Mike Shinoda explains why he is bringing Fort Minor back, details his new song “Welcome” and its 360 video, describes his evolution as a musician and lyricist, talks about collaborating with Harvard, and reflects upon the past and future of Linkin Park.
So I was able to go to your first show back last week at Exchange LA, which was a great show. What was it like being back live with Fort Minor and doing everything yourself this time?
The trickiest part about it was putting together the set on my own. That was the challenge that I set out to take on when I first decided to do a live show at all. In fact, originally I was thinking I would just put out the song and let that be it.
Let me put it this way, when I did Fort Minor shows before, I did them with a full backing band and a couple of other vocalists. It had to be its own stand alone, touring project. If I was going to go play shows, I’d have to take everybody out on the road to do it. I realized that’s not what I want to be doing right now.
We’ve got Linkin Park shows set up. We’re looking to release a Linkin Park album next year, so the Fort Minor shows and activity has to happen in between that stuff. The idea of undertaking and putting together a Fort Minor tour sounded crazy to me. It sounded not really doable, and then I realized if I was a DJ, it would make a lot more sense. It would be a lot more fun.
I could just go and roll in on my own, with basically like a flash drive, and do DJ sets. That got me thinking, and that evolved into the show that I’ve got now, which is a very compact rig that a couple of techs and I can fly with. We can play shows locally in between Linkin Park shows here and there.
So yeah, my first one was in L.A. I tested it out. Being up onstage by myself actually makes me a little nervous. When you’ve got other people up there to share the spotlight with, you’re able to diffuse the attention on one another to some degree. There’s other stuff to look at. When it’s just me with really no production, if I do anything positive or negative, it’s going to be really obvious.
You’ve been asked here and there in interviews over the years about Fort Minor returning, and obviously some of the hardcore fans have always asked about it as well, and it seems the reaction has been really positive to you being back and this new song. Were you anticipating that kind of response at all?
Whenever I put out anything, I just want to make sure I’m happy with what I’m putting out. It has more to do with before I even pull the trigger on whether or not a song is going to go out, or go on an album or whatever, it’s a little bit about context.
First of all, this song could have ended up on a Linkin Park album, which would have meant that we would have taken it and run it through the Linkin Park studio process and everything. Everybody else would have gotten their input on it. Chester probably would have sung on it. The other guys probably would have played on it to some degree. It would have ended up being a much different song.
When I made the demo and listened to it, I just felt like it was so close to being done. It didn’t benefit from all that stuff and the pressure of it being on a Linkin Park album with other Linkin Park songs. It takes it away from being a hip-hop track, and I just wanted it to be a hip-hop track. I loved it the way it was. Whatever the reaction was, I knew I was comfortable with it as is.
Actually, the part of this whole release that I’ve been most thrilled about is the reaction to the 360 video. I don’t know how many of our fans have or have not seen a 360 video before. The idea to do this was a big gamble, because first of all I produced the video, so that means I was effectively gambling was this even going to be worth it.
You put all this effort and spend all this money on making a video to be 360, and people might click on it and say, “Oh, this is weird. I don’t know what this is. I don’t want to watch it.” Then it’s been all for naught, you know?
I thought the concept was really cool, and I’ve played around a bit with it on Chrome. How difficult was it to pull off and execute?
There were a couple challenges in it. The first just being finding the right way to tie everything together. The world of 360 at this point is so wide open. You’ve got to write the treatment differently. You’ve got to edit the piece differently. The pacing has to be different.
If you cut a 360 video from clip to clip, if the editing was faster the way a lot of music videos are, in the 360 or VR environment that would be really hard to watch. I guess if you’re trying to make people feel completely overwhelmed and almost dizzy, that would be a way to achieve it, to go for a regular video edit. But overall, you’ve got to slow down your pace edit because there’s so much more to see in every individual clip.
You’ve got to slow down your pace and allow time for people to really soak it in and look around. You know they won’t be able to soak it all in in one viewing, so riding that line between giving them just enough but not giving them everything is one of the challenges.
