As a rapidly greying middle-aged man, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that time flies at an ever-escalating rate as the years go by. But nothing highlights that peculiar phenomenon more than passing anniversaries. Today would have been Paul Gray’s 42nd birthday and, unbelievably, nearly four years have passed since the Slipknot bassist was cruelly taken from his family, friends and fans: another blazing flame, prematurely snuffed out by the chaos of life.
I’m sure I’m not the only person that is growing thoroughly sick of reading (and writing) obituaries for much loved figures from our world and our culture, but losing Paul Gray was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Here was a hugely talented and, by all accounts, eminently lovely man who had a young family and a thriving career, not to mention the unconditional adoration of a global army of Slipknot fans. It would be ridiculous to claim that any of us who didn’t know him personally were as deeply affected by his death as those who were close to him, but despite being one of metal’s true unsung heroes and a quiet, unpretentious and humble man to the last, Paul Gray’s contribution to heavy music was vast, intense and wonderfully uncompromising and his absence – not least in light of ongoing Slipknot mystery and melodrama – still seems almost tangible.
I only had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Paul Gray once. As Slipknot’s chief creative dynamo and, as is well documented, the glue that held that volatile and vital nine-man crew together through times both good and bad, he could easily have been eager to stand centre stage and proclaim his own genius. Instead, blessed with a band that already had its fair share of verbose and cocksure representatives, he preferred to stay in the background, allowing Corey Taylor, Joey Jordison and Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan to dominate the limelight and do the rest of the band’s talking for them. I only spoke with Paul for 45 minutes or so, but I can’t help wishing that he’d been more forthcoming as far as the metal media were concerned. Not that he didn’t like doing interviews… in fact, he was an effusive and eloquent interviewee who clearly enjoyed a good conversation. But Paul seemed content to be the guy that plugged the Slipknot machine into the mains and directed the chaos that erupted in the subtlest of ways, all from behind his iconic pig mask.
During my interview with Paul, we spoke a lot about Slipknot’s early days, about his intuitive songwriting relationship with Joey Jordison, about some of the wilfully extreme and demented bands he played in prior to founding the Iowan destroyers back in 1995. But mostly we talked about music and, pleasingly, metal in particular. These days, a lot of musicians in our world go to great lengths to demonstrate how eclectic and “open-minded” their tastes are, and I’m sure that Paul had a wildly varied record collection too, but his passion for metal was obvious and genuinely inspiring. Although more than aware that the underground metal scene viewed the arena-conquering Slipknot with a degree of suspicion, his knowledge of and passion for extreme metal of all kinds was laudable and impressive. Rarely have I spoken with anyone, from either big mainstreams bands or obscure cult concerns, that knew as much or cared as much. Paul Gray was, unquestionably, one of us. And anyone with a modicum of understanding when it comes to metal’s evolution and history should be able to hear the depth of his passion within Slipknot’s music. It always makes me wince slightly when people refer to the band as a ‘nu-metal’ band. There has always been far more brutal death metal – and, if you dig deep, coruscating left-field sludge – in their sound than anything else, but such was Paul’s mastery of metal as an art form that he also grasped the importance of hooks and melody and inclusiveness. Howling universal truths into the void to an audience of hardly anyone might please a few elitists, but metal is supposed to be about community and a shared culture, and Paul understood that implicitly.
More importantly, however, he was just a really fucking decent and likeable guy. I’ve been very lucky over the years and have rarely interviewed anyone from a band I love and ended up sorely disappointed, and Slipknot have always been good to me and demonstrably grateful for my support and comradeship, but Paul Gray was a bit special: a few minutes into our conversation I felt like I’d known him for years. Never mind that we were the same age… Paul loved metal in the same way and for the same reasons that I did, and the fact that he isn’t around anymore to spread more of that infectious enthusiasm for making music that gets the blood pumping and makes life feel worth living… well, it’s a massive fucking shame.
Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes in Slipknot’s world at the moment, I know that the band will have honouring Paul at the forefront of their minds as they piece their next album together. Personally, I hope that Joey Jordison will be involved again eventually, as he and Paul were so integral to the growth of the band’s sound and swagger. But whatever happens, Paul Gray deserves to be regarded as a metal legend and today seems like an appropriate day to celebrate his brilliant life and his music, which will live forever. Cheers to you, Paul.