There is a moment in Linkin Park’s new single “Guilty All the Same,” somewhere around the time the Kirk Hammett-esque guitars slow down and Rob Bourdon’s drums and Dave Farrell’s bass join in lockstep and Rakim drops down from Rap Game Mount Olympus to spit 24 bars of pure fury, that you have to go, “Holy shit. This is a good fucking song.”
Well, I’ve got a secret for all you chinstroking hipsters with your crates of SoundCloud files and Abletons full of drone metal made by five overeducated pillheads in Ridgewood, and that secret is that Linkin Park is legitimately the biggest band in the world—they have an astonishing 62 million Facebook fans—and they've been making daring, stadium-ready rock for the better part of a decade. With their newest album, The Hunting Party, set to be released on June 17th, Linkin Park have dropped the electronics of their previous two records and have rededicated themselves to making rock and roll. In short, they’ve found their balls, and they’re taking those balls and going balls to the wall. Parts of the record sound like vintage Bay Area thrash while other bits of it sound like Helmet, to the point where they actually got the dude from Helmet to sing on “All for Nothing.” The record sounds big, like the sort of thing only a gargantuan rock band could actually manage because they actually have the manpower, resources, and abilities to make it sound big. It’s the sound of a band who have something to prove, and will punch you in your dick if you refuse to listen to them.
When I meet Mike Shinoda at the offices of his record label, however, he seems anything but ready to punch me in the dick. At 37 and dressed in a navy Chambray shirt and subtly hyperexpensive sneakers, he looks like less the architect of one of the most popular rock bands of the past 15 years and more like a cool dad. This is in part, because he is in fact a dad, and being a rock star, he is also cool. More than that, he’s thoughtful about his band’s place in culture—Linkin Park is a ubiquity that hovers over us, never to die. With that stasis comes freedom, and to their credit, Linkin Park have managed to do pretty much whatever the fuck they want to and remain as popular as ever. Since 2003’s world-beating Meteora, they’ve done their Legacy Record—that’d be the Rick Rubin-helmed Minutes to Midnight—their Secret Classic—the lithe A Thousand Suns, which with its spacey electronics and apocalyptic themes scans more Radiohead than (hed) p.e.—and in 2012 offered up Living Things, which manages to sound like all music at once without being all dicky about it.
Over the course of an hour or so, Mike and I chatted about the state of popular rock music, what it’s like to call in a verse from Rakim, and how to deal with the fact that one day, you might wake up to realize you’re a rock star and some of your fans are douchebags that you have to learn to love.
Noisey: Do the songs have names yet?
Mike Shinoda: Naming shit is difficult for us, especially album titles. This one was easier than many of them; we second-guessed and argued over it. We never come up with an album title before the album.
It’s hard to put such an abstract thing as an album into, like, three words.
We have concepts behind the record, but a lot of times they have multiple meanings. Easiest album title was A Thousand Suns, which came from an Oppenheimer quote. He said it after they’d detonated the bomb, and that’s sort of what the album was about.
Tell me about Rakim.
There were no shortcuts. When he wrote to the song, he told me it was going to take some time; it took like a week and a half. At a certain point he said, “I’ve got 16 bars, but I want more. Can we do 24?” And he drove out—he doesn’t fly—from the East Coast to L.A., set up a couple shows on the way, canceled them, and then basically came out and recorded the song. He was still writing on it the weekend before he came in, and was even still editing it on paper. It’s not on his phone, it’s not on his laptop, he was sitting there at the dinner table of the studio still working it out.
Do you feel like you learned anything from him?
