I’ll be honest. This was kind of nerve-wracking. I’ve been doing this blogging thing for the last couple years and have had my share of star-struck moments, artist run-ins, DJ hand-shakes & well wishes, and the subsequent OH SHIT LOOK HOW AWESOME THIS IS photos on my Facebook/Twitter. So much to the point where I thought I was desensitized to meeting these uber-talented musicians, feeling cocky and confident that “Oh yeah man, I’m pretty used to talking to music celebs now.” #TooMuchHubris
So when we got the interview offer with Mike Shinoda as a follow-up to Lesley’s “SO AWESOME YOUR EYES WILL EXPLODE” recap of Linkin Park and Incubus @ The Home Depot Center, I met it with an “Oh man, that’s cool” feel. “When’s Mike available? Oh yeah? Sure, we’ll do our best to work it out.”
And the whole process was pretty chill. We got things scheduled, I reacquainted myself a bit with their music, caught up with some of the finer points of the band’s work in the past couple years, and I dialed in.
“Okay Tim, you’re on the phone with Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park.”
“Tim? Did we lose you?”
Not in a physical sense, no. I’m still here. But mentally, I think I’ve checked out. My mind wandered back to high school and the countless playbacks of Hybrid Theory, Re-Animation, and Meteora. My short-term memory kicked in, and I pulled up what I had read on Wikipedia just a few days before. These guys have sold MILLIONS of albums, exceptional in any time period and even more so at a time when people were starting to stray away from paying for music.
Now coming from an electronic music mindset where seeing Soundcloud plays in the tens of thousands gets me thinking, “Damn, this artist is getting pretty big,” it was readily apparent to me that this was some higher-level shit.
“I’m here Mike. I’ll be honest. I’m kind of freaking out right now. This is kind of surreal for me. I’ve been a long-time fan. Honestly, man, thank you so much for your time.”
“I appreciate that, Tim. Do you have some questions for me?” Yes. Yes I fuckin’ do. (Didn’t actually say that.)
(Just an FYI, questions were came up as a joint collaboration between Lesley and I. She was originally supposed to be the one to interview Mike, but due to scheduling issues, I was the one to take the call.)
So what’s the song creation process like for Linkin Park? Is there a particular way you structure your studio sessions?
Really, there’s no standard procedure or recipe for us. I can say though, we don’t jam, and we don’t write stuff as a group, as in we’re not necessarily in one room at the same time when we write our songs. Usually I steer the writing process by doing most of the demos, and I’ll do it either on my laptop or in the home studio.
Usually we try to get vocals on the demos right away. Chester and I will work on the vocals in a rough format as soon as possible, but at any time in the process, we find that things can go completely left-field. Sometimes we mash up two totally separate demos into one, or we’ll rail-road track it. We’ll set up an intro, go to the next part, and the song completely falls off the cliff to something else, and it just sits.
Have you seen this process change over the years?
We’re trying to stay away from rail-road tracking it. As in, we don’t want our music to always follow a set pre-determined path where you can see an intro, then the next part, then the next. Some of our guys are very organized, not just in how they keep their equipment and info, but also mentally as in naming and categorizing (labeling verses, pre-chorus, etc.).
So what about now?
In our latest album, Living Things, we made a concerted effort not to give names, as in parts A, B, C. We didn’t want to be locked into “this is the hook” statements. Any part of the song could be the hook. Our inspiration for this concept came from hearing old folks songs recorded in the 1920s — American folk songs that tended to pre-date the whole idea of a chorus and hook all together. Very inspirational stuff.
So what kind of technical equipment do you use? You mentioned you make a lot of your demos on the laptop.
I’ve been using Pro-Tools for a long time. I’m slightly familiar with Logic, but not very much. Lots of my programming comes from Native Instruments (Maschine and Contact). Currently, I’m working with Open Labs on brand new software.
Is that a new project you’re pursuing?
