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Chester Bennington Interview

Friday, February 11, 2005

Chester Bennington: 'Now I Can Write About Anything I Want'

October 3, 2009
Linkin Park is doing what many bands strive for in their careers: Defy all genres. The band’s last album Minutes To Midnight created the kind of buzz that could certainly make a record exec either exceedingly happy or nervous. Jettisoning the "nu metal" label that accompanied their debut, the members of Linkin Park proved that they had no intention of creating carbon copies of their previous albums.

Frontman Chester Bennington has taken that idea one very big step further. With an arsenal of songs that weren’t the right fit for Linkin Park’s sound, Bennington decided to create a side project that suited whatever musical whim might come his way.

Dabbling in everything from pop ballads to grungy rock anthems, Bennington’s new side project Dead By Sunrise has been several years in the making. Although his personally inspired lyrics (touching on topics such as his divorce and alcohol addiction) will certainly grab an audience’s attention, it should also be noted that the singer paved the musical foundation for the bulk of the material, which veers greatly from the typical songwriting process in Linkin Park. Dead By Sunrise’s first record Out Of Ashes hits shelves everywhere on Oct. 13, and in the meantime the video for the band’s first single "Crawl Back In" debuted on Sept. 8. Bennington recently talked with UG writer Amy Kelly about his transition into Dead By Sunrise and the much-anticipated next album from Linkin Park.

UG: The concept behind Dead By Sunrise certainly seems to be a completely unique venture from your past work. Were any of the songs originally intended for Linkin Park? Or had your intent always been to create a distinctly separate solo project?

Chester Bennington: The original idea was definitely to pitch these to be Linkin Park songs. Originally when I first started writing them, there were obvious differences. They were a little too grungy. They were a little too acoustic guitar based. They were really nice, but they would say, “I don’t know where we could use them without changing the songs.” I said, “That’s cool. I totally get it, and you’re right. This stuff is too much like that – but that’s what I like about it.” So if it had been 20 or 30 other songs that I kind of wanted to do and the guys were just like, “Ah, it’s okay.” I would have been like, “Okay. Let’s move on.”

Everyone was like, “This is a great song. I just don’t know what we can do with it. Maybe you should sell it someone else?” I was like, “That’s a great idea. I’m going to sell it to myself!” Once I had that conversation about a couple songs it was like, “I don’t think we should keep having these conversations because these songs all have that thing that the other two had.” It just grew into a compilation of this kind of sound. Now I know how to write for Dead By Sunrise and how to write for Linkin Park.

Had you conceived the melodies even before writing the lyrics?

Chester Bennington: In some cases, yeah. In probably about 98 percent of everything that I write, the melodies come first. I’ve always found it very difficult to sit down to start writing down the lyrics, ever since I was a kid. I would sit down and write lyrics all day. So I would have 100 pages of lyrics and when I would go to band practice, I would bring all my lyrics with me. I would be like, “Wow, look at all I’ve accomplished. I’m a fucking badass!” I’d be flipping through all the pages to find what would work with the song instead of writing over a song. I wasn’t writing to the melody. I was writing melody to the lyrics to fit the song. With Linkin Park, I did the opposite. We wouldn’t even talk about lyrics until we had the song. Then when we had melodies, we would start working on the lyrics. Then we would have melodies that would work with the lyrics, and the melody would evoke the story.

Did you already have an inclination that Ryan Shuck and Amir Derakh would be the perfect musicians for Dead By Sunrise? What was it about them that was a good fit for your vision?

Chester Bennington: I’ve been friends with Ryan and Amir for 10 years now – and close friends. We hang out. When I’m not touring with Linkin Park, I’m with Ryan and Amir. We have plans today where we’re hanging out at the pool. They’re more family than anything else. If I’m at home and they’re around and I play songs, Ryan will be like, “What the fuck is that?” I go, “That’s a song I have.” He’s like, “You need to do something with that.” Timing is always everything as well. The guys were no longer in Orgy, and they were starting with their new band Julien-K. It was kind of like, “We can do this if we wanted to.” When there was time, it kind of all came together.

