It's a curious thing that today, for the first time in the seven or so years that I have been interviewing Linkin Park, they appear to be approaching something like being at ease. We're in Los Angeles at the impossibly pleasant Sunset Marquis hotel – a luxurious retreat just off the fabled Sunset Strip, whose walls groan under the weight of signed black and white photos of the musicians who have trashed rooms here.
The latest rock stars to be enjoying the hotel's hospitality are Linkin Park's singer Chester Bennington, bass player Dave 'Phoenix' Farell and the band's musical linchpin and other frontman Mike Shinoda. The rest of the band – guitarist Brad Delson, DJ Joe Hahn and drummer Rob Bourdon – have been spared interview duties for the day, but the three here today are all smiling, making jokes and seem pleased to be present. It makes a nice change.
It's a curious thing that, in the past when speaking to Linkin Park, they were exceptionally skilled at saying absolutely nothing at all. They were defensive, they appeared paranoid and they seemed to want you out the door before anything could happen. As a journalist you would leave feeling as if you'd spent 30 minutes batting a ball against a wall: each time the ball coming unrelentingly back, progress impossible.
Chester has been the only exception. He's spoken about his troubled childhood and the problems he had with drugs and alcohol that once made him an outsider from the rest of the band. He's revealed there have been times in his life that he'd “wake up and have a pint of Jack Daniel's to calm down, then I'd pop a bunch of pills and fucking freak out”. And it's this that has made him seem, at times, to possess the only personality in the band.
Mike has, hitherto, remained a closed book. If it belongs to anyone, Linkin Park belongs to Mike: he is its musical mastermind; it is to him that the rest of the band turn when they need leadership or new songs. Yet, from his public persona, he appears more marketing manager than musician. Today, to my pleasant surprise, he is different.
Dave, too – possibly by dint of not being one of the two frontmen – has managed to remain fairly anonymous. Yet to meet him is to meet someone laid-back and amiably happy-go-lucky. He's keen to crack jokes, he gently mocks Mike and, in return, is teased back. Odd, then, that this hasn't come across before.
But this afternoon, for some reason, the usual guards are down. The conversation flows, the spirits are high and the mood is relaxed. It's an enjoyable way to pass a few hours – which is not something that is often said about interviewing Linkin Park.
They're here to talk about A Thousand Suns – an album that will raise eyebrows. It follows 2007's Minutes To Midnight, on which they took a sharp left turn and rejected the nu-metal genre they both led and epitomized. Their fourth album continues the veer from the path and seems intent on deconstructing the very ordered music they created on both first album Hybrid Theory and second album Meteora (or Hybrid Theory I and ll as Linkin Park, reflecting on their similarities, call them in private).
It was with those first offerings that they came to define nu-metal. Honed, rigorously and rigidly structured, they teemed with choruses and riffs that brimmed with both catchiness and commerciality. Such was the success of their debut that it was certified Diamond, putting it in the same category, sales-wise, as Pink Floyd's The Wall, Led Zeppelin IV and AC/DC's Back In Black. In total they've sold over 50 million albums worldwide and, rumour has it, more than U2 in the last decade.
But they weren't entirely happy with the sound that they had come to characterise and third album Minutes To Midnight was designed to manoeuvre them into more classic rock territory. That Mike accompanied its realease by saying things like, “You can shove nu-metal up your ass” only reinforced their desire to go in a new direction. The record didn't sell anything like as many copies as each of the two before it, thought it still went double Platinum – but, then again, that wasn't the point.
All of which brings us to A Thousand Suns. Unfortunately, paranoia about leaks being what it is, there are only six tracks available to which to listen before questioning its creators. Three of those are, at the time of interview, untitled as well, which makes imagining the whole album trickier still. But what those songs do reveal is that Linkin Park have taken further steps to reject their past.
Processed beats dominate. There are tracks here that are far closer to dance music than they are to rock, hip-hop and nu-metal. You have to hunt for choruses; certain tracks have no structure whatsoever but simply flow, whimsically, from start to finish, while others contain diverse influences far removed from the big guitar, big hooks formula of old. Listening to the six songs made available today, it's hard to see how they will fit into the band's live set alongside the old favouvites – 'Yes, I do wonder what we're going to be able do to live”, Chester will later admit. In fact, often the only thing that lets you know it's Linkin Park at all is the sound of their singer's distinctive voice.
Three immediate thoughts spring to mind: where Minutes To Midnight sounded like a Chester record, this sounds entirely like a Mike record; if the record company were hoping for a return to commercial hits, they're going to be upset, and are Linkin Park trying to disassemble their former achievements and start again?