A few stats before we begin. Over 50 million albums sold in 12 years, platinum status in seven countries for a collabo LP with one of hip-hop’s greatest MC’s, a 34% awards nominated to awards won ratio—the same as Beyoncé’s—and through it all an ardent and gracious supporter of disaster relief in the Gulf states, Indonesia, Haiti and Japan. Whatever side of the musical fence you reside on, there’s no denying that Linkin Park has achieved boss status in multiple genres, and co-frontman Mike Shinoda resides at the epicenter of that success.
Late last month, the band released their fifth LP, Living Things. Co-produced by Shinoda and Rick Rubin, the album is a decidedly more personal and less political outing than 2010’s A Thousand Suns, an album that pricked up EDM ears with 4/4 romps like “Blackout” and half-tempo neck-crackers like “Wretches and Kings” and “When They Come For Me.” After a set at the 2,300-capacity Club Nokia for Summer X-Games in Los Angeles, Shinoda ruminated on the new record, his longstanding partnership with Rubin, and LP’s constant juxtaposition of art and music.
If A Thousand Suns had a very post-apocalyptic motif, what would you say Living Things has? More of a rebirth?
Mike Shinoda: On the other albums, we established a sound, abandoned that sound to experiment with a variety of other things, and then took a long ride down the rabbit hole with a concept album. But the one thing that’s always remained constant was the idea of bringing together disparate styles. That was why our original band name was Hybrid Theory. On this album, we brought together all the contrasting sounds from all our other albums, in each song. But in the process, we still found time to experiment with a lot of new things.
You told me you reconnected with lots of classic gear like your MPC1000 on the last album. You also said you found influence in old school rap. This album feels different; more punk rock. I especially hear it in a track like “Victimized.” Was that something you were consciously working towards with this record?
MS: This album was in the works for around a year. Over a year’s time, a lot of inspirations and changes in motivation happens. I think a lot of the demos came from stuff I made on my laptop, crossed with in-studio experiments. I guess one point of inspiration was a folk compilation that Brad and I came across; it was a set recorded in the ’20s and ’30s. We thought, A lot of bands have covered and referenced this stuff over the years. What are some things that we can do that those bands didn’t? We started mixing that with different things—like energetic electronic and alternative sounds—and we liked how it sounded. It was like, “Well, what would The Carter Family plus Refused plus Death Grips sound like?”
The synth sounds on this album sound more hopeful and less foreboding than on A Thousand Suns; more shimmery, more uplifting. Was there a concerted effort to change up the emotion in your gear?
MS: That’s interesting. Maybe it was just an intuitive thing. We’ve all heard stories of people who say, “I dreamed a song, then woke up and wrote it down.” Those people think of what a song is going to be, then they write and record it with a specific purpose. That’s the opposite of what we do. We approach a song more like a one line drawing, where you just put pen to paper and see where it takes you. We let the subconscious do the driving for the most part, and stop when we end up somewhere we like.
What inspired you to hold the listening event for this album at Sonos Studios? I was at the laser show at the Fonda for A Thousand Suns, and both events—while slightly different in execution—really emphasized the connection between art, music and experience. Why is it so important for LP to deliver your babies into the world this way?
MS:First, I love Sonos. It’s literally changed the way I listen to music, so doing the event was a no-brainer for me. As far as the actual event goes, the Goodsmile Company made the physical space and put together the “performance” based on visuals that our art team created. People will see that same art in everything related to Living Things: the packaging, tour visuals, online, everything. I have a B.A. in Illustration, so the visuals that accompany our albums are really important to me. I think we’ve gotten better and better at creating an immersive experience with each album, over the years.
Though I think you gained a lot of new fans with the last album, it did receive a very tepid reception from lots of longtime fans. Now that you’re a year and a half out, what do you think it was, specifically, that people didn’t resonate with?
MS: We knew it was going to be that way before we even finished the album. We knew we had to be okay with that fact in order to be okay with putting it out. In the past, we had done a lot of experiments in the studio that would never see the light of day. A Thousand Suns was different. We knew this was music that we felt passionately about, and we still do. I think ATS was a real creative stretch, and I believe it was often best received by people who really knew the songwriting and recording process. It was almost a psychedelic experience making the album at times; we had to dive deep into it in order to achieve that sound.
Even looking at the track listing, the first half is more instrumental than vocal-driven. The album isn’t radio single-oriented; it’s meant to be an album-long journey. It’s about heavy subjects like nuclear war and environmental danger, and rooted in heavy studio experimentation rather than heavy guitars, and it was shocking for people to hear that come from us. It required some of an abandonment of the “baggage” of Linkin Park, which was a lot to ask of the average mainstream music fan, or even Linkin Park fan, in some cases. We wouldn’t have been able to make Living Things without having made A Thousand Suns.
When you worked with Rick on ATS, it was important to him that you throw out all the old LP sonic conventions; that everything should be custom and unique. In terms of a bleed-over, Living Things and ATS share more sonic similarities than, say, ATS and Minutes To Midnight. I see and hear creative parallels between the records. When did it feel okay to revisit motifs, and did you find yourselves ever looking back too often?
MS: It was important to him, and equally important to us. Recently, we’ve made a habit of making and keeping an ear out for our favorite hand-crafted sounds that help give each song personality. There are sound choices on the album—usually electronic—that let you know it’s current, but those new sounds are often juxtaposed against classic sounds like guitars, drums, and piano. Plus, it’s not just about the engineering. The same balance had to be found when it came to arrangement, structure, and vocals. It was a focus that stayed on our radar the whole time.
Do you ever just want to give Chester a big hug and tell him it’s gonna be okay? Dude’s lyrics get so deep the album should come with a free life vest.
MS: (Laughs) He definitely has a gift for digging deep and bringing out the blood and guts of a vocal, and I know the stories behind the songs; the ones we don’t talk about. We write and record pretty much all the lyrics together, so we have to know what the other guy is singing about. For the record, Chester personally copes with a lot of those emotions and stories pretty well, it’s just that we both know the catharsis we feel when we write a song that really captures the emotions of one of those stories. And we both appreciate the connection we feel when fans who have been through a similar thing are singing the song at a show.
I know you’ve been a fan of URB for a minute now, especially coming from LA. Do you remember your first experience with URB? How did you connect to the magazine when you were growing up?
MS: Not sure when I first heard about URB. It must have been in the ’90s, when it was about DJ culture and the “new” electronic, hip-hop, and dance scenes. In recent years, when EDM started making headlines, I thought of those times when I first heard the stuff at raves back in the ’90s. I didn’t go to many, but I was curious, and I remember looking to URB to find out what was “new.”