When he's not producing your favorite records by the Used, Good Charlotte, 5 Seconds of Summer, All Time Low and Ashlee Simpson (just to name a few), John Feldmann fronts Goldfinger, the now-legendary Southern California ska punk band. If you're a breathing human of a certain age, chances are you've heard "Superman" or their cover of "99 Red Balloons" many times over the years. These are the kind of tunes that stick with you, politically-charged punk songs with strong pop structure.
We sat down with Feldy (as he's lovingly known) to talk Amnesia Rockfest, the music industry, the future and past of Goldfinger. What's next? Read on.
What'd you think of Amnesia Rockfest?
It was great! We just got back from the U.K. doing headlining shows that were probably in the 400, 500-person range and then we did Slam Dunk Festival which is closer to 5,000 to 8,000. There were probably 50,000 people when we played [Amnesia 2015]; it's much easier to play in front [of that many people]. When it's a smaller club show, I feel like the storytelling has to be impeccable. You can't really flounder around. In some ways, smaller shows are like having a conversation—you and me talking—there's an easier interaction.
Amnesia was in Quebec, a francophone region of Canada. When you play for an audience where English isn't the primary language, do you perform differently?
Typically I'll learn something like three phrases. I'll learn "what's up," "thank you," "hello" "motherfucker" and "our drummer has a small dick." Those are the five things I'll learn in every language whether it's Russian or Spanish or French. I think I pulled off maybe two or three of them at the show. I think, overall, the people who watch a Goldfinger show, I would guess at least 70 percent of them are going to have English as a second language. It's interesting, growing up in America, there's no mandatory second language class. When you're in Switzerland or France or Italy or Norway or Germany, most people under the age of 40 speak in English. It's not like that [here]. Even in L.A., where 60% of the population is Hispanic, the people don't speak fluent Spanish. I didn't talk too much [at Amnesia]. Most of the in-between stuff as like signing notes, some Police-style "sing it back to me'" stuff, which can be done in any language.
If you don't have familial language, it seems like you have to really perform.
One of the last dates of our European tour was in Moscow and we've never played Russia before. It was a big show for us—something like 3,000 kids. We played our whole set, an hour set, and did our one-song encore. I went back to the dressing room and the entire crowd chanted for a second encore. They would not stop chanting for, like, 10 minutes straight. We eventually went back on and we played the entire set again—we played the same songs. The guitar player we had only knew the set so we couldn't really go into B-sides. No one gave a shit. By the time we were on for the second set I realized no one could understand anything I was saying. I don't speak Russian. I learned like three catchphrases. They just wanted to hear music. They were stoked an American band was in Russia playing punk music.
How regularly does Goldfinger tour?
We played one show in 2014 and maybe two months in 2013 and this year we'll probably end up doing two months...more than I planned for. I'll never really plan for Goldfinger shows and then I'll talk to the guys and they'll be like, "Hey, we're playing next week." I'll have no idea and I'll get on a plane. It's really easy because it's not like we're releasing new music. We'll probably release a song or two but I don't know if we're going to release albums anymore. We play the same songs we've always done. Maybe we'll do a tour where we play the entire first album, the entire second album, but it's specific music for specific people.
Your first record turns 20 next year. You'd be open to playing that one front to back?
We've talked about it, so it's been in discussion. It wouldn't be too difficult. It's probably our seminal record. It's the one that put us on the map.
“[Goldfinger] is specific music for specific people.”
What do you think of the full album show format in general? Most people either hate it or love knowing what songs they're going to hear in what order and all that.
I saw American Idiot. I saw that tour where [Green Day] did, start to finish, the album. I know bands do it. I haven't seen it a lot. I guess knowing what's coming next could be a bit boring and the encore is where you play the songs not on the album. It could be pretty great. Back then, in 1996, people listened to albums start to finish, start with song one and end with song 12. It could be a really cool nostalgic thing of being in your car and driving to school or work and having that album blasting.
Someone listening to a Taylor Swift, Lorde or 5 Seconds of Summer record this year or last year, 20 years from now would be a different experience, though those artists still sell albums. I think it would be harder for a single-driven artists who has one hit per album to do it. That would be much harder to tour on.
You said you wouldn't do another full album, and the last was Hello Destiny in 2008. Is there a reason for that? Did things just get too busy?
