Making noise about nü-metal, new directions and nuclear war

Linkin Park will not be rushed: A Thousand Suns, the California hard-rock group’s latest, is just the fourth studio album the band has released since forming in 1996. It’s something of a departure for the band, with less emphasis on heavy metal guitar riffs and volatile vocals than on electronic musical textures, elements of hip-hop and driving rhythms.

Why the change? Rapper and guitarist Mike Shinoda credits Linkin Park’s desire to move further away from the nü-metal sound that became an unintentional trademark on its first two albums. “When we started the band, we weren’t part of a scene, and we weren’t trying to be part of a scene,” says Shinoda. “We never intended to carry the flag of that whole rock movement of the early 2000s. That flag was thrust into our hands, and to be honest, we were uncomfortable with it. We never intended to be part of a club.”

Linkin Park started honing its experimental side on 2007’s Minutes to Midnight. The process included unwinding preconceptions about the band—including those held by the members themselves. “Other people had created these notions of what Linkin Park was, based on what they had heard and what they thought that sounded like, and we fell for that to a degree,” Shinoda admits. “Minutes to Midnight was our first experience outside that comfort zone. A Thousand Suns started with the premise that we already knew what it was like to be outside our comfort zone.” We spoke with Shinoda about the changing sound of Linkin Park.

What prompted the new direction?

The stuff that you’re hearing on this record has always been in our music. On past records, you’d get vocal and guitar way up front and electronic stuff and hip-hop in the background. On this album, you’ve got vocal and hip-hop stuff up front, and guitar playing more of a supporting role. But there has been a big change in approach for us. Although we appreciate the success the band has had and all the support the band has gotten, we wanted to avoid repeating ourselves. It wouldn’t have been challenging. It would have been lazy of us to replicate something we had already done.

How difficult was the process?

It was surprisingly loose. We tend to be very organized and controlled, and this record left room for experimentation. The best way I can describe it is that it was more right-brained. We kind of forced our left brain to take a backseat during key moments. There needs to be balance between the two. We get logical with the sequencing or song structure, but the music, the vocals and the lyrics on some of the initial demos benefited from letting the right brain run things. Some really cool ideas came out by doing that.

Did you record more than you used?

There were a lot of demos. I don’t know how many. Could be 150, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to that, because those demos could be anything: looping an electronic beat, or a vocal with a guitar that reminded us of something else. We got to the meat of this record early on, and it benefited from the fact that we narrowed it down and worked on developing these songs earlier than we had in recent years. We knew we wanted to make something that felt like a journey, that was more of an album album.

At a time when singles are king?

We talked about that. Because everybody’s buying songs 99 cents at a time, we had initially thought about doing three four-song EPs, then putting them all together on one album. But the more we thought about that, the more we wanted to go against it. Though everything is moving toward that small-serving-size music format, we loved listening to albums when we were younger. There was nothing more exciting than putting on a record and hearing what one of your favorite artists wanted to do over the course of the whole 45 minutes. So we decided to make a case for the album, that just putting 12 songs together in a nice order wasn’t enough. We even built in time toward the end of the process where we edited our existing songs and wrote material that connected the dots, so this record was more like a movie.

Is Suns a concept album?

When I think of concept records, I think of Tommy and rock operas, which this record is not. Those are about a narrative, about one concept; this record is about many concepts. It’s like an inkblot test where people hear it and think it’s about something in particular, and that idea is strictly a representation of their experience. Somebody else can listen and hear something completely different. We’ve had people tell us, “This is the darkest Linkin Park record I’ve ever heard,” while others have said, “This is the most hopeful Linkin Park record.”

Which is it for you?

It’s the most three-dimensional, which is what I like about it. It feels like there are a lot of layers to it, and I expect that people are going to get different stuff out of it.

Do the titles Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns both refer to nuclear war?

It’s the subconscious talking. Everyone in the band, and our entire generation, is scared that we’re going to destroy ourselves—whether ruining the environment or blowing ourselves up or anything else you see on the news. It’s an overwhelming feeling to be living in this time when there are so many things going on and it’s noise constantly buzzing in the background. We’re all connected to it, but there’s so little you can do that people are afraid of it. We are. To give you an idea what I mean by the right-brain thing, we did a lot of automatic writing on this record, and it really applies to what we’re talking about right now.

Automatic writing?

It’s a technique where you walk up to the mic and start singing as if you already know what the song is. You sing whatever words come to your head, whatever melody comes to your head. It’s almost as if you’re channeling the song, but because it’s moving so quickly and words are just flying out, you don’t really have any control over them, so a lot of weird subconscious stuff pops out of your mouth. That’s where the pictures started to get painted on A Thousand Suns—about things we were scared of. Minutes to Midnight was clearly a title about the moments leading up to self-destruction. A Thousand Suns is arguably about the actual moment of destruction, and that was a coincidence. There’s a line, “When we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns,” that was an automatic writing exercise. It just popped out of my mouth and ended up in the song. It wasn’t until months later that we looked it up and realized it came out of [nuclear physicist] J. Robert Oppenheimer’s mouth. It links back to this same fear of self-annihilation. Automatic writing shed light on things we wanted to sing about in a way that felt natural and colorful.

–Eric R. Danton

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