Chester Bennington answered the phone on March 20th, 1999, at his home in Phoenix. The guy on the other end of the line, Jeff Blue, vice president of A&R at Zomba Music in Los Angeles, came straight to the point: "I'm going to give you your big break. I have a great band for you." The band was called Xero, and they needed a singer. The date happened to be Bennington's twenty-third birthday; Blue called him in the middle of a surprise party.
The next day, Bennington -- whose L.A.-based attorney had recommended him to Blue -- received a Xero package in the mail: a demo with the group's previous singer and one with just the instrumental tracks. Blue told Bennington, "I want your interpretation of the songs." Bennington wrote and recorded new vocals over the band's playing and sent the results to Blue by FedEx.
Two days after that, Bennington was in L.A., formally auditioning for Xero at their Hollywood rehearsal space. He arrived with his favorite microphone, some clothes and the blessing of his wife, Samantha, who had stayed behind in Phoenix. He had also quit his job as an assistant at a digital-services firm.
"There was a lot of fear," Bennington admits, smiling with love and relief at Samantha, seated next to him in a cozy booth in a restaurant across the street from the beach in Santa Monica. "We had a lot to lose -- our credit to destroy, a relationship to destroy." Both are in fine shape. Chester and Samantha, who were married in 1996, just bought a new home down in Redondo Beach and are expecting their first child, a son, in May.
"But when I got that tape," Bennington says, "we looked at each other and went, 'This is it, this is the one. It's gonna happen, even if it takes five years.' " He was way off. Three years after he took that phone call, Bennington -- a slender dynamo with black-rimmed eyeglasses, a ring piercing his lower lip and a shrapnel-laced howl that sounds like it comes from someone twice his size -- is the singer in the hottest new band in rock. After he joined, Xero changed their name to Hybrid Theory. They are now called Linkin Park.
The arithmetic is breathtaking. Released by Warner Bros. in October 2000, Linkin Park's debut album, Hybrid Theory, has sold 6 million copies in the U.S. and more than 11 million worldwide. Twelve songs of compact fire indivisibly blending alternative metal, hip-hop and turntable art, Hybrid Theory was the best-selling record in America last year -- trumping albums by Jay-Z, 'NSync and Britney Spears -- and still sells nearly 100,000 copies a week.
Linkin Park -- Bennington and founding members guitarist Brad Delson, rapper Mike Shinoda, drummer Rob Bourdon, DJ Joseph Hahn and bassist David Farrell, a.k.a. Phoenix -- are also up for three Grammys on February 27th, including Best Rock Album and Best New Artist. The band's maiden DVD, Frat Party at the Pankake Festival, is a Top Ten seller, and an official fan club, launched in November, already has 10,000 members. "Each week, we're in awe," Bennington, 25, says with a deep gulp of air.
Executives at other record companies must be in tears. For three years, Linkin Park were rejected by every major label in the business and by a lot of indies, as well. Warner Bros. passed three times before finally signing the band in late '99. Blue, who gave the group a development deal in 1997 after seeing just one show, recalls a Xero club date in Los Angeles packed with A&R scouts. They had all fled by the third song. "The place was empty," says Blue, now a vice president of A&R at Warner Bros. and the executive producer of Hybrid Theory. "You could hear crickets." When Bennington arrived in 1999, the band played forty-two showcases for labels and, the singer says, "got turned down by everybody."
It is hard to imagine how the suits blew it. At a soundstage in North Hollywood, where Linkin Park are rehearsing for their current Projekt: Revolution Tour with Cypress Hill, they romp and roar with an invention and intensity free of gangsta affectation and devil-metal posturing -- closer to classic Faith No More than mere electric Eminem. Delson, a wiry paragon of concentration who wears a bulky set of headphones as he plays, colors his power chords in "Crawling" and "Papercut" with ringing harmonics that betray his affection for U2 and the Smiths. Hahn scratches custom-pressed discs of his own samples (he does not use other artists' records) with ambient brawn, often charging behind Delson like a second guitar. Over Bourdon's tumbling funk in "Runaway," Bennington and Shinoda shoot and share rhymes like they're joined at the lip, their bodies rocking in spasms of conviction.
