Before John Feldmann became the powerhouse pop-punk producer we know him to be now, working with everyone from Good Charlotte and The Used to All Time Low and 5 Seconds of Summer, he was fronting the iconic Goldfinger. The band experimented with punk rock and ska sounds while maintaining a strict pop sensibility—the very mentality that make everything Feldy touches turn to gold.
Goldfinger's self-titled debut turns 20 on Saturday, Feb. 27, so we had to give the guy a ring and ask him to reflect. Here's the surprising story behind the album, the tale of "Here In Your Bedroom," how Feldmann discovered Reel Big Fish and...some stuff about The Lion King. Seriously.
Fuse: Twenty years! That's pretty impressive stuff. Does it feel old?
Feldman: It's this bittersweet thing. I don't really have the desire to do a reunion, start-to-finish, first-album tour like a lot of bands are doing now. The Used are doing that right now with their first two records. I'm excited to talk about it, but there's a part of me that's like, "That's the past." I don't really want to capitalize or monetize on what it was. For fans of the album maybe there's a moment where we'd be able to do something like that but not this second. Twenty years feels like an appropriate time but I don't want to tour. If we were going to do it [as a one-off] I'd need to be so invested. It couldn't be half-assed. There's a bunch of songs we never played that I'd have to really learn and put effort into. If I'm going to do it, I have to right.
Do you ever revisit the album?
I always listen to it when we have to play shows. We did a month in England and Russia last summer. Whenever I go on tour I go back and listen to pretty much the whole catalog to remember how the parts go and remember what the words are. There's definitely an energy to that record. It sounds different to the contemporary albums. I listen to [Rancid's] ...And Out Come the Wolves and [Green Day's] Dookie and those record have proper producers. Rob Cavallo was a proper producer. [Blink-182 collaborator] Jerry Finn was a proper producer. I listen to our records that I produced and there's this unconfined energy that's very cool. I remember making the snare sound really bright, the snare drum. I remember the engineer saying, "You cannot do that. It's not going to sound good." I said, "It sounds good to me!" and I insisted that we leave it.
I swear to god, there are so many bands that come to me and say, "Man, I love the snare sound on that record." It's so wrong that it makes sense. The way we made that record was so backwards and unprofessional and it worked. I sang in an unauthentic voice. I came into my own as a singer by album three. The first record I was channeling somewhere between [The Clash's] Joe Strummer, [Rancid's] Tim Armstrong, some Exploited, some forced English accent but there's something very innocent about it. At the time I was selling shoes. I was this desperate kid trying hard not to have a life in retail.
“The way we made that record was so backwards and unprofessional and it worked.”
There is something really youthful about the album. Last time we spoke, you referred to the first record as your "seminal album," the one that really broke Goldfinger. It's rare that a band's first release becomes the one most beloved, the one with the big single.
That happened so organically. Timing is key with every artist. We're watching Twenty One Pilots right now and the world is there. Everyone is there. Everyone wants that sound. Everyone wants what [frontman] Tyler [Joseph] created. Everything he does makes sense, the videos, the artwork. We captured that. I was best friends with this guy Alan Forbes who was a tattoo artist. He drew this artwork for the cover of the album that was so timeless. That album with the big sex god alien chasing this little man, '50s style, also a description of my life at the time. It just feels very pop-punk. It feels very '90s. We weren't trying to do that, it just happened. "Mind's Eye" was the first song I wrote for Goldfinger, which ended up being the first song on the album. Thinking about the feedback that the album starts out with, we recorded that album on tape. It was all super experimental—"Well what if we have the feedback going, we hit record and start playing so the tape starts with nothing." And that created the sound that started the album.
I wrote "Anything" when I was 17 and that still fit when I made that album in '95 as a 26-year-old. Nine years later, it was a song that I had written that still made sense on the first Goldfinger record. A lot of moments happened that weren't thought about it. Sequencing was key then. "King for a Day," which is the reggae song on the album, needed to come earlier before getting into the pop-punkness of the record to make sense to the listener.
That's one of the most interesting things about the record: It's really dynamic. You have that reggae song, then there are moments that feel ska, moments that feel pop-punk. It's everywhere but it's cohesive and it doesn't feel dated. It feels '90s, but not like revisiting a relic of a past era.
