The millennial generation has seen tragedy in many ways, but the opioid crisis has become the biggest catalyst in inducing tragic events that it has seen so far. Through their nearly two-decade-long career, Good Charlotte has focused on depression, suicide, mental health, and many more heavy topics in their music. Their latest album, however, was directly influenced by the ever-growing opioid crisis and the lives that it has claimed – specifically the recent death of rapper Lil Peep. The band released their latest album, Generation Rx, in early September via MDDN/BMG, produced by vocalist/guitarist Benji Madden and Zakk Cervini, and has taken the band back to the passionate roots that connected them with their loyal fanbase in their formative years.
In our new interview, guitarist Billy Martin talks about a generation lost in the opioid crisis and struggling with mental health issues, seeing a new generation struggle with the same issues they did in their early years, tragic celebrity deaths and how they affected so many lives, and much more.
You embarked on your month and a half long North American tour in support of Generation Rx just over a week ago. How has the turnout been so far? Has it been any different playing this album live in comparison to your others?
Yeah, I mean it’s always different when you put a new record out because you get to play new songs and that adds a different atmosphere to the whole show. We get excited as a band to go out and play new songs because some of these songs we’ve been playing for 18 years or something like that. When you bring new life into the set it makes everything more exciting I think, for the fans and the band, for everybody. It’s a bit of a different feel, but I think we’re four or five shows in and it’s been great so far. The turnout has been good, we’ve been doing the new stuff, so it’s been good.
This album touches on really heavy stuff. Has that been difficult at all, or any different? It’s always been heavy themes with you guys, but different.
Yeah, that was definitely a point with this record. We had kind of gotten away from that in the last two records. I think that was part of the foundation that made Good Charlotte unique and really connected us with our fans early on. People who were in dark places in life could find some hope in [our] music and we just happened to bea band that was special and helpful to a lot of people.
I think the more success you have, the better life gets and you’ve got a little less to complain about. I think a lot of the music was a little more light-hearted. We’ve always had that sort of light-hearted side to us as well, but [there were] a lot less deep personal tracks [because of that]. I’m the guitar player and I don’t write the lyrics, so I can only speak for Benji and Joel, but we’ve been a band together for almost two decades so I’m pretty confident in where their head space is and we do talk a lot in the studio. It was really like we’ve got to dig down deep on this record and do that thing that made Good Charlotte important to so many people’s lives back when we were first starting out and make sure we connect with that again on this record. That was definitely all over the record, you can hear it.
We do meet and greets every day at the shows. Sit in a room from about anywhere from 35 to 85 of our fans and we do an acoustic set and a Q&A with them and so many of the questions are about the lyrical content and how happy and connected the fans feel to us going back to this. So it’s definitely heavy, we definitely feel that vibe, but I think it’s what everybody wanted and I think it was the right move.
You’ve been asked if you’re worried about losing the old school fans that are attached to your pop-infused sound because the new album doesn’t have songs like that, but it actually sounds a lot more like your earliest releases, before songs like “I Just Want To Live” and “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”. These songs resonate with the feelings that went into The Young & the Hopeless and “Hold On”, but are coming from a place of seeing it from the other side of the looking-glass. What is it like seeing a new generation go through the helpless, hopeless feelings that you poured into so many of your songs?
It’s definitely a trip. I think when you’re a band you just make music that you want to be excited about and be honest about. You don’t really know how the reaction is going to go. Back when we wrote some of those early songs I don’t think we realized what an impact it would have on so many young kids. You definitely start to feel a little bit of responsibility with your fan base. We would get letters and stories from fans all the time and it gets heavy. Every day… there’s not a day that goes by on tour that someone [doesn’t come] up to us and say “hey, I just want to thank you guys, you saved my life.” That’s a crazy thing to think. We were just kids making music and we didn’t realize that we were trying to do that.