"We hit a lot of roadblocks -- we could have easily given up," says Delson, 24, during a chicken-dinner break at a nearby Popeyes. "But we said, 'We know what we have is great. We're gonna keep going until someone else thinks so.' It should be inspirational for people to know that if you really go for something and are willing to bust your ass, then you can make it happen."
It is clear, in their manner and chatter, that Linkin Park are wrestling with the magnitude of their revenge. Hahn, a twenty-four-year-old Korean-American who conceives and directs videos for the band, talks about success with a guarded tone. "It has been a blessing to get to this point," he says before rehearsal, trying to steady himself in a broken chair. "But when you're an outsider looking in, it seems like a bigger deal than when you're in it. It's like when you graduate high school: You wait for that day to come, and when you actually get there, you're like, 'OK, what next?' "
Farrell, 25, turns to Hahn in mild surprise. "I don't know if you remember this," the bassist says, "but three or four years ago, we asked ourselves, like every other band, 'What do we want out of this?' We all went home and wrote down goals. Mike came back with his list of goals, and one of them was 'I want to win a Grammy.' We were like, 'Wow, that's crazy. It's cool, but it's crazy.' "
Bennington, who had already done hard time with a Phoenix band called Grey Daze, is a charming mix of bull-elephant certainty and childlike astonishment. Before Hybrid Theory's release, he made a bet with Myra Simpson, national promotions manager at Warner Bros. "She had a triple-platinum Stone Temple Pilots plaque," says Bennington, a huge STP fan. "She said, 'If you go gold by Christmas, I'll give it to you.' I said, 'Cough it up.' " He laughs. "I was joking."
Sure enough, Hybrid Theory was gold by Christmas 2000. "And I got my STP plaque," Bennington says, beaming. He slept with it in his bunk on the tour bus every night. "Nobody touched it."
"I'll tell you the worst-case scenario." Shinoda, 25, is sitting under a patio umbrella outside a Starbucks. The rapper -- a second-generation Japanese-American whose father, as a young boy, lived in a U.S. internment camp during World War II -- is explaining how he juggled his course load at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, with shows and rehearsals in the growing-pain days of Linkin Park.
"I'd do classes from nine to four, four to seven and seven to ten at night," he says over the swish of traffic from the Ventura Freeway half a block away. "I'd go from there to band practice in Hollywood for two or three hours, then all the way back to my parents' house and work on paintings until I couldn't do it anymore. Then I'd get up in the morning and do it all again.
"A week could be awful," Shinoda goes on, "especially if we had a show on Friday. I'd try to get my friends to come, and they'd go, 'Screw you, I've got a triptych due on Monday. I can't get the second or third painting done if I go to your show.' "
Everyone in Linkin Park has a version of that story -- of balancing school, jobs and the DIY demands of being in an unsigned band. Bourdon, 23, waited tables, worked in a bowling alley and studied accounting at Santa Monica College. Hahn also attended Art Center, where he met Shinoda, but left after a year to be a freelance illustrator, designing monsters and robots for the movies. Delson split his time between UCLA (where he received a degree in mass communications), songwriting in Shinoda's bedroom and an internship at Zomba Music, where his boss was Jeff Blue. "Brad took in the entire atmosphere of what it takes to get an act signed," says Blue. "He helped me send out Macy Gray demos and set up her showcases."
Linkin Park are not only one of the best-educated bands in new metal (Farrell, a native of Massachusetts and Delson's roommate at UCLA, holds a degree in philosophy); they are surely one of the best organized. Each member, according to his expertise, is in charge of some aspect of the group's artistic and business interests. As Hahn puts it, "We're the only guys that really get it. This is our career, and we take it seriously."
He and Shinoda are the visual generals; they created the drawings for the cover of Hybrid Theory. Delson and Bourdon specialize in finance and marketing. Bennington designs a clothing line and writes all of the lyrics with Shinoda. Farrell, who left the band before the making of Hybrid Theory but returned just prior to its release, writes a regular tour report for Linkin Park's Web site -- no small chore: Linkin Park played 324 shows last year, almost a gig a day.
"They're the best people you could be in business with, if I can use that term for what they do," says Rob McDermott, who became the band's manager in February 2000. "A lot of rock bands go, 'Hey, we have a record deal,' and think they have it easy. These guys come from a whole different perspective. They built this thing."
