Mike Shinoda is painting differently these days. In the months since the death of his foil in Linkin Park, singer Chester Bennington, the rapper, producer and visual artist has found himself approaching all of his creative pursuits differently. But it’s most evident when he puts a brush to a canvas. One recent painting shows what could be a variety of robot faces and skulls blending into a background of sea-foam–green squares. “What I’ve been doing has been a little less figurative and a little more abstract,” he says. “If everybody knows that you’re going through a rough time and you just draw a stick figure, they’ll overanalyze it.”
It’s a hot, sunny May morning, and Shinoda looks serene in a white T-shirt and black ball cap, as he leans back in the booth of an empty SoHo hotel restaurant. Although there’s a big plate of pastries in front of him, he’d rather nurse a coffee. When he speaks, he makes eye contact and smiles a little – even when the subject matter makes him uncomfortable – and he looks around the room as if he’s trying to capture the right words. Mostly, though, he looks small – like the big, bright room could eat him up. But that’s not necessarily how he would like you to see him.
“One of the harder things I’ve gone through this year is that everything I do gets read through the lens of the year,” he says.
Although he feels most comfortable obscuring his feelings in his visual art, Shinoda confronts everything he’s gone through during the past 10 months in gritty detail on Post-Traumatic, his first-ever solo album. It’s the fastest he’s ever made an LP, and the music sounds like classic Linkin Park – and indeed he’d written some of it previously with the band’s 2017 LP, One More Light, in mind – but the unfiltered, almost freestyled lyrics make it feel like something new. Where Linkin Park once sang about existential (and some autobiographical) pain, many of Post-Traumatic’s songs sound like diary entries.
He’s arranged the tracks mostly in the order he wrote them, beginning with “Place to Start,” which ends with some of the condolence voicemails he received, and goes on to describe the Bennington tribute show the band played (“Over Again”), his inner struggle with grief (“Hold It Together”) and his anxiety to get through it (“World’s on Fire”) before ending on a hopeful note (“Can’t Hear You Now”). Unlike with his paintings, there’s sometimes an uncomfortable specificity in his songs: “Hold It Together” tells the story of how he attended a six-year-old’s birthday party only for someone to bring up Bennington’s death, prompting Shinoda to make a dark, awkward joke (“I shouldn’t have come,” he sings, “it’d be weird to go home, and I’m struggling”). But Shinoda says he didn’t want to censor himself.
“I don’t think I held back anything,” he says, grimacing. “The only songs that I made that I didn’t want put on the record were just ones that I felt either they were saying something that was already being said on the album or I just didn’t like the song that much.”
Although Post-Traumatic is not wholly about Bennington – and Shinoda bristles at the thought of it being looked at as a tribute album – much of it is about his struggle to understand himself without having Bennington in his life. On “Place to Start” – a dreamy, seemingly stream-of-conscious number he wrote shortly after his bandmate’s death – he sings, “Did somebody else define me? Can I put the past behind me?”
“I think those thoughts are really natural,” he says. “When I wrote some of that stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, should I say that? Does that sound weird?’ But I think it would be true for anybody in this situation. When you go through a difficult situation, sometimes you question stuff you don’t need to question. And I did. At a certain point, I was afraid just to write a song or record something, which is natural.”
It’s a feeling that Shinoda’s friend, Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, understands. In 2008, his band’s bassist, Chi Cheng, was injured in an auto collision and went into a coma; he died five years later. Moreno held off on reaching out to Shinoda about Bennington at first but eventually emailed him. They got together in the studio to record Post-Traumatic’s “Lift-Off” and that’s when they talked about these types of feelings. “The main thing we talked about was when do you start back up being creative again and feeling OK about doing so,” Moreno says. “For me, as a listener to the music he’s put out so far, I can tell he was dealing with that question.”