Obviously it’s an honour and it’s nice to think that we were able to do that. But at the same time they had to make that decision on their own. I’m glad that we could be a catalyst or an inspiration to someone out there, but our music didn’t save their lives, they had to have that inside of them to know that they wanted to make that decision. So it’s cool, it’s nice to know that we’re like that, but like I said it’s heavy and it’s something that weighs on the band. We feel like it was our responsibility to come around with the first generation that had grown up with us and [now] the next generation, because there’s a lot of young kids at our shows. There are so many kids who are 15, 16, 17, and they’re like “well I got into your band because one of my favourite bands said that they were into your music, or my older sibling listened to Good Charlotte, or an older friend or something.” It’s cool to see this whole new generation come up and there’s pain there too. There’s always going to be pain in that age group.
Teenagers are in an awkward place in life and they’re not sure where they’re going to find their place. That’s always going to be something that’s there, so like you said, it’s cool to see what we did before and what we’re able to do again. It’s definitely a mixed bag in the audience. You see people from 16 to like 40 pretty evenly split all across the board and that’s pretty cool. I think a lot of bands grow with their fans and it’s rare that you can get the next generation also to start to grow up listening to you and somehow that’s happening for us and we’re very thankful for that.
It’s interesting to see it come back full circle too because you guys veered off a bit and you do notice that in the crowd, there’s still young kids coming out. Not even necessarily because of their parents, but people are discovering it still. You changed the sound a little bit, but you came back to it and that’s probably going to bring a whole new group of them in as well, again.
I hope so, I do. I think honesty was the key to this record. Let’s make the record that we want to make. We were always on different major labels and when you’re on labels you feel pressure and the label wants you to recreate whatever you did because they already knew how to market it the first time and they’re like just do that same thing again because we already know how to do it. But no band wants to make the same record over and over. That’s boring for the band and boring for the fans. So we had moments where we felt like we’ve gotta write radio songs, we’ve gotta write hits on this record, but with this record… our last record Youth Authority was completely independent, we had no label, we did everything ourselves. That was a stepping stone to this record. That was us getting back together after not playing music together for almost five years. Just getting into [it]. We made that record really fast, it was an easy record to make. That was just to get the ball rolling again and this time around it was the first real record we made in a long time where we really connected in the studio. We ended up signing a deal after the record was made with BMG, to help with distribution and help make the record bigger, but there was no label in the studio with us or anyone influencing the way the record would sound. We finished the record completely, we mixed and mastered and then we started to go to labels to try to find a deal. So again, that was cool that we really gotta do what we wanted to do and I think you can hear that on the record.
Yeah, definitely. If you keep making the music for other people and you stop making it for yourselves, whether it’s the fans or the label in the studio or whoever, if you don’t keep making it for yourselves you lose touch. You see that with a lot of bands, they try to put out stuff for what’s wanted and not what they want and they lose touch with the sound that made them who they are.
Absolutely, some bands make the same record over and over and over and I fall off. Like man, I’ve heard this record three times, I’m not really interested anymore, and that’s no fun.
Like you said, you don’t write the lyrics, but you’re in the studio and you guys talk about it… the single, “Prayers”, is very lyrically intriguing and the video and subtitles even, draw you in as much as the song content. The chorus really stands out as well, specifically, “Prayers they don’t mean a thing at all.” Do you know if that’s a nod to the fact that we use our own strengths to make the best out of the hand that we are dealt? What is the meaning behind that song?
Yeah, you know, I think the funny thing is that politics and religion and all that stuff, it’s never really been a major part of Good Charlotte, but it’s always been… there’s been little instances of it here and there in the lyrics. Each one of us come from different religious backgrounds. Me personally, I’m not very religious, it’s never been a part of my life. Benji and Joel when I first met them I think were a little bit more religious and I think as they’ve grown up and been influenced by different things, I think their view of it has changed a bit. Especially on this one, it was sort of like, Good Charlotte is a socially conscious band, we’re into putting those positive messages out without preaching it.
“Prayers” is really just about… you can say that I’m going to say a prayer to fix something but that doesn’t really do anything, that just helps you clear your own conscience or something, but that doesn’t affect anything. You hit the nail on the head with what it’s about, it’s about you finding what you can do in the world to make it a better place versus just talking about it.
