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Cover Story: Good Charlotte

| October 31, 2016 | 0 Comments

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For protean punk – and part-time thespian – Joel Madden, of Good Charlotte renown, there’s only one thing better than his cameo appearance last year on Lee Daniels’ hit TV series Empire, alongside his wife of six years, designer Nicole Richie. And that’s building an actual empire of his own, which he’s quietly been doing over the last few years with his bandmate brother Benji. And now said company – a label/management/production firm dubbed MDDN – is ready to be fully unveiled, via not only Good Charlotte’s rollicking new Youth Authority slugfest, but a bevy of upcoming 2017 releases from performers that the siblings have been developing in relative stealth mode.

Make no mistake. The outfit’s latest effort, its sixth in an on-again, off again 21-year history, is a solid meat-and-potatoes catalog entry, bristling with addictive fist-pumping anthems (often dusted with a touch of looped hip-hop technology) like “The Outfield,” “Moving On,” “Makeshift Love,” and “Life Can’t Get Much Better,” all of which seem to celebrate faith, fidelity, and family and, in general, to give humble thanks just for being alive. Guest vocalists add spice to the thunderous mixes, like Biffy Clyro’s raspy Simon Neil on “Reason to Stay” and Sleeping With Sirens’ munchkin-throated Kellin Quinn on the rapid-fire “Keep Swingin’.” And the brothers haven’t lost their sense of humor – the handclap-punctuated nursery-rhyme stroll “40 Oz. Dream” describes Good Charlotte’s past and present in hilarious detail: “Turned on the radio it’s so confusing/ Rappers were singing and rockers DJing/ There’s no guitars on the songs that they’re playing…Now all the punk rockers are over 40/ They’re coaching little league and reading stories.” The sing-song chorus Joel snarls hammers the message home: “Grew up on MTV/ When they had Eazy-E/ In California yeah they still knew how to throw a party.” But Madden is more interested in discussing the delivery system rather than the message itself. In fact, he shoos his own publicist away when interview time runs out to keep elaborating on how the old-school-minded MDDN actually functions. And it’s a remarkably fascinating yarn.

It might be hard to believe, but it’s true – the perpetually porkpie-hatted, sleeve-tatted rocker is a record company executive now, with his own office in MDDN’s Los Angeles headquarters, where he and his guitarist sibling (along with their older brother Josh, whose specialty is that long-forgotten art of A&R) have been nurturing the careers of a variety of young artists. And he can barely contain his enthusiasm as he runs down the talent roster. “We’re excited about Sleeping With Sirens, and also Jessie J, who is on the verge of doing her greatest work,” marvels Madden, 37. “And Waterparks is another band of incredible young guys who just write really good songs, from the same genre as Good Charlotte, which I love.”

But wait! There’s more! “There’s a band called Big Jesus who, to me, are the best live band I’ve ever seen,” the honcho continues. “And then there’s a group from Australia called Chase Atlantic, who sound like INXS meets The Weeknd – three kids who play, write, and produce everything, and they’re incredibly talented. And then there’s a group from Massachusetts called Potty Mouth, three girls who make great music. They just wrapped up a tour with Against Me!, and they’re going out with Chvrches this month, and then they start their next record in November, December. So I’m excited – there’s tons of new music coming next year from all these artists that we’ve been working with over the last few years. So it’s all starting to come to fruition.”

The Madden Brothers – who also tracked a 2014 record under that moniker, Greetings From California, after good Charlotte went on hiatus in 2011 — as modern music’s sagelike elder statesman? It’s not that hard to fathom, if you pay close attention to the details of their serpentine career. A couple of years ago, quotes started surfacing from Australian teen-pop phenoms 5 Seconds of Summer about how delighted they were to have worked with their heroes from Good Charlotte. They soaked up information like a sponge from the Maddens, and treasured every minute of collaboration, according to drummer Ashton Irwin. “It was a big thing for us to learn how to write big rock songs, but with pop melodies, but that’s what we’ve always wanted to do,” he said before their 2014 eponymous debut disc streeted. Just like the Maryland-bred Good Charlotte had been doing since its scrappy-but-chiming self-titled bow in 2000.

