Good Charlotte: ‘This Band Isn’t For Sale. We Protect It More Than Ever’
When Good Charlotte first appeared on the cover of Kerrang! magazine, on February 1, 2003, we predicted that Benji and Joel Madden were in the business of building an empire. At that point in time, their second album The Young And The Hopeless had sold a million copies in the U.S., the pair were MTV famous and busy plotting how to follow their popular MADE clothing line with a record label someday. But even then, we couldn’t have imagined just how prophetic and true our statement would prove, 15 years down the line.
Yet on the approach to MDDN headquarters – the twin brothers’ management hub – there are no clues as to the success and stardom lurking in plain sight around the corner on Magnolia Boulevard, Burbank. Flanked by rows of anonymous-looking offices scattered between the usual LA array of fast-food joints, gyms, retirement homes and cosmetic dental surgeries, a high grass and steel-fenced enclosure, shadowed by wilting palm trees, ensures the building’s facade remains entirely unremarkable.
Once upon a time, artists such as Snoop Dogg and Mary J Blige would be buzzed through its security gates to cut records, back when Will Smith owned the premises at the height of his music career. Today, from the outside, it could almost pass for any other business in the vicinity. But behind its doors lie the bricks and mortar of that empire – the ever-burgeoning realisation of a lifelong dream.
“We’ve always been extremely focused on trying to build something,” Joel offers, gesturing around at that very something, as we embark on an exclusive, access-all-areas guide. “It’s just evolved as we’ve gotten older and become more real.”
Kerrang! is in town to chat to Benji, Joel, guitarist Billy Martin, bassist Paul Thomas and drummer Dean Butterworth about the new Good Charlotte record, Generation Rx – the band’s seventh full-length album, and the second since they called time on their four-year hiatus back in 2015.
First we’re escorted past the “bullpen area” upfront, MDDN’s engine room where the day-to-day hustle and grind goes down. There’s room for maybe 15 people in there, and it’s fronted by 10-feet-high glass windows with a heavy-duty wooden-framed entrance, complete with a metallic snake door handle – a replica of the one that adorns the new album’s artwork. On the wall opposite the well-lit neon company sign, a glass board with Sharpie scrawls details upcoming shows, release info, and important dates. A separate column is dedicated solely to tracking ‘Where’s BM and JM?’ It’s the only part of the board that’s currently blank, though considering the past few months have seen the pair bouncing back and forth to China – mentoring British pop star Jessie J as she won the celebrity talent-show Singer – that’s a rarity.
The Wi-Fi password is ‘goodcharlotte’, naturally. There are framed photos of other artists on the roster, such as Waterparks, Architects and Sleeping With Sirens on prominent display – visual reminders of the team’s successes thus far – while the Sonos plays a chilled mix of tunes by hip-hop man-of-the-moment Childish Gambino and British indie-pop up-and-comer, Rex Orange County. Above a 60-inch, wall-mounted flatscreen hang four black and white plaques outlining the company’s mission, vision, identity and values. “MDDN is a forward-facing, innovative and value-driven team, of original dreamers, working to make a positive impact on the artistic community and the direction of popular culture,” says one, not untypically.
“Even though it’s our namesake, the greatest thing about this company is the people who work here,” the vocalist proudly declares. “Every single person that works in this building shares those values. There’s no Darth Vader or big boss here. The values in the core of the people who work at MDDN are special.”
As management usher us into Studio B, we’re treated to a playback of a few new tracks, while the remainder await final tweaks and mixes. We hear Prayers, Shadowboxer, Cold Song, Leeches and Actual Pain – the album’s lead single. As each blasts through the studio speakers, the digital console displays the in-joke working title of Bored-182. This is no pop-punk fodder, though. On the strength of these new songs alone, Generation Rx promises to be a Big Rock record – with a capital B and capital R. This at a point when so many of Good Charlotte’s peers and scene progeny seem desperate to make music that’s anything but.
“It’s not a pop-punk record,” nods guitarist Benji, who also oversaw production on this album in-house, alongside engineer Zakk Cervini. “A big rock record is exactly what it is. And it’s a live record, because we fell in love with playing live again together.”
Unexpectedly, members of a big-deal rock band pop their head in, searching for a mic. It turns out they’re here recording in one of the compound’s other studios, though they insist the process is still very much in the nascent “early doors” stage. It’s all so hush-hush that that’s about as much as we can reveal at this stage, but they’ll be looking to build on their arena-selling status on their next record. Despite that, if there is any pressure, they certainly aren’t showing it. Further down in yet another studio, past perfect white walls given a dash of colour, thanks to the framed copies of Good Charlotte’s previous Kerrang! covers, Kentucky post-hardcore quartet Emarosa are also busy laying down new recordings. In the adjacent kitchen, frontman Bradley Walden talks through his nutrition and fitness regime with the eldest Madden brother Josh, who also serves as the chief creative officer for the company.
