Linkin Park: Our new album is a reaction to “derivative” indie music

As they gear up for the release of their new album, JODY MACGREGOR talks to Linkin Park guitarist and rapper Mike Shinoda about “derivative crap”, working with their heroes, and Chester Bennington’s double role in Stone Temple Pilots.

It’s easy to look back and see nu-metal as a last gasp of the rock record industry’s imperial phase, one of its final attempts to successfully pick a subgenre and muscle it into the charts through sheer weight of ubiquity. And although Linkin Park clearly benefited from that approach – their debut album Hybrid Theory was certified platinum in Australia five times and went diamond in the US, selling 27 million copies worldwide – they’ve stayed successful in a way that a band like Korn didn’t manage.

Linkin Park’s albums sell less copies now, but by the lowered standards of the charts in the 2010s they’re still consistently near the top of them. Their 2012 album Living Things made it to number two here, and number one in the US. A string of albums with hit-making producer Rick Rubin helped, and so did a shift from angsty anthems to uplifting arena rock numbers like ‘Burn It Down’. But their next album, The Hunting Party, is a surprising move. It’s self-produced (by band members Mike Shinoda and Brad Delson), it’s much heavier than anything they’ve done in years, and it involves featured artists – which is unusual for such an inward-looking band. Tom Morello, Daron Malakian, and Page Hamilton show up to guest on songs and so does legendary MC Rakim.

These aren’t names that sell diamond records. They’re the kind of people you assemble because you’re fans of them and you can afford to do whatever you want and Linkin Park, who’ve maintained their ability to sell albums without 2005 record-label budgets or a shred of critical legitimacy, can apparently do whatever they want.

Holy crap the new record is heavy. I put on track one and was immediately blown away. It really woke me up. Was that an aim? Did you go into recording with that in mind or did it just emerge when you were working on songs that they came out really heavy?

I’m always writing, and as soon as we were finished with the last record I was already working on demos for the next one. At a certain point those started coming together and I played them to the guys and to be honest they sounded like indie, alternative songs. More like what you might hear on the radio right now. There just was a day when I listened to it and thought, “I don’t like this stuff. Why am I doing this? This sounds like derivative crap.” At the same time I was wanting to listen to something that was a little more visceral and I couldn’t find the thing that I wanted to listen to, so that’s what I started to really focus in on. The reference points for us became obvious toward the beginning – when I think about the feeling that I was looking for it was a feeling that I had when I found bands and rap groups that I loved when I was a young teenager. Back then my taste in music was so specific, it was like if there were a hundred things out there I’d like five of them and hate everything else. It just became getting in touch with that mentality. I’m the opposite now, I love so many different types of music it just felt like… When I listen to rock radio I hear so much happy, passive, soft, dance-y music that I was just thinking where the fuck is the rest of it? That’s not what I think of when I think of rock music! [laughs]

In Australia you can’t go to a music festival now without seeing two bands full of dudes with beards playing the banjo.

Oh God, that must be awful.

We got Mumford-ised.

They’re a great example, because when their first album came out I thought it was great. They’re very talented and I like what they do. Their first album I listened to a lot, the second one I listened to a little bit less but it’s still – I don’t dislike it at all. And then when it comes to all of the derivative stuff – I haven’t like figured this idea out, but I’ll give you the rough version of it, that occurred to me in my head. I feel like there are a handful of bands that are the parent bands of almost everything that’s going on. It’s like everything that’s going on out there is like some combination of Mumford & Sons, M83, MGMT, Arcade Fire and maybe like four or five other bands. I feel like every time I hear a new – quote, unquote, “new” – rock band it’s just some derivative version of that stuff. And that’s the thing that annoys me. I like those bands that it’s coming from, all those bands I just named I will listen to their album, but the stuff that rips them off just makes me bored. I get tired of hearing this watered-down imitation of the originator.

Many of these bands too, in their defence, are little groups of people making music in their bedroom one minute, and the next minute their song starts getting played and they go, “Holy shit, we’ve gotta get out there and play shows and be a real band.” And they’re not ready for it. They’re just these little indie groups that thought they were making music for fun, and they were copying their favourite groups, and next thing you know they’re on the radio and people are listening to them and there’s all this attention. I feel bad for them, that’s kind of a scary situation to have to deal with and some of them deal with it really well – but the bottom line is there’s a lot of that stuff out there and it’s just boring to me that there’s so much of it. That was one of the main driving forces behind this album. We were making stuff that started to feel derivative of some of that stuff and there was a day when I listened to it and went, “Oh my God, this is a nightmare. We can’t do this!”