Which is similar kind of to what you said about the music, it does help, but the person has to have it inside of them to be able to actually make that go forward. It can help you so much as to get through the day, but you have to be the one to make tomorrow work.
The budget for the video was donated to RAICES. What made you chose that organization and what does aiding in their advancement mean to you guys?
I don’t live in California, but the rest of the guys live in California, so the story and the vibe of the video is something that you see in real life. It’s something that friends have dealt with and it happens all over the place. RAICES was an organization that some people in our management knew and they brought it to us and said hey this would be really cool. Jake, who has directed a lot of our videos, was totally down. He’s like let’s just… I’ll do the video for you guys and we’ll put the funds towards that instead. Again, you can say something, but doing something is a lot more, so it’s really cool to not only say something in the video, but physically do something as well. Donate to an organization that we thought was doing something and as well, spread the message in the video. Had we put the video out and not done something like that, it would have almost been hypocritical to what we were saying, so it was like let’s do the full package here and make sure this video has maximumimpact.
The video for “Actual Pain” is extremely heavy, especially for anyone who has seen a parent struggle with mental health issues or loss and in turn their child suffered from their inability to cope in a healthy way. There is not really a transition from the happy mother hugging her child to the shell lying in bed unable to be the mother that she just was. What was the reason behind having the video progress that way? Is that a story from personal experience?
I’m not as good at opening up personally as the other guys are, but some of us have had great families and childhoods, some of us have had not so good experiences with family. Family is a hard thing, everybody gets a family and that’s your family. Sometimes it works out great, sometimes people don’t necessarily get along. There’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in the lyrics and the videos. I think sometimes it’s obviously magnetized to be a little on a bigger scale than what you’re dealing with. The story there, Jake, the same guy that directed Prayers directed that and that’s something he put together for us. It definitely resonated with everybody and we felt that that was perfect. It’s actually the director’s son, who is in the video and he’s in a couple videos with us. It was perfect, Jake really understands the band, we work with him all the time and he knows where we’re coming from, so that’s where the concept came from on that one.
There are many themes focused on in this album and while the title centres around the opioid and prescription drug crisis that this generation is being completely overrun by, there are other themes like the immigration crisis. What were some of the other themes that went into this album while writing and recording that might not be as obvious?
I definitely think “Actual Pain”, we put out first purely because pain is a big part of this record. People suffer [with] depression, mental health, [and] all [of] that is something real that was sort of taboo and people felt like they couldn’t talk about it for years. If you were depressed or you suffered from something, people would just be like I can’t deal with that person, they’re messed up, or something like that. I think there are more people out there in the world that suffer with stuff than people who don’t and that’s the truth. We’ve all suffered with that stuff. I think if you’re a musician or you’re an artist, you are an emotional person and you love doing that stuff because you’ve gotta get out of your head somehow. I know we all struggle with a ton of stuff in different ways and we have different ways that we like to cope with it, music definitely being one way, and I think talking about it is a good thing because there are so many young people out there who do get inside of their head.
You go to those dark places and you think oh I’m the only person who thinks like this and everybody else’s life is so perfect, why is my life not like this, but that’s not the truth. Even because you’re a successful rock star and you make money doing what that you love, everybody thinks life is good, that’s not the truth. Everybody deals with real life issues. We’re all dads, we have kids, there’s lots of real life struggles that go along with that. It’s depressing to pack up and leave and say hey guys I’ll see you in six weeks. You miss a whole bunch of stuff. I would be lying if I [said] that there wasn’t times where I was on tour in my head thinking I’m sad right now. I’m doing what I love but I’m not happy right now, how do I cope with that? You see a lot of musicians turn to drugs and the next thing you know they’re not here anymore. That mental health and depression goes along with the opioid crisis. It’s all tied together and it’s a real thing that a lot of people, young and old, struggle with in this world and you see a ton of it in the music industry.
