03.05.2008They're rebels with a cause. As this chart-topping rap band gives voice to teen angst, they also seek to obliterate today's sappy pop and narcissistic hip-hop music. And America is listening.
"Your album changed my life!" declares an ardent 18-year-old fan, leaning intently over a folding metal table where the six members of Linkin Park are signing autographs. In little more than an hour, the 20-something musicians will take the stage and electrify an audience of 10,000 in Phoenix's America West Arena this particular night who came to hear the rap-rockers' explosive sound. For now, all six band members stop what they're doing and look up. "Some things you just never get used to hearing," says guitarist Brad Delson, smiling warmly but clearly feeling the weight of the compliment.
Fan worship, you see, comes with the job. Over the next month, this pre-show ritual will be repeated at every stop on the band's 19-city Summer Sanitarium tour with Metallica and Limp Bizkit, which kicked off July 4. When all is said and done, the tour is expected to gross $60 million for five weeks work. And listening to countless testimonials from fans who seem too young to have had such life-altering epiphanies is part of the payoff.
Welcome to Linkin Park's world. Riding high on their hugely successful sophomore CD, "Meteora", which has sold more than 2 million copies since its March release, the group is enjoying its status as the defining band of a generation fed up with featherweight teen pop and bling-bling-besieged hip-hop.
With their mix of alt metal and hip-hop, drizzled with atmospheric electronic flourishes, Linkin Park's songs speak to the rage, bewilderment, vulnerability and, ultimately, hopefulness of youth. Yet unlike other party-centric, personality-driven acts, the Los Angeles-based group maintains a working democracy among its members. No one is singled out as the frontman; no one identifies himself as the band's voice, even though vocals are shared by rapper Mike Shinoda and singer Chester Bennington. Even when it comes to posing for the camera, the group asserts a studied randomness to who stands where. As for life on the road, even by mainstream standards, let alone the angst-addled kids who channel their music, Linkin Park is downright boring offstage.
You'd be hard-pressed to find the expected rock-and-roll tour trappings of groupies, hangers-on and all-night partying. Linkin Park's buses and backstage area are smoke-, drink- and guest-free -- aside from their families, that is. Bennington, Shinoda and bassist David "Phoenix" Farrell all are married, while Delson, drummer Rob Bourdon and DJ Joseph Hahn have steady girlfriends. Bennington's wife, Samantha, and their 15-month-old son, Draven, usually travel with the band.
An average day on the road? "Today, so far, I've gone to the gym, I've gone to eat, I bought a CD, and I sat in my hotel room and watched television," Shinoda says the day of the Phoenix concert. "Later, I'll go to the venue, eat, play some video games, play a show, play some more video games and go to sleep -- the best part of the day being the show. The rest of the stuff -- you're waiting for that time."
Fact is, Linkin Park's work ethic and sober-minded philosophy about what it means to be a successful band extend far beyond the road. For one, the group's lyrics are expletive-free. "It's not that we don't feel those things and are not aggressive," Bennington says, "but our focus is using music to help people deal with life. It's a lot more challenging to find words to express the anger behind a vulgar word than simply relying on a vulgar word. That's how real connections are made." And as Craig Marks, editor of "Blender" magazine, notes, they succeed. "They're chronicling the doubt and insecurity and pain that a young person might be feeling, and there's no doubt that their fans feel what Chester is emoting very deeply," he says.
Fans mean everything to Linkin Park. When a mysterious illness recently landed Bennington in the hospital, forcing the band to cancel some European gigs and threatening to delay their North American tour, he reassured fans in a statement that he looked forward to "ripping everyone's face off" on schedule.
Early on in their success, Bennington told an interviewer he had been sexually abused as a child. It's a subject he doesn't care to revisit, but it offers insight into the issues facing some of group's most devoted followers.
"I get a lot of letters from kids that just hurt," Bennington says. "Some kids are so depressed at home and with how people treat them in school that they cut themselves. This happens all over the world -- kids who don't want to kill themselves, but nobody understands how much they hurt, so they cut themselves with razor blades. And a lot of these letters, the kids said they've stopped when they started listening to our records. And I know there are kids out there every night who need to come to the show and scream along because of whatever chaos is in their life."
For that reason, Bennington and Shinoda, who co-write the group's lyrics, prefer to keep their personal histories out of the equation, focusing instead on "the emotion behind a situation," as Bennington puts it, so listeners can tailor the message to their own circumstances.
But some critics have problems with Linkin Park's detached musical style. Songs about struggling with authority and internal demons aren't enough to make great music, says "Rolling Stone" contributing writer Barry Walters: "[Korn singer] Jonathan Davis -- there's a specificity to what he sings about that brings you in. He's giving you some access into his soul. Linkin Park -- I don't feel there's a singular, intimate voice. It works commercially, but I don't feel it works completely artistically."
Keeping up with the ever-changing tastes of their young fans is all that matters to Linkin Park. And don't call them rock stars. "It's kind of insulting, like, 'That guy's a [jerk],' " Bennington says. Adds Shinoda: "When I was younger, I thought it was all about sex and drugs, and I thought, 'I don't want to be in a band that's successful if I have to be around that all day.'"
"Put it this way," Delson adds. "If your partying is more fun than your show, maybe you need to work on your show."
And work they do. Band members are involved in nearly every aspect of the business of Linkin Park, from merchandising to music videos. "This is our career, and we take it very seriously," Shinoda says. "And rather than putting responsibilities in others' hands, in a lot of cases we'll take those responsibilities on ourselves, to control the quality of anything that reflects on the band. Joe and I handle all the artwork, from the albums to T-shirts. Joe also directs our videos. And we have a business manager that does our books, but Brad and Rob will request paperwork to make sure that everything is in order and running right."
"Most bands don't get that the music business is a business," says group manager Rob McDermott, who joins in on the weekly roundtable meeting on all things Linkin Park. "They think everything's one big party. And you know what? They're not around anymore. I guess I should feel blessed to work with a band that cares as much about their career as I do."
That attention to detail has paid off handsomely. Their breakthrough CD, 2000's "Hybrid Theory", has sold 14 million copies worldwide -- a staggering figure that becomes positively startling in light of the fact they initially were rejected by every major record label in the business. Even the band's current home, Warner Bros., turned them down three times before A&R executive Jeff Blue, who had a development deal with the group, brought them to the label as part of his hiring agreement. "Label execs wanted bands...more about hard-edged image over substance," Blue now says of the oversight.
"The great thing about getting turned down so many times," Delson says, "is that by the time we did get signed, we were that much more ready. I think it's your ability to persevere and believe in yourself that makes you a success. If you give up the first time or even the first hundred times somebody says no, then you're doing your talent a disservice. I think there's a lesson there."
If listening to the group talk about their lifestyle, work ethic and determination in the face of adversity can sound like a Tony Robbins seminar as opposed to, say, rock's elite having the time of their lives at the height of their powers, that's just fine by Linkin Park. "If you worked at an office, you wouldn't walk in drunk. You'd get fired," Shinoda says. "And that's kind of how we treat our band. No one's going to disrespect the band and the working environment by coming in and screwing it up.
"We're just normal, average guys in extraordinary circumstances," Shinoda continues. "We worked really hard at one thing, and maybe our fans can see that we're truly coming from the right place, and that each of us, in some way, has gone through some of the stuff they have. I think they do. Some nights, no matter how much we do this, I'm struck by how deep a connection we're making, and it's those nights, especially, when I hope we can do this for a long, long time."
USA Weekend - July 13, 2003