a long talk

‘We Were Obsessed’

Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda didn’t plan to revisit the band’s 2003 album Meteora — until he found a lost demo.

Photo: Frank Maddocks
Photo: Frank Maddocks

The bonds we develop with the music we first fall in love with are everlasting. Years later, the sound of a familiar voice can spirit us back to a tumultuous time of teen angst and heartbreaks. I’m trying to explain why I watched half a dozen videos of adults being reduced to tears the first time they heard Linkin Park’s “Lost” — a newly unearthed demo from the sessions for their second album, Meteora, whose 20th anniversary is being celebrated this month with a sprawling box set — in preparation for a conversation with the band’s co-founder Mike Shinoda. Meteora 20’s many treasures include excellent, unheard performances from the late singer Chester Bennington. The nakedness of the emotion the catalogue tapped into was always unnerving, but this is something different. It’s dark getting older than someone who was once older than you, and “Lost” is a fleeting reunion with a presence that’s sorely missed.

Shinoda wasn’t necessarily anxious to revisit the era, but the songs he found while searching his old hard drives were too sharp and emblematic of Linkin Park’s winning musical recipe — rap and rock spiced with dance music and turntable alchemy — to ignore. We spoke about the birth of the band that made Meteora (Shinoda, Bennington, guitarist Brad Delson, bassist Dave Farrell, drummer Rob Bourdon, and turntablist Joe Hahn), the shift from struggling to get the attention of record label execs to having the “the biggest album on the planet Earth,” and the reason he is in no rush to do a whole lot of singing again (his Scream VI tie-in single “In My Head” notwithstanding).

I feel like the story of ’90s alt metal, nü metal, hard rock, whatever you want to call it, was just of a lot of different people coming together with divergent creative specialties and combining them in bands. What were the elements that made Linkin Park?
The way it came together is a little fuzzy and amorphous. It’s probably based on the fact that I grew up with hip-hop as my first love, and my hip-hop sampled rock music, whether you’re talking about the Rick Rubin productions with Def Jam, or … Just the other day I was listening to a song by a rapper called Paris, “the Black Panther of Hip-Hop.” His big single “The Devil Made Me Do It” was based on a reversed drum sample, a punk-rock guitar, and a break beat. It’s aggressive, such a dope production. That’s the type of stuff that I loved growing up. I started listening to old rock records because my favorite rap records sampled them. I got into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. In the late ’90s, rap and rock started to cross over into each other. Anthrax and Public Enemy in particular did a version of “Bring the Noise.” I went to that concert. It was my first.

That was stars aligning.
It was. It’s almost comedic that that was my first show. But I went for Public Enemy. I didn’t really know any Anthrax songs at all. I realized rap and rock were starting to cross and it was groups like Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers. There was the Judgment Night soundtrack mixing rock and rap, which was dope. Different artists were starting to experiment one way or the other. I recognized at a certain point that if you think about it as Black and white music crossing over, and referencing and taking from each other, it’s been going on forever, since before Zeppelin, before the Beatles, Elvis. There were all these touch points, and if you tried hard enough, you could start to dig into the DNA of what made certain things work and what made other things not. And we tried studying those and incorporating those into what we were doing.

It does seem studious, knowing you pressed up your own vinyl in ’99 to scratch on Hybrid Theory.
Joe Hahn and I used to go to a record store called Fat Beats and buy vinyl. DJs would press unauthorized scratch records with other people’s sounds on it and shit. So when there were DJ battles, you could be scratching something that other people didn’t have, and we would buy those records and use them. So it wasn’t a leap to say, “Oh, at some point I’d love to make a record that I can scratch onstage.” Me and Joe made a single pressing of original sounds and whatever else. There were a couple things on that record that were actually lifted off of other people’s records. We never sold it. It was just for Joe to scratch and give out to friends. I still have a couple copies.

