Chester Bennington looks relaxed and happy as he slowly sinks into an overstuffed chair in the lounge of his Toronto hotel. It's July 2001, and Linkin Park are in town to play Ozzfest; Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson are the headliners, while Bennington's band is lower down the Main Stage bill, sandwiched between Crazy Town and Papa Roach. But that's all happening tomorrow; tonight, while the rest of his bandmates are out on the town, Bennington just wants to kick back and have a chat. "This is more my vibe anyway," he says of our mellow, dimly lit surroundings.
Released in October 2000, Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park's debut album, is finally starting to explode. The band has just finished shooting the video for "In the End," the album's third single, which will go on to peak at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the album itself will eventually move over 11 million copies in the U.S. alone. But though Bennington is clearly stoked about the band's increasing popularity, the attitude he gives off is more "excitable nerd" than " bratty up-and-coming rock star." He's smart, funny, open, goofily charming and more than happy to talk Revolver's ear off about his life and career thus far. We end up talking and drinking in the lounge for hours; due to space constraints, only a fraction of our interview will appear in the magazine's November 2001 cover story on Linkin Park.
One year after Bennington's tragic death, we finally present our 2001 interview with him in its entirety. On this sad anniversary, it at least brings a smile to be able to go back and revisit the charismatic, driven young man poised on the verge of stardom, long before personal demons took his voice and light away from us.
HOW DID YOU HOOK UP WITH THE OTHER GUYS IN LINKIN PARK?
CHESTER BENNINGTON Well, I've been playing music for a long time, for over half of my life. I've been singing in bands since I was 13, and I made my first record when I was 15. Nothing really happened, except for a little hometown semi-notoriety in Phoenix, but I got to open for hundreds of national acts. Some of them were platinum, some of them weren't. Some were really big acts, like No Doubt. That's how we got to meet a lot of people in the industry. So we hooked up with this lawyer, Scott Harrington, and we became friends. After I dissolved the group that he was kind of representing — he was trying to get us a deal — we remained friends, and he would send me demos every once in a while. Finally, one day he called me up and said, "Hey, there's this band in L.A. that has tons of people watching them. They're going to go places if they get the right guy, and I think you're the guy who can help them pull it off."
I was like, "OK, I'll check it out." I got the demo the next morning, and that night I went into a studio and cut some vocals over their instrumentals. The following morning, I called them up and said, "I'm finished. When do you want it out there?" And they were like, "Wait a second! You've had it for less than 30 hours — how did you learn the songs and record them already?" I'm like, "Well, that's the type of person I am. I don't waste my time. And if you guys are ready and serious, you won't waste my time, either." I told them, "I could either Fed-Ex it to you, or I could fly there, and we could meet and rehearse, audition, or whatever, and see if we even like each other. By the time Fed-Ex gets there on Tuesday, I could be there Monday morning."
They were like, "Hold on, dude! You're going really fast with this. What's going on?" "Well, that's just the way I work." They were like, "Can you at least play us something over the phone?" I pushed play, and they were like, "When can you be here?" The next day, I quit my job, got on the plane and never left. I was living, like, a great life, too! I had just bought a house, had been married for a couple of years, at that point. I was, like, totally normal. [Laughs]
WHERE WERE YOU WORKING AT THE TIME?
I was working in technology, running a company that was taking maps of newly developed local sub-divisions, and stuff. We took all these maps and scanned them, put the entire county library of maps on 13 discs. And that's what I did. Maybe two or three other people worked there.
SO YOU HAD PRETTY MUCH GOTTEN OUT OF MUSIC?
Well, I knew that the only way I was going to meet new musicians was to move to a different city altogether, some place that was really happening, like L.A. or New York. I was writing songs with a friend of mine who'd I'd been in different bands with, but by this time we were both totally sick of the music business, and totally sick of all the musicians we'd ever played with. We're still collaborating, to this day. But when this opportunity came up, I was like, "This is it!" I had a feeling about this one.
ARE YOU A PERSON WHO GENERALLY TRUSTS HIS GUT INSTINCT?
I try to, but gut instincts are always so hit and miss. When it hits, you're like, "Wow, I totally knew that was gonna happen!" But when you miss, it's like, "I can't believe I was so stupid!" But with this particular situation, there was no doubt in my mind. The creativity of the music, and the different sounds that were coming out of it ... When I listened to the instrumental tracks, all these melodies just started popping out of my head ...
