Interview: What Does ‘Post Traumatic’ Mean to Mike Shinoda?
In mid-August during a stadium show in Tokyo, Japan, Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda played a sustained chord on the electric piano every five seconds or so. At the same time, he addressed the crowd about loss and, more specifically, the memory of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington who took his own life on July 20, 2017.
“This is not about sadness. This is not about grief anymore, really, for me at least,” Shinoda said to the throng of fans, some of whom wiped tears from their eyes as he spoke. “I want you guys to know, you are 100 percent allowed to have any feelings you have, and my feelings are about celebration because Chester Bennington was one of the best singers of all time. We were all just fortunate to know him.”
After his impromptu speech, Shinoda launched into the Linkin Park hit “In the End” and the crowd chanted along in reverence, every word a kernel of wisdom to cherish. In theory, the "Post Traumatic Tour" is an opportunity for Shinoda to promote his 2018 solo album Post Traumatic, which he wrote in the months following his bandmate’s death. In reality, it’s more than that. It’s a means for the songwriter to prove, at least to himself, that he can create relevant music on his own while he and his Linkin Park bandmates decide on their next move. And, it’s a chance to interact with his fans as intimately as an artist can from a stadium stage. In addition to personally addressing the crowds at the concerts, Shinoda has incorporated his paintings into the show and is taking part in an experimental project with a select number of ticketholders.
“It’s basically a live mural,” Shinoda explained before a show in Raleigh, North Carolina. “There’s a wall made of blank 12-inch vinyl sleeves. I do a mural in one or two colors and I’ll take requests from the fans as to what to put on it. They'll help me create it. And then I’ll leave and they finish it by coloring it in or adding to it or whatever they want. Then they get to take the sleeves home.”
For music lovers who consider their favorite bands as a cathartic escape from real-life hardships, taking part in a ceremony with Linkin Park’s singer is like being involved in the world’s largest group therapy session. For the audience members who are there to enjoy a day of catchy tunes, well, they’re just as welcome as the kids who are hurting and need consolation.
“The show is such a combination of so many different emotions, and it differs from person to person,” Shinoda says. “You can have somebody who’s really emotional and hurting standing right next to somebody who's singing and screaming and jumping around. That’s a unique situation to be in and it’s very gratifying for me to see how much the music means to both kinds of people.”
During a revealing, thought-provoking conversation, Shinoda spoke to Loudwire about the healing powers music, situations that drive some celebrities over the edge, the challenges of writing songs during the hardest period of his life, how Linkin Park fans played a crucial role in helping him cope with the loss of Bennington and whether or not he still feels Chester’s presence.
Much of the music on Post Traumatic is upbeat, yet the lyrics are often pain-stricken. Is it ever difficult to perform these confessional songs for huge crowds?
Mike Shinoda: The ones I perform in the set were chosen because I knew that I could sing them. [The album opener] “Place to Start” is a bit hard for me to perform emotionally, so I do that one in moderation. That one’s a little hard because I did it in the beginning of the process of everything, and the first verse of “Over Again” is tough (‘It was a month since he passed, maybe less / And no one knew what to do, we were such a mess / We were texting, we were calling, we were checking in / We said we ought to play a show in honor of our friend’), so I don’t do that for some of the shows. It’s more self-care than anything.
Do you often feel drained after the shows?
Actually, the shows have been really great for me and I think that a lot of the songs, although they came from a darker time, have a different meaning now that I know what the journey has been. The album was written during the first nine months after Chester passed away, and then it's been another half a year since then. So I'm in a much different place than I was and sometimes I listen to those earlier songs and it's kind of striking to me how far things have come and how different I feel about them now than I used to.
You said in Japan that performing Linkin Park songs as well as songs from Post Traumatic isn’t about grief anymore. Are you over the grieving period, which typically consists of five stages: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance?
For me, it's been kind of a thing that comes in waves and not everyone experiences all of those things and not everyone feels them in that order so everyone can be all over the place. These days, I feel like I’m pretty well because I feel like I've found a new normal in terms of purpose and routine. I tell people I'm a member of a club I never wanted to belong to. I'll get in that conversation [about death and depression] through interviews or just in everyday conversations about mental health and I'm learning a lot and it does bring a lot. I feel energized by those conversations. I think I originally expected that they would be more exhausting than they are.
