"This is my subconscious in a tangible form – you can taste it, you can smell it," says Slipknot percussionist M. Shawn Crahan, a.k.a. Clown, as he flips through his first book of photography, The Apocalyptic Nightmare Journey. The clown mask is off and his emotions are close to the surface as he turns the pages through vivid pictures of family, friends and his band of masked men. "I live in my own imagination," he says. "This book will prove that to you."
Apocalyptic Nightmare was drawn from about 5,000 Polaroid instant photographs he's made since 1999, and the pictures inside are as dark and obscure as his music. The images are torn and frayed, the colors smeared, the surfaces scratched and defiled. "These Polaroids have been subjected to urine, microwaves, staying outside for a week, ripped in half, sent away in the mail and sent back," Clown tells Rolling Stone. "Anything I could think of I've done."
Slipknot might appear busy enough headlining this year's Mayhem Festival while making plans for next month's Knotfest back in Iowa and Wisconsin, but Clown has always seen his mission as more than raging guitars and bonebreak beats. Photography is an ongoing passion, and with Slipknot singer Corey Taylor, he recently created Living Breathing Films, a movie production company, where the duo will produce and ultimately write and direct their own feature films.
His longtime interest in photography grew during early magazine photo sessions with Slipknot, where lighting tests were typically shot with Polaroids that were often discarded. "I'd pick them up and they were always curled, the corner was fucked, and hair follicles were falling on it," remembers Clown. "And I was like, damn, this is what I've been looking for my whole life."
At a Rolling Stone session with photographer Frank Ockenfels III in 1999, he was drawn in deeper and invited to collaborate in the making of the pictures. One image that appeared in the magazine was of Clown's five-year-old son, shirtless and with a large surgical scar, wearing his father's clown face and standing above a pile of Slipknot masks.
The next day Clown was at the local camera store buying the identical medium format camera with a Polaroid film-holder, and he immediately started shooting. In the book are pictures of his kids, of Slipknot members behind the scenes, of roadkill, roadies and tattoo artists. One photo has singer-guitarist Steve Austin of the noise band Today Is the Day sitting amid a sea of smashed cups and other debris after an Ozzfest date. Another shows singer Dorothy Hecht of To My Surprise with a loaded Magnum pistol across her chest. Others are abstract splashes of colors and chemicals.
Polaroid stopped making film by 2009, and Clown's old camera and lenses are lost somewhere in storage. He now uses a digital camera, so the book represents a closed chapter on a decade of pictures.
In his introduction to Apocalyptic Nightmare, Lars Ulrich of Metallica describes the book as "a mindfuck of a trip . . . This book is everything that art should be." Clown is doing afternoon book signings in a tent at every Mayhem tour stop, with occasional appearances at local bookstores: in St. Louis on July 19th, Allen Park, Michigan on July 23rd and Ridgewood, New Jersey on July 26th.
"It's fucking beautiful," Taylor tells Rolling Stone as he relaxes on his tour bus with a can of Squirt. "It was cool seeing everything through his eyes. He's one of the most creative men I've ever had the privilege of knowing. Being able to create art with him is such a treat."
At Living Breathing Films, the duo are developing two scripts that Taylor describes as "very psychological," and they are actively seeking other projects. Taylor says their interests in film come from different places – his on story and acting, Clown's on visuals and subtext. "In many ways, I'm like the John Carpenter to his Kubrick," Taylor says. "We can talk about the same film, but we're not saying the same shit. That's why we thrive."
While some might reasonably expect any film coming from the Slipknot camp to be in the horrific Saw tradition, Taylor doesn't rule out dramas or romantic comedies. They also hope to provide the music for much of it, and ultimately lead to Taylor and Clown directing their own projects. "He is really becoming a burgeoning director," the singer said of Clown. "He's directed a lot of stuff that we've done. I'm starting to write my own stuff. We're taking our combined talents."
Those talents are already in action at Mayhem tour stops through August 5th, followed by Knotfest on August 17th and 18th. Every night on the road, Clown is onstage pounding the drums with sticks and baseball bat, drinking a dozen bottles of water a show "just to stay alive" under the latex mask. "I believe the more you push yourself," Clown says, "the better the results for yourself and for everyone else."
His current state of mind owes something to the grief he's carried since the death of his parents, followed soon after by the 2010 overdose of bassist Paul Gray, who co-founded the band with Clown. Being onstage helps.
"It helps me release what I carry inside," Clown explains. "I contort myself, and the contortion spins out the energy. I love being with my brothers. I love playing my drums and our music. The words mean a lot to me. And the kids, seeing their reaction . . . That connection is an extra battery for me to get out the maximum."
The band's audience has also expanded with its repertoire over the years, growing from raging metal to the hypnotic "Vermillion" and "Snuff," the band's first ballad. They see more women in the crowd now, which Clown says with a smile "is refreshing, to be honest.
"We want it all. We want the weird, the melodic, the ballad, the grindcore, the straight metal. We want to approach all senses," he adds. "You won't hear stories from us about orgies or being at the Marquee and throwing things out the window. We're a bunch of nerds from Iowa with a work ethic that's unprecedented, with morals that are unprecedented, who get together and kill themselves for everyone. We are a special enigma. There is no understanding us."