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Slipknot's Shawn 'Clown' Crahan talks photography, masks, Mayhem and playing without Paul Gray

If a group of nine nightmarishly masked, metal-blasting caricatures can be said to have a soul, then Shawn "Clown" Crahan is the soul of Slipknot.

At 42, he is the Iowa band's eldest member. In addition to being one of Slipknot's three percussionists, he is its creative visionary, the man responsible for its sinister aesthetic and the curator of its macabre mythology. And following the death of bassist and songwriter Paul Gray (at far left, above) in 2010, he is Slipknot's sole remaining founder.

These days, it's that last part he wrestles with the most.

"I can't speak for anybody else in my band," Crahan (fourth from left, above) says by phone, "but for me, a lot of people would tell me, 'Hey, man, you know Paul would want you to go on.' And my response would be, 'Well, did you ever think that I don't want to go on without him?' So there's been a lot of doubt. There still is. I just deal with it every day. I'm doing the best I can."

Since crashing the national consciousness in the late 1990s — it's tough to ignore a band of jumpsuited misfits in custom Halloween masks — Slipknot has become a titanic force in heavy metal, held in high esteem by both music critics and a ravenous nation of fans for aggressive, explosive albums like Slipknot and Iowa. The band has landed seven Grammy nominations, including one win, and in 2001 graced the cover of Rolling Stone.

Internal tensions may be unavoidable in a band of such chaos, and they have led Slipknot to more than one hiatus in its 17-year history — including the one that followed Gray's fatal drug overdose. But this summer, they're back on American shores, headlining the Mayhem Festival, ahead of esteemed metal veterans Slayer, Anthrax and Motorhead.

As Mayhem returns to Tampa on Friday (click here for tickets and details), we talked to Crahan about Slipknot and his most recent solo project, a photo book titled The Apocalytic Nightmare Journey. Here are excerpts.

I find it awesome that I'm talking to you on the eve of, of all things, a book tour.

It took 11 years to make, it's been done for three. I'm in a little town called Geneva, about an hour from Chicago, where my book signing is tomorrow. I feel like the old days, you know? Get in the car, go to work. I'm really excited, man, whether one person shows up, or whatever the opposite of one person is. I can't tell you how long I've wanted to do this. Ever since I was a wee little kid, man, I always wanted to make a book. This book happens to be manipulated Polaroid film. I'm very stoked on it.

So the book is all Polaroids?

I love the instant gratification of it, and I saw that they were never perfect. When you take a picture, you've got a minute for it to warm up, and then you can pull it off a chemical piece of paper. It's a caustic paste that causes an alkaline burn, so it's serious stuff. But you've got less than 10 seconds to manipulate that chemical that's reacting immediately when you pull it through the rollers. So I'd crack 'em, crunch 'em, flip 'em, pull the picture off, stick it back on. This book is all manipulation of medium-format Polaroids, and they're blown up so you can see more of the detail. But when you see all the trippy s--- around them, that's not Photoshop. What you see is what was taken.

You really seem to love Instagram.

I just got into Instagram. You probably saw just a little bit ago, I put up my lunch: A bunch of sardines. (laughs) I was in a gas station, and I was like, 'This is the first gas station in my entire life that f---ing sells sardines. I'm getting it and I'm eating it.' I took an Instagram, and I just called it "Food." And people like it. When I (post) pictures, it goes right to my Twitter and my Facebook, and is basically my connection with my fans, Slipknot fans, personal fans — it's all connected by the art.

You also seem to have no problems posting photos of your family or yourself with no mask. Did you ever feel any hesitation about doing that stuff?

I'm 42 now, you know, and I've got a lot of loyal fans that ask a lot of loyal questions, and there's a lot of pain there. I like to share who I am, you know what I mean? I can go out on tour and 10,000 people can watch me walk around and see me without a mask. I don't really like sharing my family, but once in a while, there's this really precious picture, and I feel it's innocent enough that people will try to respect it. The minute they don't respect it will be the minute I don't do it anymore.

As the years go by, do you feel more or less attached to the mask, the Clown character, the onstage persona that you've created?

Hey, man. I don't wear a f---ing mask. I've always been the Clown, and I don't wear a mask, my friend. Does that make sense? What you get is what you get. You're dealing with a human. There's no superheroes. I'm not Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. I'm in the church of the 'Knot. I perform at an altar. We give a sermon to the congregation. We have to deal with that entity. And you know what? Catch me offguard outside, you're going to deal with that entity outside, without the mask. So I don't wear a mask at all.

There was a thing on your website a while back that said this summer tour is "the end of the beginning" for Slipknot. What does that mean?

It means it's the end of the thought process of grieving with our fans. We could have just disappeared. It's just our way of saying, "You miss him, we miss him (Paul), let's do this together." It's not the end of an era. We will always be there, and there will always be nine members, and he will always be one of them.

How do you view your role within the band now? Do you view yourself as sort of a curator of sorts? Artistic director?

You know, that's a hard one. It's definitely not a "boss." I'm the oldest; they call me Old Buck, and Sid (Wilson, Slipknot's turntablist) is Young Buck, and everybody else is in between us. I'm the visionary behind the band, and I do all the video and artwork and stuff. Joey (Jordison, drums) and Paul wrote music, along with some of the other members, and Corey (Taylor, lead vocals) writes lyrics. We all have our duties and responsibilities. But Paul and I started the band together, and after that, everybody fell into place because they were meant to be in place. When Joey got into the band, it really felt like the philosophy of the 'Knot was represented. I've always felt like Paul, I and Joey had this true essence of what it was that was going to become, and then everybody else had it too. I just don't know if everybody was looking for it like we were looking for it. And we were looking for it pretty hard, and when Corey got in the band, boom, puzzle solved. We're all a match made in heaven. We're brothers now.

How much do you take it upon yourself to know what kind of music other guys are digging at any given time? Or what their outside interests are?

I do my best not to hang out with anybody. We spend enough time out on the road. Everybody will tell you that. We get off the road, we physically, spiritually and mentally repair ourselves. Then we take a deep breath, we enjoy life a little bit, we reflect on everything we've learned over our past tour cycle, and then we get really f---ing bored, and it's time to write a record on everything we've experienced, and everybody brings in what they went through.

You guys are going to be in Tampa as part of the Mayhem Festival. This lineup pulls in artists from an array of different eras —Motorhead, Slayer, Anthrax, you guys, newer groups like The Devil Wears Prada. Today, in 2012, how do you feel like your "class" — late '90s, early 2000s — compares to other eras in the history of metal?

Well, No. 1, they're all friends of ours, and they all laid their own road, and they're all legends. Slayer, what more do you have to say? It's Slayer. Motorhead? C'mon. Anthrax? All great bands. We've got some new bands that are paving their way. I guess what's Slipknot's doing is paving our road through our little niche in history. I think that's what we all do, man. We just all want to be ourselves and be treated that way.

Later this summer, you've got Knotfest. Is this the first time you've been actively involved in organizing a festival?

Yeah. We want to end this whole thing with a couple days of extreme fun. We want to supply some things that have never been seen before. I'm bringing a ride called the Circle of Death. The Circle of Death has been at the Iowa State Fair ever since I was a little kid, so we got it, and it's going to be there. I'm going to put kids' names in a hat, and I'm going to draw one, and I'm going to sit right next to a kid, and we'll do it. We're just trying to have some fun, man. Just trying to have some fun.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*