Slipknot’s Iowa: inside the most brutal Number 1 album of the 21st century

(Image credit: Press)

"There’s something almost viscous about it. It’s like week-old ham jelly,” Slipknot vocalist Corey Taylor drawls, a sadistic grin etched across his face. “It permeates. It’s like if you spend too much time in a meat-packing plant, you come away smelling of it.”

Twenty years after Iowa was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, it’s a stain you can’t wash off. When Slipknot started work on the follow-up to their game-changing, self-titled debut, no one could have expected the gross and corrosive masterpiece that would emerge from the other end. Written by the band during their darkest hour, Iowa was stitched together with hate and bile, a declaration of war against themselves, the music industry and the world.

“When bands like Slipknot break, everyone expects they’re going to go in and take it to the next level,” says Monte Conner, the former Roadrunner Records A&R executive who signed the band in 1998. “Go a little more commercial, make a record that’s a little more mainstream. Slipknot did not do that. They went even heavier. They were not concerned about getting bigger, about writing radio songs.”

“We set out to shit all over the expectations of everyone who was looking to guess where we were going,” adds Corey. Today the singer is speaking to us over Zoom, croaky-voiced and fresh from the road where he’s been playing socially distanced US shows in support of his 2020 solo album, CMFT. “That put us in that upper echelon of bands putting out extremely heavy music. Nobody was really doing that in our genre, whatever genre that was.”

Iowa was the sound of a band steadfastly refusing to play the game, a dense, malignant and crushingly heavy ‘fuck you’ to an industry they felt was trying to control their vision. Drawing from death metal and bruised and bloodied hardcore, this time around there were no anthemic, radio-ready Wait And Bleeds. No grab-your-mate-in-a-head-lock unifications like Spit It Out. Instead, Iowa started with cries of grief from DJ Sid Wilson, who had just learned of his grandfather’s passing, on unnerving opener (515). It ended with Corey Taylor screaming in pain, as he cut himself with glass, naked in the vocal booth on the album’s demented, horror-soundtrack eponymous closer.

“It was a backlash for our dream,” recalls percussionist Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan, speaking down the phone en route to Palm Springs where he’s taking a weekend away from recording Slipknot’s next album to spend time with his wife and “90-pound baby pit bull”, Dale. “We spent 18 months on that first cycle doing all these suggestions of what people wanted and feeling a little... puppetish. We’re Slipknot. We conjure this dream, and the dream was based around playing live with our culture. It had nothing to do with videos or making albums, interviews, agents, managers... it was all performance.

“By the time we got to the second album, people needed to be curbed and understand their place and that their opinion didn’t matter as much as they thought it did. Just because we were the first platinum band on Roadrunner doesn’t give everyone the ability to start advising. When we were home to take a breath, it was clear that [the second album] was gonna be disturbing and force fed to the world.”

Yet going into the process, they had found themselves at their lowest ebb. Relations in the band had splintered and started to fester as they struggled with the almost overnight transition from working dead-end jobs in their hometown of Des Moines, to becoming the most famous metal band on the planet. Combined with burgeoning addictions, separation from family and fast unravelling mental health, the band were a pressure cooker, ripe for combustion.

“When we did Iowa, we hated each other,” Shawn told Metal Hammer in 2020. “We hated the world. The world hated us.”


Slipknot in 2001: The Nine on the edge.  (Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

In November 2000, the band had just wrapped up their first worldwide tour. Right then, what they needed was a break, a moment to catch their breath and process the last 12 months. Instead, work on Iowa began immediately, with drummer Joey Jordison and bassist Paul Gray heading straight to Paul’s brother’s house to start writing new music.

Two months later, when recording sessions began at LA’s Sound City on January 17, 2001, with producer Ross Robinson, there was a different atmosphere to the wolf-pack, brotherhood vibe the band had cultivated on album number one. “We were just all at odds with each other,” says Corey. “I don’t know if it was jealousy or if it was just insecurity; ‘Am I pulling my weight? Is this person getting more attention than me?’ It was just dark, and it really spit in the face of everything the band tried to accomplish on the first album.”

The sessions, which lasted two and a half months, were tumultuous from the start. The band were staying at Oakwood, a cluster of serviced apartments a short drive from the insanity of Hollywood. Whereas the band had self-imposed a rule of straight edge sobriety while making the first album, for Iowa, that went out the window.

“There was a big change with alcohol, being near Hollywood, the parties, and new management, which was funding anything that they wanted at the time as far as partying and drinking and going to clubs,” says Ross Robinson, recalling the struggle to maintain control over the increasingly fractured sessions. “People were partying, people weren’t talking, and I was pretty much getting frustrated with, ‘It’s not the same!’... ‘We need to bring this together!’”

“There were days where I would wake up in someone else’s house and I had no idea how I got there or how long I’d been there,” adds Corey, who was drinking heavily and struggling with his voice as a result. “It was intense. The issues I was going through on Iowa were very selfish, very self- loathing, very self-isolating. I wasn’t mature enough to deal with a lot of things that the band was going through, and I had issues with my contributions to the band... I felt like I was letting people down.”

