Mike Shinoda discusses the detailed process behind Living Things, building songs out of Legos, and bridging the gap between the old and new styles of Linkin Park.
These last couple years seem to be a more experimental phase for the band. Coming off of A Thousand Suns, you could have went in any number of directions with this new record. Can you talk about how you discovered where you wanted to go with this one and embracing a lot more of the electronics?
Yeah, sure. I feel like a few records ago when we did Minutes to Midnight, we were really trying to step outside what people had come to think of as Linkin Park. Any time I brought in a demo that had that signature sound, the guys in the band were really turned off. It felt lazy, to be honest. Making that type of a thing, we had been doing that for so long that it kind of came so easily that we didn’t do it.
With A Thousand Suns, our last album, it was no longer uncomfortable to experiment. We got really familiar with our gear, the new gear that we wanted to use, and the new sounds that we could make. We started experimenting like crazy. Minutes to Midnight was like taking a step outside the house, A Thousand Suns was just running off and leaving.
With the new record, with Living Things, I feel like we had come back from those experiences and it felt comfortable with our band. We felt comfortable with ourselves. When I brought in demos that had that Linkin Park flavor again, the guys were excited about developing those and doing their things with them. That’s kind of how this album came together. We made an effort to bridge the gap between the old and the new styles of the band, and even pull that into the future.
I’ve always been fascinated with your writing process, where it’s really loose, everyone contributes, and you’re constantly dismantling and building songs back up. Was there anything in particular that stuck out to you about the process behind this album that maybe hadn’t before?
One thing that came up as we were writing this album was the idea that everybody’s heard these stories about artists who dream a song. They wake up, it’s in their head, they write it down and then they record it, and that’s the song. Chester and I were saying whenever we hear that story, we think that, yeah, that would be nice. I wish we could write that way, because it seems so easy.
We are the polar opposite of whatever that thing is. Everything is always in development. Everything is always up for grabs, even if an idea seems finished and perfect or whatever. There’s always the possibility that somebody in the band, or all of us, will start to think, “I think I can make that better,” or “I think we can do better than that and make something new that beats that part.”
We never really jam together as a band. We write these songs directly into a computer, and we kind of mix and record as we write. The whole process of making an album, it’s not linear at all. It’s always amorphous. Even at the point where we’re mastering an album, we might still be writing. We might still be changing parts and pulling things out and replacing them.
On this album, for example, there were two cases where as we were mixing, which for people who know the process usually you’re not writing when you’re mixing, you’re just mixing, Brad and I were mixing the songs with Manny and I realized this song just isn’t sounding as bold or as big as its supposed to sound. I thought all the noises were there, I thought all the instrumentation was there, but it’s not. So, I left. Brad had the notes on the mix, he was taking care of those, and about 30 minutes later I came back with guitars for the whole song, popped them into the mix, and it finished it. It made it sound right. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t been listening to the quote-unquote “final mix.”
What song was that for?
That was either for “In My Remains” or “I’ll Be Gone.” I think it was for “In My Remains” where that happened. Yeah, and two days before that we had ripped off the bridge on “Lies Greed Misery” and completely replaced that with what is now there. We made it better. While you’re mixing, completely changing and recutting and replacing vocals is not something that usually happens, but for us that’s kind of standard.
On this album, there’s not a ton of huge distorted guitars. Do you still write a lot on guitars or have you branched off into other instruments when you’re writing at the beginning?
If you listen to the progression of the album, I think you’ll find we use guitars, they’re just not always up front. Especially on the last album, A Thousand Suns, there’s actually a lot more guitars on that album than people think, they’re just mixed back a little bit. On the new album, there’s probably a little more of them, and they’re mixed up front a little more often.
For me, it just depends on what kind of sound the song is asking for. In the early days, we used to write a track and then lay the vocals over top of it, almost like a hip-hop production team. We’d mix the song instrumental and then we’d force the vocals in on it. When we started working with Rick, he was saying, “Have you ever tried writing everything simultaneously?” We said, “No.” He really pushed us to try it.