How did the Maddens hook up with a bunch of kids from Down Under? Therein hangs a very strange tale. In 2011, Joel was invited to Sydney to fill one of four prestigious coach positions on TV reality-show competition The Voice Australia, where he mentored young vocalists for six seasons, aided by Benji, who joined him four seasons in. To facilitate taping, Joel even relocated to Sydney for a time, where he fell in love with the scenic city and country. “I didn’t move my entire life there, obviously – my wife and kids (daughter Harlow, eight, and son Sparrow, 7) are here in L.A.,” he clarifies. “But I spent a ton of time there during my six seasons, and the cool thing about Australia is, it’s a big country, but you do feel home-y, like you’re in a town. And being there, I got to become a little more local, and now I have a great relationship with Australia. So it’s a place that definitely feels like a second home to me. And it’s a great place for a vacation, too – I tell all my friends in America, ‘You have to go at least once.’”

Today, the vocalist can rhapsodize at length about Sydney attractions like the Taronga Zoo, the famed coathanger-bridge walk, and the city’s ultra-cool food cart Harry’s Café Du Wheels, which sells mushy-pea pies deep into the night. “It’s cool because the pies are a real thing down there – a really interesting phenomenon that you only get there or in England,” he notes. And he loved playing wide-eyed tourist dad when his kids came to visit. Most of all, he loves the continent’s stunning beaches, like Bondi and Manly. “It’s total beach culture there, so every major city you’re in – except for Canberra – you’re kind of on the beach, so almost everyone in the country has access to these amazing beaches,” gushes Madden, who neither surfs nor skates. “So it’s sunny – when Australian friends come to L.A., where I live – and tons of my friends are Australian – our beaches just don’t compare to theirs. So I’m really glad I got to spend so much time there – it was definitely a special time in my life.”

Gradually, it began to dawn on Madden – they were proffering all this serious singing advice on The Voice every week, helping relative strangers with their fledgling careers. So why not put that hard-won wisdom to good entrepreneur use with their own artist development agency? MDDN, then, was founded on the highest precepts. In the past, Joel himself felt he’d been manipulated by labels, forced into bad spur-of-the-moment career decisions that he wound up regretting later. “I look back on my life, and I don’t claim to have been the smartest guy,” he sighs, sadly. “But we worked really hard, and we tried really hard, and we did some things that worked, we did some things that didn’t work. So we were always just trying, but with not a lot of guidance – we only had ourselves. But for me, I’ve tried to learn from those times where I probably should have waited, or I probably should have been more careful or protective, or really thought about everything instead of just saying yes to everything.” He’s even rationalized the psychology of it all, in retrospect. He was young and terribly afraid, he now understands. Afraid of losing whatever opportunities he and Benji had been handed.

“Coming from poverty in rural Maryland, coming from a place where I didn’t have anything, and also dealing with the upbringing and family life I had, and on top of that, low self-esteem?” Madden lets the question hang pendulous in the air for a minute before continuing. “I was just trying to do it all and please everyone, because I was so afraid of failing and losing everything that I didn’t stop to go, ‘How does this feel? Do I like that look? Do I really want to do that? And should I do that? Or should I be a bit more of an artist and find that middle ground, where you’re not being too precious but still being true to your art and vision?’ So in my older age, that’s how I am with my company. We don’t just sign everything, but we certainly care about everyone that walks through our door, we try to give them the best advice we can, and we really, truly are like, ‘All people welcome.’”

It is certainly a strange “Kung Fu”-ish role to have found himself him in, Madden chuckles – playing Keye Luke master to a dojo full of David Carradine grasshopper disciples. But if you’ve learned a few trial-by-fire things along the way in life, why not share them with younger students? Entire college courses are probably based on this exact same principle. But MDDN offers much more than that – for the novice, even a more experienced star like Jessie J, it’s the whole recording-artist package. “It’s kind of sad that A&R is a new concept in the music business these days,” he notes. “But hey – it happens. A band needs resources. So where does it get resources? It has to sign everything away to a label, up front. But at MDDN, we give them the time and space to develop, and we have in-house video directors, an in-house creative team, an in-house engineer – everything you could possibly need for a band to make music and develop at a real meaningful level. A level where it can compete with everything else out there. We invest in these artists to help them build their own brand and value for themselves, so they can go out and make appropriate deals when the time is right. And they’ll make a deal that will be beneficial to them and the label.”

