Linkin Park Mike Shinoda | Man in the Middle

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Shinoda in the vocal booth of his home studio.

Photo: Mark Fiore

According to Mike Shinoda, the sounds on Linkin Park''s heavily textured and sonically complex new album, A Thousand Suns (Warner Bros.), could come from virtually anywhere. In addition to playing various instruments, programming, and rapping on the album, Shinoda also co-produced it with Rick Rubin.

“It doesn''t matter if it''s on your iPhone or if it''s through professional gear in the studio; we record everything,” Shinoda says. “There have been cases where I''ll make a beat and it''s playing through my speakers, and I want to record an idea on my phone so I throw it in the phone, but the beat is on that recording, too, and I choose the phone recording over the actual beat that was in Pro Tools. That all creates the depth and that three-dimensional experience you get on the album. There''s actually so many different ways of representing a sound, and we''ve really gotten in touch with that—more on this album than ever before.”

A Thousand Suns is the band''s third studio album since their smash 2000 debut, Hybrid Theory (Warner Bros.), and the most musically ambitious. It was recorded primarily at NRG Studios (a commercial facility in North Hollywood), as well as at Shinoda''s home studio and the home studio of the band''s turntabalist/sampler, Joe Hahn.

The album continues a stylistic progression first evidenced on Minutes to Midnight (Warner Bros., 2007), in which the band has moved away from its rap-metal roots and evolved in a more eclectic direction that encompasses a range of musical influences and has a strong electronic and sound-design element. Many of the songs have transitional pieces in between them, which comprise synth pads or piano, spoken-word clips or heavily effected vocals, and sound effects. I spoke to Shinoda shortly before the album was released.

The thing that jumped out at me the most from A Thousand Suns was the lack of the big distorted rhythm guitar parts that used to be such a big part of your sound.
Oh, really? We just forgot to put them in [laughs]. People asked us if it was a conscious decision to use the guitars as more of a textural element than a focal thing, and especially in the beginning, I don''t think it really was a conscious effort. I think it was just a feeling. You know, we wrote a demo, and generally to give you an idea of how our process works—it might help to do that first. It''s generally like one person or maybe one or two people that''ll start a demo—and more often than not, that person is me just because I get kind of obsessive in that regard [laughs]. Once I get started on something, I have two other ideas and then I need to see those through. I''ll just come in any given week with between four and eight new ideas, brand-new song ideas. Our bass player, [David] Phoenix [Farrell], likes to say that whenever I brought in something that was so different that he couldn''t even tell if he loved it or hated it, then he knew we were on the right track. It was that stuff that just felt so much more exciting to the guys, and I was just thrilled to be making—I felt like we all got in this rhythm of trying stuff that was almost the opposite of what we would have done [in the past]. At any given point, if we felt like we were relying on old tricks, then the guys just kind of got bored with that. You couldn''t impress them with a big power chorus or power chords on a PRS through a Mesa Boogie. We''ve done that so many times that it was just boring to the guys.

Did the band make a conscious decision to move in a different direction musically or did it just sort of evolve that way?
Probably a little bit of both. Since the first album, whenever we''ve been in the studio, we''re always most moved by the stuff that feels unique and feels like it''s coming from an honest place—like it represents us as a collective of six guys. So with this record, I think as we''ve gotten older, our collective taste has changed a bit. Our musical vocabulary has definitely broadened, and that goes in both directions. It''s gotten deeper into the classics—or at least our opinion, what our favorite albums are from the ''60s and ''70s in particular—and I think in my case and in Joe [Hahn]''s case, in particular, we love new gadgets, we love new sounds, we love to tweak sounds and make them feel like something you haven''t heard. I''d say the ''60s and ''70s were the most [influential]—that''s the stuff we''ve been getting into more in the last few years than times before that.

What artists did you listen to from then?
I went through some phases while we were working on this record where I was really into The Who and Jimi Hendrix, and I got into some Beatles stuff that I hadn''t really spent a lot of time listening to. As we got toward the end, I was getting into some Moody Blues and stuff like that [laughs].

Shinoda stares intently into an iMac at NRG Studios, flanked by Hahn (left) and Bourdon (right).

Photo: Mark Fiore

The album seems more melodically driven in certain songs than previous stuff.
I don''t know. Maybe that''s a function of us getting comfortable with a more jammy, organic kind of approach. I remember specifically—maybe this story will say more about the process; maybe this''ll be the most descriptive way to say it even though it''s just a story. We were working on a song called “Blackout,” and Chester [Bennington, lead vocalist] had done a scat vocal over it that was really agitated and crazy, and there were no words. Every time we tried to put words to it, it just sounded forced—the lyrics just sounded like too left-brain. So I asked Rick [Rubin], almost jokingly, “If you''ve got any words of wisdom, now would be a good time, because we''re starting to get really frustrated with this song” [laughs]. He said, “Actually, I know exactly what you should do. Have you heard of automatic writing?” And I said, “No,” and he said, “You know, I''ve done this with Johnny Cash and Tom Petty and Neil Young, among others—tons of people have done it.” And I was basically like, “Okay, sold. What do I do?” [laughs]. In essence, groups from the ''60s and ''70s would—to write a song—be jamming out the parts and the vocalist would have hundreds of opportunities to just sing along, and eventually the singing along would turn into real melody and the words would turn into real words.

