Linkin Park may not have invented nü metal, but they resolutely defined the genre through their inimitable sound and by fostering a fan community for those whom they represented: disaffected youth who wanted aggressive music that expressed their emotional complexity and frustration via hip-hop and emo-tinged hard rock built to rule the radio. At the core stood vocalists Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda. Bennington’s suicide, three years ago this month, ripped apart the monolithic act who have sold over 70 million albums and have created singles such as “Numb” and “In The End” that continue racking up millions of views on YouTube, a platform that didn’t even exist when they were released.
Since then, Shinoda has kept busy outside of Linkin Park while they reconfigure what’s next for them as a group. His debut solo record, Post Traumatic, entered the world in June 2018 and proved that, despite the previous year’s challenges, he wasn’t turning his back on anything. “It was more about just coping with things and reflecting on things as I was doing it,” he told Billboard at the time. “The act of just sitting down and making things helped me process.”
Now two years later, with the world thrown into the uncertainty of a pandemic that seems keen on sticking around a little while longer, Shinoda sat down with some keyboards and a camera and decided to take on a new challenge by teaming up with fans to make the collaborative record, Dropped Frames. Aside from its lead single, “Open Door,” which features vocals from seven fans around the world in addition to Shinoda’s own, the album is fully instrumental and veers every which way, from dub and Latin-flavored beats on “El Rey Demonio” to something goofier but still easily danceable on LP closer “Booty Down.”
It’s an abnormally relaxed and joyful record to come out during a time marred by shared social tension and fear. It might be just the thing we need right now to remind us to have fun. Shinoda has always been at the forefront of building community in heavy music. From Instagram Live to the record’s release July 10, he details the journey and opens up about the darkness that slips in via the most unexpected places.
Like many artists, you chose to start streaming during quarantine to keep yourself engaged with your fans and be active in music. Did you go into that knowing that you would make a full album, or did that manifest later on?
MIKE SHINODA: Well, when quarantine first started happening, it felt like Groundhog Day. Every day was the same, and I was losing track of everything, losing track of time. It felt like I was in this weird blur. I started to see other artists who had tours scheduled and stuff like that and I started seeing them popping up playing shows from their rooms, and that never appealed to me. I didn’t like them and I didn’t want to do them. People asked if I would, but I didn’t want to do them.
Every day I was coming to the studio and making stuff. At one point, I realized I just needed to connect with people. So I turned on my phone and went live on Instagram and shared that writing session with the fans. They loved it, and the chat was really fun and vibrant, so I did it again.
But there are two things that were a game-changer for me. One was at one point, I had this song called “Open Door,” and I wanted to put a vocalist on it, and it occurred to me that I could call around, send some emails out and find the right vocalist for it. But since I had been streaming its creation, I decided to ask my fans if there was somebody in the fanbase who was a good singer. I ended up taking seven different people and putting them on the song because I just got too many submissions that were good. That was one thing that just made me feel [like] this was keeping the focus on the fans and this community that we’re all a part of, and it feels great.
The second thing was that I stopped doing it on Instagram and eventually stopped doing the stream on YouTube, and I decided to just stick to Twitch. The reason for that was that Twitch doesn’t really have anybody like me. There are mostly gamers, and there’s a lot of artists who draw or paint. Then there are DJs playing music, and there are a few people playing music live, but most of them are jamming over top of stuff or playing guitar over top of an album. That’s not something you can do for hours on end. For most musicians, once you play 60 or 90 minutes, you’re done. You’re tired!
So I thought writing a song is something I do all day, every day, and in a certain way, I think that’s a little more entertaining to watch. One of my internal rules is that I like to keep the music going. I don’t want to stop and start a lot. I try to do things that have a quick turnaround in terms of results, so I won’t do vocals because they take a long time, and there’s magic in getting them right. But if I could sit down and make some cool sounds, play some cool parts and write some good beats, in two or three hours, you’ll see the results immediately after having started from absolutely nothing.
That’s awesome. I’ve only seen a few people doing music on Twitch, such as Matt Heafy from Trivium and a few others, but it was mostly them playing covers. I really liked watching the interaction between you and the fans.
Yeah, some of the way these things started and the way that my channel works is specific to the platform. The platform enables you to make side games and a point system in the chat, and so what I did was create a point system. I just called it ShinodaBucks and a store you can redeem your bucks for. So rather than redeeming them for emojis or skins, even though those are in there too, you can save them up and use them on things like suggesting a musical style for me to do or an art style for me to do or asking me a question.
So they’ll submit the song styles, and I’ll write them down and put them in a bowl. Then I’ll pick multiple song styles out of the bowl. It might be a Thriller-era Michael Jackson mixed with horror hip-hop. Actually, one of my favorites was “a song in the style of the Pokemon Muk.” So some of them are just trying to stump me, and other ones are just being silly. And I do them. One [sound] we did the other day was Red Hot Chili Peppers meets Prince meets wombat.
How do you even get wombat sounds?
I had to make it! I didn’t want to use a video of a wombat making sounds that somebody owns the copyright to, so I listened to wombat noises, and I did it with my voice. Fans were in hysterics in the chat.
