John Feldmann: "We would steal everything from our friends' parents' room and trade it for cocaine"

Goldfinger frontman and legendary producer John Feldmann reflects on his induction to punk, his drunken introduction to The Used and the untimely end to a pet goldfish…

John Feldmann: "We would steal everything from our friends' parents' room and trade it for cocaine"
Mischa Pearlman

If you’re a fan of alternative/heavy music – and if you’re reading Kerrang!, there’s an incredibly high chance you are – then you’ve probably heard a song that John Feldmann has been involved in. If you’re old-school, you might have been turned onto the ska-punk of Goldfinger, the band he formed in LA in 1994, after their song Superman was featured in the first Tony Hawk game in 1999 – helping to put the band on the musical map.

Or you may have sung along to one of the countless catchy songs he’s helped co-write for bands like Good Charlotte, All Time Low, The Used, Panic! At The Disco, blink-182, FEVER 333, Beartooth, Biffy Clyro, Korn and 311. The list goes on and on. He doesn’t just limit himself to alternative music, either – John has penned tracks for and with pop sensations like 5 Seconds Of Summer, Ashlee Simpson, Ashley Tisdale and Hillary Duff. And that’s not even mentioning his A&R work. Suffice to say, he’s become one of the hottest commodities in the world of contemporary alternative rock, and it's no wonder that Goldfinger went a little quiet – after 2008’s sixth album, Hello Destiny…, they didn’t release a record until 2017’s The Knife.

But the downtime of quarantine got John’s creative juices flowing again, and this week Goldfinger release their eighth studio album, Never Look Back. Which, ironically, seemed like the perfect opportunity to get John to reflect on his career and life in music.

According to your website, you started writing songs when you were 12. Wikipedia says it was 16. Who’s telling the truth?
"Well, I smoked so much weed in high school my memory isn’t quite as good as it probably could have been had I not been such a stoner, but I graduated at 17, and I probably started writing songs at 13 or 14. The first album I ever had was the Star Wars soundtrack. That didn’t drive me to want to write music, but it definitely influenced my anthemic, melodic sense later on in life. My father only let us listen to musicals growing up, which definitely turned me into an alcoholic later on in life, and all that stuff definitely influenced getting to the hook and catchy part of the song quickly. But it wasn’t until I found punk rock that I really had any interest in writing music."

Why do you think that was?
"I was a terrible student. I did pretty well up until seventh or eighth grade, and then I just started failing. I just couldn’t focus on shit. My son has what’s called auditory processing disorder, and looking back on my life, I probably had the same thing, but back then if you had learning differences they just put you in after school classes and stuff. Punk rock just seemed simple enough that I could grasp it – I could really understand the idea of two-and-a-half-minute songs that were four chords at the most. After listening to Queen and [The Who's] Quadrophenia and these kind of big, epic concept albums which I loved but I couldn’t get my head around the song structure, punk rock came along and I’m like, ‘I can do this, man. I could learn the bass parts.’ And this kid Chris Cayton moved to Saratoga, which is the town I grew up in, from South Lake Tahoe. He was in a band called Urban Assault, and he also used to tour manage Social Distortion. So right when I went into high school, I met this kid, and I must have been 13 when he brought Social Distortion over to my house. They were still kids back then, and I met them and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ My parents were at work and I cut school to meet these guys and they drank all my parents’ alcohol, ate all the food in the house and they just fucking destroyed my house. And it was like, ‘That’s fucking awesome! I want to be like those guys!’"

So that reckless hedonism – the whole sex, drugs and rock’n’roll thing – made you want to do this? It can’t have been the money…
"I mean, none of the bands that I really like sunk my teeth into – like T.S.O.L., the Circle Jerks, the Adolescents and Black Flag, had money. When Social Distortion came to my house, they were literally starving – that’s why they ate all the food. Those bands were playing clubs in front of 100, maybe 150 people, back then. It wasn’t like the scene that kind of came out of it later on in life, when Goldfinger really started – that Green Day, Offspring era, when those bands were playing in front of 10 or 20,000 people. It wasn’t like that back in the ’80s. It was very do-it-yourself. Like, I had to make Liberty spikes in my hair with my mom’s gelatin and egg whites, and I had to make my own T-shirts by drawing with a Sharpie, and I had to get a Sid chain from using a dog collar. There wasn’t any Hot Topic or any kind of way to buy punk rock clothes back then, so you had to make your own.

"I think the appeal to me was more of the outsider perspective, being that my father was a nuclear physicist. He built the fuel to put the rocket on the moon and he’s still the smartest man I’ve ever met. And because I failed at school, and I was kicked out of high school, I felt like I didn’t belong in my house. I was kind of excommunicated from the church once I shaved my head. And the cops never really liked me because I was always stealing my parents’ car. I became a derelict pretty quickly when I started doing drugs and drinking. We would sneak out at night and break into the community centre and rob people’s houses for all their alcohol and jewellery, and when my friends’ parents would go out of town, we would just steal everything from their parents’ room, and trade it for cocaine."

Was that behaviour a reaction to being what your parents maybe considered a failure?
"Partially. My dad told me I would never make it in the music business, that I wasn’t good enough to succeed. He had hopes of me becoming an engineer like he was. That’s why he wanted me to go to school – he just couldn’t imagine a life doing that. It’s a very different era now than it was back then. In the ’80s, no-one was making money playing punk rock, so it’s not like I could fault my dad for trying to protect his kid.