Usually, for me, it feels like a really worthwhile cause and I know that so many of the people who come to the shows have experienced depression in one form or another. And also, mental health is a subject that some folks are just unfamiliar with or afraid of. I think talking about it helps, so I'm happy to engage in the conversation.
When people talk about Chester, Chris Cornell or even Anthony Bourdain, they see celebrities who had everything – fame, money, beautiful families – and for some reason decided that dying would be less painful than living. That’s difficult for fans to understand.
Whether you’re involved in music, TV, movies, art or anything public and you’re known as a creator of these things, there’s a pressure that comes with that both externally and internally. It’s a pressure to continue to make great things. It's a pressure to continue to grow and get better or get sharper or be more successful and it's a very complicated experience for so many reasons.
My wife turned me onto a really great podcast that I've been talking about recently. It's from about 10 years ago and it’s from Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat Pray Love. She talked about genius and inspiration and how the ancient Greeks and Romans used to see that as an external force or a God or a series of gods that would act through humans. So, you aren't responsible for the great ideas that happen, and the benefit of that is that the pressure of doing it is off of you. You were just a vessel when it hit and you came up with a great idea for a song or a poem or philosophical idea.
Socrates would say that ideas were the result of “daemons” coming to him and the Romans actually called those entities a “genius,” and the genius wasn't the human. It was the thing that came to you and through you. So, if it didn't happen the next time, it wasn't your fault. When you did something that failed, the genius just chose someone else and didn’t come to you. [Believing in that] would help a lot of musicians or artists who feel pressure to follow up a success because if that’s not happening sometimes we can be really hard on ourselves.
Many successful artists feel like they’re conduits of creativity, like lightning rods that are struck with these ideas from somewhere and then they mold these ideas into art.
That’s how I feel, but if you achieve a certain level of success the pressure is still on you to try and harness that creativity again. So, if you’re sitting down working day after day and it’s not happening, it can be stressful. Maybe you feel like the stuff isn’t any good or maybe you like it but other people don’t. That’s really hard on you and it’s compounded by the idea that as a musician you go onstage and there's this huge rush of adrenaline and happiness and you feel the admiration from the crowd. You’re in the center of this thing and everybody's there to watch. I've seen a lot of musicians struggle with the rollercoaster of emotion and adrenaline that comes with that. The show is the highest high point of your life and then all the rest of the day is like a downer or you're waiting for the next show.
Have you ever struggled with depression or anxiety?
I mean depression, sure, like down days. Actually, I don't know if I would call it depression because I see having bad days as a natural part of life. So I don't want to characterize it that way because I feel like what I deal with is so different from somebody that feels like they've got a lot of really down, bad days. Being down sometimes is different than clinical depression and I don't necessarily feel like that’s me. I got into music because I love music. I’ve been playing music since I was three years old and I simultaneously got into art and painting.
Could you have imagined back then that music would make you famous?
I always wanted that but I thought painting was always going to be the focus of my career and the music was always going to be my hobby. I felt like it was less likely that I’d be able to make a living with music. So when I got the opportunity to swap those two things and put the music in the front I felt so lucky. And from the outset, I was in it because I love to do it. I loved the creative process and listening to music and watching shows. Going out and playing wasn't the same for me as, for example, somebody who does it because they loved the attention or because they love the girls or the money. That’s not to say that I don't appreciate those things. Of course, anyone in my shoes would appreciate those things, and they're great. But if things start to get complicated or go sideways you can't take away from me the fact that I love the music.
Not all of Post Traumatic is about Chester. But by making the album when you did and by naming the record what you did it’s impossible not to link the tour with the tragedy, especially since you did the record while you were processing what happened.
I think the show is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I'd read reviews of the show or pieces written by journalists and one of them said, “Yeah, the whole show is a tribute to Chester and it’s so powerful and emotional and cathartic.” And another person wrote that the show has a moment of tribute to Chester, but the whole thing is more of a celebration of life and music and the various projects that I've done and I've been involved with. To me, those two pieces were a very different take on what the show was about. It's in the eyes of the beholder. If someone comes in and they’ve never lost anybody and they’re standing right next to someone whose mother just died, clearly those people are going to have very different impressions of the show.
What’s the show about for you?