Yup. To give a little background, we’ve been using Open Labs equipment for years with their touch screen OS. My set up is sometimes a keyboard and laptop, with controllers, faders, and pads built-in. After using it for awhile, I started to give them feedback, and this feedback loop really helped to re-build their music OS. Eventually we came up with software suitable not just for performing, but for beginners also. Think of it like the PC version of Garageband. It’s going to ship with Dells and optimized with Windows 8. It’s called Stagelight.
With it, we want musicians of any level to be able to come up with something in 5 minutes that sounds nice and rich. We also want it to have a solid social aspect as well — think uploading a demo you’re really proud of to Soundcloud with one click. We want to make it fun and easier for young people to get their ideas out there.
It’s kind of ridiculous how social the music media landscape has become. Do you feel online sharing apps have changed how the band does their music?
[Chuckles] LP of course needs to be a little more discerning with our demos, but we went through that process also. Honestly, it’s a really fun part, being able to share our samples with friends and close fans, test-running.
Anything else you can tell us about Stagelight?
Besides shipping on Dell computers, we’re making it available for any PC user for $10, keeping a low entry barrier. We’ll do our testing there, then move on to Mac users if we get a good response. You can expect to see it by the end of the year.
Really the inspiration behind this was interface and design. Everytime I used their products on stage, I kept coming back with little user interface problems. Things were hard to navigate, not intuitive, and through this process, I was also able to get a lot of changes I wanted to see done.
Speaking of design, I actually only recently learned that you’re an avid visual artist also.
Absolutely. I’m a huge design person. Originally, I met Joe Hahn, the band’s DJ, at Art Center. Joe left school to pursue film, but we were in an illustration class together. When the band took off, we tried to bring those things into the band. I’ve always been painting and drawing for as long as I’ve known, even before I played music. It’s always been part of my life. For each record, we wanted to develop more of what LP was about, making it really recognizable. And of course, we tweaked it for each record and what was going on with our music.
One of the things that labels do with their music artists is that they hire designers to do different things. One contractor/group/artist for packaging, one for video, one for web. Once you get input from so many different creative people, you get a lot of different aesthetics. Even if you’re following one concept, subtleties show, and we saw that happening with us at times.
So what did you have to change to get things in line?
We completely cleaned it up. We knew the main things we had in our minds, identified what was taking our art in the wrong direction, and started doing all our design work in-house with one team that does everything.
I’m actually pretty interested in how you stumbled upon 1920s folk music.
This one’s kind of weird. For a period I was writing music out and started identifying certain chord progressions and vocals. There was something about it that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. It didn’t sound completely new, so I knew it must have come from somewhere and that I wasn’t just making it up. [Laughs] And it ended up not being just one concept, but a whole suite/genre. Like in blues, you’ll get certain progressions that are standard, and variety is created by culture. It wasn’t just American music, but I found some of it in European roots.
Where do you even dig for stuff like that?
I actually found it online. The Smithsonian Institute actually put together something recently that was really amazing.
I guess it lead me down a path that wasn’t only folk, but rather classic songwriting in general. I came across old prison songs in an Alabama Prison Compilation. It was these inmates that sang work songs. It was weird but interesting, stuff like this showing up on the radar. In general, when you dig deep for music, your mind tends to open up. We weren’t necessarily crate-digging to find samples or looking to draw heavily from it, but it really gave us the inspiration to make our music more free-flowing.
Like I mentioned earlier, classic music like this doesn’t follow a very formulaic path: chorus – verse – chorus. Sometimes one part will change three to five different times and come back around in a circular fashion.
So between music, art, now technical applications and equipment, you all seem to be pretty busy (understatement). Do you guys get to enjoy the festivals you play at?
It really depends. Honestly man, we’re pretty mellow guys. A lot of the band members are pretty settled down with families, so of course, we enjoy ourselves when we’re out there, but you won’t find us hitting the clubs or anything like that. [Laughs]
My conclusion: Mike Shinoda is one down-to-earth and cool-as-hell guy.
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