The story of Linkin Park’s Meteora: “We’re not going to worry about outselling Hybrid Theory”

How do you follow up an album like Hybrid Theory? With the eyes of the world firmly fixed upon them, Linkin Park sought to do the impossible: bottle lightning for a second time…

The story of Linkin Park’s Meteora: “We’re not going to worry about outselling Hybrid Theory”
James Hickie
James Minchin

Before 2003, the undisputed title of ‘Most Famous Meteora’ would have gone to the rock formation in central Greece. Situated near the spectacular Pindus Mountains, it’s the site of six monasteries, the last remaining ones of the 24 that once stood there, hewn from vast pillars amidst precariously steep drops. The word ‘Meteora’ roughly translates as ‘lofty’.

Linkin Park had created their unique and lasting impact on rock with Hybrid Theory. But they appeared to have fashioned a rod for their own back, too, given the album’s outrageous fortune. Even before completing their tours in support of their debut, questions of how they’d follow up such an unprecedented success story loomed large. Would Linkin Park stumble and fall into the abyss the second time around?

Even a cursory look at the state of the scene gave reason for worry. Some of the biggest names in nu-metal had shown signs of a downturn. Korn and Papa Roach, both unit-shifters of the highest order, had underperformed commercially with their Untouchables and Lovehatetragedy albums the previous year. Maybe fans were switching off? Chester Bennington didn’t seem to think so.

“I hate to say it, because I love both of those bands, musically and as people, but there is an up and down cycle in everyone’s life and career,” the singer reasoned. “If our fans don’t like our album, I think we should take it as a sign [they] don’t like our [second] album. I think we should take it as a sign that we’ve lost touch with our fans and we need to regain that trust.”

“This band works better under pressure,” he would say of Linkin Park’s preparation for their very own Meteora. “We’re not going to worry about outselling Hybrid Theory, because you cannot count on those things. You just have to go in and write songs you like and do things that make you happy. If you can do that, then you’ve succeeded. We never imagined this kind of response and it’s a great thing to be part of. To attempt to match this for that sake alone is ridiculous.”

Chester’s cool head was likely down to the knowledge his band were already deep into the creative process for album number two, having written 80 demos during the eight months they’d spent on the road. Given a solid touring schedule designed to keep the momentum going, they took to working aboard their bus, where the cramped, box-like conditions weren’t dissimilar to the bedroom Mike Shinoda had made his studio when the band was called Xero – albeit with gear that cost a little more than the $300 he’d spent back in the day.

“The nicest thing about having any recording equipment on the road is it allows you to capture that moment of spontaneity,” said Dave Farrell during an interview for The Making Of Meteora.

“Something about that energy of just having figured it out is important,” added Mike in the 30-minute documentary, which would come as part of the special edition of the album. “If you listen to [the demos] three years later, you still hear that energy.”

A case in point was Somewhere I Belong, which would become the album’s colossal first single. It started life when Chester, not necessarily known for his guitar playing, was noodling on an acoustic and happened upon the notes that make up the song’s distinct intro – sort of. While Mike loved the hook, he considered it “too folky” because of the instrument it was played on. But instead of simply playing the song on a different instrument, or building up the elements around it, Mike and Joe Hahn reversed the sequence to give it the sweeping quality you hear on the finished song, before cutting it up into sections and reassembling the chord progression Mike had been so taken with.

Sometimes these alterations took place in slightly more clandestine ways. The album’s second single, Faint, came from a riff Brad Delson had played to a click track at 70 beats per minute, the resting heartbeat of the average human. By the time the guitarist returned to pick up his work in progress, he discovered Mike had snuck in and put his own stamp on it, upping the tempo to make it twice as fast, more akin to that of a trance track. After some debate, it was agreed the pacier version worked better.

The creative production line style employed by Linkin Park on Meteora was based less on collective jamming, and more on working in twos at Mike’s home studio. Mike was ostensibly in charge. As well as being a technical whiz, he had a skill for eliciting the best performances from his bandmates, even if he didn’t always take things seriously. Dave suggested the pairing of him and Mike would more often than not result in jokey songs that were “insanely bad”. Chester was no stranger to messing about either, penning a ditty called The Wizard Song that found him crooning the words: ‘Down the fairy tale path, there is a wizard awaiting you.’ Mercifully, it didn’t make the cut.

Among its many qualities, Meteora is one of the most effective musical illustrations of the maxim, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Before work began on the album, the band joked with one another that they should do everything the same second time around, right down to having Mike drive them to shows in an RV, to maximise the chances of replicating the runaway success of Hybrid Theory, which continued to sell by the truckload even after the band ceased touring in support of it. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Brad wondered aloud of their tongue-in-cheek plan. “Probably not.”

