Interview with Chester Bennington
13.05.2008This was supposed to be one of the greatest summers in Chester Bennington's life. Linkin Park's second album proper, 'Meteora', has become a fixture in the upper reaches of the 'Billboard' charts and sold more than five million copies worldwide already. There were festivals in Europe to play with his band, and a video shoot for the band's song 'Numb' was scheduled for Prague, Czechoslovakia. Most importantly for Bennington, with Linkin Park hitching a ride on Metalica's Summer Sanitarium tour, it meant a few months in the sunshine with wife Samantha and son Draven to play happy families.
And then it all went to hell in the space of half an hour. "I thought I was gonna die," says Bennington today, sounding very matter-of -fact about a ferocious viral infection that landed him in hostpital. He looks up into the blue skies of Los Angeles, reflecting on his extended stay. Today, Linkin Park are at the city's First Congregational Church, located in the Korean district, substituting this very Gothic church for those of Prague. They were forced to reschedule everything once their lead singer was taken ill over a month ago. Inside, among the pews, guitarist Brad Delson, bassist Phoenix, vocalist Mike Shinoda and drummer Rob Bourdon are being put through their paces by the video's director and LP DJ, Joe Hahn. But Bennington isn't needed for the moment, and he relaxes outside in a rather sparsely adorned courtyard.
"It was werid," says the bespectacled singer, smiling a bit ruefully. "I was in peak phyiscal condition a few months back, I was ready to go, and then, on that one morning, I wake up with a slight ache in my back. Two hours after that, I feel like I'm going to die! Over the next nine days, I lose 17 pounds. I'm still having problems with my energy."
Bennington is hardly the most strapping young lad in rap-metal, and seemingly never was. It's actually difficult to imagine his thin frame losing the extra 17 pounds, and still being able to stand up. Today, clad in East LA-style gangster wear for the video, he speaks in a soft voice, occasionally emitting a slight cough, that befits his slow recuperation. Maybe he was the victim of a voodoo curse? Which god exactly did he offend?
"All of them!" he chirps excitedly, laughing. Bennington sits back in his chair. Linkin Park are famous for their non-commital interviews with the press, resorting to well-rehearsed answers that amount to empty calories. But there must be something in the air today that allows Bennnigton to let down his guard, and talk about some of the things he's kept to himself for a long time. Of course, what better place than a church for a confession?
As many Linkin Park fans are aware, Chester Bennington was last to join the Californian band. Unlike the others, he wasn't from or a resident of Los Angeles, instead growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Before his parents divorce(when Chester, the youngest of four children, was 11 years old), the Benningtons moved from home to home constantly.
Why did your parents move around so much?
"I don't know why, probably because they weren't really that good with money or whatever. I probably lived in every city there - Scottsdale, Tolleson and Tempe."
How did your parents divorce affect you?
"It threw me. I was used to having my mom wake me up in the morning, making breakfast...and then my dad would come home from work in the evening. Normal kind of crap. Kids need routine, you know? I was an athletic kid but I just stopped caring about it, and I stopped doing well in school. I started smoking weed and going to parties. I think I was 11 when I started smoking pot."
After the split, Bennington lived with his father, a police officer and detective, but his father wasn't prepared to deal with a son harbouring a burgeoning rebellious streak. Like some anti-drug propaganda warning, pot was soon leading Bennington towards harder substances. Unhappy with his family, distancing himself from his brothers and sisters, he embraced all forms of illicit intake, ranging from LSD, to methamphetamines, to booze.
Were you using drugs to escape your reality at this point?
"I don't know if I was trying to escape everything in my life, I just liked the feeling. I liked to get f*cked-up. Those years shaved a few layers off the pencil."
Did you ever fall foul of the law?
"I was actually too nice. I didn't steal anything. Well...the only things I would steal were from people who knew I was stealing from them, so that they could claim them on their insurance and get reimbursed. These would be like 'inside jobs', so they weren't really like stealing."
Ethically Dubious deeds aside, Bennington's escapades with drug abuse slowed when his mother, a nurse, saw the then-17-year-old and was horrified by her son's desiccated, 115-pound appearance. "She said, 'You look like you stepped out of Auschwitz'," he says "by then, I wasn't smoking a lot of pot anymore, because, you know, pot's for hippies. I was on the verge of becomming a junkie at that time, because I was thinking, 'well, what else is there to do? Oh, maybe I'll go shoot up something'." Those days of crime and self-punishment began to ebb once Chester Bennington began to take music more seriously. He was a huge fan of Depeche Mode and Stone Temple Pilots, and his Phoenix-area group, Grey Daze, were starting to draw a small following on the Arizona club scene. Grey Daze hired an LA based attorney to help send their demos to the major labels, but never succeeded in gaining much interest. But there were other rewards to playing clubs: one Grey Daze fan would eventually become Mrs Chester Bennington.