Left to their own devices, things quickly spiralled out of control. “We had no one looking out for us,” continues Corey. “Our [then] management basically just fed us to the wolves. That was one of the reasons we parted ways with them later on, because they didn’t have our best interests at heart. As long as they got their percentage, they didn’t care. That [resulted in] us thrown on tour after tour, regardless of addictions, regardless of any injuries, regardless of all of these things going on.”

When Monte Conner visited the band early on during the recording sessions, he admits the relationship felt “strained”, but insists the label weren’t pressuring the band to deliver the next Wait And Bleed. “I mean yes, we would have liked [a single] and we did tell them when they turned in the record, ‘Wow, this is heavy’,” he says. “We knew we had challenges ahead of us, but we never pressured the band to make a commercial record. We were ready, willing and able to take the album on its own terms and deal with whatever they gave us.”

For Ross Robinson, the sessions had become a battle of mental wits versus agony. Around three weeks into the sessions, he had broken his back in a brutal motocross accident that had left him screaming in pain, a sound that can be heard in the drum tracks on the album. “I did this, I think it was a 75- or 85-foot jump, and the back wheel just came over the back of my head and I went headfirst into the ground,” he says. “It felt like my body bent in half, hyper-extending the wrong way.”

Nevertheless, Ross doped up on painkillers and reported for work a day later. “I showed up in extreme pain, on time, in time, and said, ‘Let’s get it the fuck on’,” he says.“And they turned into Slipknot 1 again as far as showing up. Because if I was doing it, they had nooo excuse. I remember that record every day. It lives in my body as annoying pain.”

When the recording sessions ended in early April, Ross “curled up in a ball and cried”. “Paul and Joey came over to my house, and we just finished recording, we were done the next day,” he says, the emotion of the memory palpable. “A picture was taken, god, I wish I had that picture, and the three of us are just... just holding each other and basically sobbing. Our tears were flying out of our bodies, and we held each other for like 10 minutes. Such a crazy, crazy, pivotal moment.”

Due to delays with the mixing, Iowa’s release date was delayed, but the band’s European jaunt, aptly titled Kill The Industry, kicked off in May 2001 regardless. It would be another three months until Iowa hit the shelves and, by the time it did, the band were already burned out.

“The recording process was such a gnarly experience for us, we really wanted a month to get our heads together and we didn’t get that,” says Corey. “They threw us right into the mouth of the monster. Had we had that time to figure it out, we could physically have been a little better, but by the time we got ready, we were all so ensconced in our own dependencies and issues that there was no way we were going to be able to get our heads right. A lot of the fun stuff that we used to do together [on the road], we stopped doing. None of us hung out, unless we were drinking, and then there was always a danger that we were going to get into a fight...”

As the band stormed across Europe, tempers flared regularly. “I can remember getting into a fight with Sid and to this day it bums me out,” sighs Corey. “Just lashing out at him because of my own insecurities and because I was drunk. I think that really put a crack in our relationship for a long time.”

“It was the temperature,” adds Shawn darkly, recalling the many times he came to blows with his bandmates. “I’m usually the bad guy. They all come for the Clown, so I have to protect myself. It was just violent. Walking down the hall, waiting for the show. Violent. Everything about it.”

For the Iowa cycle, the band’s masks and coveralls were given a grotesque makeover. “The masks reflect us pretty well on that cycle,” says Shawn. “They were nasty business because we were nasty business. The coveralls were, I don’t know, they were like 25-40 pounds, overdone, hot as hell, no chance of survival. We wanted to be more uncomfortable.”

Offstage, just as much as onstage, mayhem ensued. All those crazy, gross stories, of faeces, injuries and dead birds that you’ve heard over the years, and which have fed the Slipknot legend – most of them came from the Iowa tour. “I remember girls used to bring hearts, cow hearts, and they’d take a bite out of it and slap me in the face,” says Shawn, describing the culture surrounding the band and their fans at the time as a kind of “psychosis”. “We took how it was and as we were taking it, we also encouraged it.”

When the band hit Birmingham on the Iowa tour’s 2002 leg, as they ripped into the serrated opening riff of Surfacing, the air was suddenly filled with flying red seat covers as the fans started tearing the venue apart. “We thought they were frisbees!” laughs Corey. “I remember looking at Clown, like, ‘Are you seeing this shit? What is happening?’ It was the biggest pit I’d ever seen, up until that point. It looked like a whirlpool in the ocean, and we were all getting sucked into it. It was the one show where I remember Sid being like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go out there in the audience tonight.’ That’s some serious shit.”

The band’s Disasterpieces DVD, filmed four days prior at the now-defunct London Arena, captured the chaos of the live show. As the band made their way to the stage, Joey vomited on the floor, only for Shawn to smear it promptly on his coveralls. A few moments later, Sid pissed on the drum kit. Injuries were frequent and barely patched up before the band tore out onstage again, sometimes still bleeding or with suspected broken bones.