"It really is a democracy -- there's never a spot where one band member doesn't know what's going on," says Bourdon, who started drumming in the third grade after his parents took him to see Aerosmith. (Bourdon's mother, Patty, was a high school girlfriend of Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer, who credits her with helping him come up with the band's name.) Bourdon's own passion for detail goes back to his childhood: As a toddler, he once spent three hours sitting in a corner, teaching himself to tie his shoelaces. "I sat in that corner until I did it," he says, grinning. "That's one thing we all have in common -- a strong work ethic."
Delson and Shinoda, friends in high school, made the first Xero music in 1996. By the time Bennington replaced original vocalist Mark Wakefield and Xero changed their name to Hybrid Theory, Shinoda -- a classically trained pianist -- was such a whiz at mixing hooks and rhythms with Pro Tools software that he produced the group's 1999 independent EP.
Bourdon cites "Points of Authority" on Linkin Park's album as an example of Shinoda's skill: "Brad wrote this riff, then went home. Mike decided to cut it up into different pieces and rearranged them on the computer." Shinoda rewrote Delson's riff so completely, Bourdon says, "that Brad had to learn his own part from the computer." Delson wasn't bugged. "Mike is a genius," he declares. "Trent Reznor-talented."
Undeterred by record-company apathy, Hybrid Theory used the word-of-mouth mechanics of hip-hop promotion to build an audience. Combining Internet savvy and snail mail, Hybrid Theory established their own street team: posting messages on other bands' Web sites to draw traffic to their own; uploading MP3s of their demos; and sending free T-shirts, stickers and tapes to people who responded. "They got so pissed off at the post office next to my old apartment," Bourdon says. "Priority Mail boxes are free, so I would take all of their boxes and run out of there. We would package the stuff in my apartment. My living room became a total mailroom."
Linkin Park now apply the same energy and logic to staying sane. (They had to change their name again when another Warner Bros. act, called Hybrid, turned up.) On tour, Linkin Park travel in two buses: One is outfitted as a mobile studio for writing and recording; the other vehicle is a band-only, no-party zone. Alcohol, smoking and guests are prohibited; when Bennington brings Samantha on the road, they stay in the studio bus.
The same policy applies to the band's dressing room at shows. "We just like having a clean working environment," says Bourdon, who got "way into partying" at the end of high school but has been sober for five years. "We don't believe it's an industry standard -- to be a band on the road, partying and drunk. Would you go to work drunk every day?"
"We don't have moral issues about it -- for God's sake, we're taking Cypress Hill on tour," Shinoda says with a big laugh, then refers back to his time in art school. "People I knew then would rather paint or get together and talk about art than go out and party. That's where we're at as a band. You can tell by the way we practice and hang out now -- music is not a means to another end. "Music," he says, "is the end."
In 1998, almost a year to the day before he talked to Jeff Blue on the phone, Bennington came home from a frustrating rehearsal with another band in Phoenix and swore to his wife he was quitting music.
"He was screaming and yelling, 'I'm not doing music anymore!' " Samantha remembers. "I looked at him and said, 'I'm not letting you quit. You owe me an hour of practice, whether you're singing to the radio or playing your guitar.' I also told him, 'One day, you're going to get a call from L.A. I just know it. You need to be ready.'
"When you really love someone, you want to support them," she contends as Chester nods his head in adoring agreement. "He needs to be happy in what he is doing -- and doing his best." When Chester left for L.A., Samantha insists she had no doubts about letting him go. "I believed that it would work out. I also knew that if he didn't give it his all, saying 'What if?' would have driven him crazy."
Bennington did not just fall into stardom with Linkin Park. In L.A., he was essentially homeless for months, shuttling between friends' and relatives' sofas, as Samantha prepared to join him. Bennington even slept in his car, which was a piece of shit. "It wouldn't go over thirty-five miles an hour," he says. "Two lights were burned out. I had no money to replace them." During the Hybrid Theory sessions, Bennington bunked in the car when the studio closed for the night. After it reopened in the morning, he would crash on a couch inside until the rest of the band showed up for work.
"It was weird," Bennington recalls. "They're all best friends, and I was so focused on not going insane. When I would lose my mind, I couldn't lose it with them -- why would they want to put up with my ass? I didn't want them to think I had lead-singer's disease -- always unsatisfied with everything."
