Riding shotgun in Chester Bennington's car right now has to be unquestionably pleasant. He has the means to purchase any vehicle on the planet, he's got a credible collection of relevant tunes (which we'll get to later), and he's way past feeling like he's crawling in his own skin.
"We're really comfortable not worrying what other people think," says the Linkin Park vocalist, who shares frontman duties with rapper Mike Shinoda. "For the first time in our career, we know what that really means." Plus, for the first time in our career, we actually believe him.
This past September, Bennington's effusively adored and reviled band released A Thousand Suns, an apocalyptic studio experiment by their own oft-constrained past standards but also by the standards of rock or pop music of any sort. Has there ever been a moment before now that the Village Voice could assert that "Linkin Park Made Their OK Computer"? Nah. Either in spite of this or because of this, opening-week sales of 241,000 earned Linkin Park its fourth number one on the Billboard 200 — edging out Trey Songz' Passion, Pain & Pleasure by only 1,000 units — and retained for the group a stake as one of the United States' most popular acts.
Bennington has his car pulled over in a neighborhood of Los Angeles he doesn't recognize to tell New Times via phone about the latest season of success. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't see it in the same light as a few music journalists suddenly comfortable comparing Linkin Park's fourth proper studio album to Radiohead's OK Computer or Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. Although those are "two records by two bands that don't suck," Bennington's reading of both professional and fan reviews of A Thousand Suns is akin to the criticism received throughout a decade of massive public saturation for the band.
"We always get a really polarized response," he says, letting his words out carefully. "Like, 'What happened to the band we love? Screw Linkin Park' to 'This is the best thing they've done, and we're stoked to see them growing and changing and trying new things.' [A Thousand Suns] is definitely something that we knew people would need to digest and get over the fact that it's not what they thought we would do."
The seeds of change were planted an album cycle earlier, when Linkin Park first enlisted wild-bearded producer/cred-booster Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Neil Diamond, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash). That go-around with Rubin, 2007's Minutes to Midnight, hinted at this lofty transformation in spots. Even if hit singles "What I've Done" and "Bleed It Out" cater more to debut Hybrid Theory's multimultimillion-selling template, hearing either Midnight's twitching electronica of "Breaking the Habit" or U2-like torch-burner "Shadow of the Day" shows this isn't quite the same manic, angry nü-metal of the past.
The most overarching characteristic of A Thousand Suns is that it's seamless, both musically and conceptually. Interspersed with words from revolutionary thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr., Manhattan project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (who inspired the album's title with his Bhagavad Gita-citing observations of the first atomic bomb's detonation), and free speech activist Mario Savio, this Rubin-shepherded fuselage of rock, hip-hop, and electronica begs to be taken seriously and pondered. From the piano ballad "Robot Boy" that echoes T.I.'s "What You Know" to lead single "The Catalyst," a fiery anthem teased in the album's opening interlude, it still sounds very much like Linkin Park — albeit a futuristic, sculpted form.
"I'm awfully underrated, but I came here to correct it/And so it ain't mistaken/Imma state it for the record," Bennington's partner in rhyme and vision Shinoda raps on "When They Come for Me," a track characterized as a "really bold statement about the band." Just as much as A Thousand Suns deals with the potential for nuclear war with its ambiance and subject matter, it's also a chance for Bennington and Shinoda to detonate ideas off of the band's collective chests — but only to a point.
"With our comfort level talking about things that are actually a little uncomfortable or controversial — like socially charged lyrics, religion, politics, or whatever — we don't want to come across preachy," Bennington contends. "We don't want to tell people what to think or how to feel. That's tough when you're talking about those things."
(Side note: Arizona-bred Bennington still did not shy away from condemning the attempt on Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' life that claimed the lives of six people and wounded several others in Tucson only two days before this interview. Read about his thoughts on it at BrowardPalmBeach.com.)
Now the time to digest A Thousand Suns strictly as a record is coming nigh. After spending the fall honing the material on stages overseas, the sextet is ready to unleash it upon North America, with the first date at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise. As a quality-control measure as much as a viral boost, Linkin Park has rigged it up so every attendee can get a free "bootleg" download of the concert they attend by texting a code displayed at each venue. Judging by the set lists from the fall, fans still uncomfortable with the new material had better delve in soon.
"I personally would love to come out and play the whole album from front to back and have it laid out there," Bennington admits. However, "that's something that we haven't been talking about."
Instead, attendees can expect what he calls visual and artistic "pockets" of A Thousand Suns songs as well as "ten or 11 number-one tracks from other albums."
"Since Hybrid Theory, when we had one record, this is the first time we've played this many songs off of an album during a show," Bennington says. "We've always chosen five or six songs from each album, and this one we are literally playing almost the entire record, including the interludes."
Further intimating the band's artistic state of mind are the choices for opening acts. Support for the North American dates are two English electro-rock acts, Does It Offend You, Yeah? and Pendulum, as well as select dates with punk-fused electronic pioneers the Prodigy. When prodded about additional acts currently piquing his interest, Bennington did what any savvy music consumer does these days — hit his MP3 collection. (Technically, he didn't say he was doing this, but he relayed his favorite bands in perfect alphabetical order.)
"I love Airborne Toxic Event, Broken Bells, Cage the Elephant, Civil Twilight, Crash Kings. I think Dead Weather's second album is amazing. Their first one I wasn't really — I feel like it was almost there, and they got it on the second one. The Delta Fiasco. I like the Horrors, Iron & Wine, MGMT, Miike Snow, Mumford & Sons, the National, Neon Trees, Towers — they're not new, but I love them. Stuff like that."
With such a mishmash of recent bands, it's easier to appreciate that Linkin Park truly isn't trying to relive the glory of Hybrid Theory every time the guys put out a record. Further cementing that are side projects waiting in the wings for Bennington's straight-ahead rock side (Dead by Sunrise) and Shinoda solidifying his hip-hop presence (Fort Minor). At this point, Bennington concedes that it's hard to know where Linkin Park can go after A Thousand Suns but says the current path is the right one.
"We feel like we're in a really good place creatively," he says, "in terms of the philosophy of what we want to achieve as a band and in terms of the style that we're working in, how well it's working. We threw the rule book out the window, and it was a liberating experience. We were like, 'If we write a song that's fucking eight minutes long, it's eight fucking minutes long.' "