Without writing vocals and music at the same time, we never would have arrived at songs like “Waiting For the End,” “Iridescent,” or even “Burn it Down.” To some degree, those songs just evolved when you’re able to change the chords and change the vocals at the same time and know, “Oh, OK, if I change this note in the vocals then I can go to this chord in the music.” Usually that will happen when you’re singing and playing piano, or singing and playing guitar.
For every album, you usually have a ton of material that didn’t make the cut, which I know some of it ends up getting released on the LP Underground stuff. What kind of stuff did you have leftover on this one?
I don’t know. These days we’re always throwing little ideas together in a computer and everything. It used to be like we’d write a song and sometimes the song just wouldn’t happen. It would sound like an actual song and we’d kind of put it in the trash. These days I think we know a lot earlier if it’s really doing something for us.
The stuff that falls by the wayside ends up being almost like… There may be some vocals and some music on it, but it doesn’t resemble a song as much a lot of times. At the very least, it sounds like what we were talking about on the last question. It’s like vocals and acoustic guitar, or vocals and electric guitar, or vocals and piano. It’s not like a whole song, you know what I mean?
If you look at it like 10 years ago, that stuff would have immediately gone into the trash and never pulled out again. These days it kind of becomes almost like you’re building stuff out of Legos. Once you’ve got your thing that you’ve made, you’ve got extra Legos sitting on the side. For the next thing you want to build, you might pull stuff out of that pile and put them into the new thing.
How many of these little ideas do you have? Do you just have them stored on hard drives all over the place?
It’s like if you’ve ever worked with sample software, you kind of just have a library of stuff. The stuff on its own won’t make anything. The stuff on its own, you can just find stuff that sounds cool. You can play it one way and it sounds boring. Then all of a sudden, one day you put it together a little bit differently and it’s got the magic. I feel like every one of our records has a song or a couple songs that benefit from reapproaching an old idea. You have a sound or a demo that isn’t doing much for anybody, and then one day I listen to it and go, “Oh, what if I change this little bit? Will that be better?” Then I play it for everybody and they go, “That fits.” And it sticks.
I guess stepping back, I don’t really want to get into the nitty gritty of what we do, because people who don’t make music can’t really appreciate that stuff, but for the average person understand we don’t write a song sitting down in a room together. We don’t write it and then record it. We write and record and do everything in one shot, and we do that over the course of the whole record.
In essence, when we finish a song and it’s mixed and mastered, we actually have to go back and learn our own song. We’ve never played it together, or even played the whole thing at once in many cases. We actually have to go back in and figure out who’s going to play guitar for this part, who’s going to play these samples. Right now, for example, on “Lost in the Echo” Rob is relearning his drum parts because he wants to play a couple samples at the same time. He wants to play live drums and samples simultaneously on pads and live drums, so he’s learning how to play the song from scratch.
Can you talk about what the lyrical process was like for this album? Is there a certain way you usually split up lyrics with Chester? How does that work?
That’s really an organic process these days. I know him really well and he knows me really well. I know a lot of his stories. I know a lot of what he grew up dealing with, and he knows about my stuff. When we write a song, just because he sings a vocal or I sing a vocal, that doesn’t mean we wrote those words. In the same way that just because there’s a guitar part in a song, more often than not that doesn’t that Brad wrote it. In fact, he barely ever writes guitar parts anymore [laughs]. It’s usually one of the other guys, like me or Chester or something.
But yeah, when it comes to the vocals, we usually write a lot of the stuff together, so each of the parts is being written from two different perspectives. Two different life stories have to be explained in one set of lyrics, so that means that sometimes we’re talking about similar things. Let’s say we had the same thing happen to us, or a friend or a girlfriend, whatever it may be, and then we’re talking about the same thing. In some cases, he’s talking about something completely different than what I’m talking about. As long as the lyrics can read well and apply to both of our stories, then we feel like we’re still connecting with the song. As long as it’s true to whatever it is I’m thinking of then I’m good, and the same for him.