At another gig, Shawn remembers a fan giving birth in the bathroom, while during a signing in Portugal, a fan presented him with a human thigh bone, etched with the words ‘People = Shit’, that he suspected had come from a grave. “I didn’t know what to do with it, so we gave it a funeral,” he says. “Morally and spiritually, I felt horrible, and I had to do something for that human being.”

Slipknot live at the Reading Festival in 2002

(Image credit: rune hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Shawn, who had struggled with separation from his wife and three young children during the band’s first tour, was dealing with difficult emotional issues back at home. His wife, Chantel, had recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and as the tour continued, he found himself alone in hotel rooms, spiralling deeper into depression.

“It was a very dark time in our family’s life,” he says heavily. The pain my wife went through during that time. And the kids, what they had to go through: one parent ill, one parent on the road. Very tough life situations.”

Shawn says that the death of his daughter, Gabrielle, in 2019, has given him a new, difficult perspective on the Iowa days. “Life’s fucking short,” he says brutally. “You can do the math and look at my history to know what I’m talking about. I care about none of this as much as I care about family. And that’s hard to say because it should have been that way always. You get confused and I don’t have any excuses other than I feel like I’ve failed and I can’t get any of it back. That’s a tough pill to swallow for art.”

Iowa was finally released on August 28, 2001, going straight into the UK charts at No.1 – still the heaviest, and undoubtedly the grimmest, album to do so. Back in Des Moines, the band regrouped and prepared to head out on the road again, this time on the Pledge Of Allegiance tour, which they were set to co-headline with System Of A Down, alongside Rammstein, American Head Charge and Mudvayne.

Then, on September 11, three days before the tour was set to kick off, Corey was packing his bags when the first plane hit the Twin Towers in New York City. Shawn watched the second plane hit live on the news. Immediately, the shows were pushed back to late September, but the long-term impact on the band would be more severe.

Following 9/11, MTV, which had promised a huge promotional push for Iowa’s first single, Left Behind, and still had the kind of clout that could make or break bands, decided heavy music was inappropriate for the current climate. Along with many other metal bands, Slipknot found themselves unceremoniously yanked from the airwaves.

“All they heard was heavy metal and they shut us down,” says Corey bitterly. “We didn’t find out about this until probably a year later, that there was a massive blacklist of bands. What they didn’t realise, that we saw at the concerts, was that people needed the release. So not only were we hurting as Americans because of what had happened to us, [we] also had one of our legs cut off professionally.”

Speaking to Shawn and Corey today, it’s clear that Iowa and the geopolitics of the time are intrinsically entwined, reflective of each other and a claustrophobic moment when it felt like the world was crashing down. “The philosophy, the metaphor of ‘People=Shit’, it all just hit home that the world was having a hard time,” Shawn says. “You could feel it in the air, it was everywhere. Then it was done. Iowa. A little pill. A capsule of boiling life that just toppled over and collapsed and everyone had to regroup.” 

The legacy of Iowa is a towering one, and the biggest risk Slipknot have taken in their 26-year career. Five years ago, when Metal Hammer crowned Iowa the greatest metal album of the 21st century, we noted that without the album’s immense influence on countless bands, today’s metal landscape would look very different. The darkness that surrounded its creation would scar the band for a long time, seeping into the recording sessions for their third album, 2004’s Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). Yet without Iowa, it’s highly unlikely there would have been another Slipknot album at all, much less one as brave and experimental as their sixth and most recent, 2019’s We Are Not Your Kind.

“I didn’t want to be one of those bands that blew up and then just fucking fades away,” agrees Corey. “For a long time, I really thought that there was a cap on what we can do, and as we got older, we realised the only cap that’s there is what we put on it. You go back and look at all the artists that we’ve loved our whole lives, not just the heavier stuff, people like Bowie, even Marc Bolan for fuck’s sake. Those are the artists that took risks. And Slipknot are now doing that for a heavier generation.”

Iowa has undoubtedly been instrumental in ensuring Slipknot’s longevity, establishing them as a band that are impossible to predict and who are more than prepared to challenge their listeners. Furthermore, it was the sound of a band doing things their own way, with zero regard for the consequences.

“We had nothing to prove to anyone,” asserts Shawn. “We gave everything we possibly could, to the videos, to the interviews, to the way we spoke, even the way we did shots of Jack Daniel’s. I’m glad I survived. I’m glad everyone else survived. I can’t believe we’re all still friends.”

“We could’ve been in and out really quick if we had gone the same, safe, sophomore way,” says Corey. “We would have shot ourselves in the dick and we would be done. But because we didn’t do that, we established our own destiny instead of letting other people rewrite our history.”

Dannii Leivers

Danniii Leivers writes for Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, The Guardian, NME, Alternative Press, Rock Sound, The Line Of Best Fit and more. She loves the 90s, and is happy where the sea is bluest.