We were really big fans of Lil Peep, we were actually working on doing a tour together with him right before he died. We did a cover of one of his songs to show some love for him. When we did that song, it was very dark and it was very sombre, on purpose. That really set the tone for this record. After we finished that cover song, we were like man we need to do a whole record that sounds like this. That’s why we touched on the opioid crisis with the name of the record, because that cover really set off us wanting to make this record.
I was wondering about that also, the death of Lil Peep hit you guys pretty hard because he was a fan of the band, had become a friend, and had a following very similar to the one that Good Charlotte had when you were coming up in the industry. What was it like processing getting that news, getting the request from the family to do something special for him, and then choosing to work on a cover of ‘Awful Things’, which ended up inspiring this album?
It’s obviously sad. It’s crazy when stuff like that happens. We’ve lost a lot of friends, like Jimmy from Avenged Sevenfold, he was one of our really close friends. That was a band that we spent a lot of time with. I remember when that happened. It just comes out of nowhere, you wake up one morning and get a phone call and it’s like hey so and so is not here anymore, they died. That’s always crazy, stuff like that is hard to process. It doesn’t ever really seem real when you hear about stuff like that. The same thing happened, Benji and Joel hit us up right away and were like “yo I’m sure you guys heard about Peep, we want to do a cover song.” We did the song regardless and then we went to his family and said hey, we did this and she was really touched. She said I want to play this at his funeral, so we went and filmed a live version of it so that they could play it at his funeral. It’s cool to be able to do stuff like that, but at some point you’re like, that’s all you can do. He’s never going to know. After the fact, it seems hard to do stuff like that, but that’s life and that’s reality. You just gotta do what you gotta do to help cope, process, and I think it also helps the fans to see the outpouring of respect from peers and other people in the industry give love to someone who lots of people look up to.
Like you said, you get that phone call all the time, it’s not an isolated event, there have been so many deaths either intentional, or induced by drugs. What was it like for you guys finding out about the passing of Chester Bennington, someone who was coming up around the same time as you with many of the same fans as you? Moreover, what impact do you think it has on the fans when an artist that helped so many people come back from suicidal thoughts takes their own life?
I mean Chester was a big one, for sure. We spent a lot of time with Linkin Park, it was one of my favourite bands. I was a fan, I had a friend in high school who got me onto Linkin Park’s demos before they were even signed, back when they were called Hybrid Theory, so I’ve been a Linkin Park fan for a long time. I remember a really cool experience that I had hanging out with Chester in Thailand a long time ago, we were over there when Linkin Park was over there and the guys wanted to go out and explore the city and I remember being really tired so I was like I’m just going to stay back at the hotel and Chester was like yeah me too. So he and I sat down in the lobby of the hotel and we sat there for a couple of hours just talking about stuff. That was the first time I really bro’d down and had a conversation with him and it really got me to think, we’re all just regular people who got lucky doing music.
I had always looked up to Chester, like he’s the coolest front man, he’s got the best voice, he’s the ultimate rock star of our era. He was just this regular dude that was like yeah I just sit around and I go to the beach sometimes and my life is really quiet. I’m thinking man that’s crazy. I go back to that moment and I think about that often. I have two sons, my oldest who is almost 10, Linkin Park is his favourite band. He was really getting into their music and he had all of the Linkin Park records on his iPad and I would tell him that whenever LinkinPark comes to town, we’ll go to the show and check it out. I remember getting that news and being like oh man I have to tell my son that his favourite singer died and he’s not going to be able to see the concert anymore. It was weird because I had a different connection with Linkin Park then because I was like how’s my nine-year old going to handle that. Do I tell him how he died and what happened? Because it’s real, it’s the truth. So that was really crazy too.
That was one of the biggest things in the last couple of years that made you think, man, Chester’s family and his band. I [would] think, what if one of the guys from my band did that and all of a sudden, your band is not your band anymore and it will never be the same band again. Everything changes. It’s sad to think that someone who you would assume is surrounded with so much love between his band and his family and his friends. Obviously, he was not happy and obviously he was hurting. So many people, had they known, would’ve done whatever they could have to get in there and help make sure that Chester was still here, but if you don’t know then you can’t do anything about it. I think that’s a big part of how important it is to talk about it these days.