One of the things that made this record different than the other ones was we opened the door. We’ve always had the door open in the past for any of the other guys to write lyrics, but we never really tried much. On this album, they actually contributed a lot more. It might only be a difference between 0 percent and 10 percent, but that 10 percent makes a difference. I feel like there were little moments on the album where one of the other guys really made a song better by adding a few words or changing a few words. In fact, this was the first time we got a solo vocal performance from Brad, our guitarist, on “Until it Breaks.” That’s a little thing that makes a difference, and it’s the little things that keep it fresh for us and make it exciting to do something we haven’t done before.
Another thing on the album I noticed is you seem to sing more on your own than you have in the past, and you have some really nice harmonies with Chester as well. Do you feel you’ve grown more comfortable as a singer these days?
Yeah, for sure. I think that’s just a function of being onstage with Chester every night. I have the world’s best vocal coach, so I get to basically learn while doing. Unfortunately for me, the pressure is doing that in front of people all the time. These days with YouTube and everything, I think our band having grown up that way, people are a little more forgiving than back when I was a kid. Everybody knows that if anybody makes a mistake on anything, that will be captured and put up for anybody to see. There’s almost a little less pressure that you can just go do what you got to do up onstage. If there’s a mistake, you know, they may talk about it that day, and then the next day it’s gone.
There’s another thing, too. Brad and I talk about this, but both of our music teachers always said, “If you’re going to make a mistake, at least make it loud.” That’s something that we try and do, go big and go bold with what we’re tying to achieve onstage and on the record. Even if there ends up being a mistake, if we present it in the right way and do it in the way the song calls for, I feel like that’s the right way to hear it.
Your music always shows up now all over the place. Even before the record was out, you had “Burn it Down” as the theme song for the NBA Playoffs. How much thought do you put into where your music ends up and how do you like seeing it used in all these different ways?
Well, I’ll tell it to you like this. Living Things debuted at No. 1 on Billboard in the States. We just barely came out on top of Maroon 5 by less than a thousand albums. Adam Levine is on a major mainstream pop television show. He’s a tabloid celebrity. Those guys have a huge pop song on pop radio, and somehow we managed to get that No. 1 spot in spite of the fact that all of the traditionally winning elements were in their corner.
To me, I attribute that to the fact that our band has always focused on the things that make the best sense for us. We’re doing things in social media that are direct to fans to let the fans know we’re coming out with something new. We keep in touch with them. We find out what they’re excited about, we let them know what we’re excited about. We’re always trying to do new events or programs with them, be it our fan club stuff where we’re basically doing the equivalent of a Linkin Park Comic-Con called the Summit, to doing a remix contest where fans can remix a song that hasn’t even come out yet. All of these little things. We try and do as many things that make sense for our band, as opposed to just doing the biggest thing.
For us, the NBA Playoffs being an example, I’m personally a big NBA fan. At the same time, we had trailers running with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That’s not the biggest movie in the country. Is it a good fit for a specific niche of our audience though? Yeah. Chester loves vampire movies. It’s just about what makes sense for us. Half of our band isn’t really even active on Twitter and Facebook. They’re not that active online, and that’s what fits.
You’ve done a couple small shows in L.A. so far this year and I’ve noticed you’ve been playing a lot more from Hybrid Theory than you have on the last couple tours. Do you feel like you’ve been able to reconnect with that album now?
I think people would be surprised at the sense of humor we have about ourselves at this point. I watch that stuff from back then – the pictures, the videos, the interviews we did. I can’t take myself seriously at all. Back then I took our band really seriously because we put so much effort into it. We put so much energy into making that album and being on the road literally all year. I think we played over 300 shows in one 12-month span of time at a certain point in that cycle.
