Welcome to life with Linkin Park.
Unknown outside of Los Angeles only a year ago, the genre-blending rap/rock/electronic/pop sextet has now sold nearly three million copies of its debut album, Hybrid Theory. Sales have certainly been spurred by the eye-pop- ping videos for "One Step Closer" and "Crawling" (the latter of which was recently nominated for two MTV Video Music Awards), while the band's Herculean tour itinerary, its off-the-hook live performances, and its refreshing willingness to mingle with fans at almost any opportunity all seem to ensure that copies of Hybrid Theory will continue to fly off the shelves.
And yet, such success never comes without a price: Since October 24, 2000, when Hybrid Theory was released, Bennington, Shinoda, Delson, bassist Phoenix, drummer Rob Bourdon, and mixmaster Joe Hahn have endured a grueling work schedule that has seen them take a grand total of six weeks' time off. It's the sort of grind that would make even the hardiest band wonder why they ever, bought into this rock thing in the first place. Linkin Park, however, is ' obviously made of sterner stuff. In a less stable band faced with such pressure, an argument about The Sopranos could easily escalate into something far more serious; with these guys, it's just a fun way to dispel the inevitable monotony between shows.
"We've kind of all grown together," says Shinoda. "You know, you put us in a bus together for a year, and that's what happens; you either freak out and hate each other, or you bond and get along really well."
Happily, the quality of the band's traveling accommodations has grown with them. A mainstage fixture - along with Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, Papa Roach, Disturbed, Crazy Town, and Black Label Society - on this summer's Ozzfest tour, Linkin Park and crew are currently traveling in two comfy and well-appointed tour buses, complete with multiple VCRs and satellite dishes. It's a far cry, apparently, from the shoddy old RV that carried the band in its pre-stardom days. "We did the RV thing for, like, four months," Shinoda remembers. "I know there are a lot of bands that have been living out of their vans for years, but I sympathize with them so much. It's really hard to travel like that, with everybody in one RV."
"It's inhumane to have to live that way," says Delson. "It breaks you down, mentally."
"Especially if you're over-capacity," adds Shinoda. "The way our RV was set up, there was room for seven people to sleep. We had nine." "And we had all our equipment in there, too," interjects Bennington. "If we'd had an accident..."
From the RV, the band graduated to what Delson describes as "the crappiest bus imaginable," before scoring a slightly more civilized ride on a European tour opening for the Deftones. A seemingly endless trek across a frozen foreign landscape, the Deftones dates were one leg of what Shinoda now jokingly refers to as the "Hopeless Winter Tour."
"We had toured the U.S. during winter," he laughs, "and then we managed to follow winter around the globe. We were in snow and rain for nine months! It'd be like, 'Welcome to Hawaii! The local temperature is 10 degrees, with a likely possibility of hail!' If you see pictures of us from the end of that tour, we look like somebody just beat us up. We look like we're on drugs; we're exhausted, we have huge bags under our eyes, and we're just green, with sweat and dirt allover us. I would go for days at a time without showering, because the showers in the venues were disgusting."
They can all laugh about it now, of course, but such trying conditions only motivated Linkin Park to work (and rock) harder, as well as reinforce the band members' resolve to keep their living space free of various substances typically associated with rock and roll. Much has been made in the press of the latter decision, with some writers presenting it (along with the noticeable lack of expletives on Hybrid Theory) as evidence that Linkin Park is a musical emissary for the "Just Say No" crowd. But according to Shinoda, the band's "no partying on the bus" policy is merely rooted in an understandable desire for a little normality amid the protracted weirdness of life on the road.
"The bus is our house," he says. "The other day, somebody left the door unlocked, and this girl, this drunken back- stage leech, walks on the bus completely wasted, and is like, 'Hey! Where's your bathroom?' I mean, imagine you're sitting in your living room watching TV, having a Pop Tart and a soda, and some drunken idiot walks into your home and wants to use your bathroom. You'd friggin' call the cops! And that's what it's like; it's a really scary way to live, you know? You don't have any safety zone. So we just try to keep the entire environment as mellow as we can, because the outside is a jungle. We're hoping that, by the end of next year, we'll be able to just teleport ourselves to the gigs!"
A tireless tinkerer with a taste for everything
from hip-hop to emo-core, Shinoda helped create the template for the Linkin Park sound back in 1996, when he and high-school buddy Delson began using Shinoda's bedroom mini-studio to write songs. "I took piano, classical, and all that, for about 10 years," he says, "and then I started getting into sampling, and making beats for friends." A talented illustrator, Shinoda has a degree from the Art Center College of Pasadena, where he also met Joe Hahn, an ace turntablist with a taste for way-out sounds.
