A little more than a decade ago, Chester Bennington was flipping burgers at Burger King and was so poor that a skateboard was his primary means of transportation. Then he joined nu-metal band Linkin Park, and in 2001 their debut album, Hybrid Theory, a radio-friendly blend of hip-hop and heavy metal, shot to the top of the charts, where they have remained ever since. Their three studio albums, Hybrid Theory, Meteora (2003) and Minutes to Midnight (2007) have all been No. 1 on the Billboard Charts in the US, and have sold more than a total of 250,000 copies in Taiwan, where they first performed in 2007 in front of 40,000 fans at Taipei’s Zhongshan Football Stadium (中山足球場), in what organizers touted as the country’s highest-selling foreign concert since Michael Jackson.
Staff Reporter Ron Brownlow recently spoke via phone with Bennington, Linkin Park’s lead singer, ahead of his band’s return visit to Taiwan as part of next month’s 2009 Summer Rock Summit (夏日搖滾高峰會).
Taipei Times: In the late-1990s, after listening to a demo, you quit your job and moved your family to California to join Lincoln Park. What made you do that?
Chester Bennington: A little man that lives inside my head [pauses for effect]. I’m a very emotional person, I’m a very gut kind of guy. I would say that in a lot of ways if you looked at how [Linkin Park’s other frontman] Mike Shinoda looks at things and how I look at things, we probably look at things in two different ways but we somehow come to the same conclusion. So I didn’t analyze it very much. I find that when I just go with my gut and I just go with the whisper that’s in my heart, in my head, it generally tells me the right choice to make. When I over-analyze I find myself in trouble. So when I heard the demo I was like, “I’ll go out there.” When I heard the music I knew right away that it was nothing like anything I had ever heard before. That sometimes can be really bad [laughs]. In this case it was really good, and right when I heard the music all sorts of really great melodies started popping into my head and I was like, “This is a sign. I need to go, I need to do this. I need to go out there. This is the real deal.”
And when I moved out there I did see that it was the real deal. From the very first day of practices we were already a kick-ass bad. I was like, “This is a no-brainer. This is my chance. I’m only going to get one opportunity to do this. I want to do this with my life and if I don’t take chances to make it happen then it’s not going to happen.” So I quit my job, moved out, moved to Mike Shinoda’s couch, lived in the back of my car, in a really shitty apartment that had the roof cave in on it. And while doing that pretty much made a record that changed six guys from various parts of southern California and one guy from Arizona’s life completely for the rest of their existence [laughs]. It could have very easily turned out to be nothing at the same time. It could have been a fine experience and I could tell my grandkids, “Yeah, at one time I moved out to California to try to be in this band.” It could have been one of those things too. But I knew somewhere inside, something told me, “This is the one, you need to go.”
TT: That demo, is this something we’ve heard before?
CB: There’s got to be some versions of the song out there. The demo was part of an EP they had already made as a band. They sold it at shows and passed copies around. The songs that I heard were on there. The difference was that the copy they sent me on one side had just music, and the other side had music with their old singer on it. When I listened to the music the first time, I listened to it without the vocals. One song ended up being on Hybrid Theory but we changed all the melodies to it.
(Later during the interview, a media handler says the name of the song Bennington referred to was Forgotten, from Linkin Park’s debut album, Hybrid Theory.
Linkin Park got its start in California in 1996 when high school friends Mike Shinoda, Rob Bourdon and Brad Delson formed a band. After high school, the three added Dave Farrell, Mark Wakefield and Joe Hahn to their group, which was called Xero. Later, when Wakefield, the band’s vocalist, and Farrell left, the band changed its name from Xero to Hybrid Theory, and Bennington was brought on as the new vocalist based on a referral by Jeff Blue, vice president of Zomba Music. At Bennington’s suggestion the band changed its name again, this time to a purposefully misspelled version of the name of a park in Santa Monica, California. They posted MP3s to their Web site and enlisted a “street team” of fans around the world to help them promote their music. After numerous rejections from record labels, Linkin Park signed with Warner Bros Records, where Blue was now vice president, in 1999. Hybrid Theory sold 14 million copies and was the world’s top-selling album in 2001.)
