There's that trite cliché about how insanity is repeating the same steps and expecting new results each time. But what if you don't care about the ending, and you're only concerned about doing The Thing?
That's the best way to explain the mentality of Phoenix rockers Grey Daze. Back in June 2020, the band — whose current members include Sean Dowdell, Cristin Davis, and Mace Beyers — honored their fallen former frontman, Chester Bennington, by releasing Amends. (Bennington left the band in the late '90s, and maintained a friendship and various business dealings with Dowdell through his death in July 2017).
And with still more story left to tell, and legacies to further reaffirm, Dowdell and company have opted to release a follow-up, The Phoenix, on June 17. And, yes, they're well aware of the possible backlash.
"I did this for my friend and the music," Dowdell said in a recent call. "I thought it was meaningful. That's why we completed the record. If nobody buys the [new] record, I don't care."
Like its predecessor, The Phoenix is culled from material written by Bennington and the band in the months before his death. And like that LP, Dowdell said the band agonized over how to move forward without tarnishing Bennington's legacy.
"It took months," he said of the process around Amends' release. "When he passed away, I said, 'OK, well, that's over with and done.' And then it took months. We were thinking we'd print 1,000 copies or whatever and put them out on the market for whoever."
But ultimately, the band instead chose to listen to their fans.
"We've had fans for years asking us to put those records out," he said. "And that's how it started. Then once we started getting deeper into the recording process, and certain people got a chance to hear what we were doing, then they came around and were like, 'We want to put this out and properly curate this music in a way that has a much deeper reach than just you guys doing it on your own."
The public reaction to that first record helped Dowdell and Grey Daze feel validated that The Phoenix was the right choice.
"I would say 99 percent of everybody out there welcomed it with open arms, and were emotionally connecting to the music and loved it," he said.
If any of that negative feedback affected Dowdell, it was a perceived ignorance among some of the more verbose critics.
"The only thing that bothered me was seeing the ignorance of people [who said], 'Oh, you're just trying to get rich off Chester's death,'" Dowdell said. "I spent tens of thousands of dollars of my own money to make this happen, and I was already a multimillionaire when I started this process. So me trying to make money on this is the dumbest business plan ever, because there's no money in recorded music. None."
If anything, Dowdell noted that the band's unwavering belief in The Phoenix was not only about further honoring Bennington but striking back at some of the "nonbelievers."
"One of the things that I remember quite clearly was the last record that Chester did with Linkin Park," Dowdell said. "He was used to that 99 percent of people loving what they did, and they had an uptick of three or four percent that didn't like it. And that really hurt his feelings."
He added, "I think with anything, you're going to have some people that don't like what you're doing. You could go on Twitter right now and tell people the sky is blue, and you'll have five assholes that jump out and say, 'No, it's purple or yellow.'"
Still, Dowdell explained that the first record affected him on a more personal level. The writing and arranging of Amends was a powerful reminder of the issues faced by a dear friend and collaborator.
"While he and I wrote a lot of the lyrics together, I had understood certain things at the time to mean different things," Dowdell said. "And I think I had a deeper understanding of his lyrical perspective going back into these after he had passed, and I realized that there was some real pain underlying some of these lyrics."
He added, "Whereas in the '90s, all the grunge bands were writing about sadness and pain. It was just the way of the world at the time, right? But to be perfectly honest, I think Chester really, really felt that sad shit, and that's the best way to put it. I just had a different emotional understanding of where he was coming from."
Dowdell expanded on those ideas, and explained that this larger creative process helped him grow both personally and artistically.
"It made me feel like I didn't understand the pain he was going through as much of the time," he said. "It's just that when you lose somebody close to you, and I don't care who you are, you'll always feel a little bit of guilt. Like, what could I have done better as a friend? That's something that popped out as we as we're going back and analyzing these lyrics on a deeper level. The one thing I'll say is that it definitely made me want to be a little bit more understanding from other people's point of view. Everybody has their own demons that they're fighting on any given day. I think I just had to be a little bit more open to that."
It's even helped the band become more streamlined and well-rounded, according to Dowdell.
"The ego has been taken out," he said. "We 100 percent realize this is about Chester. We're a lot older and wiser now. So the writing process is a lot more fun and it's a lot more forgiving."
