OUR PERSON OF 2018 OPENS UP ABOUT HIS YEAR OF REDEMPTION, AND HOW HE WANTS TO BRING FANS TOGETHER IN CELEBRATION
This is a year that has been defined by division. On August 25, 2018, however, 60,000 voices sang in
perfect unison. ‘I had to fall, to lose it all, but in the end it doesn’t even
matter…’ A smattering of grey clouds hung in the summer sky over Reading Festival, but defiant sunlight ensured it was a good day. Were someone looking down, they’d have a fine view.
It was a moment of celebration, and one of remembrance. More than that, it felt like a turning of the tide. Yes, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington was 401 days gone, and the wounds were still healing for so many he’d left behind. But, as one of his most famous songs transfigured, you could feel the focus shifting: from the tragedy passed to the possibility ahead; from the overwhelming grief for an artist lost to the breathtaking rediscovery of one still here. Picture the scene. Mike Shinoda stands alone onstage. “I want you guys to sing it so loud Chester can hear you…” His composure contrasts starkly to the emotional outpouring of so many in attendance. Subliminal weight keeps the slightest slump in those shoulders, but he stands straight and strong. That easy smile cuts through the solemnity like a beacon. A field of uncertain souls stretching as far as the horizon hang on every word, leaning on each other and towards the stage in a ritual of communal catharsis.
From a fan’s perspective, it’s difficult to recall a more definitive moment over the tumultuous last 12 months. For Mike himself, it was one of many stops on the unmapped road leading from darkness into light. “I was surprised,” he admits, as we reminisce over how footage from the performance saturated newsfeeds for weeks afterwards. “The experience the crowd got that afternoon was the same experience we give the crowd every show.”
His tendency to refer to occasions like these as “group therapy” could seem clichéd, but if there was ever any practised artifice about Mike, it has long since dissolved away.
Speaking to Kerrang! back in March, there was something still stunned in him. That tentative moment alone onstage at Linkin Park and Friends’ Hollywood Bowl celebration aside, he had yet to perform his first solo show. Solace was found in visual expression and the emptiness of the blank canvas. He was still coming to terms with the various arrivals of Kübler-ross’ stages of grief: anger and denial clouded the path, bargaining and depression weighed down momentum.
As we pick up again at the end of this annus mirabilis, Mike’s found something like acceptance. He’s found it in innovative art, fresh experience, and a rediscovered willingness to take life as it comes. More importantly, he’s found it in the fans. In a manner that only tragedy can ever truly trigger, he has unveiled himself as a rock star of unrivalled emotional leadership and empathy. Within a genre that prides itself on community, he has driven the concept to another level.
Landmark acts have lost key creatives before. Some, like AC/DC and Metallica, ploughed hastily onward to superstardom. Others – Nirvana, for instance – fractured and faded, like moments passed, into memory. Few have proceeded with such openness, honesty and patience. None has showed willingness to honour the grief – their own and that of their fans’ – with such touching dignity. That authentic insistence on tightening the bind of the Linkin Park Family meant there was no other contender for the title of Kerrang!’s Person Of 2018.
“What did I do to deserve this?” Mike asks, deflecting with characteristic humility. “This is bigger than me. It’s unique. I can facilitate an experience or an event where people from this community come together. At the end of the day, though, I can walk away and know that the community nourishes itself.”
Festival season has long since drifted out of view, but that community continues to grow.
Winter is coming to the American Midwest, but Mike speaks to us on his tour bus – considering lunch as he gazes out over a sprawl of urban decay in Cincinnati, Ohio – with amiable warmth. “It looks really rugged out there – a little scary, the opposite of glamorous, for sure,” he jokes. Rough edges be damned, tonight’s show at 1,500-capacity performance space Bogart’s – a converted vaudeville theatre that sits somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge of his sound – promises to be just another step on a journey that started back in January.
Twenty-five days into the year, the three-track Post Traumatic EP offered fans a first light in the dark. Looking back, Mike sees its importance magnified. Online and in person, the show of condolence and support had been overwhelming. Only the glimmer of continued existence, however, could stem the sadness. “I felt so encouraged by the response that came from our fans, and every time I made a move it felt like there was this ripple of positive response. It felt like it was helping people by simply knowing that I was still here.