I don't know where the joy would be for me. It can't really be the money or the success or the possible tour that would come after. If I was to do a Goldfinger album it would really just be me writing all of it and producing all of it and then bringing in one or two of the guys to play on top of it and that just doesn't really feel like a Goldfinger record. I can't imagine seeing the studio with those dudes hashing out what I do every day with other artists. When other artists come in they trust me. And if I really take a stand for something, the artist typically listens to me, like, "Okay, John's got experience, John has had a lot of success as a producer so we're going to listen to him." With the band, you're just another dude in a band. For me to get shot down by a non-producer...the bottom line is that I think it would be so much adversity that I don't think it would be a joyful experience to make a new Goldfinger record.
But you're still open to releasing a single here or there?
Yeah! If I wrote a song and the guys liked it and were like "Hey, we'll come play on it," then I would. We released the "Am I Deaf?" song which is kind of my take of the music business in 2015. We did that song and that was really fun and I feel it was authentic to Goldfinger's history. I've got a couple in the back of my mind that would not be appropriate for another band...the lyrics are so specific to my life it would be something I'd give to a band I'm producing. Maybe over time we'll release an EP with a collection of songs we've been releasing one at time.
"Am I Deaf?" is a pretty critical song and I've always known you to be a pretty optimistic guy. What triggered the tune?
I can be hypocritical. A song like "Spokesman" was [written] during the first real boy band explosion when *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees happened...when MTV was still really a music channel, all those bands, they were basically...Everything was prepared and planned. All the choreography! There was no real spontaneity. They weren't singing about their own life experiences because, for the most part, the kids in those boys bands didn't have them. They'd never really been in love. They never really had massive failures or adversity. They're from other people's perspective. It was challenging for me to hear as my whole life, as a writer, all the music I listened to were written by the artist. Everything I grew up on from Black Flag to the Police, they wrote their own music.
“Time can soften the edges of my judgment of how artists should perform.”
It was the first generation, where I saw Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, artists and singers singing other people's songs on a mainstream level instead of doing covers. That really hadn't happened since the Elvis era or the Sinatra era 40 years prior. I wrote that song and now you fast forward from the Open Your Eyes Goldfinger album to what I do now with my life, where I do write songs for other people from my perspective. Time can soften the edges of my judgment of how artists should perform. At that point in my life I was making a living writing songs for other people. I was supporting my family doing it. I wrote "Am I Deaf?" from the perspective of, I mean, I wouldn't be talking to you about music if I wasn't passionately brought up in the age of artists speaking their truths, whether it's Bono about human rights or Jello Biafra about the San Francisco government. I got in the passion of music because of the passion of artists, where the era we're in now it's a song written by someone else, by a person who is writing the lyrics and I don't even know what the person looks like or what the person's belief system is. That, for me, is challenging. Music can survive as a business without anyone really caring about the people singing the music. They only really care about the melodies and words that are written, most of the time, by someone else. I wrote that song from the standpoint like, "Look, we can't continue as a business if this is that way it's going to be." There's going to have to be some form of connection between the person singing it and the lyrics they're singing.
There has to be some heart.
All of the artists I've ever had success with, we always write together. That's not to say I haven't had wins writing songs that are completely for someone else, but for the most part, the biggest successes I've had have been as a cowriter, with the artist talking about their own life experience and then me helping them connect what their thoughts are in a song.
If you were to write a new Goldfinger song in the not-too-distant future, would it come from a place of a certain political identity?
The stuff I've really connected with the most has really been through adversity or challenges in my life or watching something that I care about wither away and die, whether it's in animal rights or family or songwriting or bands or people I've worked with that have gone their separate ways. It's hard. I'm a dad. I'm a family man. It's hard to connect with a community—they say people stop listening to new music really at 33—it's the cutoff for most people, people have kids after 33. I'm not going to write about having kids and my relationship with them, I think, for the most part. Stylistically and historically Goldfinger has been young-sounding music. We're a punk rock band. I just don't feel authentic writing about the shit that I do every day, which is connect with my kids and trying to be a good dad. Typically when I write songs I'm connecting with what it's like to grow up—graduating high school and getting your first job and all those things. That's what I write about a lot with the bands that I write and work with.
Those are universal experiences.
Coming of age, for sure! I don't think it would serve me to write about my life experience and to exorcise those demons when my kids are great and my family is great it doesn't feel like connecting my life like that on a Goldfinger level. It just doesn't make sense to me right now.
For more, read our take on Goldfinger's Amnesia Rockfest 2015 set.