February , 2011
By David Huff
On Tour With A Mission
JAM Magazine Interviews Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington
As Linkin Park prepares to tackle North America on a short, two-month run of its Thousand Suns tour, another more daunting problem is facing the band. It concerns the group's charity arm, Music for Relief.
Current plans to raise money for the organization include taking a dollar from each ticket sold during this leg of their tour, and redirect it toward relief efforts in Haiti. The band is also raising money for the Caribbean nation by promoting a Download to Donate campaign which offers free music by Linkin Park,, and others musicians, in exchange for a $10 donation. The dilemma Chester Bennington, Mike Shinoda and the rest of the band face is this.
It's been a year since the devastating earthquake struck Haiti. The other half of the island, the Dominican Republic, escaped the carnage unscathed. During those 12 months, over $479 million in cash has been raised to rebuild the country. It remains unspent as only five percent of the debris has been removed. Perishable goods have rotted on the docks of Port-au-Prince because there's literally no government in charge to direct relief efforts. Tons of non-perishable goods still sit in locked warehouses waiting to be distributed.
"It's interesting that you bring up that question," replied Shinoda. "Linkin Park constantly reevaluates the situations our charity gets involved with. We are very concerned, and want to make sure, that the money we raise isn't just going into a big pile of cash and dealt with as others see fit. We've done a lot of research on Haiti, or I should say our organization has, in terms of what kinds of things are really important in terms of relief. Is it raising money and awareness? Is it handing out blankets and water? Is it educating people? What real dangers are the people in the country facing in the long term?"
One of the lessons relief organizations around the world will tell you is when you throw money at a failed state, and that's what Haiti was even before the natural disaster occurred, your efforts are very likely to backfire on you. So why doesn't Linkin Park redirect its relief efforts toward Australia or Brazil? Both these regions in the Southern Hemisphere have recently suffered enormous flooding problems of unprecedented levels?
"Here's one thing I want you to understand," said Shinoda carefully. "Like I alluded to earlier, it's important for Linkin Park to be responsible with the causes we get involved with. Our bass player, Dave Farrell, is going to Haiti before the tour, sort of like a fact finding mission, to make sure the money we donate actually ends up where it's supposed to go. We don't raise huge amounts of cash, like they do in telethons. We do, however, want to make sure that whatever monies we raise does what it's intended to do – and that's to directly help the people."
The earthquake in Haiti claimed in excess of 250,000 lives. The last time there was a disaster of this scale was the Asian tsunami six years ago. It's human nature to want to believe that in the wake of a major disaster, by giving generously, you're doing your bit to help. But therein lays the problem. Haiti was already a corrupt, impoverished country before Mother Nature passed its deadly sentence on the split island nation. The country continues its downward trajectory into misery that no amount of money can cure, despite humanitarian efforts to stop it.
"I hear you loud and clear," responded Bennington. "We want to make sure that when we tell our fans we're donating one dollar from every ticket on this tour to something we believe is important, it's being handled respectively. We want to make sure the money we're going to raise is being spent the right way, and it's getting to the people who need the help. We are well aware of the disasters that struck Australia and Brazil, and our relief organization is looking into ways to contribute to those areas as well."
The one thing both Bennington and Shinoda say they don't want happening is fans thinking they are being mislead, or that the band is abusing their trust and generosity. To emphasize the point, Linkin Park is giving its audiences the opportunity to download the concerts they attend for free. At the show, fans will see a text message code displayed on a screen. Send the text, and information regarding the free download is relayed back. Since no two Linkin Park performances are the same, all concert dates on the tour will be available for download at an extra cost.
"In the past," offered the multi-talented Shinoda, "we charged fans if they wanted to download MP3's of their particular show, sort of as a souvenir. This year, we're giving it away for free. Instead of recording it cheaply with a line or board mix, which we think sounds terrible, the guy mixing our live performance will also be responsible for mixing the download. We want to make sure it sounds good on your stereo or iPod. When the sound is where we want it, then the show will be posted online for all the fans to download. It will take anywhere from a week to ten days for the concert to post on our website."
Unlike past Linkin Park tours, this two-hour extravaganza has an underlying theme behind it where humanity, as a whole, is on the brink of destroying itself. That fear has been perpetuated somewhat with an uncanny host of natural disasters around the world that have erupted this past year. Though there is a temptation on the band's part to play the 48 minute album in its entirety, Shinoda says it's not going to happen. Songs from the group's entire catalogue will be sprinkled throughout the set list.
"Our new record really serves as a backdrop to our entire show," announced Shinoda. "That's why we constantly tweaked the sets every night when we toured overseas, switching songs around to see what fits best during certain points of our performance. A Thousand Suns is a narrative that brings our old songs in line with the new ones. During last year's European shows, to my surprise, I actually discovered that some of the old songs took on an entirely new meaning when they were inserted into specific points of the concert.