The last time Shinoda saw Bennington was just a few days before the singer’s death. “He wanted me to meet this kid, Watsky,” he says, referring to a rapper and poet Bennington had been championing. “He loved Watsky, and he had mentioned him enough times that I was like, ‘Well, let’s meet him.’ We went over to the studio that we had been working at, and Watsky came down and said hi, and we met him and one of his friends. And then they took off and Chester and I just kind of hung out there for a couple hours, just doodling around on some music. We were basically playing around with some mediocre music and talking about the shows coming up with Blink-182 that we were going to do. It was nothing remarkable, really.”
A few days later, Bennington was found dead in his L.A.-area home of an apparent suicide. His friends told Rolling Stone that the singer had been struggling to maintain a sober lifestyle, and in an interview earlier that year Bennington described a battle with depression when asked about Linkin Park’s hit “Heavy.” An autopsy report showed that he had alcohol in his blood at the time of his death. “We don’t know how much [he drank], but it doesn’t take much when you’re that advanced an alcoholic and an addict and you’re battling to the extent he described to me,” Ryan Shuck, his friend and bandmate in the side project Dead by Sunrise, told Rolling Stone. “You don’t need much to lose your mind for a minute.”
Shinoda remembers Bennington as a complex individual with an outsized and sometimes unpredictable personality. “He was really loud, and it wasn’t just volume – he had a loud personality,” he says. “We would joke that he could just go about anywhere and make friends with everybody in the place. He was just a really fun-loving dude, but he was also complicated.
“He could be really hot and cold on stuff,” he continues. “My joke with him was that he never liked a movie. If he’d seen a movie I hadn’t yet, I’d ask him how it was and either it would be an 11 out of 10 or, ‘I can’t believe anybody ever made that movie. Who the fuck decided to put money behind such a piece of crap? I wish I could get my money back.’ And that was just him.”
Bennington was a dedicated family man who’d cook Thanksgiving dinner for dozens of people, and he could be unpredictably open with strangers. “It was almost random,” Shinoda says. “With some people, it would be surface-y, and with others, you’d find him telling them crazy things. Like if he was sitting next to somebody on a plane, you’d hear him telling them all this stuff you shouldn’t tell another person on a plane. It’s that phenomenon. He’d have these moments of child-like openness and directness in a way.”
After Bennington’s death, Linkin Park posted an open letter to the singer on its website. One line from it stands out all these months later: “We’re trying to remind ourselves that the demons who took you away from us were always part of the deal. After all, it was the way you sang about those demons that made everyone fall in love with you in the first place.”
When asked about that line now, Shinoda takes a long pause and searches around the room for the right words. “Well, I feel like the bottom line with that is that we knew the guy,” he says. “Like, we knew what we were dealing with. He knew what he was dealing with. That’s all. That’s all that means. It was an ongoing … just like anybody who deals with that stuff, you know, it’s an ongoing thing.”
Since the singer’s death, Shinoda has learned that the mourning process is irrational. Nearly 50 years ago, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross detailed what she described as five sequential stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She was wrong about one thing, according to Shinoda: The stages are not chronological.
“I always thought it would happen in some kind of order and you could analyze it,” he says. “But they don’t happen in order. And if your family or friends are feeling the same thing, and they’re all experiencing those different emotions at random in real time, that’s where the chaos happens. ‘Cause one person is upset, one person is sad, one person is angry, one person is fine. And then they’re affecting one another. That was part of the reason I wanted to do stuff on my own, to pull myself out a little bit of that chaos and have a little control over my own intention.”
One inspiration for Shinoda came from reading Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, which she’d written after her husband died. “She looked back on her first book [Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead] and was like, ‘I can see problems with it now because I wasn’t looking at it through the lens of somebody who is a single mother who doesn’t have a choice,'” he says. “And I related to that. As I was reading, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, this isn’t the career move that I would have chosen to make, and at the same time, here we are.’ I’ll make the most of it. It’s taking me somewhere; I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m willing to follow it.”
