Interview: Mike Shinoda Talks "Living Things," The State of Rock, and Linkin Park's Fan Base

Interview: Mike Shinoda Talks "Living Things," The State of Rock, and Linkin Park's Fan BasePhoto by Anna Shinoda

When Linkin Park’s debut album, Hybrid Theory, came out in 2000, the band was at the forefront of the changing face of alternative music. That project was the best-selling album of the year, yielded one Grammy win, eventually went diamond, and forever stands as one of the defining albums of a new genre-bending direction for rock music at the turn of the decade.

A lot has changed since then.

We’ve seen a slew of alternative rock bands who were unfairly lumped in with Linkin Park come and go, and we’ve witnessed a shift in music that left a lot of popular rock from the early 2000s as a thing of the past.

It’s been over 10 years since they exploded into stardom, and Linkin Park is still proving, quite convincingly, that they are not a thing of the past. Their latest album, Living Things, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 220,000 copies in its first week of release.

We sat down with Linkin Park’s resident rapper, writer, guitarist, and producer Mike Shinoda to find out what has changed since that first album and what keeps Linkin Park going strong after all these years.

Interview by Jacob Moore (@PigsAndPlans)

The last time we talked, you were still working on Living Things. Now that you’ve finished it up, how do you feel about it?
Well, how do I feel about it? I feel good. For us, what we tried to do when we started working on it is we wanted to bridge the gap between all the previous records. We wanted to bring some of the old fans into the new and some of the new fans into the old and mix it up. At this point, I feel really good about the response. The response to the singles has been awesome. It’s been even better than I thought it would be. At the same time, I’m really excited to be playing some of the other tracks live. Some of those are a little more adventurous. I really want to play, for example, “Until It Breaks” in the set. That will be fun.

How do you feel about the current state of rock? One of the cool things about Linkin Park is that you guys have always brought so many different genres together, and that seems to be a big thing in rock right now.
Yeah, rock is maybe more fragmented than it has been. It’s more fragmented than it was 10 years ago, that’s for sure. 10 years ago, when our band first came out, it was very much about a certain sound, and everybody was making variations of that certain sound. We hated being lumped into that shit. We didn’t even mind the bands that we were being lumped in with, we just didn’t like the idea of somebody saying that there’s a nu-metal movement and having the flag shoved into our hands. In every interview, we said we are not trying to hold the flag of that thing, because we knew that wasn’t our thing, and it never was. We’ve got six guys with drastically different tastes in music, and we’re always feeding each other different stuff. And that stuff is just moving from one guy to the other, and it ends up influencing the music. The more we play together it’s manifested itself in what we write and what we record.

 

I don’t ever mind if the hot thing works its way into other genres. As long as it’s honest.

 

Electronic music especially seems to be catching on in hip-hop and in rock. How do you feel about that? Do you listen to that kind of stuff?

I don’t ever mind if the hot thing works its way into other genres. As long as it’s honest.

Do you think it’s a phase?

I think the dishonest stuff will fall away, yeah. Like, if you see two artists get together because it’s going to sell records and they don’t really go that deep into each other’s music or genre, then yeah, you’ll feel like it’s fake. At least for us, if we’re ever dabbling with something that unfamiliar to us, there’s a real honesty there with our guys. Back in the day with Hybrid Theory, we were plugging in a little jungle and drum & bass thing into our songs—like “Papercut” you can really hear it. I don’t think I can even name 10 jungle songs or artists off the top of my head, but at the time we were so into it. We were getting all these sets of all this stuff, these 90-minute mixes of shit that we couldn’t name, and it was awesome.

Over the years, how has your live show evolved?
We put a lot of work into our live show. In the beginning we only had one album that was less than 40 minutes long, and within the first nine months we were expected to play headline sets. Can you imagine? You’re expecting a band to play at least 60 minutes, and we didn’t even have 45.

What did you do?
We occasionally played a cover. We occasionally dicked around and made our songs longer. We talked a lot in between songs. Now we have the opposite problem, where we’ve got so many songs and it’s like how do we work it all into the set and make it interesting and keep the flow really nicely. These new sets are some of the most high-energy sets that we’ve played in like seven years.

Do you have a favorite song on the favorite album?
No, I mean day to day I guess I could, but it changes. I mentioned “Until It Breaks” earlier. I just like that one because it’s a little more wild than a lot of the other stuff on the record. Today we’re going to play “Lost In The Echo,” which is another favorite of mine. I just like to play it because it’s got a lot of energy.

I read that “Skin To Bone” and “Roads Untraveled” were influenced by Bob Dylan. That’s interesting.
That was Chester. At a certain point during the writing of Living Things, we were listening to folk music—we had this phase, for months, where we just listened to folk music. Brad and I were listening to stuff from the ‘20s and earlier. And Chester was listening to Dylan and stuff like that. And it turned out that Dylan and that ‘60s folk movement was influenced by the stuff we were listening to from the ‘20s. That’s what worked its way into the mind of Dylan and those folks and they were bringing that back.