“I knew that [releasing those songs] would answer a lot of the fans’ questions,” he reasons, “perhaps not in terms of where I’m at and what I’m up to, but in that I’m here and I’m trying my best to sort through what had happened. The fans needed this – and so did I.”
March 8 marked a more bold step forward. Pinning his location online, to Tower Records on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, and announcing that he was ready to open up, Mike drew hundreds of wellwishers. He tirelessly signed and photographed for all, collecting only footage for the Crossing A Line music video in payment. The first time he played the track, the packed parking lot stood in breathless silence. By the second spin, they’d memorised every lyric.
“Meeting the fans was and continues to be a cathartic experience,” he smiles, “for all of us. I meet fans who deal with inner struggles, and fans who wear their pain on the outside. I meet fans who were devastated by Chester’s loss, and others who relate to the music because they’ve gone through things having nothing to do with Chester. I’ve felt energised by their support, and I hope this can be a galvanising moment to help them find hope.”
The full Post Traumatic album would follow on June 15. A veritable road-map through grief, its fearless approach stunned listeners. Moreover, it forced its creator to confront the self-sacrificial realities of life alone in the post-
Chester spotlight: every movement reviewed through the prism of loss.
“When you make your mind up to put out an album, it’s not just about releasing the music,” Mike continues. “It’s basically a commitment to putting yourself in exposed positions to [have those conversations with] fans and journalists, situations where they will ask hard, uncomfortable questions: ‘What happened?’ ‘What was going on with Chester?’ ‘Where do you go from here?’ I knew I would go out into the world, where fans would cry, where they would tell me their most difficult stories. I knew it would be a lot to take on, day after day. But I figured, ‘I want to get out there and try to help.’
“Fast forward to November and it feels almost shocking how far we’ve come. I don’t get stopped at every turn with condolences anymore. That’s a good feeling. I always tell people that if those thoughts are occurring to you, I’d much rather that fans focused them into a celebration than condolences or regrets.”
Focusing on positives isn’t exactly on-trend in 2018. In a world where public figures at every point on the sociopolitical spectrum have converted division into currency, it feels like there’s a forlorn novelty in an individual invested in building cross-cultural support structures rather than tearing them down.
Mike responds simply. “There’s no question, particularly in America, that the state of affairs can make this an incredibly stressful place to live right now. If this band, and the family around us, can help to alleviate some of that, then I only think that it’s a positive thing. It all comes back to that community.”
Even the stylistic swerves through which Linkin Park’s fandom has endured, Mike nods, wryly, have prepared them to reach across new divides. “I’ve made plenty of music that started huge fights in our own fanbase, because of dramatic shifts in style, like going from [2000 debut album] Hybrid Theory and [2003 follow-up] Meteora to [2004 Jay-z collab EP] Collision Course and [hip-hop side project] Fort Minor, then to [2007’s] Minutes To Midnight, then [2010’s] A Thousand Suns. As a [performer], I’ve always tried to put my artistic instinct first, even when I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t like the outcome.”
Community, he understands, shouldn’t be preserve of the rock world, either. On April 20, Swedish EDM superstar Avicii died by suicide at 28. The outpouring of solidarity from Linkin Park fans that followed was perhaps the most potent display of their acceptance. Their willingness to empathise and to support reflected Mike’s own. He’s reluctant, of course, to accept responsibility.
“Those gestures of support were started by Linkin Park fans,” he smiles. “It’s something I’m immensely proud of. Our fans saw other human beings hurting, and reached out to say, ‘We understand what you’re going through, because we went through it too.’ They initiated that outreach. It’s an empathy that transcends genre, age, or culture. I was so impressed by that.”
As in any family, there have been struggles. Run-ins with the self-entitled thoughtlessness of self-proclaimed ‘old-school’ Linkin Park fans – demanding an impossible return to the glory days of Hybrid Theory and Meteora – leave the otherwise serene performer understandably agitated. Mike bemoans the comparative difficulty of video-streaming to the LP Facebook page compared to that on his solo profile. One attempted post on September 26 saw him clash with borderline-trolls.