Although the band regrouped for the three-hour Bennington tribute concert last October – when Shinoda debuted a new song, “Looking for an Answer,” that he left off Post-Traumatic because it would interfere with the album’s flow – he split off from the group to work on the album. The only other Linkin Park member to get a credit on it is guitarist Brad Delson, who co-wrote “Make It Up as I Go” and “Running From My Shadow.” Shinoda instead looked outside of his regular circle for collaborators. In addition to Moreno, “Blood in the Cut” hit maker K.Flay guested on a track, as did Machine Gun Kelly and Blackbear.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to a new level as a songwriter in the last couple of years,” he says. “I don’t mean that like, ‘If you want me to write you a hit, I’ll write you a hit, kid.’ I mean I know I have a ton of different ways of approaching a song. For the most part, I’ve always written by myself and bring it to the band. It was rare that I would sit with all the guys and make something. That just wasn’t where the best ideas came from. On a little bit of [Linkin Park’s 2014 LP] The Hunting Party and most of [2017’s] One More Light, we did a ton of sessions with other songwriters and I got an education on how other people write. I feel like I learned so much that doing this album, all that stuff came into play.
“Songs have to be about something,” he continues. “And when you’re not really going through very much and life is boring, it’s harder to pull interesting songs out of the air. When things are going on and they’re heavy, it’s almost like you have a nonstop well of ideas to pull from.”
When he reached out to K.Flay, it was to finish up a song they’d worked on together during the sessions for One More Light that didn’t make the cut. The song, “Make It Up as I Go,” was originally a ballad but Shinoda tweaked the tempo; the chorus, which K.Flay sang, remained the same as it originally was: “I don’t know what I’m chasing, I don’t know who I am/So I make it up as I go.”
“We were talking about how it’s comforting to think that anybody knows what they’re doing but we’re all inventing life moment by moment,” K.Flay says. “That’s a headspace I’m in frequently, and I think it was definitely connecting with Mike’s headspace, too.”
She says Shinoda had struck her as warm and creative when they first met and that he seemed to have the same energy when she reconnected with him for Post-Traumatic. “I don’t know if I’d call it an urgency, but Mike had a real sense of purpose,” she says. “I just got the sense he wanted to make things, and I totally get that. I think in the face of all types of uncertainty, it can be affirming and beautiful to make stuff.”
“Whenever a celebrity has a life event, the Internet wants to read into it.”
Moreno, too, picked up on Shinoda’s need to create. They first met around 2001 when Deftones took Linkin Park on the latter group’s first European tour; the two bands are so close that Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter is the godfather to Bennington’s son, Draven. Shinoda sent Moreno a few songs that were relatively complete, and Moreno couldn’t think of what he could add to them. So they decided to get together and work on a beat-heavy instrumental that would become “Lift Off,” a rap tune about the musicians’ journey to stardom that also features Machine Gun Kelly.
“[Mike] is really concerned about people thinking that he’s selfish for doing [Post-Traumatic], but like, fuck that,” he says. “He’s a creative person. He’s in the trenches. Whether people understand it or not, he’s always the dude in the trenches. When they were doing One More Light, I went to the studio with him one day and he must have had 40 or 50 ideas. I just sat with him and listened to some and he’s the guy who’s always working. I’m not saying the other guys aren’t involved, but he’s definitely the dude who’s in there. So for someone to assume he’s not going to [make music] is crazy.”
When Shinoda looks back on the making of the album he marvels at how he was in a different place emotionally when he wrote “Place to Start” than when he wrote the last tune, “Can’t Hear You Now.” Post-Traumatic is a fluid statement that covers about nine months of time, as Shinoda made sense of what had become the new normal for him. Some of the lyrics are hyper–self-aware to the point that Shinoda even bemoans not being able to find the right words. Others are acutely descriptive of his day-to-day life, such as the birthday party line in “Hold It Together.”
“That’s one of the lines that struck me in the moment,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a songwriter that usually collects little things while they’re happening and goes, ‘Oh, that would make a great song.’ I think because I was so immersed in writing the record, it happened quite a bit. Some of those are my favorite moments on the album.
