Linkin Park has led the charge of multi-genre music for well over a decade, combining elements of rock, hip-hop and everything in between into their sound. While their past few albums have diverted from the sonic fusing found on their debut Hybrid Theory, they still re-invented the wheel in their own right with every album to date. The Cali crew returned this past summer with their fifth studio album Living Things – a project that re-introduced the signature Linkin Park sound coupled with an updated formula that only LP could create. It doesn’t hurt that the band has been working with production legend Rick Rubin, a move that felt necessary for the band. In speaking with Mike Shinoda, Life+Times gets the scoop on their new venture with Dell, the Linkin Park legacy, and how a tropical environment backstage can turn almost any down day into a vacation.
Life+Times: Living Things debuted at Number One this past Summer, which was amazing. What do you think it is about Linkin Park that keeps the people coming back? Especially in a time when buying music is rare and you’re still moving numbers and sitting at the top of the charts?
Mike Shinoda: I mean you know, a lot of the focus for us happens in the studio. It’s more about creatively putting ourselves together and putting a record together that we feel is the best thing we can do at the moment – that we feel really good about. After that, I think if you love what you’re doing and you work hard at it as far as the albums we make, that at least gets us pretty far. With the trajectory of the band, we started with a couple of records that we were basically trying to just get our name known, establish our sound and get our name out there. Then after that, we realized if we kept doing the same thing over and over again, that we’d be stuck doing that forever. So for us, it was really important at that moment, on Minutes To Midnight, to step outside the box and kind of leave a lot of that behind. We’ve been doing that ever since, but with the new record, I know that it’s a moment where people… We’ve been intentionally avoiding getting back to that signature sound that people think of when they think of the band, and this is the first time in a long time that we actually went back and put some of that into the record. So, I think we felt like, “Hopefully the fans are going to be excited to hear this type of thing again,” and we clearly did it. We wanted to do it at least in a way that feels cutting edge. It feels current. It’s not just a rehash of where we’ve been, but rather it just refers back to that stuff and then takes it into the future.
L+T: It felt like it was perfect timing. During the period of time where you kind of changed up your sound, music wasn’t ready or at a point again where the various influences were all coming together. And at this point in time, it was almost perfect timing to re-introduce that. The fact that you guys did that so long ago, bringing it back and updating it…it just seemed like it was perfect timing.
MS: Well that’s what we built our… I mean, that is the philosophy of the band, you know? That’s what we built our band on. The name of the band was Hybrid Theory before it was Linkin Park.
L+T: Oh, like the title of your first album.
MS: Yeah, Hybrid Theory was the name of the band and then we changed it to Linkin Park. We kept that for the name of that first album and the idea there was obviously that you know, the six of us have grown up listening to different types of music from one another, and in making music, we all come together and kind of bring those influences together and smash them into one thing. Like at the time – especially when that album came out – usually when you heard groups doing that type of a thing, it was more like patchwork. You’d have a part that you could tell was the rap part and you had a part that was the metal part or the rock part or the whatever. In our approach, we tried to eliminate as much of that separation as possible. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve never stopped doing that. So I think now we’ve got even more different influences and even more different flavors coming into the music. They’re mixed even more seamlessly to the point where you definitely don’t really know even what you’re listening to anymore. It’s just one thing; it’s not a mixture of anything. It just feels like its own beast.
L+T: Seeing that also happen around you with taking different elements and putting them together in music, are you impressed with what’s going on in music right now? Are you into it, are you not into it?
MS: I listen to a lot of different types of music. I’m the type of person, I like to look for music rather than waiting for it to come to me. So I tend to be excited about stuff that’s not generally mainstream. I kind of grew up that way. Like when I was a kid, as soon as a band or a group that I liked started becoming popular, I’d actually dislike that group [laughs]. Then at a certain point once I got older, that didn’t matter to me what anybody thought about what I was listening to. I just listened to what I liked. The stuff that I tend to listen to these days, I’ve got like, Geographer, Dave Matthews Band, The xx, Cat Power, Animal Collective, etcetera.
L+T: You guys have really been on a whole interactive experience, and now you have a deal with Dell, is that correct?
