Hybrid Theory - Linkin Park

Published: 23 July, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 214, July, 2012

It’s 1994 and two young musicians are trying to break into the notoriously difficult music scene. Being realistic as well as passionate about their dreams, they decide to open a tattoo studio to fall back on if things don’t go as planned…

Jump forward nearly 20 years and not only is Club Tattoo one of the most respected tattoo studios around, but one of the partners, Chester Bennington, is lead singer for one of the biggest bands on the planet, Linkin Park.

And this is where I find myself in the summer of 2012; one foot in Los Angeles while Linkin Park are tightening up their latest album and one foot in Las Vegas, where Sean and Thora Dowdell (co-owners of Club Tattoo with Chester) are finalising the opening of their latest tattoo studio in San Francisco. So it is into the middle of this organised chaos that we descend. What better time to sit down with Chester and Sean and discuss how the two friends have changed the face of music and ink?

“Chester and I were playing in a band and started touring quite a bit,” starts Sean. “We needed a way to still make a living while we were out on the road and came up with the idea of the tattoo shop. In all honesty I didn’t know much about the business when I got into it and had to learn fast. In Arizona at that time there were only seven shops in the entire state, so there wasn’t a plethora of artists around either. We then opened a second studio in Tempe in 2000, which was followed by a third in Mesa, a fourth in Glendale, and then finally the flagship studio in Vegas in 2009. Once this business model opened, we realized it was the future of the tattoo business and that was the business model that we wanted to follow from now on with opening studios.”

“I knew that Sean and Thora were creating a new philosophy and approach,” adds Chester. “They were bringing the body art business out of the shadows and right into everyone’s face. The business was already a success before they asked if I would like to become a partner in the expansion of Club Tattoo. In fact, they did not need a partner but when they asked I got really excited because I have been around Club Tattoo since 1995 and helped Sean put it together in the beginning so I knew it could be huge. This was really a chance for Sean and I to do something that we are both passionate about in the same way were passionate about playing music together. We really loved playing in the band together, and still continue to do little fun side projects every now and then.”

“It is rare these days for Chester and I to jam,” continues Sean, “But we did do a side project a couple of years ago that we took on the road for a bit called BOW. I love playing with Chester and always will when time permits. We throw huge Club Tattoo parties in Arizona and Las Vegas and at those events we play together on stage with several industry friends in front of 4,000-6,000 people… and honestly, that brings back some great memories.”

With the boys steering things onto music, it seemed as good a time as any to ask Chester more about the new album and how it was all going.

“We have just finished mixing Living Things and we couldn’t be happier, it's finally coming to life! I actually stay out of the mixing process for the most part. Mike and Brad are very involved on that end and we have several different studios that we mix from, but we record most of the tracks at NRG studios in North Hollywood. Building up to the release of a new record is always very exciting. We are really proud of these songs, and feel like we’ve captured the creative spirit of Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns with the energy of Hybrid Theory and Meteora. It’s a perfect blend of everything we’ve learned throughout our musical journey.”

As with the last two Linkin Park albums, the legend that is Rick Rubin, is on the helm as producer. Rubin’s musical history is as varied as Linkin Park’s source of inspiration, covering every genre from rap through to country – this is a musical partnership made in heaven.

“Working with Rick has really helped us achieve the goals we set out for ourselves after the release of Meteora. He is the only producer I can think of that has successfully worked in more genres of music than we mix together in ours. The fact that he has the ability to pull the best out of whomever he works with is astounding. Most producers are good at one or two things; perhaps they are great at rock and pop, but they lack an understanding of hip hop and electronic music. We need someone who is great at all of those things, and Rick has that rare set of skills. I believe the combination of Rick and Mike producing our records together has inspired the best work we’ve done in our career.”

A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park’s previous album, was layered with big dance beats whilst being a very political record. This is something that has become a trademark with Linkin Park; the continual mix of ideas and genres, the quest to keep it fresh every time. On Living Things, the boys are still turning it way up with their hard hitting musical style, but this time round they have made a more personal album.

