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Linkin Park: Second Life

Linkin Park became the biggest band in America by tapping into the secret life of the adolescent American male. And by, um, rapping. So what happens when they decide to leave both behind?

The first time we meet Chester Bennington, he’s attacking Mike Shinoda with a sword.

Not just any sword, either. It’s a katana - a fearsomely efficient Japanese disemboweling machine, the deadly weapon of choice for countless generations of samurai and at least one Ninja Turtle. Granted, this one’s plastic. And technically it doesn’t belong to Bennington but to GameWorks, a Long Beach, California, arcade. But that doesn’t make him look any less lethal as he thrusts his scimitar toward the heavens, preparing to do battle. “Grasp lightbringer,” he booms, reciting the ancient scroll (a.k.a. the instructions) printed on the front of the game cabinet, “and cleanse the land of the demons!”

As the lead singer of angst–rock icons Linkin Park, Bennington, 31, has certainly vanquished his share of demons. But today he’s mostly just gunning for the high score. He and his bandmate Shinoda are mugging for Blender’s cameras, working their way through air hockey, bass fishing, Wheel of Fortune and Dance Dance Revolution one token at a time. So far the only bust is Downhill Bikers, a BMX simulator that requires - ugh - actual pedaling. “This … sucks,” Bennington pants, wiping the sweat from his brow. “You don’t have to use your turn signal in the Ferrari game, you know?”

After going mano a mano for a few rounds of Vortek - a virtual–reality shoot–’em–up whose insectoid black–and–gold helmets prompt Shinoda to nickname it “the Bumble Blaster” - he and Bennington race to the prize counter to cash in their tickets. “Oh, they’re having the best time,” whispers their security guy, Big Tom. When they return, each is clutching an armful of Airheads and Sour Punch Twists, dopey grins plastered from ear to ear.

So you’re having fun? we ask.

“Dude,” Shinoda gushes. “It’s like being 13 all over again.”

For lots of fans, Linkin Park have never stopped being 13 - which is part of what has made them so successful. The L.A. rap–rockers debuted seven years ago with Hybrid Theory, a Pro Tooled depth charge of aggro–metal bombast and earnest rhymes, precision–engineered for X Games highlight reels. Bennington howled, Shinoda rocked the mic, and the rest of the band - guitarist Brad Delson, drummer Rob Bourdon, bassist Dave “Phoenix” Farrell and DJ Joe Hahn &151; did their best to raise holy hell. It went on to become the best–selling album of 2001 - outpacing Jay–Z, ’N Sync and Britney Spears - and has since moved more than 9 million copies.

Part of the band’s appeal lay in their boyish approachability - the nü–metal shouters girls could like, too. For all the macho fury of Hybrid Theory and its five–times–platinum follow–up, 2003’s Meteora, Linkin Park played nice: They were less bullyingly misogynistic than, say, a Limp Bizkit (you’d never catch them using the word nookie) and mom–friendly enough to blast in the Volvo on the way to swim practice (they never cursed). But most of all, they excelled at channeling the peculiar pain of the postpubescent American male. Bennington, a self–confessed nerd with glasses and a fondness for dragons, repped for gangly outcasts everywhere, and the songs - which their old producer called “poor–me” music - were practically adolescence writ large: brash, confused, solipsistic, petulant, LOUD.

“There was definitely an immaturity to those albums,” Bennington says this afternoon, downing a slice of pepperoni pizza at GameWorks’ cafe. “Take ‘One Step Closer.’ The whole message of that song is, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying, so I’m going to throw a fit.’ I’ve felt that way a million times. But at a certain point, you have to grow up.”

That’s right - say hello to the grown–up Linkin Park. All but Bourdon are 30 and married; Bennington has four sons; and Farrell’s wife just gave birth to a baby girl. Now they’re ready for some serious reinvention - to put away childish things, to expand their ambitions, to join the pantheon of capital–A Artists. And yes, they’re also aware (sort of) of just how ridiculous that sounds.

“Maybe we’re crazy,” Shinoda says. “But we’re ready for the next phase.” He pauses. “At least I hope we are. If not, then something has gone seriously wrong.”

For a group that has sold more albums than Christina Aguilera or Nickelback, Linkin Park talk a lot like underdogs. Bennington bitches about hipper–than–thou bands who’d rather play “for fucking 5,000 people” than share an LP bill 10 times as large, and Shinoda seems to take particular delight in carping about critics, who are often all too happy to return the favor. It’s an odd combination of towering self–confidence and neurotic self–doubt.

And don’t even get them started on the n–word.

“I fucking hate nü–metal,” Bennington says. “I never liked any of the bands - not even the ones I was friends with.”

Shinoda concurs, mostly. “I don’t hate nü–metal per se. I just hate being called nü–metal. Even the word is stupid, with the little fucking umlauts. We were never a part of it, we didn’t care to be a part of it, and to have people labeling us as that - nü–metal, rap–metal, whatever - was just annoying.”

Blender suggests that if they didn’t like being called rap–metal, perhaps they shouldn’t have been, you know, playing heavy–metal riffs and rapping over them.

Shinoda sighs. “I’ll admit that in the past, to a certain degree, we were asking for it. But we experimented with every possible inch of that sound - there’s nothing else to do with it. We’ve moved on.”

We ask who their peers are these days, if not Slipknot and Papa Roach.

“That’s totally not a fair question,” Shinoda says. “Because if we say nobody is our peer … ”

So you have no peers?

Shinoda leans back in the booth. “I’m sitting this one out.”