The other thing is most people at this point, if they’re doing 360 at all, they’re just plopping a camera somewhere and letting the action go on around the camera. We did a two-day shoot with multiple locations and a bit of a somewhat abstract storyline. There was a lot of emotion, concept and arc to the story we were telling, following the events of these two days, and that’s unusual, being able to tell that story in 360.
Once I saw the edit, it was such a payoff for me. It felt like we had rolled the dice and won.
You’ve talked about how “Welcome” is written from the perspective of an outsider and being an underdog. I was curious, with all the success and accomplishments you’ve had over the years, do you still feel that way and relate to that?
Yes. Success has nothing to do with being or not being an underdog. Those are apples and oranges, you know? My background, the way I grew up, was as a mixed race. I’m half Japanese and half Caucasian. I grew up in L.A. Up until I was 13, I was in the Valley.
There was a lot of diversity in the Valley, so I felt like it was a little easier to relate to people then. Then when I went to high school, we moved up north to the Agoura Hills area where it was pretty much like 85 percent Caucasian, I think. So that was a lot different.
I remember feeling like I didn’t feel Japanese, and I didn’t feel white, either. I didn’t belong to either group. Everybody listened to rock and pop music pretty much, and I listened to hip-hop. People can’t understand this anymore, because everybody now, when you ask us what we listen to, we all say everything. But back then, you definitely defined yourself by one type of music, at least when I was in high school. So that was a divider.
I think most importantly, as it applies to the song, is can you see me hanging out at, like, Summer Jam? I don’t fit in there. I’ve been on Ozzfest and I’ve been on metal tours, and I’m definitely a little bit of a spectator there, even though I grew up on both things. I love hip-hop, and I have a lot of favorite metal albums. All of this stuff is familiar to me and is part of who I am.
At the same time, I don’t instantly belong to any of those groups. Even with our band, even when nu metal was the thing, we always distanced ourselves from that. We didn’t feel like we belonged to that, either.
All those things said, I feel like a lot of people relate to that. A lot of us take pride in our individuality and being our own deal, and that’s what the song is about. If you’re weird, if you’re an outsider, if you’re an underdog, don’t look at that as a negative. Look at that as a positive.
Rising Tied is 10 years old now, and one of the things looking back at that record is that was really the first time you started talking about some larger sociopolitical issues, most memorably on “Kenji.” On the Linkin Park records after that, that started playing a little bit more of a role on songs like “Hands Held High.” Do you think that record emboldened you to write about some bigger things and issues that you hadn’t been able to tackle before?
It’s all an experiment, you know? The Fort Minor record was the first time I experimented with that, and realized that it was something that I wanted to do and could do. As time went on, different experiments happened as we were in the studio.
One of the biggest ones is the idea that the first two Linkin Park records were one type of sound. Hybrid Theory and Meteora are very similar. Hybrid Theory was people’s introduction to who we are. We were saying this is what we sound like, this is our deal, and introducing ourselves. Meteora was us being like, it wasn’t an accident that we made an album that got people’s attention in that way. We can do it again.
Once we did that, I did the Fort Minor record, Chester did the Dead by Sunrise album as well, and we realized that we wanted to step out from that original sound and do something different and not have so many constraints. All the constraints that we had about our sound or what type of music we could make, those all existed in our own heads much more so than they existed anywhere else.
When we came out with Minutes to Midnight, the whole point of that album was to show the broadening diversity in the way the band could and wanted to approach writing and recording a song. I look at The Rising Tied, not so much as a proving ground for those ideas, but more as a step in the path.
This kind of goes back to the song “Cigarettes” on the first album, but one of the things I’ve always found refreshing about your lyrics is that they’re not misogynist or sexually explicit, and they don’t glorify violence or drugs. Does that just relate to your upbringing and being married? All that kind of stuff?
That’s just kind of how I am. I remember a kid I grew up with who was Armenian. I made beats and all my friends would rap on them, and one time he said, “Oh man, I wish I could just say the n-word. It would make rapping so much easier.” That is so fucking stupid. I told him outright, “That is so dumb.”
