Are we having fun yet ?
03.05.2008Of course not. Back off groupies and drug dealers: this is Linkin Park, the world's most sensible multi-millionaire metal stars.
How do you celebrate selling 14 million copies (and counting) of your debut album? How do you reward yourself after playing 324 shows in a single year? How do you unwind after two years in which your previously unknown band has become a mind-boggling, multi-platinum phenomenon? If you're Linkin Park you do it like this.
"I bought toy robots," says DJ Joseph Hahn.
"I got a dog," says bassist Dave "Phoenix" Farrell. "That was a project."
"I bought some fake diamond earrings for 28 dollars in Macy's," beams guitarist Brad Delson.
"Just being at home after two years yo appreciate simple things," says drummer Rob Bourdon. " I had fun shopping for food. That was the greatest."
"We don't really take that many breaks," explains singer Chester Bennington. "On our breaks we work."
When Linkin Park released their debut album, Hybrid Theory, in October 2001, it was rumoured that they were manufactured by Backstreet Boys creator Lou Pearlman. It was nonsense, of course, but you can see how it developed. No A&R man could have contrived a slicker fusion of rock, rap and pop than Hybrid Theory, and no Svengali could have assembled a cleaner-living, harder-working, better-behaved bunch of young men. No wonder some people thought Linkin Park weren't a proper rock band.
Hybrid Theory was the world's biggest selling record of 2001 and there still appears to be no chink in its creators' armour. Last year they released the remix collection Reanimation; not one of the year's most vital releases but one that topped the million mark and kept Linkin Park on radio and MTV. They unveil their second album proper, Meteora, at a time and rap-metal is flagging in the face of neo-grunge power ballads, skinny-tied rock'n'rollers and metal traditionalists like Disturbed - witness the heinous under-performance of Korn's mega-budget Untouchables.
Where once Linkin Park were mocked by their harder rocking elders as "pop-metal", now it's that gleamingly commercial aesthetic which should ensure their survival. Like a Hollywood blockbuster sequel, Meteora (named after a group of cliff-top monasteries in Greece) amplifies the fundamental ingredients of its predecessor tenfold. The hip hop and techno beats hit harder, the stadium angst is grander and the perfectionist zeal of the production is more obsessive; the single Somewhere I Belong went through 40 different choruses over 18 months before it was finally finished.
The cogs of Linkin Park's giant promotional machine are already in mtion. Tour rehearsals are underway at a sprawling studio complex in North Hollywood, which is where the band gathers on a February afternoon for the Q photo shoot. Outsite, in what laughably passes for winter in Los Angeles, the sun beats down. Inside, the mood is less bright.
The problem is the photographer's flash, which causes fresh uproar with each retina-searing blast. Eventually, Bennington walks out, huffing, "I didn't sign up for this shit." As general grumbling ensues, MC Mike Shinoda takes charge. "You guys complain about the light and I'll complain about you being a bunch of f**king sissies, OK?"
Bennington returns in better spirit. "Mike, if you need to calm down just put your hand on my ass," he quips. "It's like a Buddhist prayer station."
A few minutes later, though, apropos of nothing, he abruptly turns to me and asks, "Why do people hate musicians?" Sorry?
"Photographers make us do stupid things, interviewers make us do stupid things and everyone hates the fact that we make money." Shortly afterward, Bennington spots me surreptitiously noting down this peculiar outburst. "He's going to write down what I said, isn't he?" Shinoda shoots me a glance and adopts the steely courtesy of a policeman asking sir to come quietly. "A lot of people say stupid things but I'm sure our friend here won't put them in his article."
Shinoda co-founded Linkin Park (then christened Xero) with Delson in 1996 and, much as he may insist the band is a democracy, he naturally takes charge at the shoot. The others seem happy to let him do so. Hahn, for one, is in a world of his own, pulling faces and making imcomprehensible jokes, he gives the impression that he is tittering at some internal private gag reel.
Delson, on the other hand, seems much older than his 24 years. Initial questions elicit bland variations on such key themes as "work", "music" and "fans" from the guitarist. Further inquiries are met with repetition and stonewalling.
"Everyone has their own problems," he said blandly. "I just think we're really lucky in that we get to do what we love, which is make music and interact with our fans who have been supportive of us. And we don't take it for granted."
Delson once planned to be a lawyer. He would have made a very good one.
In 1999, each member of Linkin Park wrote down their respective ambitions for the band, regrouped at their Hollywood rehearsal studio the next day and compared notes. Most of them just wanted a full-time career in music. Bennington hoped for a gold record. Shinoda wanted nothing less than a Grammy. All these goals would be achieved.
Linkin Park toiled long and hard to get this far. All in their mid-20s, they share a middle class work ethic. "The American middle class is probably the hardest working class of people in the country," says Bennington. "It's not like we have things handed to us on a silver platter." A lengthy tirade against the US taxation system ensues. Had they not been in a band, Linkin Park would all have solid careers by now. Shinoda studied graphic design, Bourdon pursued accountancy and Hahn, who now directs most of the videos, worked on special effects for programmes such as The X Files. Bennington, meanwhile, was a happily married man getting by in Phoenix, Arizona. That's where he was when a mutual friend (an A&R man at Zomba Records) sent him Xero's demo tape. Bennington liked what he heard so much that he promptly moved to LA and spent the following months sleeping in this car in between rehearsals and shifts in a coffee shop. "It's turned into a f**king rags to riches story," he gripes. "Whatever. I'm not a loser."
