The Cover Story

Linkin Park: “We were out to prove this was our band and our style… That’s what Meteora became”

With a seminal, era-defining debut album under their belts, in 2003, all eyes were on Linkin Park to follow-up with something equally as groundbreaking. And boy did they deliver. 20 years on from the release of the monumental Meteora, the band share the hidden history behind one of our world’s most beloved records…

Linkin Park: “We were out to prove this was our band and our style… That’s what Meteora became”
James Hickie
Cover photography:
Scarlet Page
Additional photos:
James Minchin

“This is not really Mike. This is an AI duplicate. Mike is on vacation.”

The voice at the end of the line is so authentically dispassionate that for a moment it seems we might have actually got through to a synthetic Shinoda. Thankfully, we have in fact reached the man himself, at home in his native Los Angeles, and he’s pulling K!’s leg. But who could blame the 46-year-old for employing a stand-in, given his workload?

Just recently, Mike co-wrote and produced the preposterously catchy Demi Lovato track Still Alive for the soundtrack to Scream VI, the latest meta instalment in the horror franchise. The film also features new music from Mike himself, In My Head, a duet with Arizona-born singer-songwriter Kailee Morgue. The latter being a big step after a period of making music with and for other people.

“After Chester passed, I did [2018’s debut solo album] Post Traumatic, which was a diary of my feelings day to day and a very dark record,” he explains. “Since then I’ve stayed away from making songs for myself, but inevitably I got the bug. What I’m most excited about is that I think Linkin Park fans will love this song.”

It’s the early days of Linkin Park we’re discussing today, namely Meteora, a second album that’s become a by-word for sticking the landing and justifying the hype created by its predecessor – in this case the 27 million-selling Hybrid Theory. But, as we discover during chats with Mike, guitarist Brad Delson and bassist Dave 'Phoenix' Farrell, Meteora wasn’t simply a case of more-of-the-same, but of satisfactorily rounding off v1 of Linkin Park.

Meanwhile, in the expanded version of the album – released to celebrate its 20th anniversary and variously made up of five vinyls, four CDs and three DVDs – there are glimpses of directions the band either thought they, or their listening public, weren’t quite ready for, so waited for later releases to explore more fully.

No-one knows all this better than Mike, the man with the keys to the LP vaults. But, one wonders, how difficult was it for him to switch between being a creator and an archivist – if, indeed, he views them as different modes?

“I think I do,” he responds tentatively. “I don’t consider the process of getting a song ready in this way to be that different from the final stages of getting a song ready for an album.”

Mike ponders the question again before taking a lighter, more self-deprecating tact.

“Being an archivist is a real job,” he laughs. “We were just trying to find some cool stuff we knew our fans would be excited about.”

Mike wasn’t so enthusiastic about revisiting Meteora when talk of it began a year-and-a-half ago. Not due to lack of affection for the record, or for that purple patch in his band’s history, but because a perfectionist focused on the new isn’t necessarily keen to look backwards: “My attitude was, ‘Let’s see what we find and if it’s good, we’ll release it. But if we don’t find enough good stuff, then there’s nothing to release.’”

His reticence was understandable given the size of the undertaking. He’s the one in the band “with all of the stuff”, who on Meteora asserted himself as the in-house producer or “captain of the ship when it came to the studio process”. As a result, material generally started and stayed with him. So too, then, did much of the responsibility for this project.

Thankfully, it soon uncovered some gold, which broadly fell into three categories. The first were demos in embryonic form, some of which were instrumentals or musical sketches with incomplete vocals. The second, which could best be filed as curios, were alternative versions of songs that ended up making the final album but feature different vocal takes, chord progressions and textural flourishes than the finished versions we’ve come to know and love.

The third, and most headline-worthy category, were the songs that narrowly missed making the tracklisting for Meteora – the most exciting of which is Lost, released in February to huge fanfare. And deservedly so, as it somehow manages to stand toe-to-toe with songs that have been in our affections for two decades.

So why didn’t it make the grade?

“We worked our way down from 20-something tracks to around 15,” explains Mike. “We had a song called Numb and thought Lost was similar enough that we drew the line. We intended to put [Lost] out at a later date, but as we got into the process of making [third album] Minutes To Midnight, we were trying to reinvent the band, so to go backwards and use anything that sounded like Meteora wasn’t something we would have done.”

With its electronic soundscape, dreamy vocals and seismic chorus, Lost showcases the musical debt Linkin Park owe to Depeche Mode – a debt they’d expand upon in greater increments on the aforementioned Minutes To Midnight. Like Linkin Park, Depeche Mode are living in the shadow of loss following the death of their founding keyboardist Andy ‘Fletch’ Fletcher last year – and have just released Memento Mori, their first record without him.

When discussing Linkin Park, people characterise Chester Bennington, who died in 2017, as the electro-pop obsessed metaller and Mike the bona fide hip-hop head, but things weren’t that cut and dried. A song like Lost, says Mike, illustrates their influences coalescing more seamlessly than generalisations would suggest.