I think a lot about that too, because growing up of course, that’s our generation, we all grew up on that music and Linkin Park was a huge catalyst for getting through anything while you were growing up. They spoke about heavy issues and they helped so many people come back from suicidal thoughts. I think a lot about how people look at a situation like that, where like you said, a guy that at first glanceyou think he’s got the family, he’s got the friends, he’s got the band, he’s got the money, he’s got everything. But that never goes away, you’re still always in your own head and I wonder how that impacts fans that took that as there’s hope and then they see him take his own life and think maybe there’s not.
Absolutely. I wonder did he think about that stuff before it happened? That stuff has to weigh on him too, thinking my decisions are going to affect so many other people. You would think that would sway you the other way, but that only just puts more weight on your shoulders and more pressure and drives you even deeper into your own head. It’s crazy the way the mind works like that, it’s kind of sad, it really is.
Very. I think when you have so many people watching you too, it’s a double-edged sword. A lot of the fans, I think he struggled a lot with them really wanting the old music and not wanting to accept their change and their growth, that they were doing something they were happy with and that they had grown. Everybody wanted Hybrid Theory or Meteora and when they played at Rockfest, I saw him do a cut throat thing where people were screaming for the old songs and he looked at Mike and said no, we’re doing the set list. This is our show, not theirs.
That’s the thing, we deal with that all the time. We only play one song from our first record and so many fans are like can you just play the whole first album? You think man I was a baby when that record came out, I don’t connect to that like I did back then. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, I think nostalgia is the most powerful drug there is. Everyone wants to feel that same feeling that they felt at another point in their lives [and] a song can help it, but there are so many different factors in your life that made that moment special. Fans get caught up in trying to relive that moment where they first heard a band and they first heard their music or a certain song and I think all bands struggle with trying to find that balance of trying to keep the older fans happy, but making new music that you’re proud of and feeling honest with it. I know Linkin Park definitely struggled with that when they put out their last record, there was a lot of critics and fans that were not into it. I don’t know, I thought it was awesome, I love every record they’ve ever made. I think from a musician’s standpoint, watching the evolution of a band who can continue to change their sound but keep making great songs, it’s the hardest thing to do. It’s a shame that people can’t just accept that, but that’s the way the music industry works and the way it is.
I think they tend to not really look at the whole picture because if you look at the lyrics, especially One More Light, they’re still touching on the same topics, it’s just being presented in a different way. They had grown up, you’re not a teenager, you don’t have that angst anymore.
Exactly. He didn’t want to scream anymore, he’s got a beautiful voice, just let him sing. That’s really where I think they were.
As tragic of course as it was, it really started that worldwide conversation, which is a huge step forward for humanity, not only him of course, but it’s not stopping the suicide rate from growing. There is such a broad spectrum of different internal and external struggles. What role do you think music plays in that struggle, on both sides – the listener and the creators?
Like I said before, I think the person has to want to do it to make a difference, but music pulls on emotions. A happy song can make you happy, a sad song can make you sad, just the opposite – it can flip your emotions, just by hearing a song. A song can help you remember a moment from your childhood, a song can inspire you to do something in your future. Music is very powerful like that. It’s definitely done that for me, since I was a kid and I feel that way now. I love music the same way as I did when I was a kid. It plays a role [and] I think musicians have a responsibility to send a positive message like that, even if it’s… there’s so many songs about doing drugs and being sad and all of that.
People think that music is just encouraging kids to do drugs and be sad, and yes I do see that side of it, but I also see that there’s a relatability to it. Hey wait a second, this guy is out there masking his pain with drugs because he’s sad, yet he’s this famous rapper or singer or rockstar or whatever. So I think there’s a fine line between honest lyrics that make people think I’m not alone out here, this person is in the same place I am [and] then there’s also the other side where they’re like I want to be like that so I’m going to do the stuff that he’s singing about and that winds people up in things that they weren’t into before. It’s a really fine line, but that’s not the musicians fault.