TT: In one case someone at a record label told you, “We wouldn’t sign you for a fucking million dollars.” What made you keep pushing with this band even when people weren’t signing you?
CB: There was no question in our minds that we did not suck. We thought definitely that the people that were meeting with us were questionable in their ability to identify music that did not suck. We were just like, “They don’t get it yet. They don’t get it. We kick ass and we know that. And people are listening to us and people are coming to our shows.”
We didn’t play a lot of shows, we would sit in our rehearsal space and write songs and rehearse the songs we wrote and see how they were performed live. And if we didn’t like it we would go back in the studio at Mike’s house and rewrite them. We basically wrote and we didn’t play until we had songs that didn’t suck. And so when we’d play we’d invite our friends and 300 people would show up and they would go tell their friends, “This did not suck. You have to see this band.” Then the next thing you know 600 people would show up. It wasn’t like we were up there every week playing a lot of live shows like a lot of bands do. So when we got turned down we were like we had already made up our minds that we were going to do this. And we just decided that we’re going to have to do this without a label. We’re going to have to do this on our own.
So we started a street team, we followed the hip-hop street model of kids on the street passing out mix tapes. We did that with our music, we passed out CDs with our music on them. At concerts we had kids going to shows with the bands they liked and handing CDs to people at the show. They’d end up handing the CD to their friends. If their friends liked it we told them to tell their friends to contact us, and we’d make them part of the street team and we’d start sending them CDs to pass out. By the time we released Hybrid Theory, I think we’d passed out over 250,000.
TT: Mike Shinoda recently said your new album is going to be so unique that “they’re going to have to come up with a new genre name for what this record is.”
CB: It’s going to be called Space Rocks. No, I’m just kidding [laughs]. It’s going to be called Old Metal [pauses] … No, actually, it is definitely going to be more difficult to place us in terms of genre. I think that in the beginning we were considered a metal band. Then we kind of became an alternative band. And now we’re kind of both and a hip-hop group. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult also to be in this band and write songs simply because we’ve written so much stuff, so much material that no one’s ever heard, that only us and our producers have heard.
Now Rick Rubin’s working on this record with us as well. If he thinks he hears anything he heard during the process of making Minutes to Midnight or ever before he’s like, “That’s done. That song is gone.” So we all kind of look at things like that now because we don’t want Rick to go, “That sounds like so-and-so from 10 years ago.”
(Rubin, who produced Linkin Park’s most recent album, Minutes to Midnight, is famous for co-founding Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons while Rubin still a college student, and for getting hip-hop Run-DMC and rock group Aerosmith to collaborate on a cover of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way. Rubin is also known for rejuvenating the late Johnny Cash’s career with a series of albums on Rubin’s label American Recordings, and, more recently, for producing albums by U2, Green Day and Metallica. Rubin and Linkin Park are currently working on a new album slated for release early next year.)
TT: What are some of the cohesive elements in your new album?
CB: The idea that the beats need to be really unique and interesting, the idea that starting a song off simply to be something atmospheric and beautiful and really psychedelic and crazy is totally acceptable. We play with every kind of keyboard, loop it, record it, effect it, sample it, play it back through pedal, through another keyboard with an electric wand, and we sit there fucking through la-la land in music; we filled the studio up with balloons so we could live in a surreal environment. We’ve done some pretty crazy shit, so as a result we’ve allowed ourselves to be free-thinking rather than “write a song that’s gonna be a hit,” because we can do that, we know how to do that, and that’s fun and we’re good at it, but let’s do that but let’s do it in a completely fresh way that challenges us. That’s the hard part — and that’s also the most fun.