"Joe's the one who brings in the most crazy creative shit, the type of stuff that the rest of us would be afraid to even think up," Shinoda says. "He'll be scratching through an effect, through the speakers in the room of the studio, and then he'll record it with room mikes. You'd be like, 'Why would you want to do that?' But then it sounds so great. Or he'll say things like, 'Hey, I want to try more of a Bee Gees sound on that.' And we'll be like, 'Huh?' But it totally works."
When it came time to find a drummer, they called in Rob Bourdon, a funk-loving skins man who had gone to high school with Shinoda and Delson. Bassist Phoenix, who had previously roomed with Delson at UCLA, arrived later. "It's lucky that we got together with the group of people that we did," Shinoda reflects. "Obviously, we've all been friends from the beginning."
Originally known as Xero, the band changed its name to Hybrid Theory, a moniker which accurately referenced the band's eclectic array of rock, rap, R&B, and synth-pop influences. "There was a period in my life where I was way into Corrosion of Conformity," says Shinoda. "And then, a year later, I was listening to, like, Biggie Smalls." The band eventually changed its name again to Linkin Park, not long after the arrival of Chester Bennington, an Arizona native who'd been singing in punk and alternative bands since he was 13. A mutual acquaintance hooked Bennington up with the Linkin Park guys, and the creative chemistry was immediately apparent to all involved. As Shinoda puts it, "He came out and did some stuff with us, and boom!"
By this time, there was a sufficient buzz about the band for Linkin Park to play showcase gigs for several different labels, but no one seemed willing to take a chance on them. "Two and a half years ago, we had a publishing deal, we had a ton of good songs, and we were really confident with what we were doing," Shinoda recalls. "Labels started checking us out, but they weren't confident that the way we were mixing our music would be successful. Rather than trying to be more rock, trying to be more hip- hop, trying to be more electronic, or whatever, we kind of wanted to sit right in the middle, and not be testosterone-driven, kick-your-ass type of shit. And the labels freaked out; they were like, 'No, the testosterone shit is what sells!' We basically got turned down by everybody."
It wasn't until the spring of 2000 that the band was finally offered a deal by Warner Bros., who put them in the studio with producer Don Gilmore (Pearl Jam, Sugar Ray). The resulting 12-track CD is an impeccably craft- ed record that, sonically and spiritually, is far closer to Nine Inch Nails than Limp Bizkit. Angst-ridden songs like "Crawling," "In the End," and "Papercut" skillfully blend Shinoda's raps with Bennington's vocals, while Delson's innovative guitar textures and Hahn's bottomless bag of scratching tricks often leave you wondering where a particular riff or sound is coming from. Bourdon and Phoenix give the record its visceral kick, underlining each change with plenty of rhythmic thrust. Loaded with more hooks than a seaside bait shop, nearly every song on Hybrid Theory sounds like a potential single. It's easy to understand why a large number of listeners have been drawn to the record, but Shinoda volunteers that he feels a little bit uneasy about the band's massive success.
"It seems like a lot of more mainstream type kids are getting into what we're doing," he says. "When I was in high school, if certain people started liking my bands, I felt like I couldn't like that band anymore; it was like, the idiots were ruining it for me. I don't want to alienate our real fans, you know? I don't want the kids who were down with us from the early days to feel like there isn't room for them any more.
"That's why we do the things we do," says Shinoda earnestly. "That's why I go to our message board all the time and talk to kids. That's why we hang out after our shows, or try to go somewhere that day where we can go and meet people, sign some autographs, and just hang out. I mean, there have been hundreds of occasions where we've actually signed autographs for longer than we've played; twice as long, in a lot of cases."
