Linkin Park: “I want people to think that creatively, as artists, these guys have balls”

Linkin Park are one of the biggest bands in the world, and yet they’re not sitting back and relying on that sure fire success.

Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Phil Smithies.

“Here we go again,” grins Mike Shinoda. “Let’s see what they say about this one.” Linkin Park have a long history of rolling the dice. Of taking chances. Of mixing things up. They used to be called Hybrid Theory, and it’s an idea that’s stuck. Their six-album deep legacy is full of musical leaps, revolutionary blends and an unwavering desire to do what they want. No record sounds the same, and each step could have taken it too far. “The last four, maybe even five records, we’ve had that conversation, but I’m not afraid of taking a risk and failing.” Ultimately the idea of pushing it too far is “for other people to decide. On the last album, we released a six-minute metal song with Rakim on the bridge – suck on that, everybody. At a certain point, you feel like you’re being contrary or crazy just for the sake of getting a rise out of people, but it was different with this record. It didn’t feel like we were trying to get a rise out of people, really, truly.” Album seven sees the band do what they’ve always done: exactly as they please. To hell with the consequences.

“I want people to think that creatively, as artists, these guys have balls,” smiles Chester Bennington. “They go where they want. They’re not bound by the rules of what they’re supposed to be in the eyes of onlookers or anything outside. We are Linkin Park, and therefore the music that we make is Linkin Park. That, to me, is very risky. I’d like people to like listening to the record but also appreciate the danger, in some ways, of what we’re doing and how willing we are to go there without being afraid of it.”

There’s no way to side-step it. Linkin Park’s new album ‘One More Light’ is drastically different to anything the band have released before. From the front to the back, it’s a pop record. It’s the “polar opposite” to 2014’s ‘The Hunting Party’, and – while Chester reasons that “being in Linkin Park, I’ve heard thousands of demos that we’ve worked on, so it’s not so surprising or strange for me” – every cut feels like something entirely new. And that’s exciting in a way few bands can ever manage after their debut.

That excitement is the heart of Linkin Park. They’re stoked to talk about music, to be around music, to be making music. You can hear the giddiness in Chester’s voice as he recalls that Brian May said in an interview that not many groups take risks like Linkin Park do. “It was very cool to be seen that way by someone I admire, that was also in a band that took risks and was not afraid to do what they wanted to do or be who they were. I feel like I’ve succeeded on this record just from that one comment.” And you just know that Mike’s holding back from spending all his time talking about all the new music he’s discovered. When you put them together in a room, it’s bubbling, hyperactive chaos.

“I’m not afraid of taking a risk and failing.”

Twenty-one years on from when Mike first started making songs “on a keyboard, a sampler and a sm58 microphone in my parents’ house,” you’d expect Linkin Park to have hit a slump, or fall into familiar patterns. Or take the easy route. But they’ve never come close. “Look at how vibrant each new wave is,” reasons Mike. “It’s like, different waves of new artists and new ideas are constantly coming out, and that’s constantly exciting.”
“Creating something is so much fun,” continues Chester. “Music is fun. I’m like a little kid when they see their favourite toy or when they get to the park, and they’re all ‘Aaaaaah!’ That’s how music makes me feel. When it becomes not fun, that’s when I’m like, ‘Meh’. But it’s almost impossible for me not to enjoy either making or playing music.”

You can feel the enjoyment throughout ‘One More Light’. From the opening glitch of ‘Nobody Can Save Me’, the band relish their newfound space. “It’s a bit of a rebirth. We felt that one once or twice before in our career,” starts Mike. “The most obvious reference point being our third album ‘Minutes To Midnight’. The first two were pretty similar to each other, and then the third one was a risk, a real step outside of what people were expecting. At that point we were questioning, ‘Do we have to do what we’re known for, or what people expect?’ and we put out this album that was this extreme patchwork of sounds, with every song very different from the last. We intentionally sequenced it that way, so it exaggerated the differences between the songs. This album is much less of a patchwork; it’s much more a blend of styles where there is a core sound to the record. To invent a new style and sound and do it consistently across the record, it takes time. We probably spent somewhere between 12 or 18 months on it. You know when you listen to some albums, and it’s about a thing or a moment, this one isn’t that way. It’s about a lot of different things, and part of it is because we were all going through different things.”

