'We wouldn't sign you for a million dollars'

Linkin Park's first album was the world's best-selling record in 2001. Now, with nu-metal on the wane, their second album is about to hit the shops. Can they repeat the trick?

The man mountain at the door is frisking journalists as if they are entering a war zone rather than a playback of the new, hotly anticipated Linkin Park album, Meteora. Assuming (wrongly) that some of us have the wages and technical wherewithal to own mobiles capable of doing anything more than send a text message, he double-checks that we have left our phones behind before standing aside.

Welcome to the music industry in the 21st century. Paranoid and more than a little delusional, the powers that be are all too aware that a song leaked on to the internet before an album's release can be heard around the world in minutes. And so Linkin Park, on the brink of releasing their make-or-break second album, find themselves on uneasy middle ground, running scared of the very medium that got them here in the first place.

Linkin Park are a truly modern success story. The six twentysomethings from southern California nurtured a flourishing internet fan base before signing a record deal. When they finally released their debut album, Hybrid Theory, it sold a staggering 14m copies, making it the world's bestselling album of 2001. Unofficial estimates suggest that figure would have been 20m were it not for internet piracy - which goes some way to explaining the security surrounding its follow-up.

The band members themselves will not be drawn into defending or even discussing this secrecy. Backstage at their Manchester concert - one of two low-key UK dates before the release of Meteora - there are amused smiles and a telling silence when security is mentioned. "Well, obviously, the record label feels that's what needs to be done. We can only say how we feel, and that's excited that people are hearing the record," vocalist Chester Bennington says finally. He's the owner of the almighty, angry roar that characterises Linkin Park songs, the one most likely to be pinned on teenage girls' walls and the one inclined to scowl exasperatedly at the prospect of an interview.

Preposterously skinny, he is wearing a light grey woollen zip-up top (some might even venture to call it a cardigan) over a white T-shirt and dark blue jeans. He has a shaved head and thick black glasses that seem less rock star, more nerdy student, and is polite but guarded, intent on answering only the questions he chooses - whether they are asked or not.

He is joined today by rapper Mike Shinoda and guitarist Brad Nelson, while bandmates DJ Joe Hahn, drummer Rob Bourdon and bassist Dave Farrell remain downstairs in catering, glued to The Simpsons and eating mashed potato.

Bennington, Shinoda and Nelson are trying to work out how to turn up the primitive electrical fire. The band's requested, distinctly American refreshments are laid out on a table at one end; bagels, bags of pretzels, bottles of Snapple. The room itself is decorated in the style of a particulary tasteless English living room, circa 1976. There are patterns on every surface, brown leather sofas and strange pictures hanging at peculiar angles, all to the obvious distress of Shinoda.

"That wall treatment is bullshit," he frowns from the sofa opposite, unaware of the implications of a fierce nu-metal band expressing interior design concerns. "And that picture should be at eye level, not hung in the middle of nowhere like that. And they need a rug," he notes earnestly, shaking his head. Nelson grins, radiating laid-back cheer, in contrast to Bennington's barely disguised wariness. Equally skinny, he wears a baseball cap sideways, sports chipped black nail varnish and looks barely 16, though he's actually 25.

In the country for just a few days, the three are keen to emphasise their reasons for playing two small shows before their arena tour later this year. "It's about giving back to our fans," says Bennington. "That's what this tour's about. We like playing smaller venues, but we know how many people want to come and see us so we don't ever want to stop anyone who wants to come to a show from coming. But these particular shows are all driven towards giving back to the kids who go out of their way to support the band. We made the decision to pay them back for what they've done by putting on this tour that is free for them and isn't sponsored by anyone. We're basically paying for it all."

Linkin Park were formed in 1996 as Hybrid Theory; Bennington was the last to join the band. "I listened to a demo and quit my job to meet five guys I didn't even know," he remembers. "Half of my family's income was removed because I wanted to do this."

