Multiple Grammy Award winning rap rockers Linkin Park played a capacity concert at the Cape Town Stadium on Wednesday, marred by an accident outside the stadium that claimed the life of one fan, and caused injury to 20 more, with 12 requiring hospitalisation. This exclusive interview with frontman and co-founder Mike Shinoda, took place a day before the concert.
Five journalists face down an empty chair, awaiting the arrival of the owner of one of the most recognised rap voices in the rock genre. The germ of Linkin Park proper was in 1999, when Mike Shinoda and two California high-school buddies, Rob Bourdon, and Brad Delson, recruited singer Chester Bennington, now hailed as one of modern rock’s greatest vocalists, and turntablist/sampler Joe Hahn for the band’s full length debut, “Hybrid Theory” (2000). The album became America’s best-selling album of 2001, earned the band a Grammy, and armies of male and female fans. More chart-busting albums and awards followed – “Meteora” (2002), “Minutes to Midnight” (2006), “A Thousand Suns” (2008) and “Living Things” (2011) – as well as side projects like “Collision Course” (2004) with rapper Jay-Z that birthed “Numb/Encore”. Linkin Park has sold over 60 million records globally.
Shinoda arrives. Up close, he’s compact and well-groomed; calm and reserved – a far cry from the guitar-toting frontman who spits rhymes of modern disillusionment and angst to legions of fist-pumping fans. Does he need anything before the round-table interview starts? He does, please, just a cup of coffee. It arrives, and he accepts with a true-blue polite word of thanks. Superstar, yes. Fame-blinded celebrity, no.
My first question (we each got two): part of Linkin Park’s success has been the combination of Shinoda’s rap vocals and Bennington’s melodic singing: is there a place that rap can go, and singing can’t, or vice-versa? Also, cheekily, is Shinoda ever envious of Bennington’s parts?
“That’s a great question,” Shinoda smiles. “When we first started, it was a simplified, rudimentary version of what we do now. More patchwork. As we’ve gotten older and got more experience writing songs, the way we fit things together has become more natural. Any time I wrote a singing part, we’d assume that Chester would sing it. Now, if we demo a song with me singing, which I do pretty often, we might both sing it, or we might layer both vocals in the studio. Now it’s whatever fits the song, that’s what we use.” A clear example of the teamwork evidences itself at their live concert at Cape Town Stadium. As thousands of fans applaud the end of a song, Bennington quips an apology for forgetting a line, and thanks Shinoda for riffing it to him. “Don’t worry,” says Shinoda over one of the largest sound rigs that stadium has seen, “We forgive you.”
Back at the round table, Shinoda says he likes what he’s seen of South Africa in the day they’ve been there, that it was great to go on a trip to Robben Island and that he hasn’t yet had a chance to get any local music.
The interview is on the eve of the US elections. How does Shinoda feel about not being able to vote in person, and where will his ‘X’ go? “On Twitter (@mikeshinoda), I posted a picture of me preparing my mail-in vote before we left,” he says, “But I make it a policy not to get in-depth about my personal feelings on issues if I feel that it’s a divisive topic. So I won’t get specific on my choice between Mitt Romney or President Obama. It’s based on my own personal values and opinions, and that’s not a place where I like to exert my energy in public. I will say that voting is important, and we encourage young people to go and vote. It’s interesting, though, because I’ve been writing a column for a magazine (“Big Issue UK”) as their election correspondent. I told them it’s not like I’d be addressing divisive issues like gay marriage head-on. I do have opinions about things like that, but I’m not going to put them in a public forum.”
Other questions touch on working with producer Rick Rubin (“Of my top ten favourite albums, he’s probably produced half”, Shinoda’s side-project, Fort Minor (“It’s not like it’s over, I’m just not doing it right now”); Linkin Park Underground (“If I was a little kid and I got a chance to play on the instruments of – what would be a good example? – of Nirvana, then that would be pretty amazing; that’s what we try to offer our fans”); inspiration for songs (“On ‘A Thousand Suns’, being a small piece in a big world; on ‘Living Things’, inspiration from personal experiences”); new bands he likes (“A lot of hip hop; also alternative records like Geographer, Cat Power, Metz (on SubPop), Yeasayer, Animal Collective, Passion Pit”) and when he realised Linkin Park had “made it”: “I remember we showed up to an award, all six of us together in one car with our dates and we weren’t even out of the car and the representatives of the event were literally pushing us to get out of the way because Lenny Kravitz had arrived, and they had to get the cameras there to show that he had. Then, at the awards ceremonies, people started being nice to us, and that struck us as funny, because we know those moments aren’t guaranteed, and they aren’t going to last.”
Finally, my second question, which is about the other component to the Linkin Park recipe; its commercial appeal and radio-friendliness, and whether this is a conscious decision when they’re creating material. “My feeling from early on was, ‘What use is a good idea if nobody hears it?’ Isn’t it in your best interests if you create something in a format that reaches as many people as possible?” he says. “In high school, if I listened to something, as soon as the cheerleaders and the football players started listening to it, then I was over it. As I got older, I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me if I liked something or not. I tend to look for new ideas in music I listen to, and I gravitate to things that aren’t so popular, but I don’t want to be some kind of elitist with my musical ideas – I want to get it out to a lot of people.”
Linkin Park’s new album, “Living Things” is available in CD shops and online. Linkin Park Underground can be joined at LinkinPark.com.This article by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 11/11