Mark Renton, MyRock, Spring 2020
Almost three years after his passing, Chester Bennington’s voice will resonate again on April 10th, with the release of Grey Daze’s posthumous album Amends. A record made with respect and passion wrapped around the original vocals of the late singer, and with the help of his many devoted friends including members of Korn, Bush and Helmet to name a few. The most beautiful will to honor the memory of the one we still mourn. Sean Dowdell, initiator of the project, drummer of Grey Daze and longtime friend of Chester, reveals the underside of a record like no other.
To start, let's go back to that day in 1992, when a young man called Chester showed up for an audition for the position of singer with your group Sean Dowdell And His Friends?. What memories do you keep of it?
Sean Dowdell: I played drums for what, eight months? And yet, I decided very early on to form a group with a guitarist, whose name was Chris. His little brother was a drummer, and he had a neighbor who sang. When we were looking for our singer, Chris said to me: "There is this kid that my brother knows, he's super good, he sounds like Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam! We have to audition him for our group." Two days later, Chester showed up at the meeting. He had curly hair, he was skinny and he wore glasses. He looked like a nerd. I was seventeen, I was an arrogant bastard, and I thought this guy didn't have the rockstar profile at all. Then he sang Pearl Jam's "Alive" and immediately my jaw dropped! He was barely fifteen, but he already had a signature voice, he knew how to sing on key, and it’s true that he sounded like Eddie Vedder! We hired him right away! He immediately asked me to accompany him home, because he had to ask his father for permission to join the group. His father, Lee, asked me about twenty questions. I think he wanted to verify that I was not a fucking junkie. I passed the test, but his father made me promise to take care of Chester. From there, we started rehearsing three to four times a week. A year later, we already had quite a few songs. This is where it got serious and the group’s name was changed to Grey Daze.
What bands were you listening to at the time with Chester?
S.D.: We were fully into Depeche Mode, me and him! But at that time, I remember Chester's favorite band was Stone Temple Pilots. Their first album was just released, and he was listening to it over and over. Twenty years later, when he called me to tell me that the group wanted to hire him to replace Scott Weiland, I told him: "You have no choice, remember the love you had for this group, you must accept! " It made him laugh. But to come back to our common passion for Depeche Mode, this is the reason why I chose this stylized flower as a cover for the Grey Daze album, it is a tribute to the artwork of Violator, which we listened to a lot with Chester at the time.
Were you very close, Chester and you, at the time?
S. D.: Oh we spent all our time together! He even lived with my parents and me for a while. He didn't have a car, so I drove him all over town. We were inseparable. To the point that, later, I lived with him and his first wife for some time... As a roommate, he was very respectful, very easy going, very clean. An adorable guy.
A Chester-initiated project
In 1998, Grey Daze finally separated. That's when Chester joined Xero, which later became Linkin Park. How did you feel at the time? Have you stayed in touch?
S. D.: No, we did not speak for two years. We had recorded two records, we were starting to make a name for ourselves, we were playing on the radio and we were playing in fairly large venues. We literally stopped as we approached the peak. One evening, we quarreled, and we didn't talk again. After two years of silence, shortly after the release of Hybrid Theory, Chester called me when he learned that our former guitarist had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He asked me what he could do to help. We apologized to each other for our behavior and, since that day, we have not left each other. He also became a business partner with my wife and me, by investing in our company, Club Tattoo. One day in 2003, he called me up and said, "Look, I'm making a good living with Linkin Park, I want to do something for you, and I would like to invest some money in your club." He's a guy who really wore his heart on his sleeve.
One day in 2016, Chester gives you a call and asks you to reform Grey Daze, right?
S. D.: Absolutely. It was around the time he finished recording One More Light with Linkin Park. We called each other once a week to talk about business and such things. We wanted to organize a big party with Club Tattoo, and suddenly he told me: "I thought, it would be great to reunite Grey Daze!" I was immediately ready! He had planned to leave Linkin Park, and he wanted to continue making music. He had in mind to do concerts, we even had some super interesting offers at festivals, all over the world. He also told me: "We have about thirty great songs, it would be great to re-record them with today's techniques." We started to exchange our ideas by email, he gave me some directions he wanted to take, to modernize these songs… Chester was fully committed and wanted to release the record at the end of 2017. Unfortunately, his death on July 20th stopped this project.
A recording like no other
If we understand correctly, the album that is released today contains the original vocals from Chester, but the music has been completely re-recorded, right?