"The first time that I ever smoked weed, I felt like I just fit in with my friends. And the sense of warmth and community that I felt when I was drinking with my friends when we were driving drunk on the streets and doing stupid shit. We used to go to fucking parties at whoever’s parents were out of town, and I would just go find a fish tank and like, eat a goldfish. I remember one party where this little 10-year-old kid started crying and screaming, ‘You ate my fish!’ and I felt so fucking terrible. But we were just fucking idiots doing stupid shit. Obviously, later in life, I became an animal rights activist, and I still feel bad for the little goldfish that I ate."

After Family Crisis, you were in the Electric Love Hogs before Goldfinger. Did you feel like that was your last chance to make it work?
"It was absolutely my last chance. Family Crisis was never meant to be because I was doing so many drugs. I remember playing in South Lake Tahoe and I was so high on cocaine I couldn’t even open my mouth. How can I be the singer of a band if I can’t even fucking open my mouth? So we were never destined to become anything great. But the Electric Love Hogs kind of came out of that and I got sober during that band. We had enough success that I knew that there was something there, that my dad wasn’t right, that I could make this happen. And Goldfinger came after I had to go back to selling shoes and I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t. I can’t.’ I had to make something of it."

What made the difference for Goldfinger? Was it Superman being in the Tony Hawk game? Or you being sober?
"There’s no way I would be talking to you about my career if I wasn’t sober, so that has to come first. If I’m wasted in Tijuana at the Donkey Show, there’s no way I’m writing music that people are going to care about. But I can look back at my past, and Tijuana Sunrise [on 2017’s The Knife] is definitely a song that wouldn’t have existed if I didn’t have that story. I’d actually written Superman before the first album came out, but we decided not to put it on the first record. No-one really knew that it was going to be the song that it is today, that it was going to have that much of an impact. It was like an afterthought: ‘Well, it’s going to be a fucking song on a video game. Who gives a shit? We’ll just give them this one song that we have recorded.’ We didn’t even fucking think about it. And then the video game came out and became this huge thing."

Was production something you always wanted to do as well, or just something you did out of necessity for Goldfinger?
"It was necessity. We handed out our little demo, Richter, to everyone that I’ve ever met in my life and nobody really had any interest. There were no producers knocking at my door and saying, ‘I want to produce your band’ so I had to figure it out quickly. I had to learn what an EQ and a compressor did, what kind of microphones my voice sounded good on. Where’s the good place to put the microphone on a snare drum? How do you record cymbals? All that shit I had to learn, by trial and error. So by the time I produced other bands, I knew my way around the studio because of producing Goldfinger’s albums.

"I never thought I was going to be a producer. It was just never a dream until I found Show Off, who opened for us at Fireside Bowl in Chicago. I loved them live, but their demo that they gave me was just fucking terrible, and I knew I could make it better. So I flew them to LA and I recorded three songs and I got them signed to Maverick Records. And I’m like, 'Wow, this is something else I could do.’ Then it was Mest from Chicago, and then it was The Used. In Salt Lake City, Bert [McCracken, The Used vocalist] came on the bus and he was so drunk. For me, it’s this historic moment of him just throwing the cassette down the hallway on the bus as he’s being thrown out of the bus by our tour manager – like literally thrown out onto his face onto the fucking asphalt – because he was so wasted. But then the next day I listen to the demo and I’m like, ‘Holy shit. I’ve never heard anyone that sings like this. I’ve never heard any music that sounds like this.’ So I flew them out about a week later to my house, and we did Maybe Memories, The Taste Of Ink and A Box Full Of Sharp Objects, and that got them signed to Warner Brothers. And that’s when my career as a producer and an A&R guy really took off."

You kind of put Goldfinger on hold between 2008 and 2017 to focus on producing and co-writing other bands. Why? Was that just where the money was?
"You’re not wrong. Now that I have kids and a family life, I’ve got to make a living. Goldfinger never became blink-182. We kind of stayed on the club theatre level, and that’s fine. I’m so grateful for the success that we’ve had. But also I’ve had three surgeries on my knees, and two surgeries on my neck. I’ve done so much damage from touring, just jumping around and diving off the PA and just going ballistic onstage. I’ve fucking hurt myself from going crazy and it’s like, how long could I really keep it up? I started Goldfinger when I was 24 and I’m 53. I feel like the energy of what Goldfinger does is so important to our live shows that I had to back off. I wouldn’t do any of this stuff if it wasn’t fun. My studio’s at my house so I’m able to see my kids all throughout the day, and be here at home and it’s just so fun. My band definitely weren’t excited when I started producing other bands because I really didn’t tour as much. But that’s okay. Life takes you where it takes you. They probably are resentful to a certain extent, but I think they also understand that this is my career and Goldfinger really kind of plateaued. We kept putting out music and it was fine. But I made a record because there’s something about doing it that I need to tap into once in a while."

What do you think your legacy is?
"I think, when it’s all said and done, I’m a songwriter at heart. So I hope people can listen to In the End by Black Veil Brides or Bored To Death by blink or Superman by Goldfinger or Tidal Waves by All Time Low or The Ballad Of Mona Lisa by Panic! At The Disco and hear my voice coming through those songs. I hope what really stands the test of time is my songwriting."

Goldfinger's new album Never Look Back is out December 4 via Big Noise

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