The Madden Brothers

The Madden Brothers have screeched the Good Charlotte train to a halt and jumped off without their baggage.

Mad Brothers, more like. I mean, you’d have to be mad to turn your back on the hand that feeds you, wouldn’t you? Particularly when you’re known for grasping at that hand and pumping it mercilessly.

I refer to the debut Madden Brothers album, and the new beginning that’s dawned in Joel and Benji Madden’s careers now that they have deliberately unhitched themselves from the Good Charlotte money-making machine. Greetings From California is a classic rock record – sunny ’60s in the first half, ’70s southern rock in the second – that demands to be listened to as a whole. There’s great attention to detail and much respect paid to elders – Brian Wilson, Steely Dan and the Beatles among them – and they’d really like it if you went for the vinyl version.

As Joel Madden tells Time Out, it would have been so easy to slam dunk the charts with Good Charlotte singles every time there was a new season of The Voice – the primetime talent show he’s a judge on. You could argue that in his TV role he’s perpetuating the model of flash-in-the-pan careers and disposable singles downloads, but perhaps it’s in reaction to this that he and twin brother Benji stopped resisting the little voice inside that was crying, But are you who you say you are?

“With Good Charlotte we grew up in front of everyone. We went out into the world with no education and no understanding of the music business, or way in. We left home at 18 with $40 and a backpack and a guitar, and hitchhiked,” he says – a tale that’s told through new track ‘California Rain’. “But then we got to this point years later and thought, the [Good Charlotte] music says one thing, but who are we really? Well, I’m 35 with a wife and two kids for a start.”

Joel’s voice raises to a near-yell as he re-enacts the decision to take a career risk and make a record that wasn’t the snot-nosed pop-punk they’d branded 17 years earlier. “From here, let’s try our hardest to make whatever we do really special. Let’s not chase the charts, let’s not go the way of everyone else.”

It was a decision that has invoked the wrath of much of their US fanbase, but in Australia the first single, ‘We Are Done’ (it’s a call to arms to kids experiencing social unrest, not a break-up song), went to number one.

“We owe those Good Charlotte fans records,” Joel says diplomatically, “because the band is bigger than us – it doesn’t even really belong to us. So we’ve had to say no to that, which has been difficult, but we’re saying that maybe we can do something better than we’ve ever done. It’s a testament to Australia for listening and giving it that chance. All we can ask is that people don’t dismiss it for a preconceived notion. I know sometimes when people see you too much they can dismiss you, I understand that. But we’re trying to push what people accept from the pop charts.”

There’s a key thing you have to understand about Joel and Benji Madden. Good Charlotte were initially formed as a route out of poverty, back in La Plata, Maryland. Joel has recently revealed that the twins’ father battled alcoholism and left the family. With their mother often hospitalised for lupus, times were tough, financially and emotionally.

Which brings us back to grasping the hand that feeds, whether that be through writing the smashiest smash-hit singles with Good Charlotte, or through promoting ill-fitting brands in advertising campaigns. The need to survive was locked into their mindset.

Joel describes the feeling of Good Charlotte getting their first record deal and publishing deal. “After 18 years of struggling, I didn’t know what it was like to have money or any extra cash for anything, period. I thought, ‘I’m good with this. If this is as good as it goes, I’ll try and buy a house and provide a life for myself, and one day I’ll meet a girl and get married.’ That was my goal, because a house was one thing we struggled to have when I was growing up.”

After the first record came out and two years of hardcore touring, the band had a fanbase of around 2,000 kids a night and were making a decent living. “I was working really hard, trying to maintain it – we work really hard at the easiest job of the world. Then we thought, ‘Well, what if we make the second record huge? What if we write some really big songs?’ It was always like that. Then ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ took off.

“From then on, it was always the same thing. Working hard, appreciating where we were at and accepting opportunities. We had a hard time saying no to opportunities because when you come from a place where you didn’t have anything, it’s hard to say no. You’re like, ‘Well, how would I say no to that?’ Maybe to our detriment, I don’t know.”

And now Joel gets to witness that desperate ambition through people auditioning for The Voice.

“I always try and remind people that it’s easy to sit back and criticise someone else for taking an opportunity, but that opportunity could mean the world to them,” he explains. “I respect it, always. Nobody knew what Good Charlotte were borne out of and why we needed to do it. They don’t know that we were at one point homeless, but we’ll never forget it. So when an opportunity comes, you do it. That was the hardest point about doing Greetings From California. We had to stop the Good Charlotte train and make a record for the sake of making music.”

And a career-defining record it is. Joel likens the feeling of releasing Greetings From California to the feeling of first starting out, from scratch, but he can’t deny the validation of having the first single go platinum over here.

“We’re all still kids at heart,” he says. “I’m still that kid to this day who’s like, ‘You like me? Really?’ Some things never change.”

Greetings From California is released September 12. Originally published in Time Out Melbourne.