Album review: Grey Daze – The Phoenix
Grey Daze crank the volume for one last tribute to their late, great bandmate Chester Bennington on The Phoenix…
Phoenix, Arizona, 1991. Nearly a decade stands between the first vocal cuts in Chester Bennington’s turbulent backstory and his emergence as a truly iconic artist on Linkin Park’s globe-straddling breakout album, Hybrid Theory. Chester is still a kid back then – 15, skinny, full of outsider attitude. He’s arrived in the rehearsal space of a grunge quartet, later to be named Grey Daze; their drummer Sean Dowdell has been seeking out a new frontman through word of mouth. And he’s just arrived. Though two years younger than everybody in the room, Chester grabs the mic and delivers a raw, cathartic take on Pearl Jam’s hit single, Alive. The trajectory of both his and Sean’s lives will soon change forever.
“First of all, he could scream in key,” says Sean today, recalling his fateful first meeting with a singer that would go on to vocally define an era of arena-sized metal with Linkin Park. “And this was before bands like System Of A Down. Chester was one of the first guys doing that. But he could also emulate Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and all the bands we looked up to at the time. He hadn’t developed his own vocals yet, but he could emulate those styles. That was the foundation for what became Chester’s voice.”
Everybody in the room had heard enough. “When can you start?” asked Sean.
Chester shrugged. “I dunno. I need to speak to my dad. Will you come with me?”
The drummer agreed, but there was a catch. Chester’s dad was a cop, and Sean was a rock kid – “super-long hair, anti-police, and ignorant to how the world worked”. He was no match for an officer of the law. Negotiations were set to be tricky.
“When I turned up with Chester, his dad was in police uniform. I said, ‘I’d really like your son to sing in our band.’ And his immediate concern was, ‘How’s that going to affect his schooling? Is he gonna get his homework done?’ I gave his dad my word that I’d make sure he would study and the music wouldn’t interfere. And for the first year, Chester did exactly that, but he ended up dropping out after he’d left his dad’s house.”
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What followed was an exciting episode in the early lives of both Sean and Chester. The duo formed a tight songwriting union and Grey Daze went on to record two well-received, but largely unnoticed albums – 1994’s Wake Me and its 1997 follow-up, …No Sun Today – later supporting the likes of No Doubt. They sold out club shows in the Phoenix area, before splitting furiously in 1998, which is where the trail ended. Following on from Hybrid Theory’s success in 2000, record label execs “put their foot on the throat” of Grey Daze’s back catalogue, applying a restrictive bind of legal red tape. Online evidence of the band’s recorded output was erased. “They turned the water faucet off. You couldn’t find it anywhere,” says Sean. Since then, Linkin Park’s fans have long been denied the chance to hear Chester’s formative voice.
That is, until now.
Grey Daze will release their album Amends on June 26, a posthumous insight into one of the greatest frontmen of his generation. Led by opening single What’s In The Eye, a selection of reworked songs have been recorded by both the band and a smattering of top-billing friends – James ‘Munky’ Shaffer and Brian ‘Head’ Welch of Korn take co-starring roles; Page Hamilton of rifflords Helmet features; while Chester’s son, Jaime, also appears on Soul Song. Meanwhile, the record showcases the vocals and lyrics of a younger Chester, his tone upgraded with a deeper, heavier backing than the proto-grunge texture of Grey Daze’s original sound.
“There is a depth in the lyrics on this record,” says Sean. “Chester sings every word like he believes every single emotion attached. It’s bittersweet for me. There’s that big, obvious looming thing that he’s not here to share this with me. But I’m very proud in how we curated this music. We took almost three years to make this record after he passed. I think he’d be quite proud of what we did.”
