The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Linkin Park are back, collaborating with rapper Jay-Z on their bravest release yet. But for vocalist Chester Bennington, holed up in Rome, the spotlight is a lonely place. And what he won't tell you about the rock-hip-hop meeting of minds reveals as much as he will...
Rome is buzzing. The air is thick with hype, hotel corridors thick with celebrities. Everywhere you look, guerrilla film crews are setting up in front of fountains, arcades, avenues and glorious buildings. In front of them stand perma-tanned, preened and posing presenters from all over the world. Swedish mingles with German mingles with Japanese, but, deep down, the words are all the same. They are saying the same things that English TV presenters are saying: "this is special, this is the biggest gathering of white toothed celebrities we'll see this year and we're going to bring it all to you. Stay tuned and you can have all the backstage gossip, the hidden asides and all the hair product endorsements beamed straight into your homes.” And they hang around on every corner hoping for a glimpse of Beyonce's heel or Ozzy Osborne’s coat as it sweeps into the distance.
Because these are the MTV Europe Music Awards. And awards shows don't get bigger than this.
Everywhere you look there is electricity-it's in the faces of thousands of tourists who have descended on Rome to say they were there; it's in the monsterous displays and neon electric stages that sparkle around the capital, one almost putting the coliseum in the shade as it blinks and whistles in front of it. Electricity lines the avenues on which grandstands have been erected for those who haven't got the credentials to get into the awards themselves-and even those have been sold out months in advance by the clamouring to get near music's most glamorous night out.
Nowhere is the electricity more obvious than in the exclusive hotel lobbies in which the stars are hiding. Occasionally there's the odd waft of fame as someone famous swishes through the palatial entrance halls of the five-star hotels and heads all turn as one.
Mostly, though, the quietly humming hallways throng with record company executives, hangars-on, management and gophers as they panic about their star's "needs", about whether the "right" people have paid the right amount of money to ensure their charge gets the right amount of coverage. These people are running on adrenaline, placating their stars so that no last-minute hissy fit can be thrown.
Because this is a cyclone: a tornado of wealth, intrusion, buisness and money making all wrapped up in an awards show. The actual business of who wins what, it seems, comes a very distant second to the first place of gaining exposure and being seen.
Linkin Park are in the middle of all of this-in town ostensibly to present an award. Except it's not Linkin Park- it's singer Chester Bennington and sample/decks dude Joe Hahn. And the reason they're here isn't so much that they have an overriding urge to present someone with an MTV statue, but because they have product to promote. Of course.
Their collaboration with Jay-Z on the recent 'Collision Course' EP was surprising for two reasons. One that it happened in the first place- who would have seriously predicted that six months ago- and two: how good, albeit slick and produced it.
It's also likely to be the last we see or hear of Linkin Park for a year. The world knows it too. Within an hour or two off stepping off the plane from America they are ensconced in interviews, facing down European TV presenters' microphones, the rock press, the gutter press, gossip press and tabloid press- even Britain's own 'The Sun' is here to chat, that's how much of a household name Linkin Park are now.
Its a hectic schedule and the good grace with which the pair answer the same questions over and over again belies their incredible patience, strength of will politeness, the numbing effect of jet-lag, or, more likely, the dedicated professionalism for which Linkin Park have become a byword.
It's something that takes its toll. After day one's duties are concluded, Bennington eventually stumbles to his beautiful five-star hotel room to prepare for an exclusive meal later in the evening. He’s travelled here with his wife and, while the pair are getting ready, the door handle to the hotel bathroom falls off. He calls the front desk who send up three repairmen to fix it.
Three hours later, and with a gloriously Italian sense of diligence, the repair men are all sat on their arses in Bennington's room with the door handle no closer to being repaired than the workman are to the dark side of the moon. Bennington snaps. He demands to move hotels: why should he and his wife be expected to put up with this? why should they be forced to be late for their meal because of the incompetence of Italian workmen? So he moves hotels and gets over it. Problem solved, no big deal.
This, of course, is the way that he tells it. From the other side, amid the employees of his record company, it's a disaster because no one knows what’s going on. Emails and phone calls are flying from mobile phone to hand held palm-pilots: ”Chester’s unhappy, call me urgently." No one knows why he has thrown a celebrity tantrum? Will he still want to present tomorrow? Will the scheduled interviews and press still take place? The adrenaline begins to mount again.
This is the atmosphere in Rome - the whims of the stars are at the forefront of everyone's mind because this is the talent, this is the money and if things don't happen then people's jobs are on the line. MTV can make or break a career like that. And nobody wants to let on to a journalist what's happening because their stars have to be seen to be perfect, to be beautiful people, not to have tempers or to succumb to the effects of tiredness, of talking about yourself all day, of being inconvenienced by lazy workmen.