"I think our fans will be impressed. We started the tour in South America; then took the show over to Europe. People in the States will be witnessing a well-oiled machine with all the kinks worked out of it. We feel really good about the sets we've come up with every night, and we're also having some really cool bands open for us."
One of those cool bands is The Prodigy, the electronic music outfit formed outside London in 1990, by Liam Howlett, Keith Palmer and Keith Flint. Along with Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method, they have been credited as pioneers of the big beat genre that transformed electronic dance from nightclub music into mainstream popularity. The Prodigy's 1997 release, The Fat of the Land, is the only electronic techno album to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts.
"We are all very big fans of this band," confessed Shinoda. "I've been very fortunate to do interviews with Liam in the past, and he was very complimentary of Linkin Park. I've listened to The Prodigy since the early to mid '90s, when they first started breaking through. Their record, The Fat of the Land, is one of my all-time favorites, so I can't begin to tell you how excited I am to have them with us. It's especially intriguing to me, because our current record is a little more electronic based than our previous effort. Having The Prodigy open for Linkin Park is a perfect compliment to our show."
The recording sessions for A Thousands Suns had far more lasting affects on Shinoda, and especially Bennington, than both initially realized. Three years ago, when both singers began writing songs for the band's fourth record, Chester found himself setting aside music for a side project, Dead at Sunrise. His explanation at the time was he felt some tunes he had crafted weren't a good fit for Linkin Park. They were darker and moodier than anything he'd written in the past, and subsequently the music appeared on his solo record released in 2009.
"A lot has changed since I made that statement," conceded the Arizona native. "When I wrote those songs that ended up on the Dead by Sunrise album, I felt those tunes were stylistically outside of Linkin Park's box. At that point, we hadn't reexamined the whole sound and creative direction we wanted to take with the new record. So yes, back then, I was saying things like, 'The mood and feel of these songs I've written are too dark for me offer the guys so they can turn them into Linkin Park music.'
"As I sit here today, I don't feel that way anymore. I genuinely feel I can present any song to the guys without them questioning it. I don't have that feeling of, 'Oh! Is this right, or is this wrong, for LP?' Honestly, I feel anything goes with Linkin Park now. I could come into the studio and present some honky-tonk music I'd written, and the band would find a way to make it work. The dynamics each of us brings to the table tends to work towards our advantage. That in turn makes it easier for Mike and I to open up and take chances with songs we otherwise would have set aside for solo projects."
Shinoda shares Bennington's sentiments, and has placed his side project, Fort Minor, on hold for the foreseeable future as well.
"The band has really broadened its horizons," explained the 34-year old musician. "Ideas that may have ended up on a Fort Minor record in the past can now be redirected to Linkin Park. That's why there are songs like "When They Come for Me" or "Wretches and Kings" on the new record. Originally, those tunes started off as demos that sounded more like Fort Minor music. Once we all got together and worked on them, they grew and changed into Linkin Park songs. The side projects Chester and I did the past couple of years, I think, are a thing of the past now. It's a good feeling to know our off beat thoughts, or off the wall concepts, are now welcomed by the whole group."
Though Shinoda was the driving force behind their latest release, he's quick to point out that Linkin Park is, and always will be, a collective of equals.
"Chester and I have never tried to grab the reins," emphasized Shinoda, "and tell the others what to do. We've been very careful to avoid that type of situation. This band works because we respect each other's ideas, and we're not afraid to speak our minds when the situation arises. If someone is upset, then they air their grievance before the band, and we work it out from there. Our mutual respect for everyone's talents allows us to find solutions to whatever musical problem any of us have with a song."
Shinoda uses the song "Black Out," from the new record, as an example of how the working parts of this six-man band came together to solve a problem.
"I didn't think we could pull it off live," he recalled, "because the song is really sample heavy with drum and keyboard sounds. When talks surfaced about playing 'Black Out' in concert, I thought it would be a nightmare to reproduce live. Literally, I thought the whole band was going to need to play samplers and synthesizers to make the tune sound as exciting live as it is on the album. The six of us got together to discuss ways to approach the problems I saw. We then rehearsed the ideas until we all felt comfortable with it on stage. The first time we performed 'Black Out' in front of an audience, the crowd went out of their minds. It's now become probably one of the most exciting moments in our set.
"Looking back, A Thousand Suns really has become an important record for this band, not only from a creative standpoint, but more importantly as friends. We have a really positive situation going for us now, and we're all looking forward to what the future holds. You have to realize that we all grew up listening and doing different things. The key to our success has been keeping the lines of communication constantly open between us. This album is not only an example of our growth, but of six individuals recommitting themselves to Linkin Park."
