When Chester Bennington was a freshman at Greenway High School, he was invited to audition for a local band called Sean Dowdell & Friends. He showed up at the rehearsal space, a scrawny, pale kid with dreadlocks wearing plaid and sporting a backpack, and was awed by the scope of drummer Dowdell’s setup, which included a P.A., a small arcade, and a private bathroom.
It was 1992, and Bennington belted out a cover of some grunge hit — likely Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” — with impressive gusto and range. He joined Dowdell’s band, who switched from the eponymous moniker to the moodier Grey Daze. The post-grunge quartet made two albums and gained a massive local following before Bennington left the band in 1998, going on to find fame as the singer of nu-metal band Linkin Park.
It was a dream of theirs, Dowdell says, to make another record. After an emotional and expensive three-year journey for Dowdell and the rest of Grey Daze — and with the blessing of Bennington’s family – a new album, will be released on June 26. It consists of what Dowdell calls “modernized” Grey Daze songs, rerecorded with surviving band members and guest musicians including members of metal bands Korn and Helmet, singer LP, and classical pianist Jean Yves D’Angelo. The album, Amends, arguably is some of the best music ever made with Bennington’s voice, and vocally shows a softer side than the histrionic screams of Linkin Park.
Some of Bennington’s fans have questioned Dowdell’s motivations for releasing the record and accused him of trying to make money off Bennington’s legacy. Dowdell — a tall, tattooed rocker with spiky black hair to match his tricked-out onyx Mercedes — blatantly calls bullshit on that. “Chester from the other side has been poking me and pushing me every single goddamn day that I wake up. He’s in my dreams,” Dowdell says. “I think about what we didn’t get to finish together. And it’s been eating at my soul for the past three fucking years.”
“I’m a very successful businessperson, so I don’t need this. It’s not about chasing rock stardom,” Dowdell continues. “I’m certainly not chasing money. I spent $100,000 of my own money to complete this record. This is about making amends, making peace with my friend, and making sure that he knows he was loved and cherished and that this music was very special to us.”
On a brisk Saturday afternoon in early March, Sean Dowdell and Grey Daze guitarist Cristin Davis are standing in the parking lot of The Rebel Lounge off 23rd Street and Indian School Road, reminiscing about their teenage years.
From 1979 until 2005, this club was The Mason Jar, and everybody who went on to become anybody played there, including Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Tool, Green Day, and Rage Against the Machine. Dowdell, Davis, and Chester Bennington all attended their first shows there as teenagers during early evening events for underage audiences, and later played on stage in various bands including Grey Daze. Linkin Park played their first show with Bennington as their singer at The Mason Jar in summer 2000.
Davis attended Greenway High School with Bennington in the early ’90s. “When he came to Greenway, I think he came in his sophomore year and I was a junior and so we had some mutual friends, but we weren’t always hanging out together,” Davis recalls. “We had separate groups of friends too, but every time I was around him and with him, he was always super-positive, super-happy, super-goofy, and charming.”
Davis wasn’t a member of Grey Daze in high school (he joined in early 2017; the band’s original guitarist, Bobby Benish, died of brain cancer in 2004), but he remembers watching Dowdell and Bennington lug equipment on their backs across campus to play on the quad at lunchtime. Within a year of forming, the band was packing popular Valley venues of the day like The Mason Jar and the 700-capacity Electric Ballroom.
“We were playing in front of huge, sold-out crowds, thousands of people,” Dowdell says.
In the forward he wrote for Dowdell’s 2017 autobiography, Tattooed Millionaire: Building the Club Tattoo Empire, Bennington mentions making his first record with Grey Daze when he was 16 and the second when he was 18 (Amends also features some vocal recordings from when he was 21).
“We were quite successful locally,” Bennington wrote, “and played nearly every weekend for years, selling our CDs at our shows and signing autographs after each performance.”
Bennington’s mother, Susan Eubanks, remembers it being her son’s first experience having a large group of fans, though he had been singing and performing around the house since he was a child (the youngest of four). She says he memorized all the songs to the Popeye movie musical when he was 2.
“I just have so much pride about what Chester did and what he did with Grey Daze,” she says. “It really was very impressive that a young band packed the Electric Ballroom every time they played. A lot of people went to see them.”
Singing with Grey Daze gave Bennington “a release,” Eubanks says, at a time when he was struggling with being bullied at school and dealing with the effects of childhood trauma including sexual abuse by an older male friend and his parents’ divorce. He was drinking, doing drugs, and skipping school.
