This article was originally published in June 2014.
It's a blisteringly hot afternoon in the summer of 2001, and the thousands of drunk and sunburnt headbangers in attendance at the Toronto stop of this year's North American Ozzfest tour are in a deeply foul mood. Already enraged to the boiling point by Crazy Town's flaccid set of sub-Chili Peppers rap rock, they are considerably less than stoked to see fellow Southern California nu-metallers Linkin Park take the stage; before Chester Bennington can even grab the microphone for the first song of their set, the band is already being pelted with a rain of cans, CDs, and other detritus so torrential that Revolver — initially observing the show from just off to the side of the stage—is forced to take cover behind guitarist Brad Delson's wall of guitar amps.
And yet the band plays on, feeding off the crowd's energy and blasting it right back. Though Linkin Park's songs, drawn entirely from their 2000 debut Hybrid Theory, are more pop- and rap-oriented than many of the metalheads in attendance would prefer, the band's high-energy performance — which includes Bennington whirling about the stage while wrapped in a Canadian flag — eventually wins over most of the once-antagonistic audience. Even the angry fat kid in the front row who doggedly chants "Fuck you! Fuck you!" throughout most of the set proves no match for Linkin Park's steady assault; by the time the band leaves the stage, he's slumped exhaustedly over the stage barrier like a doughy rag doll…
"I think a lot of those Ozzfest shows were like that," laughs Linkin Park co-frontman Mike Shinoda, as he and Bennington relax and reminisce with Revolver outside their North Hollywood rehearsal space in May 2014. "We'd have the stage for maybe 30 minutes, and we spent the entire time trying to get them on our side."
"Even if they didn't like our music," adds Bennington, "we wanted them to go away saying, 'Man, that was a kickass show!'"
Thirteen years after being steeled in the crucible of Ozzfest, and millions of record sales later, Linkin Park have grown into one of America's biggest rock bands. But now they're ratcheting the kick-ass up another notch: Their new album, The Hunting Party, is not only the hardest and heaviest thing they've ever released, but it's also their first album to pack the sort of guitar firepower that would actually appeal to your average headbanger. If they'd released this album back in 2001, perhaps Linkin Park — who head out on the Carnivores Tour with Thirty Seconds to Mars and AFI on August 8 — wouldn't have had to work so hard to win over the Ozzfest crowds that summer.
"This isn't the heaviest record in the world," Bennington says, "but this is the heaviest Linkin Park record. You have to put it in the context of Linkin Park, not in the context of heavy music, because then it makes sense."
"We know that Slayer exists," seconds Shinoda. "We know that Exodus exists, right? So we're not going to say we wrote a 'heavy' record, in comparison."
But while it's true that The Hunting Party isn't going to make anyone forget South of Heaven or Bonded by Blood, its potent mixture of punk, thrash and hard rock — as heard on such bracing tracks as "Keys to the Kingdom," "Guilty All the Same," "Mark the Graves," and "A Line in the Sand" — is a pretty a ballsy move from a band that's drifted deep into experimental/electronic territory on their two most recent albums, 2010's A Thousand Suns and 2012's Living Things.
The abrupt change in musical course, says Shinoda, happened last August, when he happened upon a lengthy post on Pigeons and Planes, one of his favorite blogs. A lament for the current state of rock, which came with the self-explanatory title "Rock Music Sucks Now and It's Depressing," the essay struck a deep chord with Shinoda. "I totally connected with what this guy was saying," he says. "He was a rock fan, and he was a little bit bummed out that rock didn't have the pull that it used to have, and that the rock genre has so many bands in it that you wouldn't really classify as 'rock' — people like Mumford and Sons, and Lorde. And I totally understood where he was coming from, because I feel like I'm listening to a lot of stuff on rock radio that sits somewhere between a car commercial and Nick Jr. It's so safe, so OK to listen to with mommy and daddy…"
Shinoda had already submitted multiple demos to the band for their follow-up to Living Things when he came across the post. His first reaction was to pen a thoughtful response that was published by the blog, one which concluded, "At the end of the day, a movement will never be about one song, one album, or one band. A movement requires leaders who are restless, brave, and fucking disruptive." And then, as if to underline his own words, he proceeded to toss his demos out and start over in a more aggressive direction.