Number one, that is a filler word, when you’re rapping that is. I shouldn’t say that. I say that too lightly. For a lot of people, rhythmically, it’s a filler word. In real life, it is definitely not a filler word, but in the context of what he was talking about, he just wanted to say the word because it would make his raps sound like the people he listened to.
I was like, “Look, dude. That’s the whole point of you being you. You come from a completely different place. You come from a completely different upbringing and background. The best thing you can do to make stuff that I want to listen to is to be you.”
When I first started really defining my own style and sound, it was about what makes me, me. I’m going to talk about the things that I talk about. I’m going to say them the way that I say them. A lot of rappers out there, even right now who are coming up, it’s the same thing as artists, painters and illustrators, and so on. When you’re learning to draw and paint, you imitate your favorite artists. You literally copy their work first, and then you work your way away from that.
A lot of young people when they’re learning how to be a musician, they copy their favorite musician, and then they try and develop their own style. In doing so, a lot of times they’re copying the content, too. They’re copying the way those people talk about certain things.
As we develop as artists, that’s what we work away from. We have to learn to shake off the stuff that came from the stuff that we grew up on, and focus more on the stuff that’s more original and more ourselves. Believe me, I grew up listening to N.W.A and 2 Live Crew. There was a time when my stuff was a lot more vulgar, and I worked my way out of it [laughs].
The Hunting Party, the last Linkin Park record, was a pretty big departure for the band, being heavier and a more raw record, and even the last several Linkin Park records have been completely different from one another. Where do you think the next record takes you? Have you guys started working on it already?
Yeah, we’re already starting to throw ideas together. I’m always writing. It’s always an ongoing process for me, but we never know. Chester and I joke that we’ve already made the mistake of telling people what the next record is going to sound like.
I remember on Minutes to Midnight, we wrote a couple really heavy songs. He went out and told people, “Oh, this album is going to be the heaviest record we’ve ever made.” Then it ended up that only two of those songs made the cut [laughs], and the rest of them did not. People were just like, “Wait, what the fuck? You told us this record was going to sound like…”
We had a fan track that we called “Qwerty” that was super heavy. It actually sounded more like Hunting Party. We put that out as like, hey, just for fun. We’re not going to put this on the record. You can have this one. So people thought that was what the album was going to sound like, and then they put on the album. “Hands Held High” is on there. “Leave Out All the Rest” is on there. “In Pieces,” and all these not heavy songs.
A lot of them are heavy in emotion. “Leave Out All the Rest” is literally about dying, so emotionally that’s very heavy [laughs], but it was not the sound that we had said. I hesitate to ever tell people what the records are going to sound like, because the only way to really understand it at the end of the day is to actually hear the album.
Coming up here in October is going to be the 15th anniversary of Hybrid Theory. You guys did that show in England last summer where you played the album front-to-back. Is there any chance you would that in the U.S. at some point?
That’s possible. We’ll see, you know? I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Is it pretty crazy to think that record is 15 years old now?
I mean, it’s inevitable, right [laughs]? It’s funny. We haven’t done very many celebratory events for Hybrid Theory. We didn’t have a big 10-year thing, and we’re not planning any major 15-year thing. We’ll see what happens when 25 rolls around, if we’re capable of doing anything.
In our minds, the idea of how our lives changed with that album, it’s very visceral. It’s very tangible. Obviously, every time we really stop to think about it, our group of guys is the kind of group that is vocal about our appreciation for the fans, and especially the people who helped us get that album out to the fans. We’ll see what happens, but we aren’t planning any major celebrations.
You’ve also been in the news a lot lately with the Harvard Business Review thing, where if I understand correctly you had a group of students from Harvard dissect Linkin Park and Machine Shop and brainstorm ways into diversifying into different avenues that aren’t necessarily connected to music. Not many bands have ever attempted something on that level before. How did that whole process get started and where are you planning to take it?
We were in the process already of restructuring our internal business. Most people that read the Harvard piece didn’t actually realize that in December of last year we parted ways with our management company and took everything in-house. At that point, we had already started to engage Harvard in the conversation. We had planned all of this stuff out at that point, just deciding, hey, look. We do “X” amount of things right. We could probably improve internally the way we look at and execute these other things.
