In The Beginning
11.05.2008For someone whose band has conquered the world, Chester Bennington bellows, "So insecure!" pretty convincingly onstage night after night. With the best-selling album of 2001 in Hybrid Theory, a permanent home near the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart and a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy for "Crawling," Linkin Park should reek of confidence. But Bennington remembers when things were different. When Linkin Park had few believers. When nearly every record label had passed on signing the band, some of them multiple times.
"We did probably 36 to 40 showcases before we got signed," Bennington said backstage at the First Union Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he and vocalist Mike Shinoda, guitarist Brad Delson, bassist Phoenix, drummer Rob Bourdon and DJ Joseph Hahn would headline the Projekt Revolution Tour hours later.
"It's like a cycle, too," Bourdon added. "The more showcases you do, the more you get rejected. It's like, if you're the 21st person to see us, you know the band has been rejected 20 times. It got worse and worse."
Obviously, Linkin Park survived and are now armed with one of the most rousing success stories in music history. Not only have they captured the hearts of the rock, hip-hop and electronic universes, they are the inspiration for a myriad of young bands that refuse to listen to industry executives who claim rap-rock is expiring. Still, Linkin Park remain humble. Rather than take the credit they deserve, they thank their fans for hearing what record labels did not.
"There were a ton of kids, every day, tons of e-mails coming in, and we would get online and talk to them," Bourdon said. "There was a really good response on the Internet. We knew that we were not insane, that we weren't the only ones liking our music."
"The only way you can really maintain your sanity and keep a clear conscience about what you're doing is when people react to what you're doing from a fan level and not an industry level," Bennington added.
Before Linkin Park would even play a single showcase, they spent half a decade putting together the right lineup, toying with a genre that was still in its infancy and working hard to build a national fanbase. It all began when Bourdon and Delson were in high school and played together in a band called Relative Degree. "We set a goal to play one show at the Roxy [in West Hollywood]," Bourdon said. "That was our big goal, so we wrote 12 songs, rehearsed for a year, played that show at the Roxy and then broke up. That was the end of Relative Degree."
Shinoda, a classmate of Delson's and Bourdon's, crashed a few Relative Degree practices and fostered a strong friendship with Delson. He created a few samples for them but was more interested in making beats for local MCs. "We always just figured we were in two different worlds," said Delson, whose head looks naked when not wrapped in his signature headphones. The duo eventually decided to write some songs together.
"One of the first songs we wrote, we were like, 'Let's try to collide these different styles of music,' " Delson recalled. "It really was somewhat crude at that point, because you could hear, 'OK, here's the hip-hop verse and here's the rock chorus.' "
After several months of songwriting sessions together, Shinoda and Delson decided to recruit a band to test their creations. They snagged Bourdon and later Phoenix and Hahn, college classmates of Delson's and Shinoda's, respectively, and adopted the name Xero. They practiced daily for months. Xero were coming together but they needed a singer. Delson was interning at Zomba Music Publishing at the time, and a friend there suggested Chester Bennington, whose previous band had crossed paths with the company.
Bennington's final audition
"He called me up at work on a Friday, and I got the demo on Saturday morning, went in Saturday night, cut the vocals and called him on the phone Sunday," said Bennington, who was living in Arizona at the time. "I said, you know, I could mail this to you or I could be in L.A. before the mail would get there. And he goes, 'We gotta hear it first.' So I went, 'OK, hear.' And I pushed 'play' over the phone. And he was like, 'When can you be here?' "
Bennington impressed his future bandmates, but they wanted to spend some time rehearsing together to test the chemistry. They decided to be fair to other potential singers and didn't cancel already-scheduled auditions.
"One guy came in a couple of songs before our practice was over," Bennington recalled. "He was sitting there and they were like, 'OK, you ready?' He stood up and said, 'You know what, I'm going to leave.' And they were like, 'Why? What's going on?' He's like, 'If you're not gonna take this guy, you're stupid.' And he just left. That was kind of the last audition."
Bennington had sealed the deal, but even then the band was "in a state of flux," according to Phoenix, who left Xero to tour with another band but returned a few years later. "We were auditioning some bass players, and everybody was getting ready to graduate from college," he said. "Nobody knows how dedicated anybody else is. It was like, anything could happen."
Bennington leaves Arizona behind
The band's new vocalist had already made his decision about the future. Bennington left behind his newlywed wife and newly built house and moved to Los Angeles. "I had to say, 'Honey, you stay here. Pay all the bills with half the income that we had before and wait for me to tell you when it's cool.' That was really hard, but I knew deep down inside that if we put in the right amount of work and we focused on the music that it was going to work."
His actions motivated the rest of the band to take the music more seriously. Bennington even suggested a new name, Hybrid Theory, after the mix of styles they brought to their music. There was something special in their musical hybrid, but it needed work.
"All of us, collectively, felt that this style of music could be blended a little bit better, not so jagged and kind of forced in there," Bennington said. "We stopped practicing the songs and started working on new stuff."
Bennington and Shinoda also started writing lyrics together. "I can't talk about this crappy thing that happened to me and expect him to be able to sing it," Bennington said. "It has to be vague enough for both of us to go, 'We can relate to it.' And we found that by writing in that way, our lyrics were hitting home with a lot of different people and a lot of different age groups."
Armed with new material, the band played its first show at the Whiskey, where Zomba offered them a publishing deal. With that money, Hybrid Theory purchased enough equipment to record an EP worthy of shopping to record labels and selling at shows.
"Let's collide these types of music"
After selling about 20 records, the band dreamed up a more effective outlet for the EPs and began shipping copies for free to fans they found on the Internet. That following grew into a street team, which they continued to nurture with stickers, samplers and other handouts.
"Those kids did so much for us," Phoenix said. "They're basically our 150 additional members of this band. Those kids worked really hard just because they wanted to be part of something."
"And I think that's what helped catapult us back into the eyes of the industry," Bennington added.
Warner Bros. caught wind of the band's work ethic and offered a contract in the spring of 2000.
"They were like, 'Wow, these guys are doing so many different things that are proactive. And these guys are excited and hungry about playing music and are willing to work at it,' " Phoenix said. "We would actually go down to Warner Bros., five or six of us at the time, and go in and sit in the boardroom at the big table with all the different departments and just talk to everybody about what we were doing and our plans. We would actually bring in letters from our street team of kids saying, 'I like this song so much.' "
Around the same time, an electronic trio called Hybrid was emerging and Hybrid Theory didn't want to confuse fans. Bennington drove by a Lincoln Park in Santa Monica, and the band agreed a variation of it would make a good name. Like their music, it was a different take on something a lot of people could relate to.
"Unfortunately, that park has been renamed the Christine Emerson Reed Park, so we're actually thinking about changing our name to Christine Emerson Reed Park and making Linkin Park the name of the second record, just to keep the consistency," Delson joked.
Hybrid Theory made an impressive debut out of the gates (#16 on the Billboard 200 albums chart) and has continued to amaze with its stamina. Seventy-two weeks later, it's at #4 and certified several times platinum.
Linkin Park's collaboration with the X-ecutioners is also riding high, they're selling out arenas, and their upcoming remix album is highly anticipated. Yet instead of popping open champagne bottles after shows, Linkin Park are out doing what got them there - signing autographs, thanking fans.
"It's such a unique and exciting and special experience to be able to say you're doing something you are passionate about," Phoenix reflected. "That is the most rewarding thing for us."