On The Line with John Feldmann of Goldfinger

John Feldmann has been the frontman and rhythm guitarist for Goldfinger for twenty years, a punk band that continues to amaze me with their light-hearted and attention-grabbing signature sound. In addition, he also lives life as a songwriter and producer, having worked with many bands including The Used,  Sleeping With Sirens, Papa Roach, and 5 Seconds of Summer. With such a broad and exciting history in music, I had the honor of speaking with the man himself about everything from the history of Goldfinger to life in LA to producing music to his favorite albums and much more.

Alex Obert: When you moved to LA, what was life like there in the late eighties?

John Feldmann: Whatever nirvana or heaven would be for anyone to imagine in your mind, it would be exactly that. I remember sitting on top of the fucking Bank of America building right above The Roxy. It would close off Sunset from Doheny all the way down to where Holloway started. There would be a thousand hot metal chicks in spandex, you could smell the Aquanet from the top of the Bank of America building as I was drinking my Jack Daniels being a wannabe Ian from The Cult or Axl Rose or whatever. It was back in ’88 or ’87 when I moved here. Every club was sold out, people just loving music, like music being the only thing that mattered. Gazzarri’s, The Whisky, The Roxy. The Central, which then became The Viper Room. Every club was sold out and packed. It was vibrant, the whole music scene, you lived it.

Alex Obert: Did you encounter bands back then that were reminiscent of Goldfinger?

John Feldmann: Back then, nothing. There would be a thing at The Whisky called the No Bozo Jam. Before Goldfinger, I was in a band called the Electric Love Hogs. We played a lot of shows with Ugly Kid Joe and L.A. Guns. Tommy Lee produced our albums. Back then, every night was fuckin’ Poison and Cinderella and Motley Crue. All those kind of eighties hair bands were playing every night. Anything else was nonexistent. Punk went from when I grew up with Social Distortion and Bad Religion in the early eighties and then in the late eighties, it sort of went away. There were some bands like The Descendents that stayed and stayed relevant in the scene, but then it became the whole Sunset Strip era.

Alex Obert: If you were around the hair metal scene so much, what led you to punk and ska?

John Feldmann: I was in Electric Love Hogs, we were like a Red Hot Chili Peppers rip off kind of thing. I mean what I grew up on as a kid, I saw every great punk band ever back then. I saw Dead Kennedys play a ton, as well as Social Distortion and The Adolescents. It was all these bands I grew up on. I remember this guy came back from England with a pair of creepers that I bought off of him, these used creepers for thirty bucks. That was my initial initiation into music, it was punk rock. So when I moved to LA, I was taken back by how culturally different it was when I moved here in ’87. Then I did the Chili Pepper band and then it didn’t happen, the songs weren’t good. We were good live band, but we didn’t get along. We split up and I went back to selling shoes. And in that four-year window, in between projects, I just went back to my roots and listened to the Buzzcocks and Generation X and all the bands that really got me into music in the first place. I said, “This is what I love! This is the shit that makes me really wanna write songs.” So I wrote Miles Away, which was the first Goldfinger song we had written. And I had started putting together demos when I was still selling shoes in Santa Monica. A friend of mine, I believe his name was Todd Sullivan, was a fan of the Electric Love Hogs. And I remember giving him a cassette tape. On one side, it had demos where we’d keep moving forward with the Chili Peppers thing, and on the other side, it had demos of Goldfinger. He actually called me up and said, “These other (Goldfinger) songs are way better and this sounds authentic. This is what you should do.” He signed Weezer. He was a good friend of mine and he helped push me to what I was gonna do. That was the end of 1993 and then I started doing Goldfinger and I put the band together in the beginning of ’94. For the first year before we were signed, we were doing a bunch of local shows like Arizona, Northern California, San Diego. We went to shows with Buck-O-Nine, Reel Big Fish, Skeletones. Blink opened for us for like six months. And then Green Day really exploded towards the middle of ’94. Then it kind of became this second wave of pop punk. Nirvana had already happened, to me, they were like a post punk Husker Du kind of thing. It wasn’t like the Buzzcocks, like super simple, catchy songs. That’s more what I would consider bands like Blink and Good Charlotte. When Green Day took off, we got signed pretty quickly and then our song was on the radio. We were a band for a year and I was selling shoes, and then all of a sudden, KROQ was playing Here In Your Bedroom like forty two times a week.