Any time we’re in the studio with anybody, I try to see what I can learn from them. What I learned from his style was to appreciate the difference between writing in a free-form way—like guys like Jay Z and Kanye who freestyle and free-associate into the mic—and Rakim’s the opposite. He spends a lot of time perfecting the verse. His verse is almost the rap equivalent of a shredding guitar solo, like you listen to it and you can’t even tell the notes because it’s so crazy. When you read the words you can follow along and see how the rhyme pattern and got built out. The rhyme pattern is constantly established and taken apart and re-established. That was the awakening—that form of writing is totally timeless. Even though it’s a little complex and a little much for people in modern pop to digest, when you hear it done well it still resonates. There are people who do complex shit and it doesn’t really hit you, because they’re just doing it for the sake of being complex. But Rakim’s verse is about hitting an emotional connection.
Do you still have the paper he wrote the verse on?
He took it with him. We couldn’t even get a picture of it. He took it out, put it in his jacket, and left with it. I felt like that was part of his routine; like he would never leave that laying around. He probably has a folder of those, or he immediately goes home and burns them.
What do you think of the current state of rock music?
There’s so much music out there; there’s so much stuff that sounds like Haim or CHVRCHES or Vampire Weekend that I’m full. The thing I’m hungry for is not that. I turn on the rock station in L.A. and it sounds like Disney commercial music. And I’m confused by that. The dude from Foster the People was literally a jingle writer. No disrespect, but for me to make that stuff was kind of out of the question. I stepped back and said, “What’s the thing I want to hear that nobody else is making, and what’s the thing that we are uniquely positioned to make?” We threw out our old demos, and I talked to the guys and basically asked them to get in touch with who their 15-year-old self was. Not to make songs for 15-year-olds out there now—there are a lot of people out there who’ll make music because it’ll be popular with teenagers, but that’s not what we’re doing. I told our guitarist Brad, “If the kid you were at 15 heard what you made today, would he be proud of you? Or would he say, ‘That guy’s kind of a pussy.’?” Because he was listening to fucking Metallica and heavier at that point. I said, “Write a song that’ll make that kid play guitar.” So that’s what we ended up doing. We wanted to impress our inner teenager. When I was that age I was listening to Public Enemy and N.W.A. and Rakim. And when I did get into rock, it was Metallica and Alice in Chainz. The Nu-Metal thing and the alternative rock thing spawned from people learning from those bands, but those bands never made radio rock.
If you’d asked me this five years ago, I was obsessed with indie rock. A lot of the artists were coming from a place that was, “this is my scene, and this is my shit, and that’s why I’m making it.” But now it’s become pop. It’s not indie, it’s major label.
I feel like “indie” has become an aesthetic term more than anything else.
It’s stupid. It’s so fuckin’ dumb. It’s the same thing when “alternative” happened. An alternative to what, y’know? It became pop. The alternative to alternative was, like, nu-metal. Which, again, became dumb. All these scenes… I don’t know, man. There just becomes a point where people are playing monkey-see, monkey-do, and it just cheapens the whole scene. That got weird.
To me, Linkin Park has always existed as an example of what a mainstream rock band can do to push the envelope.
That’s so nice, thank you so much. I hope you’re not just saying that because you know that’s what I wanted to hear.
Honestly I thought you’d get mad at me for saying you were mainstream. People are weird about that.
We’re at peace with the fact that not just we can go to many countries and play shows and people come, but also with the fact that that’s how we’re seen. I would have fought that early on when we were getting bigger, like “No, I don’t want to be seen as a pop group, fuck that.” But I do think there’s a difference between being accessible and mainstream and being pop or whatever you want to call that. It’s more about intention, whether you’re talking about aesthetics or how you lay out a set or what your video looks like or whatever. Our threshold for trying to push it and do something that’s interesting to us and also challenging the fans is pretty high. Two records ago when we put A Thousand Suns out, we knew that it was going to be a totally polarizing album. Before we even let anyone hear it, we were like, “Fuck, are we 100% sure that we want to alienate this many people?” Because some people were going to be like, “That’s it, I’ve had it, fuck this band, they’re not making music for me anymore because all I want to hear is heavy guitars and there isn’t a guitar to be found on this record. They’re singing about the world’s ills and there’s a bunch of electronic bleeps and blips, fuck these guys.”
