“Double Take” – an interview with Benji and Joel Madden by Mark Dapin
Benji Madden, co-founder of the band Good Charlotte, judge on The Voice Kids talent-contest-cum-reality-TV-show, and one half of the Madden Brothers, is sitting at a table at Icebergs in Bondi, talking about the joys of family life. “There’s something awesome about making breakfast for your kids, right?” says Benji. “They wake up smiling, don’t they?”
“They wake up optimistic,” agrees his twin brother, Joel, another judge on The Voice Kids, and its parent show The Voice, as well as the remaining 50 per cent of the Madden Brothers and the other co-founder of Good Charlotte. “Once a week, when I’m home, I do breakfast-for-dinner,” he says. “And the kids love it. Maybe they’ll get to an age where it’s not funny anymore but, at four and six, they think I’m the funniest guy on the planet.”
“When you have an awesome home life,” says Benji, “it makes the world a much nicer place.”
I feel embarrassed. I knew Joel had a six-year-old daughter, Harlow, and a five-year-old son, Sparrow, with his wife, Nicole Richie, but I didn’t realise Benji had children.
“I don’t have children,” he says.
Benji, I realise, is actually telling me about the joys of Joel’s family life.
“I didn’t know what happiness was until I had a wife and two kids,” says Joel.
“Now you do,” says Benji.
“It never makes sense until you actually live it yourself,” says Joel.
But Benji can feel it because Joel is living it, and there is not the same divide between the Maddens as exists among other people.
“These days it seems we look more alike than ever,” says Joel.
“We wear a lot of black,” says Benji. “A leather jacket, a black T-shirt and black jeans – and there’s really not too many different ways you can wear that. And we both have beards.”
The Maddens are sitting together by the bistro window. For ease of identification, they are modelling their black caps in slightly different ways: Joel’s brim points forward while Benji’s faces backwards – although Benji’s is to turn a full 360 degrees during the course of our lunch.
At 35 years old, the Maddens don’t mind merging into one. “Unless one of us does something drastic – and we don’t feel the need to do something drastic to look different,” says Benji.
Something drastic like, for instance, tattooing his face and neck?
“Good point,” says Benji, who has the Virgin Mary on one side of his neck, Jesus on the other, a design across his throat, and tattooed stars sliding from each of his eyes. “Checkmate.”
Now I feel embarrassed, because I wasn’t trying to catch him out – or maybe I was, but not nastily – and Benji feels he’s been deliberately tripped up many times before.
There are obvious differences between the Maddens. Benji is thicker set, a little heavier. He talks less and looks away more. Joel seems a lighter person in every way. Benji is three times more likely to use the word “awesome”; Joel is twice as prone to describing things as “interesting”. But both have a desperate sincerity about them, and an exasperation with being poorly understood. They want to say things that are true, but things that won’t hurt them.
Joel says the Maddens “came from this little place that’s not even on the map”.
How does anyone find it, then?
(Damn! There I go again!)
“It’s an area,” says Benji.
“A general area,” agrees Joel.
“You can point it out,” says Benji.
“You can point it out,” agrees Joel, “but there’s no name there.”
The Maddens don’t usually finish each other’s sentences so much as repeat the last words the other brother said and then expand upon them. It’s more like singing a round than call-and-response.
“The town they reference whenever they talk about us is actually about 20 minutes’ away from where we grew up,” says Joel.
The Maddens went to school in La Plata, Maryland, but their home was surrounded by farms, and their nearest neighbours were down the road and through the woods. They were raised without cable TV in a time before the internet, a little cut off from the outside world. Their parents were “pretty religious”, says Benji.
“‘Pretty’ religious,” agrees Joel. “That’s the word for it.”
“Evangelical,” they say, together, literally in harmony, like voices in a chapel.
They were raised as Pentecostalists in the Church of God. “When we were kids we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music,” says Benji. “We weren’t allowed to listen to contemporary music. We were only allowed to listen to gospel, church music or old records.”
The Maddens have an older brother, Josh, and a younger sister, Sarah. Their father was an alcoholic who left the family on Christmas Eve, 1995, when the twins were 16. “Our parents loved music, they loved singing,” says Joel. But “the family split up and there was a lot less time spent thinking about anything recreationally”. Their mother suffered from lupus and was frequently in hospital, and the boys had to work day jobs to keep money coming in to the home.
“We didn’t have anyone guiding us,” says Joel. “I mean, who taught you how to shave? People get etiquette lessons from older adults: they go, ‘Hey, this is how you do this …’”
“‘This is how you get an apartment or how you get a job’ – the shit we’ll teach our kids,” says Benji. “Even just how to eat properly. Even flying on a plane: the first time we got on, when we were 19, I remember how scary it was, and how new it was, and you’re trying to play it cool in front of everyone. I think that’s probably why sometimes we can come off a little maybe broody or moody or stand-offish. There have been a lot of times in our life when we just didn’t know what the f… we were doing.”
“We steered each other through all that,” says Joel. “Our whole lives it felt like we were up against the ropes. It was me and him and we had to learn how to provide together. And then you enter the music business, which can be pretty ruthless …”
“Pretty brutal, man,” agrees Benji. “You don’t have anyone to ask, ‘Hey, am I doing this right?’
“And you’re coming from a small town,” says Joel, “you’re 20 years old, you put out your first record… And they tear you to shreds.”
The Maddens’ band, Good Charlotte, released its first album, Good Charlotte, in 2000. Joel was the singer, Benji played guitar. Good Charlotte made melodic, poppy kiddy-punk, music for angry children by youths who were barely more than children themselves. But if the band wasn’t taken seriously by grown-up music critics, at least the little girls (and boys) understood. Their second album, 2002’s The Young and the Hopeless, sold 4.9 million copies.
To date, the band has sold about 10 million albums worldwide, although Good Charlotte hasn’t put out a record since 2010. In early 2012, Joel became a judge on the Australian version of The Voice, in which the judges choose would-be stars to coach as singers and performers. The Voice is a kind of singing soap opera, and when someone signs up for it, they cease to exist in reality. To the public – and, particularly, the gossip magazines – they transform into cartoon characters, who are simultaneously revered and ridiculed, and couldn’t possibly be hurt.
There was always something cartoonish about the Maddens, with their tattoos, piercings and adolescent aggravation. When it turned out they were good-hearted, articulate guys, with a genuine hard-luck story, they were easily cast as loveable rogues. And their “private life” – a desperate misnomer – was a gift.
At 25, Joel had gone out with 16-year-old actor Hilary Duff, but left her in 2006 and took up with Nicole Richie, whom he married in 2010, after Harlow and Sparrow were born. Benji, meanwhile, has dated Sophie Monk from Bardot, Paris Hilton (of course), Holly Madison and Eliza Doolittle, and is now seeing Cameron Diaz. The weekly glossies adore the Maddens with a stalker’s frantic love.
A picture of Joel with his fellow Voice judge Kylie Minogue sparked the headline “Hands off My Hubby!” on a piece about Richie’s imagined reaction to the photograph (she’d “flown into a rage”, he’d promised to “whisk her away on a second honeymoon”), as recounted by an “exclusive insider”.
When Richie says her separation from Joel while he films The Voice in Sydney is difficult for the couple to deal with, her statement is, a little bafflingly, reported as “Nicole tells WHY I FORGAVE JOEL.” Another magazine prints a spread of paparazzi pictures of Benji in his boardies on a yacht with Diaz.
“We are in an age where nothing is private,” says Benji. “People feel entitled to know everything.”
“It’s one of the stranger things about our jobs when people ask questions about the kids,” says Joel. “Sometimes it throws you off.”
The Maddens believe journalists try to provoke them. “There are writers who you sit down with,” says Joel, “and it’s very confrontational and very hostile, in a very strange, uncomfortable way. Sometimes they’ve written the article and they just need some quotes to plug in, so they ask you the questions to manipulate quotes that they can use.”
“They can say anything,” says Benji, “as long as they have a person that can be a ‘source’. People are also like children. They want to know what the limits are. How much will he tell us? We’re going to look at as much as you’re going to show.”
“If you knew there was going to be a shark attack down there at some point today …” says Joel, looking out to the ocean.
“… you would watch,” says Benji.
