Happy days are here again

IN THE dingy bowels of a Dublin music venue, a heavily tattooed young man best known to the wider public for having dated Paris Hilton is waxing philosophical.

“On this record I just wanted to be a fan of music again,” says Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden. “You get into this industry and people tear you apart. You start to forget why you wanted to do it in the first place. You get jaded. I had a spiritual reawakening where I thought, ‘fuck it man — I want to be a fan of music again’.”

He’s discussing the group’s latest album, Cardiology, a spry punk-pop affair recorded in the months after his split from Hilton. If Benji, who formed Good Charlotte with twin Joel at high school in Maryland, was venting his hurt on the LP, the pain is well hidden. With its bouncy melodies and upbeat lyrics, Cardiology is anything but a break-up record. He may be wreathed in green and black ink but, when it comes to romance at least, Madden isn’t one for flaunting his emotions on his sleeve.

At first glance, Benji, who also dated model Sophie Monk, doesn’t strike you as an obvious celebrity lothario. He is stocky, with a sideways nose that accentuates his resemblance to a young Sylvester Stallone (the blue-collar accent is 100% Rocky). Then again, getting together with TMZ-grade arm candy would seem a family speciality: Joel has stepped out with Hilary Duff and last December married Hilton’s former BFF, Nicole Richie. The couple have a son and a daughter: Backstage in Dublin, Richie is hanging out ahead of the second of Good Charlotte’s two Irish dates this evening.

All of this makes their lives sound like something out of an MTV docudrama. However, Benji would like to point out there is a dark side to the Good Charlotte experience. With a sound that drifts somewhere between the bubble-gum goth of My Chemical Romance and Blink 182’s beach-shorts punk, the group enjoyed overnight success in the early noughties. Catapulted into pop’s major league, they fell prey to familiar temptations and, within a few years, were close to burnout.

“Your band gets signed, you’ve never been on a plane before — you’re psyched, just fucking psyched,” says Benji. “You can’t believe it’s happening. You put the record out and the next thing you know they’re saying you’re going to be gone next week. You’ve been shot down. And on and on it goes.”

Still, it’s not as if bleak times were exactly new to the Maddens. Of Limerick stock, the family was ripped apart when their father walked out on their mother on Christmas Eve. Benji and Joel were in their early teens at the time. They were, needless to say, traumatised by what happened. But they also had to learn to fend for themselves, as their father’s desertion left their mother scrabbling to make the rent and put food on the table.

“We started when we were 16, 17,” says Benji. “In a garage with nothing. We were dreaming. We didn’t think it would come true. It was really an escape. All of us had our own challenges and shit to get through. There were some days, I remember, when I was literally hanging just by a fucking thread. That’s why we started the band in the first place.”

Critics have compared Cardiology to the group’s earliest work. Musically, it’s a far more sophisticated affair, insists Benji. That said, he agrees that the group is reclaiming some of the wide-eyed wonder of their earlier work.

“When I was making this record I thought, ‘I want to be as close as I can to the kid I was 10 years ago’. If there’s one way to lose that feeling it’s to be in the music industry. The more you try to get back to that feeling, the harder it is. The industry sucks the life out of you. ”

Sitting forward he elaborates.

“People say this is Good Charlotte going back to their roots. Not really. If you listen to the album, it’s completely different to our first record. On our first record we sounded a like a bunch of 15-year-olds. We could never play the stuff we’re doing now back then. It’s much too complicated. But what we have done is gone back to that feeling of ‘fuck everything’, we want to be in a band for the reason we started the band. Not to make money, not for people to think we’re cool. We know we’re not Radiohead. That’s not what this band is about. It’s about capturing a feeling.”

Not that Cardiology was necessarily an enjoyable album to make. Initially the group got together with nu-metal producer Howard Benson. But they didn’t warm to his hands-off approach and began to suspect the new songs were listless and predictable.

After nine months in the studio, they realised drastic steps were necessary.

“Howard simply wasn’t there. You’d work with his engineers and he’d listen to the music and call in with notes. It was a system — ‘this is how you do guitars, this is how you do bass... blah blah’. We were like ‘ah man’. Was there going to be a week where we just all went in to grind it out? We were waiting for the magic. In the end it was an easy decision to start over.”

Junking an entire album’s worth of recordings, they went to Vancouver to work with their long-time producer Don Gilmore.

“It was fun. As soon as we got into the studio with him, we felt it instinctively. This was the way things could be.”

Siblings don’t always make for the best band-mates. From Ray and Dave Davies in The Kinks to Liam and Noel Gallagher in Oasis, sticking two brothers in a tour bus for months on end is often a recipe for fraternal meltdown. With Good Charlotte, the stereotype seems not to apply. Indeed they actually hang out even when they’re not in the studio or on the road together. They’re friends first, brothers second, says Madden.

“One of the inspirations for me on this album is seeing the relationship Joel has with his children,” says Benji. “Kids — they don’t give a fuck. If they like something, they just like it. I’ve been listening to nothing but Disney music recently. I’ve figured out that sometimes people want to hear music that makes them happy.”

* Cardiology is out now.

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