“There were a few bands that our Venn diagram overlapped on, such as Depeche Mode, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and old-school rap like Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys,” Mike explains of his and Chester’s tastes. “We would make playlists and analyse the influence of the bands we loved, discussing why we loved them, aside from the obvious emotional reaction. Depeche Mode taught us about breaking free from traditional song structure. The way they put together songs, especially on [1990 album] Violator, was so unconventional and interesting.”

There were other reasons to think about where Linkin Park went next. Debut album Hybrid Theory’s gateway sound and stratospheric success had motivated certain quarters of the rock press, particularly in the UK, to question the band’s authorship and authenticity. Or, as Mike puts it: “They said we were this manufactured industry plant.”

Having set the world ablaze, Linkin Park weren’t about to let “deceitful and annoying” rumours undermine their achievements. So on the tail-end of the Hydrid Theory touring cycle, they used the makeshift studio built in the back lounge of a second tour bus, having jettisoned its seats in favour of a Pro Tools rig and a recording console the size of a refrigerator. There, work began on demos for a record that had to do more than recapture lightning in a bottle.

“We had a chip on our shoulders,” admits Mike. “We were out to prove this was our band and our style we arrived at on our own. That’s what Meteora became… and more.”

If there's one thing fuelling Mike Shinoda, it’s a desire to create the sonically different. “I’ve always loved sound design, though at the beginning I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I love to tweak and make things sound like something else.”

Take, for example, his work on the trippy intro to Somewhere I Belong, Meteora’s first single, which had the working title ‘Pretty Birdy’. Many fans will know that through technical trickery it was made unrecognisable from the strummed guitar chords it started out as – chords Mike reportedly deemed “too folky”. What fans won’t know is that this wasn’t Mike throwing shade at folk, but instead wilfully messing with music that’s traditionally rigid. “Part of the magic of a folk song or a blues song, but also a limitation is that, historically, their shape generally remains the same, but is made different by what the artist is saying or singing over the top.”

Determining the quality of new material like this was done on the second tour bus. While the majority of Linkin Park – completed by co-vocalist Chester, guitarist Brad Delson, bassist Dave Farrell, drummer Rob Bourdon and DJ Joe Hahn – would reside on the first bus, Mike typically stayed on the second, working up ideas to present to the rest of the band, between and after shows. He recalls the responses to stuff that wasn’t working as, “That’s not the one,” or the more diplomatic, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

There was one clear indicator of when something did have legs, though: Mike being unsure about it, or at least saying he was. “The guys would laugh because when I said I had no idea if something was good or not, they’d think it was incredible. At a certain point, Chester noticed this trend and as soon as I started talking about my doubts, he’d say, ‘Here we go again! You’re playing us at this point, you already know this is good!’”

“On Meteora we got to dive a little deeper into different things, including hip-hop”

Mike Shinoda

Despite his growing confidence, Mike had been holding back. Why? Because albums, like people, shouldn’t share too much too soon.

“When you first meet someone, it’s not a good idea to inundate them with your entire life story,” Mike reasons. “You have to start somewhere, and as you get to know them, you get more of a sense of their personality. So Hybrid Theory was that first meeting, and on Meteora we got to dive a little deeper into different things, including hip-hop.”

Hip-hop was Mike’s first musical love. So much so that his interest in rock was born from hearing the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Beatles sampled on records by Beastie Boys, Ice-T and Public Enemy, respectively. In the interest of making Hybrid Theory the most cohesive listen possible, then, Mike modified his punchier impulses.

It suited him, however, to move away from the genre tribalism of the ’90s. “So many people identified with one genre and one genre only,” he says, quizzically, of his classmates in junior high and high school. “And what they were listening to was very specific, like East Coast rap, which is hard to imagine now.”

While Mike is happy to reflect upon his part in helping render genres obsolete, he recalls the itch he needed to scratch making Meteora. He got the chance to put his nails to work on Nobody’s Listening, letting fly in confrontational style, complemented by a looping Japanese flute, grinding guitars and Chester on hand for a chorus that matched his bandmate’s ire.

“It was about pushing the boundaries of what the band was,” Mike says now. “It was about creating a rap song, pure and simple. And it laid the ground for others like it later on.” Indeed, if you fast forward to When They Come For Me from 2010’s fourth album A Thousand Suns, with its references to rappers Big Daddy Kane and Chuck D, it’s impossible not to view Nobody’s Listening as a precursor to that bolder effort.

Elsewhere, on Wesside, a track from the Lost Demos component of the Meteora 20th anniversary package, there’s a clue to a direction Mike later pursued outside of Linkin Park. “It’s me trying to get out the intention of what would later become Fort Minor, my side-project. There’s no vocals on it – it’s just an instrumental – but I listened to that beat and thought, ‘I know where you’re going with this.’”

“It was about pushing the boundaries of what the band was”

Mike Shinoda

If Mike’s recollections err on seriousness, Brad Delson’s provide an irreverent counterpoint. Ask the guitarist what his main goal for album number two was, for example, and he suggests having enough songs to justify the gigs they were being offered back then.