One thing that I can say is that different people have covered that story and it’s almost like a game of Telephone. If you read the Harvard thing, you get the best picture of what it was and what it means, what we did. But then Forbes covered that and Time covered Forbes, so by the time it got to Time, they missed the whole point. They tried to make the story about us being less relevant, and so therefore we were getting into VC.
It’s actually quite the opposite. For the band, our social numbers, our engagement numbers online, are actually very strong and to a large degree growing. We want to make sure as we’re approaching, not only our marketing but everything but the music part, the music part has to be the foundation. That will never change. But once a song or an album is done, what do you do then?
All that other stuff, we find that it’s inextricably linked to tech. So we said, “We get the most enjoyment out of dealing with our tech partners on these things. How can we get deeper into relationships in tech? How can we get better partnerships in tech with the best and brightest people?”
We decided that starting a VC fund was our best idea. With Harvard, we let them know that this was our trajectory, to start the VC fund. We were going to bring management in-house so that there’s less friction, less physical distance even between us and the people we work with. Once we got all that laid out, where do we focus? So we talked to Harvard about different opportunities.
It was a wide range of stuff that they brought to us in that analysis. Some of it was stuff that is kind of obvious to us, because we live and breathe in the music industry every day and they do not, but other stuff they’re coming from an outsider’s point of view. So they brought some ideas that were challenging and were a fresh perspective.
Overall, as you can imagine with a bunch of Harvard business students, and by the way their professor was spectacular, we had a really good time. We had a really good time with them and we’ve had a really good time developing. I don’t know if you want to call it Linkin Park 2.0, but it’s definitely a different ballgame for us with our approach to once the album and song are done, what do we do?
The next evolution, I guess you could say.
I said this to somebody the other day. We’ve got a fund with a number of different investments in it. Look at it this way, they’re different partnerships. Lyft is one of them. Lyft is a direct competitor to Uber. When we talk directly to them or when we talk about them, the questions arise regarding as to how fans get to our concerts. How do we encourage carpooling? How do we make a fan’s experience, right before the concert and right after the concert, the best it can be?
We also have another investment in a company called Blue Bottle. They are a gourmet artisan coffee maker. They’ve got many locations all around the world. The thing they are, I don’t want to say struggling with, because they’re actually growing, is getting really, really big without losing the focus on a high quality product.
That’s something that, to a large degree, we’ve lived and breathed for 15 years now. I’m not going to say that we’ve made no mistakes, but we’ve had a lot of experience. It’s not even a stretch to say those are the kinds of conversations that are going to benefit them and us, because we’re talking about the same thing but with different perspectives.
I’ll just go back to Fort Minor real quick to wrap things up. Since The Rising Tied was released 10 years ago, the rap landscape has certainly changed a lot in that time. Where do you think Fort Minor fits into that, now and going forward?
I kind of don’t care where and if it fits in [laughs]. For me, trends will come and go. Rap music right now is in a really exciting place. I really like a lot of the rap that’s out right now. A lot of the new artists in the past few years, from Kendrick and A$AP Rocky, to Action Bronson and Drake, to even the new guys like Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$, I feel like it’s creative. It’s broad. There’s a lot of room for individual, unique voices.
I’m excited for what that’s going to develop into in the coming years. My role in it isn’t to be a part of any movement, or a part of anything at all. I just make what I make. If people dig it, then they dig it.
You can tell that on the first album, too, because listening back to it now, it doesn’t sound dated. It sounds like it could have been released last year or in 2005.
Thank you, man. On the first record, I was drawing from the stuff that I grew up on more, like in the ‘90s. I guess there was also an influence from the early Kanye stuff, too. You can hear that, especially because I had Common and John Legend on the record. In retrospect, I probably did that because I was listening to their albums so much.
And you named your mixtape We Major.
Yeah, yeah. And the mixtape was really underground. That was for fun. The whole thing was basically just digging into stuff that I grew up on. Coming on the heels of the first two Linkin Park albums, I think a lot of people were shocked. They didn’t even know what to do with me.