“What’s that shit on your fucking arm?”
Chester Bennington’s dad was pissed. His son had made a promise to wait until at least his 18th birthday before getting a tattoo—and here it was, not long after that day, that the younger Bennington strolled home with his first bit of ink, a Pisces on his left shoulder. For his father, it was not so much the image itself that set him off, but rather what tattoos in general symbolized.
“My dad was a police officer in Arizona and so his experiences with people with tattoos was different,” recalls the now 36-year-old Bennington. “To him, they were something associated with shitty people—convicts and criminals and guys in gangs. And he didn’t want his son to be like that. But I’m from a different time and I see it differently. To me, it’s a way to be free and to not be confined by what society thinks you should or shouldn’t do. It’s a way to express yourself.”
And so the 18-year-old Bennington expressed himself with a big, colorful fish, which spurred the aforementioned interrogation from his father. “I responded, ‘It’s a tattoo,’” recalls Bennington, stating the obvious. “And he said, ‘You know that will never come off. You wanna be stuck with that for your whole life?’” Bennington laughs. “And I was 18 years old and defiant and so I went, ‘Yeah! You’re fucking right I do!’”
Almost 20 years later, Bennington now has many tattoos—when asked for an exact count, he responds, “I think the technical term is ‘a lot.’”
He is hardly a convict or criminal, but rather the frontman for Linkin Park, one of the most successful rock acts of the 2000s. The band’s debut album, 2000’s Hybrid Theory, which spawned hit singles like “One Step Closer” and “Crawling,” established them as a leader in the then-burgeoning nu metal movement (a categorization they have come to despise). It also laid the groundwork for a career of massive proportions. In a world where music seems to have an ever-decreasing role, both financially and in terms of cultural influence, Linkin Park still fills sheds in the U.S. and plays to huge crowds overseas. They also still sell records: To date, Hybrid Theory has moved more than 10 million units domestically and ranks among the top 10 best-selling releases of the first decade of the millennium.
The band has released four studio albums since that colossal debut, including last summer’s Living Things. Their latest record follows on the heels of two efforts, 2007’s Minutes to Midnight and 2010’s A Thousand Suns, both of which, though successful, also signaled a shift away from the sound that had first made them superstars. In place of thick, down-tuned riffs and baldly angst-filled lyrics, they wrote more impressionistic songs that incorporated electronic soundscapes, textured guitars, and snippets of speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mario Savio within stories about the end of the world. “Everything about our sound that people thought was nu metal, we wanted to kill it dead,” Bennington says.
They did, but perhaps at the expense of some of the potent energy that had once defined the band. This has been corrected on Living Things. Case in point is the album’s first single, “Burn It Down,” which uses a propulsive rhythm as the foundation for a towering guitar-and-synth wall of sound, over which Bennington lays one of his trademark hooky vocal melodies. It’s catchy but not pandering, rocking but not simplistic.
“The fact that the record is reminding people of the earlier Linkin Park sound is exciting to a lot of our fans because they’ve been kind of wondering if that was ever going to come back,” Bennington says. “But they’re also happy that it’s not exactly like what we did before. It might make people think of Hybrid Theory, but it’s not Hybrid Theory.”
Bennington acknowledges that the specter of that album looms large. He even has the winged soldier image from its cover art tattooed on his left leg. He also has one other tattoo that is a direct reference to the band—“Linkin Park” emblazoned across his lower back in Old English–style lettering. But in a way, neither of these is his most Linkin Park-esque tattoo. That distinction would likely go to what he calls his “flames”—the ribbons of red and blue fire that shoot forth from each of his wrists and travel the length of his forearms.