“Headliners typically have to play more than 30 minutes worth of material and Hybrid Theory was 38 minutes,” laughs Brad. “Sometimes we’d ask how long we’d have to play and we’d be told 90 minutes, so would think about playing everything three times.”

The jokes may be to deflect the fact that, by the making of Meteora, Brad was already in uncharted territory. “Our whole goal had been to get a record deal. The imagination couldn’t go further than that because it was the most implausible thing we could think of.”

Meteora, he says, was “more joyful to make” than its predecessor, but there is something both records had in common. “Later in our career when we worked with Rick Rubin, he trained us to work in lots of different directions and really challenged us to start with a vocal and a core melodic concept,” reveals Brad. “But that was not the way we worked on our first two records. Then it was always about building an instrumental first.”

On Meteora that instrumental was Session, a warped blend of cacophonous snare and glitching electronics, on which the heavy guitars are conspicuously absent. For Brad, a man proud that his playing was always in service to the song in question, that was just fine. “Our goal for Meteora was that if you muted the vocals on any of the songs, the instrumental track could still hold your attention. You’re hearing that concept more directly with Session.”

Dave Farrell made his first appearance on a Linkin Park studio album with Meteora. Having recorded the demo back when the band was called Xero, he quit to play in ska punk band Tasty Snax, before returning to the fold in 2000 to tour Hybrid Theory.

Meteora gave Dave the chance to work with Don Gilmore, the producer who helmed Linkin Park’s debut, and was an accomplished bassist. This provided Dave with clarity on his responsibility within the overall sound. “There were six guys – there was a DJ, electronic elements, two vocalists – so we needed space for that stuff to come through.”

For Dave, the most fascinating thing about going back to Meteora has been revisiting “those early sparks”, the fragments of songs he likens to being “half-dressed”, which have captured for posterity the moments that inspiration struck. He’s thinking specifically of Cuidado – Spanish for ‘careful’ – the working title of Lying From You, which is largely different to the final version, but has sufficient recognisable moments to cause the hair on his arms to stand up.

“When you’re creating, you’re fishing,” is how Dave describes the process. “And good fishermen know where to go, when to go and what bait to use. But there’s no guarantee you’re going to fish something out of the universe.”

“It’s staggering to hear Chester again”

Brad Delson

Of the material they did manage to catch during the Meteora era, this trawl has been a full one, closing the book on a fascinating chapter in Linkin Park’s story. “To my knowledge, this is a comprehensive package,” says Mike.

Some may disagree with him, however, given the omission of a key piece of lore from that time. If you go onto YouTube – which, incidentally, launched two years after Meteora’s release – and search ‘Linkin Park The Wizard Song’, you’ll be greeted with footage of Chester singing a song with the lyrics ‘Down on the fairytale path, there is a wizard awaiting you’.

There were, it turns out, a couple of reasons it didn’t make the cut.

“We were in the studio doing a serious song and screwing around with the vocals, so Chester freestyled this weird, medieval, Dungeons & Dragons thing. I don’t even know if we actually recorded it on the microphone, we may have only recorded it on the camera across the room.”

It’s that playfulness and capacity to be “funny all the time” that Brad misses about Chester, as well as his ability to be laser-focused when the work required it. “I think you can hear that total commitment to wanting to create great art,” says Brad. “That’s what resonates with people, whether English is their first language or they don’t speak a word of English; the emotion doesn’t lie and it’s there in spades on [Meteora]."

Listening to Chester on Lost has understandably hit hard, then. “It’s staggering to hear him again,” Brad marvels. “I love the dynamic dichotomy of his voice – how delicate it is in the verse, and how strong it is in the chorus.”

There’s little talk today of where Linkin Park will go from here. The question has been asked time and time again, with the answer remaining broadly the same. Last year, Mike explained that while he’s keeping in more regular contact with fans via his Twitch channel, “There’s no tours, there’s no music, there’s no albums in the pipeline.” And while, more recently, he’s suggested that “touring is the only thing [off the table]”, causing something of a frenzy, that says nothing of how Linkin Park would actually operate moving forward; releasing this new version of Meteora is technically the band still being active.

“This is such a great moment in time,” says Mike now, simply, of revisiting his past while simultaneously releasing solo material in the present. “We can juxtapose the early days and something brand new.”

What’s abundantly clear, is that the remaining members of Linkin Park are as excited by the music they’ve made as ever and, given their productivity over the years, there’s no doubt more material from other stages in their career that could emerge.

In an interesting side-note, Brad tells us that while the legendary Andy Wallace originally mixed Lost, making it sound like a part of Meteora, the band had another mix done. Manny Marroquin, the Guatamala-born engineer who worked on Linkin Park’s Hunting Party (2014) and One More Light (2017), as well as on releases by Ed Sheeran and Machine Gun Kelly, also gave it a go.

“It sounds a little more modern,” Brad says of Manny’s version. “And more reflective of creative choices we’d make today.”

What a tantalising prospect that is…

The Meteora 20th Anniversary Edition is released on April 7, available in various configurations – pre-order your copy now.

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