“When I listen to rock radio I hear so much happy, passive, soft, dance-y music”

Is that why you and Brad [Delson, guitar] wanted to produce this album yourself instead of working with Rick Rubin again, or somebody else?

No, it didn’t have anything to do with that. There just comes a time on an album where, up until a point we’re producing it ourselves and then at a certain point we bring in somebody else to give us that larger vision. And that’s at least most of the way it’s worked with Rick Rubin, because that’s really what he’s great at. For us, in our relationship, that’s one thing we really value when we work together. On this album it just became obvious at a certain point that the time to bring in a producer had come and gone. We knew what the album had to be, we knew how to write it, we knew how to record it, we didn’t need anybody’s help. So we didn’t really ask anybody.

The only exception is we decided to collaborate with a few people; we looked at collaborations instead of a producer/artist relationship. We were very much in the driver’s seat and overseeing everything but we decided to bring in Rob Cavallo [producer] on one song simply because he’s really got the vision, he understood what we wanted to do and he loved the song ‘Wastelands’. It was already very close to being done but he kept talking about it and talking about it and we said it’ll be fun to get together and work on a song. In most other cases if there was somebody we wanted to work with it was more of an artist relationship, like Page Hamilton and Rakim and so on.

This is a new thing for you guys, having featured artists. There’s four different people on four different songs.

Yeah, and we tried some other stuff too with other people. These are the ones that seemed to work out best for the album. They are Rakim on ‘Guilty All The Same’, Page Hamilton from Helmet on ‘All Or Nothing’, Tom Morello on an instrumental called ‘Drawbar’, and then Daron from System Of A Down on ‘Rebellion’. They were all very different to work with but the idea going into it, especially with the three guitarists I just named, was like if we love style, rather than imitating it – which we could definitely do – why not go to the source and say, “We love what you do. Would you come to the studio with us and do that thing, we’ll mash it up with what we do.”

They do have very distinctive styles. Listening to ‘Rebellion’, the song with Daron Malakian, there’s a bit where partway through suddenly I can hear there’s that System Of A Down sound.

Yeah, the funniest part about that, I felt it was 75 percent there and I loved it so much I pushed it to be even more like System. But Daron is Daron, he oozes that style and he’s really great at it. Without that melody though I don’t know if I would be as good. The thing about him is that he can write these awesome heavy parts but he’s got such a great sense of a song, with chords and melody and so on, and it was a very collaborative process. His contribution was really valuable, it was just a fun way to write together.

It must have been very different having Rakim come in. That reminded me of Public Enemy and Anthrax working together back in the day.

We had already written that song almost to completion and we had reached out to him because I wanted something surprising in the bridge. Like, I knew I could rap over it but I felt it wouldn’t be as much of a surprise and thankfully he was interested in rapping on the song. He came all the way out from New York to do it and just he really took his time with the words. And you can tell, it’s such a different type of writing from what goes on in rap music these days. Most rap stuff is very simple and the concepts are all really basic or punchline-based or they’re about really trivial things. And he’s packed these 24 bars – which by the way is longer, usually people do 16 bars of lyrics, he did 24 – of very complex rhyme patterns and on top of it all it’s packed full of information that makes sense and is inspiring and actually really thoughtful.

He does sound like he’s got something to get off his chest. Like you were saying, that feeling of being disappointed in what music sounds like now.

That was one of the things we connected on. We were saying where rock has gone these days and how poppy it is, it feels like a Disney children’s version or something, and I was saying this to him and he said that’s basically how he feels about rap music these days.

When you start touring this album do you think you’ll be able to bring any of these guys out with you?

We want to be able to work from a default position where we just play everything, and then if they’re available for assorted dates or a tour even we’d love that. The truth of the matter is that all three of the guitarists that are on the record, their bands don’t tour very much at the moment, if at all. So it’ll be a very special event for us to play with either System or Rage or Helmet, Helmet being the exception to the rule. Page is out there playing with Helmet.

Is Chester still doing the Stone Temple Pilots at the moment and is there going to be any conflict with that?

If we’ve got Linkin Park shows he’s doing them. That was the deal from the beginning when he started doing the STP thing. He told those guys that he wanted to do it, and if we have Linkin Park stuff going on that’ll be a priority but he’s been really pretty good about that. From their vantage point it could probably be frustrating at times, but this is his band and his home, and I think right now it’s Linkin Park time.

Linkin Park’s new album The Hunting Party is out now through Warner