’t all in the same place at the same time. I’d wake up on any given day and not know whether I was going to be needed in the studio within two hours or not. Sometimes I’d leave the day before with the understanding that I’d be needed for a couple of days, but then something would change. That hadn’t happened before. In the past, the recording schedule was more set in stone; once we were done tracking drums, we were into a steady routine: I’d record rhythm tracks for one song and then at the end I might record third tracks.
This time around everything got added in different places. But in the end I still think it turned out well. It was more like painting on a canvas and adding parts as we went along, as opposed to going in the studio with a finished song and recording it. This time we started out with outlines of songs and every member came in and added their own piece to the canvas.
ROOT Joey [Jordison] went in first and recorded the drums without anybody playing along with him. We ran into some roadblocks with that approach. I was the first one to come in and lay down guitar tracks over what he had played. It’s cool in one way, but tempos get weird and you don’t get that push-and-pull that happens when the full band is playing, which is kind of what Slipknot is all about. A lot of that was lost, and I think that was [producer] Dave Fortman’s fault. Good or bad, that’s how this album ended up coming together.
GW Did anyone in the band take on a leadership role with this album?
ROOT We brought Dave in to produce the record, but I’d honestly have to say that he was really just a good engineer. He didn’t do what I’m used to with producers. He didn’t try to get a performance or go for a vibe like we would have done with Ross Robinson or Rick Rubin. With our previous albums, we did a lot of playing and replaying, trying to capture a moment that had something to it. On this album it was up to each individual, if they were into doing it. I felt like I was producing myself. Corey [Taylor, vocalist] was bitching about people not showing up or showing up late, and at one point he said that it was up to everyone to choose their own level of involvement: if you want to be on the record, you show up; if you don’t feel like being on the record, you can stay at home and smoke pot or do whatever the fuck it is that you do. I’d go out and stay at the studio for three or four days in a row, because I wanted to get my shit done so I could do other things.
GW Why did you record this album in Iowa?
ROOT We’re always away from home on tour or recording albums, so we decided to treat ourselves and do the record from home. It’s good to be home, but it’s also bad. People become comfortable and don’t want to leave their houses. In some ways, doing the record here in Iowa was like shooting ourselves in the foot. But it came together really well, and sonically, it sounds really decent. It is what it is—another guitar-oriented metal record.
GW How did you come to choose Sound Farm Studios to record the album?
ROOT It’s owned by good friend of ours, Matt Sepanic. Matt helped us out with demos and has worked in various studios around town. He bought a farmhouse and built a really nice studio on the land.
THOMSON I think it was land that was in Matt’s family and he inherited it. We looked at a few different studios. Fortman likes to work out of a certain studio in Louisiana, but we got the final word. It’s one thing to make a producer and an engineer travel somewhere and live in a hotel while they cut an album; it’s another thing to make nine guys and their crew do it.
ROOT When we made every one of our other albums we packed up all of our stuff and headed to Los Angeles.
THOMSON This time we didn’t want to be in L.A. for different reasons. Once we saw Matt’s studio, we realized it would work. I had no idea that his shit was that good. I just assumed that it would be another half-assed studio, but that was not the case. We still had to truck in a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of gear to get what we wanted, but I was impressed. In fact, we spent a hell of a lot more money making the last album [Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses)] at the Houdini mansion because it’s not a studio—we had to bring in everything and rent it.
GW It seems like, with each album, you two are getting more and more opportunities for guitar solos.
ROOT That’s true, though I’m not sure why that’s happened. For this album, there are so many solos because everything was demoed that way. There were guitar solos on the first Slipknot record too, except Ross Robinson edited them out.
But this album was not thought through very well. Corey and I have been busy with our band Stone Sour, and I didn’t have anything written. We just had to throw everything together and write these songs in a hurry. In that respect, All Hope Is Gone is a bit different from our previous records.
GW Many of the solos showcase some very impressive, technical guitar playing.
