Q&A: Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden
On boxing ex-MTV VJ Riki Rachtman and recording the band's new album -- twice!
The lives of twin brothers Benji and Joel Madden, the core duo behind Good Charlotte, are the epitome of their 2002 hit “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”: They’re attached to Hollywood celebs (Joel has two kids with fiancee Nicole Richie and Benji dates Playboy Playmate Holly Madison), enjoy the L.A. club scene, and regularly grace the pages of Us Weekly. So it’s a triumph that their pop-punk band found the time to not only record their fifth album — but do it twice.
“I love the songs on this record — they really mean a lot to me. We had to get it right,” Benji, 31, tells SPIN.com, explaining his band’s decision to scrap the first version of their new album, Cardiology (out in September), and start from scratch. “The first go-around with the album was an expensive lesson, but it was a good one, and it made the songs that much better.”
Below, Benji talks to SPIN.com about Cardiology’s return to Good Charlotte’s pop-punk roots, his brother Joel’s family and its effect on their new songs, and the band’s undying dedication to their fans.
Hey Benji. You recently appeared in a celebrity boxing match in Las Vegas and knocked out former MTV VJ Riki Rachtman in one minute and 42 seconds. The YouTube video is great!
[Laughs] I hope you enjoyed it — I certainly did.
So, the new album: what’s the status?
The recording is all done. I’m recording some acoustic versions for B-sides soon. Every few weeks during the recording process, I tracked a cover song — a Beck song, an Army of Me song, an Elliot Smith song — to put on our website for the fans. We wanted to let them know that we appreciated their patience. But now we’re mixing and mastering the actual album. I trained pretty hard for that boxing match while we were making the record. In fact, I finished the last bit of touch-ups on the record and finished my training for the fight on the same day, which was three days before the actual match. It was like reaching the finish line.
You must have felt great.
I did. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and I’m really proud of it. I started training about a year and a half ago, and it really had a positive effect on the record. I was more disciplined and I worked harder in the studio. People who give it a chance will hear it on the record. I can.
The album was recorded twice. What happened?
Whew… We recorded with producer Howard Benson on the first go-around, and after a while I could just tell he didn’t care. To him, the album was a paycheck. It was all about radio singles. We had nothing in common. The content of these songs is so important to me. We’ve made a lot of party music; we’re definitely not Thom Yorke. But there’s also depth to our records; we get emotional. A lot of our fans have grown up, but they’ve stuck by us for the songs that dig a little deeper. And this time we dug really deep. With Howard, my gut said, “This isn’t right.” But I just told myself, “Well, I’m going have faith and see it through, because this guy is successful.” I only heard rough mixes of three songs, and right away I knew it wasn’t the record I set out to make.
What didn’t you like about the sound?
The demos had more soul than the final mixes! So, we took a couple weeks off for the holidays and I called up Don Gilmore, who is one of my closest friends. We’ve known him since we got signed; he produced our first record. He was finishing up the Bullet for My Valentine record in Europe, and said, “When I get back, let’s go up to Vancouver, BC, and start fresh.” Don doesn’t care about contracts or money, he just wants to have fun and make a record. And that’s exactly what we needed at the time. We’ve recorded in Vancouver before; there’s a studio up there that’s magic for us. Right away, I felt the vibe.
What do the new songs sound like?
Good Charlotte fit in a lot of different genres — it’s one of the coolest things our band has been able to do. But on this record we made a point of not thinking about what’s going on in music right now, like the popularity of dance music. We played what makes us feel good. The new songs sound a little more old school, punk-y Good Charlotte. It felt right and I think our fans are going to really appreciate it. But, still, there’s one a song — it’s almost like [Eddie Money’s] “Take Me Home Tonight” — that I could definitely hear in the club.
Artist Daniel Martin Diaz designed the cover for Cardiology. How did you guys hook up?
He’s my favorite artist in the world. He does religion-based pop-surrealism. A lot of people approach him to design album covers, but he hasn’t done one in over 10 years. I blindly e-mailed him at the “info” address on his website. I told him that I was in a dark place during our last record, but that in the last two years I fell in love with music all over again. He came down and listened to some rough mixes and agreed to do it. It’s my dream come true.
Why did you name the new album Cardiology?
Cardiology is the study of the heart, and that’s what we spend our lives doing — trying to figure our hearts out. Not just romantically, but with our family, friends, and every emotion we have in our lives. All of the new songs — whether it’s the most heartfelt or the funniest party track — are all tied to our emotions.
Can you tell me about a few of the songs?
There’s one called “Let the Music Play,” and it’s a tribute to our fans. “Silver Screen Romance” is a classic Good Charlotte song. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s a metaphor for where our country is with the recession and the economy. We look back to the depression and its recovery. We’re telling people, “Hey, the storm’s almost over.” But the most powerful lyrics are the ones that Joel wrote about his daughter on “Harlow’s Song.” I got chills the first time I heard it. I could tell he meant every word. It’s really cool to see my brother digging deep and writing from the heart. When Joel told me he was going be a Dad, I was psyched. Joel? He’s the rock star! When you see Joel step on stage… he’s born to be a rock star. But he’s also the best father I know. He wrote about the love he has for his kids and his girl Nicole [Richie]. He’s really found himself through his family. When I have a family — and I definitely want to — I want it to be like his.