When I think of Good Charlotte, I think of a specific era of my own life. I cherished the trading of CDs I burned on my mother’s iMac G3, each labeled in Sharpie bubble letters with a sappy title. I held dear my Wet n Wild kohl and the suffocatingly tight, zebra-print Tripp jeans I’d purchased at Trash and Vaudeville — along with a black fedora, which, I hate to admit, had not one but two feathers in it. Any facet of the culture I could consume and share with the world around me felt meaningful. The undisputed insecurities of adolescence felt impossibly hard, but littering my walls by Scotch-taping DIY “posters” — liner notes ripped from CD jewel cases — somehow eased my growing pains. Sometimes it was in the music itself, the pop-punk anthems filled with angry truisms that hit me in the gut, and sometimes it was simply in my feathered hat. I’d yearned to feel a part of something, anything, and to express how different I felt from those around me, and this was the entryway.
When it comes to chapters of my own life, Good Charlotte’s founding members, twin brothers Benji and Joel Madden, will exist for me in perpetuity with liberty spikes and eyeliner, their band’s moniker hovering above them in a weathered Old English font while they croon of relentless angst. However, when I put down my selfish little scrapbook, I revel in the full, beautiful, and unquestionably big lives of their own, with a plethora of painful, prosperous, confusing, and triumphant chapters both before, and after, anyone had a single liberty spike. It’s the whole picture they’re presenting. Like myself, one day, they poked their heads outside of the pop-punk bubble and understood there was a world of work to be done, both in the industry and on themselves.
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Today, the Maryland-born brothers who sit before me — sans eyeliner — boast a long list of entrepreneurial endeavors in the last decade-plus, both before and after their last release as Good Charlotte, with 2018’s Generation Rx. Amid the accolades they continue to add to a growing roster, Good Charlotte have become almost a passion project, for when they have the time and desire to dip their toes back in, sometimes just to give back to fans who have continued to show love for GC.
In 2014, they started an artist management company, MDDN, whose goals are anything but “managing” artists in a traditional way, but rather supporting them in navigating a tough, often manipulative industry with transparency and empathy, to help them create sustainable businesses and longevity in their careers. Through this empathetic mentorship process, they’ve helped put bands such as Chase Atlantic, Architects, Waterparks, Bad Omens, and more on the map. They founded, and serve as co-CEOs of Veeps, the leading platform in premier concert livestreams. They’ve invested in Icons Group, FKA Project M, an institution aimed at innovating music media for the modern fan through publications such as Revolver, AP, and BrooklynVegan. But above all, what has been the most transgressive and monumental move for each brother, and GC band member, was their foray into family life as husbands and fathers.
I’d like to start from the beginning. I see this story in three phases. The first phase of the path that’s gotten you here is the initial inspirations, the things that informed you, the things you saw that made you want to be musicians, that made you go after the things you did with such passion from the jump. I see them as positive, or painful, lessons. In the second phase, what were things that shaped you, the challenges and joys? And in the third phase, what are the things that drove you to keep going, growing in new directions, and the things that continue to drive you?
JOEL MADDEN: Well, I think that the idea that always comes to my mind about everything that we do or have done — the theme of what injured us, what we thought was our weakness, what our trauma was — always ends up being our strength. The thing that I would underscore is purpose. When you think about us now being of service to artists, it’s only because in the early stages of our career, we felt a need for someone to teach us, protect us, tell us the truth, which we couldn’t find often. Now, if you look at the purpose behind MDDN or any of the businesses we have, there’s a real artist-focused value system around that. I always say the simple idea of when we started MDDN, it’s, “Let’s be the guys we wish we would’ve met when we were 18 coming into this business in this world. And let’s be honest.”
BENJI MADDEN: As I see it, [the first] is total unawareness. The second phase is searching for self-awareness, and wanting to grow — [this is] where I think you’ll start to see a lot of artistic decisions. The third phase, which I think we’re in now, is coming into that self-awareness, figuring out what to do with what you’ve learned and how you can make an impact. What do you care about? What’s important to you? I think today, both of us agree that our biggest goal in life and the thing that will allow us to die happy is if we’re good dads and husbands, number one, and then everything filters down from there. So for me, those are the three phases. But they do file into liberty spikes, suits, and then investors in companies.
That one could be filed as “trucker hats.”
JOEL: Yeah, hoodies and trucker hats. [Laughs.] But when I think about phase one, the way you relate to us and the idea of Good Charlotte and the music — that liberty spike phase was actually the beginning of phase two, when you think about the records we did [before]. The first six years of the band was really complete unawareness and naivety, aggressively chasing this idea that we were good enough to make it and that we had this. We would run down the dream.
