Self-made millionaires: Why the Maddens never had any choice but to succeed
[Photo courtesy of MDDN]
By now, Good Charlotte’s aspirational origin story is well-ingrained in the minds of anyone who’s bothered to listen closely enough. As the mythology goes, twin brothers Joel and Benji Madden grew up in poverty in a broken home in Maryland after their father left the family on Christmas Eve. Outcasts at school, inspired by music and driven by a desire for escape and success, they formed Good Charlotte as teenagers in 1996 with their high school friends Aaron Escolopio and Paul Thomas (guitarist Billy Martin joined in 1998). Those early experiences left a mark on the music that they made; their first record, Good Charlotte, released in 2000, opens with a song dedicated to “every kid who ever got picked last in gym class.” The songs, inspired mostly by punk, dealt with their father’s abandonment, feeling downtrodden and, above all, a desire to be famous. On “WaldorfWorldwide,” Joel vowed that his band would be “self-made millionaires,” a promise that was very quickly fulfilled. Good Charlotte always knew they were going to be big, but not everyone believed in them; Joel reveals that when they started to pursue their dreams “even the people who lived in the small ass town we were from asked us what the fuck we were thinking.”
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But that very early, sincere desire for success and a drive to prove everyone wrong has guided Good Charlotte’s entire career. Poverty is a powerful motivator: The Maddens have never had any choice but to succeed. They did everything that it took to get where they wanted to be; they left home with nothing, met the right people, knocked on enough doors. And then in 2004, they reached global fame and went triple platinum with The Young And The Hopeless. It cemented their status as pop-punk legends while opening them up to criticism of being a “fake band” and of “selling out,” accusations they acknowledged and skewered in “I Just Wanna Live” on their next album, The Chronicles Of Life And Death. Despite their success, 14 years since that album, the brothers still are affected by what people think of them. “When someone writes something mean about you, even when you know they didn’t even think about it, it still hurts,” Joel shares. “I don’t care. It just does. It’s not fun when people are mean to you, and it’s not fun being made fun of.”With five studio albums and a short-lived hiatus behind them, Good Charlotte are still here. They’re successful beyond their wildest dreams, but they haven’t forgotten their roots.
“I’ll never forget what it feels like to be invisible and to be small and to be treated poorly and like a loser,” Joel says. “All the things that I went through as a kid, I think about it and I’m like, ‘This music saved my life,’ and it led me to a place where I like myself. I feel grateful for my wife and kids and my house and my life every day. None of that would exist. I would have never made it down that path had I not left home with my brother and just tried.”
Once driven by that desire for success, Joel and Benji, who are married to Nicole Richie and Cameron Diaz respectively, now have slightly different priorities. “When we were younger, we did want to have success. There were a lot of new things we’d never had before. Now on the other side of that, I think we see from all of our experience what we can draw from is how we feel is No. 1,” Benji says.
“When I was younger, I struggled with low self-esteem, depression, post-traumatic stress, all the things you battle against that no one talks about,” Joel adds. “Luckily, I grew and got to go on the whole ride, and I got to end up with a wife who I love. I have kids, and I’ve got this adult life. But in my 20s I was a teenager until I was 29.”
“We were like stray dogs, man,” Benji interjects.
Joel agrees: “I didn’t know anything until I met my wife, really. That’s when things started to change.”
[Photo by: Ryan Watanabe]
Sitting with the brothers now, it’s clear that they’re finally at peace within themselves. Good Charlotte are difficult to define; they take cues and inspiration from rock, punk, pop and hip-hop, unafraid to experiment with whatever is inspiring them. As a result, they’ve unfairly been the subject of some ridicule over the last two decades, but they’ve kept going and refused to become jaded. “We’re only here for a short time. Let’s love life and be nice,” Benji says.
“We just want people to love each other,” Joel adds. “I feel like one of the biggest problems in society today is ‘sameness.’ We want to all push our idea, and that’s why we have such a divided country back home. Everyone wants each other to be the same. What if we flip it and say, ‘Let’s embrace each other’s differences and realize how special and how great the world is because of the variety of all of us?’”
That positivity and drive has led Good Charlotte to a point where the brothers can take what they’ve learned about an often insidious industry and try to make it better from the inside out. The brothers have always been business-minded, with multiple side projects under their belt alongside their music career, and while the band still release new music, in recent years they’ve taken a step into the other side of the business. Their music company, MDDN, formed in 2014 alongside brother Josh, specializes in management and artist development. They now have an office with recording studios, several employees and an impressive roster. Among others, the brothers work with Architects, Chase Atlantic and pop-punk outfit Waterparks. Their focus is management, which Joel says is “the one piece of your career that is so important. Who are you getting advice from? Who are you collaborating with to make your decisions? They shape your career.”
“What if we helped artists build their lives so they could make the music they love and have the career they want but keep their integrity and soul intact?”