And a lot of that growth shows across the 10 tracks that comprise The Phoenix. For one, they had already built a kind of musical roadmap, and as a result, the follow-up felt all the more cohesive.
"We took that idea and expanded on it," Dowdell said. "So every single song was made into something completely different and more relevant musically for today's culture. The first album was kind of learning as we go in, creating the process and finding out what worked and what didn't. So when we started the second record, we kind of had the process down of how we were going to approach the entirety of the record rather than each individual song. We knew what was a comfortable way of working."
Perhaps as a direct consequence of that process, and the band's newfound perspectives, the record itself is sonically different.
"This record feels a lot heavier," Dowdell said. "If you love the old Chester, where he's screaming a lot, you're going to love this record. That first record, I think, had a thread of sadness and somberness throughout the entirety. A lot of people cried when they listened to it. I don't think you're going to get that on this record; you're going to feel more of a celebratory anthem rock feel to it. I think you're going to want to raise your fist and scream."
He added, "This record feels much more like a celebration of Chester, and that's how we want to put it out. We want people to celebrate Chester and feel that gratitude for having him in our lives at all rather than focus on the loss."
That doesn't mean, however, that there weren't some challenges in recording this record, just as there was with Amends. For instance, the band had to get inventive in dealing with a lack of certain song elements.
"We restructured a lot of the vocals in songs," Dowdell said. "We found that in two of the songs, we literally had no choruses, and so we had to write these choruses. Now, without a vocalist to come in and do that, I had to sing one song and Richard Patrick from Filter sang one song. I think we did a great job of complementing what Chester was already doing. That was the challenge, to do it in a way that didn't make the song worse."
And through those creative challenges, Grey Daze were able to generate a few special moments. The first involved Bennington's own daughters..
"I think we curated the entire recording process, so everything was special about it," Dowdell said. "We took one of Chester's original lyrics and we turned it into a little nursery rhyme and had [his] girls sing the nursery rhyme at the beginning of the song. That was not only emotional for all of us, but it was a way for us to give something back to Chester. He had never gotten to do that while he was alive."
The other hallmark moment, he said, came with yet another special guest. (Amends had its own big-name cameos, including Helmet's Page Hamilton, pianist Jean Yves D’Angelo, and Korn's Brian "Head" Welch and James "Munky" Shaffer.)
"We also brought in Dave Navarro to play on a track called 'Holding You.' Initially, he was just going to come in and double some guitar parts and put a little bit of flair," Dowdell said. "He came in and absolutely crushed it. It was an incredible experience. And I really believe that he showed up wanting to honor Chester at the forefront of his mind, because he showed up with his A-game. That was a really cool experience to see."
Leaving it all on the record is sort of all the band have. Because, as Dowdell explained, they're strategically limited in what they can do for promotions.
"There's no tours planned," he said. "We're not going to replace Chester and we're not doing a hologram of Chester." He would, however, like to eventually "do something in a tribute fashion," adding, "we'd love to do a festival or something like that, but where it made sense." There will also be a "five-song acoustic EP later this year," Dowdell said, though nothing official has been announced.
But even without all the tried and true "victory laps" that other bands have available post-release, Dowdell is already celebrating their efforts. The second album isn't just a personal triumph, but a kind of validation for their work, Bennington's legacy, and whatever else Grey Daze have in the works.
"When Linkin Park hit huge, Warner Bros. buried Grey Daze," Dowdell said. "They took everything off iTunes and everything off the CDs." Dowdell noted that Bennington, who experienced similar issues with other bands, helped intervene. Dowdell said that it "felt a little bit like redemption. Like, 'OK, we finally get to put this stuff out and there's not a damn thing Warner Bros. can do about it."
Even if that doesn't "redeem everything" in Dowdell's eyes, he said he's moved on. The goal, no matter how insane or difficult it all may seem, has been to honor this thing they've created the best way possible.
"I mean, there's a lot of lost time and a lot of lost things for the band," Dowdell said. "I'm proud of what we did. We had some great growth. I have some great memories and some great relationships. But losing Bobby [Benish, guitarist] and Chester, those were big things. The loss of those guys, it just cast a shadow of sadness over the whole project. But to me, the focus is on how good the music really was. How great Chester's vocal performances really are. And how amazing of a singer he was."
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.