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21.10.2010 - That Linkin feeling

IF A Thousand Suns was to be the album that finally saw Linkin Park fall flat, someone forgot to tell their fans.

Linkin Park, one of few acts in the music industry that still, reliably, sells albums, decided to follow their hearts with their fourth album, rather than their bank balances or their record company's wishes.

Out went the "standard verse-chorus-bridge-double-chorus-out" as the band's singer Chester Bennington calls it - the formula that had made rock radio hits out of a string of songs including One Step Closer, In the End, What I've Done and Numb over the past decade since their debut album Hybrid Theory was released.

In came a concept, sound-bites from historical figures, instrumental interludes, blunt hip hop beats and electronic stuttering where there used to be guitars... Whatever critics called A Thousand Suns, "commercial sure bet" wasn't it.

"We knew we were taking a risk," says Bennington during a break from rehearsals for Linkin Park's coming tour.

"A lot of people will love it, and a lot of people will need to digest it and get over what perhaps their expectations were, and a lot of people are gonna be like, 'What the f--- is this? Are you kidding me?'

"And all of those reactions are totally awesome," he says, laughing. "I prefer any one of those over, 'Yup, it's exactly what I thought they were gonna do'. Like, 'It's another Linkin Park record, woo!' "

But while it wasn't business as usual on disc, it certainly appears to have been business as usual once the album was released -- A Thousand Suns debuted at No.1 in 15 countries, including Australia and the US, then held the No.1 spot here for four straight weeks (this week falling to No.4).

So, the risk paid off. But to Bennington, while it took "balls" to get there, Linkin Park changing up the formula was not really so surprising.

"To me it makes complete sense. I mean, I know it's different, but it's not shocking to me. It felt very natural to go in a direction that was challenging for us as well as challenging for our fans - 'cos we love taking people on this little trip that we're on.

"We don't wanna keep reliving the glory days by rehashing songs and styles over and over and over again, and our fans know that."

Was the band more timid in the past?

"We're young and no one gives you a how-to book on how to make successful rock records," says Bennington.

"It's not like you get hired to do this job and anybody can do it. That's why it's a unique job to have. When we made Hybrid Theory we made music that we hadn't necessarily heard before.

"And with the success of that album, when we went back in the studio it was like everyone wanted us to have another record that was like that record, that was successful like that record. So we felt like we had to make another record like it, so we did.

"Then when it came time to make the third album it was like, 'Look, we know we can do this all the time, but is this the band that we wanna be for the rest of our lives, or do we wanna really push ourselves and challenge ourselves?'

"That's when we made the decision, and we grew a pair."

That third album, 2007's Minutes to Midnight, was rightly regarded as a step in a different direction. But A Thousand Suns now makes that look like baby steps.

"It definitely does," laughs Bennington. "This record makes Minutes to Midnight look like a tame journey. This record, we went out there. And hopefully the next album will make this album look like child's play too."

Going "out there" may not have greatly impacted the band's commercial appeal, but it has had another side-effect - in Bennington's mind at least, Linkin Park now have a more rosy and lengthy future.

"To be able to talk about making a record like the one we made, and not come apart at the seams trying to force something, or get into arguments, we just grew closer as a band," says Bennington.

He and his bandmates - studio-aholic and co-singer Mike Shinoda, bassist Phoenix, guitarist Brad Delson, drummer Rob Bourdon and electronics guru Joe Hahn - now "communicate really, really well," Bennington says.

Which is a change from a few years back. The early-to-mid-2000s were Bennington's "partying" years -- years that saw him abuse alcohol and drugs, lose a lot of money, divorce his first wife and be isolated from his bandmates.

So the closeness A Thousand Suns brought on feels extra special to Linkin Park's most instantly-recognisable figure.

"It does feel good to me. I enjoy the fact that the other guys in the band like to be around me," he says, laughing.

"Not that they didn't like to be around me before, it's just we lived different lifestyles. I liked to party, and go hide away and hang out with people who liked to drink and do drugs, and if that's not what you're into, if you're at an orgy and you're the guy who doesn't wanna have sex with anybody, you're kind of just like, 'This sucks!' That's the difference between me and the other guys in a lot of ways."

So while his bandmates were sharing experiences, Bennington was keeping his mounting troubles to himself.

"There was a lot of stuff I would hide, just because either I was too afraid or maybe they were afraid to talk to me about it . . ." He pauses. "I was pretty unapproachable in a lot of ways, but that's definitely not the case anymore."

Bennington got all that downward-spiral business out of his system on last year's Out of Ashes, the very rock album from his side-project band, Dead By Sunrise. There may be another DBS record in him, but he doesn't know.

"Right now I'm in Linkin Park land. I'm so excited to play these songs for people, I almost forgot that I ever even made a Dead By Sunrise record," he laughs.

Setting out on a long world tour for Bennington, 34, means putting in advance time with his family -- he has a wife and five children (four of his own plus a niece) that touring often necessitates leaving behind.

They won't be joining dad in Australia before Christmas as the kids will still be stuck in school, where, as their proud dad tells it, they're excelling.

"My oldest son has taken up music, that's all he does all day long, every day. My niece is a high honour-roll student, and in a cheerleading squad. And my second to oldest son is a baseball player, he wants to play basketball, and he's also a high honour-roll student."

They're all brainiacs, by the sounds of it. Not the run-of-the-mill rock 'n' roll progeny.

"Yup, they're geniuses," Bennington laughs, "and I have no idea why."

A Thousand Suns (Warner) is out now.

Linkin Park, Acer Arena, Dec 11 and 15, $102/$132, Ticketek. Dec 15 show on sale today - October 21, 2010


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