Anyone sniffing for hints of a cynical commercial exercise should check themselves: Chester was very much a driving force behind the album’s release in the first place, having first suggested revisiting Grey Daze in 2016. “We were partners in [tattoo and piercing brand] Club Tattoo,” says Sean. “I knew him as a friend and a bandmate, and a father and a business partner. Club Tattoo threw these parties where we’d get up and play with our all-star friends, like the guys from Alien Ant Farm, or Mike Shinoda. In 2016, we had an anniversary party to plan and Chester said, ‘Hey, let’s put Grey Daze back together for a show.’
“Since leaving Stone Temple Pilots [in 2015, after a two-year stint as vocalist] I think he wanted something of his own. He wasn’t dissing Linkin Park. He just wanted something else. Chester was always searching for that fulfilment, musically. Linkin Park gave him a certain type of fulfilment and I think he wanted something different. He said, ‘I miss being in a rock band with my buddies: I want to put Grey Daze back together.’ At that point we had three albums’ worth of material just sitting there that basically nobody had heard.”
As Linkin Park toured the world in support of their 2017 album, One More Light, Sean’s plans to reform Grey Daze for a one-off show were upscaled. “I said [to Chester], ‘What do you think about re-recording some of these songs?’ And he says, ‘I was just thinking about that! You guys start rehearsing back in Arizona. When I get off the road, I can re-track the vocals and we can put this thing out quickly…’” And so Grey Daze – Sean, plus bassist Mace Beyers and new guitarist Cristin Davis – began “ripping apart old tapes”. They re-tracked guitars and pinged new takes to Chester’s email. Eventually, it was decided the “timbre and tones” of old cuts such as In Time should be rerecorded entirely. Guitar lines and doomy synths were added; momentum had gathered.
“I just wanted to play with my friend,” says Sean. “Chester told me, ‘It’s not going to be super serious, or take precedent over Linkin Park’s stuff.’ But we also realised the songs really were good, and Chester thought they would resonate with his fans, so we figured, ‘Let’s put them out and see what happens.’ Once he and I had made an announcement [that we were working on the music] online, we started getting offers to play shows all over the world. He called me and said, ‘Hey man, let’s go ahead and start thinking about doing some one-off shows and festivals. I’m already starting to get calls to book the band.’ I said, ‘Fuck yeah!’
“None of us needed to do it – we just wanted to do it for fun. Chester loved making music. I think we laughed more than we’ve laughed around anybody else when we were just playing. I think he missed that.”
And then, with talk circulating of Grey Daze’s reunion, and a swell of excitement building around what promised to be an unusual creative project, tragedy and heartbreak struck on July 20, 2017.
To hear Grey Daze’s backstory is to delve into the secret history of Chester Bennington – a story in which he developed as both a singer and a songwriter, crafting songs alongside Sean and shaping the vocal identity that would eventually propel Linkin Park to festival-headline status. “He and I had a connection in writing music together,” says Sean. “We loved to write lyrics because we both have a talent to express emotional intent. I just got him on that level. I could tell what he was trying to convey and I could help shape it. He was a genius in the ability to express his emotions into metaphor.
“I came up with this explanation: there’s a kid listening to music who doesn’t understand the pain or the emotional rollercoaster he’s going through. But he can listen to Chester singing and say, ‘I don’t understand what I’m feeling, but that right there – what Chester is singing – that’s how I feel. He’s explaining it exactly in the way he’s singing the song.’ He gave the listener the ability to express their emotions through his vocals, which I think is very special. Only a few singers in the world have ever been able to do that, and Chester was one of them.”
Once settled into Grey Daze, the pair became tight. Having left his dad’s house, Chester crashed on Sean’s sofa, but was barely self-sufficient. With rehearsals being held on the north side of Phoenix, it was tricky for Chester to make the journey across town. A compromise was to travel into Arizona State University, where Sean was studying, going on to practice after lectures had finished. Chester was 17, but in a hall full of 400 students, nobody noticed the underage kid at the back of the class. “For a semester-and-a-half he’d take the tests, even though he wasn’t enrolled,” Sean smiles.
Together, Chester and Sean began to sketch out the songs that would go on to make up Grey Daze’s recently reworked back catalogue. “A lot of the songs were written about ex-girlfriends,” laughs Sean. Others had a deeper meaning. On Sometimes, a basic message of incoming hope was laid down. “That’s such a simple idea in life. Sometimes things don’t go right, but there’s always hope that maybe things will get better. When we wrote Sometimes, he’d just left his father’s house and was living with me part-time. We were pretty inseparable.”
The pair took trips together. In 1993 they travelled to Puerto Penasco, a few hours south of Arizona, in a journey that would inspire the album track, Morei Sky. “There were a couple of little places we would stay down there to get drunk and party. We were sitting on the back of my friend’s truck. The sun was setting. Chester goes, ‘That sunset is fucking awesome!’ I used to silk-screen T-shirts and there was one pattern called the Morei Silk Screen pattern, and I told him it reminded me of that design. Chester says, ‘Oh, that’s a cool name!’
“He busted out a lyric pad and we started writing lyrics back and forth. That day and the next day we mapped out a song together. I wrote most of the vocal verse lines and he wrote the chorus, and it was so profound, especially with the events that transpired: ‘If I had a second chance I’d make amends.’”
With a strong creative coupling in place, Grey Daze gathered attention from record labels and radio stations during the mid-‘90s, creating hype in an exciting Phoenix music scene. “[U.S. rock band] Gin Blossoms had just blown up,” says Sean. “There was Alice Cooper. It wasn’t LA by any means, but it was a vibrant place with clubs like The Roxy, The Marquee and The Electric Ballroom. We were playing three shows a week. We were a top-tier band at the time; we had our own fans and were on the radio. When we played a Super Bowl party show with Bush and No Doubt in front of 12,000 people, singers from the other bands were saying, ‘Who the fuck is this? You’re amazing.’”
But Grey Daze’s path to success was potholed. In 1997, having recorded a full album with Real Records, the band was informed their paymaster’s deal with a major label had collapsed. There was no money to finish mastering the album. Worse, the label refused to return the recordings. Grey Daze were forced to re-record and fund what would later become …No Sun Today. “That put a lot of emotional stress on the band.” But despite gathering more radio play and a demo deal with Warner Bros, Grey Daze soon imploded.
“Mace was going through a lot of addiction problems,” says Sean. “My ego was out of control. Chester was getting a lot of pressure. We played a show and Mace didn’t show up until 15 minutes before. We were pissed off. He was off doing drugs, or whatever. We sucked. And about four or five songs into the set, these guys came in, walked onstage and punched Mace in the face. He flew into my drums and ruined the whole show.
“We went out of the back of the club and started screaming at one another. I’m pissed off at Mace. Chester is pissed off at Mace. Bobby (Benish, former guitarist) is pissed off at Chester. We started yelling at each other and everyone said, ‘Fuck you, and fuck you, and fuck you.’ We all went our separate ways, and couldn’t get over it.”
In a weird twist of fate, both Chester and Sean worked with new bands: Chester with Xero (who would later go on to become Linkin Park) and Sean with Waterface. Both bands would release their debut albums in 2000, with dramatically different results. Waterface fell away, but Linkin Park would go on to release Hybrid Theory, one of the bestselling albums of all time. Inevitably, the legal dark arts that had wiped Grey Daze from musical history led to resentment. “That’s one of the things that caused our falling out,” says Sean. “I was best man at Chester’s first wedding. I was his best friend. When the band broke up, he and I were so hurt that we didn’t talk for two years. I left the other project and got out of the music industry.
“Then Chester called me in 2001. He said, ‘I miss you, man.’ And I’d missed him, too.”
Sean was in Las Vegas on July 20, 2017, interviewing potential recruits for Club Tattoo’s nearby location. As he spoke, his phone started flashing on the table – once, twice, a dozen times. “It was blowing up. My wife had called. Something was going on.” When Sean rang home, he was told the awful news. Chester had died by suicide, but despite the tragedy being beamed over the TV, Sean was convinced it was a hoax. It had to be. He’d spoken to Chester just two days earlier. “He was so excited about the things that were going on. He’d said, ‘I can’t wait to start practising.’ Chester was high on life. It makes no sense to me that this happened.”
With Sean facing the emotional turbulence of Chester’s passing, Grey Daze’s rebirth was shelved. “I was trying to be there for everybody else and I don’t think I got to grieve for his loss until several months after.” When he eventually remembered the unfinished work he’d started with Chester, Sean decided to press ahead, but not before gaining approval from Chester’s wife, Talinda. “She said, ‘I trust you, I know you’re not gonna do anything that would tarnish Chester.’ I don’t think she’s listened to [the album] because it’s very hard for her, but there are people around her who are blown away by it.” In a statement on December 11, Talinda revealed how “[Chester] wanted fans to hear everything he did, and his musical journey started with Grey Daze… The project is one of the ways we can continue to tell Chester’s story and connect with his fans.”
Sean’s original plan was to release the songs without a record label. “I was going to put it out so the fans could finally hear the music,” says Sean. “That was all. I didn’t have any delusions of grandeur.” But when news of the in-progress tracks reached Tom Whalley – founder of Loma Vista records and a long-term associate of Linkin Park – Grey Daze had found a passionate supporter, though there were some understandable reservations at first.
“In the beginning I was reluctant, because I didn’t understand the purpose,” says Tom. “Was it friends trying to find a way to pay respect to him? A tribute album? What was it? Once I became aware of the full story, that Chester and his Grey Daze bandmates had made plans to tour and re-address these songs in a modern way, and the people behind the record were committed to fulfilling Chester’s vision, I was on board… It had promise. I loved the lyrics. The music was good, but dated. I can understand why Chester, Sean and the band wanted to use more modern sounds and production.”
With the project moved to L.A.’s NRG Studios, Grey Daze’s updated creation took shape. The very ‘90s vibe of the band’s material gathered a harder, more complex texture. Skittering electronica and brooding synth harmonies were stitched into the surging guitars of The Syndrome. Album opener Sickness became an oozing slice of post-grunge, while the lyrically bleak Just Like Heroin (‘It’s my time to fade, dying on the floor’) took its cues from the early work of Garbage. Elsewhere, James ‘Munky’ Shaffer and Brian ‘Head’ Welch of Korn stamped their personality on B12. “It sounded like this mash-up between Grey Daze and Korn,” says Sean. “It was amazing. Chester loved Munky.”
By the time re-recording and mixing were completed, Sean was left with 11 cuts that fused the upgraded grunge of Grey Daze to the raw, teenage incarnation of Chester’s soul-scarred voice. In its making, Sean felt the pressure of every note, every hook.
“I’m very proud in how we curated this music,” he says. “But, oh man, I have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not only do I not want to let my friend down, but I want to make sure this is something that Chester would be doing cartwheels over. I also felt a responsibility to his fans, that the music was curated in a way that they could relate to it. I didn’t want to fuck it up.”
Both celebratory and emotional, the record stands as a heartfelt echo of Chester Bennington’s power. The cathartic howls that would later inform Linkin Park’s distinctive sound across seven studio albums are there throughout; the tender, love-crushed harmonies too. And within an emotionally heavy context, it plays over an overwhelming sense of loss, regret and admiration – a mood that’s so tragically familiar to anyone hearing the returning voice of a passed icon. “I think a lot of people are going to cry the first time they hear it,” says Sean, sadly.
It’s been 29 years since that first eventful meeting with his late best friend, but thanks to Sean’s labour of love, Chester Bennington’s voice now fronts a fascinating grunge-rock time capsule. Within it, there’s a teenage kid singing, battle-bruised and full of outsider attitude. Soulfully screaming, he still sounds beautifully alive.
Amends will be released on June 26, but you can listen to it on April 10 at one of the global listening listening parties taking place in 17 different countries. All details are on the Grey Daze website.
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