"You the guy writing the article?" he says in a Midwestern drawl that would make "Happy birthday, Mom" sound like the prelude to a savage beating.
"Make sure you write how levelheaded these guys are," Jake says, pointing to the red suitcase he's wheeling from their dressing room. "They packed their own clothes. Bands never do that. They're the best guys I've ever worked with." Linkin Park are in Kansas City, Missouri, to play the Hale Arena, a 6,000-capacity barn normally used to meet the city's demand for rodeo. It's the third night of the band's Countdown to Revolution road trip, a precursor to January's Projekt Revolution tour with bong lords Cypress Hill and nu-metal contenders Adema. Soft-spoken Linkin drummer Rob Bourdon chats with the band's business manager over baked potatoes and fried chicken. "Nothing to worry about," he says of the meeting. "Everything looks good."
Indeed it does. In November 2000, shortly before the band's first tour, lead singer Chester Bennington bullishly decided to have blue-and-red flames tattooed from his wrists to his elbows - a strict no-no in the fast-food industry and other career avenues he'd grudgingly explored while playing with his first band, Grey Daze, in his hometown, Phoenix. Having heard a Linkin Park demo - the band was then known as Hybrid Theory - Bennington caught a flight to try out for the Los Angeles five-piece a few months earlier. Things worked out, and their debut album, an eclectic rap- rock concoction christened Hybrid Theory, was cut in four weeks. Today, propelled by the well- manicured rage of singles "Papercut," "One Step Closer," "Crawling" and "In the End," and a rigorous 12-month tour that has included slots on Ozzfest and Family Values, Hybrid Theory has sold 5 million copies. It's been a year of stupefying success from which the band is proud to have emerged, to use Bennington's words, as "ordinary dudes." No cause to regret that ink job, then? "One tattoo leads to two, and two leads to 20," says the 25-year- old Bennington, hitching up his jeans to reveal a green dragon above his right ankle. It's the latest addition to a collection now numbering 10, which includes a huge, gothic LINKIN PARK etched across his lower back and the cover of Hybrid Theory - a flag- bearing soldier with dragonfly wings that was designed by his cofrontman, 24-year-old rhyme- buster Mike Shinoda - on his left calf. "I still don't know what to think about that," muses Shinoda. Asked if he might one day regret wearing the band's colors so indelibly, Bennington insists it's never crossed his mind.
In Bennington, Linkin Park have found a frontman to lift them high above the angst pack. Shinoda is an enthusiastic MC, and the band - guitarist Brad Delson, 25, bassist Dave "Phoenix" Farrell, 24, drummer Bourdon, 22, and DJ Joe Hahn, 24 - is ferociously tight live, but Bennington's surprisingly versatile voice and anguished back story provide the star power. Like Kom's Jonathan Davis, Bennington was shattered by the divorce of his parents and abused as a boy. Unlike Davis, though, Bennington insists none of Linkin Park's material is autobiographical. "The songs can relate to anybody's situation," he says. "Like on 'One Step Closer': there's nothing in my life that drives me to 'the edge' . . . except trying to write the lyrics."
"Chester's the emotional leader - he brings a real fire to everything that goes on," explains bassist Farrell, who once played with now defunct Christian-rock crew the Snax. "Mike and Joe are the creative forces in the band. Rob and Brad handle the business stuff. I'm the one who doesn't have a talent," he quips.
Were the Snax akin to white- bread jesus-rockers Stryper?
"No, more like P.O.D., which is to say the focus was positive, . and not about screwing chicks and ; pounding 40s."
Linkin Park, it turns out, share Farrell's former band's message of uplift, minus the son-of-God shout-outs. "We're not saying that; everything has to be like The - Partridge Family, " Shinoda says, "but if things are going to shit, you want to stay optimistic. That doesn't mean you have to have a good time when things are going poorly; just look at the big picture." "We're smart, we're serious and we're not here to fuck around," adds Delson. "People think when you get a record deal all your problems will go away. We know that the bigger we get, the more problems we'll have. I guess Puff Daddy was somewhat - what's the word? - prophetic in that respect."
IN THE BAND'S second dressing room, reserved for anyone who wants a discreet beer or a smoke, Bennington fiddles with a new purchase, a $25,000 Pro Tools recording rig, and gushes about his wife of six years, Samantha, a realtor he met when he was manning the grill at Burger King. Their first child, Draven Sebastian Bennington - named after Eric Draven, Brandon Lee's character in The Crow - is due in April.
Does your wife worry that you might take liberties with female fans?
"I think that's natural for any woman with a husband who travels a lot, but we really don't have a problem with it. I'm a pain in the ass, and she's perfect."
Bennington's attempts to set up his Pro Tools unit are hampered by the fact that he ignores the manual and has just sucked down a fat doobie. "If I don't have pot on the road, I will fucking kill somebody," he explains. Linkin Park's only recreational drug user, Bennington's need for weed is mild compared to the narcotic meltdown of his youth. "I was on, like, II hits of acid a day. I dropped so much acid I'm surprised I can still speak! I'd smoke a bunch of crack, do a bit of meth and just sit there and freak out. Then I'd smoke opium to comedown." His arrest for marijuana possession when he was 18 wasn't the only sign that he needed to get a grip. "I weighed 110 pounds," he says. "My mom said I looked like I stepped out of Auschwitz. So I used pot to get off drugs. Every time I'd get a craving, I'd smoke my pot."
Bennington appeared to be a normal, happy kid. The son of a policeman and a nurse, he did well at school, enjoyed theater and thought The A-Team ruled. One day when he was II, he came home from school, "and Mom wasn't there anymore - she left. I took the divorce pretty badly - started sleeping in class, getting high. I just wanted to get away. . . . I was going through the molesting part of my life then, too."
For someone who has made no secret of being abused as a child, it seems unusual that Bennington sometimes wears a T-shirt bearing the logo of Hustler magazine's unsavory comic-strip deviant Chester the Molester.
"That's just a name people have always called me," he says. "When somebody meets me and I go, 'Hi, I'm Chester,' they go, 'Chester the Molester!' "
What exactly happened to you when you were younger?
"I'm over it. I mean, what exactly happened is a lot. . . . Just . . . certain situations. . . "
Bennington stares at the floor. "I don't know. . . I don't really want to talk about it."
A few uncomfortable moments later, Bennington shakes off the silence with a smile. "It's all good. It sucks when those things happen, but going through them made me who I am today. And I'm a pretty decent person, I think."
IMMEDIATELY AFTER their encore - which climaxes with the "Shut up when I'm talking to you!" refrain from "One Step Closer" - Linkin Park quickly towel off and stand behind the security barrier at the front of the audience. For the next 3° minutes they sign autographs for any fan who wants them. It's just before midnight when they get back to their bus. Girlfriends are phoned, cookies eaten. Bennington walks in, mock- punches Blender in the stomach, fetches sodas for both of us and slouches into a bench seat.
What's the strangest request you've ever received from a fan?
"Someone once asked me for my pubic hair," he replies. "That was pretty sick."
Did you comply?
Bennington recoils in mock horror. "We're just normal dudes," he says with a shrug, then smiles. "For God's sake. . . " [BLENDER]