“I love to hear the crowd sing along,” Linkin Park vocalist Chester Bennington says backstage. “I get the biggest hard-on from that. Of course, it means I have an erection for a whole hour every night.” He turns apologetically to Phoenix, the bassist. “I hit your bass with my dick last night. I still got the bruise.” The last time Linkin Park played here in Columbus, Ohio, just a couple of months ago, they were the opening band; Papa Roach had the big dressing room, hed (p.e.) the tiny one, and Linkin Park had to settle for loitering in between. But that was before the L.A. rap-metal crew blew up nationwide with its debut album, Hybrid Theory, before radio and MTV turned “One Step Closer” into a teen-angst anthem. Tonight, Linkin Park are the band the kids want to see; the big room at the top of the stairs is theirs. “It’s surreal,” Bennington admits. “Like I’m gonna wake up and it’s gonna be the longest dream I’ve ever had.”
Linkin Park could have been designed in a laboratory as the consummate rap-metal band, circa 2001: the rage-filled vocals, the headbanging guitar, the renegades-of-funk rhythm section, the DJ scratching between verses, the shy, intense guitarist with the arty tastes, the baggy pants, the hair, the tattoos, the gratuitous use of the letter K. But although their heavy, aggressive sound gets them lumped in with bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park are hardly the party commandos or death freaks you might expect. Instead, they’re sensitive dudes who sing about the secret life of boys: the real-life emotional struggles of ordinary guys like themselves, hitting a nerve in the audience with their brotherly compassion. Like Papa Roach and Incubus, Linkin Park take pride in keeping it positive. For all the rage and fury in the music, they feel your pain.
In fact, they take positivity to some shocking extremes: Neither Bennington nor rapper Mike Shinoda utters a single curse word on Hybrid Theory. “When Mike and I sat down and wrote the lyrics,” Bennington says, “we wanted to be as honest and open as we could. We wanted something people could connect with, not just vulgarity and violence. We didn’t want to make a big point of not cussing, but we don’t have to hide behind anything to show how tough we can be.”
“It was scary in the beginning, when we started writing about what we felt,” Shinoda says. “But once we realized we weren’t the only ones who felt that way, once we saw the audience was coming along with us on that, it freed us up. We wanted to be a little more descriptive, instead of just going ‘fuck’ all the time. We wanted to go into detail.” Adds Bennington, “In between the letters of the word fuck – that’s where we go. That’s where we dig deep.”
After every show, instead of an encore, Linkin Park jump into the crowd to shake hands and sign autographs. Many nights, they spend more time hanging out with fans than they do playing. It’s been a long road trip; the current tour began last August, before the album came out, and nobody’s sure when it will end, though the plan is to take a couple of weeks off next August, following Ozzfest. After six straight months in the tour bus, which they also share with their road crew, the boys are full of arcane road wisdom: For instance, if you buy the Big Mac Value Meal with the Filet o’ Fish on the side, it’s ten cents cheaper than buying the Filet o’ Fish Value Meal with the Big Mac on the side. “We’re shooting for the title of hardest-working band in America,” Bennington boasts.
Tonight is Valentine’s Day, and backstage in Columbus, in the big dressing room at the top of the stairs, the guys spend the last few minutes before showtime huddled around their cell phones, calling their girlfriends, wives and parents. It makes them feel a bit melancholy to be so far away. Out of nowhere, Shinoda starts singing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and the rest of the band joins in, discovering to their collective horror that they not only all know the words, but they can sing it in harmony, with Bennington hitting killer high notes. Thus refreshed, the guys take the stage for their hour of rock glory, rounding out the thirty-eight minutes of Hybrid Theory with some early songs from their debut EP, including the ferocious “High Voltage.” The band jumps around and busts out arena-size moves for the club crowd. “Are you motherfuckers ready to rock?” Bennington screams. To no one’s surprise, the motherfuckers are indeed ready to rock. After the last song, the whole band goes down into the crowd, shaking hands and hanging out until the last fan has gone home.
Linkin Park started up five years ago in Los Angeles, where Shinoda and guitarist Brad Delson, both twenty-three, were high school friends. DJ Joseph Hahn, also twenty-three, met Shinoda when both were studying illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. They used to call themselves Hybrid Theory, until another band with the same name threatened to sue. Their vastly superior new name was chosen in tribute to Santa Monica’s Lincoln Park, although they’ve since found to their delight that practically every town in America has its own Lincoln Park. Bennington, twenty-four, joined two years ago. He and his wife had just bought a house in his hometown of Phoenix, when a friend tipped him to the Linkin Park demo tape. Bennington flew to L.A., started jamming with the band and never left.