“I’m a nurse and I could see it in other people, but I could never see it in my son. I could never see it. And my husband had a drug past and he saw it immediately,” she recalls. “One time, my husband picked him up and held him toward the ceiling. He just didn’t weigh anything. He told him that if he came home like this one more time, he was gonna kill him, or he was going to end up killing himself if he doesn’t stop. So, his teenage years were troubled.”
Dowdell was like a big brother to Bennington, stepping in to ward off bullies and give him a musical outlet. It’s something Bennington acknowledged in the forward for Tattooed Millionaire: “Sean played a huge role in building my own self confidence and kept me focused on the band at a time when drugs were turning into an all-powerful force in my life.”
“We weren’t just in a band together in the ’90s,” Dowdell says outside The Rebel Lounge. “Some people don’t understand the history. I was the best man at his first wedding. We were best of friends all the way up until the time he passed away. We were business partners. The band was just one of 10 things we did together, and I would do anything to make sure that Chester’s legacy was not tarnished. And that is super-important to me, that nothing was detrimental to his legacy.”
In 1998, Chester Bennington left Grey Daze and went to California at the invitation of a record label executive to audition for Linkin Park. The band’s 2000 debut album, Hybrid Theory, peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Over the next 17 years, Linkin Park released six more albums, won two Grammys, and became the first rock band to achieve more than 1 billion hits on YouTube.
Bennington became a hero to millions of fans who identified with his lyrics, which were often full of questions and frustrations, yet tempered with a melancholy optimism. After his death, rock magazine Kerrang! asked readers to submit their most meaningful lyrics and received an “overwhelming response” that made whittling the submissions down to their “20 Most Powerful Chester Bennington Lyrics” list a challenge.
Many Linkin Park lyrics point to a troubled mind: “I drive myself crazy ‘cause I can’t escape the gravity / I’m holding on / Why is everything so heavy?” Bennington sings in “Heavy.”
The song “Somewhere I Belong” has a verse in which Bennington sings, “I will never know myself until I do this on my own / And I will never feel anything else until my wounds are healed.”
Dowdell says he never looked at the lyrics literally at the time. “Someone asked me if Chester had a dark side. I said, ‘Not that I ever saw,’” he says. “I mean, you can see some darkness in the lyrics, but that’s kind of the way music was when we started writing music. It was in the grungy era of Alice in Chains and all those bands who wrote albums about dark stuff.”
Which is not to say Bennington was never down. “I saw him sad,” Dowdell admits, “but only in one-on-one situations. If there was ever a group of people and he was sad and then we had to go do something, he would flip a switch. So that’s maybe another insight to him being able to internalize that sadness that he had. I never saw him sad in a group setting. He would always become the jokester, the life of the party. Very dynamic. He was a performer.”
On July 20, 2017, three days before Grey Daze was scheduled to start rehearsals, Bennington hung himself in his Palos Verdes Estates home in California. He was 41. Friends and family were shocked.
The last time Susan Eubanks saw her son was that May at a Linkin Park concert in Las Vegas. “I knew that he was on antidepressants. I don’t know when he quit taking them,” she says. “I thought it was just a week before, but when he got home from the tour, he had run out and he was going to go pick them up, but he didn’t. He didn’t.”
Jaime Bennington, 23, is one of Chester’s six children. He studied classical piano at the University of Arizona and has very divergent musical tastes from his father. But he says nothing in his father’s songs can really be simplified.
“A lot of people point at his work and say, ‘Well, he was clearly saying he was suicidal’ and things like that,” Bennington says. “But if you look at all the work, including his Grey Daze stuff, it’s a bit more complex than that. It’s not just a sad guy who’s damaged or at an impasse for himself. You know, there’s something real going on there.”
Bennington’s death put the world on temporary hold for his loved ones. Dowdell says they weren’t sure if they would ever continue the Grey Daze project. “We obviously had to focus on the real-life thing, which was, we just lost a friend, kids have lost their father, a wife lost her husband,” Dowdell says. “So, it took about eight to 10 months after that for us to kind of start kicking the idea around that maybe we should finish this because it was initiated by Chester and we wanted to see it through to the end for him.”
The inside of Sean Dowdell’s black Mercedes-Benz smells like fresh leather and righteous anger. He’s playing tracks from Amends on the car stereo, and somewhere in between a massively heavy, bouncy, guitar-driven song called “B12” and an acoustic tear-jerker ballad called “Sometimes,” the subject of the album’s detractors comes up.
