Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden: “Work Hard, Be Nice To People, Be Honest And Believe In Yourself”
If Joel Madden – leader of Good Charlotte, co-owner of management company MDDN, and music industry mentor – ever fancied a change of career, he’d make a wonderful life coach. Within five minutes of Kerrang!’s catch-up with the 40-year-old mogul, Joel has already happily preached about the importance of “getting back up every time you fall”, “believing in yourself”, and “keeping your head down and working hard”.
It’s an attitude that has followed Joel throughout his life – from co-founding Good Charlotte back in 1995 with his twin brother Benji, right up to 2018’s Generation Rx album (the band’s seventh full-length overall, and second since returning from a four-year hiatus in 2015).
“For the most part, we don’t advertise our failures. We just try to build on our successes,” the frontman suggests as K! interrupts him from – what else? – a hard day’s work. “Everyone deserves to be able to fail, but then if you keep trying for long enough, good things can happen. Eventually you can look back on your career and be proud of it.”
Indeed, while Joel has manoeuvred through the tricky lifestyle that comes with fame and being married to another celebrity (actor Nicole Richie), he’s built more than just a fruitful livelihood with Good Charlotte. Both Madden brothers have become the go-to guys for ‘making it’ in music, having a hand in steering the successes of fellow K! stars like Architects, Waterparks, Sleeping With Sirens and many more. All the while the pop-punks have continued to build on the already-impressive foundations Good Charlotte created with 2000’s self-titled album, and its 2002 follow-up, The Young And The Hopeless.
Following three more records – 2004’s The Chronicles Of Life And Death, 2007’s Good Morning Revival and 2010’s Cardiology – the group took a break to step “away from the grind”, but this time wasn’t wasted: Joel expanded his CV further, joining The Voice TV show in Australia as a judge in 2012 (Benji later followed suit after three seasons), and releasing The Madden Brothers’ pop-rock album Greetings From California two years later.
“What we set out to accomplish was just to try to do our best and to do what mattered to us,” he reflects. “We wanted to get across that anyone can do it if they believe in themselves, and they work hard for long enough…”
When Good Charlotte started out, did you feel like you were treated differently to the rest of the bands in the scene?
“From my perspective, Good Charlotte was always a little on the outside of everybody, and I didn’t always know where we would fit in. We weren’t exactly like all the other bands in the genre, and we weren’t necessarily the ‘face’ of a genre either. We weren’t always included in certain things, and people didn’t know what to do with us. We were just different, and I totally understand that now. When you’re young, you wanna be included – and sometimes we were, sometimes we weren’t – but we always accepted that as the fate of our band. Good Charlotte were never nominated for a GRAMMY, and that was something that I always found myself wishing for, but I accepted that we just are what we are. We can’t be anything else, and if we ever tried it never felt right, so we had to just be ourselves and be happy with the results. As a band, we learned how to be resilient, and we learned how to keep going. I think the greatest thing about Good Charlotte is that we always get back up. Over a long period of time people will look at the highlight reel, but in between are the lowlights, and I think those are the ones that are the most important. If a band can move through the difficult times and survive this hard industry, then that’s really what defines them. We’re in an industry that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to bands succeeding, so you have to have the stomach to push forward.”
Was there ever a point where you felt like you finally fitted in?
“We understood it later on, when we realised that the most important thing that we could do was be true to ourselves. On each record, we had to block it all out and make the music that we felt, and that was always when we got the best response from fans. Honestly, the first four albums were all similar, but I think we stepped off the path a little bit on our fifth record [2010’s Cardiology]. It was a difficult time. I wouldn’t change a thing, though, because we wouldn’t know what we know now if we hadn’t made that record. I love the record for that reason, because I can hear us struggling. We learned to stay true to our feelings and let the rest sort itself out. I really appreciate having to go through that experience.”
Was it hard to create music with that whirlwind surrounding you?
