***On May 24th, 2010, Slipknot bassist Paul Gray was found dead inside an Iowa hotel room. The following is an interview Gray gave for the June 2005 issue of Bass Player shortly after the release of his band's seminal album Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). ***
Since thundering out of the lonely Iowa plains in the late ’90s, the nine-piece masked metal symphony known as Slipknot has combined horror imagery, enraged vocals, intricate bass and guitar riffs, and punishing percussion and turned it into a chart-topping success. Casting an ominous pall over Slipknot’s sound is the fretwork of left-handed bassist Paul Gray. On the band’s latest platinum album, Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), Gray’s carefully chosen notes on such hits as “Duality” and “Vermillion” create a mood of menace before building up to the inescapable fury of agonized choruses and wailing guitar breaks.
Vol. 3 was produced in a seemingly haunted Hollywood mansion—formerly owned by the infamous escape artist Harry Houdini—where the band lived while tracking. “We had drum sets on every floor and amps in every room, with drum machines, Pro Tools rigs, and all kinds of stuff everywhere,” says Paul. “So anytime anyone had an idea, we could just lay it down.” The result of these round-the-clock recordings was a large backlog of material, some of which is now being released along with some live recordings on Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) Special Edition.
Before donning his mask, Gray supplied the bottom end to a few riff-crazed death-metal outfits. With Slipknot’s crowded roster of two percussionists, a drummer, two DJs, and two guitarists, Gray’s role is decidedly different.
Slipknot has nine band members, with a lot of heavy guitars and percussion. How does that define your role?
That’s something we’ve always been working on. As the bass player, it’s easy to step on parts, get lost, drown somebody out. On Subliminal Verses we made a conscious effort to make sure everybody shines through a little better. We worked on different tones to cut through. [Producer] Rick Rubin would say, “You don’t need to do all this right here. These two notes right here can say just as much as these 12.”
I try to write parts that the songs need. It doesn’t have to be flashy. I don’t go up there to show off. I could if I wanted to, but it’s not what our band needs. I used to be in these death-metal bands where there would be like 23 riffs for a song. We would write the riffs to be as complicated as possible; the whole purpose of the song was to see if anyone could play them. I would do tapping licks, grinding stuff, and slapping, and nothing would repeat. There was no song structure, and it didn’t make any sense.
With Slipknot, it’s songs, so I just try to play what the song requires, fit in with nine people and not step on any parts, and blend where it sounds good. It’s about trying to find that middle ground.
Does wearing a mask and being in character affect your playing, either physically or musically?
It hinders what I can do a little. I know I wouldn’t be able to do some of the technical stuff I did with other bands while wearing the mask, because I would actually have to be looking and seeing what I was doing. With this thing on I can’t see anything, so I’m just going off my fingerboard knowledge, which is pretty decent. Giving it 110 percent while wearing a mask, I’ll sometimes start getting tunnel vision and zoning out. I’ve almost passed out a few times. Other than that, it’s not that bad.
What first drew you to the bass guitar?
I started off as a guitar player when I was 12 or 13. When I moved from California to Iowa, I didn’t know anybody. I went into a music store and overheard this guy saying he needed a bass player. He mentioned Slayer, Sepultura, and some Metallica songs. I knew all of that stuff on guitar. I had never picked up a bass in my life, but I went over and said, “I can play bass.” The only reason I said it was just so I could meet people. I went in there and I just played the guitar lines instead of all bass lines.
That’s how I played at first, but then I really started listening to the bass playing and realizing how unique and awesome an instrument it is. I would just sit back and listen to a bass and drum groove, blocking out all of the guitar stuff. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Les Claypool, and Metallica became my influences—especially Cliff Burton. Then I started buying bass-player-oriented stuff like Stu Hamm, Jaco Pastorius, and Victor Wooten. Seeing Victor Wooten play was mind blowing.
In terms of learning to play, were there disadvantages to being a left-handed player?
No. I took some bass lessons when I was trying to learn the fundamentals of slap bass. I didn’t get the percussiveness of it, so I sat down with a friend in Iowa. It was actually cool learning from him, because it was like looking in the mirror.
It’s mostly the equipment part that’s harder. If companies offer left-handed gear, they make it low-end, leaving the cheap, crap gear to left-handed players—except for Warwick. I went out on Ozzfest in 1999 with one Jackson bass. It was the only bass that I’d ever owned up to that point, and I did the whole tour with it in a gig bag. If it had gone down, I would have been screwed, because I was the only left-handed bass player on that tour. I was looking at Warwicks; they’re constructed beautifully. I thought that they’d be the last company to endorse me but I called them and they gave me a shot. They sent me a Corvette; it played awesome, and I finally had a real bass. I’ve been with them ever since.
There’s been a lot of buzz about the rebirth of heavy metal and how it’s okay to solo again. How does this affect you?
I’m down with it. Maybe it will be okay for bass solos to kick in! I do know that both of our guitar players can shred. But we write the way we want. If a song doesn’t require a solo, we don’t put it in. It seemed that it was standard to write songs with intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bridge, chorus, in-solo, out-solo. But we write songs the way we feel they should go. We have a few solos on the record, but we’re not put in that shredder category for some reason.
Could that be because of snobbery about your band’s theatrical aspect?
That’s probably it, too. They look at it and they go, “The band has sold millions of records and wears masks, so obviously they can’t actually play their instruments.” But we can actually all play our instruments well. We’re out here playing shows to a lot of kids and having a good time doing it, and that’s all that really matters to me. —Bob Calhoun
CAN BE HEARD ON
Slipknot, Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) Special Edition [Roadrunner]
Sarah McLachlan, Surfacing [Arista]
“After a long day, I listen to that thing in my bunk and I am in awe. I fall in love with that girl every night.”
Basses Warwick Thumb Bass and Warwick Streamer 4-strings, tuned C#F#BE, BF#BE, and AF#BE
“I’ve never been a 5-string guy. I’ve used them on the album on some parts, but I just like the way four strings feel.”
Rig Peavey Pro 500 head and Peavey GPS 2600 power amp, Peavey Pro 810 8x10 cabinets
Effects Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI