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Boys in the bubble

You may not be aware of it, but it the proposed and perhaps inevitable invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq is not the only military-style operation planned for the period where winter bleeds into Spring. There's something of equally unsmiling proportions planned for the month; something planned and conceive in America with possible repercussions for millions of people. It might not be, as Cuban President Fidel Castro famously described the Manic Street Preachers' much-hyped gig in Havana in 2001, louder than war (or at least not in this war) but it will still be pretty loud. It should be huge and people will be talking about it. It goes by the name "Meteora", and it's the new album from one of America's premier, blue-chip corporations: Linkin Park.

To get people talking about their new album, first Linkin Park have to start talking themselves. Which is why vocalist Chester Bennington is walking into a sumptuous, split-level, pastel-coloured suite at the opulent but tastefully reserved Hyatt Hotel in the freezing but stunning northern, German city of Hamburg today. On this Thursday afternoon he's here to meet a posse of European journalists. I've been fortunate enough to secure an interview alone with Bennington and the co-vocalist Mike Shinoda, but it doesn't happen until tomorrow. Today Chester and two of his bandmates (guitarist Brad Delson and drummer Rob Bourdon) are due to sit for a half hour session with a group of writers from various European magazines, writers who haven't been quite as fortunate as this one. In a move designed to kill - or at least, placate - six hacks with one stone, Bennington, Delson and Bourdon will sit for questions for half an hour before half a dozen writers all asking their own, individual questions in a round table format. The writers will then be able to use the quotes in their magazines. And Linkin Park will have gained six stories inside of 30 minutes. None of the writers seem to mind being shunted in and shunted out as if they are cattle. Perhaps they are in awe.

So when Chester Bennington makes his appearance - dressed in a khaki coloured cardigan and cream trousers; with his shaven head and designer spectacles - it's difficult to quell the temptation to begin applauding. Even though it's nearly teatime, Bennington hasn't had his breakfast yet and so sits himself down for a meal of scrambled eggs and griddled sausage. He drinks coffee with two sugars. As a room full of journalists try not to stare - or salivate - while he eats, Chester tells a story of a dream he had last night. He had a gun, a rifle, and he was trying to shoot someone, the problem was, the rifle kept jamming. Fortunately the god of dreams had also supplied the singer with a handgun, a handgun which worked as a handgun should. Chester Bennington makes a pistol shape with his thumbs and the first two fingers of each hand
"Bam, bam," he snaps, jerking each wrist upward.
"Bam, bam -man, I was shooting that f**ker."
Who were you shooting at?
"Some guy."
"Because he was a crazy f**ker."

This is by far the most interesting, and the most revealing thing Chester Bennington will say to this group of journalists today, because he and Linkin Park have made an art - a fine art - out of talking and talking for hours on end. And saying nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.

Let's try and see it from the band's point of view. Last year Linkin Park destroyed the competition. Their debut album, 2001's `Hybrid Theory`, continued to sell not only past the point attained by their friends and competitors - Papa Roach, Alien Ant Farm, Staind - but continued to sell long after the band had finished promoting it. The last concert of the "Hybrid..." tour came at the Long Beach Arena in Los Angeles a year ago this month, and that was supposed to be that. But in America at least, Linkin Park's debut album kept selling. And selling. And selling. So much so that the next time "Hybrid Theory" turns platinum will be when it sells 10 million copies. The only bands of a similar type to reach this number in the past 15 years are Metallica (with the "Black" album) and Creed (with "Human Clay").
"The overwhelming success of "Hybrid Theory" is exactly what it is," says Chester Bennington. "It's over-whelming.”Hybrid Theory", I think, came out at a time when it was just right for the thing that it was. The stars aligned and something magical happened. And to repeat that - or to assume that you can repeat that - is just ridiculous. It's also extremely pompous in my opinion. To assume that we have that type of fan-base, or that we should expect something like that is just not something we think about."

Still, you can bet it's something that somebody is thinking about, and not just the journalists with their predictable questions about "the pressures of following-up a massively successful album" (with equally predictable answer of "the only pressure we feel is the pressure we put on ourselves", from Mr. Bennington). Part of the media circus that is the Linkin Park promotional road-show this week, features a listen to the very impressive and extremely slick "Meteora" at the Warner Brothers building at the centre of Hamburg. To even be permitted into the same room as the CD - which is being protected from internet piracy as if these pirates were actually about to burst into the building with cutlass in hand and parrot on shoulder - requires a surrender of coat, bag and the consent to a body search before the door will be opened. This, it's explained, is because one copy of "Meteora" has already found its way onto the World Wide Web. Fortunately the CD was watermarked and thus traceable. It was traced back to the office of Managing Director of Warner Music. Not laughing as you hear this story doesn't win you a prize, even if it should.

Elsewhere Linkin Park will do "bits" for German television and European MTV, will pose for photographs for two separate sessions (the band hate having their photo taken and have the attention span of Ritalin addicted puffer fish), will visit the offices of internet provider America On-Line (a corporate partner to the band's record label) and play a concert for 2,000 people at the downtown hall the Dock. And, yes, they will sit in two separate groups of three before more than half a dozen journalists and patiently answer questions simply breathtaking in their banality.

At one point Chester Bennington is forced to explain why it is that his band are not political. This is much like explaining why it is his band are not black. But he does his best. It is, he says, because he finds political songs restrictive, that they belong only to the time and subject they were written about (although nobody told The Clash and The Specials) and that he would prefer to write music that's more timeless. Then, perhaps realising he's sounding stupid (and Chester Bennington is anything but stupid; you can't be this guarded and not have your wits about you) he tries to offer something else, something potentially revealing.
"People have said that our album cover is..."
Brad Delson looks his way and speaks quietly but quickly.
"No let's not go there."
"You don't want to go there?"

All the time Linkin Park have the people faffing and fawning around them, people acting as if their job was to protect the Lord Jesus from the marauding Romans. It's as if Linkin Park were made of glass and the journalists are drunk and wielding hammers. Down at the wonderfully decrepit Dock - a quick limp from the famous sex maze that is the Reeperbahn - it takes a mammoth effort to decide whether or not the band can spare 20 minutes next week for an additional photo shoot. It takes a finger-pointing explosion of anger from K! Photographer Ross Halfin to get a record company employee to stop nagging about how we're running out of time. And requests to photograph the whole of tonight's concert - as opposed to the one song every other lensman is allowed - may or may not require a phone call to management in Los Angeles to decide. Apparently, that's not a band decision.

It's not that any of this is necessarily known to the band themselves; indeed the next day Mike Shinoda will tell me "It actually freaks me out that you've told me that". Still, when I'm ushered downstairs to the catering room at the Dock to meet Linkin Park, the atmosphere could be cut with a spoon. The introductions are made; the band are seated around tressie tables, eating fillet mignon (bloody) and coconut and mushroom soup (delicious apparently), I'm standing up, feeling like a c**t. Stuck for something to say, I say how I've head a few tracks from the new Metallica album. I say this because Linkin Park are touring with Metallica on this year's US "Summer Sanitarium" tour and might be interested, And thus might give me a great interview. Or something.
"How does the album sound?" asks Chester Bennington.
Fast and heavy.
"Is it as heavy as "Ride the Lightning?”
"Is it as heavy as "Rush?" asks DJ Joseph Hahn. Someone laughs. This is clearly an in-joke and I'm clearly on the outside. I ask Hahn if he likes "Rush," but he doesn't answer. And these are the only words he speaks. Or they would be, were it not for the fact that he spoke to me an hour earlier in the band's people carrier, transporting them from the Hyatt Hotel to the Dock. I was told it would be okay to ride with the band, so in I clambered. Hahn offers a look that is so disdainful that I assume he must be joking,
"Could you ride in the other van?" he says with an inflection that makes the question mark unnecessary.
(It's later explained to me, by one of Linkin park's "people" that Hahn didn't mean to sound rude, but the band wanted to approve a video and that they were just "ultra secretive".)

So far, so not so very good. But the next day Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda go some way ruining the effect created over the previous 24 hours. The time is 11:30 and the pair of them walk into another sumptuous suite at the Hyatt, order another breakfast and sit down for another interview. However with just three people in the room - no-one worrying, no-one cajoling, no-one making things more complicated than they need to be - you sense that the pair are as unmasked and as unguarded as they're likely to allow themselves to appear before a stranger with a tape recorder.

Bennington - with an accent that makes the word "lyrics" sound like "leerics" - talks about his horror stories from stays at "fashionable" hotels with ease and charm. Shinoda - in a black cap and black t-shirt - laughs and gracefully gives way for others to enter the conversation. For a moment - if only for a moment - it's easy to forget that here are two young men who in two years have earned millions of dollars.

Mike Shinoda tells a story as a way of explaining how it is that his band have come to be perceived by those around them. The band were filming the expensive video clip to "Somewhere I Belong", "Meteora's" first single. Because he hadn't played for a while, Shinoda kept cutting his fingers on the guitar strings. Normally when this happens his band-mates would come over and tell him that the injury "sucked" and that he should "get over it". On this occasion three crew members rushed over with medical aid kits and offers of help. They did this, Shinoda realises, because this is what people do around "really famous people". And if they don't do it then they get fired.

Mike Shinoda says that it's strange being "a celebrity" - actually he says that he hates being a celebrity - but both he and Bennington admit that this is what they are (even if the rest of Linkin Park remain remarkably faceless). But if they hate being celebrities then they certainly don't mind conducting interviews in the manner of celebrities, which is to say as little as possible. It takes some effort to get the pair away from stock answers you feel come as naturally to them as to the career politician - and Linkin Park owe much more to New Labour than Nu-Metal - and onto something they haven't prepared in advance, something that isn't a cliché. I put it to the duo that they seem to view the press as the enemy.
"What you have to remember," Mike Shinoda says, "is that the people that write about us are representing us through themselves, or through the magazines they write for. And magazines don’t always care about the bands they write about. The only thing magazines care about are the ads. But it can be okay, and I do have some respect for what the press does. But if you’re reading about us you need to remember that it’s us plus another person. If you buy our album or see us play them you’re seeing us in our purest form. Period.”
Do you like doing press?
Does it bother you that no-one seems to think that you can repeat the commercial success of “Hybrid Theory”?
“Not really”, says Bennington, in just the same way as he said “not really” when asked if it bothered him that advance word on “Meteora” was lousy. “It’s an obvious thing to focus on. It’s like, ‘you sold 10 millions records! Do you except to sell another 10 million records? No. Would it be nice? Yeah. Is it reality? No, it’s not.”

Of the millions of people who bought “Hybrid Theory” how many would you consider to be true Linkin Park fans?
“I don’t know, that’s a tough question,” says Bennington. “I’m not sure I’d be comfortable putting a figure on it.”
What’s your house like?
“None of your business,” says Shinoda.
What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve bought with your money?
“I wouldn’t use the word extravagant,” says Shinoda (no, of course he wouldn’t) “but I’ve just bought a dog.”
When you fly, what class do you fly?
“Depends,” says Shinoda. “If we’re flying from New York to LA then there’s no point flying anything other than coach (economy) because the seats are just the same. But if you’re flying from LA to Singapore – like, 21 hours – then sometimes you have to think about what you want to do. But it’s pretty hard to justify a $15,000 plane ticket.”

The interview with Shinoda and Bennington lasts an hour, and the pair are nothing but jocular, accommodating and polite in spirit. They are friendly and likeable, but this seems to come in place of being revealing or candid. I put it to the pair that interviewing them is like how I would imagine interviewing Tiger Woods to be. And Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington look at each other and smile. They smile the most knowing of smiles.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Throughout our day-and-a-half in the company of Linkin Park, the thing that seemed to obsess the band most was their desire to be seen as universal; an instinct, it seems, that informs everything the group does. There’s no better place to see this than in the band’s lyrics, which as focused as they are – with their tales of rage and woe, confusion and alienation – refuse to focus in on any one issue or subject. So what may appear to be a single love song may well be about something else entirely. It’s the emotion that matters to them, and not the specific source of that emotion. And in that this context it’s possible to relate their troubles to almost anything that may be happening within your own life.

If Linkin Park are willing to cater their music to this end then it’s hardly a surprise that they pursue an agenda of generality, cliché and soundbite with the press. It would be interesting to know what the elevation of being unknown to being perceived as un-missable feels like, but the answers are not here. It would be enlightening to know how it really feels to have the shadow of a truly phenomenal album casting a pall over your forthcoming release, but the question is batted away like an insect at a picnic table. But it is an irony – in an age of confessional interviews and press catharsis – that Linkin Park’s seeming lack of individuality is one of the things that makes them truly individual.

Like the song says: “They just glide down the surface of things.”

"Kerrang!" - March 15th Issue



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