I was going to ask what happened to them. There was some trepidation early on at labels around the rap and rock sounds being in the same frame. And that’s unusual to me, because they had already seen Limp Bizkit’s “Faith” and Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” going crazy.
If you look at the chronology, the band started with me and my friend Mark Wakefield. That was the initial concept. We called it Xero, and we made a bunch of rap-rock songs and tried to get signed. The feedback we got was, “You need to put together a band and learn how to play in front of people.” So we did that. Joe was my friend from college. Brad was Mark’s next-door neighbor. Phoenix was Brad’s roommate. We knew Rob from a school near where we grew up. At a certain point it didn’t work out with Mark and we parted ways and he went into management.

We had met with every label and most of the indies and got turned down by everybody. Then we got Chester, and we were like, “Now we’re going to get signed.” We went and met with everybody again, showcased for everybody, and they all turned us down again. We were doing okay, playing shows for a hundred people in town, but nobody wanted to sign us. We eventually signed a publishing deal with this guy who had signed Limp Bizkit and some other people and he ended up taking a job at Warner, and we went with him as a function of him taking the job. We basically had a development deal, where if it worked out, they put out our record, but if it didn’t work out, they’d just cut us loose. And it worked out.

It’s so wild to look back at all the hemming and hawing over what becomes one of the best-selling records of the entire year.
Here’s what I assume they thought: Our thing, the combination of elements, was too esoteric. We loved DJ Shadow, Fatboy Slim, Moby, Aphex Twin, and Portishead. I’m missing a ton … the Prodigy. With that stuff in the music, labels were like, “Who’s going to listen?” And then on top of it, we were more introspective. What we didn’t like about what was going on in the scene was that it was very frat rock. It was toxic masculinity. We didn’t know the term yet. We just didn’t like how everything was about tough-guy shit, and we didn’t identify with tough-guy shit. So nobody wanted to sign us because we didn’t fit. They couldn’t see us onstage. Somebody said to me, “If you guys were to open up a show with Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit, you’d get beat up.” It was a joke, right? But probably true, at least for me. I would’ve gotten beat up. Chester wouldn’t have gotten beat up. He’d fuck somebody up, too.

Then everybody hears “One Step Closer” and “Crawling,” and you tap into the frustration and the anxiety of an entire generation. I feel like there’s a weight that comes with writing something that makes people cry, or carries the potential to. Did you know early on that your music was getting to a special place in fans’ minds and vocalizing things they didn’t feel comfortable talking about?
I think that was the point. It was always the point. While I loved and I grew up on very macho hip-hop, I was also, at that phase in my life, finishing college, more in tune with a more complex palette of subject matter in what I was listening to. I wanted to put that into my songs, like bands like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails did. I was listening to a lot of U2. None of those are, like, “Hey, I’m going to kick your ass” songs. Those are all, “Oh, I got ass my kicked. This isn’t fair or this feels bad or maybe it’s my fault.” We weren’t hearing those emotions as much in music that was out there. And when we did hear it, I liked what I was hearing. I should give groups like Deftones and Korn more credit. They were doing that. I liked how Jonathan Davis was just an open book putting all of his most fucked-up stuff right out there in the lyrics.

So coming off of the Hybrid Theory tour, you’re in your mid-20s with one of the biggest-selling records out. What does that buy you as you start to make your next record and what challenges does it create? 
To put it in a 2023 perspective, imagine that one minute, you’re in your bedroom in your parents’ house making songs on your laptop and the next minute your album is bigger than Bieber, than the Weeknd, than Halsey, than Post Malone. You name it. Management called and said, “Yeah, it’s bigger than all of them.” It was the biggest album on the planet Earth. And that’s not a hyperbole. That’s a fact.