In reality, save for the RV bit, there was a same-song-second-verse quality about Meteora, starting with the band’s return to NRG Studios in North Hollywood. And despite discussions around potential candidates for the role of producer, the band eventually decided Don Gilmore should man the console once more, given his familiarity with their way of working, particularly their penchant for crafting a song, breaking it down and building it back up again – a process that resulted in recording taking a whole year. (That was nothing; the band’s perfectionism was so painstaking on Breaking The Habit that by the time it was finished, Mike had worked on it for five years.)

There was a key difference this time around, though: Don had the added pressure of sharing production duties with his charges. In 2002, Linkin Park had made Reanimation, a collection of their reworked tracks featuring the likes of Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Staind’s Aaron Lewis. The experience had a profound effect on the band. Not only did it confirm their continued pulling power – becoming the fourth biggest-selling remix album of all time – it piqued their interest in the technical aspects of making a record, and how they could be harnessed for greater levels of experimentation.

As well as navigating their evolution as musicians, the six members of Linkin Park were also dealing with the dramatic experiences of the past three years. On Hybrid Theory they’d learned to be a band; on Meteora they were dealing with the pressures of being bona fide rock stars – though Chester, for one, didn’t want that change of status to bleed into his work.

“I don’t want our success to affect my art,” he said, while admitting to feeling more stressed than ever during this period. “We’re still the same people and we’re still writing about the same feelings.”

For Chester, that meant revisiting the darker periods of his life, which he’d detail with increased frequency during interviews to promote the album, and would continue to do on subsequent releases. For now, he spoke of being in the clutches of substance abuse as a teenager, of thinking about shooting up because he’d grown bored of the usual highs, and how his emaciated frame had once prompted his horrified mother, a nurse, to liken his appearance to that of a concentration camp prisoner. Surprisingly, despite its title, Meteora’s fifth and final single, Breaking The Habit, wasn’t actually penned by Chester, and in fact wasn’t about his own experiences; Mike – inspired by another close friend’s battle with drug addiction – had written it long before the co-vocalists ever crossed paths and microphones

While Meteora’s more-of-the-same approach thrilled fans when it was unveiled to the world on March 25, 2003, some, including this very magazine, criticised the lack of progression since its predecessor. The 3/5 write-up at the time stated: “With Hybrid Theory, an album so precisely targeted to satiate music buyers rather than music lovers, you can’t help but wonder if there’s any need for a Part 2.” Rolling Stone agreed, complaining it was the sound of the band “[squeezing] the last remaining life out of this nearly extinct formula”. The album’s debut at Number One in the Billboard 200 – a feat not even Hybrid Theory had achieved – and over 810,000 sales in its first week said otherwise.

“It’s an obvious thing to focus on,” Chester had said of the speculation around sales figures ahead of the album’s release. “It’s like, ‘You sold 10 million records! Do you expect to sell another 10 million records?’ No. Would it be nice? Yeah. Is it a reality? No, it’s not.”

Chester had been wrong – it would go on to sell more than 27 million copies – but so was Rolling Stone to suggest Linkin Park had ridden their formula off the rails. They’d approach many of Meteora’s tracks again on Collision Course, a 2004 collaborative EP with rap giant Jay-Z that illustrated the breadth of mega talents they could share a stage with.

While Linkin Park continued to make lemonade, life still occasionally threw the odd lemon in their direction, particularly when in the build-up to 2003’s European tour, Chester began experiencing excruciating pain.

“I thought I was gonna die,” he told K! a month later, taking a break from shooting the video for Numb in Los Angeles, after the plans to film in Prague were nixed in the wake of his illness. “I was in peak physical condition a few months back, I was ready to go, and then, on that one morning, I wake up with a slight ache in my back. Two hours after that, I feel like I’m going to die.”

A hospital visit later saw Chester diagnosed with an aggressive viral infection that caused the already wiry singer to lose weight and be sapped of the energy he was celebrated for onstage.

Thankfully, he was back on that stage for Metallica’s Summer Sanitarium Tour, and firing on all cylinders if their Live In Texas album, released that November, was anything to go by.

Linkin Park reunited with Metallica the following summer at Download Festival, where the nu-metal megastars vaulted the bill to share headline status with the thrash legends. It was the band’s very first time playing Donington.

Despite mixed reviews, Collision Course became the first extended play to top the Billboard 200 since Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies a decade earlier. Its only single, Numb/Encore, nabbed a GRAMMY in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration – though, for some reason, that wasn’t until 2006, two years on from its release.

By that time, Linkin Park were already on to the next thing. With Meteora, they had managed to pull off an incredible feat twice over – thrice if you include Reanimation, and four times with Collision Course – but they were ready to try something new, as ever, on their own ambitious terms. And with a little help from a certain legendary bearded producer. Midnight was approaching. A new dawn beckoned.

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