Delson, a UCLA grad who almost picked law school over the band, is Linkin Park’s musical heart and is probably the main reason the band doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of rap-metal bands. Onstage, he wears a big, clunky pair of headphones, but what he’s listening to on them remains a fiercely guarded secret. (“Actually, I’m listening to the Lakers play,” he confides.) His personal tastes range from Santana and Dave Matthews to artier DJ fare such as Tricky, DJ Shadow and Massive Attack. Hahn, the band’s turntablist, also favors esoteric techno and hip-hop, especially Aphex Twin, Mixmaster Mike and Kid Koala; he’s currently crazy about the Deltron 3000 album. Bassist Phoenix, twenty-two, and drummer Rob Bourdon, twenty-one, give the songs much more punch than the competition. Bourdon, a gentle soul even by drummer standards, is a funk maven who grew up on his folks’ James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire records. “Basically, I just like to bang the shit out of the drums,” he admits.
“When we started, we wanted to play something that we weren’t hearing,” Shinoda says. “The first show I went to was Anthrax and Public Enemy. They did ‘Bring the Noise’ together, and I was like, ‘That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.’ Everybody in our band —– and our fans, too —– has just been raised on different styles of music. Everybody’s mixing everything. When you hear Redman do a song with Roni Size, or Busta Rhymes with Ozzy, you know something’s happening.”
Of course, in the past few years, rap-metal bands have spawned like gypsy-moth caterpillars. “By now, metal is rap metal,” Shinoda says. “OutKast’s new album is rap metal – they have some awesome guitar solos.” But Linkin Park’s approach is distinctive enough to have struck a chord with the audience; their album made a shockingly high debut, at Number Sixteen, and hit platinum at warp speed. Now they find themselves dealing with the sudden bum-rush of fame. For instance, there is the minor matter of autographing breasts. “I don’t sign breasts,” Shinoda insists. “It’s too creepy, especially when you don’t know how old these girls really are. I did it the first few times I was asked, maybe five times, before I decided on the no-breast rule. But some of the other guys . . .”
“I figure I’ve signed enough boobies in my life to be done with boobies —– to sign, I mean,” Bennington adds. The Linkin Park dudes are not much for rock & roll road excess; they don’t even have any booze in their tour rider. “We have boundaries,” Shinoda says. “If one of us wants to drink or smoke, we do it in the club, not in the bus, so people who don’t want to drink or smoke can hang out in the bus.” Bennington adds, “We’re not a bunch of straight-edge goody-two-shoes, but we do have responsibilities to ourselves and our families and the people in this group, and we respect that. If you’re getting wasted, you should be spending that energy out there meeting your fans. I love to get compliments from the janitors in the clubs —– ‘Dude, thanks for not destroying the place, I can go home early tonight.'” The band’s big road vice is gambling, whiling away the hours on the bus playing blackjack, poker and acey-deucey. The roadies usually win.
“I guess our cover’s blown —– we’re not big, scary assholes,” Shinoda says with a sigh. “People should just feel comfortable being normal. You don’t have to put up a huge front to be in a band.” Bennington interrupts him: “I do. Every day when I get ready, I look in the mirror and say, over and over again, ‘Must become action figure. Must become action figure.'”
Bennington’s special vice is clothes. He started the tour with fifteen pairs of shoes, but the reality of road life has forced him to downsize to his three favorite pairs. Offstage, he’s virtually unrecognizable from his madman stage persona, guarded and thoughtful when discussing his own painful past: a childhood of sexual abuse, cocaine addiction in his teens.
“I think that’s where a lot of the anger in my songs comes from,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I’ve never written a song about it, because I don’t think it should matter to people. But I don’t hide it, because I don’t think you should ever be ashamed or afraid of who you are, or anything that’s happened to you. Life is good, man. You can either feel like a victim all the time, or you can get off your ass and do what you want to do. If it helps kids to hear me talk about it, if they can relate, that’s cool. But I’m just a regular guy, you know? There’s no leotard and cape under my clothes. I shit, I piss, I drink too much and throw up, just like everybody else.”
The next night, in Pittsburgh, Linkin Park are looking forward to a weekend off, their first in months. After the show, they’re hitting the bus to make it to Newark Airport by 8 A.M. and fly home to L.A. for a couple of days. Tonight is the kind of gig the band has already grown too big for: The management is trying to shoo all the kids out at ten so it can turn the club into an over-twenty-one dance party at eleven. But the kids want to hang out after the show and soak up the vibe, and so does the band. When the management pushes the kids out the door, Linkin Park move out to the loading dock. Even though they all know the flight schedule, and even though they’ve all agreed to get on the bus and take off as fast as possible, the dudes are still hanging out on the sidewalk two hours later, signing ticket stubs, making small talk and freezing their asses off. Tonight, Linkin Park are the hardest-working band in America, and they’re just letting the moment last.