THOMSON Right out of the fucking gates, my lead on “All Hope Is Gone” is six-string swept arpeggios played real fast. I’ve been doing that shit forever, and finally I get to play it. The band has been together for 13 years and it’s been almost 10 years since our first album came out, so I’ve been waiting a long time to do that. I lost all kinds of crazy guitar parts on our first two albums because, back then, technical guitar was “bad.” Too many guys with poofy hair, stretch pants and pink guitars who could play like motherfuckers gave it a bad name, especially to people who weren’t guitar players. Try convincing your drummer that you still have balls and are a man, even though you spent years in your bedroom playing super technical guitar.
GW You share most of the solo work. Is there any way for listeners to determine who is playing what?
THOMSON Typically I play the first half of the solos.
ROOT But it’s kind of hard to say. When we were rehearsing the songs before going in the studio I was playing leads over everything. We came to the conclusion that Mick and I would go 50/50 on everything. In my head I was thinking that Mick would start the solos and I’d end them, but that were seven minutes long got chopped to four or five minutes, and some of the solos got edited out. But I still think things are split pretty evenly throughout the record.
I didn’t do anything spectacular with my leads, like experimenting with different guitar sounds or bringing in a bunch of different amps. I used the same amps that I used to record the rhythm tracks. I had a Maxon TS808 pedal that I threw in front of the amp and used that tone for all of my guitar solos. That’s what I’m going to use live. I’m an organic realist—I like the records to sound as close to what they’ll sound like live. The setup that I’m using live now is the setup I used in the studio. This is the first time that I’ve done that. Usually in the studio I’m playing some type of Gibson guitar and a combination of different amps. On this album it was an Orange Rockerverb 100, and I blended that with a Diezel Herbert using a Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro box. I used an Orange Rockerverb combo for some clean tones here and there. It was a basic, simple setup. Of the 140 guitars that I own, I brought about 20 guitars with me to Iowa. Once we got the amps set up, I went through every guitar I own to figure out which were the best. I ended up using my white and black Fender Jim Root Telecaster prototypes on the whole album.
GW What’s the story behind your signature guitar?
ROOT The design is based on the Fender Custom Shop Flathead Tele. Normally I’m not a Tele guy, but Alex [Perez] at the Custom Shop insisted on sending me a Flathead Tele to see what I thought of it. I played that guitar on tour with Stone Sour in 2002 and got really comfortable with it. The Flathead has an alder body and a neck with a 12-degree fretboard radius and medium jumbo
frets. At the time it had only one EMG-81 at the bridge. I sent it back to Alex and told him that I needed a neck pickup for clean tones and leads. The neck also had a rather extreme V profile, so I asked him to shave it down to make it more of a C shape. I’m a big fan of Eighties Charvel guitars with wide fretboards and jumbo frets. This is basically a crossbreed of a Flathead Tele and a USA Charvel. The body is mahogany, which is heavier but it’s more of a tonewood. Tele purists will probably cringe because it doesn’t have that planky twang. I didn’t put a tone knob on there for the sake of not routing out the body excessively. It has an EMG-81 in the bridge and EMG-60 in the neck, which has a wonderful, bubbly clean tone. To me the 85 sounds a little more abrasive. I mainly use neck pickup when I’m playing a solo, and the 60 sounds almost like a single-coil pickup.
GW What tuning do you use?
ROOT I tune down to C#, and the lowest string is dropped to B. My strings are .011, .015, .020 plain, .036, .042 and .056. If I use standard A=440 tuning I’ll switch to .010s, but any lower then that and you’ve got to bump the gauges up a bit. A lot of bands use a wound third string and a .068-gauge low string, which is great when you’re just playing rhythm, but you need a little bit of slink for soloing.
GW Mick, what guitars did you use to record this album?
THOMSON My main guitars are my Ibanez MTM1 signature models with mahogany through-necks, mahogany bodies, ebony fingerboards, fixed bridges and a pair of active Seymour Duncan Blackout pickups. No two of my guitars sound the same. Every piece of wood sounds different, which is how I can justify owning as many guitars as I have. However, I love that basic formula, and those guitars provide the sound that I love when I’m drop tuned to A or B or even tuned up to E.