On his second appearance that day, he was better prepared to lead the way.
“There’s a difference between celebrating someone and being stuck,” the webcam communicated the promise to check-in once in a while to a world of listeners. “I don’t want you to be stuck. There’s a thing called emotional intelligence, and there’s a thing called empathy. I think you guys have a higher level of empathy. There’s a connection there that’s special. Don’t ever lose that.”
It’s easy to imagine, to dream of, an alternative reality, where the horror of last July never transpired. Linkin Park’s One More Light album-cycle would be drawing to a close. A slew of summer festival headlines might’ve celebrated 15 years of Meteora. The next creative twists would inevitably be winding down the pipeline.
“[I consider that] all the time,” Mike sighs. “I’m constantly reminded of all the things [Chester and I] could have done together. It’s particularly poignant on this solo tour as we go through cities Linkin Park were scheduled to play. Some of those had their dates on [2014/15’s] The Hunting Party tour cancelled after Chester’s leg injury [sustained while playing basketball during a day off], too. It feels incredibly sad that there are fans who perhaps didn’t get the chance to – and never will – see Chester sing.”
In his heart, Mike knows that live performance remains the heartbeat beneath his ongoing emotional symbiosis with the fans. In kick-starting that, spontaneity has become a keyword. A February 6 Instagram post suggested folk “make noise” if they wanted to see him live. By the following morning, a collective of LP fan sites had rallied. It wouldn’t be until May 12’s KROQ Weenie Roast at LA Galaxy’s Stubhub Center in the Dominguez Hills, however, that Mike would return to the stage. When the time came, it needed to be a (re)baptism of fire.
“I remember wanting to make it as challenging a situation for myself as possible. I had to avoid the temptation to try to make it a familiar ‘band set-up’ with more guys onstage. I wanted to strip the experience bare, just like the music on Post Traumatic, and see which were the bare necessities. In the end, I got up there with pretty much just my production gear from the studio and pulled it off.”
It was the genesis from which more complex performance would evolve. The first test passed, Mike knew he would need more hands for the ‘next phase’ of his vision.
“I’M SO PROUD OF, AND IMPRESSED BY, LINKIN PARK FANS” MIKE SHINODA
Enter English multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Matthias Harris and Israeli percussionist Dan Mayo (of Tel Aviv postrockers TATRAN). Together, the trio conjure an onstage versatility that contrasts strikingly with the “almost theatre-like” regimen of an LP performance. “Both guys are great at improvising,” says Mike, pride evident in his voice. “They’re great at following me when I decide to call an audible, and take the show in some unplanned direction.”
Even that virtuosity is put to work in the name of fan-service, mind. Obscure requests – truly deep-cuts with which they’re unfamiliar – can be reworked over improvised beats. “I enjoy the problemsolving element of that,” Mike smiles. Outside-the-box whims are indulged. The night before Halloween, at Las Vegas’ House Of Blues, Mike expanded his traditional cosplay to recast the whole trio as legendary New York hip-hop collective Run DMC. In a crisp twist, he was able to perform one of their songs, opening-up with a blast of 1987 signature It’s Tricky.
If there were any doubt that such unexpected delights deepen the audience experience, innovative new outlets prove the point. Mike’s ‘Fan Stories’ Youtube series has captured punters’ voices at shows worldwide. (“It’s uplifting,” one testifies, encapsulating the tone. “It’s transformative! It’s watching someone channel everything that he’s got into having a good time with you. You don’t feel like an audiencemember; you feel like part of the show.”) A novelty merch vending machine at shows even dispenses exclusive T-shirts and occasional Willy Wonka-style golden tickets granting the opportunity to meet the man himself.
The visual art that was Mike’s personal preserve at the start of the year has been opened up, as well. “I always doodle, draw and paint,” he explains. “I’ve been happy to share more with the fans.” VIP ticket-holders on the North American tour got the chance to collaborate with Mike in collective mural workshops – covering a grid of blank 12-inch vinyl covers, then taking one each home. The improvisation spilled into Dia De Los Deftones festival in San Diego, where Mike created a custom backdrop and limited event shirts in the aesthetic of Mexico’s Calavera (Day Of The Dead) tradition.