“On our new record we dove mostly into themes about relationships and all of the beautiful and ugly aspects of them. Our creative process is probably different than what most people imagine it would be like. We never go into making a record with any preconceived themes or concepts. That tends to restrict creativity for us rather than focus it. Even during the making of ATS, we threw out the idea of making a concept record very early on. It became a concept record instead very organically and almost by accident. Plus, I think we got a lot of the social and political stuff off of our chests and went into this record with a clean slate. The style of this record though, is high energy, big beats, crushing guitars, and pulsing electronics. Our writing process is very organic and very little thought is put into what the record should sound like. We actually have never sat down and jammed. We don’t play the songs together until we rehearse them for touring purposes. We always try to push ourselves creatively and stay fresh and excited about making music. Complacency is the enemy of creativity.”

And this ideal is not only evident in the band, but also in the whole ethos of Club Tattoo. It is no use getting to the top and then sitting around thinking everything is sweet, the real hard work is maintaining that high and continuously producing something fresh and exciting. And Club Tattoo is no exception.

“In 2002 Sean and Thora asked me where I saw Club Tattoo going in the next ten years,” explains Chester. “Worldwide was my first response but the thought of opening shops all over the world and doing it successfully was not realistic at that time. So I suggested that we go somewhere where the world would come to us… Las Vegas. So we began our journey to Sin City and continued our full-on assault in Arizona.

“If we could make a shop in Vegas meet our expectations of creating the flagship Club Tattoo experience, then perhaps taking on the rest of the world wouldn’t seem so out of reach. And to that point, now we are opening our newest flagship studio in San Francisco this summer.”

“San Francisco gave us the opportunity to do just that,” adds Sean. “It had the foot traffic and tourism base that we wanted to display our concept in, the large stage and prestige that we feel Club Tattoo has prided itself on being. The great artists that we have of course is truly what makes Club Tattoo great on a worldwide stage as far as talent, but we think that the atmosphere and presentation of those artists and piercers is what makes it completely unique. Having this unique concept is what makes Club Tattoo special, sets us apart from the rest of the world of tattoo shops and ultimately sets the trend for the tattoo studios around the world to try and follow.”

And this is something that is very important to Club Tattoo, creating an experience that blows customers away as well as having some of the best tattooists in the world under their banner. But as Sean points out, this hasn’t always been as easy as it seems. There is no overnight success, just a lot of hard graft and determination.

“I wish we always got it right, but honestly it is the hardest part of doing what we do. For the most part, the high calibre tattooers will find us and start a dialogue and eventually we bring them on board. But in Arizona it is a catch-22 because the artists that don’t work for us have to compete with us. This sometimes causes animosity and can be more difficult to bring in talent when we need to add to the team. Overall, it has worked out great, but at times can be trying.”

Not only are Club Tattoo known for their amazing tattoos, but Sean has been instrumental in pushing the art of body modification into a completely new arena. If you caught his master class at Tattoo Jam 2012, you would have seen how important doing it right is to Sean.

“The invention of Micro-Dermal Anchors has been the newest fashion trend in piercing for the last five years, and I am sure it will continue to grow. The only thing that bums me out with the industries popularity is the fact that so many people just think they can pick up a tattoo machine and start tattooing, or that they can pierce people without the proper training or apprenticeship.

“I wish the industry as a whole would slow down apprentices teaching apprentices and get back to taking it very seriously. This is one of the reasons that I started teaching piercers around the world. I hope that the future for piercing is one of growing safety and knowledge seeking, rather than guys that just seem to want to look cool and do shoddy work.”

Quickly it is becoming obvious, that we aren’t dealing with businessmen trying to make a quick buck off a ‘new fashion’. Sean and Chester are determined to make Club Tattoo the best they can, pushing boundaries in ink and skin. And one person, who is there all the time, making sure the boys aren’t just jamming and having fun, is Sean’s wife Thora.