If Linkin Park had been a pre-fab Boy Band,
Chester Bennington would certainly be cast as "the edgy one." The only Linkin Park member with tattoos, Bennington is also the one most likely to be found propping up the end of the hotel bar. He's got issues, too; molested as a child, Bennington masked his pain with coke and methamphetamine when he was still in his teens, but was able to drop the habits before they dropped him first. "Everybody's gone through some bad shit at one time or another," he insists over beer and bourbon shots at the hotel bar, but it's obvious that the rage he vents onstage isn't just an act. Then again, Bennington's contributions to Linkin Park aren't merely limited to creative approaches to anger management; he can croon prettily enough to make Justin Timberlake jealous, and he brings an innate sense of melody and song structure honed by years of performing in Phoenix-area bands. When Bennington first received his copy of Hybrid Theory's demo tape, he'd actually retired from rock and roll and was earning a living scanning old property maps into a digital format. His two CDs with a Phoenix band called Grey Daze now fetch over $30 apiece on eBay, but they never garnered much more than local notoriety at the time they were released. "I definitely know why it didn't go anywhere," he says of his old band. "We all wanted to make it, but we all wanted to make it for different reasons. It wasn't about making good songs, where anything else that comes from that is a fringe benefit. In this band, everybody has a grasp on songwriting, everybody understands his role, and everybody understands what we're doing. When this came up, I was like, 'This is it!' The creativity of the music, and the different sounds that were coming out of it - there was no doubt in my mind."
For Bennington, the infinite musical possibilities are still the most exciting aspect of Linkin Park. "There's definitely a mixture of things in our music, because we have two frontmen, myself and Mike. There's a mass of people who really like what we're doing, as a whole. And then there's the people who are like, 'Mike, man, your raps are the phattest! You're the best MC in the world! You need to have more of that shit on the next album!' And then there are people who are like, 'Chester, dude, I love your voice, your lyrics are great! You guys should sing more on the next album and rap less!' We might make a Coldplay record next, or a Slipknot record, or a Mos Def - we just don't know."
The morning of the Toronto Ozzfest show arrives,
and it looks like Linkin Park may need a good kick to get moving. The previous evening, Bennington and one of the band's crew members closed a bar, drunkenly pledging their undying love for Janeane Garofalo and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Alysson Hannigan. "We watched people bet on wrestling!" reports Bennington cheerily. His mood soon darkens, however, when he realizes that his father (a former cop, now an official with the Arizona Department of Corrections) is flying into Cleveland to meet them tomorrow, but that the band will be in Rochester, NY. "How long have we known about this Rochester gig?" he yells. "How come nobody tells me fucking anything?"
Shinoda looks reasonably bright-eyed, but everyone else on the bus seems the worse for wear. Hahn has just flown in from L.A., where he was working on the digital effects for Linkin Park's new "In the End" video. Delson limps about on a tender ankle, the result of an injury originally sustained during the filming of the same clip. Bourdon cuddles quietly with his girlfriend, while Phoenix simply looks like he's about to die from sleep deprivation.
But by late afternoon, when the band takes the Ozzfest stage, all cares, injuries, and exhaustion seem to have magically vanished. "Somehow, when the show starts, you have a lot of adrenaline going, even if you're hurting," says Delson. "Your body will do things that you didn't know it was capable of. Lt probably isn't a good thing for your body, in the long run, but..."
As Shinoda predicted, there are some members of the crowd who aren't exactly psyched about having to sit through Linkin Park's set. Down along the front, an enormously fat man dripping with sweat holds up both middle fingers and chants an endless mantra of "Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you!" But while fellow Ozzfest act Crazy Town responded to today's hecklers with such comebacks as "I'm the one who's up here, bitch!" and "You know we get laid a lot, right?" Linkin Park works the crowd like old pros. Shinoda, who appears as relaxed and comfortable onstage as he is off, even manages to bond with the sun-stroked masses in the back, while Bennington scores points with the locals by draping himself in the Canadian flag. By the time the last chord of "One Step Closer" echoes across the venue, the fat guy in front is still chanting, but most of the assembled multitude seems refreshed by the bracing 40-minute set they've just witnessed.
"If there are any kids out there who want to be in a band because it means you can just slack off and party all day long, they'd better get a reality check," says Bennington, as Delson and Phoenix hang their stage clothes to dry from the bus' side-view mirrors. "I'm doing more work now - working harder, with longer hours than I've ever worked in my life. And I've dug ditches and built houses, and had a 40-pound weed blower on my back. With those jobs, at the end of the day, you go home and relax. With this job, there's no downtime. But the way I look at it, we're working this hard because we've been given the opportunity to work this hard. I'm not gonna lie - it can be hard when, every day of your life, you walk outside and there is somebody there going, 'Hey, can you do something for me? Can you sign this? Can I take a picture?'
"But you've gotta get beyond yourself and say, 'look, this kid's bought an album, he probably got four or five of his friends to buy the album, he buys the T-shirts at the show.' You can't deny the people who've put you where you are. You're not successful because you're a star; you're successful because people made you a star." END