So they would just sing along with the recorder rolling, in other words?
In their case, they didn''t have the recorder rolling, so they were just remembering whatever was the most natural and the most memorable. If you sing it 100 times, you''re probably going to forget the stuff that isn''t that good and you''re probably going to remember the stuff that kind of stuck out to you as cool. So the feeling was, he said, “Just go in there and act like you know what the song''s supposed to be, and just start singing actual words and actual melody, and it''ll just fall into place.” So in theory, that felt great. But when it actually came time to do it, when we were starting to play around with it, we found that our nerves and our personal insecurities would surface immediately, and you''d be scared to really dive into it and just start singing stuff. If I told you to walk up to a microphone and sing me a brand-new song with lyrics and melody right now, it sounds impossible.

So what happened?
As we got into it, we had to kind of just open up and realize that there was no wrong answer and we could always erase the crap that we didn''t want to keep. And by the end of it, we were making songs—not only the song that we had set out to write, but we were writing brand-new songs from scratch just literally singing stuff off the top of our heads. And by the end of the album, some of the songs were never even written down. We had full, large chunks of the song that we had just created kind of off the top of our head, and then we would go back in and kind of streamline or straighten up the meaning and the verses and whatever. But that''s how we ended up with lyrics like “A Thousand Suns” and stuff like that that''s a little more psychedelic, because it was literally just coming out of our subconscious.

If you had to give the album a genre classification, what would it be?
I don''t know. We''ve been categorized so many times, and I''ve never felt like any of the stuff that they''ve called us has been totally accurate. And I think many bands feel the same way. When you get lumped into a category with a bunch of other bands that you don''t necessarily share a lot in common with, then you just feel like you''re stuffed into a box. I know that a month from now, if they come up with [a brand-new genre] and we''re the only band in that genre, the second that other people get put in that genre, I''m going to feel like we don''t want to be in it [laughs]. Maybe that''s my own psychological problem, or maybe it''s some kind of weird artistic narcissism going on [laughs]. But I definitely love just being Linkin Park and just leaving it at that.

Talk about the transitional pieces between many of the songs on the album. They''re kind of sound-design-y and often have spoken-word elements.
We realized that listeners today are really focused on singles. They want to go on iTunes and buy one 99-cent track, and they leave the rest of the album there. I think that part of it is just because that''s their buying habit, but part of it is also because the artists and the labels have started to gravitate toward that because that just seems like where everybody else is at. Our feeling was basically that the album format has lost a little bit of love. We wanted to make something that you can listen to from beginning to end and it really took you on a journey.

As we were making what you could call, I guess, the connecting music, the stuff that builds up and down from different songs on the album, we brought back themes from different songs. So the album opens with a song that''s literally made up of sounds from other songs.

So it''s kind of a concept album.
We did call it a concept record at one point, but I don''t want people to think that it''s like Tommy or like a rock opera.

Does everyone in the band have a home studio?
Most of us have studios, but the bulk of the record was recorded at my place, at Joe''s place, and at NRG in North Hollywood [Watch an exclusive video tour of Shinoda''s studio].

Linkin Park (L-R): Chester Bennington, Brad Delson, David Farrell, Joe Hahn, Mike Shinoda, and Rob Bourdon

Photo: Klaus Thymann

Did the other people in the band bring in stuff that they had recorded? How did you make that whole thing work?
Our drummer, Rob [Bourdon], has a Pro Tools rig at his house, an LE rig—it''s a nice rig. He''s got a pretty good setup there. It''s more of a home studio/professional environment hybrid; it has a really unique sound. So when we want the big rock drums sound, we generally do it at NRG, and when we want something a little different, we tend to do it somewhere else—maybe at Rob''s house. Joe''s house is more like Wonka''s Chocolate Factory [laughs]. He''s got some of the most bizarre gear. He''s got some modular synths and a lot of modded toys, like these little Fisher Price things from the ''80s.

He''s into circuit-bending?
Yeah, the circuit-bent stuff. I''ve got a couple of those, but he''s a collector when it comes to just about anything he likes. He''s just got mounds of cool stuff at his house, and that stuff did play a role on the record. And then my house is actually more of what you''d expect from a home studio, but I would imagine I''ve built it up pretty well. I can do pretty much any vocal recording—album-quality vocal recording—guitar, bass if I want to. I love synth stuff and sample stuff, so I''ve got a ton of that here.

Do you all use Pro Tools?
Yeah, we''re all on Pro Tools.