“There are a few people out there like, ‘Oh, you guys are just trying to grab money.’ First of all, some of these fans, they’re delusional. They think they have this relationship with Chester. They never met him. They have no clue,” Dowdell says. “And if he were here, he’d tell you to shut the fuck up. So, I’m going to tell you to shut the fuck up, because I spent over $100,000 on this record to make it and I didn’t give a shit about making money. If I break even, I’m fine. It wasn’t about that.”
Making Amends wasn’t just a monetary expenditure for Dowdell, either — it was an emotional experience for everyone involved and a massive time investment. Rewriting the music took about a year and half, Dowdell says, and the recording was almost another year and a half. Grey Daze worked with five different producers, recorded 17 tracks, and pared them down to 11.
Several guest musicians contributed to the reimagined songs, including singer LP, Helmet frontman Page Hamilton, Breaking Benjamin guitarist Jasen Rauch, guitarists Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer of Korn, and classical pianist Jean Yves D’Angelo, whose melodious ivories lend a softness to Grey Daze’s thundering ballads. The album’s a lush musical soundscape of layered guitars, haunting harmonies, and Bennington’s remastered vocal tracks — alive, robust, and showing a range not often heard in his other bands.
The songs on the album sound smooth, as if Bennington recorded them live with the band instead of more than two decades ago. Creating such a seamless sonic union required the members of Grey Daze to listen to Bennington’s voice — over and over for hours on end, separated from the rest of the tracks.
That was a difficult experience for everyone involved, including Jaime Bennington, who sings on “Soul Song.” He says he never really listened to his father’s music when he was alive, and he can’t since he died. “But for very different reasons,” he says. “It was hard enough to get in the booth and have him full blast in my headphones, trying to harmonize the song for a couple of hours.”
“The first couple of months were pretty painful,” Dowdell says. “As one of his closest friends, if not the closest, I felt this overwhelming guilt. Like, how could I have stopped him from doing what he was doing? What did I not see? Was I not paying attention when he was telling me he was in pain? And then I’m listening to these lyrics and I’m going, ‘Of course he was in pain.’ Listen to these lyrics. When we would sit there and just listen to his vocal track by itself, isolated, the songs really hit me a lot deeper than they ever had before.”
Cristin Davis says hearing Bennington’s voice a cappella in his headphones gave him a myriad of emotions. “It took us months to get past that,” he says. “For the three months, it was a chore. Then it started to become fun, after we got through the writing phase and started laying it down. Then you start to feel a little guilty, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m having fun.’ But no, this is exactly what Chester would want. He’s having fun with us.”
The band kept a small framed photo of Bennington in the studio during the recording, propped up against one of the soundboards, and would stop by and greet it every day.
Before a single new note of Amends could be recorded, Dowdell hopped on a plane to Los Angeles and sat down with Chester Bennington’s widow, Talinda. He wanted to make sure he had the blessing of Bennington’s family. (Talinda Bennington-Friedman was not available for an interview for this story.)
“I didn’t want contention. I didn’t want there to be ill feelings. Of course, she’s my friend and she’s also my business partner now that Chester passed, so it was important to me to make sure she was on board first,” Dowdell says. “I explained what I wanted to do, and she said, ‘I trust you implicitly and I know you would never make Chester look bad, so do what you need to do.’”
Susan Eubanks says she was happy to hear her son’s voice on the reworked songs. “I just sat there and cried. It was so beautiful,” she says. “I think it allows people to hear Chester one more time and in a different genre. He doesn’t scream as much. He has a beautiful voice, and when they rerecorded everything, it’s not as grungy. I’m very proud of what Sean’s done and it is an incredible dedication to my son and to one of his best friends.”
Jaime Bennington hasn’t been able to listen to the album yet, but says it was a great idea. “Sean has been very kind and very thoughtful about what he’s doing with it,” he says. “I really have no qualms with the album at all, and I’m sure people will love it, and I’m sure I would love it if I ever got the guts to listen to it.”
There’s enough material for two more reinvented Grey Daze records, Dowdell says. “We’ll see how this is received. If his fans want to hear more, then we’ll do another record.”
Dowdell’s finally finished what he and Bennington started, and he’s happy with the result. “This is going to sound so arrogant, but it’s just how proud I am of what we did. It feels like we created an Appetite for Destruction or a Depeche Mode Violator — an album that I can relate to and say, ‘I can listen to that. Every song, start to finish,’” Dowdell says. “I feel like we’ve created that. Some fan out there is going to go, ‘That’s my favorite record of all time.’”