"It all finally clicked one day," he says. "I was listening to the stuff I was writing, and I realized it was so derivative. It wasn't cutting edge, it wasn't ahead of the curve, and it wasn't doing the things that I wanted to listen to. I'd already played the stuff to the guys, and they were like, 'Yeah, we like that, let's do that!' And then, the next time I saw them, I was like, "You know those songs I already played you, that you liked? I want to throw them in the trash…and I want to do this."
Bennington was immediately on board with Shinoda's new direction.
"Chester, to his credit, he got where I was coming from right away," says Shinoda, "but that's not surprising, because that's totally in his wheelhouse. He was like, 'I want to do that all day!'"
"The bands I was listening to when I was growing up were all doing really innovative shit — Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains, Nirvana," Bennington explains. "And I listened to a lot of punk music like Subhumans, Exploited, the Descendants, the Misfits… I even got into Napalm Death when I was about 13. And I would have killed anyone who put on any kind of pop in my presence. Bands like the Refreshments and the Rembrandts, that music fucking angers me to this day. And the same thing is happening now, where there's all this stuff that feels like the soundtrack to Friends or The Wizards of Waverly Place."
The other members of the band — Delson, bassist Dave Farrell, drummer Rob Bourdon, and DJ/keyboardist Joe Hahn — took a little longer to come around, however. Though Shinoda has emerged over the years as Linkin Park's main songwriter ("Everyone in the band writes songs, but mine mostly seem to be the ones that everyone votes for," he shrugs), Delson has been his main musical foil throughout. "In the studio, Brad and I are the ones really pushing stuff forward," he says. "We could only do what Chester and I wanted to do if Brad got on board. But in the beginning, he was humoring me. He was just doing it because I wanted him to do it."
Brad Delson isn't your typical guitar hero. A highly articulate gent who graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in communication studies (and who returned to the school in 2009 to deliver a keynote address at the UCLA College of Letters and Science commencement ceremony), Delson has barely touched his ax in the studio in recent years, preferring to help mold Linkin Park's music through sampling, programming, and other modern technological approaches.
"If I felt like I wanted to impress people with my shredding, I would have played guitar on the last three records," he laughs, when Revolver reaches him at his home in L.A. "One of the things that's particularly exciting about being in this band is that it's always different—we're always a different band with every album we make. We always feel like we're moving forward in our progression as artists and as craftsmen in the studio."
And yet, beneath the studious and well-mannered exterior lurks the soul of a serious headbanger. "I've known Brad since we were like 12 or 13," Shinoda says. "And he walked around school with a Metallica T-shirt every day." According to Delson, he wasn't "humoring" Shinoda's suggestion about taking a more guitar-heavy tack, so much as pondering how the band could pull it off without making the record sound like a retro re-hash. "It wasn't like I was skeptical," Delson recalls, "but my pushback to Mike was, 'Yeah, I'm down to do this, but we've gotta still be able to reimagine it. We have to be able to do this in a way that sounds like it's taking place in the future, and not the past."
For Delson, the essence of what he wanted Linkin Park to accomplish with The Hunting Party was best embodied by '90s Swedish hardcore legends Refused. "What's so cool about Refused was that the records they made many years ago still sound so progressive today," he enthuses. "So for us, it wasn't about emulating their sound, it was about emulating that spirit. How do we do something aggressive that doesn't exist in terms of the landscape of contemporary rock or modern-rock offerings? How do we do something that, at its best, feels truly groundbreaking, progressive, and ahead of its time?"