On your MySpace page there are several webisodes that show you crafting the songs with an acoustic. There are certain artists who call songs “their babies” and might have a problem with other musicians adding too much input. After you wrote the foundation of the songs, did you welcome input from Amir and Ryan?

Chester Bennington: Very early on, I had been writing on my acoustic guitar. It is just me with four chords singing the melody. If a song is good like that, you really don’t need to fuck with it a lot. In a sense I was like, “Let’s not overcomplicate this stuff. It doesn’t need to be overcomplicated.” In that clip when I said, “If I can sit down and play one note and I never have to change playing that one note, the song is great because the melody is awesome and the lyrics are great. Why do you have to start throwing in a bunch of chord progressions?”

That was kind of a goal. Let’s not detract from what makes the song great. In that sense, I very much stuck to what I wanted to accomplish. I would go in, sit down with my acoustic, play the chords and melody, and then leave for the first couple of tracks. Ryan would call in and say, “Hey, do you mind if we started messing with this thing a little bit?” I said, “You guys go crazy. Do whatever you want. I want you to do whatever it is you think you want to do with the song. I want to see what you guys end up with.” So they went in, and they came back out with the first version of “Letdown.” I was like, “I love this. This is great.” It’s using that electronic/pop/alternative style of music with this grungy guitar singer/songwriter type of song. If we can find a way to balance that out, we will have created something special.

There is almost a punk vibe to the single “Crawl Back In.” When you compare a song like that to any given Linkin Park track, one can imagine there was a pretty different approach to songwriting.

Chester Bennington: I think there are a few things that are different in the way I approach songs with Dead By Sunrise as opposed to what I do with Linkin Park. My role in Linkin Park is to come in after the music is written and start humming melodies until I find something that is great. With Dead By Sunrise, I can hear anything in my head and sit down and play it on the guitar. If I like it, I’ll take it in. If it’s a really mellow song, then I’ll bring it in. I don’t care if it’s folksy and mellow.

For example, when I wrote “Crawl Back In” I heard that (sings melody) in my head. I was like, “This is cool.” So I sat down and wrote it out. I put the pieces together and brought it in, and we started working on it. I was just like, “I like this thing. I like the sound of it. It’s cool.” If you listen to “Too Late” and “Crawl Back In,” they are completely different. They are so different in so many ways that it doesn’t seem like it could be on the same record. It’s kind of crazy. If I like it, I’m going to fucking write it. That’s basically how I work. I don’t care if one song is a death metal song and the next song is like a pop ballad.

For Out of Ashes, you worked with producer Howard Benson, who has never collaborated with Linkin Park in the past. What made you decide on Howard over Rick Rubin (producer of Minutes To Midnight)?

Chester Bennington: For one, Rick was already working on two other projects. So that kind of took him out of the running right away. Plus, I just worked with him in Linkin Park, and I’m pretty confident that we’ll work with him again. I didn’t want to dip in that well too many times. I think that’s smart. I looked at the list of producers that I wanted to work with, and timing is everything. I am in Linkin Park, and we were going to start working on something.

Howard was on the list and said he was available to do it and work on it with me. I had met with a couple producers before. One I don’t want to name who it was because I don’t want to talk bad about him. It was the most uninspiring meeting that I’ve ever had. It was like, “Wow. I would rather cut my face off than to go through this again!” The other one was kind of cool, but the guy is also in a band. The time wouldn’t work out. Then I met with Howard, and he got what we were doing. He was excited about it, he wanted to work on it, he liked the band, he liked the people in the band, and we all talked about stuff. He was smart about gear and how the songs come together. We all walked out and were like, “Fuck yeah!” That’s what you want in a producer. You walk out going, “This is going to be fucking great. Even though we don’t have ideas and we don’t have songs, this guy is going to help us find them.” That’s what you want, and that’s what we got with Howard.