I heard a great quote by Nas around that time. He said that every once and a while he likes to make a project to shake off his pop fans. To intentionally get rid of them. If you’re a casual Nas listener, he’s going to let you know at a certain point that you’re not welcome to his party. I love that, I thought that was so cool.
That’s a good way to think about operating in the sphere of popularity.
And just modern music.
How many people have heard this record so far?
The whole thing? Not very many. Right now our manager’s flying around right now with a five-song sampler playing it for journalists and our label, because they need to know what is coming up. The record comes out this summer, and we need everybody to know what they’re working with. Which is to say that some of it’s going to be a bit of a challenge. This is going to be a hard sell for rock radio, I knew that going in. Radio’s really powerful for selling albums—at the end of the day I’m an artist, but I’m also not stupid and I know in order to be able to keep this momentum of this thing we’ve got going, we need to perform to a certain degree.
I think ultimately that’s the best strategy.
The way we treat this is, “We live and breathe this. If this fails, you get to go home and have your jobs, but we don’t.” We also go to our fans and try to get them to see our point of view. On this record our first single is aggressive, it’s six minutes long, and radio won’t play anything over three-and-a-half minutes. Pop radio won’t play anything over three minutes, and they also won’t play anything with aggressive guitars, they definitely won’t play anything with screaming in it. There’s a ton of rules. And unless you’re Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, they won’t play anything cold—they need it to be a success elsewhere. They’re only going to be on the winning team. And from my perspective, I can’t live in that world. It’s a business, do what you’ve gotta do, but that world’s very foreign to me. When I make a song I don’t do math. I think what’s the point I’m trying to get across, how do I learn to be a better writer, better producer, whatever.
How do you compete against factories for pop songs?
Dude it’s crazy out there. What’s worked for us in the past is stick to our guns as far as what our creative vision is, spend a lot of time on it, and really craft it. On this record we spent six months in the studio, probably six more out of the studio in addition, just coming up with demoes and throwing them away. In contrast to that, there was a pop artist who I won’t name who was in the studio while we were doing our record—they showed up for three days. Day one they showed up for thirty minutes, day two they showed up for fifteen, and day three they neglected to show up at all. The song was done.
What was it like when you first blew up?
When we first heard the song on the radio, that was The Moment. When you hear your song on your hometown station. For our singer Chester, that was in Arizona. We were on our first tour in a rented RV. I was driving, and we pulled up to his parents’ house as we were listening to the radio. The DJ gave this spiel about this hometown kid, his song has just come out, and we were FREAKING out. Chester ran into his house screaming, was like “Dad! Turn on the radio!” We were in the car just fucking jumping around and celebrating. A couple days later we were back in L.A. and the same thing happened for my hometown station. This guy Stryker had been on the radio for a year or two, and he played it at their New Music block in the middle of the day. I found out he picked it. I was in the bathroom in my apartment, this two-bedroom apartment that I shared with two other guys, beer stains and shit everywhere.
Was somebody sleeping on the couch?
It was literally two dudes in one room and me in the other room. I paid a little bit more so I got a room by myself. It was $800 for the apartment. We weren’t livin’ large. But there was one moment I will mention, maybe six to twelve months later, I remember being at one of our shows. We were headlining a room for 1,200 people, and I remember looking out into the audience and realizing, “Oh shit, some of the people who are listening to this music right now are kinda douchey.” Not to diss our fans because I love our fans, but I saw some people in the crowd I knew I could never hang out with. I didn’t know what that meant, but I just knew it. We’d gotten bigger than people like me. It was a moment of, like, what do you do? Do you just go with it? How do you communicate to this new fanbase? We tried to be really responsible about that, always let the fans who’d been there a long time know that we still appreciate that dedication, that they were there first. But also we want to let the casual fans it’s not bad to be a casual fan.
Drew Millard is Noisey's Features Editor. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard