Linkin Park: The Story Behind Their Final Album, One More Light
May 2017. The release of Linkin Park’s seventh album – their first in three years – was fast approaching. That meant interviews – lots of interviews. For Chester, the scrutiny being heaped upon his band’s drastic new direction had begun to chafe.
Had the group once accused of being a ‘boy band’ made a full-blown pop album? Why was it so different? What was their reason for the change? It was the latter line of inquiry that brought things to a head in an interview with industry magazine Music Week, when Chester was asked how he’d respond to those suggesting Linkin Park had ‘sold out.’
“If you’re saying we’re doing what we’re doing for a commercial or monetary reason, trying to make success out of some formula… then stab yourself in the face,” the singer fired back with a cackle.
Chester’s mixture of anger and laughter was fitting given Linkin Park’s recent appearance in a Funny Or Die sketch alongside their friends blink-182, in which the two bands offer moral support to a couple on a date. The sketch doubled as an advert for their forthcoming ‘Welcome to Blinkin Park’ stadium shows. Tragically, given what would happen that July, they would never take place.
“I don’t give a fuck what they think,” Chester said of the naysayers in a Kerrang! fan interview weeks later. “The only time it bothers me is when people make it personal. We’re really used to people going all over the place on what they think we should be doing in terms of music, but when people turn that opinion into an attack on me as a person, that’s when I say, ‘Alright dude, say that shit to my face!’”
While not the most universally embraced of Linkin Park’s releases, One More Light represented the most fascinating – and heartbreaking – chapter in the band’s career.
Chester was on the money to suggest his band weren’t strangers to having their creative decisions taken to task. In that same incendiary Music Week interview he’d rallied against fans’ continued preoccupation with Linkin Park’s early days, particularly their debut.
“When we made Hybrid Theory, I was the oldest guy in the band and in my early 20s,” he recalled. “That’s why I guess I’m like: ‘Why are we still talking about Hybrid Theory? It’s fucking years ago. It’s a great record – we love it. Like, move the fuck on.’”
Perhaps One More Light came as a surprise because of how much it had moved on from its predecessor, 2014’s The Hunting Party, which had featured contributions from Helmet’s Page Hamilton, System Of A Down’s Daron Malakian and Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello. Despite cameos from luminaries of rock and metal, the resulting album saw the band caught, often awkwardly, between heavier and dreamier impulses.
For Linkin Park, the most fundamental difference between The Hunting Party and One More Light was that the former was “inward facing” and the latter “outward facing”. And while One More Light would prove more divisive, it was more decisive too, forgoing the boundaries of genre altogether (Mike would proudly tweet the words ‘Genre is dead’ during this period.) Coupled with a totally new way of working, the band was able to express themselves, emotionally and musically, like never before.
“My answer before was to close my eyes, grab a machete and just start swinging,” said Chester, describing his previous creative approach. “That worked for a long time, but doing that you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t know what you’re swinging at. Now I survey the area where I want to go and I find the most productive way of getting there, and I work with as many people as I can to tread a clear path.”
Somewhat controversially, on One More Light these collaborators included Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, bona fide hitmakers who’d worked with Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani. Both halves of the songwriting team brought crucial ingredients to the table.
“Julia seemed to be able to tap into that dark side quite easily,” said Chester, “which is awesome because that’s where I live.” Chester had originally asked Julia to lend her vocals to the album’s first single, Heavy, but she’d refused on the grounds she preferred to remain in the background creatively. She evidently warmed to the idea though, because a few months later she had a hit of her own with the song Issues. “Something must have happened to change her mind,” laughed Chester.
Released on February 16, 2017, Heavy featured singer-songwriter Kiiara (real name: Kiara Saulters), a huge Linkin Park fan.
“I’d already done a whole performance of the entire song all the way through, and then she came in and crushed her vocal,” recalls Chester. “It took the song to another place; it gave me the feeling that it’s not just me going through that thing. It’s not a duet love song – it’s two people approaching the same experience.”
Seeing a situation through another’s eyes was also powerfully brought to the fore by Talking To Myself, which saw Chester empathising with his second wife Talinda’s position when he was at his unsalvageable low points.
“It’s about relating to how [she] must have felt when I was battling my demons,” explained Chester. “Seeing it going down and not being able to do something must have sucked.”
For Justin, the other side of the creative pair assisting the band – not to mention the former frontman of New York alt.rockers Semi Precious Weapons – the first step to penning a smash was finding a subject with a story to tell, then “amplify [their] guts”. He had plenty to work with with Linkin Park, six men with no shortage of questions, frustrations and fascinations – which Mike would list on a board for inspiration.
“It’s so nice to get to sit in a room and talk about life with your friends,” reflected Chester of the process they adopted, which saw the band finalise the lyrics to a song before any music was composed for it. “[It wasn’t] stuff like the weather or what we had for lunch yesterday, but really getting into what’s going on with each other.”
Amy Zaret had worked with Linkin Park in their early days. As a radio plugger she’d been responsible for getting them airplay and dutifully chauffeuring them between interviews with stations in the U.S. Midwest. When the band heard from her intermittently, they were heartened to hear her career ascent had been as steep as their own. Then they learned she had cancer – and not long after that, that she’d passed away.
“We knew we absolutely had to write about what happened,” said Mike. British songwriter Eg White, who’d worked with Adele, Dua Lipa and Florence And The Machine, was drafted in to help the band realise the song. “It’s a sad song,” explained Mike. “But the pay-off is that when something dramatic and painful like that happens, the most important thing to do is to connect with the people you love and remind them you care about them.”
Despite One More Light’s call to embrace the life we have, death continued to surround the band. When Linkin Park performed the song on Jimmy Kimmel, it was dedicated to Chris Cornell, who had taken his own life the night before, hours after playing a Soundgarden show in Detroit. “I can’t imagine a world without you in it,” Chester wrote in an open letter to his friend, posted on Instagram. “I pray you find peace in the next life.”
This life had resulted in some wonderful things for the members of Linkin Park. Despite its cryptic lyrics – ‘I was not mad at you / I was not trying to tear you down / The words that I could’ve used / I was too scared to say out loud’ – Invisible examined fatherhood, a topic Mike had long wanted to write about, given the positive impact his two children had upon him. The idea was reflected in the album’s artwork, which featured children frolicking in the surf on Venice Beach as the sun is setting. Frank Maddocks, who’d worked on the artwork for all of the band’s albums, had taken the picture. Its balance of light and darkness, as well as the nods to home and shared lives, stuck with the band.
“[It] reminds me of what it looks like when all of our families meet and our kids are together,” said Mike. “For that reason there’s a personal connection between this artwork and the place the music came from.”
Unsurprisingly, given early reactions, One More Light received mixed write-ups upon release. Some relished the chance to dish out pithy takedowns, suggesting the album “makes Ed Sheeran sound like Extreme Noise Terror”. Others accused the band of opportunism, suggesting they were “[chasing] the trend of pop-EDM.” In our 3K review, Kerrang! said that Linkin Park had earned the right to be whatever they wanted to be. “The band that made [Hybrid Theory] are now approaching their forties – family men with different impulses and a different muse. Will the same people that like Papercut like this album? Perhaps not; but for a new generation of fans, One More Light will be their Linkin Park album – a collection of well-crafted songs providing a gateway to the live shows and those early albums.”
By that stage, Linkin Park themselves were more philosophical, realising they couldn’t please everyone.
“I love the fact that you’ll find comments pretty regularly that say things like, ‘The heavy stuff is my thing, but I can get into this,’ or, ‘I’m going to skip this one,’” explained Mike. “Both are fine with us.”
Even Chester, who’d unleashed his fair share of fury on this album’s campaign, had settled down. “I find it so cute that some of our fans still haven’t figured out what we’re about,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me – I expected it as we do throw some pretty big curveballs.”
“I don’t know where we’re going in the future,” Mike had told Kerrang! in May 2017. “We’re just riding the wave.”
Two months later that wave would suddenly come crashing down. On July 20, Chester died by suicide at his California home, aged 41, leaving behind his wife and six children. “Our hearts are broken,’ the band wrote in a statement four days later. “The shockwaves of grief and denial are still sweeping through our family as we come to grips with what has happened.”
Chester had, of course, not been one to keep his struggles a secret, which was his way of letting fans in a similar position know there was nothing wrong with saying you’re not okay.
“I never feel comfortable or satisfied,” he’d told Kerrang! two months earlier, the sound of his children playing audible in the background. “The thing that makes things heavy for me are thoughts and behaviours where [I’m] caught in these cycles of negativity or substance abuse. There’s a really bad neighbourhood inside my skull, so I shouldn’t walk those streets by myself.”
Clearly, Chester had taken that journey one too many times and could no longer face the places it took him. In the days, weeks and months following Chester’s death, the poignancy of One More Light, particularly the title-track, which was posthumously released as a single and explored the fragility and transience of life, started to make more sense.
“I think the lyrical content is what provides the sustenance,” Chester had said. On July 6, the singer stood in the crowd at Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena, serenading the fans right in front of him with the words to One More Light. ‘If they say / Who cares if one more light goes out? / In a sky of a million stars / It flickers, flickers / Who cares when someone’s time runs out? / If a moment is all we are / We’re quicker, quicker / Who cares if one more light goes out? / Well I do.’ It would be his last ever performance.
Just 14 days later, fans were turning those words over in their minds as they faced the prospect of life without an incredibly bright star, one that was extinguished far too soon.
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