You cover plenty of personal topics in Dead By Sunrise’s lyrics, including your divorce and alcohol addition. How difficult was it to talk about those subjects, and was there one song that might have been particularly difficult to write?

I think going through it was difficult, but I’m pretty good at writing about stuff. Once I came out with being abused as a child, a lot of those doors opened for me. Now I can write about anything I want. Nobody knew about it until that day. My parents were going, “What?” It was like, “Okay, if I can write about that, I can pretty much write about anything.” I would say that I wasn’t writing songs about my particular problems while I was going through them during this record. I was writing songs about falling in love, and I was kind of skating around the subject a little bit.

After I went through all of that, that’s when I started writing very clear and very forward songs about what I went through. “Crawl Back In” talks about relapsing and how hard that is. “Condemned” is about that love affair with feeling like shit. It was very strange for me because these ideas just started coming. I don’t know if I could have done it if I had was in the middle of it. I try not to change things that much in my songs. If it comes to me, then it comes to me. If it doesn’t, then I’ll wait a couple of days. After that, I’ll just let it go. It’s not worth it.

I noticed that you play both guitar and keyboards on Out Of Ashes. Had you tracked those instruments on any past Linkin Park records?

Chester Bennington: I think that’s a thing that most people probably don’t know about me. I actually can play instruments. I’m not great, but I can play them good enough to write a song. I’m not Mozart by any means, but I can put things together to make good songs. I wrote some guitar tracks on those that came from demo sessions. I play quite a bit of synth, too.

Do you foresee yourself playing synth or guitar on future Linkin Park albums?

Chester Bennington: There are some pretty serious musicians in Linkin Park. There are moments during a Linkin Park session where I’ll say, “Hey, can we change this part?” On “Shadow of the Day,” there is a guitar part that’s at the end of the song. I walked into the studio, and Brad had been there two days straight. I said, “How you’re doing?” He said, “I can’t do this. I can’t break the code on this one.” I said, “Play it for me. I want to hear what you’re working on.” He played it and I go, “I’ve got an idea.” I go in the other room, played the part on the piano, and I go, “Play this.” He played it, and that’s what we kept. That’s what we do. That’s what being in a band is about. Brad said, “Ah! Why couldn’t have you been here two days ago?” I go, “Because it was supposed to happen right now.”

Linkin Park’s next record isn’t slated for release until 2010, but can you give us some idea of what we’ll be hearing? I read a quote from Mike Shinoda stating that the album will be “genre-busting.”

Chester Bennington: Mike, with that comment, every interview I’ve done they’ve asked me specifically about that quote! Thanks, Mike! From my perspective, I agree with him. The longer Linkin Park is around, the more difficult it is to find a place that we fit in best. Are we a pop band? Are we an alternative rock group? Are we a modern rock act? Are we a metal group? Or are we something else? Nobody knows what the hell is going on with us anymore, and I think that’s something that will propel us into being a better band in the future. I think it sets us apart.

I do believe this record is definitely going to help make that more difficult for people to understand. In terms of how it sounds, we’ve got 40 songs. A handful of them are amazing. A dozen or so are really good, and the rest could have potential. The ones that are pretty amazing and the ones that everyone is pretty much like, “As long as the lyrics are great, the song is a masterpiece” – they are really fucking good. It’s kind of nuts. From my perspective when I hear them, I can’t believe that I’m in this band. I can’t believe this is the stuff that I’m a part of making. I’m sharing the same stage as some of the most talented people in the world and have one of the best producers in the history of music. We’re making groundbreaking stuff, and it’s very strange to be part of that.

Mike’s quote was certainly an intriguing one that piqued our curiosity.

Chester Bennington: That quote is so not Mike’s personality. He’s a really pretty humble guy, and he doesn’t like to toot his own horn. For him to come out and say – “ Yeah, it’s genre-busting” – it’s kind of like, “Well, all right!”

Interview by Amy Kelly
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