Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda: “If you’re expecting ESP guitars, then this album is not for you”

Up until a few weeks ago, it had been quite some time since the world had heard anything concrete from within the Linkin Park camp. Having rounded up the campaign surrounding 2014s The Hunting Party towards the end of 2015, it was anyone’s guess as to where on earth the genre-bending sextet could go next. Retain The Hunting Party’s heaviness, or wander down a seemingly unfamiliar avenue? After nearly eighteen months, it turned out to be the latter as Mike Shinoda, Chester Bennington and co. put out the infectiously catchy Heavy, a collaboration with pop vocalist Kiiara. The track received mixed responses from fans due to its overtly poppy nature, with the song shedding all instances of the Linkin Park early fans fell in love with. Linkin Park aren’t making music for the satisfaction of other people’s ears though; rather, they’re doing it exactly in the way that they should be – for themselves. And they’ve done it well, as One More Light sounds like the album which Linkin Park have been meaning to make forever. It well and truly solidifies their status as the biggest rock band in the world, as well as one of few outfits who are genuinely able to crossover into so many genres without it sounding laboured, half-baked or embarrassing. One More Light is an elegant pop record sprawling with grandiose production, pulsating rhythms and anthemic choruses which, however far removed they sound from “old school” Linkin Park, feel like an old friend coming round to say hello. As I walk into Amsterdam’s luxurious Conservatorium Hotel during a hot March day, I draw various aesthetic comparisons with One More Light, grandiosity being a keyword. As I meet Mike Shinoda and stare into his dark brown eyes, I’m greeted by a man who’s seen it all, from the biggest festival crowds all the way through to the tiny, half-full rooms which he and his band faced back in the day. He’s at full ease in a black leather chair, having just had lunch with bandmate Chester Bennington in the confines of the hotel’s Harmony Room. Littered around the surrounding area are members of the band’s road crew and management, all running around to ensure that the day runs smoothly before the pair head off to the Melkweg for a special fan event. Bennington is elsewhere for the duration of this discussion with Mike, which gives me the chance to grill Shinoda about a handful of different topics.

Mike! How are things?
I’m doing great man, thanks!

One More Light comes out on the 19th of May, and it’s great. Can you outline what you got up to between the end of The Hunting Party’s campaign and where you are right now?
Yeah, sure! We got off tour around a year and a half ago, and I’d already been writing a bunch of demos and playing things for the guys. I decided to stop in London, because I had been interested in potentially writing with some people outside of the band. Justin Parker is one of them, and I’d seen his name on some credits including stuff by Lana Del Rey, and I also sat with Eg White who’d written with Florence + the Machine and Adele. We’ve always written all of our own stuff, even if we did have a couple of little collaborations on The Hunting Party. Those tracks were already written, though, with our collaborators just layering something else on top. The only collaboration which was written from scratch was the one with Daron from System of a Down on Rebellion. It just got me interested in the idea of writing with other people. As a band and as friends we all know each other back to front, and I was really hoping to broaden my horizon and learn from some other writers who just do that for a living. During my first meeting with Justin Parker I just asked him, “so, what the hell do you do for a living?” Like, I don’t know anything about how it feels to be a songwriter and how it feels to go into sessions with people. I tried doing that in the early 2000s, but I absolutely hated it. So I asked Justin how it worked for him; do they do it all one-on-one, or are there writers camps where you all get together and work on, say, a Rihanna record? I got to learn from different folks how that worked, and for us there was one version which really worked but that probably wouldn’t work for everybody. Each day we would come into the studio, and Brad and I would invite someone along so that we could have some small talk. We would ask each other what was on our minds each day and what we wanted to sing about. Sometimes it was something really stupid, but sometimes it would be something which ended up on One More Light.

One track which ended up on the album is Good Goodbyes, your collaboration with Pusha T and Stormzy. How did that come about?
That was one of the only tracks which happened really early on. The hook and the track came at once during the day; I think it might have just been myself and Jesse Shatkin. We’re both hip hop fans, so I made this track and he added to it and together we came up with the hook. I wanted this song to be about one of my favourite moments in a basketball game. This is when, at a Lakers game, the rival team fouls out and the whole place erupts into this moment where they sing Hit the Road, Jack and they kick them out of the building. The cheerleaders are swishing their pompoms around and literally sending them out of the door, and the crowd do it too. There’s a couple of songs they use there, but I wanted to write one which they would also make use of in that kind of situation. A song which you can use to kick people out of the door. The joke is that this track is for a sporting event, but on a more serious note you sometimes feel this way in a relationship. It’s like that moment when you get out of one and you say, “fuck you, I’m over this, I’m over you. No more bullshit!” and you’re just happy to be done with it. I originally had two verses on this song, and then we would add an electronic drop once we got to the bridge. It just didn’t sound good, so we started thinking about who we could collaborate with and bring in on the track for rap verses. That just ended up being Pusha T and Stormzy, both of whom I really love.

The record has been hailed as your most ‘human’ yet. What do you think contributed to this?
Starting with the concept first, that’s really the key. If you walk in the door and the lyrics are what’s dictating everything then that’s exactly where you should start. Like, what’s on my mind today? If you come in and want to sing a song for your kids, for example, then you’ll obviously want to talk about what’s happening with them, that they’re growing up too fast and stuff. It’s like their childhood is slipping away, and you’re all like, “oh my gosh”. You walk in, and the track everyone’s working on is a punk rock song which goes all, “FUCK THE MAN!” In our case, we would walk in that day and switch gears. I’d be flexible and go, “cool, this is what we’re working on” and get into that mindset.