So I know you had some issues with “Open Door” between you and management, and you didn’t know if you were going to include it on this album at all. How did you reach the decision to go for it and find those six or seven vocalists included on it, too?
I felt like including it was only natural because it was the impetus for this whole thing, right? Streaming the making of that song was the thing that led to the creation of the channel and writing music on that channel. So in the beginning, I was just trying to break up the monotony of quarantine, and “Open Door” was like a key to that. The process of making that made me realize the fans were such an important part of that equation. And not just because like, “If no one’s watching, what’s the point of doing the channel?” It’s more than that. On my channel, it’s not just about, “Hey, look at me! I’m worth watching!” I have a skill set and things I can do, so I take those, and you guys, as a group of viewers, tell me how to use those things in ways that are going to either entertain all of us or challenge me and make me excited to make something that’s going to entertain you.
I feel like so much of your career is rooted in collaboration, whether that be musical or visual. Do you feel more fulfilled when you’re working with someone else?
Definitely. I’m not a straightforward extrovert. There’s a little part of me that’s an introvert, and similarly, I’m also a split-brain creative: I’m just as much left brain as I am right. I like the wild creative process, but I also like the logical part of it too, the problem-solving part. Doing that with another person is rewarding, assuming the dynamic is right. If I‘m working with someone who I don’t like what they’re getting at or I don’t feel like [what] they’re contributing, that just doesn’t ever work. But that’s rare.
So I watched part of your stream today, and there was a question in there that got pretty dark. It was, “If you had Doc Brown’s time machine and could go back and change any moment in your life, what would it be?”
Oh, God you tuned in during that moment?
It felt like the universe saying, “Fuck you, be sad today.” But you went to a dark, emotional place. Everyone seemed to get what the obvious answer was, but then you addressed it in a way that handled the gravity of the question and posed your own question, which was something like, “Even if I could go back, would it change the outcome of what happened to someone who attempted suicide multiple times?” But can you really go back in time and save someone? It showed this great level of vulnerability. How do you balance letting people see you like that with what you keep private?
Well, that’s really a lot of questions in one. The last one is the easiest to answer, which is just: It’s a function of experience. Having been in Linkin Park for however many years, doing interviews, answering every type of question you can imagine…but then also let’s not discount having good parents who are still together and really care about me, my brother, our kids and stuff.
But then it gets tricky with the first part of the question. What’s so interesting about you catching that moment was that it was a totally new moment. That was not something that’s happened before on the stream. And as I speak it, it has completely consumed my day now. I’m still turning it over in my head.
One of the things that it made me realize is that I need to be, or it would be smart to be, a little more selective about which questions I answer when I know what the answer will be. I don’t want to hurt anyone mentally who might be watching. I don’t want to put that thought in their head just because somebody asks me a leading question. The person who asked the question wasn’t even thinking about that. They just weren’t putting themselves in my shoes, but the honest answer is, effectively, “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?” That’s what they didn’t mean to ask, but even if you ask someone who has suffered some sort of abuse, that’s immediately where their brain is going to go.
The thing I didn’t realize before is that I’m the moderator. I’m the one who’s in control of the conversation. The beauty of what happened today is that it was the real answer. I was vulnerable, but it doesn’t feel great to be put in that situation. It also lets people know that that’s the reality. I don’t even know how to qualify my relationship with Chester because we were the closest of friends, and we built a one-of-a-kind, amazing, creative and business identity together. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, we made cool albums.” Our identity was Linkin Park. We made that together, and that was altered, and that alteration was touched on today, and the fact is that’s real.
I feel bad that reality shows up in social media or in the stream, but you can’t escape it. It is what it is, and it’s just going to be there. But one thing that I do appreciate about the channel and the stream, the thing that keeps me coming back, is that it’s probably the most civil form of community or social media online. I think that’s a function of it being a little bit hard for people to wrap their heads around because there are inside jokes and a little bit of coding to get over. Plus, it’s three hours long. It’s not for everybody. It weeds out a lot of people. The people who do show up and dedicate themselves are saying, “I’m here. I show up for this.”
So the chat ends up being a tighter-knit community. Over the last few months, we’ve been able to talk about race, religion, politics and mental health, all of these things that, if this were any other type of social media, it would be impossible. Everybody knows how that conversation goes on Twitter or Instagram.
It’s totally toxic, but the community on my Twitch channel is not toxic. I feel like it’s a very “build you up” type of culture, not “bring you down” culture.
Because you’ve been able to build such a community, do you see yourself doing more collaborative albums like this with fans in the future that’s inspired by the fans and interactions on the channel?
That remains to be seen. I don’t know where these things are going to lead, but I’m trying to be very in tune with just letting things happen. That’s what makes the channel exciting in the first place. I usually get things prepped for the stream around 9 a.m. Then I go on at 10 and start a brand-new thing from scratch. I have something to show for it usually by 12 or 1. The exercise of doing that really is super fun, and it’s also freeing. It’s accepting the fact that things could go great, or things could go really badly. Either way, there’s a positive that comes out of it. We’re either cheering because it works or we’re laughing because it’s so terrible, we can’t believe it.
You can preorder Mike Shinoda’s latest record, Dropped Frames, Vol. 1, here.