Fans’ needs vary, of course. Maintaining balance has been crucial: between sadness and celebration; between remembrance and progress; between grief and joy. Mike marvels at the variations he’s witnessed on what’s already been a globe-spanning adventure. Early on, shows in Asia pulsated with intensity. Fans at Beijing’s Exhibition Theatre staged a 45-minute-long vigil after the show had finished, singing to each other in solidarity until venue staff asked them to leave. One meet-and-greet in Japan saw every face in the front of the line stained with tears. “It’s especially disconcerting,” the singer reflects, “in a place where people are normally so reserved in their emotions.”
More recent American outings reflect the emphasis on lighter-hearted celebration. In Dallas, Texas, a fan presented Mike with an ‘octopus hat’, inspired by his paintings. He wore it through the end of the set. When another named Zach in Atlanta, Georgia screamed a request that Mike be his dad, the icon agreed – on the condition the youngster be renamed ‘Kachalani’.
That moment of direct address and collective reflection at each show before In The End has become pivotal. “It’s emotional every night,” the singer elaborates. “It’s part of the set that I tailor to each individual audience; I just read the crowd and speak from the heart. Some nights we have fun, even comical backand-forth. Some nights it can be sad. Some nights it can even get a little political.
“I will say this, though,” he presses, deliberately. “I don’t want my whole set to boil down to that one moment of tribute. I don’t think this should ever become a memorial. I’m aiming for a vibrant, meaningful experience with a lot of different moods. I just couldn’t live with that sort of funeral feeling day in, day out. It would depress me to the point where I would just want to go home.”
Perpetual motion has been an effective coping mechanism. It is not, however, perpetually sustainable. Mike understands that grief isn’t a race to be won. In the stillness, when the commotion stops, the darkness can still bleed through.
“Of course [it can],” he sighs. “I’m constantly watching myself to make sure I’m not in denial or avoiding dealing with things. Since many of my road crew were on tour with Linkin Park, we talk often about Chester, sharing our favourite stories. Sometimes that can get bittersweet. There are still songs that I can’t sing: the first verse of Over Again; One More Light; Breaking The Habit; Leave Out All The Rest. Those are too emotional.”
As that residual heartache continues to be processed, the future remains unwritten. When (and, indeed, whether) Linkin Park will re-emerge remains an open question, and one which Mike preemptively shrugs off with a firmness that suggests he’s tired answering it.
And yet, interest persists. Numb just passed 1 billion views on Youtube. Speculation over what could trigger a return runs rampant online. Guitarist Brad Delson contributed on Post Traumatic. Bassist Dave Farrell has even jumped on a few of the U.S. dates. “We’re in contact, but we talk randomly,” Mike nods. “Everyone’s doing different stuff. I was honoured that they all came to my show at some point.”
In the meantime, there’s much to relish in independence. “It’s appropriate that the current single is Make It Up As I Go,” he grins. “I think it’s safe to say that I’m looking forward to making more music, playing some more shows, and even collaborating with other great musicians. I think it might be easy to mistake this spontaneity and freedom for directionless-ness, but I’m really just enjoying what I’m doing. I’m not working towards any set goals at the minute.
“One of the guiding principles for me over the course of the last year has been gratitude. That isn’t just for the career that I’ve had. It’s for the ability to be able to go out there and put my hands on the keyboard to make music, day in, day out. Sitting here on the tour bus, looking out at this run-down view certainly feels a long way from Linkin Park headlining Reading & Leeds festivals, but that doesn’t mean for one minute that I’m not grateful for every opportunity I get to step out on that stage.
“I feel more like my own person now,” he concludes with a final reflection on the change 2018 has left in him, “maybe because I’ve been forced to be. “That’s a good feeling…” Long may it endure.
“GRATITUDE HAS BEEN A GUIDING PRINCIPLE FOR ME THIS YEAR” MIKE SHINODA
MIKE SHINODA PLAYS A KERRANG!SPONSORED HEADLINE SHOW AT LONDON’S ROUNDHOUSE NEXT MARCH – SEE THE GIG GUIDE FOR INFORMATION