What does that feel like?
We weren’t digesting that. It was happening so fast that we were just hanging on and trying to put one foot in front of the other, and keep playing shows, and keep doing interviews, and keep the momentum going. When we started thinking about the next album, one of the first things that drove us was how to take the last thing we made and build on top of it. What can we do that acknowledges and satisfies the fans’ hunger for what they just experienced and also open the door in a career sense for other avenues of creativity that we might want to do later? So that’s why, on Meteora, you hear songs like “Breaking the Habit,” “Nobody’s Listening,” “Session” … They’re very unconventional for the time. They’re very different from the rest of the album. We told the label, “You can do whatever you want with the first single or singles, but at some point ‘Breaking the Habit’ has to be a single.” And when you’ve got some success, you can dictate things like that. It was important for us to release a song that didn’t have any screaming or any heavy guitars. And they did it and Joe made an incredible video for it and it was one of our biggest songs.

Meteora felt meticulously assembled. What really got me into it was a friend who played in a post-rock band taking me on a drive and obsessing over the guitar tones and production. The last person on the planet I’d expect to be like, “There’s incredible stuff in here” gave me the hard sell.
It’s simple. That’s the whole point. I love Nirvana. There’s a simplicity to some of the writing on Nevermind. When I heard it, I didn’t play guitar, but my friend could teach me “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I could play it with a day of learning and practicing it.

Nevermind is melodically simple, but anthropologically, nine things had to collide in order for it to even exist. Movements had to crumble. Meteora is really slippery to me. The guitars don’t always necessarily sound heavy. They land like synths sometimes. There isn’t always a noticeable attack.
Right? Some of that was very intentional. We would talk about it: “Okay, if we’ve got a superheavy guitar, we want to do a part that’s really energetic and heavy and loud. How do we add something that’s not rock into it?” We might take all of the instruments, drums, bass, and guitar, and chop and loop it. You may not notice it while it’s happening, but it’s not just our drummer Rob playing four measures of the pattern. He did it, but we took the first and looped it. Brad played a pattern, and we chose the best pattern of his guitar. Looping the parts made it more electronic, more hip-hop. In other sections it’d be like, maybe within that loop there’s an inconsistency, like Rob hits the high hat a little funny with his stick and it’s actually a tiny bit late, but it happens with the exact same mistake, the exact same lateness, every measure. That’s what we loved about hip-hop records. We tried to add that approach to … We’re getting very nerdy right now. You’ve got me on some very nerdy shit.

I haven’t even asked about your synth collection yet.
On top of it all, getting outside of the nerdiness of it, something we didn’t like about what was going on in music at the time was that people were experimenting with each other’s genres, but they didn’t always love the genre. We loved the genres that we were playing with. We were obsessed, and we went deep. And if I was going to do a hip-hop thing, if I was going to reference it, it wouldn’t be popular shit. I’d come in the studio and be like, “Oh man, there’s this track by Smoothe da Hustler and Trigga tha Gambler. You got to hear this.”

So you come to the business of mixing rock and rap with a lifelong appreciation of artists pushing at those specific boundaries.
The unspoken, sometimes spoken agreement between me and Don Gilmore was that he was in charge of the rock aesthetic. I gave him feedback on it, but he would not give me feedback on the hip-hop that was going on the record. He was like, “Just so we are clear, Mike, you are in charge of making sure the hip-hop is pitch perfect on this thing. I won’t know.” So if I made a beat or Joe made a beat and somebody had criticism and wanted to remove a weird sample or something, we had to have a discussion without Don. At the time we were using really obnoxious samples. If you listened to some of the records we just named, some of the sounds on them are abrasive, and we loved that.

Something that intrigues me about Meteora is timing. Doors are closing for people blending raps into rock around 2003. There are a lot of people you don’t hear from too much after then. You show up dropping your best shit.
Well, the stuff you’re talking about was probably after Meteora. For Meteora it was still red hot. We were on fire. We played 300 shows that year.