“I like to think our music has had some role in blending genres,” Mike explained while the band were still on the road for their last album. “That’s what our music has been about since day one. We never felt like we carried a flag for nu-metal but we definitely carried a flag for people who loved many types of music.” Now, alongside the obvious calling cards of rock and hip hop, Linkin Park can add pop to the list. And they were deliberate with the sort of pop record they wanted to make.

“If you’re super into a niche, like hip hop or metal, you’re very in tune to the varieties of that lane,” reasons Mike. “If you like metal, you can say you like doom or black metal. It’s very specific, and the same thing is true in hip-hop. There’s a huge difference between Future and Action Bronson but someone who doesn’t listen to hip-hop, they won’t know the difference. Believe it or not but I listen to a lot of pop. There are styles of pop I like, and there are styles that I don’t like. The kind of pop record that we didn’t make is the one that goes ‘Oh girl, baby, I love you’, and we didn’t make the kind of pop record that goes ‘I want to see you dance, I want to see you shake’. There are certain topics and styles that we’d choose to do or choose not to do, regardless of genre.”

It’s what gives the record its authenticity. At no point does ‘One More Light’ feel like a band doing something half-heartedly. Or scraping the barrel. Or following a trend. There are a lot of rock bands taking influence from pop, but this isn’t that. More than an echo, this is a band celebrating the nuances of a genre and getting involved in the conversation.

On ‘One More Light’ Linkin Park do what they’ve always done, take the things they like and put them together. Teaming up with Stormzy for ‘Good Goodbye’ isn’t Linkin Park trying to grab onto the coattails of Grime’s success. “We’re not that smart,” grins Chester. Mike’s just been a fan for a few years and wanted to see what happened. “I feel like when some artists explore some territory outside their core thing, it feels like they’re a tourist or it’s a hobby or a whim. For me, the difference is that when I want to put something in a song, I want to feel like I’m not trespassing. I want it to feel like I know what I’m doing and I want it to come from a place of genuine excitement as a fan and a music listener.”

“The first thing that happened was curiosity,” ventures Mike. “Every time we go into the studio, I want to feel like I’m doing something different. I’m learning something. I just don’t want it to be boring.” Normally a Linkin Park album emerges from a hundred or so instrumental demos, with the band putting marks by all the ones they like the most. The ones with the most votes end up being explored, worked on and finished. The lyrics come later, influenced by how the track sounds and what memory it evokes. There’s normally a lot of digging in the past. “You’d be creating characters around the situation and then relating your experiences to them. These characters would have to relate to Brad [Delson, guitar], to Mike, to everyone in the band.” ‘One More Light’ was different, but you probably could have guessed that. Instead of the final piece of the puzzle, the lyrics came first and from conversations. “‘Hey guys, this is what I’m going through, let’s write about it’. When one of our friends who had worked with us at the record label for many years passed away, we wrote a song about it. It wasn’t like we were going to write a song about loss and then relate our personal experience to it in a way that we could all understand. It’s coming from a place as it’s happening. You feel it. We’re talking about the thing that’s going on, as it’s going on. That feeling that we have writing it, it’s there on the record. That’s powerful.”

“I’m like a little kid when they get to the park, and they’re all ‘Aaaaaah!’ That’s how music makes me feel.”

‘One More Light’ is the most empowering and beautiful Linkin Park have ever sounded. The record isn’t heavy like ‘Crawling’ or ‘Guilty All The Same’, and there’s no token metal song to satisfy the naysayers. “We’ve got six other albums,” shrugs Mike. Instead, this record is heavy with the weight of the world. “I feel like a lot of things, whether you’re facing inwards or facing out, are very heavy, emotionally,” explains Mike. “When I look at Twitter or when I watch the news or when I listen to my friends talk about, not even politics, but when I hear them talk about life, things feel heavy.”

It hits closer to home, though. The title-track is about the death of a friend and explores “the idea that life is short. There are so many of us and what seems so important to some is just another day to others. In that lonely sad place, sometimes it can feel grim, and you ask ‘What’s the point’? And so this song asks, ‘What’s the point of all it?’ ‘Who cares?’ And the answer is ‘I do’. Even if it seems like there’s no point, there is one. And the point is that I care. I care enough to pay attention; I care enough to keep moving forward.”