The atmosphere throughout is one of calm and focus, yet a hive of creativity with pockets of industrious energy every which way you turn. It’s not hard to imagine Generation Rx coming together within these walls over the past few months. What is difficult to fathom, however, are the logistics of its creation. Questions remain, such as: how the Maddens found the time to dedicate to it? And indeed, why, and why now? One look around MDDN and it’s clear there’s more than enough to keep the pair busy, let alone trying to account for time spent with wives and children.
When those questions are put to the quintet, Benji succinctly shrugs them off with a simple: “We’ve always had a low tolerance for boredom; we make every minute count.” When we finally sit down to get into the nuts and bolts of the record’s progress, we do so right at the back of the MDDN complex. At the furthest reaches of a building that seems to just keep going and going, you’ll find an office space dedicated to the affairs House Of Harlow 1960 – a bespoke, signature jewellery line and labour of love courtesy of Joel’s wife, Nicole Richie. Even in a room filled with expensive items that have been worn by the likes of Madonna, there is a relative modesty and understated class about the place, as is the case with all things MDDN. The Maddens might have it all these days, but they’ve not lost sight of their roots or how they got here. And that comes back to the question of why Good Charlotte are still a going concern.
“This is our baby,” Benji stresses, the more intense of the twins, and also the oldest by two whole minutes. “Good Charlotte is what got us out of poverty. It’s not for sale anymore. It’s for us. We share it, we go on tour and we play for people, but it’s for us. If anything, it’s become more like a passion project. So we protect it more than ever and I don’t think we could do it otherwise.”
As to the ‘why now?’ – especially following so soon on the heels of the knockabout fun of 2016’s Youth Authority album – Joel simply says “it was time”. But it goes so much deeper than that, because this one ended up being a darker, incredibly personal and far more important record, much to the surprise of its chief creative duo.
“I think me and Joel have been doing a lot of excavation in our lives as grown men…” Benji begins, before his brother swiftly jumps in to finish his point, something that happens often with this pair, as with many twins. “We’ve done a lot of work on ourselves, trying to grow.”
“There’s two versions of you,” the singer continues. “There’s the version you present to the world that you can filter, crop and make look good for Instagram – and that’s a good thing; we should all present ourselves how we want the world to see us – and what I try to accomplish in my life is to be that version of myself always. I want to be a good person, a good dad, a good husband, a good friend and a stand-up guy, and I work hard at it. But the work is never done.”
“And using that analogy, this record is us taking that filter off and showing the world our flaws,” Benji interjects again. “Because at home, with your wife? She sees all your flaws, you see each other without the Instagram filter, and at your worst moments…”
“That’s where I was going: this record is about letting people in,” his brother concludes.
And so, earlier this year, when their day-to-day duties at MDDN wrapped up (“We usually work regular office hours from 8am to 6pm,” says Joel), they’d find themselves putting in two to three extra hours in the studio, where songs started to flow through them naturally. When it came to scheduling the rest of the guys in to record their parts, they simply used the band’s text group (“It’s mostly just everyone agreeing”) – or as the others refer to it, “the Batphone rang”. It was apparently the fastest recording process of their careers.
Billy – an illustrator for Marvel, Disney and Nickelodeon when he’s not busy with Good Charlotte – flew in from Pasadena with his wife and kids while he nailed his parts in a week. Dean lives just 10 minutes’ drive away, but he also plays drums full time in Sugar Ray and in the house band on NBC’s Hollywood Game Night. As for Paul, he’s still trying to find the time between all of this and family life to go back to UC Berkeley to complete the degree in computer science and mathematics he started when the band went on hiatus. All told, these are busy men with real-life responsibilities, who simply wouldn’t have to do this anymore if they felt so inclined. And yet, they keep showing up, dropping everything else and giving their all to the cause. It seems the passion they share for it just grows stronger the longer they go on together. Despite logistical hurdles, there’s now a freedom about the process that few bands ever have the luxury of experiencing.
“The beautiful thing about being Good Charlotte in 2018 is that of all the bands and artists in the world, we just genuinely do not have to give a fuck,” Benji says with a steely-eyed pride. “We have no-one to keep up with. We don’t have to sell X amount of records. We don’t have any expectations and we’re happy with the results being whatever they’re going to be. The only way we do this genuinely is if we fucking love it, and we get to do what we want to do for the first time.”
For the first time?
“We were really impressionable when we were kids,” he qualifies, careful to be clearly understood. “We had never even been on a plane before [being successful]. We didn’t have any adults in our life. It’s not like one of our parents was around to provide guidance. And we got worked a little bit. That can really make you fall out of love with music. Now, we’re just completely in love with it, because we’re only doing it on our terms and we’re happy to take the responsibility that comes with that. We don’t owe anyone anything, except ourselves. And that gives you a whole different relationship with it.”
There was another onus on this record, though, and it’s one that goes back to its title, its importance and the spirit at the heart of its songs. It’s the reason they came out so raw and unexpectedly personal, too.
