Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan: “Most of us don’t get to murdering, but we think of it day in and day out”

(Image credit: Greg Waterman)

The rest of the mourners were still in the mortuary when Shawn Crahan went down to the basement of the funeral home, video camera in hand, to see what had become of his father’s body. He asked the attendant if he could open the crematorium, and after being granted permission, he videotaped himself scooping out his dad’s ashes with a $4.99 snow shovel. Crahan spread the dust across the stone floor and taped himself sifting through the remains. Some of the bones weren’t fully incinerated, so he picked up two rounded chunks and examined them.

“They were pieces of my dad’s skull, and on the other side was an imprint of his brain that was left after it boiled off,” Crahan, seated in his Johnston, Iowa, living room, recalls after screening the unsettling footage for Hammer. “I kept one of the skull pieces because I thought it would be good for my art. I don’t know why I put myself through that, but I know I had to, and it made me feel so good to be down there picking him up and blowing the dust off my hands. I was like, dude, this is fucking real.”

After gathering the ashes in a tin, which is now under his office desk, Crahan returned home and edited the tape into a haunting video. Then he submitted it to Roadrunner Records to be included as bonus footage on the band’s 2006 double DVD, Voliminal: Inside the Nine.

“I just wanted to make my dad live forever because I came from his nutsack, and he gave me so much,” Crahan says. “And I answered my confusion in the process. I watched my mom try to crawl into the coffin with him when she was saying goodbye to him. He was all pumped up with embalming fluid, and I just sat there, going, ‘Dad, in 30 minutes, I’m gonna free you of all this shit.’”

Not many people scoop the ashes of their loved ones out of an oven or use their bone fragments for art projects, and to some, such actions might seem perverse, macabre, even sociopathic. But Crahan insists that it’s not “weirdo shit. I’m not a sicko,” he says. “I just want to know. I got questions, and I gotta find answers. I mean, he’s dead. I’ve already downloaded that. I’m not bringing him back. But I gotta live on and, to me, that’s the most beautiful thing on the DVD because I got closure, and now it’s done.”

The rest of Voliminal isn’t nearly as morbid as the aforementioned clip, but it’s undoubtedly every bit as intense. The first part is a 90-minute long Crahan-edited documentary that captures the chaos and insanity of the three-year touring cycle that followed the release of Vol 3: The Subliminal Verses, Slipknot’s 2004 studio album. Unlike most band DVDs – which sandwich cleanly-shot group antics between sonically pristine concert performances – Voliminal is all jarring edits and distorted audio. The second disc offers confessional interviews with each of the band’s nine members, as well as more conventionally shot live footage and music videos from The Subliminal Verses.

(Image credit: Greg Waterman)

Assembling Voliminal was an intensely personal experience for Crahan, and in keeping with the intimate nature of the DVD, he has invited Hammer inside his home, nestled in a bucolic suburb about 30 minutes from Des Moines Airport, to get a taste of his daily reality. As we approach the front door, an angel-faced, long-haired blond boy wearing Thomas The Tank Engine pyjamas plays peek-a-boo through a glass door panel, then giggles and runs off. For a moment, we wonder if we’re in the right place. Then Crahan, wearing blue jeans and a black long-sleeve shirt, steps out to greet us.

“I don’t normally do anything like this,” he begins, seating us and pouring grape juice in a glass dotted with tiny white rabbits. “I won’t even let anyone in my house. I’m a private person.”

Walking through Crahan’s home, it’s clear that there are two sides to the man who formed Slipknot 13 long years ago: the angry, volatile percussionist who’s obsessed with pain and distrusting of humanity, and the family man who helps keep a tidy home and babysits the kids. The Grammy award Slipknot won in February for Best Metal Performance for Vol 3 track Before I Forget sits atop the centrepiece of Crahan’s living room – a baby grand piano his wife bought five years ago for his birthday. During breaks from the road, Crahan spends as much time as he can practising on it and hopes to incorporate what he has learned into Slipknot’s next album, All Hope Is Gone. The rest of the room is also pretty tastefully decorated. There’s a white couch, a coffee table rests on a black-and-white rug patterned with circles and ovals, a Philippe Starck three-legged chair, and three large egg-shaped white pillows on the floor. On the walls are several posters of elephants and a framed Paul Booth print of an elephant with blank human eyes and a pentagram at the tip of his trunk. It’s here that we begin our journey into the bizarre, multifaceted world of the Clown. 