It’s something I always want people to think about for themselves, to see how they could apply [it] to their own lives. If there is something you’re trying to accomplish — a business, an art, personal growth, physical health — the naive and unaware phase is extremely important. Where you think you are at a disadvantage to everyone else that’s figured it out, you’re actually at an advantage because there is something about being naive that allows you to work in your stream of consciousness, and that’s sometimes your best work. So, I do think that those naive years were some of our best.
Ignorance is bliss. There’s something very hopeful about being blind to obstacles.
JOEL: You get to the other side, having accomplished the goal, and you go, “Would I go back and do it again?” And [the answer is], “Hell no, I wouldn’t go back and do it again. That was too much work, but I didn’t know it was going to be that much work the whole time, so I just did it.”
BENJI: I think that everybody’s got something that calls them a little bit, if they can listen, if they can quiet things down and listen to that instinct.
What was that moment for you?
BENJI: All the way back to the beginning, it really was at a time in our life where it was confusing. There was depression all around us. But we’ve always been a team, and we’ve talked about everything, and still do through the years. There was something in us — something that just said, “Don’t give up. Not even with music, not with anything.” There was just something that said, “Keep going.”
JOEL: You could be more than this.
BENJI: You can be different than this. You can be more than this. You can amount to something. I think coming from a place where you don’t know if you are worth anything or if you even matter… There’s just chaos, instability, and depression all around you. There was this hopelessness. Not everybody has someone. We were lucky to have each other so that on a day when I felt like it wouldn’t matter…
JOEL: There was a cheerleader.
BENJI: I always had a cheerleader that said, “It will matter.” On a day that he felt it wouldn’t matter, I said, “It will matter.” Then we found music. We found it through… Well, Alternative Press was a big, really special one for us.
JOEL: We were extremely captivated by artists and how they did it. How did they make it? How did they create music? [AP] was a source of what made us feel cool. [We] grew up not able to afford the clothes that other people are wearing and didn’t have the resources to get the things that come into your own awareness as a young teenager, around the age when you are finding your own style. I think that music gave us the freedom to be different. We started to really find our identities by going to thrift stores and dressing like the Beastie Boys.
You discovered DIY.
BENJI: I think genuinely we gravitated to [those] things because resource-wise, like he said, you could go to a thrift store, you could rip up old shirts, you could do things [like] that. Whereas the other things aesthetically that were going on in the ’90s, there was a high end, super shiny. Then there was more [of] the grunge/punk/alternative where it was attainable. At that time, we were also gifted a guitar and bass from a guy at a church that was helping our mom out [at] a time when there wasn’t a Christmas happening. Then we went to a Beastie Boys concert — the first real concert we went to. And that was how we started. We were in nosebleeds. We left that show at the Patriot Center. May 13 or 15, 1995. I still have the ticket. That show meant a lot.
JOEL: We left saying, “That’s what I want to do.”
BENJI: We sat, almost in silence, watching the show in awe, just going, “I feel like we could be up there.” Then all of a sudden, our sights were just set on it. And that was it. We never looked back. There used to be this quarterly magazine that would come out called The Musician’s Guide to Touring & Promotion. You could find it at Borders. We made demos and took a disposable camera to Paul’s neighborhood because he had a pond in his neighborhood, and our little sister took photos.
I wrote letters as the “manager” and sent them out to all the labels, with our early cassettes. Then we went to a local print shop and made stickers that a friend of ours drew in art class. We started sending out “press kits,” which I read about in the magazines.
JOEL: That’s what we would do every night when we got home from work. We always had to work jobs.
What jobs did you work?
JOEL: Pizza place, grocery store, waiting tables. We were always losing our jobs every three to six months because we would get a show, and they wouldn’t let us off. And the band came first.
BENJI: We were religious about it. We would lose the job for a show for 20 kids. I don’t know why we had that immediate dedication or why we would go, “Yeah, I’ll lose my job to go play a show.” But we just started doing that. Then when we got out of school, we just kept one thing after another. We signed up for the Music Monthly compilation — a local Baltimore area music paper. They would do a compilation for local bands, and we submitted for that and got on it. From there, an assistant of an actual big-time A&R at Columbia Records called and came down to see us, offering us a demo deal — which is not a real record deal; you’d do three songs. We said no. We were like, “You can give us a real deal. We’re not going to do a demo deal.” Don’t ask me why. We really believed it. [Laughs.]
But it was all about that unawareness. We didn’t grow up in Baltimore. We didn’t grow up in D.C. We grew up about two hours from Baltimore, an hour-and-a-half from D.C., pretty far down 301. As naive kids, we didn’t realize how we were threading the needle.
JOEL: We were just constantly searching for an opportunity to connect with people.
BENJI: If anything, regardless of the outcome, it really kept us going, focused, and super positive. Because [during this time], there was tons of other bad stuff going on in our life — the chaos and the fallout of a totally broken family that was also broken financially.
