Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda gets personal with his latest project, Fort Minor.
The combination of Japanese and American upbringing was normal for Mike Shinoda, who ate steak with white rice, without differentiating between the two food cultures. Spilling over into his music for Linkin Park, Shinoda naturally combines hip hop with alternative rock. With his new hip hop project, Fort Minor, Shinoda has a personal story to tell. Although the music is far more edgy than that of Linkin Park, underneath the hard exterior his lyrics reveal a whole lot of heart.
RS: Your latest album, “The Rising Tied,” has a track called “Kenji,” dealing with WWII internment. Can you tell me a little about that?
MS: Kenji is my middle name. It’s also obviously a very common name, so the reason I named the song that is because it’s my family’s story but it’s also a common story, something that happened at that time. So to everybody who is out here in the West Coast, this is their story. I did my best to capture an accurate story in that song that I thought represented the people’s struggle and my family’s struggle at that time. The song is about how the internment and how a family like ours would be pulled out of their homes by the FBI because of fear and racial profiling.
RS: Was it your grandparents?
MS: It was my grandparents that were taken out of their home. They had 12 kids and they were stuck in the camp for the rest of the war and then, you know, obviously it didn’t end there but that’s kind of where I ended the story.
I did my best to capture an accurate story,” said Fort Minor’s Mike Shinoda of “Kenji,” a song dealing with WWII internment.
RS: How was it like growing up Nikkei with that kind of history?
MS: Mixed kids always have a very unique experience with the race subject because we are many times not obvious members of any group. For example, when I was younger, I would hear people make jokes about Asians around me because they wouldn’t know that I was half Asian, so they assumed that I was maybe Hispanic or maybe Middle Eastern and they’d make a joke about Asians and I was the spy. I was the undercover receiver of this joke.
RS: How did you learn about internment?
MS: It’s stuff you’re kind of brought up with. Your family just kind of talks about it. You overhear people saying things about what happened back in camp or they ran into so and so from camp, and you find a little bit about what camp was. And then eventually I saw it in the history books at school and they didn’t devote very much time to it. It’s only half a page, and the other half of the page is like a big picture of Pearl Harbor. It occurred to me that the story they were telling wasn’t the full story and it was being presented in a way that I didn’t think was probably accurate, especially after hearing the accounts from my family.
RS: So you kind of felt that it’s a story that had to be heard?
MS: It’s a story that doesn’t get told so much in the history books. Not in detail. In my experience a great deal of younger American youth are growing up and that’s not a part of their experience up until this point, so someone needs to tell them about it. The funny thing is the older generation, you know, their philosophy on the subject was shikataganai.
RS: Did your curiosity come from the way you were brought up or as an artist?
MS: No, it’s just basically because I thought the story hadn’t been told. I know once the song got out that most of our fans didn’t know about it. If you go online to FortMinor.com, you’ll find an interview version of the song. There are no drums, no rapping, just two and a half minutes of the interviews with my dad and my aunt. I put it up there for our fans so if people are interested, they can check it out.
RS: Growing up multi-racial, with a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother, did you ever go through an identity crisis?
MS: I think it was probably in college that I realized that there was a difference between Japanese and Japanese American. That’s important to realize. It’s not the same thing and then eventually with Linkin Park, I toured in Japan. I’ve been there now I think four times. I remember the first time I went, how familiar it seemed, just getting out of the plane, it smelled like my aunt’s house, in the airport, it smelled like Japan. I don’t know if anybody else even noticed it but I walked out of the plane and thought this is definitely familiar to me, didn’t even see anything yet. And then going to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyota, Nagoya, you just recognize things about the way people act, the small things that people do such as how you’ll grab a piece of paper. There are things that are more obvious like taking somebody’s business card with two hands. You don’t do that in the States. When I saw somebody do that I went, “Oh yeah, my uncle always does that,” you know. There are little things that culturally come from Japan but they also exist in Japanese American culture and it made me feel like the connection was there and I kind of hadn’t realized how much of it was there.
RS: How do you think you’ve maintained its traditions or cultures within you?
MS: It’s all in little things. It’s as simple as when your friends come over and you serve steak with white rice. They’re not used to that. They usually have potatoes or something with it, but in my house, that’s what we do…
RS: You graduated from the Art Center College of Design. Was your education something that you had to fall back on?
MS: No, it was actually my focus at that point because it was more reliable, like who thinks that their band is going to get signed and sell any records? So, I was just doing that on the weekends and at night.
RS: How do you think your education contributed to your success?
MS: I think a lot of the lessons that I learned in illustration kind of carried over to how I work in the studio now because in painting class every week you work on a painting for six to 12 hours, and you put it up on the wall, and 29 other people tell you why it’s horrible. That just taught me how to go into a situation and hear criticism without taking it too personally, how to leave the ego at the door and walk in and do what’s best for the art.
RS: How do your parents feel about your success?
MS: They’ve been cool with what I was doing since I was a little kid. I mean, if you can imagine, if you’ve got a five-year- old who thinks they’re going to be an artist, and then by the time they’re seven they still haven’t changed their mind, you pretty much have to come to terms with the fact that your kid is most likely going to be living in a one bedroom apartment, not making any money being an artist, but that’s always the fear. A lot of people come to realize that it’s a great lifestyle to be an artist; it’s very fulfilling. It can be very lucrative for a lot of people. So my parents kind of at that point said, “Okay, well he can be a graphic designer, illustrator, and he’s not going to be, you know, living off of us his whole life. As long as we send him to a good school and he gets a good job we’ll be happy.” And this obviously turned out pretty good.
RS: You designed the cover of Linkin Park’s “Hybrid Theory” album…
MS: I’m involved on all of the artwork for Linkin Park up ‘til this point, whether it be art direction or actually coming up with specific graphic elements and design ideas. I helped design the cover for Hybrid Theory. I designed a lot of the packaging for the re-animation “Meteora.” I came up with those concepts with our director Frank, but more importantly, the Fort Minor record. I pretty much did all the art on that.
RS: So you’ve incorporated all of your skills.
MS: Well, the reason I wanted to do that is because the record was so personal that it seemed to me like if I didn’t do that then the artwork wouldn’t match. My friends said I was crazy. Because if you can imagine, finishing an album; I produced every song, I mixed every song, finished it, mastered it, it’s done. Now, I do a series of ten paintings, it’s like, “What are you doing?” (laughs) “He’s a work-aholic.” “You need to take a vacation.” So that’s my new year’s resolution this year is to take more vacations.
RS: When did you realize you were famous?
MS: There’s always a new level. You go on tour and people recognize you. That’s a level. You’re driving through a city and hear your song on the radio. You turn on the TV and you’re on TV. At this point, I’ve played the Grammy’s with Jay-Z and Paul McCartney. We played Live-8 in front of 750,000 to a million people standing in the field. Not a million people on TV, but a million people there and then millions of people on TV saw it, and online obviously even more. We played in front of some big crowds. And we’ve met people, too. It’s really cool to be able to meet Elton John and have him know who you are, that’s a really strange feeling.
RS: How can fans find out more about Fort Minor?
MS: I hope people could come to FortMinor.com. I’m on their posting too, like on the message board and on myspace.com/fortminor. On those posts that say they’re from Mike. They are really from me. Like, I do just sit down on the computer and say “hi” to people sometimes.