It was his suggestion that the band take the name of America's most common park, misspell it and use it as an internet domain name. They posted MP3 files of their early songs on the site and asked for feedback. "We'd invite people from other websites and chat rooms to come check out our stuff, and every once in a while those people would say, 'Hey, when are you guys going to play?' And we'd go to a city close to us like Arizona and play."

Word spread and Linkin Park were soon besieged by requests for more tracks and promotional material. A so-called "street team" had formed all round the world before any record company was even interested. It will be these fans (collectively known as LP Underground) who are allowed in free tonight. Later, the 70 or so concerned will also meet the band. In New York, that number was closer to 1,000.

"We had these pockets of fans all over the place. They were small but they were so dedicated," Shinoda says. "We had groups of fans in places like Sweden who would ask for stickers and tapes and T-shirts to pass on."

Bennington chuckles. "We would have to do shows just to get some money to make stuff to send to kids. Then they would go see a band they liked where they knew that the kids that were in the show would like us too and they would leave early and stand outside handing out the tapes to everyone coming out."

Typically, the music industry was the last to catch on to the phenomenon. That still amuses the band today. They're not bitter, they say, but it certainly makes the success sweeter.

"We had the anti-buzz about us," Shinoda remembers. Bennington laughs. "People would say, 'Oh! You're going to see them? Good luck . . . What a way to waste a lunch hour.' But I didn't care if we didn't get signed because that just meant all those people in the record business didn't know what the hell they were doing and we didn't need those idiots. All I knew is that I would buy our record in a heartbeat."

Nelson agrees. "If we hadn't had that attitude, then we wouldn't have been here now, because we got turned down more than once by everyone."

"In some cases," says Bennington, "they would actually call and say, 'We wouldn't sign you guys for a fucking million dollars.' I'd be like, 'Wow! They really went out of their way to tell us they didn' t like us!' " He giggles his incongruous, little-boy laugh.

Linkin Park eventually wore down Warner Brothers and signed up, releasing Hybrid Theory soon after. "We clearly didn't expect it to do what it did," says Nelson. "We thought we would tour for a year or so and hopefully go gold or just maybe, best-case scenario, platinum. But we were playing music before anybody cared and before there was a single penny to be made out of it. It just means now we can focus all our energy on it."

An impassioned clash of rap and rock, Hybrid Theory was the sound of sheer teenage angst, albeit with choruses and no swearing. Singles like Crawling, In the End and One Step Closer became anthems for the burgeoning nu-metal scene already spearheaded by the likes of Limp Bizkit, though critics derided the band as being manufactured; too clean-living and attractive to be the genuine article.

"We don't care," says Bennington. "There's a lot of weird stuff said. When you're working for a magazine, that's your job. You have a deadline. You have to fill so many pages."

"By talking about it, we're just promoting it," adds Shinoda. "If you really want to know what the band's about, listen to the CD or come to the show or visit the website. You can't expect to know what we're about by reading about us in a magazine."

However much the band once benefited from the nu-metal association, they are similarly keen to distance themselves from it today, now that second albums from contemporaries such as Papa Roach and Korn have failed to set the charts alight. Bennington rolls his eyes. "To pigeonhole a genre as being successful or unsuccessful is weird. There's a lot of rock'n'roll bands out there that suck! OK? Like bar-driven music that is totally unoriginal and completely worthless. There's a lot of really bad rock out there, really bad R&B and really bad hip-hop. But every once in a while, you get someone who does something really new and original that no one's ever heard before and that's what makes music really great."

"What's funny," Shinoda notes, "is that we, like every one of those bad artists, are just trying to make something that's good! So we know we like what we're doing but we're sure our intentions are exactly the same as all of those artists who are awful."

Even if Meteora doesn't take off, they insist, they have already got what they wanted. "None of us got into this because we craved celebrity or even because we wanted the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. We didn't get into it to get groupies or for ego-driven reasons. We got into it because we love music and we love playing music with people that we like," says Bennington.

Shinoda gets up to leave with a satisfied smile. "It's nauseatingly cute, don't you think?"

· Meteora is out on Monday on Warner Bros.

Siobhan Grogan

The GuardianTramp

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