“I’ll answer it,” Bennington says. “I’m not scared. Look, we’ve always felt like we could play with anybody. The great bands, in my mind, are the ones that other bands are measured against - the ones where, even when somebody else makes a great record, people say, ‘That sounds like the Beatles,’ or, ‘That sounds like U2.’ That’s the band I want to be.”

Linkin Park have been dipping their feet in these waters for a while now. Remember their (somewhat ill–advised) reimagining of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” performed live at the 2006 Grammys with Sir Paul McCartney? (“We’re potentially fucking up the most sacred song in all of Western pop music,” guitarist Delson remembers thinking at the time. “It’s beyond ballsy - it’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”) Then there’s their steadfast refusal, until late last year, to license their songs to iTunes, a move that aligned them with such A–list holdouts as Radiohead, Led Zeppelin and, yes, the Beatles - pretty rarefied company for a band that once shared a stage with Crazy Town. “I know it sounds old school, but we’ve always felt like our records should be presented as unified works of art,” Shinoda says. “To split them up feels ... ” He shrugs. “Who knows? Maybe we just did it to be in the company of those other bands.”

Their ambition got its first big test early last year, when they started recording their third proper album, Minutes to Midnight (Shinoda joked about calling it Minutes Tü Midnight) with rock & roll sensei Rick Rubin. Linkin Park have always been known for their exhausting perfectionism: Bennington and Shinoda once penned 40 different choruses for a single track, and for Minutes they wrote more than 150 songs. “I think we’re all a little masochistic,” Delson says. “But this was totally different.”

“Rick’s theory is, let’s try everything,” Shinoda explains. “Every fucking thing. And then, after we try it, let’s beat it. And then let’s beat that.” His voice suggests both awe and utter exasperation.

The band spent nearly 18 months holed up in Rubin’s Laurel Canyon mansion, recording thousands upon thousands of takes and blowing one label deadline after another. “Not everyone is Bob Ross,” Bennington says. “You can’t paint a masterpiece in 25 minutes.” Their strict egalitarianism - LP operate as a democracy in which each member has veto power (says Bennington: “Rick’s beard had a vote, too, but we all boycotted it”) - led to more than a few tense moments. Bourdon, for instance, nearly had a nervous breakdown when Rubin ditched a drum track he’d spent 100 hours perfecting in favor of the demos from six months earlier. “I’m not a violent guy, so I didn’t want to punch him,” the drummer says. “But if it hadn’t been Rick Rubin…”

Meanwhile, Bennington was going through a rough time of his own. The year before, he’d divorced Samantha, his wife of nearly a decade. (The couple have a son together, 5–year–old Draven; Bennington also shares custody of two sons from a previous relationship.) They met in early 1996, when Samantha stopped for lunch at the Burger King where Bennington, then 20, was working. When they got married that Halloween, they were too broke for wedding bands, so they got their ring fingers tattooed instead. The ink is still there; the affection, not so much.

“I’m not going to say the entire experience was horrible,” Bennington says. “But it was pretty bad. We just brought out the worst in each other - like throwing water on a grease fire.”

The divorce became final in May 2005. In December, Bennington got remarried, to former Playboy model Talinda Bentley; three months later she gave birth to their son, Tyler. “It sounds shady,” he says. “But I wasn’t having an affair. I literally met Talinda at a party, thought, Oh, my God, I could actually be happy, and went home and separated from my wife.”

The new album’s first single, “What I’ve Done,” is a personal reckoning of sorts, drawing on both Bennington’s relationship turmoil and his history of drug abuse. (He spent much of his teens addicted to cocaine and methamphetamines, and has also admitted to doing opium, acid and crack.)

“I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life,” Bennington says. “And I got to a point where I realized I’m kind of a jerk. So this song is about saying, ‘You know what? It’s me.’” He laughs. “I guess that’s what growing up brings you.”

Minutes to Midnight - the title is a reference to the Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical timepiece indicating how close the world is to nuclear Armageddon - is full of this newfound self–awareness. Several songs reach beyond the bedroom walls and into the world at large: “No More Sorrow” slams the “thieves” and “hyprocrites” profiting from the Iraq war, and “The Little Things You Give Away” is a stinging indictment of the government’s botching of Hurricane Katrina. The music, meanwhile, is a schizophrenic array of acoustic guitars, marimbas, Mellotrons, even banjos - plus, yes, plenty of crushing rawk - with barely a turntable scratch in sight. Oh, and only two songs feature rapping.

“We had a thing that worked really, really well,” Shinoda says. “And to abandon that is scary, because what do you have up your sleeve that could possibly be better? But with enough failed experiments, enough screwed–up stuff, we finally figured, ‘OK. This is the new sound of the band.’”

A few weeks ago, Mike Shinoda turned 30. He celebrated by taking his friends to the neighborhood LaserQuest, donning a blinking vest and shooting infrared beams at a bunch of 10–year–olds. “It was awesome,” he says. “They kicked our asses.”

After the party, Shinoda listened to one of his buddies - a buddy who isn’t in the most popular rock band in America - talk about his own impending 30th, which had the guy feeling “kinda bummed out.”

“I was like, ‘Why are you bummed?’” Shinoda says. “‘You’ve got a job, a great girlfriend - things are really good.’ And he went, ‘Well, yeah - but I haven’t achieved what I wanted to by this point in my life.’”

At this, Shinoda adopts an expression of mock solemnity, frowning and furrowing his brow. “I was like, ‘I know, man.’” He shakes his head. “‘Me neither.’”

Bennington, sitting next to him, cracks up: “And then what did he say?”

At which point Shinoda - international rock star and newly minted grown–up - breaks into a mischievous grin: “Then he punched me.”

By Josh Eells

"Blender" Magazine, June 2007



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