As Xero became Hybrid Theory became Linkin Park, they also became the band worth signing after 42 labels showcases and countless rejections. Bennington's arrival made all the difference but Shinoda brushes off any suggestion that he resented ceding center stage. "Brad and I started the band. If that had been a requirement it could have been easily determined at the beginning point," he says. "I was looking at the big picture."
Overwhelmingly, Linkin Park are all about the big picture. Between them they cover every aspect of the operation, from the music to the T-shirt designs to the marketing. Warner Bros trusted them enough to give them complete creative control over Meteora. Of course, 14 million albums buys you a lot of trust. "The sheer numbers of what happened with Hybrid Theory I still don't completely comprehend," says Shinoda. "When people start relating it to numbers of people who live in one city I start to think, Wow, we sold 10 times that city!"
Despite the wealth that their kind of success so obviously brings, Linkin Park bristle at the mention of money. It's as if they fear their fans won't take them seriously if they see how many zeroes are on their heroes' bank balances. Even so, given their public insistence on equality, Hahn and Farrell reveal that when it comes to royalties, some members of Linkin Park are more equal than others. "I don't know if we're allowed to talk about that," says a mortified Hahn. Farrell steps in diplomatically. "There's a way that it breaks down where everybody feels happy. But definitely different people's contributions are recognized. It's not a socialist state, so to speak."
Nobody in Linkin Park is much of a drinker and Bennington is the sole smoker. On tour, both activities are banned from their dressing room and tourbus. "When we go out on the road we're going out to work," says Bourdon. "Anything that distracts from giving 100% to the show we like to stay away from."
"When we're actually on stage, that's probably the most exciting moment for me," agrees Delson. "So to then say, Now I'm going to have fun after the show, that's ridiculous."
In the parking lot outside the studio, a row of discreetly expensive BMWs and Mercedes' suggests that a conference of advertising executives, rather than a band rehearsal, is taking place inside. There is just one exception, a chunky Chrysler PT Cruiser with spray-on flames lapping up the bonnet. Its owner steps out clad in a pimpalicious white tracksuit and smoking a cigarette. In a band of sensible young men, Chester Bennington is the only one an outsider might feasibly recognize as a rock star.
While Shinoda and Delson act like CEOs of Linkin Park Inc, and the rest follow their line, Bennington has the swagger, the volatility and the tattoos of a proper frontman. He is also, however, the band's first family. Last April his wife of six years, Samantha, gave birth to a son, Draven Sebastian. He is determined to avoid the pitfalls of the rock dad.
"Everybody has choices in their life," he says sternly. "You don't go and party on the road for 12 months and then come back and go, Oh it was necessary. F**k you guys. When my son's old enough he'll be going around the world with me. He won't grow up to say, My dad wasn't there because he was being a rock star."
Bennington is big on parenting. He pins the blame for his own turbulent adolescene squarely on his own parents, a policeman and a nurse, who divorced when he was 11. " I had a very serious childhood," he says. "And I blame it solely on the fact that I don't have a family. Everybody in my family knows it. It's their fault."
That seems a little harsh. Are you still angry?
"No, I love them all dearly. But you can't leave a kid when he's 11 to raise himself while everyone is going through emotional distress."
Bennington's childhood was indeed "serious". In the past he has revealed that he was sexually abused (not by his parents), an episode he refuses to elaborate on, but one which is not unrelated to his mammoth drug intake at the time.
"I had literally been on heavy narcotics for five years by the time I was 18," he says matter-of-factly. "When I was 17 I probably wasn't a person you'd want to be around. Not that I was a bad person. I just made bad decisions. When it came to, Hey do you wanna go to your grandmother's house and wish her happy birthday or do you wanna go smoke crack? I would go smoke crack."
Bennington gave up drugs when he was 18 but, during the Hybrid Theory tour, away from his wife Samantha for the first time in four years, his addictions began to bite again. After shows, while the rest of the band would repair to the tour bus, their singer would head for the studio bus, where "partying" was permitted. So was that "partyng" as in having party, or as in drinking alone?
"It was both. Partying with people after the show and then going off the deep end when I was by myself. Go on the road, f**king shit's everywhere. Everybody's partying, everybody's going crazy. Booze, drugs,. If you have people who don't know that you have a past and they go, Hey dude, do you want some of this? and you're drunk, the addict in you goes, Let's go! The next thing you know you're sitting up for eight hours by yourself going, What the hell am I doing?"
So was it cocaine as well as alcohol? He winces. "There was a lot of battling."
Whatever the precise situation, Bennington gave up alcohol before any of his bandmates needed to step in. "When he stopped he seemed like a normal healthy guy and I didn't realize he wasn't healthy before," says Shinoda. "If he had let it go it would have become a huge, huge problem."
With Bennington's drinking out of the way, Linkin Park are now almost eerily invulnerable. Perhaps this is the shape of bands to come: no vice, no rivalries, no eccentricities, just hard work and a will of iron. The world is already theirs.
"The world's a big place and there are different tastes," muses Bennington. "So to connect with people from all different types of background and culture and age groups and belief systems, you've created a bridge between those difference." Nonetheless, he seems torn between this cheering vision of all colors and creeds living in rap-metal harmony and a suspicion that maybe Linkin Park are just another attractively packaged, dollar-churning multinational commodity.
"I think our attention spans are like the newer age of kids who need a video and an interview and what's coming up next, all on the same screen," he muses. "We want something that hits you and leaves you wanting more. That's why I think a lot of people get pumped up when they hear our albums. It's not something they have to sit down and invest time in. That's what gives us our drive to work even faster."
Q Magazine (United Kingdom) - Summer 2003