Stung by experiences early in their own career, the Madden brothers wanted to create a company with core ethos of individuality and empathy. “People can just take advantage of you. I think we learned our lessons young, and we learned a lot and instead of letting it turn us bitter, we said what if we had a company that was looking out for artists that was fair, that was transparent?” Benji says. “What if we helped artists build their lives so they could make the music they love and have the career they want but keep their integrity and soul intact? We want them to be more themselves. The idea that we can help artists develop careers based on our experience and on our relationships and all the resources. We have a building in California with three recording studios and video directors and everything that they need to do the things they need so that they don’t have to sign a record deal if they don’t want to. For us, it’s about freedom. It’s about power; it’s about being empowered. Hopefully we can lend our experience and help them to make the best decisions possible.”
The night before this interview, Good Charlotte played a cover of late rapper Lil Peep’s “Awful Things” for his memorial in Long Beach. It was a fitting and well-deserved tribute to a man who had once called Good Charlotte his biggest influence; one who had built his short but impressive career in tribute to the artists who are now honoring him. “I think we’re all sad. It was a special thing for us to be able to do, though, for his family. We felt really honored,” Joel shares. Peep’s sudden death sent shockwaves through the industry, with everyone from Pete Wentz to Charli XCX paying tribute to him, and the legitimate impact Peep had on the brothers is immediately evident. They say they were hoping to put together a tour with Peep for next year.
“That was such a special thing for us because we’re just fans. There’s something about the whole thing that just broke my heart in a whole way that I don’t know I’ve ever had before, in a weird way,” Benji says.
Joel finishes his thought: “It’s because we’re older. You know—I’m almost 40, and I have kids. I look at a 21-year-old and someone with so much talent and I just think that he’s not going to get to see the other side. He was just cracking—he was about to change the game, in my opinion. I looked at him and I was like, ‘This is a talent that’s fresh and new.’ On the other side of that too, I look at that as a father. That’s a real person who doesn’t get to see how beautiful life becomes with each phase of life. It just becomes more beautiful in different ways. So I got to go through the 21, wild, first-taste-of-success thing. Then 23, then 25, then 27. It just broke my heart because I just thought he was so special.”
The Maddens are clearly pained they never got a chance to make a difference in Lil Peep’s life. The conversation comes back to him throughout the interview, and with MDDN and through their mentoring of bands such as 5 Seconds Of Summer, the brothers have a key hand in trying to guide the careers and lives of young artists who could be taken advantage of.
“We had asked the question: Can we make a difference in the music business?,” says Joel. “And then we were like, ‘Well, we can try. Can we make the music business a fairer place for the artists? Well, we can definitely fight for it.’ We’re trying to make the music business a fairer place. To bring it back to Lil Peep, man. I want to be involved in these kids’ lives. All of us as artists are going through different stuff, and you can’t do it alone. You need support; you need friends.”
“We feel how important it is to share our experience with younger artists, and hopefully it will affect their lives in a positive way and we can make a difference,” Benji adds. “Because who’s the next Lil Peep? What difference can we make in their life? What I want is not for these kids to get thrown into the machine and become just another artist who comes out of the other side, and they’re chewed up and spit out. I want people to understand their value and how special they are.”
Now, the brothers want to be the mentors they needed when they were starting out. When they talk about the artists they look after, including Waterparks and Jessie J, their faces light up with pride. “We, as young kids who didn’t know any better, came in and didn’t always have someone telling us that. We had to learn it on our own,” Joel reflects. “Now I think we respect it, and I think that we just want to make a difference.”
“Especially when you have low self-esteem and you come from nothing and you don’t really know a lot about the world,” Benji interjects. ”It’s a tough moment for a kid when you wake up and you realize you’re a product. I think for a lot of people it sends them into a depression and a spiral and most artists go through a weird period of their career where they lose it a bit. I think we were lucky because we survived that and came out the other side, and we decided that we wouldn’t let it jade us.”
[Photo by: Nick Suchak]
Benji says that with Good Charlotte, they make music when they want and play shows when they want (which isn’t often), because their main focus is their families and developing artists. But during their show, it’s clear that they still give their fans everything they have. Good Charlotte have always been a “fan band;” where many artists are impenetrable, Good Charlotte have always laid everything out on the table. They’re honest, and something in their experience connects with the fans who still flock to see them. They have always done meet and greets; they reply to fans on Twitter; they do everything they can to connect.
“It means a lot to us. Especially 22 years later,” Joel shares, “to be standing here and doing a show like this. We think about it, and we’re like, ‘No one would give a fuck.’ We were nobody. We were just some kids who literally got picked on and were from nowhere and people wouldn’t give us the time of day. To this day, we try to give everyone who buys a ticket a good show every night because it means a lot to us. We play less shows than we ever have. But they’re quality. I just care about every single person who’s interacting with us leaving with something that was special.” And, as always and as with everything, they really, truly mean it.