“When I was younger it was hard, because I didn’t quite understand the whirlwind of it all. I was probably a lot more insecure about myself, and I wasn’t sure about the future. We love Good Charlotte, and we wanted us to be liked, and we wanted to earn people’s respect. So when you’re young and you’re going through all that stuff, there’s a lot of pressure – both self-induced and outside – as well as the personal, emotional side of just growing up. At this stage, because I’m in a different place, I can look back and reflect on that with some real perspective. We were imperfect, and we were just figuring it out, but I think – whether we believed in ourselves or not – we were always ambitious, and always hungry to try to achieve things.”
What was it like being so young and suddenly selling millions of records?
“In the early successes, I don’t think we actually realised what we were achieving for our age. I don’t know if we fully appreciated it, in the sense of how difficult that could be, or what that meant. But I think what we really did appreciate, coming from nothing and having nothing, was all of a sudden we were considered valuable. We hadn’t felt that way our whole lives, and no-one ever treated us like we were special. And then all of a sudden everyone does – that was a really interesting experience. Working that out can be pretty confusing, as well as exciting. It’s everything – it’s all good and bad, all in one.”
Were you comfortable with the situation, suddenly being thrust into the spotlight?
“I never really was – and I’m still not. I think I’ve learned how to manage it in a way that I do feel comfortable, and I kinda navigate outside interest in my life. I always appreciate interest in my music, my work and my craft. I genuinely feel like I want to make the time for people who actually like the things that we’re doing. The other stuff, though; the interest in me as a person, or my personal life, I’ve always been uncomfortable with. I’ve tried to find the balance with sharing what I feel like I can, because I do understand it. But I’ve always tried to navigate through it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I don’t want to be combative with people. But I try to work around it.”
You were already famous in the rock world, but then you joined The Voice Australia as a judge in 2012 and became more of a household name. How does that level of celebrity compare?
“It’s a weird place to exist. For me, the ‘rock’ success is what I enjoy and understand the most. The more kind of ‘mass appeal’, everyday people knowing who you are, but not necessarily knowing your music, is uncomfortable. But I’m sure I don’t have it as bad as other people. I get a little bit more of a balance. Certainly at times it can become a stress that you just have to manage, especially when you’re talking about your kids and your wife. I’ve always wanted a family life that’s very sacred to me; it’s the most important thing in my life, and I have tried really hard to protect that. At times, though, people can invade your privacy, and you have to kind of respect a little bit that that’s part of the game. You have to teach your kids that this wasn’t their choice, but it’s our life. Hopefully we deal with it with no stress or drama.”
If you had the option to make that side of your life go away, would you take it?
“If I’m being honest, absolutely. It’s something that you can’t say, though, because what that implies is that you don’t appreciate your success. And I never want anyone to think that I’m angry, because I’m not. But if I could have all of the music success without some of the circus of celebrity? Then of course. But we were the guys who said, ‘Lifestyles of the rich and famous,’ you know? ‘They’re always complaining.’ And I think we honour that. I respect that we kinda asked for it, and we have to live with it. But if you were just asking me that question, and it was a real choice, then absolutely. I’m not interested in the circus of it all, but I understand the way the world works. So I just try to keep my mouth shut these days, and live my life, and be the best I can be. I think anyone who’s grown into themselves as a person can understand it’s a little ridiculous. It’s all become people trying to get impressions and clicks and eyeballs and likes. They’re just trying to catch a second of you reacting or whatever, and that’s kinda silly. I don’t think that’s the majority of people, though. The majority of people are self-respecting, and they respect you as well.”
Did growing up out in the woods in Waldorf, Maryland impact your reaction to fame?
“We grew up in a working class place, with working class people, and they have a lot of values and principles. We didn’t grow up in a place that was very material – it was more about who you are and what your name means. That definitely gave us a set of values that we carried with us, and that we still do, that have kept us on our path. It would have been very easy for us to stray from the path and get caught up, but I think those core values always stayed with us, and we put more value in the things that we want, and less value in the things that we don’t quite understand. So yeah, I definitely think that all of us coming from the working class made us working class guys, and we still are. We still have that approach. People can say, ‘No you’re not,’ and I understand why they’re saying that, but at the heart of who we are, we’re a working class band.”