The brothers enjoy old cars, making records and boxing. In 2010, Benji appeared in a celebrity boxing fight on a reality TV show, against a US TV personality called Riki Rachtman. Although it didn’t look much like boxing, it was definitely a fight – from Benji’s corner at least – as Benji repeatedly pummelled, pushed and pitched Rachtman to the canvas. There’s a film of the fight on YouTube.
“It’s kind of funny, right?” asks Benji.
It kind of is.
When it’s all over, Rachtman tells the crowd from the ring, “I’ve got to spend the rest of my life knowing I got f…ing wasted by the guy in Good Charlotte.”
Benji fought like he’d been in trouble before.
“When I was younger I used to have a little bit of an anger issue,” he says, “and I used to get into it when I was on tour in bars. It was kind of silly and, as you get older, you just go… uueergh. No. I don’t think I’ll ever be in another physical altercation as long as I live.”
The Maddens used to box together and are thinking about starting again but, “it’s very time consuming and kind of painful”, says Benji.
“I just like the training,” says Joel. “I like sparring, but I don’t want to fight anyone.”
Benji is the better fighter of the two, says Joel. “He’s got heavier hands.”
“I’ve got a good mind,” he says. “Especially since I’ve had kids, I don’t need to hit anything or anyone. I don’t have that spark that it really takes to fight anymore.” He turns to Benji. “But I like training with him, and I like watching him fight. He’s got a lot of spark.”
“I don’t like what fighting stirs up in me,” says Benji. “The anger thing.”
We all look out of the window at the surf.
Joel says he lives “on the edge of Bondi” while The Voice is filming, for three or four months of the year. “In Sydney I’m either working or I’m just laying low,” he says, “in and out, having coffee, doing nothing, really.”
In California, Benji has a home in the Canyon. “You don’t feel like you’re in LA,” he says. “You can’t see any houses around. You can’t see my house – it’s very tucked away. So when I get home and go through my gate, I might as well be in the mountains. Awesome.”
They both love Bondi and Icebergs. For lunch, they order us frittata, which is known to regulars but not actually on the menu.
The frittatas are very nice but not very large, and the Maddens become concerned I haven’t had enough to eat. Benji suggests I order the rib-eye while the Maddens have one more frittata. They both drink herbal tea with honey. It doesn’t feel very rock ‘n’ roll. My steak comes with a huge side order of fries. I offer the chips to the Maddens, but they seem to be on a frittata-only diet. Then Benji takes one of the fries, dips it in honey and drops it into his mouth.
“You never done that?” he asks. “It’s amazing. Try it.”
I do, and it is.
The Maddens advise me it only works with salty chips and they have to be shoestring fries – the thicker ones don’t take the honey properly.
“You’ll be doing that for years to come,” says Benji.
He might be right, although I haven’t done it since.
Benji seems to be getting bored. He’s polite, but he begins to cover his mouth with his hand, and pulls at his cheeks as if he’s trying to drag his face onto the other side of his head.
“If it was up to me,” he says, “I would never do any interviews. I wouldn’t have to be overly personable.”
“Every single interview we ever do,” says Joel, “he goes, ‘Why don’t you go and do it? You can do this one.’ And I always go, ‘No, we have to do it together. Because this is the group. This is the Madden Brothers.’”
That’s the reason they’re talking to me today: Joel and Benji have just released an album, Greetings from California, under the name the Madden Brothers. It’s not a Good Charlotte record, and it’s not music for children. It’s a poppy, energetic, adult rock set, jangling with references to the sounds of the 1960s. And they would love it to be taken seriously, but that’s going to be especially difficult in Australia where they’re now largely known as reality-TV stars, not musicians.
But they’d like to be edgy, contemporary, creative and dangerous. “Before The Voice,” says Joel, “a guy like me couldn’t necessarily be on network TV on a family program.”
Does Benji watch it? “When I can, I do, yes,” says Benji. “When I can, I really enjoy it. I like to see him. I think he’s really funny and really, um …”
“He doesn’t watch it,” says Joel.
“I’m Joel’s biggest fan, really,” insists Benji. “He’s such a great guy. It makes sense to me why everyone loves him so much …”
He pauses. There are limits to even a twin brother’s love. “I don’t really watch it,” he admits.
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND, 13 SEPTEMBER 2014