What’s with all the elephants?

“My wife loves elephants and compares me to a big bull elephant.”

The Grammy looks classy on the piano. You’d almost think it was Burt Bacharach’s home or something.

“I’ve got a funny relationship with the Grammy. On the one hand, it doesn’t mean shit, and on the other, it means we’re in the club now. We can now vote against all these fucking shit bands that are out there. Anyway, it seems like it should go up there, and it hides a pretty good stain.” 

Do you know your neighbours?

“I don’t talk to any of them. I’m pretty infamous for opening my garage and standing in the middle of it and sneering.”

You don’t seem to be a people person.

“I don’t like people cos I don’t trust them. Not many people have learned through their own intelligence how to throw that lying, cheating, stealing shit out the door. Most of us don’t get to murdering, although we all think of it day in and day out because of our frustration. Basically, I got a lot of social problems. I don’t go out. I don’t do anything. My wife is infuriated with me about that.”

(Image credit: Greg Waterman)

Suddenly, Crahan’s mobile phone rings. It’s his manager, calling to discuss a problem with the packaging of Voliminal. It seems the marketing department at the band’s label wants to put text on the back of the CD box that will interfere with Crahan’s artwork. The conversation begins calmly enough, but a few minutes into the call, Crahan has taken the phone into the kitchen and is shouting. “I don’t care! Fix it!” he yells insistently, then hangs up and returns to the living room shaking his head. 

“I’m a stickler for exactly how things need to go,” he says. “And I’m not gonna gollygoop up the fucking art for a couple other potential things.”

Crahan is deeply invested in Voliminal for several reasons. In addition to its being his first proper film, working on the project has helped him cope with a particularly difficult period in his life. Since his father died in October 2005, he’s been in charge of caring for his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. On top of that, Crahan’s wife continues to suffer from Crohn’s disease, a life-threatening intestinal ailment.

Some of Voliminal: Inside the Nine is pretty painful to watch. Is that a reflection of the pain in your own personal life?

“Yeah, and it is real. I’m not trying to make it personal, but how else am I gonna do it? It hurts a lot. But it also helps.”

How so?

“I have been so consumed for years with my selfish dream to be a rock star. Well, now I’m taking care of my mom, man, and it’s way more real than getting on the bus. And my wife struggles every day with her disease, too. She’s had surgery. She had 25 per cent of her lower ileum [the final section of the small intestine] removed, and she continues to suffer. She almost dies once a year. So I’m ready at any time to get a phone call to have to tell my kids that my wife is dead. That’s the world we have to live in. And my kids are all aware of it. They hold on like a tightrope. So, yeah, Voliminal was pretty therapeutic.”

You started working on the project in 2004 with videographer Bobby ‘Tongs’ Arnenburger.

“The thought process was this: film 500 60-minute tapes, throw them in a box, get lots of separation from it, and edit into a movie three years later. It’s not your average DVD. It’s monotonous, it’s nauseating. It’s the things you see on the road. It’s about documenting  minutes in a day and asking, what are you doing with that time? Are you getting output or not? It’s not normal, and if you don’t like it, I don’t care.”

The way you edited the footage of the film is reminiscent of the films of Harmony Korine. 

“Thank you. He did Gummo, and that is one of the greatest movies ever made. When we showed up in Los Angeles in 1998 to make the first Slipknot record with Ross Robinson, he made us watch that movie before we could start recording. It changed my life. I was like, ‘I understand this. I love it. I’m going to be making a movie after the next record, and I want it to be something like Gummo.’ I love stuff that is harsh and sad and fucked up. But on the other hand, I can’t get through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because when Leatherface hangs that girl on the hook in the beginning, I almost black out. It’s so real, I can’t take it.”

So Clown’s not a slasher-flick fan?

“When Slipknot started, I was fascinated with videos of people that would cut their dicks off with wood carving tools – because they’re so sharp – and sew them back on right there. We used to show video footage at our concerts of R. Budd Dwyer (an American politician who shot himself live on air) killing himself. But what did me in was some tape of a Mexican drug lord who caught some guy stealing, nailed him down, and cut his head off. That was the last time I watched anything like that.”