And yet you and Benji have now built a business empire together in MDDN…
“We feel a huge conviction to prove that it’s possible for two kids from the middle of nowhere, with no education and no-one backing us, to succeed. We always look forward, and we always go, ‘How can we continue to build something special and meaningful, and show other people that they can, too?’ So far, the blueprint is just: work hard, be nice to people, be honest, be conscious, and believe in yourself, and believe in other people – because it does take a group of people to win together. Our company, while it is our name, is really more about the people that work there, that share the same ethics and values, and the fans that believe in it. It’s really about everyone. We’re only as good as the bands who work with us and believe in us like we believe in them. We just feel convicted – like we have to do this. It’s never not been an option to keep trying to affect culture in a positive way.”
When it comes to making business decisions with Benji, how do you go about it: from the perspective of business partners, or as twin brothers?
“These days we don’t really disagree, we just have conversations, and will leave it until we’ve come to a decision. We both have to agree in principle, and then there are various details [to iron out], but we’re both process-driven. We will go around on something a few times, and if both of us don’t feel it, then we’re not doing it.”
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your work at MDDN?
“In the past we’ve each made decisions that both of us didn’t necessarily feel, but one of us had talked the other into it. We’ve now realised that we both always come to regret those. We only came to that realisation over time: that we do just go by feeling. If you do not feel something, you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t know it in your heart, you shouldn’t do something. It doesn’t matter how good it sounds, it doesn’t matter how much money someone tells you you’ll make. The money will never matter. You can literally make money and feel bad about how you made it later, so you should absolutely always follow your heart, and trust your gut instincts. The more you do that, I truly believe the happier and more successful you’ll be in life. And the more grounded and settled you’ll be, too. To me, that’s everything. If you can stay calm and you can be happy, then that’s real power.”
What sort of wisdom can the artists that you manage expect to have imparted on them?
“When we talk to younger artists, like Awsten [Knight, Waterparks], or the guys in Chase Atlantic, the message isn’t that we know all the answers. We’re extremely lucky to be working with such talented, hard-working artists who are also conscious and agree with us on certain values and ethics. They want to be individuals, and they don’t wanna go the way of the standard. They want to be different; they want to be special. And we encourage that kind of thinking, with the idea that, ‘When you’re humble and you work hard, people will be happy when you win.’ It’s a long road – it’s a marathon, actually – and you just have to show up every day.”
What is the proudest achievement of your life so far?
“My children and my wife. I’ve been with my wife for 14 years, and my kids are really special people – they make me proud every day. They surprise me every day. And my wife… I just love who she is. I believe in her as a person, I love her values, and I love what she stands for in the real world. It’s interesting, because I think there’s this idea of who she is. And, to me, the greatest joke that anyone’s ever played on the world is who people think she is, compared to who she actually is. It’s really special, and impressive that she’s been able to live these dual lives. I’m so proud of all my family – my brothers and their wives, too. What we have as a whole family is very special, and I’m so proud of that – and that’s as real of an answer that I could ever give anyone. I usually wouldn’t even talk about that stuff, but that’s 100 per cent the truth.”
And career-wise what are you most proud of?
“Good Charlotte have never compromised who we are. We’ve survived. It’s almost like the music business had all these big extinctions – like climate change or something – and we survived all those changeovers. To still be making the music that we’re making, and still be together over two decades later, and still love each other, is a huge accomplishment. It wasn’t always easy not knowing what the future held for us, when everyone’s telling you that, ‘It’s over,’ or, ‘Music’s changed now,’ or, ‘This doesn’t age well.’ But we stuck it out together, we followed our hearts, and we landed in a place where we’re happy to be. I once thought it was over, and it now feels like it’s only just getting started.”
Join us for a hearty slice of sadness, pop-punk style…
Watch twenty one pilots’ incredibly old-school lyric video for Level Of Concern.