For Linkin Park, achieving that goal meant largely abandoning their usual modus operandi of working from demos, and writing songs instead around riffs and beats in the studio. "A lot of it was just me playing every day," says Delson. "We set up shop at the first studio we worked at, which was Glenwood Place Recording. [L.A.'s Larrabee Sound and EastWest studios would also see action during the making of The Hunting Party.] Sometimes I would get inspired by a beat or a tempo, and I would just literally jam to it. I'd say, 'Let's make this song 200 beats per minute,' which is incredibly fast, and I'd just play for a half hour on riffs to the click, and then go back and spend five hours sorting through it. And if there were, like, three great riffs in there, then that would be the start of the song. 'The Odyssey,' 'Wasteland,' and 'Keys to the Kingdom' — those were all songs that started with great riffs."
But Delson's contributions to The Hunting Party extend beyond great riffs; nearly every track on the album features a wailing guitar solo, if not two or three. If it seems odd that it's taken 14 years for Linkin Park's guitarist to really step out on record, well, that's just the way he rolls. "I'm used to sharing the space with five other guys," Delson explains. "For me, it's about making the best song. If someone goes to buy a Linkin Park album, I want it to be the best thing that we can possibly muster using all our collective talents and resources. My rule as a guitar player, whether it's being more laidback or — in the case of this record — more wild and in the foreground, is that it's always a case of what's best for the song."
Still, Shinoda lights up at the memory of the point during the initial recording sessions where Delson stopped worrying about the songs and just started to let it rip. "I had this vision," he says, "and I was trying to communicate what I was seeing to Brad. I knew it wasn't about him doing what I wanted him to do, it was about him making it his own and showing me one better — because then I can go one better, and he can go one better, and that's when it gets really exciting…
"When we're writing stuff, sometimes we'll loop a section, like a chorus into a bridge, just to play around with it. And there was this one song we were working on — it was either 'Mark the Graves' or 'A Line in the Sand' — where Brad said, 'Hey, can we loop the bridge? I just want to play over it.' And in the back of my head, I thought, 'You are there!' He doesn't want to write the part because he wants to 'be productive,' he's doing it because it's fun! That might have been my favorite part about the whole recording process!"
Delson's guitar heroics aren't the only atypical thing about the new Linkin Park album, however. In addition to The Hunting Party being the first of the band's records to feature cameos by outside musicians, it's also their first one in their lengthy career that's completely self-produced — which is especially notable considering that über-producer Rick Rubin oversaw the making of their last three albums.
"At a certain point, we were thinking about bringing in a producer," says Shinoda. "But then we got past it, it was like, 'Why would we do that? There's nothing about this that we don't know. We've got everything under control.' There's so many different choices you can make when you're recording a record, and the farther along you are in your career, the more you know about all of your options. When we were making our first album, we basically left it up to our engineer to kind of help shape our drum sound. We said, 'Our drummer wants to play these drums,' and he was like, 'Cool, let's supplement those with these, and we'll A-B 'em, and see which ones you like.' But we didn't talk about how to mic them, we didn't talk about what room to use, we didn't talk about what gear the snare mics are gonna go through. This record, Brad and I produced it. Our engineers and I made every decision. We second-guessed and triple-guessed a lot of it, and we experimented in many different ways. Sometimes you bring in a producer for a fresh perspective, but I felt like our perspective was razor sharp…
"Early on," he continues, "I had this playlist with Refused, Helmet, Minor Threat, even some newer bands like Gallows. Listening to that, and Inside Out, Gorilla Biscuits, Undertow, and other hardcore stuff, I realized that, even though their recordings are so grimy and fucked up, there is such a cool vibe going on, and we could extract pieces of it. That's why we recorded all the drums to tape for this record, because that's how those bands recorded, and that's why there's a real looseness to it."
"I've always known that we could make good records on our own, without a producer," says Bennington. "Someone recently asked me how we got to this place, and I said, 'Well, the professor was a student at one time!' This is our sixth record. We've been doing this for a long time. I know it's been a long time when I meet bands who tell me that they've been listening to us since they were little kids!" he laughs. "Most of those kids who saw us on Ozzfest 2001 probably have kids now!
"We've been around for a while," he muses, "And we've learned a lot of things… And one of the things we've learned is that, when you put us all together, there's something special that happens."