Out of Ashes
There’s a strip mall in Tempe, AZ, the desert suburb just outside of Phoenix. Actually, there are a lot of strip malls. But this particular strip mall is home to the original Club Tattoo, a shop opened in 1995. When Linkin Park and Dead by Sunrise vocalist Chester Bennington enters the shop on a bright, blazing hot August afternoon, he seems infinitely less intense offstage than he does when his voice is barreling into the microphone. He is dressed in blue jeans, camouflaged slip-on sneakers, and a white T-shirt that shows off his tattoos. The 33-year-old singer seems at home in the shop, and he should be. This is where Bennington got his first tattoo, 15 years ago, long before Linkin Park. Now, 45 million albums later, he and longtime friends Sean and Thora Dowdell own this shop and four others throughout the States, including a swank new location at the Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.
Parked in the back office, Bennington points to the large koi fish on his left biceps. “This was my first when I was 18. There was a girl named Jodi [Wendt] who I thought was super fucking hot who worked here. I wanted her to give me my first tattoo so she would be forced to lean over me for five hours. I wanted a Pisces symbol, and it turned out to be this thing with these weird fish and these stupid faces. But it’s my first tattoo and it has sentimental meaning.”
Despite the ear-shattering guitars and guttural screams, Bennington can be sentimental. Just not for Arizona. The singer grew up on the west side of Phoenix, in an area he describes as “just suburbia.” But he wasn’t happy. “I hated being in Arizona growing up. Between the abuse as a kid [at the hands of an older male “friend”] and my parents getting divorced and getting into drugs, there were—with the exception of music—no real good memories here. I couldn’t wait to get out.”
A tour of the area where Bennington grew up is about what you would expect from a future rock star. He spent his days manning the grill at the local Burger King, skateboarding with friends, and fronting his first band—the grunge rock group Grey Daze—alongside Sean Dowdell. He also did a lot of drugs. At the time, Bennington was addicted to crystal meth, among other things.
“Cocaine was never really my favorite. I’ve done a lot of it [laughs] but it wasn’t my drug of choice. I’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, you have coke. I guess I’ll do that. Anything else? No? All right, then.’ Cocaine’s high wasn’t really the best. … I love to do things that make you feel really good, like ecstasy and acid and mushrooms. But you can’t do those every day because they don’t work every day. Things that do are alcohol, marijuana, and speed. Those usually work all the time.”
By the time he was 18, Bennington had overcome his addiction to crystal meth and other hard drugs by quenching that thirst with alcohol and pot. He met his first wife, Samantha Olit, while working at the fast food chain. The two were married on Halloween 1996 when Bennington was just 20, and because money was tight he had his wedding band tattooed onto his ring finger. In 1999, the singer auditioned and was accepted into Linkin Park as their second vocalist. He relocated his wife and their first child to southern California and didn’t look back. Linkin Park’s debut album, Hybrid Theory, was released in 2000 to explosive success and by 2001 had already sold nearly 5 million copies. Bennington appeared antidrug during this time, denouncing drug use in interviews and singing “Breaking the Habit,” a song Linkin Park’s other vocalist, Mike Shinoda, wrote for the band.
The respite wouldn’t last long. The problems started when Bennington’s marriage crumbled. Their drama-filled relationship and messy divorce in 2005 paved the way for his relapse. “It wasn’t like, Oh I’m so sad this relationship is over—what could I have done to make it better? It was more like, This is sad because I’ve become someone I don’t even like because I fucking hate this person and she hates me and life is not fun. It was miserable all the time. There was yelling constantly. I preferred to be out on the road than anywhere near my house.
“My parents have both been remarried three times and I refused to accept the fact that I was not happy in this relationship. I was like, I’m not getting divorced. I will not be that guy who didn’t work it out—who didn’t hang in there for 30 years and then all of a sudden there’s magic. So stupid.” When the dust settled, Bennington claims he didn’t have much left. “I lost all my shit. All my money and half of my publishing up until Minutes to Midnight is hers. There is a lot of anger that goes along with that—like, You did not do that. All she did was piss me off. She fought me on my career a lot of time. That’s what I don’t understand. How is this fair? But life isn’t fair.”