When you’re working that hard, there was a rumor going around that our band was a manufactured rock boy band. There were rumors that we named ourselves Linkin Park so we could get next to Limp Bizkit in the CD rack. That stuff was infuriating. It was all false, but people were actually believing it because people will believe anything that is on the Internet. That made us crazy.
So now being removed from it and having some perspective, I look at it and I think how funny it was we were able to live through that and not completely explode or freak out, scream on somebody or become like idiots. We keep our heads about it and laugh about how ridiculous it used to be, and how we dressed and looked and whatever. I think being comfortable with that and being comfortable with ourselves played a role in being able to get back to the sound that people associate with Linkin Park, and making that a part of the new album.
Do you think you’ll ever play “A Place For My Head” and “Forgotten” back to back?
Back to back? It’s unlikely we’d play them back to back unless we were playing the whole album, which I wouldn’t say is out of the question, but we definitely don’t have plans to play any of our albums front to back. One thing we’re trying to do, which you can probably see if you check out the set lists from the previous couple tours in the last two to three months, is we’re bringing back some of that old stuff we haven’t played in a while. I think we haven’t played “A Place For My Head” live in I don’t know how long. Five, six, seven years. That was back in the set on the last run.
We’re currently putting together the set list for the next tour. I think “A Place For My Head” might be in one or two of the sets, but I don’t think “Forgotten” is. You never know. I remember Chester saying in an interview, “We’ll never play ‘Runaway’ again. I’m sick of playing that song. We’ll never play it again.” And yet we’ve played it for the last two months [laughs].
I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but do you think you’ll ever do another Fort Minor record?
I don’t have any plans to do it, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. I enjoyed making it and think there’s a time and a place for anything. In the meantime, though, I think the new record has a lot of that energy on it. There’s some real rapping on this record, and big beats. I think the reason people ask about that is the things on Living Things might remind them of Fort Minor a little bit.
It’s also been a number of years since the last Projekt Revolution tour. Is that dead at this point or do you think it will get revived in the years ahead?
I don’t know, man. I really couldn’t tell you. Like I said about the other things, we don’t have plans for it, but who knows?
One of my favorite films from this year is The Raid and I loved your score in it. Are you happy with how that whole thing ended up turning out?
Yeah, that was my first movie score. I had a little bit experience doing some small stuff for friends, and then on the other end of the spectrum entirely the guys and I got to score a couple tunes in the second Transformers movie. I enjoyed doing The Raid. They basically said, “We love Fort Minor. We love your remixes. Can you do something like that for our movie?” Those are things I did for fun. So I figured being able to score an independent film, there was less pressure because it was an indie film and they wanted me to do what I would do for fun.
As it turned out, the movie got a lot of attention, and none of us expected that. It was this Indonesian action film, and all of a sudden the Web went crazy on this thing. To be honest, everybody working on it really loved it. Everyone that I spoke to really loved it, so I think that was a component that made us feel like it was something we put a lot of energy into just because we enjoyed working on it.
Now after it, I’d be happy to do some more scores. I don’t think they’ll be action movies, but I can see scoring some other things. I’m actually looking to do some other work, so we’ll see what kinds of projects come up.
At this point, you guys have been doing this for 12 years or so. You’ve sold 50 million albums, 11 no. 1 singles and all that stuff. Do you still feel there’s things out there for you to do and accomplish? Do you feel it daunting to try and maintain the success you’ve enjoyed this last decade?
I think there’s always something on the horizon. Our band keeps changing. The world keeps changing. Our interests are really broad. Whether we’re talking about putting together a tour with Incubus, who we’ve never toured with surprisingly, or putting together music software for open labs and Dells, which is a new project we’ve been working on, there are always things out there that are fresh and fun and new. We’re busy, man. We stay busy. The only way for people to understand how busy we are is to keep up with us online.