When Good Charlotte reunites, the paparazzi follow. The band, led by twin talents Benji and Joel Madden, played an intimate comeback gig at Los Angeles’ famed Troubadour in late November. The 300-cap room is usually occupied by indie aspirants; that night, it was the Maddens and their friends: 5 Seconds of Summer, Jessie J, My Chemical Romance’s Mikey Way and Madden better halves Cameron Diaz and Nicole Richie (joined by father Lionel.) Not bad for an early-2000s pop-punk revival.
In the years since “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” dominated TRL, Benji and Joel have launched a clothing company, coached multiple seasons of The Voice Australia (their second home — they say they were “adopted” by the country,) purchased Graham Nash’s old studio, gotten married, had children and launched MDDN, an industrious music media company specialising in publishing, production and A&R. But that night, they ripped through hits from their adolescence as diehard fans looked on. They were back as we’ve always known them.
The formation of Good Charlotte is like that of any other band (“We met in high school,” says Benji), but there’s certain folklore to it. Their longtime producer John “Feldy” Feldmann was playing a gig with his ska-punk band Goldfinger at D.C.’s 9:30 Club. Mid-show, Benji jumped onstage to scream “Good Charlotte” into the microphone. He approached Feldy after the gig and the rest is history. There’s fearlessness in that act of deviance, one Benji explains as desperation: “I was just knocking on doors. I liked his band and I knew he made records. He had just made the Reel Big Fish record. I was looking for a chance. As young kids, we had a lot of tenacity. Life was tough at home so it was easy to go out in the world and try.”
There’s a running trope in pop-punk, one of the teen desire to leave your hometown and everyone in it behind. For Benji and Joel, that was real, because suburban Waldorf, Maryland, was dangerous. “Our dad had taken off at that point,” says Benji. ” It was a broken home. No matter what anyone says, in your formative years, it affects you. It’s easy to look back and say that, but then, we just poured ourselves into the band. We didn’t leave home until we graduated high school, but when we did, we genuinely left. We went out into the world with 50 bucks, backpacks and acoustic guitars. The first apartment we rented was above a mortuary. It was really cheap because no one wanted to live there.”
They don’t look back fondly, but they appreciate the rough start. “We were lucky because we were unlucky,” Benji says. We didn’t have another choice. We were dreaming to get through the week, and it worked. I think I counted 33 different day jobs [at that time]. If they didn’t let us off for a gig, even if it was a gig we were playing for three people: ‘Sorry, my band is number one.’ We bought a Volkswagen for $1,200 so we could drive it to New York, so we could go meet people in the music industry. We had everything we owned in that car. We drove up to meet these guys from Columbia Records, and everything we owned got stolen.”
Their audaciousness came at the right time. Before Good Charlotte’s 2002 explosion with their second album, The Young and the Hopeless, boy bands dominated the radio waves. “‘NSync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, that didn’t speak to us,” Benji continues. “It was never our instinct to start a boy band, but we knew those bands were at their height. And they were in stadiums, those bands.” Joel, the quieter of the pair agrees, “Our mentality was ‘I’m not going to follow the rules, and I’m going to go on TRL and I’m going on pop radio, not just rock radio.’ Back then, that didn’t exist.”
“Our mentality was ‘… I’m going to go on “TRL” and I’m going on pop radio, not just rock radio,'” says Benji Madden. Martin Philbey/Getty
At their core, Good Charlotte is a punk band. The genre is inherently opposed to the evils of “selling out,” but that never concerned the brothers. “We didn’t have money and we wanted it,” Joel retorts. “A lot of street-punk bands came from rich families. They run away for the summer. I’m not dissing that because I get it: We all have our pain that we’re running from. We had more of a hip-hop mentality because we came from poverty. That was a real connection. I always thought that was the American Dream. Everyone wants to have a dream and get rich from it.” Benji continues, “The American Dream — I believe in that cliché because I know what having nothing feels like.”
It worked. The Young and the Hopeless would go on to sell over 3.5 million copies. In 2003, they’d grace the cover of Rolling Stone. The next year their third studio album, The Chronicles of Life and Death, would rack up a healthy 2 million sales. It was at a time where you were either Justin Timberlake or basking in the aftermath of Blink-182’s formative years. GC was neither. “We became a really good gateway band for all the kids that went on to love My Chem or Fall Out Boy,” Benji explains. “We were able to stand out in front of [boy bands and] say, ‘Hey everybody, look over here! Look at these bands. Look at this music. Look where we came from. You don’t have to be over there; you can be over here.’ All of the sudden, kids were putting on eyeliner and black t-shirts and feeling less alone.”
Things eventually slowed. Everything with Good Charlotte is about timing, so when they called it quits in 2011, it wasn’t really a breakup, but a pause. “You ask yourself, ‘Who did all those bands on the Warped Tour grow up to be? Who are we outside of this? We got to go find out,'” Joel said. “We took the site down, we got rid of the merch; we wanted to kill it. We just wanted to go out with a clean slate.”
And the moment they killed Good Charlotte, The Voice Australia called. “I didn’t know what it would be like. I’d never done anything like it. I’d done some TV — TV has always been a part of our career — and the show was huge there,” Joel continued. “I ended up becoming really good friends with everyone I worked with: Seal, Keith Urban, Kylie Minogue. Australia has been a place where we not only get to do TV, we get to discover bands before everyone else.”