YOU GUYS CLICKED RIGHT AWAY, BUT THEN IT STILL TOOK SOME TIME TO FIND A LABEL ...
Yeah — that didn't happen for us, right away. I went out there and spent a year not working. All we did was the band. We lived the band! We put in a good three years' worth of work in that nine or 10 months before we finally got picked up by Warner Bros. The band's been around since '96. They'd already had their showcases, their publishing deal, their ups and downs on their own. They knew that they were missing something, and the labels could hear it. It was like, "This is awesome, but there's one thing that's not happening." We got turned down by every label. If it wasn't for all the people who stuck by us through all the trials and tribulations, it wouldn't have happened. We would have still been making music, but nobody would have heard Hybrid Theory, unless they found it on the internet, somehow.
DID YOU EVER FEEL DURING THAT TIME LIKE YOU'D MADE THE WRONG DECISION?
Well, yeah. I mean, I'd just bought a house in Phoenix that I'd had custom built for me. We were doing well enough that my wife and I owned two homes. I was, like, 21 when I bought my first house, and 23 when I bought my second. I was like, "Hey, this is cool!" So to go, "Hey, honey, I'm gonna quit my job and move to L.A., and you're going to have to stay here and pay the bills and take care of things until it works out. And if it does work out, you're going to have to sell the houses and move out here ..." I mean, hello! That's ridiculous to even think about! But I did it, and I just went with it. Yeah, there were lots of times where life was hard. We had no money because I wasn't working, and we were apart. A lot of it didn't seem fair to her, and I was like, "This sucks! What am I doing with my life?" I knew if I went home I could get my job back, but I didn't want to L.A. and come back, like I'd watched tons of musician friends of mine do. Fuck that.
DID YOU SET A TIME LIMIT FOR YOURSELF TO SUCCEED?
No, I never tried to think about that. In this business, if you ever have any expectations, you will always be let down. So I don't expect anything. [Laughs] And that's why everything's been so great! Everything has happened extremely fast. Compared to some bands, we didn't put our dues in. You look at a band like Hed(pe), who have put more than their fair share of work in, and they deserve worldwide recognition. They're a great live act, they make good albums, and they're awesome. They're not an easy act to open for or follow. But for some reason, it hasn't happened for them like it's happened for us. There's no explanation for that. We don't have any control over that. It's just the way things go. You throw the cards in the air, and they fall as they may.
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC WERE YOU DOING IN PHOENIX, BEFORE YOU JOINED LINKIN PARK?
It was early-Nineties-style rock. It wasn't pop rock, it wasn't heavy metal. It was in between grunge and good rock. We didn't know what we were doing. We were just writing songs and singing. It was a four-piece band. Some of our songs were more rock. Others were more, I don't know, alternative? I've always been into punk and classic rock. The first few years of being a musician, it was all cover band stuff, and we'd throw in a few originals. The last band I was in, I was in it for almost eight years. We made two albums, and tried really hard. We were called Grey Daze.
AND NOW, COPIES OF THOSE GREY DAZE ALBUMS ARE CHANGING HANDS ON EBAY FOR, LIKE, 50 BUCKS APIECE ...
Yeah, but whatever. People can probably download it for free, anyway, so who gives a fuck? [Laughs] It was what it was, but it's definitely not this. I definitely know why it didn't go anywhere: We all wanted to make it, but we all wanted to make it for different reasons. It wasn't all about making good songs, where anything else that comes from that is a fringe benefit. Like, in this band, everybody has a grasp on songwriting. Everybody understands their role, and everybody understands what we're doing. If people aren't offering anything new, it eventually becomes bland and stale.
With these guys, I knew they were all younger than me, by a year or more. I've always been the youngest in every band I've been in, and it was very difficult for me to get any kind of respect. I would say, "This part doesn't work," and it'd be like, "What do you know? You're only 15 years old!" But these guys had a really good concept with their instruments, structure of songs and where to put a bridge in. There's no guitar solos. There's no meaningless fat. I was like, "Wow, this is pretty tight for a bunch of young guys! If we click really well, we have our whole life to look forward to!" It was like a creative orgy, you know what I mean? We clicked, and we clicked really fast. And we all had the same goal, which was like, "Song, song, song!" It wasn't like, Let's put a band together, play out and try to draw as many people as we can to get the attention of an A&R guy. It was like, We can't play unless we have good songs. And I was like, "I can't believe this! This is too cool!" That's really what set me off with these guys when we met. It's been really good.
WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF OZZFEST?
I think Ozzfest is cool, but it's not quite like I expected. I expected Ozzfest to be, like, the ultimate metal tour. Which it is, in essence — but because of all the legalities involved, and the rules we all agreed to at the beginning of the tour, you can't go down in the crowd, slap hands with fans, whatever. You can't do any of that, which makes for a huge separation between the band and the crowd. I'll be at the edge of the stage, and fans'll be shouting, "Jump! Jump! We want you out here!" And it's like, I can't do it — it's not worth the 35 grand I'm gonna get fined if I jump out there ...
There's a lot of restrictions between the two stages, as well. There's a lot of bands on this tour that know each other and have all toured together. We've all become friends. But if you're on the Second Stage, you can't go hang out with your friends in the Main Stage area, and that kind of bugs me. I don't like to see my friends getting harassed because they wanna go watch the show they've been playing every day with their friends. I don't like seeing my buddies get treated like they're drunk, belligerent jerks trying to break in and meet the band. It's like, "Dude, this guy's a rock star, too!" A lot of these acts are selling more records than some of the bigger acts on the Main Stage, but they're not getting treated with any respect, and that bothers me.
I'm not trying to talk shit about Ozzfest, because I think it's a really great tour with a lot of really great bands. And everybody I've met, from Sharon Osbourne to the catering people, is really cool. I love everybody on the tour. I just kind of don't like the rules. For me, I don't get the same feeling that I do when we play our Off-fest shows, or when we've done large festivals in Europe.
WELL, WHEN SOMETHING LIKE OZZFEST BECOMES AN INSTITUTION, A LOT OF THE FUN INEVITABLY GETS DRAINED OUT OF IT.
That's the same thing that happened to Lollapalooza. That's why it doesn't happen anymore. The fun was sucked out of it. I think Black Sabbath is amazing, and I think Sharon is an amazing, brilliant and beautiful woman, but I think it's become such a big thing.
I'VE HEARD THAT THE OZZFEST-GOERS HAVEN'T BEEN COMPLETELY RECEPTIVE TO LINKIN PARK SO FAR ...
Look, if you don't like Linkin Park, and you come to the Ozzfest, that's fine. We're not trying to force ourselves on anybody. We were invited to do this show, and we were paid a lot of money to do it. Ozzy and Sharon asked us to come out on this show, and we're friends with everybody on this bill. We all respect each other, but the fans don't get that.
MIKE [SHINODA] SAYS YOU GUYS HAVE LEARNED TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE OZZFEST CROWDS, THOUGH.
Yeah, we've kind of had to adapt and overcome. There's a lot of people out there who might not like your music. There's a lot of people out there who have never heard you before, who don't know what to make of it. There's a lot of people out there who like you, but are too cool to show it. And there are a lot of people out there who go apeshit. None of those things are bad. If they don't like you, your goal is to make them like you. It's very difficult for me, because I'm blind [without my glasses], so if I don't see people jumping around and going crazy, I think they don't like me. [Laughs] I just have to assume that I'm doing the best I can. At the end of the day, you fucking do the job, you know what I mean?
I think a lot of Americans don't understand that, outside of this little 50-states thing we have, there is an entire planet out there, with a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds, and a lot of different likes and dislikes. When you go to Europe, there's so much music. They'll have one radio station that's run by the government — which is both a good thing and a bad thing, but you're going to hear Linkin Park and Pantera and Metallica with Britney Spears, hip-hop acts, German acts, Irish folk music, everything. You get it all. So people are more open to different things, and they're more forgiving. They're like, "I like good music!" And that's how I feel. I love punk rock, I love heavy metal, I love thrash, I love R&B, I love soul music, I love hip-hop, I love jazz, blues, new wave. Anything, dude! If it's cool and it sounds good, and it has a groove and makes me feel something other than "This sucks!" — I like it. [Laughs]
FOR INSTANCE, YOU'VE SPOKEN OF YOUR CHILDHOOD LOVE AFFAIR WITH FOREIGNER ...