S. D.: That's it, yes. Eight months after his death, I mourned for my friend and also for this project. Then one morning I woke up and said to my wife, "I have to finish this record, I have to do it for my friend, for his memory." I booked a studio in Los Angeles, and got to work! There were several sessions, with different producers, spread over a year and a half. What
we did, was that we kept all of Chester's original vocals, and rebuilt everything around it. The song was in the center of the building, like a beacon in the night. It’s totally the reverse of what’s being done, since usually when you make a record you start with the music, then the singing comes at the very end. Here, Chester's voice guided us from start to finish.
His voice is impressively mature. We even find it hard to believe that it was recorded over twenty years ago!
S. D.: It’s because back then Chester was an extremely talented singer. But people don't know it, because the legacy left by Grey Daze was literally wiped out by Warner when Linkin Park became huge. They took our records off the internet, deleted our titles from iTunes and YouTube, and did everything to destroy our history. It's a fact. For me, that made me suffer a lot. Chester, not right away, because he was making a good living with Linkin Park. But I know that after a while, it also started to gnaw at him, and I think that's why he wanted to reform the group. He told me, "These songs are very good, they deserve a second chance." What I can tell you is that when I isolated his voice for the recording, it gave me chills.
You had about thirty titles with Grey Daze, but the album only contains eleven. How was the selection made?
S. D.: We first chose seventeen songs from Chester's favorites, and then we reduced the number to eleven. We wanted to keep some good titles for the second volume, which will be released later. We also realized while working on these eleven songs that they all had something in common, an often dark and emotional atmosphere.
Of these eleven songs, which were Chester's favorites?
S. D.: I know he had a soft spot for "Soul Song" and "Sometimes", at the time he loved playing these songs on stage. There is another title he liked, "Drag", which will be on volume two.
So there will be a sequel!
S. D.: Absolutely! But not right now. It took me three years to make Amends, and it was so emotionally intense that I still haven't recovered! So it will take me a while to get back into it, I need to get my bearings. For three years, I felt like I was carrying the whole weight of the world on my shoulders. It was quite a challenge. I was under pressure to make the result perfect and up to what Chester wanted. My wife kept saying to me, "You have to be patient, take the time to do this right." Patience, is usually not my strong point, but I followed her advice and the end result shows me that I did well.
Surrounded by family and friends
The record was approved by Chester’s family, his parents, his wife Talinda, and his children. Was it important to have their blessing?
S. D.: Oh it was compulsory! They absolutely had to understand our intentions, validate our work and participate in their own way. My goal is not to make a load of cash, but to finish my friend's dream and to pay tribute to him. I know some people imagine we’re doing it for the money, but they don’t know that we’ve invested a hundred thousand dollars out of our pocket in this project. For me, it was never a question of money.
There are many guests who participated in the making of this record. Including Head and Munky from the group Korn. Did they accept easily?
S. D.: I have known Head since 2004, he is a very good friend. One day we exchanged text messages. I sent him an excerpt from a song to get his opinion. He called me just a few minutes later: "Bro, what is this? It's incredibly good!" I explained the project to him, and he asked me a billion questions. After an hour of conversation, I asked him to put his guitar on a track. He was super enthusiastic: "It would be an honor to be part of it!" This is where the idea of having different guests came up. It made sense, because after the death of our guitarist Bobby, we knew anyway that we would have to find someone for the guitar. So why not include musicians who were close to Chester, who admired him and who, for some, influenced him? Munky and Head took it very seriously, they spent a lot of time with us in the studio, we saw that they were very touched, emotionally.
After that, we had Jasen Rauch from Breaking Benjamin, who is a huge fan of Chester. There was also Page Hamilton from Helmet, Marcos Curiel from P.O.D., Chris Traynor from Bush on four tracks… And of course Ryan Shuck from Orgy, who was a good mutual friend of mine and Chester. Besides, they made music together with the group Dead By Sunrise. And then we invited a singer named LP. You probably don't know her, but I'll tell you a story. It was during a ride in a car with Chester in 2016, we were going to eat something together. What I loved when we saw each other was that he introduced me to new artists, his favorites at the time. He was very expressive in those moments, he spoke with his hands, gestured in all directions, and you could see the sparks in those eyes. And he made me listen to an LP song: "Wow, this chick is extraordinary, you have to listen to that! " When we were working on the record, we had this song, "Shouting Out", which was clearly meant to be a duet. I immediately thought of LP. We contacted her through a mutual friend, and she immediately replied: "I loved Chester with all my heart, I would love to be part of this project and pay tribute to him in my own way! "
And then there are the children of Chester...
