Brad Delson constructs (and deconstructs) walls of guitar goodness on Linkin Park's new album, LIVING THINGS. © Paul Hebert/Corbis
The problem with most albums is that the songs are dead before they're even recorded. Endless demoing and jamming embalms the hot blood of ideas. And should a still-smoldering tune manage to survive long enough to make it to the tracking stage, the repetition of takes – a cinch now that digital has all but replaced tape – is sure to finish the job.
Songs that spring forth like inspired improvisation abound on Linkin Park's punchy and to-the-point fifth album, LIVING THINGS, a raucous 10-song collection that dials back the experimental moodiness of 2010's A Thousand Suns and reintroduces the guitar grit and propulsive force of the band's earliest works.
The six-member ensemble (vocalist Chester Bennington, guitarist Brad Delson, drummer Rob Bourdon, bassist Dave "Phoenix" Farrell, DJ/keyboardist Joe Hahn and guitarist-vocalist Mike Shinoda) resumed the pattern they established with producer Rick Rubin following 2007's Minutes To Midnight: musical bits and pieces are born in the studio, seized upon and turned into songs before the juice can be beaten out of them.
LIVING THINGS is the perfect kind of knockout album - lyrically rich, sonically scalding and full of sharp left turns (a trio of folk-inspired cuts) that pay off in dramatic and surprising ways.
Brad Delson sat down with MusicRadar to talk how the band captured "moments of inspiration" on the new set, when guitars should sound like guitars (and when they shouldn't) and how he rates himself as a lead singer.
The album is fairly short. As they say, it's "all killer, no filler." [Delson laughs] Is that what you guys had in mind?
"Yeah, in fact, I went back and took a look at Hybrid Theory and Meteora because I remember those albums were to the point. I remember they were succinct, but I didn't remember how it all broke down. It surprised me how short they were. I think the records were 35 and 36 minutes long. We were kind of looking at the body of work we had cued up, and with some rough sequences and segues, I think it was somewhere in that range. I thought, Oh, maybe that's a good sign."
Because bands can fit so much information on CDs, do you think they sometimes tend to wear out the welcome?
"Now it's more digital, so I guess you can have as many tracks as you want. You see the spirit of 'more is more,' and I don't think that's the case. My favorite albums, I can listen to them from beginning to end. Some of the best ones are over before you know it, and then you just start over again."
With LIVING THINGS, it's been said that the band felt more comfortable revisiting their past, embracing the earlier sound. What led to that?
"It's definitely true that we started making our third record, Minutes To Midnight, before we knew it was going to be called Minutes To Midnight. We wanted to break out of that primary sound or mode that people associated with the band, because part of the inherent identity of the band is to be able to play in different spaces and mix different genres. That doesn't always mean you're mixing the same three ingredients; it means any of the ingredients that you want to use and are comfortable using. On Minutes To Midnight, we used different ingredients.
Linkin Park are (from left to right), Dave "Phoenix" Farrell, Brad Delson, Chester Bennington, Mike Shinoda, Rob Bourdon and Joe Hahn. © James Minchin
The guitars are a lot heavier on the new album.
How do you go about crafting what you feel is the perfect Linkin Park wall of guitar sound?
"Whether Mike's doing a guitar part or I am, we always want to do what's best for the song. A lot of times it's finding that interplay between an actual guitar and a sound that we've handcrafted, whether it's a sampled sound or an electronic sound. If you listen to Victimized, there's that [Electro-Harmonix] HOG octave-oscillating sound.
Are you using a lot of amp modeling software, or do you tend to stick with traditional amps?
"Whereas we were using a lot of Strats and more vintage guitars in the Minutes To Midnight era, I think we've just kind of liked the gear we've used over time, and the best, the all-stars, they kind of keep their spot in the guitar boat.
"So I've got my PRS, my Custom 24. Usually, we won't start with that guitar because we know it works; we'll challenge ourselves to do something more unexpected. And if we can't beat what's in our head, then we know we have a reliable tone with that guitar, and we're always going to get it to sound great. We're probably always going to sound like Linkin Park in a good way."
With Bennington in the background, Delson rocks on stage with Shinoda, 2011. © Paul Hebert/Corbis
"At the same time, there's vintage Gibsons and Fenders that we'll play around with, and we'll blend stuff together. Sometimes we'll process real guitar in ways that makes it not even sound like a guitar. For us in the studio, it's about creating handcrafted sounds that you haven't necessarily heard before." [See the end of this article for a complete list of the guitars and gear Delson used on LIVING THINGS.]
"This happened with Minutes To Midnight, where we did have that mentality: 'The thing that we write can't be the thing that people hear. We have to perfect the engineering of it by redoing it.' Rick was really instrumental in A/B-ing stuff. I think it was The Little Things Give You Away, like, he listened to something Rob had in quotes 'recorded' over four days, and he did a blind A/B, and he said, 'I like this one better,' and it was the demo. Rob was like, 'Ahhh, what do you mean? I just spent four days creating that!' But Rick's ear said that the magic was in the original thing.
"That gave us the confidence to just write in the studio and make music, and preserve those moments of inspiration on the album. Ninety percent of the time, I'd say what you're hearing on the album is the initial spark of inspiration presented to the listener."
There's no one way songs get written, but is there something close to a pattern with Linkin Park – who starts something, who leaps on it?
"In our process, there are throughlines, because any one of the six of us can bring something in, and we'll always listen to everything together, physically in a room, once a week. There's no constrained way how it has to go, and so every song has a unique journey.
You're featured as a vocalist on the song Until It Breaks. Very nice!
Yes, exactly. There's the extended medley on Side Two.
"OK, cool, so that was our inspiration. We actually had a bunch of ideas that, for whatever reason, didn't want to be full songs. But we loved the music that was there. So we built that around some of the songs that we had worked on earlier in the process that we wanted to put on the record, and we wanted to find a way to craft that all together.
"I don't consider myself a singer by any stretch, but I am comfortable, as all the guys are, singing harmonies and backing group vocals, and we'll do vocals on demos. It's just unusual to have something that's front and center."
The song Roads Untraveled has a bit of a folk vibe coming through.
"One of the dominant musical inspirations early on in the process was a folk influence. We had The Anthology Of American Folk Music, and we listened to a lot of that."
Skin To Bone has that feel, too.
"We just loved that. A lot of it's major tonalities, built around the major root, but when you can do a major progression and still have it be sad or longing, I love how that sounds.
"I should also mention with the folk songs, one of our goals as Linkin Park was, 'What can we do to make it relevant?' Rick really challenged us: 'Well, if it has a folk DNA and you just present it as a folk song, that's not adding anything to the conversation.' So with Skin To Bone, for example, none of those sounds are folk sounds, and what makes it interesting to me is the juxtaposition of the arrangement versus the identity of what that song is. I think that's what makes it unique."
According to engineer Ethan Mates
Amp-wise, Delson played through a Hiwatt Custom 100, an Orange Tiny Terror (with Holy Terror modification), a Fender Blues Junior and a Marshall Plexi.
For effects, Delson used, in Mates' words, "pretty much all of the Electro-Harmonix pedals at one place or another," although he cites the Memory Man, Holy Grail and the Hog as workhorse boxes. In addition, Delson employed three Devi Etter fuzz pedals, the Truly Beautiful Disaster, Torn's Speaker and the Shoegazer. Z.Vex pedals included the Super Hard-On, Whoolly Mammoth and the Mastotron. Rounding out the effects arsenal was a Fulltone Tape Echo.