I was a very impressionable young man! [Laughs] I was two years old, and my brother was 15, and that was what was cool at the time. Foreigner was then like Slipknot or Papa Roach is now. "Hot Blooded" — it was just something that was easy for me to say! [Laughs] They are fucking geniuses, man. They had just as many hits as the fucking Beatles. It was insane! Let's get real — Foreigner was a really good poppy rock act. It wasn't about hair, and makeup, and leopard tights and chains. It was like Led Zeppelin with a more popular feel. It was good rock songs, and a good understanding of music from a songwriting perspective. I appreciate that in any type of genre. Like, I don't hate N'Sync or any of the boy bands — I think it's great, man! I think if you can come up with a sound and a vibe where, when you release an album, you sell a million records in a day ... I mean, give me a break: Every musician wants to make that kind of imprint on the world with their music. If that many people liked what I'm doing, I'd be totally stoked, you know what I mean? Hats off to anybody who does really well, and who understands what they're doing. I don't have to like the music, but you can't deny the hooks!
YOU GUYS DO A REALLY GOOD JOB OF MIXING GENRES WHILE STILL MAKING REALLY HOOKY SONGS.
There's definitely a mixture out there, because we have two frontmen, myself and Mike. There's a mass of people who really like what we're doing, as a whole. And then there's the people who are like, "Dude, Mike, man, your raps are the phattest! You're the best MC in the world! You need to have more of that shit on the next album!'" And then there are people who are like, "Chester, dude, I love your voice, your lyrics are great, blah blah blah blah. You guys should sing more on the next album and rap less!" [Laughs]
And you know what? We might make a Coldplay record next, we might make a Slipknot record next, we might make a Mos Def record next. We don't really know. All we do is what we do. We just like writing music. Trust me, I can't rap. It would really suck to be in a band where we needed to have somebody come in to do it. But with us, it's all here. There's no rock guy who raps that doesn't just sound like he's ripping somebody off, or like he's just a white guy rapping. [Laughs] Trust me, there is a distinct difference! And that's our idea behind the whole thing, and that's what got me into it in the first place — it's like, "Hey, this guy knows what he's doing with the whole rap thing, and there's a real variety of music for me to sing melodies over." I mean, if it doesn't walk on its own, dude, don't try to kick it in the ass to get it to move. [Laughs]
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR OTHER IMPORTANT MUSICAL INFLUENCES?
The Descendants changed my life! In my opinion, they're the greatest emo band, and they're the greatest punk band. In those two genres, which are pretty close together, they own it, and they've owned it their entire career. The Misfits were probably the greatest straight-forward punk band that ever existed. They found a way to make punk cool, melodic and hooky, but also really scary and off-limits. Walk Among Us, dude! The Ramones are up there, as well, but they're a little too lollipop in a way, whereas the Misfits are all "I Want Your Skull" and "Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight" — they took, like, Buddy Holly and destroyed him! Depeche Mode are one of the greatest bands in the history of music, as far as I'm concerned. They're definitely a bigger influence on me than the Descendants and the Misfits. Musically and melodically, lyrically and everything, Depeche Mode is just above and beyond the rest. Led Zeppelin, same type of thing. I like Led Zeppelin II a lot, but Houses of the Holy is probably the best Zeppelin record. Every song's a single! I love the Beatles to death — the older I get, and the more I understand about music, the more I fall in love with them. When I was a kid, it was like, "This is my Dad's band! This sucks!" I had no idea. Now, every time I hear them, I freak out.
Oh, and Stone Temple Pilots is the best band that's ever existed in the history of the world, I don't care what anybody says. I don't care if I get love letters saying "You're right," or hate letters saying "You're an idiot" — my opinion stands firm, that they are the best rock band that has ever existed. Stage-wise, performance, musically, everything. Unfortunately, they've hit a lot of bumpy roads, and they haven't had the opportunity to give us more amazing, different music. But I think they're going to be around for a long time. I think 10, 20 years from now, you're going to be hearing a new STP album, and going, "It's another good one!" My hope for that band has always been, "Just keep it together. You guys are so inspirational, just keep it together."