You can’t control who listens to your music and certain types of people take lyrics and a lifestyle and use it to better their life and there’s some people who take it the wrong way and it’s harmful to their life. That’s the fine line and it’s hard for musicians to find that balance, but I just always go back to honesty. Make honest music and you gotta hope that it responds to people for the right reasons.
I think that because of that responsibility that is put on all musicians, people tend to stop looking at the fact that they’re also struggling with the same thing and that’s the place that it’s coming from, helping them cope, it’s an outlet just as much as putting your headphones in. It’s just an audio jack instead of a guitar.
Exactly. The band needs it as much as the fans do.
A lot of your earlier songs put focus on trust fund babies not understanding what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone who struggled in a different way, which is kind of a young, naive perception of their lives being perfect because they were afforded things that others have to work so hard for. What was it like for you, coming to the realization that even some of the people living the rich and the famous lifestyle deal with a lot of the same trials and tribulations that everyone else does maybe just in a different way?
That’s a big part of the song. I think a lot of people misheard those lyrics. So often, people would be like oh you guys are rich and famous now, don’t you feel stupid? We’re always thinking oh you must have not heard the lyrics. The lyrics to the song were saying we aren’t rich and famous, we came from middle class families who didn’t have anything and we would love to take that. If you’re going to be rich and famous and not appreciate what you have, then we’ll take it. We’re more than happy to take that lifestyle because we’ll work and do whatever it takes to get there. That was what we were looking for.
That record or that song will always be a big part of Good Charlotte, because that was the first [huge] song we had and people look back at it and misconstrue that lyric and misperceive it and there’s a lot of misperception of what people thought about us based off of that song because they weren’t really paying attention to what it was saying. But sure, you come to start being around the rich and famous after being middle class kids, you’re sharing stages or you’re at places in Hollywood with these people and you start to see that we’re all the same. Everybody is just a human being trying to find their place in the world, trying to figure out where they’re supposed to be and it’s definitely eye-opening to spend time in Hollywood and seeing how it affects the people who you don’t think are affected like that. Everybody is. Everybody gets affected by real life situations, you can’t avoid that.
Yeah, people didn’t really look at it in the same way, but it really does showcase the fact that it doesn’t matter whether you have money or anything, you’re still the same person. People forget that just because there’s a spotlight on someone, that when that spotlight is off they’re still a human being, they’re still having their own problems. You can’t see it because you don’t know them, you just think you know them because you see them all the time, but that’s not really knowing someone.
You all have families now and are parents. If you were sat down with a worried parent who hadn’t been through anything that would give them the necessary tools or understanding of what their child is struggling with, what advice would you give them? How would you approach helping even one of your children going through a mental crisis?
That’s a really hard thing, being a parent. I think it’s helped inspire the band in life because you look at some of the things we know our kids will go through. You think how can I protect them and shelter them? That’s definitely a new era for the band. As far as that goes, talk to your kid, find out what they’re into, find out who they’re hanging out with, make sure you’re influencing them positively, make sure you’re being a good role model for them and that’s the best you can do as a parent.
I like to finish off my interviews by asking for a funny quirk or character trait or something of that sort from the person I’m speaking to because I feel like that gets lost in a lot of interviews. Is there anything that you can think of that would surprise people about you, that you haven’t really talked about publicly before?
[laughs] That’s a good one. You should’ve asked me that first, I could’ve thought about it the whole interview. Apparently I’m sarcastic. I feel like that kind of stuff does get lost in tone a lot. There’s often times with my friends and family and the band and they’re always asking me like are you being serious with me right now? Most of the time I am being serious, so I think a lot of that does get lost in interviews and online in social media and stuff like that. Not that that’s a weird characteristic or quirk, but I definitely know that’s something I’ve dealt with over the years. [laughs] Me thinking I’m being serious, or I’m making a joke about something and people will be like I can’t tell if you’re making a joke or being serious right now. Hopefully some of that comes across in tone for this interview, because it was definitely a serious interview, but I don’t mind talking serious.
This interview can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.