“Life is painful, for all of us,” says Joel of its central theme. “All of us self-medicate in some way with something. I watch young kids today and I feel for them. I understand the pain almost more than they do, because I got through to the other side of it. What this record is about is sparking that conversation. I want people to hear it and find the love, optimism and encouragement to go forward, to do the work and stand up and help themselves. We hope that it’s a positive record.”
“No matter who you are, in every walk of life, being who you are is painful,” Benji reiterates. “That’s what Generation Rx is to me. When we thought about the message of this record, we just really wanted to open our hearts up and pour ‘em out in songs in a way that we haven’t done in a long time. It really was a relief. It was so cathartic and, man, I gotta say, we haven’t written that way since our first two albums. There’s something different about this record. When you hear it, you can tell.
“Good Charlotte finally feels the way that it did when it started, again,” he adds passionately, keen to drive home a vital point in the story. “I don’t know if a lot of guys in bands get to come full circle like that. It really, genuinely feels like this is why we started this band, because sometimes that can get lost and you get carried away from you. Being as young, uneducated and inexperienced as we were, it did feel like it got taken away from us. I don’t know if it was the industry or what, but we didn’t have the experience to protect it back then, and now we do. You can feel it in the brand – it feels stronger than ever now, because we’re so protective of it.”
Going back to that very first Good Charlotte cover of Kerrang! for a moment, there’s another excellent piece of context that backs up the Madden brothers’ point about this thing coming full circle now. Back then, like almost all of the band’s media coverage at the time, there was an air of suspicion around their apparent overnight success Stateside, and a question mark concerning their credibility as true punks. Within that, though, there were some words of comfort from their friend, Rancid guitarist Lars Frederiksen, who reassured Benji, “Dude, don’t worry about it, you’re the real deal. It’ll just take time, is all.”
And here we are. No-one questions Good Charlotte anymore. How did that happen?
“Most people disappear,” Dean says, trying to find the reason for their staying power and the turnaround in their public perception. “The longevity? The marathon? That’s the best, not the sprint. Maybe it’s because we did stay in the ring for all the rounds in the fight. You get knocked down, and there’s always going to be adversity, but if you keep going, you’re positive and you’re kind, you’ll win.”
“It’s all love now,” smiles Billy, who still recalls how different it was riding those first waves of fame. “There was a point at the height of Good Charlotte’s hype where I didn’t like to go out, because I knew there’d be shit-talkers and people would try to start fights at shows. Now, any time we go anywhere it’s all so positive. It’s amazing to see it come full circle.”
Young bands coming through regularly pay tribute to the band’s influence now too, and artists on the MDDN roster – Awsten Knight from Waterparks or Jessie J, for example – could not be more gushing about the Maddens’ mentorship and help in steering their careers towards success. That appreciation appears to be mutual.
“We love artists and we’re obsessed with special people,” smiles Benji. “I love being around them, I love watching them be special and trying to help build and support a life that they can sustain…”
“…And try making things that affect culture in a cool way, ” Joel adds.
You can see a fire in their eyes when they talk about their protégés that clearly inspires and rubs off on Good Charlotte in 2018. Helping young artists avoid the pitfalls of the business that beset them early on, while cheering them on to victory from the sidelines, all feeds back into the grand purpose at play in all of this.
“The greater goal is, can we build a fearless brand that disrupts the way things were and helps shape the way things are going to be?” says Joel. “That’s kind of our overall mission in life as we move forward.”
And that’s the key to understanding everything the Maddens are doing and why. Whether it’s with Generation Rx or with MDDN, the point is to try to create something special, something that matters and something you can stand behind and back with your heart and soul.
“I think this is just us acting our ages,” says Benji, using the new record as a specific example. “It feels very comfortable. I’m gonna be 40 next year. It’s about just being comfortable with ourselves so that we can still enjoy it; so that we don’t have to fake it, because the second we do that… disconnect.”
And as the record nears completion, the two years of promotion and support around the world that will surely follow looms as well. It begs the question of how they can commit to that these days, and where exactly Good Charlotte fits into their priorities.
“Good Charlotte is an extremely beautiful, extremely valuable vintage car that I take meticulous care of, that I like driving on the weekends and that I’m very proud of,” offers Benji by way of explanation. “Old cars run forever if you take care of them.”
“And you don’t let people put shit on it, you don’t let people mistreat it and the more you shine it up, the more people look at it and the more valuable it becomes,” adds Joel.
And hey, if they happen to break down or bust a gasket along the way? No drama.
“One thing that our experience over the last 27 years has given us is enough humility to be okay with wherever we end up,” the vocalist promises. “There’s some peace in that. I’m just happy that we’re here and grateful that we still get to be us and wherever we end up in music, I really like who we are today. I don’t know what the legacy of Good Charlotte ends up being, but I’m okay with wherever it lands.”
Time to hop in and find out.
Words: David McLaughlin
Originally published in Kerrang! issue 1724
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