When it comes to Stone Temple Pilots, I totally turn into a dorky fan. I met Scott Weiland once for 10 seconds, and I was totally, like, a moron! [Laughs] I was like, "Uh, duh, I've been listening to you since I was, like, 14. I think you're, uh, great, and stuff!" He said, "Thanks. Who are you?" "I'm Chester from Linkin Park." And he was like, "Oh, I've heard a lot of really good things about you guys. Keep up the good work. I've got to go now." And I was like, "Uh, uh, yeah, whatever! See you later, dude!" [Laughs] I couldn't believe that I couldn't even get out a normal "Hey, I really appreciate your music, and everything that it's inspired me to do." I couldn't even get that out. I was just totally tongue-tied. But, it happens, you know? It was pretty cool, though.
IT DOESN'T SEEM LIKE LINKIN PARK WILL HAVE ANY PROBLEM "KEEPING IT TOGETHER" — EVERYONE IN THE BAND HAS A SUPER-INTENSE WORK ETHIC.
Yeah, we're all doing it now. It's a lot of fun when you're around a bunch of guys who appreciate where they are, and what they have. Unfortunately, when you hear the words "rock star," you automatically associate the word "asshole" with it. That sucks to me. All these guys in my band, and in the bands we play with, we're all just happy to be here, and we totally appreciate our fans. I mean, if there are any kids out there who want to be in a band because it means you never have to work, and you can just slack off and party all day long, they'd better get a reality check. I'm doing more work now — working harder, with longer hours — than I've ever worked in my life. And I've dug ditches, and built houses, and had the 40-pound weed blower on my back. With those jobs, at the end of the day, you go home and relax. With this job, there's no down time, unless you're not doing it. And if you're not doing it, you're not doing it, you know what I mean?
So if you want to be a musician, man, you'd better be willing to put the work in, and you'd better be willing to put the time in. Everyone you meet, they're there for a reason. The fans out in front of the venue at two in the morning? You'd better show them a little respect. They're not an annoyance. I'm not gonna lie — it can be a little painstaking when, every day of your life, you walk outside and there is somebody there going, "Hey, can you do something for me? Can you sign this? Can I take a picture?" And you don't even have the sleep out of your eyes, you're barely conscious, and you're in a bad mood because you're not a morning person. But you've gotta get beyond yourself and say, "Look, this kid's bought an album, he's probably got four or five of his friends to buy the album, he buys the T-shirts at the show." You can't deny the people who've put you where you are. I think that's the biggest downfall in the business, that people take a lot of that stuff for granted. You're not successful because you're a star. It's because people made you a star. You weren't born into greatness, OK? Fuck, I worked at Burger King and Jack in the Box, too! I've slung coffee — I'm not above anybody.
ARE YOU GUYS THINKING AT ALL ABOUT YOUR NEXT ALBUM?
Well, the way I look at it is, we're working this hard because we've been given the opportunity to work this hard, so we're gonna work this album until it's done. If the next record happens as fast as the last one ... We spent spent our life writing that demo, but after we got the deal with Warner Bros., none of those songs made it onto the record. Of 50 songs that we'd worked our asses off on, two of them made it onto the record. The other 10 songs were written in that three-month period between pre-production and the last day of recording. If that happens again, we'll have another record out soon. Whether or not we'll be ready to tour, we'll see. Our philosophy on the next record will be the same as this one: It's all about the songs, and if they're not ready, the record won't be released. We don't want to disappoint the people who loved the first record, and we're not going to sell them short in order to make some record company guy's life easier.
MIKE SEEMS TO FEEL SOME AMBIVALENCE ABOUT LINKIN PARK'S MAINSTREAM POPULARITY. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
Sorry, man, if the "wrong" kid buys your record, if your idea of the "wrong kind of fan" buys your record, bummer for you! Gimme a fucking break. I don't have any judgment of anybody. If somebody who has only been buying Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys buys our record, I feel like I've accomplished something. I've expanded this kid's horizons, you know what I mean? The same thing goes for the kid who's bought nothing but Pantera albums. Which kid is worse? Which one is the kid you don't want? I would never tell anybody they can't like our music. I would never tell anybody they can't do anything they've ever wanted to do in their life. Because I'm doing everything I've ever wanted to do in my life. Our whole goal has been to be some sort of bridge between different styles and genres, so to single out anybody is against our whole mission.