That’s the kicker: Working with others before their moment of fame. Even in the midst of Good Charlotte’s heyday, the Madden Brothers were invested in collaborative songwriting, discovering new talent the way Feldy discovered them a decade prior. The moment they realized they wanted to pursue facets of the industry outside GC happened early on.
“We did a song on the N.E.R.D. record with Pharrell,” Joel explains. “I saw him working — he was going between rooms writing with people. I was so inspired. He’s never not thinking of songs. We did ‘Jump’ and I remember thinking, ‘I like what he’s doing. He’s writing with people for their records and for his records,’ that collaborating, that was the first time we saw that happening and I loved it.”
“We became a really good gateway band for all the kids that went on to love My Chem or Fall Out Boy,” says Benji Madden (right). Justin Coit
The day after the Troubadour show, we head to their studio on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. It’s tucked away in a populous zone, an oasis a few blocks from Amoeba Records. It’s the only thing that feels particularly old in the area. “This is Graham Nash’s studio — all the wood in here is reclaimed from a barn he tore down,” Benji says with a smile. “The Eagles mixed a live record here. Prince recorded some stuff here. We’re sentimental about historic recording studios because we think it’s such a dying thing. As record guys, we like rooms where there’s still some magic left in the walls.” Joel’s more invested in the building’s hip-hop history, “Tupac recorded here. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Usher. In the Nineties, it used to be a hip-hop studio. We got it five years ago… We did ‘Amnesia’ with 5 Seconds of Summer here.”
Mere mention of the don’t-call-them-a-boy-band pop-rock group from Down Under makes the guys light up. Good Charlotte and 5SOS have parallel careers. Both are effectively rock bands playing from a long tradition of rock music, but with an ear for pop, a burning desire to become the biggest band in the world — and take over radio. “People have a hard time believing a group like 5 Seconds of Summer,” Benji says. “They’re all so damn personable and they’re cute and they’re good at music. We had the same thing. People thought Good Charlotte was manufactured. We met in high school!” Joel goes as far as to credit the guys with making the GC comeback happen, “They got us in love with it again.”
With that word, Benji moves to the other side of the studio to play a Good Charlotte–5 Seconds of Summer collaborative song, one Joel promises “will never see the light of day.” Though the two bands are close, it’s the first song they’ve ever sung together. Benji and 5SOS frontman Luke Hemmings harmonise, “She just wants to ride for free/She just wants to live in a magazine/She ain’t got no time for me.” It could truly be a song from GC’s earliest recordings or 5 Seconds of Summer’s latest: Girl-obsessed, insecure, eager and confused. Before we can process it, Benji plays another unreleased 5SOS tune, this one with bassist Calum Hood singing over palm-muted power chords, of a classic pop-punk trope, “She’s an anarchist/A nihilist/She’s pissed at every government … /She’s just a girl against the world.” Joel jokes, “We’re eternal emo teenagers at heart.”
“People have a hard time believing a group like 5 Seconds of Summer … We had the same thing.” —Benji Madden
Those songs feel like infancy compared to a new Good Charlotte song they play. In this one, Joel sings, “You know they say that nothing lasts forever/You know they said we’d never stay together/It’s a long way down/Can’t turn back now/Going through these life changes.” It’s the same feel, the same immediacy, but grown up. It’s clearly about the Madden Brothers learning to make their own respective marriages work, when they have no example in their parents.
That sentiment, too, parallels 5SOS. “Broken Home,” a song from the band’s sophomore LP, Sounds Good Feels Good, deals with divorce and alienation in a way the Maddens know well. It recalls “Hold On” from Good Charlotte’s second album and as Joel puts it, the song is “going to save some lives.”
To hear Joel Madden tell it, putting Good Charlotte on hold was its own kind of life-saving measure. “I think turning it off for five years, going out and living life as an optimist, [I learned] maybe there’s more to me than just being the guy in the band,” he reflects. “I had to learn how to be a productive human outside of music to become a more productive person in music.”
“I had to learn how to be a productive human outside of music to become a more productive person in music,” says Joel Madden (centre). Christopher Sullivan
The Maddens are still expanding their horizons. Two years ago, they asked their older brother, Josh, to move to Los Angeles and start their MDDN Company alongside them. “It’s been in the works for the last ten years,” says Joel. “We finally organised around the things we’ve been doing. We decided it was time for us to put money behind it.” They thank a series of mentors, publishers, and record execs and describe a new facility they’re planning on building: practice spaces with living quarters built in for young artists. It’s evident that the same sort of audacity they had in youth never left.
For now, the guys plan on releasing the new Good Charlotte album in May. They’re dead set on furthering MDDN, whose roster now includes Jessie J, John Feldmann, Waterparks, Australian pop-punkers (sound familiar?) Chase Atlantic, Groves, Potty Mouth and DED, as well as Good Charlotte themselves. They’re well aware that making it in the music industry differs drastically from their origin story, but they’re willing to learn. “That’s the future of a dying business,” Joel says with a smile, “Helping people create amazing, original content. That’s how it becomes alive.”