That’s the bottom line, the musician stresses – it’s an open-door policy all the way around at MDDN. Aspiring Trilbys are free to schedule a meeting to consult with these good-hearted Svengalis any day of the week, and they, in turn, are free to give them some tough love, or even send them packing if their work ethics aren’t congruent. Madden remembers what it felt like to be young, hungry, to want fame now, not months or years in the future. And nobody wants to be coldly informed that it’s just too soon to flip the star switch. It’s a dirty job, he agrees, but sometimes he has to do it. “So we teach artists to always search for the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear,” he explains. “A lot of times, when you’re young, you only hear what you want to hear, and you want what you want right now. But the best things that last the longest are built one day at a time, slowly, with real method and thought. And for me, with a lot of the young guys, it’s about walking before you run, making sure that you’re carefully, diligently building your band. And when you have to inform somebody that they’re just not ready? That’s always the toughest. Like, ‘You’re not ready. Yet. Let’s keep building, let’s keep growing. You don’t want to go too soon, you don’t want the middle part to be hollow – you’ve got to have substance. I know how bad you want this, and I wouldn’t be working with you if I didn’t think you had the stuff.’ We’re seeing where a young artist is at from a 30,000 feet perspective, and we make sure they understand that if the music is good, people will like it – it can’t be a trick or some kind of gimmick.”

The brothers’ belief system has a few more hard-earned cornerstones. Occasionally they’ll co-write with a client, but not often – it’s not a prerequisite for signing. Songbirds are free to leave the MDDN nest whenever they think they’re ready – no blood replaces ink on a contract. And they urge their protégées to define what success truly means to them, early on in the process. Is it about communication, discovering your true vocal and/or lyrical voice? Or is it simply about money and Top 10 singles? Having a long-range vision is key to the development process, Madden says. Then once you’ve discovered it, don’t waver, don’t ever give up on it. “You’ve got to stay true to your vision, in line with your purpose,” he says. “And it’s got to be more than money, more than any one thing. All those things can come as byproducts of success. But the more you think about and define what true success means to you, the more you’ll actually be able to have it. So we protect our artists, nurture and grow them, and hopefully just do good work with them – that’s kind of our passion these days.” This wisdom, he adds, has only occurred to him in his thirties. “Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s being married – I don’t know,” he sighs.

Oh, and by the way, Good Charlotte has an MDDN record out called Youth Authority. If you dig deeper into it, you can hear some relationship doubts, potential insecurity. But all things seem placid on the Madden homefront – Joel just popped up on the arm of his missus at Richie’s disco-themed 35th birthday party on September 23, which was also attended by Benji and his wife, actress Cameron Diaz. “Best mom, best friend, best wife,” read Joel’s caption for one Tweeted selfie the couple took that night. Given all of the siblings’ corporate undertakings, Madden says, “Good Charlotte has become a very special…well, not hobby, but something that we want to keep super-special. We made this record on our own, and we put it out on our own label. And we’ll be playing some shows, and we want everybody there to feel like it’s a special night, because I just don’t think we’ll be touring a whole lot – I can’t see us going out for 18 months straight, ever again.

“But we’re in the best place we’ve ever been,” the newly-minted suit summarizes. “We feel really liberated from having to be anything but what we are. We’ve been together since we were 15, and we started our band in high school. And 20 years later, to still be here and still be friends, and have families? That’s the best part of the whole story – that we survived this crazy business, this crazy ride. So we couldn’t be happier, just to be us, you know?”

-Tom Lanham

Appearing 11/4 at The Riviera Theatre, Chicago.

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