Bennington tattooed over the wedding band with a big black line: “I was thinking of getting it lasered, but I decided to get it covered up.” Through former Orgy guitarist and Dead by Sunrise member Ryan Shuck, he was introduced to Talinda Bentley, a teacher who had modeled for Playboy twice during her college days. He was smitten and soon called a friend to say that he was going to marry this woman he had just met. Though his friend thought he had lost his mind, Bennington’s gut was right. The two were married on December 31, 2005, and Bentley gave birth to their son three months later. [He has two other children from a previous relationship.] But despite the happiness he was feeling, the dissolution of his first marriage was still having a huge impact on him.
He recalls, “I didn’t realize how much weight I had put on my stuff and how much that had meant to me. I would wonder, Is happiness having a good relationship with somebody? Is that actually more important than the cars and the house? That was tough. My heart was telling me, You’ve got to be kidding. But my brain was telling me, That’s what shows people what you’ve done. Taking all that away might mean you’re not that guy. It might mean you’re just another fucking washed up musician who lost it all and you’re going to hang out at the Rainbow every night and talk about the glory days for the rest of your life. That was what I was afraid of. And it really fucked with me.”
By 2006, Bennington was dabbling in drugs again. Alcohol had become his gateway. “Alcohol was the one thing that got me into those other things. If I hadn’t been drinking … I wouldn’t have fallen through the window or locked myself in a closet for a few days.”
He saw his life unraveling again but he just couldn’t stop.
“Given the nature of my disease and who I am, once I start, I need to do as much as I can for as long as I can until I literally feel like I can’t do anymore or I’m going to die. Then I have to stop and just drink. [Laughs.] And I drank more and more and more and used more and more and more until I had to make a decision. I had this beautiful woman loving me, and I loved her. And she was motivating me in a lot of positive ways. I was afraid I was going to lose that. There is only so much a person can take if you’re not willing to help yourself.”
But this knowledge only sent him down into a darker spiral. “It hurt me to watch how much I was hurting her. I was there but I wasn’t present in my kids’ lives. My band members didn’t really like to hang out with me. I felt like I was going to die all of the time. That scared the crap out of me. I got to the point where I was like, I’m no good for anybody, I’m never going to change, the world would be a better place if I just go disappear and not have anyone that cares about me around because I’m only going to hurt them.” That’s when those closest to him stepped in. “My friends were like, ‘That’s not reality.’” Bennington decided to get help.
He dropped out of the first rehab program and started drinking again, but then enrolled in a second and has been reasonably successful since. “I’ve slipped up and I’ve battled it, but I’m working on becoming the person I’m supposed to be. Someone people like to be around. My kids think I’m a great dad and my wife thinks I’m a great husband and my band members think I’m a great bandmate.”
Don’t leave Chester Bennington alone. That’s what the singer learned after his second stint in rehab. In an attempt to not fall back into his destructive cycle, Bennington restructured his life, making sure that he’s around others most of the day. “I don’t tend to do very good when I’m sitting by myself,” he says, then half-jokes that he’s replaced drugs and alcohol with the gym. “My wife called me two days ago and she was like, ‘Where are you?’ I’m like, ‘I’m still at the gym.’ She’s like, ‘You’ve been there for four and a half hours.’ [Laughs.] But my abs are great!”
He also created a side project, now known as Dead by Sunrise, with help from Shuck and Amir Derakh, formerly of the bands Orgy and Julien-K. Together, the new group recorded Out of Ashes, an album that hit stores this month. Bennington’s side project marks a definite departure from his previous work. The first song he wrote was the cathartic “Let Down.” Inspired by his messy, painful divorce, it came out easily. From there, he started looking at—and using—the past five years of his life as material for the record. “It’s a personal album. I’m writing about falling in love. I’m writing about being alone and everything that goes on with that. I’m writing about these crazy thoughts in my head about my love affair with being miserable.”
While some songs, such as “My Suffering,” twist and writhe in pain like his Linkin Park work, other songs are romantic and acoustic, proof that his range as an artist extends beyond pit-stirring metal. Bennington wrote all of the songs himself instead of collaborating with another vocalist, and as a result, each piece has a personal connection to his own life. In fact, he wrote the song “Give Me Your Name” for his new wife. “If someone hates ‘Give Me Your Name,’ I’ll be like, ‘I’ll fucking kill you. I’ll fucking cut your face off,’” he jokes. “I had this acoustic guitar riff I had been playing with that was very mellow and I was like, Summon beautiful music in your mind. And it just came to me. It was the first song we danced to at our wedding and it was good enough to make the record. I wrote ‘In the Darkness’ and ‘Into You’ about our relationship, and even ‘Inside of Me’ is me needing to be with her when I was out there losing my fucking mind and she was 600 miles away.”