S. D.: The more I progressed in this project, the more it seemed obvious to invite them in the studio to participate in these songs. They are all there, except the last three who are still a little too young. Chester has never had the opportunity to share the microphone with his children, and I know he loved them so much that he would have loved to hear them singing alongside him. Draven was a little apprehensive, he wasn't sure how to go about it, but Jaime totally embraced the thing, you can hear him singing on "Soul Song". For the occasion, we found him the microphone that Chester had used on Hybrid Theory. It was a very special time for Jaime to sing with his father. We were all upset in the studio, there were a lot of tears… There are also my two children, who play drums on two songs.
In the video for "Sickness", you are portraying a story of school bullying. Did Chester draw inspiration from a similar event for the lyrics?
S. D.: Honestly, I don't know if at the time this song was directly inspired by something that Chester would have experienced, it was just an idea that came to my mind when I listened to the song again. It’s about feeling empty sometimes, being in distress and not understanding the meaning of life, with the feeling of not being in your place. What I do know is that Chester was regularly picked on in school by a guy who resented him because he was jealous of his girlfriend. He kept beating him. One day, I got tired of it, I went to school and put him in a line in front of everyone telling him: "Don't you dare touch Chester anymore." From then on, no one bothered him anymore. I was two years older, he was like my little brother, and I was sort of his bodyguard. (laughs) Chester didn't like confrontation, he was skinny, he refused to fight. Me, it was the opposite, I was strong and I did not give in. Seeing Chester getting hit, it got me mad.
A young man who didn't love himself.
A title like "Sometimes" sounds like a real grunge masterpiece. This song should have hit the 90's! How do you explain that Grey Daze did not break through at the time?
S. D.: We deserved to be huge, and frankly we should have been! The problem is that we signed the wrong contract with the wrong record company. It was in 1996, in full grunge mode, but our recordings did not come out because the label went bankrupt... For a year, we found ourselves stranded for nothing. Some members of the group started taking drugs, which affected our decision-making. And little by little, it precipitated the end of Grey Daze. But it was not all in vain, since Linkin Park was literally built on our failure. Just two weeks after Grey Daze ended, our agent recorded a demo for Chester and sent it to Xero. Thanks to all that we had accomplished, Chester had accumulated a lot of experience, he was ripe to be a rockstar.
You talk about drugs. It's no secret that Chester has had some addiction issues. On Amends, there’s a title called “Just Like Heroin”. What’s the message, did you talk to Chester about it at the time?
S. D.: I want to clarify, if Chester took drugs in his life, he never touched heroin. This song is about his hatred of the hero. The message is clearly anti-drug, the lyrics speak of the sadness we felt at the time, when the heroine took all of our heroes, like Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. All these guys, whom we loved from the bottom of our being, would die one after the other because of the hero. This is the message of "Just Like Heroin", above all, is not to touch this shit.
Little by little, we saw the death of most of the iconic musicians of the grunge generation: Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell and, of course, Chester Bennington. How do you explain such a slaughter?
S.D.: Oh man, this is a great question, and I wish I could give you an answer, but I ask it every day and still can't understand. I really don't know, it's so sad... I just find that there are two factors in common to all these losses: depression and/or addiction. I was very close to Chester and I have always seen how bad he felt about himself. What I can tell you is that in retrospect, working on these songs made me understand the meaning of the texts with a different look. There is more depth than I had suspected at the time. When I try to explain Chester’s actions to myself, I come to the conclusion that he never felt in his place. You know, he always put himself down, he didn't love himself, he constantly thought that he was not up to: his wife, his friends, his parents, his fans… He was very demanding with himself and he was always angry with himself for everything. On the one hand, he gave the impression that he did not deserve the love of others. It is all the more sad that he gave without counting, he was generous with the whole earth, but never with himself.
We at LPFCW wanted to share this article with you all, so we translated the original piece from French, with the help of our team and some external sources for confirmation on final translations. In order to prove accuracy and in case you should want to see it, we have the full article scans as a PDF on our website here. The content in this interview in no way reflects the thoughts and opinions of LPFCW or its members, we are simply sharing what has already been reported by Grey Daze, Sean Dowdell and MyRock magazine.