For us, in particular, there’s an anthology put out by the Smithsonian that’s really great. I’ve actually got a playlist on Spotify of that. There’s all these old prison songs from the South. It’s incredible. They have interviews with the artists and the artists would start and end every sentence with “sir” or “boss,” because they were talking to the prison guards about their songs.

I remember when Kurt Cobain said his favorite artist was Leadbelly. I was in middle school and I heard that and dug into that, and it was so crazy to me.
It’s crazy right? The song format is always very similar, but the ways they emote when they are singing the songs are insane.

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How is working on a Linkin Park album different from working on your side projects, like Fort Minor, or the Raid Redemption score?

Well, they’re all different. I think we know what’s at stake when we do a Linkin Park album, so our attention to detail couldn’t be more forefront. With Fort Minor it was very loose, and in fact I never intended on releasing it when I made it, so it was a very different approach. With Linkin Park there’s a rigidity to the process. Every Monday we get together to talk about where the songs are at, what’s changed, ideas, what we like, what we don’t like. We throw all of that stuff around and then that day and for the rest of the week, we work on the songs. So on Monday it’s super rigid, then as soon as we leave the Monday meeting it’s amorphous, it’s whatever works.

 

We realized that if we made a third record like the first two, that we’d be stuck with doing that forever, and that terrified us.

 

Is there anything that you want to accomplish musically that you haven’t already?

Yeah, it’s hard to describe, but I think every time I go in to write a song there’s an effort to challenge myself to learn something or do something I haven’t done yet. Really, I think that began after the second record. We realized that if we made a third record like the first two, that we’d be stuck with doing that forever, and that terrified us. So ever since then we’ve tried to push and push to keep ourselves sharp and keep ourselves entertained.

Are there any artists out there that you really want to work with? I know you’ve mentioned you’re into Azealia Banks. Any others that you’re really into right now?
I’ve put a few words out to people. I listen to ten times more indie music than I listen to mainstream music. I listen to very little mainstream music at all. I’m that kid who, in high school, if a band I listened to started blowing up I’d stop listening to them. I wouldn’t hate them. But if the football players and the cheerleaders started listening to them, I’d stop listening. And over time I just started picking stuff that I knew they wouldn’t get into. Like, there’s no way those girls are going to be listening to Wu-Tang Clan, so that’s fucking awesome, you know?

We’re at a time when that stuff is even more prevalent, and it’s getting bigger than it could have ever been back then. And these artists have every reason to be very particular about who they work with. To be honest, I know, because I’ve dealt with them and they’ll tell me, “Look, I like you, and I’d be down to work with your music but I don’t know if it’s a good look for us right now.” I totally respect that, and I get that entirely. But at the end of the day, that’s where my heart is at. Even though I know our band is what it is, there’s always that element lingering in the background.

So what’s next for you? Do you have plans to continue with any side projects?
People always ask about Fort Minor and shit like that. I’m definitely open to do some more of that some day, it’s just a matter of when. I’ll do some more scoring too, probably produce some rap. Other than that, we’re going to keep our heads down and power through some more Linkin Park stuff. Creatively, we’ve got a lot of momentum right now.

Now that you’ve finished this album, do you just jump right back into writing again?
Traditionally, bands will write and then tour a record until the end of the cycle. Things for us aren’t as cyclical anymore. So we’ll place the tours where they need to be, and then work in writing time. And if it doesn’t look like enough writing time we’ll block out more writing time. It wouldn’t work for every band, but it works for us because it’s like a muscle. If you run every day you’re not going to be sore. If you haven’t run in six months, the first few times you do it you’re going to feel like shit. If you go in the studio and you haven’t written in six months, it doesn’t work.

The last thing I want to ask you is about the fans. It’s weird because you guys have had so much mainstream success, but your fans still seem like a very tight-knit group of hardcore fans. We were riding the bus here and it was an experience. People were all singing, and one guy was like, “You guys aren’t singing, you don’t know the words!”
[Laughs.] Oh, shut up! Really? That’s funny. What was the age group like?

It was a mix. The one leading the whole sing-along was a father with his kid.
That's the thing that trips me out at this point. There are people who got into Linkin Park and were older than us. I was 24-ish, and there were dudes that were older than us then, and now they have kids and their kids are old enough to be getting into us as teenagers. It’s a really interesting thing that happens out at the shows.

I was told a great story. A guy told me, “If you want to see pure musical joy, pure joy from a fan’s experience, I’m going to e-mail you a picture of my son at your show. It’s his first show. He’s 13 years old. From the moment the lights turned off, he stood on the base of his seat with his hands in the air, screaming every word.” I said, “Are you okay with the profanity?” He told me, “As long as it’s in the song, he’s allowed to scream it as loud as he wants for the duration of the show. Once he gets home, no more.” I thought that was a great rule. I looked at the picture and it truly was, like, the essence of a perfect first concert for a kid. When I see stuff like that, it’s exactly what we get excited about, it’s exactly why we do it. It’s so inspiring to see that happening out there.

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Tags: mike-shinoda, linkin-park
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