There was an innocence to making that record that didn't exist moving forward because we really didn't have a leader. We didn't have an A&R person. We were signed to this weird label that was owned by Hans Zimmer. We recorded in this doctor's office–like studio. It was Hans Zimmer's studio. At the time, he was making Lion King 2. We'd get there and hear 30 female singers in a different room doing these African chants while I'm making this pop-punk record. I'd see Hans every day. We'd have these random conversations about coffee and dogs and women and it was pretty bizarre way to make our first album. We made it on this 48-track digital tape which I'd never heard of before or after because Hans was a very engineer-style composer. He loved gear. He'd have all this weird gear around. We'd get all of his hand-me-downs, whatever he wasn't using we were able to use. It's exciting looking back now. At the time, Hans was a known composer but he wasn't the legend that we all know him to be today, 22 years later. It was a great process because I had total freedom to do whatever I wanted because we didn't have a real producer. I learned so much on how to make records, all this stuff. I was there for every second for every part.
You had a lot of freedom but there was a producer there, right? Jay Rifkin?
Yeah. He was Hans' partner. He started the label Mojo Records. He was kind of a trust fund dude. He was 15 or 20 years older than us. He had never listened to punk rock before in his life. He had no history with it at all but he knew I could write songs. When I was selling shoes, this guy that he worked with, Patrick McDowall, I gave him a demo tape at the store. Seven dollars an hour, I made my demo tape on my little 12-track recorder and I made this great demo; he bought a pair of shoes from me. I sold him a pair of Doc Martens. He brought it to his boss, Jay, and Jay said, "This guy knows how to write a song, sign him to a publishing deal." They signed me for $10,000, which was more money than I'd ever seen in my whole life. In hindsight, I signed the worst publishing deal of all time, but it allowed me to stop selling shoes and focus on my music. But Jay had never made an album or produced a record, he had executive produced The Lion King along with Hans Zimmer who was his college roommate. They randomly went to college together. His dad had a bunch of money and helped fund the Lion King soundtrack. That's how Jay got in with Hans. So Jay was in the studio but he wasn't a producer. I took the reigns and ran point with the engineer guys who taught me how to use AutoTune, what a compressor was, all that stuff.
In an interview with Drop D in 1996, you said you didn't consider yourself a ska guy. It's interesting considering that this album has been embraced by the ska community as canon.
I remember opening for The Skeletones and we played shows with Reel Big Fish back in the day. We played with Buck-O-Nine, these underground ska bands from the mid-90s. I remember playing some of our punk songs, I'd start doing an upstroke guitar thinking, "Maybe the crowd will like us more if we play more ska," but ultimately I look at the record and there are only four ska songs. Everything else is straight pop-punk or NOFX-style fast punk. It's 20 to 25 percent ska. All the guys from Reel Big Fish played horns on this record. I discovered Reel Big Fish. They owed me. I got them signed so they played all the horns on this record so people look at it as more of a ska record than it actually was. The second album was super ska-heavy.
All it takes it listening to a song like "The City With Two Faces" to know that this is not a ska record.
Right, it isn't. If anything there's more mid-tempo Buzzcocks-style pop-punk songs than anything else. We went on to have horns, I wore a suit, a lot of that energy was there. "Superman" was such a seminal song from our second record that became an anthem of a movement because of [it's place on the] Tony Hawk game [soundtrack]. People tend to look back and think this record was more ska-heavy than it actually was.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
"Here in Your Bedroom." There was this girl that worked at the shoe store with me that I had a massive crush on for so long. After about a year-and-a-half of working there we hung out on New Year's Eve and my sister was coming down to visit me New Year's Day. This girl and I hung out and we hooked up and I was up all night hanging out with this girl. I didn't sleep at all. I woke up right before my sister got there at 10 in the morning. I wrote "Here In Your Bedroom" from like 9AM to 9:08. It took me eight minutes to write the whole song. It was inspired by all this passion and pent-up crush energy and I wrote that song about this girl and about the next day—"Will you still feel the same?" Then my sister was there, I hadn't seen her in a year...there was a real emotional energy. "Here In Your Bedroom" changed everything for me. Without that song I don't know if you and I would be talking.
I wrote it all immediately. I knew it was going to be a ska verse and a pop-punk chorus. I knew everything, it all came clearly. I remember going to rehearsal and [guitarist] Charlie [Paulson] saying, "No, this isn't going to work. You can't combine these two things." I stood my ground. Within three weeks it was on KROQ. It was on KROQ 48 times a week. They played the fuck out of that song. In three months I was selling shoes and then I was being played on my favorite radio station of all time, almost 10 times a day. I couldn't get away from hearing that song on the radio. That opened doors. It got us tours. We toured with The Buzzcocks, with The Sex Pistols, the Warped Tour scene, Bad Religion, No Doubt—all those tours happened because we had such a huge hit on alternative radio.
Check out our previous interview with John Feldmann right here.