And did you just carry drives around between each other''s houses?
Yeah [laughs]. We actually have a pretty psychotic system for our data management. We have a security company—essentially some of the guys that do security for the band were originally hired back during the time when we were working on Meteora because of security concerns about pirating and potential people stealing the music and whatnot. I think with a fan base like ours, there''s just more chances that somebody who''s really tech-savvy can find their way into your system and pull out some music. And in fact, we''ve had some situations that have made it into the press about fans who compromised the security of the guys in a personal way. So we try and do what we can to make that risk minimal.

How do you do it? What kind of security measures have you taken?
We hired these folks who basically sit with the drives at all times, so they go to the studio—they arrive there before us with the drives. Before we start in any studio, they assess the security protocol and make sure that it''s up to speed, and they make sure that none of our studio computers are on a Wi-Fi or connected to the wireless network in the building, that none of the computers are backing up wirelessly, so that everything is insulated and secure. And then we come in, we work, we leave, they back up, and then the drives get put in a fireproof enclosure until the next time we come into the studio.

What about if you''re going to Joe''s studio? Do you still go through that?
At Joe''s house, he just basically throws them on the couch [laughs].

So this is mainly when you''re going to an outside studio?
The security measures are more relaxed at home, but they''re still pretty high. We''ve had those guys come over and make sure our home studios are secure, but to be honest, our systems are so much simpler. I don''t ever use my studio computer to go online unless it''s to upgrade or update software for Pro Tools or my plug-ins. Other than that, it''s always offline.

Your contribution instrumentally was programming and keyboards?
Since Meteora, we stopped putting those words after our names—you know, “Brad Delson, guitar,” stuff like that. Now on the album credits, it just lists the six guys'' names because we want to feel like we''re not being held back by any preconceived idea of how we''re supposed to work.

Can you give a breakdown of the band''s typical studio workflow?
It''s tough to describe. If I try and break it down, when it comes to just the music, in really general terms, I''ll bring a demo in, and sometimes it''s really close, and sometimes it''s just a good energy or a good vibe and it''s a good starting point, but it''s going to need a lot of work. We meet once a week, and everybody gives their two cents, and then during the week, I''ll work on it and maybe Brad will work on it, and maybe a couple of the other guys will spend a couple hours on it, and then we''ll meet up the next week and compare how it''s changed and if it''s gotten better. That''s our weekly schedule; we meet every Monday to do that.

You don''t have times when you''re all in the studio together playing?
We almost never do that. The last time we did that was on Minutes to Midnight. We didn''t do that at all on this record.

So it''s kind of compartmentalized.
It''s very compartmentalized. We''ve been working together like this for 10 years; there''s not a lot of ego that goes on when it comes to writing a part. If they want to hear something and they can''t make it happen, the best thing they can do is figure out who can make that sound and give them the best description of it they can. Over time, they''ve gotten really good at telling me, for example, what it is they want to hear, and just setting my sights on that thing, and I go out and execute it. In some cases, the surprises are what make the guys really excited. They think they want to hear one thing, and I''ll come back and bring them something else, and they didn''t even know they wanted to hear that but it''s the thing that fits the song best.

When Linkin Park first started planning this album, an outside co-producer wasn''t in the plans. “Most of the guys in the band felt that I should just produce it, that we should essentially keep it in-house,” Shinoda says, “because we all wanted to maintain the integrity of the sound that we were creating.”

But the band decided to meet with some producers anyway, and when they got together with Rick Rubin—who also co-produced the previous album, Minutes to Midnight (Warner Bros., 2006)—the band felt that he really understood their vision for the album and could therefore be really helpful to the production. “He was not interested in changing it at all,” Shinoda recalls. “If anything, he wanted to make sure that we didn''t deviate from what we were trying to create.”

So Rubin was brought in as a co-producer. He functioned more in an advisory role than a day-to-day one. “They had a strong vision of what they wanted to do,” Rubin says, “and I supported them through the process.”

As Shinoda describes in the accompanying interview, Rubin suggested they try the “automatic writing” method, which really helped the band come up with a lot of their lyrics. I asked Rubin about the genesis of that technique. “We have found in the past, when certain artists have a melody and make up nonsense words just to get through the song with no thought attached to it, the subconscious mind offers words up,” he says. “Sometimes on listening back, we find words or phrases that function as clues to a lyric, when it works, very pure lyrics arrive. In Linkin Park''s case, some of the early lyrics seemed too intellectual, so this was a method to get to more intuitive, heartfelt words.”

Although Rubin has worked with countless groups, he found Linkin Park''s work style to be unique. “Most of the bands I work with,” he says, “write through jamming or songwriting, playing an acoustic instrument. Linkin Park writes and records entire albums without ever playing them as a band—very unusual for a rock band to work this way, but it has always been their method and works well for them.”

Now that it''s finished, what is Rubin''s take on A Thousand Suns? “It''s modern and forward-thinking yet still has very strong songs,” he says. “It may take a minute before some people understand what it is. All of the most revolutionary music tends to be like that. It''s certainly not what anyone has been expecting, so it takes a moment to recalibrate. That tends to be the case when artists change gears, but it''s the only thing ensuring they will continue to make new music you need to listen to.”

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.