“When Chester moved away and became part of Linkin Park, I joined the business and we were able to reconnect with him a few years later on our third shop. He was ready to, ‘take over the world with Club Tattoo’. Sean and I already had good momentum in the business and jumped into the next phase of building this awesome brand that we have now become. For those who don’t know the history, they may be curious about the integrity of our business with a celebrity partner; however you shake it, you cannot fake great artists, piercers and a talented crew of employees who believe in where they work and what they work for… even with a celebrity partner/ owner.

“After over 14 years of being in charge of all operations and administration of the stores, Sean and Chester are the easy part! Actually, both are very supportive and respectful of my duties within the company. Since Sean and I are married, we have a special balance between our personal and professional life. Chester has always been willing to listen and contribute great ideas to the business. And since we are all long-time friends, a special trust has been established with each other’s roles and boundaries. I feel like women owners are few and far between in the industry. I purposely staff my stores with women employees and managers to balance the atmosphere for clients.”

And this friendship is another point that is integral in the success of Club Tattoo. As with Linkin Park, family and friends are important to these three childhood friends.

“Club Tattoo is a prominent name in the business and attracts talented people from all over the world, making it fairly easy to staff our stores. Once in the organization (if I may speak for them), most artists, piercers and employees enjoy the family vibe and the structure we provide. Club Tattoo has been built on the loyalty and respect of all involved. This respect goes both ways, from us to them and likewise.”

And this respect is shared by Chester as well. With visits to the studios restricted by his role in Linkin Park, he still gets to hang with Sean and Thora whenever he can.

“Linkin Park does take up most of my time, and the remaining time I have left I spend with my wife and kids. I do like to go into the shops and get work done and hangout when I get the chance, maybe once or twice a month on average. It’s funny when we have a new employee that greets me like any one of our customers and asks if there is something they can help me with. I always get a little laugh out of that. There is nothing better than knowing what your role in life is. I am truly blessed to be a part of LP and Club Tattoo. Everyone around me is extremely driven, talented and intelligent. Hopefully one day I will be too.”

And this seems to be the secret of Club Tattoo, and no doubt, Linkin Park. It is one big family working together for a common goal, everyone has their role and everyone respects each other. Thankfully for music fans and collectors around the world, there seems no stopping Linkin Park or Club Tattoo. And with a new album ready for release and Club Tattoo on the brink of opening their latest studio in San Francisco, there is no time to rest as sights are being set on what is coming next, something that excites Chester already.

“I love the new style of tattooing that’s popping up all over the world. With the techniques of tattooing evolving to higher levels of execution and the quality of modern inks allowing artists to achieve sharper lines and better blends, high calibre artists are being drawn to tattooing as a primary way to get the world to see their talent. Bodies today are really more like mobile galleries.”

Useless Linkin Park Trivia:

Linkin Park’s song Leave Out all the Rest is also the name of an episode of the crime drama CSI. The song is also played in the opening and ending scenes and some of the elements from the song are used in the episode.

Legend Has It That:

They chose ‘Linkin Park’ because Chester used to drive by Lincoln Park in Santa Monica, CA, after practice and it grabbed his attention. The guys in the band liked how it sounded, but they changed the spelling so that they could buy the domain, since lincolnpark.com was already taken and was too expensive to buy!

Chester Bennington, Rolling Stone Magazine, 2002

"It's easy to fall into that thing — 'poor, poor me', that's where songs like 'Crawling' come from: I can't take myself. But that song is about taking responsibility for your actions. I don't say 'you' at any point. It's about how I'm the reason that I feel this way. There's something inside me that pulls me down."

Minutes To Midnight Trivia:

A year after the release of Minutes to Midnight, the band released all ten different covers that were originally used as consideration for the final cover for the album prior to its release. The band made these covers available for fans to use as the album art on iTunes


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Tom Preston & Mike Fiore