In the beginning, it was about a couple things — exorcizing some of the fear and to clear away some anxiety about performing. And then there was this feeling of, “Okay, do I have an artistic identity outside of Linkin Park?” I guess I knew I did, but I wanted to further define it and explore it and say, “Well, this is the hand I've been dealt. I'm going to play it. I’m going to get out there and try out different ways of doing the show.” In the very beginning, I did it all completely by myself because I knew it would be the scariest way to do it in the most revealing way, not just to the crowd, but to me as the person creating the show. After doing it that way, I went, “Okay, I learned what worked.” I figured out what felt weird to perform and what went well. I found out if some part of the show seemed too slow or too fast and I started sculpting what the show is. Eventually, I added a multi-instrumentalist named Matt and a drummer named Dan.
Was it more fun to do the show with other musicians?
One of the things that's great about these guys is that I really wanted an element of improvisation. I wanted every show to be able to move in a different way than Linkin Park shows, which have historically been the same set every night or closely related versions of the same set every night. With this show I wanted the flexibility to do more different things from night to night, and these guys are very good at adapting to that and improvising on the fly. It’s funny because I'm used to most of the guys in Linkin Park having to spend days and days learning a song. I give Dan a song and he basically got it down in 15 minutes.
Are the tribute moments before “In the End” always somber?
Not always. I try my best to make it unique and specific to the crowd and be very present in the moment. Sometimes it’s very much of a tribute and sometimes it’s something funny. Some nights I’ll look down and look over my shoulder and I'll see somebody and they know that it's coming. They know I'm going to play “In the End” and they're so emotional. Then on the flip side, I was in that exact same part in the set at another day and this young guy yelled out, “Mike. Will you be my dad?” So we ran with it. I told him, yes, and then I told him, “Since I’m your dad I get to rename you.” His name was Zach, but we renamed him Kahani. And I called him Kahani for the rest of the night. It’s fun when things like that happen, but it’s just as important to address more serious subjects, and there's room in this set for all of those things.
The outpouring of grief, love and support that fans expressed after Chester died was as powerful as the emotions people exhibit when they’re grieving actual family members. It seems like so many fans consider themselves to be a part of the Linkin Park family.
In the last couple of years, I have been so impressed with how considerate they have been with not only our band but with other fan bases and their people. When I see somebody who's down a bit, our fans actually reached out, which was fantastic. When [Swedish DJ] Avicci passed away [on April 20, 2018], I saw our fans reaching out to his fans, saying we know what it's like, and trying to talk to them. I was really proud of them for that.
Do you ever feel like Chester's watching over you while you're playing and if so do you think he’s feeling the love?
I did a song on the record called “Ghost,” which is all about the idea that whenever you go through something like this, ghost stories come up and people who are really into that stuff tend to really talk about it. I’m not particularly into all that so it's weird. I’ve heard a lot of crazy stories and I'm not a believer or a non-believer. To me, it is what it is. But in terms of whether Chester’s feeling the love, it’s interesting.
I was having the hardest time, in the beginning, trying to figure out if I was doing the right thing and what I ought to be doing. This was a few weeks after Chester passed. Then I started reading Sheryl Sandberg's book, Option B. She had written a book about the empowerment of women in the workforce and all of a sudden her husband passed away and she had this whole different outlook on life and even on her own work. I was reading that and relating to some of it. Then, at one point, she started a hashtag at her work with her friends that said: “#MakeDaveProud.” I thought that was great and I told our fans on Twitter that I was going to rip off her idea and give her credit. We started: “#MakeChesterProud,” and a lot of people joined in.
Have other musical or artistic opportunities arisen since you finished Post Traumatic and started touring?
I don't have anything on the calendar right now terms of new art or gallery exhibits. But art finds its way into the Post Traumatic tour. And as far as other things go for myself and other people, I’m making the big decisions on what I should do as I go along. In general, I want to do things that I think are healthy for me and leave doors open for various opportunities. It’s like a journey I’m on. I don't have like a goal or a destination in mind. I'm not trying to be in some specific place. I'm just doing what feels good right now, and as I'm going, if I see another path that feels good I'll either leave doors open for that or I'll just change direction and go there.
Have there been any baby steps taken towards playing again with the Linkin Park guys?
There’s no new information now.
Do you feel like this tour is giving you closure?
It’s really not about that. I think the central goal has been to get out there and thank the fans in person for being there for me. When I when I was looking on Twitter and Instagram after Chester passed away, it was really comforting to me. I saw all of the amazing things fans said, the murals they made, the tribute concerts they held with cover bands and fans just gathering together and singing songs. So many people showed their love and their respect in so many different ways. I just felt really motivated to come out and thank people in person. That was a major driver for all of this.
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