I recently had Ibanez do an artist shop version of the very first guitar I ever owned, which was a Hohner Telecaster copy that I got when I was maybe 10 and sold when I was 12 for $40 to some fucker who painted it and smashed it in the street. One night when I was browsing eBay while drunk, I found a guitar exactly like my first one and bought it. I would have given the guy I originally sold my guitar to a grand to get it back if he hadn’t painted it Day-Glo orange and destroyed it.
GW You also worked with Rivera to develop your KR7 signature amp head.
THOMSON My Rivera KR7 signature head has been used to make a few records. Joe Barresi used his on several records, like Tool’s 10,000 Days. The guys in Life of Agony have used it. I don’t want people to look at it like “the Slipknot amp.” It’s a Rivera amp that Paul Rivera and I spent a lot of time working on in the lab. He had it hooked up to a frequency analyzer so we could see what we were hearing, and I brought my guitar with my pickups and my string gauges so I had a familiar reference. It’s best to let your ears be your guide. When I was selecting speakers for my Rivera amp, I did a blind test. Usually I prefer Celestion G12T-75 speakers, which are amazing. I love the dark character of them, and they have warm, pronounced mids with bottom end that’s tight but not stiff. The top end is smooth and very present but not shrill. To me it’s the perfect speaker, but it can’t handle what my head can give it. Those speakers weren’t designed for amplifying guitars that are tuned down to B with that much gain. We tried some different 100-watt Celestion speakers, and in the end there was a clear winner: the G12K-100.
GW The song “Snuff” has acoustic guitars on it, but it’s still heavy.
THOMSON We’ve had fans bitch because we had acoustic guitars on our last record. So what? It’s just a piece of music. There is no agenda. Fans can get very narrow-minded and divide everything up into small pieces. It’s like American politics—divide and conquer, split everyone into two separate parties and let them fight. How about being an independent thinker? But all these dumb fuckers fall for it.
We have lots of songs that we’ve recorded but never released because they don’t necessarily fit our style. Ultimately, all of our music is for us; we don’t record things just because we think people will buy it. Even members of the band who aren’t guitarists have acoustic guitars that they use to write songs. Show me the heaviest band in the world, and if they have two guitarists there will be at least two acoustic guitars in the band if not more. It’s what you do with it.
GW Jim, how has playing with Stone Sour affected what you do with Slipknot?
ROOT It’s kind of weird. To me “Snuff” sounds like a Stone Sour song. If we’re not going to draw a line between what the two bands are, then why do we need the two bands? Right now they’re two different animals, but the more they start to overlap, the more difficult it becomes to know what will hold. “Snuff” was done almost exactly the same way that Stone Sour’s “Through Glass” [from Come What(ever) May, 2006] was done. Corey had an acoustic guitar idea with a great vocal line and amazing lyrics. He recorded the basic tracks with him playing acoustic guitar and singing along with it. Then Joey went in and played drums on it. Then I got to go in, and it was like a playground. I retracked the acoustic guitars with this Martin that I have. I added and layered all these parts on the song. The more we do stuff like that, the more I wonder what’s the difference between Slipknot and Stone Sour. I guess we’ll see what happens.
GW Every time Slipknot finishes an album, rumors start spreading that it may be the band’s last. It seems to me that the tension between the different members actually inspires this band.
ROOT I agree, and as a result I think that the next Slipknot album needs to be made differently. I don’t want to make another album the way we made this one; I just don’t think it’s a good way to make a record. It seems real disassociated, and it doesn’t feel like we’re a band. I might as well have stayed at my house in Florida, and we could have FTP’d files back and forth.
I’m old school—I like everything to be organic and cohesive. I like standing in a room with really loud amplifiers and drums and bouncing ideas off of everybody, getting mad at each other and throwing shit. That’s where a lot of the emotion comes from. You can really hear that on our first two records. We skipped over that stuff with this process and took things to an all-time extreme. For better or for worse, this album is what it is. It’s a testament to where we’re at right now.