What was your life like when you first met Samantha?
"Everything I owned was kept in a milk crate, and I had a futon. I worked at Burger King part-time so that I could practice all night. I didn't have a car, I didn't even have a bike. I had a skateboard and that's how I got around."
How did she respond to this lifestyle?
"She was alright with it. I said , 'This is what I'm going to do, and if you can handle that, that's cool. If you can't, then you should probably date someone else'. (Laughs) And she married me!"
Along with this romantic development, there were other incentives for Bennington to start weaning himself off of the hard stuff. He detalis one scary story in which he witnessed several members of the 'Mexican Mafia' as they broke into his friend's home - with Bennington visting at the time - tearing the place apart and pistol-whipping several of the inhabitants. The gangsters left him alone, but he had seen the writing on the wall. "I had watched another one of my friends leave the state because some big drug dealers were out to kill him, because he owed them tens of thousands of dollars," he remembers. "All of this was making me think, 'you know, maybe I don't want to hang out here anymore...'."
By the time he was in his early-20s, Chester Bennigton had turned much of his life around. Although they were by no means well off, he and Samantha owned two homes in Arizona, and were working in a local real estate market. To learn more about the business world, he would sneak into classes at Arizona State University without paying the required tuition fees (unlike the rest of Linkin Park, Bennington doesn't have a college diploma.) And although Grey Daze were but a fading memory, Bennigton stayed in touch with his attorney in California. At 23, Bennington would recive the opportunity of his lifetime by hearing about a young LA band named Xero, who desperately needed a singer. With his wife's support, Bennington flew out to meet them, and in a matter of months, Xero would become Hybrid Theory, and later, Linkin Park. Bennington knows that his son will be watching him throughout the rest of his life, and as the singer in one of the most popular bands of our time, he wants to maintain an even keel on his creativity and sanity. But instead of feeling great, his body just won't cooperate: he continues to struggle with acid reflux disease, an aliment that forced him to cancel shows two years ago, due to an infected pharynx in his throat. He jokes that even water makes his stomach upset. Then there was this years infection that sent him to intensive care at LA's Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre. The onset of the attack was frigtening. He suddenly found himself losing feeling in his fingers, followed by his arms, feet and legs. His wife found him passed out in his home, collapsed on the floor, which he still doesn't recall happening to him. At hospital, he was administered morphine("the black shroud of death" as he describes it), and the pain medication Dilaudid. Through it all, surronded by his family and friends, Bennington says that he was angry with himself for his body failure to stay healthy.
Was your stay in hospital painfull?
"Hospitals suck dude. I would only sleep, like, three hours a night and couldn't sleep at all during the day. Every few hours, someone would come in and poke me with a needle and take more blood. I still have pain in my lower back, and no-one knows what's causing it. They're like, 'you have a degenerative back problem'. Well yeah but who f*cking doesn't?"
Has being ill made you regret the abuse you put your body through in your teenage years?
"I don't know if it taught me anything other than the fact that someone could die from them. Living that way is fun for a little bit, but drugs hurt when you come off them. It's really fun when your high, and not fun when you're not, so you always have to be high no matter what. Some drugs just hurt worse than others. And I think every drug addict wants to be a rock star."
We don't get a chance to speak to Chester Bennington's bandmates today. Everyone is beavering about in their own little Linkin Park world, and soon Chester is called back to the set. Even while he sits here in the church courtyard, his singing comes flying down the corridors, singing verses from 'Numb': I've become so numb/I can't feel you there/Become so tired/So much more aware..'.
What do you think of Linkin Park's astounding success?
"I've always belived that this was what I was going to do with my life, so I feel like I would have been successful anyway. It just so happens I found these guys. I think it would have turned out the same way even at some later date, that I would have found these guys eventually. That's just the way life works. But if not, I wouldn't have quit. Twenty years time I could have gone down in history as Phoenix's longest-running loser musician."
Has your recent illness made you re-examine your life?
"It kind of wakes you up a little bit. I thought I was going to die, and something like that can remind you that no matter how healthy you are, or how often you work out, or how successful or happy you are, you can still die for no reason. Being in Linkin Park is really cool, but when the time comes and I'm not in Linkin Park, at least I'll be alive, and that's fine with me. I love being who I am and doing what I do, and all the great stuff that comes along with it is awsome...but reality's real. (laughs) Yeah, man, reality's really real!"
You're clearly quite the student of philosophy.
"No way. My philosophy is 'Always pass the joint to the left, and don't drink and drive'."
"Kerrang!" Magazine - Week of July 27t