I feel like there was a different level of acceptance for you. I don’t think everyone who was doing well in ’99, 2000 was still popping in the mid-aughts, to say nothing of file-sharing catching on. I was recently reading this old Minutes to Midnight review that declared rap-metal dead. 
So many people rewrote history in their reviews of our stuff back then. There wasn’t a single place that would’ve given us more than three and a half out of five stars. Nobody did that. Because if you put out an album that was successful, then they couldn’t give you a high score, because it looked bad for their credibility.

There was an element of “Look, kids are into this, and I wish they weren’t” to the coverage of that era.
Our review in Rolling Stone was one paragraph, and I think they called us kids with hot-pink nail polish on our Nine Inch Nails. Sharon Osbourne said the only reason we’re including these bands on Ozzfest — and she meant us and Papa Roach and some others — is for the girls. The day before we played our first show of Ozzfest, and she’s already shit-talking us.

That’s wild because on the fan end Ozzfest is remembered for embracing those bands.
Now, it’s known for that. Back then it was just metal, metal, metal.

It’s a trip looking back from your 40s at the thought processes of your 20s. I’m curious, why are you putting yourself through Meteora 20? It seems like an itchy space to get back into.
So, I was not bullish on doing a 20th anniversary of Meteora when the idea first came up. I was like, We’ll see. It hinged entirely on the quality of the material that we found. I told management and the guys I was willing to be one of the people that looks through their stuff. It was born on my hard drives, so I’ve got to look. The more we found, the more it became apparent that it was a great idea. We had great material to put out.

How do you lose “Lost” initially?
It was very simple. We made 20-something tracks for Meteora. We knew the album was going to be 12, and “Lost” was the 13th track. In terms of tone, it had too much in common with “Numb,” so we put it to the side, with the intention of putting it out. We actually thought the label was going to want B-sides for the Japanese release, or a European CD release and we’d put it on there. Then we just didn’t do any of that. By the time we got to Minutes to Midnight, our third album, we had done my solo side project and Chester’s side project. We had done Collision Course and we’d taken a break to reassess the band and absorb the fact that we were in a completely different stage of life. We went from being college students to this, and we needed to take a sabbatical to look inward. When we got to the next album, we wanted to completely reinvent the band. In 2007 or whatever, the idea of going back to an old demo would’ve been the opposite of what we were supposed to do.

The video for “Lost” grasps the importance of anime in Linkin Park’s iconography and audience.
Originally, I wanted to reach out to some of the anime properties and see if we could do an official AMV. It didn’t work because the Japanese companies don’t want to license their stuff in that way. They want to maintain the integrity of the series and shows. Which I respect. So we were like, “How do we acknowledge the cultural impact of the Linkin Park AMV back in the 2000s?” People were uploading videos to YouTube for the first time and they ran out of home videos. They started editing together stuff they loved, and then they started adding music. All of a sudden Dragon Ball Z and Naruto were being edited together with Linkin Park music, which was basically the 2003 version of a TikTok. We knew it. We included a nod to Gundam in “Somewhere I Belong,” and then we really went in when we did “Breaking the Habit.” So that community knew it was us high-fiving them. We couldn’t do Meteora 20 without saluting that.

“Lost” is drawing some intense responses. Your band figured into this really important emotional place in a lot of people’s lives early on and has stayed there forever. There’s this air of unfinished business. Some people believe they’re never hearing more Chester after this.
What I like about Meteora 20 is that it’s an exhaustive compilation of all of the stuff from that time with his voice on it. You’re going to get that if you loved that.

“Massive” and “Healing Foot” also should’ve come out in 2003. There are hits on that demo disc.
One of those two I think I tried to resurrect during Minutes to Midnight, and again, it was like, “No man, we don’t want to look backward at all.” So this is all about that 2003 moment. There’s a certain level of quality control going on. We want to make sure that when we put something together, it’s thoughtful and we’ve done our best. Is it going to be perfect? No. Is it going to appeal to everybody? Of course not. It never will be. To me, my favorite Linkin Park album is probably A Thousand Suns. When it came out, half of the reviews were one-star reviews. Literally 50-50, five stars or one star. Nobody in the middle. Everybody loved it or hated it. If you make music just for other people and not for yourself first, then you’re going to be completely out of control in your career, and it’s a recipe for disaster in terms of your mental health and your ability to make great things. I can look back at my own shit and 20 years later say, “That’s pretty good for you, for that age.”