Not just empty promises, that forward motion is something Chester has struggled with in between records. “For me, the last couple of years have been pretty difficult. 2015 for me was the worst year of my life. 2016 was slightly better in many ways but equally as difficult. There were moments over the past couple of years where I felt like I wanted to give up on everything. I want to walk away. I want to walk away from life, and from everybody I know.”

“It’s hard to put into words what stopped me,” he continues. “It’s like talking about anxiety – unless you’ve had anxiety, it’s hard to understand it. I think that’s why they put addicts with other addicts and alcoholics with other alcoholics, because they get it. People who aren’t that way, they aren’t going to understand. They can sympathise, but they’ll never be able to emphasise. It’s not just about those things either; it’s about depression, anger and feeling like you never fit into any part of life comfortably. I’ve been in some pretty deep depression before. I’ve struggled with it throughout my life, and it got to a point where I was so depressed, and then I got super mad over a number of things, and that gave me a little bit of a kick. ‘This is different to feeling super sad all the time, fuck everybody’. That then turned into me working on things.”

“I got to a point where I figured I could either throw in the towel, which is scary, or I could turn things around. After my stepdad passed away, after a couple of people very close to me passed away, and another person very close to me attempted suicide, after that went down I thought, ‘I don’t like the way I feel about this’. Even though I can relate to feeling suicidal, I’ve felt that way before, but I don’t want my kids to have to deal with that. I don’t want the people in my life to have to deal with that. Even though suicide seems like an answer to me sometimes, it’s not an answer. So I have a choice. I can either give up, or I can work really hard at having the kind of life that I want to have. You could throw in the towel, or you could take your fucking life back. One of the things I love about ‘Battle Symphony’ is the lyrics. It’s an admission of me saying I’m not perfect, life is messy, but you know what, I’ve got what it takes inside of me to pick up the pieces, put it back together, dust myself off and trudge forward. That action alone is going to be the soundtrack to my life. That’s going to be my story. It takes a lot of effort, energy and time but you can turn this ordeal into an adventure. That’s what ‘Battle Symphony’ is for me, and what a lot of this whole record is. Here’s another curveball, and here’s how I’m going to get through it.”

“The lyrics to these songs are complex and conflicted,” reasons Mike. “It’s life happening. ‘Sharp Edges’ is about what you’re told growing up, basically, don’t put your hand on the hot stove. But what the song ends up reminding you is that sometimes you’ve got to do that. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.”
“You may just need to know what being burned feels like,” adds Chester. “You may never have been burned, and if someone’s saying ‘Don’t touch that, it’s hot, and you’re going to get hurt,’ you still have no concept of what that means until you touch it. What I’ve ended up finding out is that I don’t just want to be happy. I need to figure out how to live life on life’s terms. It’s not always going to go the way I want it, and most likely almost all of the time it’s not going to go the way I want it. It’s going to go the way it’s going to go and being okay with it, that’s what I need. I just want to be okay with whatever happens. That’s my new mantra. If it’s a good thing, great. If it’s not so good, great. I’m not going to be ‘Yay, bubble fantastic’ about it, I just want to be able to be mad and be ok with being mad. I don’t want to feel like I have to escape that or hate it so much, I also want to be happy, but I don’t want to be tricked into thinking that’s where I need to be all the time. My outlook is more aligned with a more peaceful existence as opposed to this constant friction.”

It’s been a hell of a journey from the song idea ‘I Hate The World Right Now’ that’s still sitting on Chester’s phone and was written at the very start of the process to the almost serene acceptance that floods the finished ‘One More Light’. There’s resolution at every turn, but the conflict, the confusion and the struggles are ever-present.