JOEL: And riddled with addiction and things like that. So when I listen to him talk, it’s nice because I can zoom out and go, “What’s the through line here for all people?” And I do think the nature of living things is to search for life. It’s our nature to survive.
BENJI: A crack in the concrete to grow.
JOEL: That’s what that was at the time. We were just searching for growth. There is a natural strength that all people have if they allow themselves to be primitive in that way sometimes and search for the good, search for the life, search for the sunlight.
BENJI: When you think about the phases, total unawareness was all the way up until Chronicles. We matured very late. We had no life experience. We had never been to New York. We had never been to LA. We had never been anywhere. We didn’t fly on a plane till we were 18 or 19 to California, and the band was already well on its way. We were so green, and we came into an industry. We didn’t know the world would be critical. That first album, we thought we listened to it so much…
JOEL: Some people would argue that’s a classic album, Benj.
BENJI: Listen, I love the first album. I listen to it, and I just go, “Aw, those guys, they’re sweet.” We really were trying our best. We wanted to be so much, and we thought it was so cool. Now, I’ll blush sometimes when I listen to that record, but I do like listening to it because it’s our inner child. And we got slapped in the face with life. We made The Young and the Hopeless and moved to LA when we made Chronicles. It all went really fast. We were on tour, made the record, tour, tour, tour, made the second record, tour, tour, tour. So, we didn’t stop.
Well, you went from one bubble to another bubble. Because finding that success, so young, going from a small town to Warped Tour — that can be jarring. And maybe stunts you in a way.
JOEL: It does. You see how people can get traumatized. All of a sudden, people are managing you and infantilizing you, and they debilitate you from being able to grow with your business. That’s the problem, the problem we look to solve with our newer companies. We don’t manage people. We’re their partners.
BENJI: We were so young, only 21 years old when the first record came out. By the time we got to Chronicles, we were right on the edge of jaded and angry. Plus, you’re going through all this in front of people. But I think when we made that album, we were in this place of, “Why do people criticize us? Why do they box us in?” We were angry and on the edge of going further that way. Going into Good Morning Revival, we were still going through that. I think we really started doing some healing on Cardiology, and that ended up being our last record before we took a break because instinctually, we all felt, “I don’t know exactly what to do here. I want to heal. I want to be a whole person, and I don’t know what that looks like. I want to find some resources.” That’s when we started looking for therapists.
JOEL: Cardiology is interesting. It was our least successful record, one that people almost threw away. But there was so much healing for us on that record. I think we broke through something that we don’t even give that record credit for. In general, people could look at our catalog and go, “Oh, that record was a failure.” But to me, it was the biggest success because of the searching we did on that record and the confusion we went through on that record. And on the other side of it, I think we found the value of us as us.
It’s not the success we’ve had. It’s not the records. It’s not The Young and the Hopeless. It’s not Good Charlotte. It’s not what we’ve accomplished in front of the world and what people clapped for, but it’s that we survived a really traumatic childhood, and we learned how to love ourselves after that.
It’s about identity and purpose.
BENJI: We have a lot of reverence for Good Charlotte because it’s the vehicle that carried us through a time where we could have really done some damage to ourselves, and we could have really gone in a bunch of other directions. We were protected in this bubble of ambition and dreams, and we learned how to work together. So we have this reverence for what the band symbolizes, what it means to our life and what it gave us, and all the people that provided that for us. Not just people in the music industry that helped us, or taught us, but the fans and the people that to this day believe in the messages that we needed to say [and] needed to believe in. They made it real.
It was a big part of an important time in lots of our lives. What AP did for you, AP did for me, and bands like Good Charlotte were a part of that. It offered me a portal into something that felt very safe, for someone who didn’t always feel safe or connected to others as a kid. It was an opportunity to feel a part of a gang of misfits, as they were finding this balance between being punk and mainstream. There was an incredibly aspirational element to it.
JOEL: It’s funny. I was thinking, “What if Good Charlotte was just this social experiment, of these people going through a process of healing?” We are just on the other side of it, with this legacy that I’m really proud of. Everyone participated: all the fans and everyone that was involved. You could argue the naysayers or the critics — both sides were participating in this experiment of five guys coming of age and growing into real people that were healed. Because I always go, “What’s the legacy of Good Charlotte?” It’s so interesting. We’re not U2, we’re not the Rolling Stones, we’re not Green Day, we’re not blink. We’re this little band that existed in its own little way. And sometimes big ways. The takeaway? Five people grew into what could have been really broken, problematic people because success can do that to you as well. I always go back and forth on, “What will we do again?” But I think we’ll do something again.
Well, I don’t know about this experiment. I feel there’s more credit due — to come out of that level of trauma in childhood to find success, which also can be traumatizing, then come out the other end of that talking about their mindfulness practices and families? That is more than an experiment to me. I think that takes spectacular people to have that happen.