Bennington's dedication had the opposite effect. "We each made our own sacrifices, but Chester's was unique," Delson admits. "Because he had so much to risk, he was extremely motivated. He would actually tell us, 'Guys, I don't think we're working hard enough.' "
Bennington, the youngest of four children, was not always that way. "I was an ambivalent kid," he says. "I floated around, coasted through." When he was eleven, his mother, a nurse, and his father, a Phoenix police officer and detective for thirty years, split up. "It was just me and him for a long time," Bennington says of his dad, who worked for many years investigating child-sex crimes. "He was hardened by dealing with the shit of the world every day. So he brought a lot of that home. It was a very emotional situation."
In Linkin Park's first interviews, Bennington alluded to periods of sexual abuse and drug use in his own past. He says he did so in defense of his lyrics: "It was like, 'There's a lot of songs about depression, fear and paranoia. Are you just making it up?' And I said no."
When asked about those experiences now, Bennington speaks with wary candor, emphasizing hard lessons over prurient detail. "No one in my family molested me," he says firmly. "It was people who were around me. Coming from a broken home, it was easy to fall into thinking, 'This is OK.' " The abuse -- and that self-delusion -- lasted for about five years, into his early teens.
"I was a lot more confident when I was high," he goes on. "I felt like I had more control over my environment when I was on hallucinogens or drinking." Bennington ended his romance with cocaine and methamphetamines before he met Samantha in 1996. But on tour with Linkin Park last fall, he hit a black patch of heavy drinking in which, he confesses, "I found myself not saying no to other things, things that would have made me another rock & roll cliche." The rest of the band felt the strain -- between shows, Bennington traveled by himself on the studio bus.
"It's easy to fall into that thing -- 'poor, poor me,' " he says. "That's where songs like 'Crawling' come from: I can't take myself. But that song is about taking responsibility for your actions. I don't say 'you' at any point. It's about how I'm the reason that I feel this way. There's something inside me that pulls me down." On January 2nd of this year, Bennington took his own advice and quit drinking. He is now totally clean.
In that Santa Monica restaurant, Chester and Samantha cheerfully raise their glasses of mineral water in a toast to his sobriety. "It's going to be more difficult for me to bitch on the new record," he concedes. "Because life is great."
After rehearsal, in the loading area where Linkin Park's road crew rolls the band's gear into trucks for the drive to the first Projekt: Revolution date in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Rob McDermott runs down the schedule for the year ahead: this last leg of touring behind Hybrid Theory; personal and writing time in the spring; recording sessions in the summer. "Do I think it's better for them to have another record this year?" he says. "We've always been a gambling group of people. If they tell me, 'Rob, it's not there yet,' then it's not there. But if they say, 'We've got eighty songs, we've got to cut this shit now,' we can do it."
The present is already packed solid. Bennington turned up for his interview straight from an overdub session for "System," a song he's cut with Korn's Jonathan Davis for the soundtrack to Queen of the Damned. A remixed version of Hybrid Theory drops later this year, with contributions from friends and all-stars such as Marilyn Manson and Orgy's Jay Gordon. Shinoda has produced a track for legendary DJs the X-ecutioners, "It's Going Down"; Hahn co-wrote the song with Shinoda and directed the video.
"We don't need a break," Bennington claims. "We've got three albums to do before we take a break. We just started." But he can't help thinking that too much has come too fast. "I'm kind of pissed off," he admits when pressed. "We have the Number One record of the year; we're nominated for all these Grammys. Why did it have to be the first record? Now every record we make is going to be compared to this.
"But we deserve it," he snaps excitedly. "Nothing was handed to us. Everything you see, we did. Every note of the music -- we wrote, practiced and performed it. Every piece of art you see, we designed it. When people said that nobody was going to get it, we said, 'You're wrong.'
"It's paid off, because we work hard. Come and see how, for two hours after the show, we talk to people and hang out and sign everything they want. We won't deny anybody anything. We'll chew our legs off to satisfy people who want to see us." Bennington pauses, glances down at his legs as if to make sure they're still there and laughs.
"I think I just spoke for everybody."David Fricke RS 891, March 14, 2002