TT: The song [New Divide] wrote for the new Transformers movie soundtrack, is that any indication of what your new album’s going to sound like?
CB: It’s kind of a little bit of both yes and no. Yes in the sense that we wrote that song with these ideas in our minds: OK, we don’t need to have a hip-hop beat, we can have a really tom-driven, four-to-the-floor, synth-based [sound] and effect-distorted vocals and all that stuff. And out of that came some pretty dope music. I mean the music in New Divide is pretty sick, it’s pretty original. [Linkin Park also helped write the score for the movie.] The electronic-based element is something that is so pronounced on New Divide. I think definitely the electronic element of our next record will be elevated for sure.
TT: Tell me about your own solo project, Dead by Sunrise. How did you come up with that name?
CB: I came up with the name after experiencing many days where I thought I was not going to live to the next day. I was definitely going through a very rough time in my life during certain phases of making this record. One [phase] was in the beginning process of making this record, being divorced. My band was on hiatus and fighting with the record company ... in 2005, 2006 ... and around that period I was drinking whisky like ... it was ridiculous. I literally was not leaving my house, I locked myself in my closet, suffered from delirium tremors, on a daily basis; I thought I was really going to die. I was gray and sickly looking, on the verge of turning yellow, and my liver was swollen. It was horrible.
And then I got remarried and figured out that that was not the way to live. And at the same time while going through all of that, I was also experiencing new, beautiful things — a great, healthy relationship in a loving environment, rediscovering my bandmates through sobriety, and finding out who I really am through all of that, too. So there’s a very dark element to the record, a very personal element to the record, and there’s a very bright shiny element to it as well.
TT: When you play Taipei are you going to play any songs from your solo album?
CB: [Pauses.] Does my silence give you the answer?
TT: On your blog you wrote that your solo album is going to be “a lot more straightforward rock, with a little bit of an electronic element to it, lots of keys and snyths and stuff like that,” and that “there are a few elements where I think you’ll be able to see what my influence on [Linkin Park] is.” Can you elaborate?
CB: I grew up at a time where I was a child of many different things going on that were awesome. There was the New Romantic movement with all these great electronic pop bands coming out of England, there was great dark music coming out of not only the alternative scene all over the world but also in the grunge era and punk re-emergence in the 1990s. All that stuff has made a huge impact on me as an artist, and I drew from all of those elements.
TT: You were one of the first bands to make it big using the Internet. How have changes in the way people consume music — such as buying ringtones, downloading individual tracks instead of buying entire albums — affected how you make music?
CB: [Laughs.] You know we laugh about what people think about the music business, the idea of what that even means. Sometimes we joke, “Oh this is going to make a great ringtone,” but it hasn’t changed the way we write music. I think one thing we would like to see happen for us in the future and what may be kind of a cool thing is, is an album actually relevant? I’m not even sure anymore if making a record is even necessary. What if it’s cooler to release four, five songs every few months? Or every six months? Or release three songs at a time, so you can be touring and creating and releasing music on a regular basis? Why not focus on three great songs, make them as great as you can, and release them in ways that not only give fans what they want but also give bands an opportunity to stay working rather than go disappear for two years?
I think that’s one thing the Internet has [changed] in terms of how people get music, because most people buy singles now. They hear a song on the radio and they go, “Oh cool!” and they go to whatever site they go to to get music and they buy it. And if there’s more songs by the band they haven’t heard, they listen to it for 30 seconds and go, “That song sucks. That song sucks. Oh I like that one! I’ll get that one too.” And they make their minds up the same way record executives do [after listening to] 15 seconds of a song. I mean you can tell, dude. You’re a fan of music. If you listen to 15 to 20 seconds of a song, if it doesn’t have you in those 20 seconds then you don’t like the song, right? It’s turned the world into one giant record company with 3 billion critics. That’s really cool! Forcing people to make better shit and deal with having a very small niche of followers. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s where most bands are anyway.
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