TORONTO – Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park always starts his trips to Tokyo the same way. Jet-lagged and unable to sleep on the first night, the band’s founding member has made a ritual of hitting up the Tsukiji fish market around 4 a.m. for sushi and a beer.
“That’s a routine that I’ve had for many years now,” Shinoda says.
And as Linkin Park approaches two decades together (the band turns 20 in 2016), there have been countless visits to Japan along the way. Now they’re back to perform at this year’s Summer Sonic, a festival Shinoda knows well, having played it both with his primary act and as his rap side-project, Fort Minor.
The musician, whose father is Japanese-American, says his heritage “definitely” adds a personal significance to his visits here. But as for whether his background makes Japanese audiences feel an extra affinity for the band, it’s not something he’s able to judge on his own.
“It’s entirely possible,” he says. “I can tell you that when we play there, I’m not the only one that looks forward to it, and a lot of our guys are really excited to come out, and that’s based on the fact that we’ve always had a strong connection with the people and the fans and the country.”
According to Shinoda, Linkin Park never ceases to be amazed by the versatility of Japanese crowds.
“When it’s time to have fun they take it all the way to the highest level,” he says. “And when it’s time to stop, they can do that too.”
He’ll never forget the time a barricade at the front of an audience in Tokyo broke, and they had to pause the show for a moment. But only a moment.
“That’s a situation that puts the fans in the front at risk,” he says. “And I don’t know if Japanese fans will be able to appreciate this, but I can say with a high degree of certainty that if that happened in any other country, we might have had to stop the show for an hour or maybe just not even finish, because it would be impossible to get people to organize themselves and have the fans calm down and get out of the way for it to get fixed.”
But in this case, “one of the guys from the production walked out on stage and asked everyone to take a few steps back so they could fix the barricade. It happened almost immediately,” Shinoda says. “That’s really unique to the Japanese audience, and an amazing thing to see.”
Linkin Park was able to witness this same spirit of community and cooperation under much more dire circumstances during their outreach efforts in 2011.
The last time the band was in the country, they were heavily involved in providing relief to the areas ravaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake, visiting Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, with their charity, Music For Relief. They partnered with another organization, Save The Children, to provide kids in that region with school supplies, transportation, meals and emotional support.
They heard a number of moving stories while they were in the area, one of the most memorable coming from an elementary school principal.
“He talked about gathering all the kids, and they were able to make their way up onto the roof of the school where they saw the water rising and rising and rising, and they were a little bit of an island in the midst of all this chaos,” Shinoda recounts. “People from other buildings were grabbing on to anything buoyant and floating over or swimming over to their roof, and they were taking people in. At the end of it all, they told us that they didn’t lose a single kid.”
Of course, he points out, not everyone was as fortunate. The band also heard several incredibly sad stories from disaster survivors who had lost family members. Shinoda has a bittersweet recollection of a music class Linkin Park’s charity helped to organize at a high school in Miyagi. The class’ jam-session format was designed to provide the high-schoolers with a much-needed outlet for expression.
“The teachers told us it was a place where maybe for the first time they saw a lot of kids open up, have smiles on their faces and enjoy themselves in the early part of the recovery when everything was really serious and really sad and dark,” he says. “They could come into music class and forget about it for half an hour, which was, in their estimation, a really big deal.”
The band’s contribution didn’t end with visiting the area that was hit hardest. They put together a compilation called “Download to Donate: Tsunami Relief,” which features R.E.M., Tegan and Sara, and Talib Kweli, among others. Linkin Park’s song from the album, “Issho Ni,” was a spare instrumental track with glitchy electronic elements and an undercurrent of hope.
Still, even in times of crisis, Linkin Park’s devoted fanbase didn’t hold back their constructive criticism. Some said the song’s buildup was too slow, and should have featured vocals. Posting on his website, MikeShinoda.com, the musician invited people to remix the track or add their own lyrics.
“We were just trying to act as quickly as possible,” he says.
The musician, who has a bachelor’s degree in illustration from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, also designed two T-shirts for the cause, one of which reads “Not Alone.”
Upon their return to Japan, Linkin Park will release yet another T-shirt, this time to commemorate their Asian tour (which begins at Summer Sonic and carries them through the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia). The band teamed up with A Bathing Ape for two different designs, one of which features the band members drawn in the style of the Japanese streetwear company’s mascot, Baby Milo. Shinoda liked “Baby Milo Shinoda” so much, he’s currently using the little guy as his avatar on Twitter (@MikeShinoda).
The band will be making an appearance at the Bathing Ape Store in Shibuya on Aug. 9 to release the shirt and sign autographs. But good luck trying to get your hands on one; they’re only making 47, which will be available through a lottery system.
Linkin Park fans will be happy to learn that after touring Asia, the band will be heading back to the studio and getting serious about their sixth studio album, the follow-up to 2012’s “Living Things.”
“This tour in Asia is our only tour that we’ve got on the books probably until we get some more music out, I would imagine,” Shinoda says.
The suggestion of “more music” may come as some relief, as lead vocalist Chester Bennington’s upcoming stint as the new lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots could have threatened to put the band on the back burner. Bennington will be replacing the rock band’s troubled frontman Scott Weiland for a U.S. tour in September, as well as a new EP. But Shinoda makes it clear that Bennington is working his gigs with STP around Linkin Park’s recording schedule — his primary band is still the priority.
As for how far into their new album they are, the musician says that the music is something of a constant work in progress.
“I’m always writing,” he says. “I kind of head the writing process, and it’s something that I do all the time whether I’m in a car or hotel, or at home or away. At a certain point, it’s time to start collecting those demos, playing them for the guys, getting some feedback and crafting the songs. We’re in that latter part of the process now, and we’re hoping to have something out next year.”
And after that, who knows? Shinoda is not closed to the idea of reviving his solo act, Fort Minor, whose only album, “The Rising Tied” came out in 2005 to solid critical response. More hip-hop-oriented in nature than Linkin Park’s music, the Fort Minor project featured rap heavyweights Black Thought of The Roots and Common, as well as R&B singer John Legend.
“That’s possible,” he says. “I don’t know when that could be — it could be sooner, it could be later, I don’t know. It’s just a matter of being in the right state of mind, being in the moment to say ‘now is the time.’ “
Linkin Park plays the Marine Stage at the Tokyo installment of Summer Sonic on Aug. 10, and the Ocean Stage at the Osaka installment on Aug. 11. One-day tickets cost ¥13,000 (Osaka) or ¥ 15,500 (Tokyo). For more information, visit www.summersonic.com/2013 or www.linkinpark.com.