“If you just read through all the lyrics on this album without the music, it would feel kinda depressing,” offers Chester. “But the music, I feel like that’s the hopefulness. It transforms the lyrics from dismal to something else. We’re singing about hard stuff, but it’s very positive. It’s very uplifting in a certain way, and I wanted that to be conveyed in the album title. It felt like ‘One More Light’ worked really well. It’s the hope, especially with the art. You see the innocence of children playing at the beach as this intense sun’s going down and they’re taking in as much as they can, while they can. There’s nothing more hopeful in the world than the world through the eyes of a child. That to me is what it means. It’s that hope. It’s what it’s all about. It’s the thing we’re all striving for, that goodness.”

“One of the common threads on the whole record is a lack of control,” explains Mike, who’s been sat thinking about what ties it all together. “A lot of human misery, or a lot of our human struggle, revolves around control and lack of control. If you think about it, everything you can’t control gives you a negative emotion in some way. Being able to get to a point where either you don’t need to have control over something, or you admit that you just don’t, that’s a very subtle big deal. You really want to be okay with the shit that’s happening, but if we were all zen about everything, the album would be shit. What’s nice is that we made this album at a moment where we felt so much intensity, and as we got through the process, the lyrics had already been written and the music was getting done, we started to work it out. I think we’re in a good place now and we’re there because we went through the process of dealing.”
“No one wants to watch TV shows about nice things happening to nice people. It’d be the worst thing ever,” adds Chester. “You don’t feel shitty for those people, it’s just not interesting. What is enjoyable is the nasty shit and what happens next. It’s intriguing. Conflict and resolution. It can’t just be resolution.”

“Life is messy, but you know what, I’ve got what it takes.”

Luckily, with an album like ‘One More Light’, Linkin Park are bound to inspire a certain amount of conflict and friction. “I can’t control what people are going to say, so I’m not worried about their reactions. We’ve also lived through it. I know there will be people who are thrilled about the record, there will be people who are so mad that it’s not whatever they had in mind, and there will be people who don’t know the band much, and this is a new sound that they’re experiencing fresh,” beams Mike. “All of those things are in play for us, and it’s so funny, ’cause we’re parents, too; we had some moments where we were looking at things from a bigger picture point of view for the first time. This last tour was the first time we saw a multi-generational crowd. There was a moment at one of our shows where I looked out and saw a father and his daughter. He was into certain songs; he’d be elbowing her like ‘This is my jam!’ and she’d be doing the same thing back to him about the newer stuff. Maybe subconsciously that stuck with me because I think about what my kids are into and what they like, and I know that I played them songs on this record and asked them what they think. It’s cool. I bet if you ask my kid what song of Daddy’s do you want to listen to, the first song they always ask for is ‘Castle of Glass’ and with the new stuff, heavy is their favourite.”
“My kids have always asked ‘Play Daddy’s song!’ so that they can hear Daddy on the radio or whatever. But they’ve always said Daddy’s music is kinda scary a lot of times and in particular seeing Daddy play is scary, because I’m running around, screaming and it’s pretty intense – but this new stuff, it’s not scary. The older kids are like, ‘Yeah, my dad’s in Linkin Park, whatever.’ But my little kids, they love ‘Battle Symphony’, ‘Heavy’ and ‘Invisible’ in particular. They can sing it, and they can hear what’s being said, and they can understand it, and they like the music, and it makes them happy. I think that automatically makes them like it a lot more. For the first time my girls are like, ‘Daddy sing that song!’ instead of ‘Daddy, shhh!’ They’re also telling people I’m a big super, duper star, which is something that’s interesting ‘cause all my other kids have been like, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’. It’s fun.”

Everything that’s going on with Linkin Park, the good, the bad and the ugly, plays into ‘One More Light’. “What we talk about on this record and what we’re doing lyrically, it’s a snapshot of our lives in the present moment or the very recent past. It took 13 months to make the record, it didn’t take us that long to write a lot of the songs, it took us that long to make sure we did everything very precisely, in terms of building the tracks and making everything sound the way it does. We felt like this record was very important and other people were telling us that they felt this record was important, so we wanted to make sure that every detail was properly taken care of. I feel like this record is tapping into who we are at this present moment.” From the lyrics to the conviction, Linkin Park make one thing clear. “We’re not defined by what we’ve done; we’re defined by what we’re doing.” Here we go.

Taken from the May 2017 issue of Upset. Linkin Park’s album ‘One More Light’ is out 19th May.