MS: Oh, yeah! So the Dell thing is this: On stage, I play keyboard, I play guitar and obviously sing and rap. But the keyboard I play is an Open Labs keyboard running on a software called Music OS, and I’ve been playing that keyboard for a while and working with them. The reason I started using it is because it’s a PC-based keyboard. It’s not just a keyboard, I can stick plug-ins and if I want to, I can run ProTools on it, I could run Logic on it or whatever. I’ve been using Music OS because they make the keyboard and that’s actually originally built for touring musicians to kind of be able to switch between whatever sounds they want to use and build set-lists full of sounds. You can switch back and forth really fast, and it sounds great and most importantly it’s stable. It’s not going to crash on you. So I’ve been using that, and it’s touch screen too and I can design faders and everything for the program. As I was working with it, I started talking to the people from the company about how to improve it and everything, and what I would like to see happen with it on stage, and that evolved into a conversation about how to improve the software for everybody. Long story short, we’re now at a point where we’re going to be introducing an amazing version of the software. It’s basically geared to be Garage Band for PC. I am a Mac user; I grew up using Mac. I’ve never loved PCs at all, but this software, they built it for PC because that was more…for the live keyboard thing…it was more, what’s the word they used? Stable? I know that’s not the word I’m looking for, but that’s the word I’m going to use. So they said that they were having a lot of problems if they built it for Mac and if they used that on this keyboard, or this live performance unit, that it would crash more often so they built it for PC. That was almost just lucky for all of us, because we realized there really isn’t a great beginner music software for PC out there. With the new Windows 8 coming out and touch screen being such a major part of the next level of the PC, this software is a touchscreen-compatible, beginner level music writing and performing software. We made it something that anybody – whether they played an instrument before or not – can get into it and write something cool in five minutes. So Dell is putting it on all their computers this year. It’ll be standard on those computers. We’re also going to be making it available for sale. One of the other benefits of the PC is that things are more affordable, so young people who don’t have the money to go spend on a Mac and all that stuff; they can get the software. We’re shooting for a price point of about $15.
L+T: Oh wow!
MS: So it’s a great entry-level thing. We’re going to also offer some special packages where you can get it certain ways. Like right now if you go on the Dell website, you can get a version of the Pro version of this software with a library of Linkin Park sounds, and you’ll be able to make your own music using sounds that we’ve created. That’s called Music OS. But the version most importantly I didn’t say, the version of this software that’s coming out, that’s debuting this fourth quarter here, is going to be called Stagelight, and that’s Garage Band for PC software.
L+T: You co-produced the last few Linkin Park albums. It feels like you’re really getting into the production side of things with the band. Is that a move that you’re going to do for outside projects too?
MS: I’ve actually been in that role since the beginning, and they added my name to the production credit after the second record because it was just, I think we realized that’s just what I do. At that point, we had conversations about whether or not we should even hire another producer and then Rick [Rubin] came into the picture. It was almost like, “Well, if we hire somebody, they’ve got to be just the best.” You know? Or else I’d do it. Or else we’d do it ourselves. So it has to be somebody that does something that we can’t do. Then we met up with Rick Rubin, and it was clear that he was interested. It was clear that he brought something to the table that we didn’t have. So that’s why we’ve been teaming up with Rick ever since. Even in our conversations in the studio, the thing that worked so well for our dynamic is the fact that he has a love for as many different genres, maybe even more, than we do and he’s worked in many of those genres. So when we’re jumping from topic to topic in the studio talking about ways to execute writing a part or producing something or engineering a sound or writing a lyric, he doesn’t miss a beat with us. I think there are very few producers that would fit that description.
L+T: What did you learn about yourself from working with Rick Rubin? As a producer, as a creator of music, like what have you learned?
MS: I feel like we go into every studio album looking to learn something. As we go from project to project, our writing style is very, amorphous. It doesn’t have a formula at all really. We don’t write like a normal band. You think of bands getting together in a room and jamming and writing parts and then recording them. It’s almost like we wander into the song. Like we kind of haphazardly record parts – whether they be at home or into a phone or in a nice studio environment. We’re constantly just layering and layering and layering stuff and then removing stuff and removing stuff and rewriting and changing. It’s always an ongoing process. Where most groups’ processes are usually to write something, then record it, then mix it, then master it, we’ll be writing all the way up until the end. We’ll be writing until we’re mastering. We’ll be in the studio finishing mixing a song and decide to change it there on the spot and rework a musical part or a vocal or something at a time in the game when nobody usually thinks to actually change anything. That’s just our process, and that’s what we’ve grown up being comfortable doing. To be honest, it’s something that’s a very digital process. Like if you didn’t grow up in the digital age, I think that would be very foreign to you but since we’ve grown up recording into computers our whole lives. That’s just how things have gone. So yeah, we’re always trying to look for something new to do and something that keeps it fresh and exciting for us and lucky for us. There seems to be no end to the things you can learn while recording, so it always stays fun.
L+T: What do you put on your tour rider?
MS: Ours is pretty simple. We’re really mellow in the backstage and all that. So it’s basically stuff like shirts, socks, underwear, stuff like that. One thing that got added to the rider this year was coconut water. You can get like, fresh coconuts out of Whole Foods and stuff like that. If you’re doing show after show on the road, sometimes it could feel tiring, kind of like work, but if you’re drinking water out of a coconut, then you automatically feel like you’re on vacation. It automatically lightens up the vibe. Plus, you can’t be mad about anything when you’re drinking water out of a coconut. You can be pissed off as much as you want, but nobody can really take you seriously.
L+T: Do you ask for the little umbrellas to put in the top too?
MS: That’s actually a good idea. We may need to start doing that.
Photo Credit: James Minchin