“In a sense, I felt there was a potential for a career’s worth of work to have a finish line on it, like, ‘OK, you can’t have that anymore, this chapter is done, and there’s nothing you can say about it,'” he continues. “And that’s a scary feeling. But for me, it really opened up the opportunity of starting a new chapter. I’ve learned to really come to enjoy it.”
At a certain point, he had the same realization about his music that he’d had about his painting. No matter what he wrote about, people would assume it related to Bennington. That feeling inspired “About You,” a track whose chorus goes, “Even when it’s not about you, all of a sudden, it’s about you.” “I was thinking, ‘God, I have all these ideas for songs that aren’t about Chester or what happened,'” he says. “So I wrote a song about feeling that moment of writing songs. Because not every song is about him and about what happened.”
It’s a concept he tussled with as he questioned whether or not to release Post-Traumatic. “Whenever a celebrity has a life event, the Internet wants to read into it,” he says. “If you just broke up with somebody, everything is about the breakup. ‘Oh, did you see? He usually drank this coffee but this morning he drank tea. It’s probably because of her.’ And that’s not necessarily the case. That’s just something the Internet is projecting on you.”
He says he’s prepared “to some degree” for this phenomenon, and he says he’s gotten used to awkward interactions with people out in the wild.
Shinoda has only performed live a few times since Bennington’s death. The first was at Linkin Park’s tribute to the singer, an event that Shinoda calls “exhausting” in hindsight. “I was onstage for almost the whole thing, singing most of the time,” he says. “I had to compartmentalize and be out of my body for some of it in order to get through the whole thing. But I really loved how it came out. The longest show we did before was 90 minutes, and this was over three hours. I know it helped a lot of people who didn’t have any kind of memorial and it provided closure for some people.”
One thing his fans might not have known about the show is that Shinoda had Bennington’s voice in his in-ear monitors during some of the songs for cues. “I’m used to hearing the songs in a certain way, so we’ve started making practice tracks,” he says. “So if anybody’s missing, we can turn on the album version of their track and practice as if they were there. When you think about some of my parts, we would go back and forth, so I would want to hear that other voice.”
But hearing Bennington’s voice alongside a who’s who of hard-rock luminaries – including Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows, among others who appeared at the event – helped the band realize an important lesson. “The week after the show, I was listening back and going, ‘God, these people were all really great singers and none of them were Chester,'” he says. “He had such a specific tone and range – an incredible range. He could sing almost any style you wanted him to. That led to conversations about what to do next. It became obvious that you can’t just hire some schmuck to get up there and sing with us, ’cause they won’t be able to hit half the stuff.”
Shinoda says it’s still too early to speculate on the future of Linkin Park, but at the moment, he’s looking forward to seeing where Post-Traumatic leads him. This past May, he performed one of his first solo concerts and, after an emotional start, found his sea legs. “I was pretty nervous, and once I got halfway through it, I said into the mic, ‘That was the hardest part, so I know I can get through the rest of it,'” he recalls. “It wasn’t that it was heavy or sad. It was just emotionally more intense than what a normal set was like in my memory.”
The set list contained a mix of songs off Post-Traumatic and favorites from Linkin Park and Shinoda’s other project, Fort Minor. He expects the set list to change with time. “I’m enjoying the open, blank canvas of it,” he says, though he was irked when he saw critics describing the concert as a tribute. “I don’t know how to feel about that, because my intention is not to do a tribute show,” he says. “My intention is to do a show and in that, there are going to be moments that I think of as a tribute – but not the whole show. I was asking the fans, ‘Did you guys feel like it was a tribute show?’ and most of them said no, but I guess that’s the most clickable headline.”
As he gets up from the table, he grabs a muffin to bring with him now that he’s done with his coffee. He’s ready to embrace the day and whatever it holds for him – a mindset he’d like to pass on to his fans. “I just feel like art has played such a great, therapeutic role in the whole thing,” he says. “Part of the intention of the whole thing is to show our fans that we all know what happened and what I went through, and now [I can] walk out of that blaze and be OK. I hope it helps other folks do the same.”