11.05.2008Over the past year, the whole rap-rock thing has pretty much been run into the ground. The formulaic shuffle between pugilistic hip-hop verses and melodic choruses has grown staler than year-old Lucky Charms, and the roar of percussive down-tuned guitars has gotten so played out that all the volume and rage is no longer jarring or visceral.
Many acts that formerly led the revolution — including Korn, Papa Roach and Kid Rock — have revamped their sounds in an attempt to survive, and other more stubborn bands have been left scrambling to hang onto their fanbase, much of which has gravitated to hip-hop or pop-punk in a quest for new kicks.
And yet Linkin Park, whose Hybrid Theory was the best-selling album of 2001, have kept their fans hooked and begging for more. After just one week on shelves, Meteora sold more than 810,000 copies, according to SoundScan, easily landing in the #1 position on the Billboard albums chart. And the group is a top draw for the Summer Sanitarium tour, which also features Metallica, Limp Bizkit, Deftones and Mudvayne.
Linkin Park's tremendous success is somewhat baffling since they cling so tightly to the increasingly taboo rap-metal formula, shun rock-star antics and lack any sort of celebrity charisma. Even the band's casual fans might have a tough time picking the faces of vocalists Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington, DJ Joseph Hahn, guitarist Brad Delson, bassist Phoenix and drummer Rob Bourdon out of a crowd.
"We're not doing this to be stars," Shinoda shrugged. "We're just normal people behind all those lights."
"People always want to find something exciting about us, but to be honest we're pretty boring," added Bourdon, shifting the position of his backwards black baseball cap. "People wouldn't be too excited to come backstage and hang out with us. We don't party or anything, we just play Xbox and we're pretty mellow. When we play a show for 20,000 people, that's the highlight for the night. You can't go backstage after that and try and top it, so we just wait until the next show."
They're not fashionably self-destructive, they're not loudmouths, they don't hang with Britney Spears or Christian Slater. So just what is it that allows Linkin Park to thrive when others rap-rock bands are struggling? In part, it's the frustration, heartache and loneliness that spirals through the band's radio-ready songs. Whether moaning about divorce, howling about bad relationships or screaming about domestic abuse, Linkin Park transfer their pain into powerful music.
"We spend a lot of time on our lyrics," said singer and screamer Bennington, who splits songwriting duties with rapper Shinoda. "It's a good way to confront a lot of things that we've dealt with in the past that our fans can relate to. On this album, I reacted to how I dealt with a lot of pain in my life and how I was sexually abused when I was young, and what I went through after that [with drugs and rebellion]. And then I look at where I am today, and take those negative experiences and turn them into positives."
As much as Linkin Park want to inspire abused youths, they also strive to appeal to music fans from normal households. That's why their lyrics are vague and cryptic — while their words evince anger, angst, distress and mistrust, they leave the motivations for these feelings a mystery.
"We don't talk about situations, we talk about the emotions behind the situations," Bennington explained. "Mike and I are two different people, so we can't sing about the same things, but we both know about frustration and anger and loneliness and love and happiness, and we can relate on that level."
"I think that's one reason we have a really diverse fanbase," Bourdon added. "There can be a 12-year-old kid at school that's frustrated doing his homework [who likes our songs], and someone [else] who's 40 who has been fired from a job or something."
Not all Linkin Park fans are drawn to the lyrics. Just as many are attracted by their churning music, which elates, agitates and inspires. In the same way Nirvana perfected the soft verse/loud chorus recipe, Linkin Park have mastered rap-metal. They weren't the first or even the 101st to take on the style, but they integrate the elements better than almost anyone, and in the process pull in a diverse range of metal, pop and hip-hop fans.
Meteora is a logical progression from Hybrid Theory. Once again, the band flaunts an arsenal of riffs that buzz like taunted bees; syncopated beats and dizzying scratching, which power the rhythms; and vocal hooks that offset the aggressive raps and frost the songs with commercial sheen. But this time, Linkin Park embellished their tunes with experimental flourishes. Many tracks are laden with bizarre samples: "Breaking the Habit" and "Faint" feature string arrangements by Beck's dad, David Campbell, and "Nobody's Listening" is enhanced by the exotic whistle of a Japanese flute.
"What we really wanted to do was just push ourselves and push each other to really find new ways to be creative," Shinoda said. "We wanted each sample that was in each song to be something that might perk your ear — something that you might not have ever heard before."