This level of closeness to the songs has left him vulnerable. “I want people to like this record. I feel that I’ve gotten over bad reviews from Linkin Park because the albums sell well. When I got into Linkin Park and we started touring, nobody knew who we were. But because we were this rap metal band, we already had a stigma as being in a genre of bands that fucking blow ass. Articles would be written like, ‘Not only does Linkin Park suck, but Chester must be the reason why the world is fucking shit.’ I was like, What did I do? Wow, our music is that bad?! I didn’t realize that I caused AIDS or death. It made me feel like, Fuck those guys. I knew what we had was special. With Dead by Sunrise, I don’t have as thick a skin. They are my songs, my lyrics, my melodies. If people don’t like them I’m going to be like, Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing in that sense. Maybe I should just stick to singing. But all of these are just insecurities. I am an insecure person naturally. I think most singers are. I think that’s one of the things that make us endearing or likable or tortured in some way.”
Dead By Sunrise—at least at first—will likely be known as the side project for one of Linkin Park’s members. And that means people will be expecting a lot more from it than they would from another new group. “There are expectations, perhaps unrealistic expectations of it. But that’s part of me living in the future, which I don’t like. It makes me feel really anxious. This album has caused me a lot of weird mixed emotions that I have been trying to avoid.” In fact, Bennington hates the feeling so much that he nearly didn’t release the record. “I’ve thought about that a couple times. Like, I don’t want to take the risk. I don’t want to face rejection. I’ve kind of gotten over that and am now like, If this thing doesn’t do well, at least you did it. You can’t expect Linkin Park–esque things to happen twice. It’s a miracle it happened the first time.”
For now, Linkin Park is busy working on their fourth album with legendary producer Rick Rubin. Early reports called the yet-untitled record “genre-busting.” Bennington explains what that really means: “We started working on a concept record. We started with this huge, grandiose idea, where it was going to be this soundtrack to this insane, monster thing that was more than just a record. Like, have a movie, and a rock opera, and a game. Way bigger than American Idiot. That was a concept record in itself but it wasn’t something that went along with this story that you interacted with.”
It was Rubin’s response that prompted the band to bring him on for the second album in a row. “For the very first song he’s in there and is like [Bennington mimics head-banging]. Rick doesn’t do that. Rick is usually like [Bennington leans back in chair and puts feet up] with his vegan soup. He’s like, ‘Hmmm, okay,’ with his beard and sunglasses. So when he’s in the chair head-banging with his hand up in the air and turns around and says, ‘If I heard this song and I had no idea who it was, I’d fucking rush out and buy 50 copies of the album,’ we’re just like, Maybe we should stop now, because that was the first song. It’s only going to go downhill from here! Three songs later he turns around and goes, ‘I don’t know what the fuck you guys are doing but don’t stop doing it! Ever!’ We’re just like, Okay, great—we won’t. … What is it that we’re doing? What does that mean?”
Finishing an album with Linkin Park means that a lot of touring is ahead for Bennington. And while he enjoys interacting with his fans, the road experience can be brutal. In fact, that lifestyle is what gave Bennington the idea for his newest tattoo—a zombie gypsy woman who represents how he feels on long tours. While on the road, he’s seen some interesting things and some tattoos he’s not into—including those on a fan in China who copied all of Bennington’s ink on his own skin. “He was like, ‘Dude check me out!’ And I thought, I fucking hate you. It really bothers me,” Bennington says, adding that he doesn’t like it when fans copy his signature flame tattoos. “If you’re going to get flames on your wrist, get flames on your wrist. Don’t get my flames on your wrist.” But he says the most disturbing Linkin Park tattoo is actually his own—the band’s name on his back. “I had decided if I ever sell a million records, I’m going to get that band’s name on me,” he says. “The words are great, the design is cool,” but, he says, it represents something he just didn’t think would ever happen.
These days, Bennington gets tattooed at Club Tattoo, the hometown shop that he hopes to expand to nearly a dozen more locations. “When I came on as a partner, they said, ‘What are your plans? What do you see us accomplishing?’ I was like, ‘World domination. Period. We need to be the top tattoo company.’ Thora was like, ‘Let’s fucking be realistic.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think small anymore. I’ve accomplished the impossible, so I think anything is possible.’” For now, Bennington is home. It’s where he’s most comfortable, back to the quiet life—which is part of what prompted his return to Arizona in 2008. “I spent my whole life trying to figure out a way to get out of here, and I did,” he laughs, with a grin that says it’s good to be home.