So One More Light emerged more out of the lyrical side of things? Is that a different approach to previous records?
I mean, it’s not like we’ve never done it that way before. Certain songs, like In the End and Breaking the Habit, have come about in that way. It happened, and it was something that we knew we wanted to do, even if we’d always tried to do it in some way or another. I know how important it is to get the lyrics into the song early, because making a song sound cool and polishing it is actually fun; but it’s easy. That’s just experimenting and throwing around different sounds until you have the ones that make you the most excited. I’ll spend all my time doing that if I don’t have to do lyrics, but when I feel like I’ve written a great song with great words and a great melody it’s more fulfilling. It’s harder to do, to a degree.

Chester Bennington & Mike Shinoda at the Melkweg. (c) Jack Parker

This time around you self-produced the record. Do you think you’re now at a level where there is little need for an external producer?
The thing about working with producers is that we initially just did it because it was what everyone else did as well. We don’t know why we did it; rather, we just did it because we knew that that’s how a record is made in our minds. I learnt a lot from Dom Gilmore on our first two albums about how to record great guitars, drums and vocals. Basically learning the ins and outs about your basic pop or rock song, and he was really great at that. When we went on to work with Rick Rubin we were in the process of reinventing the band. We really wanted to completely change everything, and that’s when we did Minutes to Midnight. I think we did three albums with Rick, and then in the midst of making The Hunting Party I said, “you know, let’s hold off on engaging a producer because I feel that we have a very specific vision for what this album needs to be”. I didn’t want someone to come in who I had to match with in the studio, even if it was Rick. I wanted to take the concept far enough along so that we knew it was completely solid. At the point that it was there we totally knew what the record was supposed to be, and we just didn’t need anybody to help us or change that. One More Light was more like that too, but we did have some people who contributed to co-writing with us or adding extra production elements to proceedings. I would categorize them more as a supporting cast, as opposed to someone like Rick who was more of a mentor.

How would you go about translating this onto the live stage? The album itself is relatively intimate, yet you’re still out on big stages in front of huge crowds.
It’s very fun! You see, the new songs are all written initially on just a piano or guitar with some vocals. I’ll take Heavy as an example: a lot of the piano and sample elements are really up front, but the live elements are in there too; it’s all mixed in a way which I like to describe as having soup versus a salad. A soup is where everything’s blended and you can’t pick out all the individual pieces, but a salad is where you can see all the different parts that make up the whole. The new music is more of a soup where you can’t pull out all the individual pieces; I don’t think that, when listening to Heavy, you can tell in the drum tracks when the live ones start kicking in. Some of them are sampled, some of them aren’t. It’s hard to tell. When you’re in the live show you can tell the difference, though. I feel like the tracks are really kicked up a notch when you see them live. They’re more energetic.

What’s your take on fans’ reactions to the new tracks so far? Did you see it coming?
It’s been kind of what I expected. We’ve put out music that we know would elicit this kind of reaction for a long time, at least since Minutes to Midnight and then again on A Thousand Suns. Those were the first records where we knew fans would really react to them. In fact, A Thousand Suns at first only got either five or one-star reviews. On iTunes you could see exactly how many people rated it a certain star. There’d be like 1200 five star reviews and 600 one-star reviews, and nothing in between! That’s also what we’re on target for with One More Light. I think it’s evening out a little bit too, because I think it’s silly that people are already posting reviews on an album that they haven’t even heard. They can’t review a single song, only an album, so they go to the whole album and give a review based off of one song. They haven’t heard the album, so that’s really funny. Once the album comes out and people see it live I think that they’ll be provided with so much more context. Just hearing any song, like Heavy, is just one piece of the whole. That said, though, if the only thing you want to listen to is ESP guitars through a rectifier amp then this is not the album for you. Come to a show, though, because there are songs in the set which are for you! This is not your album, though.

We’re very much in the present now, but do you have any idea or indication of the direction you want to go or things you want to explore in the future?
I really enjoyed exploring the songwriting process and flipping that around on the last few records. It’s been really fun to approach songs almost backwards in terms of the chronological process and how you should start and finish a song. We tried different ways of doing that. It’s not responsible for the way the album sounds, but it is responsible for the ease in which Chester sings. To my ear, he sounds so great on this album and I know exactly what we did to make that happen for him. It requires spending time on trying the song in different keys and at different tempos so that it sounds great in whichever way he chooses to sing it. Finishing the lyrics and melody early and letting Chester live with them for a while also really helped, it enabled him to emote more on the record. That’s a very specific procedural thing which helps, but it’s one thing out of a million. Making songs, as you yourself probably know from what you do for a living, is a house of cards. Some people wake up with a song in their head and put it together that day before basically finishing it, and that’s happened for me too. The vast majority of the time, though, it takes vast craftsmanship to sit with song for a long time and ironing out all the little details whilst also making sure that the song doesn’t lose all the little magical moments which make it so great. It’s a fun yet tedious process which is exciting to me, but as for the future I’d have to say that I like to going into an album process looking for something to learn, so I expect the next album will be starting in a similar way.

Thanks a lot for your time!
No problem man, thanks!

 One More Light comes out on 19 May via Warner Music. The band will also appear at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on Tuesday, 20 June together with Sum 41. Get your tickets here