They took a major step toward experimentation with their 2002 remix album, Reanimation, on which they reinterpreted Hybrid Theory with the help of a range of other artists including Kutmasta Kurt, Pharoahe Monch, Aceyalone, Korn's Jonathan Davis, Staind's Aaron Lewis and Orgy's Jay Gordon. And what they gleaned from those sessions they implemented on Meteora.
"We got to see a lot of different styles of writing that we ordinarily wouldn't have explored," Delson said, picking at a painted black fingernail. "I think that really helped to evolve our writing process."
Of course, ambition has its price. In their crusade for innovation, Linkin Park became dangerously obsessive, endlessly looping samples, chopping them up and playing them backwards and recording countless takes of different songs. Shinoda and Bennington wrote 40 choruses to the single "Somewhere I Belong" before they had one their bandmates were happy with. When Bourdon was in the studio he suffered from insomnia, and when he managed to fall asleep he dreamed of drum patterns gone awry.
"We really learned the meaning of pressure," Delson said. "But it wasn't pressure from outside people. It was artistic pressure from ourselves. You can't control the commercial success of a record, so there's no point in investing energy in that. But the quality of your record is entirely up to you, and you can't blame anyone else if you write crappy songs. Before we did Meteora, I listened to Hybrid Theory and Reanimation, and I was like, 'Dude, I'm really proud of these records. I don't remember how we did it, and I don't know how we're gonna do it again. We're kind of screwed.' Then, fortunately, we were able to invest ourselves fully in the process for 18 months, and that helped us make a really great record."
Linkin Park started writing Meteora in the back of their tour bus in the summer of 2001 when they were on Ozzfest. By the time they got home, they had tons of ideas, which they finessed and molded into songs. When they were done writing, they had 30 complete tracks, which they shaved down to the 12 (plus one eerie intro). The entire disc is around 36 minutes long, just over half the length of many new rock albums.
Even though they're each only a few minutes long, the songs on Meteora are complete expressions. "We think of our songs like little movies," Shinoda said, scratching his scruffy goatee. "You want the type of story that builds to a climax. You have the twist or the fight scene, then a tiny realization at the end. And somehow, by the time we're done, it always comes out to be about the same size."
Considering that the band wrote 30 cuts, fans might wonder why there aren't more than 12 on the final LP — or they may just be thankful they don't have to wade through so-so material to get to the good stuff, a problem with more than a few current albums.
"We wanted a group of songs that would sit well together because we wanted to make a record that you could pop into your CD player and, from beginning to end, there would never be a spot where you start daydreaming," Bourdon explained.
With 8 million copies of Hybrid Theory sold, Linkin Park have been successful enough to earn what every band wants — complete artistic control. And when they use the words "complete control," they don't mean hiring other people to handle everything except the music. DJ Joseph Hahn has shot the majority of the band's videos, including "Somewhere I Belong," Shinoda has overseen most of the artwork, including the 40-page insert for Meteora, and the full group plays a major role in coordinating fan-club activity.
The only problem with being so consumed with all aspects of your work is it leaves little time for anything else. And when such an intense album schedule is coupled with a lengthy worldwide tour itinerary, tensions can start to boil. The wear and tear of being away from friends and family heavily informed Meteora and colored the claustrophobic vibe of the songs.
"When you haven't done anything normal like going shopping or going to the supermarket, things get really weird," Bourdon said. "Everything becomes a different life and every day is busier than the one before it. It's all really exciting and we try to stay in a good frame of mind, but sometimes it gets hectic and stressful and you feel like you can't breathe. Just being at home is like a vacation."
Unlike the many bands whose members become snippy under duress, Linkin Park survive strain by bonding together. When they discovered how hard it was to maintain a relationship on the road, and learned how many people they considered friends were actually opportunists, they turned inward, gaining strength from their own chemistry.
"We consider ourselves really fortunate to have a good relationship between the six of us," Phoenix said. "Before we even had a record deal, before we did Hybrid Theory, we were spending a good amount of our time together as friends. So what that really provides us with is a good safety net. We really look out for one another and I think everybody does a great job not only caring for one another, but also keeping everybody on track."
That doesn't mean Linkin Park don't occasionally bicker. All of the bandmembers are passionate about what they do, and since each has veto power over any new musical passage, the working environment can become tense.
"If we hear something and think that maybe it could be better, somebody would say, 'Hey, that's great. Could you try that again?' " Delson said. "That's a hard thing to hear after you've been locked inside a room for 12 hours and you've come out feeling somewhat triumphant about something. Going back to the drawing board like that really sucks."
"It does," agreed Phoenix. "But it's nothing a seriously competitive game of Scrabble can't fix."