An Interview with Mick Thompson of Slipknot

It's hard to imagine Slipknot guitarist Mick Thompson, more commonly known as 7, getting teary-eyed over a ballad like Ozzy Osbourne's 'Good-Bye to Romance,' but somewhere under the hockey-player-from-hell latex mask is a man with a soft spot for melodic eloquence, and a hard-ass guitar teacher. Before Slipknot's wave of success began to swell, Thompson worked at Ye Olde Guitar Shoppe in Des Moines, Iowa, where he cultivated his playing technique, a fervent love of gear and a guitar pedagogy that was actually surprisingly sensitive to his students' needs. The 26 year old characterizes himself as an anti-social, obsessive shredder, so it's something of an irony that he wound up making a name (or at least a number) for himself as part of a nine-piece ensemble that's built a following with primal, grinding rant-o-ramas that have more in common with the minimalist rumblings of the industrial underground than the epic scenarios of prog-rock. But Thompson is the missing link between the two worlds, attacking Slipknot's raw music with the refined sensibility of an artist. Is there a method to the madness? Is Slipknot an art band?

Mick Thompson: No. We just do what we do. That's what's funny. A lot of times people think we're really contrived -- like we sit down and have band meetings and decide what we're gonna do. Everything just evolved over the last five years. We could never know that we were going to get a record deal. No one in Des Moines ever got a record deal, so it was never even a consideration. It's always been just to make ourselves happy. That's what's cool about it; it's honest. We could have never predicted the kind of success we've got. I thought we'd be lucky to sell 100,000 records. Did you have trouble building a following locally?

Thompson: Noooo. We had a sick following. Our fans have always been fanatics. Nobody's a wishy-washy Slipknot fan. You love us or you don't. That's what's good -- there's a lot of emotion wrapped up in that. Being a guy who was so heavily into shreddage, do you ever feel cramped by Slipknot's music because there isn't much room for you to groove?

Thompson: See, we used to have leads back in the day. They got cut out in pre-production. 'Sick' used to have a big long shredder lead where I got to do sweep arpeggios and harmonic minor runs and all this kind of stuff. It was a lot of fun cause people would get a little taste of it. It wasn't the whole show, but they'd be like, 'Goddamn, you can play.' But now I don't really have that. I get a little sweep thing on a song called 'Me Inside' but the way it ended up getting mixed was it got panned out about half way through so you can't hear that I'm doing minor diminished sweeps. Plus we put a phaser on it. 'Sick' doesn't need a lead in anymore. While I love doing that stuff I wouldn't want to do something that wasn't positively affecting the song. Admittedly I was pissed off for a while -- the wind was kind of pulled out of my proverbial sails a little bit -- but I'm not mad. And who knows what's going to be on the next record? Probably no shredding, unfortunately, but the stuff we're working on for the next record is definitely more technical. When you were in your most obsessive phase of guitar playing, was it some kind of spiritual quest a la Steve Vai?

Thompson: No. I just did what I did. I never took any cues from anybody. I never copied anybody. I've always just played 'cause I have to. Every day I'd drive home from work, I wouldn't clean up -- nothing. I used to have this big dark spot on my wall where I would lean across my 100 watt Marshall half stack I had in my bedroom and hit the power switch and every day sit down filthy on the edge of my bed and play my guitar just 'cause I had to hear it. I'd end up sitting there for a few hours and then realize I had to take a piss and I was starving. Not to get all 'what color is your parachute' but they say that's when you know you've found your calling. It's the thing that makes you forget time and lose track of self.

Thompson: That's what I've always said about drugs. I don't even understand why you'd need it. If you need to escape from your world -- I can sit in my room and play my guitar and I'm not me, I'm not anything. I'm not aware of anything. In a way it's like meditation, but never intentional. I've never sought to do that, it just ended up happening that way and now I can look back and go 'Whoa, I just spent four hours sitting there and I don't recall seeing anything in the room. I can't really remember any time I focused my vision on anything. I'm just gone. Who were you influenced by?

Thompson: That's such a funny question, like I’m supposed to sound like whatever bands I listen to. I was such a huge Hendrix freak. I still love Hendrix. But does my playing sound like Hendrix? No. You don’t have to be a product of [your influences]? But yeah, definitely Hendrix. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather was amazing. My dad got that when I was like 11 and I got to go see him when I was 13. I skipped a baseball game I had that day and went. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the thing you love.

Thompson: Yeah, I’m glad I missed that game. I was supposed to pitch that night too. It was like, 'Sorry guys. Duty calls.' God what else? Flotsam & Jetsam's Doomsday for the Deceiver. That was a huge inspiration speed metal-wise -- playing really fast and huge arrangements. Metallica, Ride the Lightning. Suicidal Tendencies? How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today. Anthrax, old Iron Maiden stuff -- Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind. Fates Warning. People think Dream Theater is good? Fates Warning smokes them? They are probably the greatest progressive metal band ever to exist. Very overlooked too? They’ll always do Dream Theater articles, but they never do any justice to Fates Warning -- and Dream Theater were hugely influenced by Fates Warning. John Petrucci's a great guitar player but I’m always left without much. I like parts of Awake and a bunch of Images & Words but after that it’s like, 'Where's your soul?' That’s a problem with a lot of high-end tech players.

Thompson: Yeah, a lot of times it doesn’t connect. That’s one thing I’ve always done in my leads, which you’ve never gotten to hear, but they’re always very lyrical. I can play insanely fast, but speed doesn’t mean anything without taste. That’s the thing I love about Randy Rhoads and Johnny Winter -- old Johnny Winter back when he was still doin' rock stuff. 'Theme For An Imaginary Western' by Mountain has one of the greatest leads ever done on it. It’s so tasty. That’s the thing I always try to keep -- a theme. I can improvise but I prefer to write something [so] it flows. It takes you somewhere. Maybe something that reoccurs a little later in another form similar? melody-wise but people wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a melody in itself. A recapitulation.

Thompson: Yeah. That’s the kind of stuff Randy Rhoads did. Listen to the lead for 'Good-Bye To Romance.' That song makes me cry. I’m sorry, but John Petrucci has never in his life touched the 'Good-Bye to Romance' solo. He’s a much better technical guitar player than Randy Rhoads. In fact I’m probably technically a better guitar player than Randy Rhoads 'cause I pull off a lot of things that Randy Rhoads never did. But he played with so much feeling.

Thompson: Oh my God. I would never even think to blaspheme and say that I could consider myself anything like Randy Rhoads. Technically I can shred arpeggios at the speed of light all day long and I never saw Randy Rhoads do that, but who gives a rat’s ass? I didn’t write the 'Good-Bye to Romance' lead. That’s so much more important. And a lot of people who say that kind of stuff say it because they don’t have the technique and they can’t actually play. That’s their crutch. Like, 'That’s real fast, but these four notes I play mean something.' I’m like, 'Yeah, that’s a nice excuse for not being able to play fast 'cause you know you would if you could.' Sour grapes.

Thompson: Exactly. Why not push yourself? I always told my students -- if you ever [believe] you’re good, you’re gonna suck. You’ll get complacent. Kids in school kiss your ass 'cause you play the guitar and maybe you’re not even very good at all but your buddies think you are. As soon as you start to believe that, where’s your drive? Where’s your desire? That's all gone.

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