By 10 o'clock the next day it all seems like exactly what it was: a storm in a teacup. Bennington and Hahn are doing their interviews in the hotel they were originally staying in. They're splitting their time between the basements, under which a great glass floor reveals ancient Roman relics and ruins, and the rooftop restaurant, from which there are immaculate views across the Rome skyline, into private bedrooms and terraced roof gardens. For now we're on the roof, on a mild and sunny day. A camera crew is setting up in one corner, a water polishing glasses in another.
The lift pings open and Linkin Park's security men swagger out, checking whether the venue is suitable for the photo shoot and TV interveiw. The lift pings again and Chester Bennington walks out.
He looks fantastic, in black pinstriped trousers, black T-shirt and shades. His closely cropped hair works well against it all. Perhaps one of the reasons for the intake of breath from everyone around have become so used to the Bennington image: that of the slightly geeky, pasty, scrawny guy in glasses and pulled-down cap. "I had laser eye surgery," he says as he chats animatedly with the record company and security people. "It completely changed my life." One of them says they fancy doing the same and, off-handedly, he replies "I'll put you in touch with my doctor, He'll give you a freebie if you say I sent you."
The lift pings again, but no one really notices. Joseph Hahn meanders out, standing on the fringes for a minute before saying hello. It's not that he looks bad, it's not that he's any less important to Linkin Park, it’s more that compared to Bennington today, he could be ...well..anyone. There's none of the star presence; in fact he looks just like everyone else in a T-shirt, Trainers, jeans and over-gelled hair. But the pair are close, they stand for photos and laugh together then move over to the TV interview where they are laughing again, Bennington urging Hahn to talk, sitting back patiently then leaning forwards and reinforcing the sampler's points.
Then the whole operation moves downstairs, into the cavernous basement. A table of coffees, teas, sandwiches, and other foods are waiting, but the pair ignore everything but the coffee. Bennington is in high spirits ("Why do they put in the coffee here?" he asks. "I had a few cups yesterday to keep me going and I was buzzing for hours.")and he talks excitedly to Hahn about a satirical cartoon show he saw in America, laughing in-between sentences, "They had this little pig with weird powers-ha ha ha!- it's supposed to be all sad and everything! ha ha! But these little oriental kinds come up and say ' Please Mr Pig, stop making those shoes, we work in a real sweatshop and you're taking our money'. The pigs like,' Fuck you'. HaHa! So an army of sweatshop kids kick the shit out of him, dude...HaHa!"
He giggles manically while Hahn looks on bemused, trying to understand what his friend's going on about. But Bennington's on a roll.
"It's the funniest thing I've seen in my life."
Hahn is still nonplussed.
"...maybe you need to see it," Chester admits. But he's in high spirits and talkative; and that, from what is written about Linkin Park is rare. But as soon as the questions start he's serious, even though, at first, the questions are innocuous enough. He also seems to want to take Hahn under his wing. In order to get the ball rolling, you ask how the Linkin Park AND Jay Z project came about and there's a long uncomfortable pause as if you've just asked whether the band inject crack into their rectums.
"...oh," says Hahn, looking a little uncomfortable. "Someone in New York put together this mash-up between 'One Step Closer' and Jay Z's '99 Problems'...", but Bennington is twitchy and cuts in with a fuller explanation;
"There is this DJ in New York, he does that sort of thing in a late night show. He mashes together hip-hop and rock songs and, when he played the Jay-Z and Linkin Park one the phones went off the hook. MTV in New York heard about it and came up with the idea of doing a show based around it. The idea was for one song I think , and it spiralled from there."
And this is how it goes for the next half-hour. When Bennington lets Hahn take a question, he patiently waits for him to give his answer before jumping in and giving his own answer. What emerges is, you suspect, the official line. Linkin Park are very good at not giving much away about themselves. They do give good quotes and soundbytes, but they're often the same quotes that everyone else gets. It means that, in the past, and with good reason, interviews with them have been compared to interviews with people like Tiger Woods: you get a good line in answers but you realise they don't actually mean that much, they don't give anything but already-established facts away. The reason for this, though isn't some sort of Machiavellian plat, an inter-band arrangement about exactly they will say. More its a result of talking about themselves so much that when constantly faced with the same questions it's hard to come up with a new line or a different angle every time.
It's also because they are professionals in every sense of the word. They understand the responsibilities of doing press, of putting in the appearances at awards show, in-stores and record signings. It’s an attitude they also put into their music. It's an attitude they certainly put into the 'Collision Course' EP.
It started when Linkin Park came off tour. Mike Shinoda headed straight into the studio to start putting tracks together. The band then started rehearsing them. The whole process took about a week, which is fairly staggering. ”Well," says Bennington, "we are very professional but it was also something that came together fairly easily. I think that's because of the artists involved. We're at the top of our game and Jay-Z is at the top of his game."
Then Jay-Z flew in to lay down his vocals, which says Bennington,was a nerve racking experience. ”I was thinking, 'I hope he doesn't think we're a bunch of idiots'. I have a silly sense of humour when I'm working in the studio and I know the other Linkin Park guys understand it. There was a moment when there was a weird track on the mixing desk. I was saying, 'turn down the poop track'. Then Jay-Z shows up and I'm wondering if he's looking at me like, 'What the fuck are you on?'"
The next day the band rehearsed with Jay-Z for an hour and a half and the day after played a full set in The Roxy on Sunset Boulevard,Los Angles. The entire process, from the minute Jay-Z walked into the studio to the end of the gig, took just 72 hours. Again, Bennington wants to stress, "Thats how professional we are".
The story, as they tell it, sounds sensationally easy. There are however, hints that it wasn't quite like that-not that either Bennington or Hahn come close to admitting it. The first thing is that, the moment the gig finished, Jay-Z walked straight out of the venue, straight into a car and went straight to the airport to get out of there. It might have been a busy schedule of course, but it seems strange he didn't want to hang around a minute more than he had to. It's led to accusations that both Jay-Z and Linkin Park were essentially trying to cash in on each other's audiences, to grab a few of each others' fans for their obvious mutual benefit.
"Honestly, it’s not like we took a big cheque from MTV to do this," protests Hahn, but he hasn't quite answered the question. "Hey, it's not like we're Marilyn Manson trying to go urban", says Bennington, taking over. "We've always been a band with a diverse crowd. I've been stopped on the streets by people saying,’ its so cool you've done this because it's so unexpected'. They said it's opened their eyes to Linkin Park and to rock music. We’re doing this because it's interesting, because we enjoy it. We’re doing it because people who enjoy music enjoy having their ears opened. We may gain some fans and I guess we risk losing a few." But, having said that, the singer then goes on to say:
"Jay-Z said it really good on the documentary. We had actually screened the fans at the show because we wanted to make sure all the fans we brought enjoyed Jay-Z's music. We told Jay that we'd put out a questionnaire on our website asking who our fans' favourite groups were. If they said Jay-Z and Linkin Park, then we knew we'd give them tickets. And Jay said' yeah, and if they say 'we don't want to hear any of that rap shit,'then they aint comin'."
None of which, admittedly sits very well with Bennington's assertion that he wants to open people's ears to other forms of music. Another sign that the project wasn't the easiest for Bennington in particular was that it meant a lot of lyrics' meanings became worthless, that he was forced to sing in happier keys that eroded the bleakness and intended catharsis of his original words.” It definitely took some pride swallowing," Chester admits. "I'd agree that, perhaps more than anyone else in Linkin Park , I've come from the most rock background. While we were doing it I was thinking ' I don't know if this is going to work’. I was thinking all the darkness was being sucked out of the song."
This is a rare lack of confidence from the singer: for most of the interview his answers have been positive and a little bland..like this, ”It worked very well”, ”It was a real challenge to do something different" and "We've always collaborated with people: it really expands our understanding of different aspects of music". Suddenly he realises that his last answer was hardly the assertive statement of a man happy with his work, so he adds: "But I went along with it because musically it worked. It was also interesting to try something different for the sake of our art." And we are back on steady ground.
And that is about all of interest that Linkin Park are saying on the project, which is a shame, really, because this should be almost the definition of Linkin Park. Marrying hip-hop and rock is something they've always done and, as such, you feel they should be in a jubilant mood. The EP also presents a few different sides to Linkin Park. There's humour in opening the album with Bennington's white-boy screech of" I ordered a fucking frappiccino", there’s the relief of seeing Linkin Park ditch their political correctness by using Jay-Z's "99 problems but a bitch ain't one' lyric and there's the confirmation that Linkin Park are highly skilled musicians that can put a project like this together, complete with a live show, in such a short amount of time.
As they prepare to face another microphone they look slightly withered. They also say, with some relief, that they'd be immensely surprised if there was another Linkin Park album within the next 12 months. Its a relief, you sense, that's born from not having to talk for a little while and from being able to rest a little from the road. There they sit, ever so slightly crumpled. Then they turn on their smiles for the next interview.
"Kerrang!" Magazine - December 2004 Issue