Is that how you see it?
“At that point in your career, good job, kid. You did pretty good.” I look at us at that point, and I think each guy in the band’s performance, in different ways in that era, there are wins and there are losses. Overall, the guys did a great job. I think the efforts were in the right place, and we were working really, really hard. And we had some great, almost miraculous little ideas come to us that we were lucky to have.

Shinoda and Bennington, front and center in 2001. Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

When you lose someone like Chester, who is a friend, a business partner, and a musical collaborator, what goes into recalibrating your voice and rediscovering yourself? I feel like you’ve been very careful about what you’ve released in a solo capacity, at least the stuff with vocals on it.
Post Traumatic was me sharing my musical diary in an attempt to create communion and, in some ways, closure. That was the purpose of touring that album: to meet with people in person and let them get some of that out. I was further along in the process than they were. And their version of it wasn’t my version of it. Their version of it was they were a fan of somebody who meant something to them, and they had a connection via the music and the culture of it. I’ve been in a period of experimentation since then, playing around with ideas and honestly avoiding doing songs with my voice for a while. I did not really want to put out stuff with my voice on it for the last few years, because it just didn’t feel good. I wrote and produced for other people. Some of those songs are starting to come out.

Two years ago, when Andrew Yang was running for mayor of New York City (wild time), he was asked to name his favorite Jay-Z song, and he immediately said, “Numb/Encore.” It seems like an unusual pick, but I hear from a lot of people who really love Collision Course.
If you look at our top songs, it’s always in there.

Did you see an influx of hip-hop heads in the fandom after the Jay-Z cosign?
Our stuff is a lot of hip-hop heads’ first experience with rock. I heard it constantly, because I would be the one that they would talk to. It’d be like, “Yo man, you’re the only band that I like.” Or, “I didn’t listen to any rock music until Linkin Park. Now I like this band and this band and this band.” We thought genre barriers were antiquated, and we liked so many different types of music that that’s just where we ended up.

Around 2005, I saw a Fort Minor and Ghostface Killah show in New York City …
How many songs did Ghost play?

I can’t remember much of it.
We had a really funny conversation with him. We were on the road together, and Ghost and his manager were, like, five minutes late. Then it was ten minutes late, 20 minutes late. Keep in mind there’s a curfew. The show had to stop at a certain time. If you go over, there’s a fee. We were all backstage, and they were racing to get on the stage, but our production manager, Jim, had to have this little conversation with them. He said, “FYI guys, because you’re late, you got to stop at this time or as close to that as possible.” And Ghost is like, “Yeah, yeah, no problem.” And Jim knew he was going to play his full set, which was going to put us in the red after curfew. Jim told him, “Just so you know, Mike is going to play a full set, and if we go over, the fee gets charged to you.” Ghost came out onstage basically a second later, and let the crowd know that the set was going to be abridged. They were about their money. To his credit, he’s a respectful dude. They didn’t come to us and try and start shit about it. He just did his set and everybody was fine. I think I might’ve compromised a little bit. I might’ve cut one song, because I just wanted to be like, have us all be in the clear. Yeah. It was a time, man.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The producer of Hybrid Theory and Meteora Shinoda’s project was Fort Minor. Their only album, 2005’s The Rising Tied, featured platinum-selling singles “Remember the Name” and “Where’d You Go.” Linkin Park’s 2004 collaborative EP with Jay-Z. Anime music video Shinoda’s solo 2018 album, which worked through his grief in the aftermath of Bennington’s death.
‘We Were Obsessed’