Bennington readily admits that his partner in rhyme was instrumental in moving the ship forward on this project. Not only was Shinoda responsible for keeping the musical gears from getting gummed up, he had to make sure the machine itself was running on all cylinders throughout the recording process.
"When it comes to production," confided Shinoda, "here's the way I look at things. If one person in the band doesn't like something specific we're doing, then that's a fraction of our audience that won't like it either. I pay attention when one of us feels something is not quite right about the music. It's especially important when we're recording in the studio.
"I try and steer the ship forward, while doing my best to balance and respect all the different opinions that come in – and believe me, it's a lot. When you have six guys that are really tuned in, and coming up with ideas to contribute to songs, that is a lot of information to sift through. My role is to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. Obviously, it's impossible to make sure every single thought presented is taken into consideration. If that were the case, it would take us ten years to write a record. Most bands couldn't work the way we do, but for Linkin Park, this unorthodox approach works."
Because of downloading and file sharing, the days of any band selling millions of copies of their new album are over. Linkin Park began its career right when the Internet was beginning to lay siege to the music industry. Over the past few years, the group has taken several steps to protect the Linkin Park brand while at the same time still be good Internet citizens.
"That's a complicated question," reflected Shinoda, the band's resident tech genius. "I could get way into the weeds with an answer, so here are some highlights. We are very careful about security when we're in the studio. Our management hires a security service that keeps track of the data – and the hard drives – that we record on. They keep an eye on the cheaters that would love to leak our music. The service makes sure the computers we're using aren't on line, or docking up wirelessly, to some hard drive that's live. When we do trade files with music we're working on, we make sure those lines are very secure.
"As a band, we have to be realistic about our music once it is released. There are going to be some people out there that are huge fans, who will illegally download and pirate our albums. We accept the fact file sharing is part of how people consume music. There's nothing anybody can do about it. At this point in our career, we know a lot of fans understand there are other ways to support a band they love. What we try to do is put forth those opportunities front and center from a business perspective. Our team comes up with new ways people can purchase our music at reasonable prices. By cooperating instead of challenging situations we can't control, we encourage our fan base to support the band, so we can continue to make Linkin Park music. We would never do anything stupid to challenge our audience because nobody wins when you do that."
Early reviews of A Thousand Suns confirmed Internet chatter that the Linkin Park of old was gone. Ironically, the more critics and fans gave the "concept record" a chance to breathe on its own, former negative attitudes toward the ambitious project began to fade. The criticism didn't go unnoticed.
"It was interesting to read the wide range of criticism the album received," said Bennington. "Actually, we've kind of gotten used to the diverse opinions that come out of people when they initially hear our music. When critics first heard "What I've Done" on our last record, they hated the song. Now everyone loves it. This is the first time we ever created an album where the songs sort of lined up as a united front with one another. I never thought, we never thought, about how people would react to the tracks, or how they would feel about the new direction.
"Conceptually, to a certain degree, we wanted this album to be presented as a piece of art rather than a collection of songs. We gravitated toward that notion moreso than normal on this project, and it worked. I know the die-hard fans of Linkin Park are really open-minded to what we do. Sometimes it takes people awhile to digest the new music. When it's all said and done, I think people are really going to appreciate what we have done here, and see this record for what we intended it to be."
Outside of Neal Peart of Rush and Bono of U2, Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda write some of the smartest lyrics, album after album, in the music business today. The dynamics these two bring to the table, when it's time to create an album, not only makes for an interesting recording environment, it creates a challenging atmosphere that puts each band member's talents to the litmus test.
"It's interesting," reflected Bennington, "to go to work in the kind of environment we create in the studio. We have six individuals that take a look at songs with completely different perspectives. That gives us an opportunity to see the music in a much deeper way. Some days it would just be Mike and I in the studio. Many times it would be me, Mike and Brad. Other days everyone would come in and we'd work in pairs or groups. We all look at every little piece of music we create for songs so intently, it's almost to the point of ad nausea."
"Is our style of writing in this band a bit unorthodox?" asked the vocalist. "Yeah, it is, but here's the thing. Linkin Park basically has two lead singers. When Chester and I sing together, something really special happens with the song. Since we have different writing and vocal styles, it's critical the two of us are on the same page. One of us may go, 'I'm not feeling this line, or this phrase seems a little cliché. Let's find a better way to say it.'
"It's important that we both feel the music in a very real and honest way. That's why we are constantly criticizing, pushing and elevating our lyrics. In turn, I think the band follows in step with the music. Everyone in this band takes criticism in a very constructive way, because we expect so much out of ourselves. Hopefully our efforts will be appreciated by the fans."
The Linkin Park concert has been POSTPOND to Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas Texas.