Periodically, Crahan scratches his beard or rubs his eyes while he speaks. Frequently, he coughs. And sometimes he gets up and moves around the room. But no matter where he is, he positions himself so he can see out the living room porthole and constantly flashes glances across his property like a security guard looking at video monitors. At one point, a van pulls up, and Crahan snaps to attention like an attack dog. “What the fuck?! I know you’re not coming to my house,” he exclaims. Two minutes later, the vehicle pulls away. “Oh, good. He’s lost or some shit.”

Crahan has good reason to be paranoid. Maggots, the affectionate name that the band has for its most zealous fans, are a crazed and persistent bunch. Over the years, numerous fans have driven up to his house to gawk. Once, four guys travelled nearly 500 miles from Indiana just to meet their heroes. Flattered as he was, he chased them away pretty fast. “Fortunately, I don’t have stalkers because I’ve been happily married for 13 years, and I don’t cheat on my wife, so I don’t have all this fuckin’ drama a lot of people have.”

If the first floor of Crahan’s crib is pretty orderly and serene, the basement, where Slipknot wrote and rehearsed most of the songs for their third album, Iowa, is a vortex of bad vibes and strange artefacts. In a back corner, next to rows of old band t-shirts and a Siamese-twin pig foetus in a bottle of formaldehyde, is the goat head that appears on that CD’s cover. Some flesh has crumbled off the bone, and one horn is cracked and askew, but it’s still recognisable. “I like it better this way,” Crahan says, picking it up and simulating sex with the beast. 

Lying against an adjacent wall are several of Crahan’s other paintings, some decorated with images of large phalluses and sex acts that are illegal in some states. One depicts what looks like a woman with rabbit ears having intercourse with an abstract contraption. “Oh, that’s my wife finger-banging herself with her old lady face and a giant Vicodin,” explains Crahan so matter-of-factly. “It’s very impressionistic. All I’ve ever wanted to do, even more than rock’n’roll, is paint because I’m a pretty huge fan of Impressionism. Everything those guys did was for wine and bread. There was no money in it at all for them, and their shit is still being studied.”

(Image credit: Greg Waterman)

With a glint in his eye, Crahan picks up a bottle of giant worms he bought at a bait shop that he’s been studying avidly for the past month. “I started with 17, and now I’m down to 13 because they’re cannibals,” he says. “I sit there and watch them eat each other. The other night I got so mad because one was alive, and the other was trying to eat sideways through its head. I almost took him out and smashed him with a hammer, but then I was like, ‘No, this is what I’m doing. This is more important than putting the car seat in the car and going to get McDonald’s with my kids. This is fucking real.’” 

You seem well adjusted around your family, then you watch giant worms eat each other and paint images of graphic sex and death.

“What’s wrong with that? Sex and death are the two most important parts of life. It’s what everything else is about. I love sex, obviously, and I tried to kill myself so many years on stage. I’m so bent up and broke from the pain I had to get out for all the shit in the world that I hate. I’m not suicidal, but I have regrets, and this is all that makes sense in my life. I’d definitely be dead without it.”

 Would you say you’re a masochist?

“No, but I do like to inflict pain on myself. I like to get really drunk and smack myself in the face. I love the numb reality of it. I love the shell being detached from the fucking soul and the soul being a little confused. And I love it so much that I just don’t do it. I can’t. I don’t drink because I’m too confused and a little bit too honest.”

Did you ever buy into the stereotype of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll? 

“I still buy into it. I love that shit. That’s rock’n’roll, man. I wanna walk by and watch some pig screwing some other pig. If somebody wants to shoot up with a needle, I’ll watch. Some slob chick wants to go down on a crew member in front of me, yeah, man. You think I’m gonna deny it because of morality? Give me a break. I’m human. I’ll watch, and then I’ll see her in a year when she tells me she’s got hepatitis. Whatever, man. The world’s filthy, but I like filthy shit. If you want to drink a half bottle of Jäger and puke, I’m there with the camera, man. I’m there with the camera.”  

Published in Metal Hammer Presents: Slipknot