INTERVIEW: Linkin Park’s Brad Delson

Linkin Park’s 2010 album A Thousand Suns divided fans. Some felt it was a step too far away from the rhythmic, anthemic, alternative-tinged hybrid of hard rock, nu metal and rap that helped them make their name. That didn’t stop it from debuting at number one on various charts and ultimately selling almost a million copies, but it still meant the band had to step up to reclaim a few skeptical fans when it came time for the follow-up. And they did: Living Things debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and sold almost a quarter of a million copies in its first week. It seems the shorter-than-usual break between albums and the return to certain old-school Linkin Park elements paid off.

“I think for us we have a habit of releasing albums every three or four years,” guitarist Brad Delson explains. “In Linkin Park time, this is like lightspeed!” The band started writing and recording in between tour legs for A Thousand Suns. By the time they’d finished that album cycle, they already had a huge stash of ideas to work on, so for the last year up until just a couple of months ago they were nutting out Living Things. It’s an album which doesn’t really revisit the band’s past so much as take the occasional fond glance back at it in the rearview mirror. “Yeah, that’s fair,” Delson confirms. “It’s like putting to work the life lessons of where we’ve been, but through the present point of view. I think sonically or maybe in terms of song approach this album is very different from A Thousand Suns, and part of that was the inspiration of doing something in contrast to what we’d just done. That’s what makes the studio so fun. There are no rules.”

Once again Delson’s guitar is up front on Living Things, including a few moments that border on thrash. There’s no real pattern to how Linkin Park songs get written or at which point the guitar role takes shape for any given track. It’s a very fluid process. “Sometimes songs will start with words, which is rare but possible. Sometimes it starts with a melody and piano, or a melody and guitar. Sometimes it starts with a beat and we’ll layer melody over it. One thing that Rick [Rubin, producer] would encourage us to do is to put vocals on it right away. That helps us to know if the content is good. Is this song in its barebones form a good song? Whereas our method of working on our first two albums was almost entirely music-focussed first, and then the vocals would go last. People say ‘is there a message in the album?’ and it’s like, ‘I don’t know! We don’t even know what we just said! We don’t even know what we just played!’ In fact, we make the songs in such a postmodern way that when it’s time to prepare for our tours we literally have to learn how to perform the songs for the first time. In every case, no-one has a clue what we’re gonna play and how we’re gonna play it. I literally have a CD right now of parts that I’m going to play. We have the song on the left and my part on the right and I’m literally trying to figure out how I played it or how Mike [Shinoda, guitar/vocals] played it, and how I’m going to play it live to make it sound like it does on the record.”

One of Delson’s favourite guitar moments on the new album is Victimized. “I love it. It’s got like a thrash, punk, super-heavy edge. There’s enough of a distinction between that and something that’s more metal-influenced that makes that song so awesome for me. Ugh! I love that song! We’re going to play that song live too. That’s one of the ones I was just listening to to try and figure out how to play it. Sometimes we’ll try things that seem like it would be the worst idea, and that’s the thing that you hear and go ‘what is that?’ There’s a lot of experimentation, and that’s one of the reasons why we spend a year working on an album. If there’s a part we know we need for a song we’ll try for weeks until we find a part that works for the album.”

So what’s Delson’s current guitar of choice? It’s a bit complicated. “I started out playing mostly Paul Reed Smith guitars,” Delson says. “That was like my dream guitar when I was first signed to our publishing deal. I got some money, went to Guitar Center, bought the Paul Reed Smith guitar and that was, to me, the moment. I was so excited. Those guitars are just so great, and they’re really the ones that are most closely associated with my guitar tones on those first two albums. And I would say that on Minutes To Midnight and A Thousand Suns we went with more vintage Strats and Gibsons, and instruments you’d find in a pawn shop. In many ways this record has been like a combination of everything we’ve done. We had all those tools at our disposal in the studio, so I would often start out with a vintage American guitar and if I didn’t get the right sound I would almost always wind up playing my PRS Custom 24, because it’s just so reliable. I just know I’m always gonna love how that sounds.”

As for pedals, Delson’s a fan of mixing and matching, and he has a heck of a collection. “We used everything in the studio, from weird pedals that my engineer or I have collected to even using a lot of digital plugins to alter sounds in unexpected ways. I’m pretty sure there’s no rule book when we’re in the studio, so we’ll sometimes try things that just seem like they would be the worst idea, and that’s the thing that you hear and go ‘What is that? I haven’t heard that before!’ There’s a lot of experimentation, and that’s why we spend a year working on an album. If there’s a part we know we need for a song we’ll try for weeks until we have the part that everyone says ‘Yeah, I love it!’ Even if you’ve got a great sound on a weird pedal but it’s too distorted and it’s taking up too much space you can put some EQ or compression on it to make it play nicely with the other elements in the song.”

Recently the band introduced a killer merch item that’s utterly unprecedented: a limited edition Transformers set made in collaboration with Hasbro, featuring Linkin Park branding. Based on the 1984 originals, there will be 2000 sets manufactured, featuring Soundwave, Lazerbeak, Buzzsaw, and Ravage. “Joe Hahn [Linkin Park’s DJ] is our resident Transformer connoisseur,” Delson says. “I’ve definitely put in a request for at least one of them. I think I deserve to get at least one of those, don’t you think! I know they’re in very high demand. Those collectibles, especially for people who have a love for avant garde toys and collectibles, it’s just such a creative world. Joe has such a huge collection of toys and art objects. He went to an exhibition in Berlin last month of someone’s private collection of street culture toys and artist collaboration collectibles. Joe was totally inspired and demoralised at the same time. Whatever Joe had amassed over the last decade, this guy had taken it to such an extreme degree that it was staggering.”

Living Things is out now. Linkin Park tour Australia as part of the Soundwave festival in February and March 2013.