It's not often that a young band of Cure/Clash/Beastie Boys-loving barely-twenty-somethings comes tumbling out of virtually nowhere, well, Annapolis, Maryland to be exact, to drop the year's most fiercely melodic and garage-gritty debut album. Good Charlotte is a brash young quintet whose killer first single, a hitbound anthem of high school angst called "The Little Things," announces the arrival of a unique, genre-jumping rock band.
Yet until just four years ago, 21 year-old lead guitarist Benji had never strummed a single chord and front man Joel, his identical twin brother, had never sung a note. Toss in their equally precocious high school buddies, drummer, Aaron, and bass player, Paul, plus recent recruit Billy on guitar. This is Good Charlotte: a hard-driving, fun-loving band that has rocked Washington, DC radio station WHFS' famed HFStival for the last two years and built a devout following in the Baltimore metro area.
Their self-titled Epic debut album is a triumphant, raucous celebration of high school kids who found a way through music to talk back to their tormentors and survive troubled times.
Good Charlotte, The Album, is a collection of explosive modern-rock gems with deeply personal and often very funny lyrics. There are powerfully crafted declarations like the kick-ass "Motivation Proclamation" ("Motivate me/I wanna get myself out of this bed/Captivate me/I want good thoughts inside of my head"); and songs with haunted, autobiographical overtones, like "The Little Things."
"Me and Benji have always written from personal experiences," says lead singer Joel. "You've got my brother on guitar, he's got that punk-rock aggression, and you've got me singing." He gestures to his heart: "Everything comes from here."
Most of Good Charlotte's songs resonate with a heartfelt but humorous sense of personal triumph over some pretty bad luck. Others, like "WaldorfWorldwide," take a socio-political slant: "All I wanna do is kick the welfare/All I wanna do is get my share/I don't wanna run for President/I just want an honest way to pay my rent."
"We want kids to come to our shows and forget about everything," says Joel. "Whatever their problems are, we want them to be focused on the energy, have a good time, and then go back to their normal life tomorrow."
The brothers, who hail from Waldorf, Maryland, were avid baseball players throughout their early teens and had never contemplated playing music until one extraordinary day. During what Joel calls "a weird time" when they were 16 and dealing with some serious family problems, the brothers attended their first rock concert, the Beastie Boys' "Ill Communication" tour, and felt the earth move beneath their feet.
"It changed our lives totally," says Joel. "We were both freaked out and knew this is what we were going to do."
Benji went home and dug a cheap guitar out of the closet, one that the brothers had never touched before. Their good friend and future bassist Paul taught Benji a few basic chords, igniting a lifetime obsession. Another high school buddy, Aaron, quit the football team to play drums and supply studio space in his house.
"We had our first band practice maybe two weeks after I started playing guitar," laughs Benji. "I knew three chords: D, G and A! I became fascinated with all of the late-Seventies punks. There was something about those old recordings, those seven-inch singles...There's no music that sounds like that today because of the raw quality."
"I love the chaotic, wild way the guitars sound on 'The Little Things,'" he enthuses. "And some of the sound on our song 'East Coast Anthem' comes straight out of the Clash handbook."
By their senior year of high school, the brothers' musical obsession had become all encompassing. "We totally withdrew from everything else," says Joel. "Our whole life was this band. Every weekend we had a show. We were totally blind, all we could see was the big picture: We were going to make it."
In 1998, the twins along with Paul and Aaron moved to Annapolis to join its thriving music scene. Skipping college, Joel and Benji decided, was a risk they had to take. Economically, they barely survived, working a series of low-paying jobs as stock boys, waiters, and ("our best job") shampoo boys at a beauty salon.
"We made a name for ourselves in that town because we played out everywhere," says Joel. "Every party, every bar. People knew us as the twins that play."
Joel befriended Billy when the guitarist showed up to see the twins play an acoustic set at a local hangout. "I thought, wow, these are really good songs," he recalls. "There were a lot of local bands doing their own things, but these songs...every one of them could have been a radio hit."
Billy was playing with his band Overflow at the time. After the twins got kicked out of their apartment, they moved into Billy's house. One day, Good Charlotte coaxed him into joining in an impromptu practice. A week later, Billy played his first show with the band.
Things moved fast for the young group. Unsigned Good Charlotte played with Blink 182 and Bad Religion, and opened for Lit on a sold-out East Coast tour. They found local champions in the dee-jays at their beloved radio station WHFS, who began hiring Good Charlotte to play station gigs and finally asked them to play the local stage at the HFStival. In the spring of 2000, Good Charlotte made a bold career leap to HFStival's second stage, sharing the bill with Eve 6 and Nine Days. Good Charlotte played charity gigs with equal fervor, ranging from benefits for the Annapolis Rape Center to the Leukemia Foundation.
A demo of "The Little Things" made its way to Philadelphia modern rock station WPLY (Y100) and broke a record on the station's show of dueling songs. "For fifteen nights we won 'til they had to retire us," says Joel. The buzz around Good Charlotte was deafening. After being courted by a variety of labels, they finally signed with Epic Records this year.
Producer Don Gilmore (Lit, Eve 6) was recruited to guide the quintet through their debut album. "What drew me to the band the most was their personality," says Gilmore. "There's a lot of pop-punk rock bands that have gotten record deals, but these guys are doing something really different."
Benji looks around the New York studio where Good Charlotte is recording. A sheet of recorded tracks hangs on the wall with titles like "I Want To Stop," "Complicated," and the tentatively-titled, still-developing "Thank You Note to Mom."
"Sometimes it doesn't feel real," he says quietly, running his hand through his shock of pink hair. "Then I realize that it is, like when I'm walking home from the studio to the subway at night and I realize that we're in New York making a record."
"We've been doing this for four years, and there were all those times when we were crammed into a car, driving three hours home from a gig and we hadn't even made enough money to pay for gas. It's thinking of those times that it really hits you."
Benji pauses, shakes his head and smiles, "We daydreamed all this stuff and now it's all happening."