Alex Obert: The way I was introduced to your music growing up as a nineties kid was through Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. How was Superman put into the game?

John Feldmann: So I had written like twenty songs, I’m the singer and the writer for Goldfinger. I’d written twenty songs for our first record and took it down to my favorite ones that made it to the album. At the very end of recording it, I wrote two songs and it was one whole song at the time. It was Superman and a song called Question, they went on our second album. It was sort of like a Bohemian Rhapsody for our band, it was six minutes long and it had all these tempo changes. When I was playing it acoustically in my own apartment, I couldn’t get through it, so I cut ’em up into two songs. And I played them for the owner of the label (Mojo Records) that we were signed to at the time, Jay Rifkin. The album was already finished and it could’ve gone on our first album, we did it as a one off as a split 7 inch with Reel Big Fish, Superman on one side and either Sell Out or maybe Beer on the other side. I didn’t really think about it, but Tony Hawk was a fan of the band and he just asked the label for an odd song that wasn’t released on the album, a song that wasn’t a big radio thing. So Jay just gave him Superman to use and it became, still to this day, our biggest song. It was never a single and it was never on the radio. We just got this moment in time where it happened with this video game that was so massive. I don’t think there’s another song in any video game in the history of video games that was as relevant for that time period as Superman was. We were just really lucky to get that song in there.

Alex Obert: Seeing as though it’s a skateboarding game, do you have any skateboarding skills yourself?

John Feldmann: (laughs) As a kid, yeah. I discovered every band through Thrasher magazine when I was a kid in eighth grade. The only reason I bleached my hair was because of Duane Peters, he was a legendary skater in the early eighties. It wasn’t Billy Idol for me, it was Duane Peters. He was my fuckin’ hero. And I still bleach my hair. The culture of California surfing and skateboarding runs through everything I do to this day. I’m at the beach every week and I’m twenty minutes from the ocean. I mean I made a record with Makua Rothman, he’s probably the biggest big wave surfer on the planet right now. I spent a couple months in Hawaii and culturally, I wouldn’t have been the musician I am without the culture of skateboarding behind it.

Alex Obert: I’d love to go over a couple songs from the Goldfinger catalog to get your thoughts on the writing, recording, and the finished product. The first one is Mable.

John Feldmann: I think I wrote that song in probably ’94. Our bass player actually had the beginning bassline. He loved Radiohead, he had this kind of mid tempo bassline. That was the first song where I actually sat down and wrote the lyrics first before I messed with any of the music. The bass player worked at the shoe store with me, so we talked about the concept of doing an Elvis Costello/Squeeze/Police, new wave/ska thing. It turned into more of a punk rock band. But I wanted to feel like those guys were included and so he kind of wrote that and Charlie wrote the little octave melody on top of it. I did this as an experiment of what can we do as a band if I just write lyrics and melody. So I just wrote this kind of goofy song about a fictitional chick. I think I was writing, “Now I’m able”, what rhymes with able? Mable! That was kind of how it came to be.

Alex Obert: How did you come up with the metaphors a tube of cookie dough and a pencil with broken lead? I’ve never heard that used, it’s just awesome!

John Feldmann: Well I think it kind of speaks for itself. (laughs) I love sugar, any breathing human loves sugar. I remember that time I was super obsessed with that Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. I remember at one point, I was buying these half gallons of regular vanilla ice cream and a tube of cookie dough, I’d just make my own kind of cookie dough ice cream. One day, Charlie was walking around my apartment naked while I was making my ice cream and I was like, “Okay, there you go! There’s the comparison!” I was taking a pee a second later and I was saying, “This is not a good comparison, mine versus his.”

Alex Obert: (laughs) The next song is Spokesman.

John Feldmann: So I was watching MTV in ’98 or ’99 and one after the other, it was 98 Degrees and ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys. At that point, I knew enough about the business and I’d been writing songs long enough. I knew these guys didn’t grow up together and they’re not writing their own music. Maybe they’re good singers, but this is the exact opposite of why I got into music in the first place. There was no passion, there was no anger, there was no heart, it was all rehearsed and performed. I had never seen anything like it. I’m sure that boy bands had existed before ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, but it’s not what I wanted to do or be a part of in any way. I wrote that song literally in four minutes. I was just thinking, “I don’t wanna listen to this music! I just don’t wanna hear it!”

Alex Obert: And Spokesman was in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, how was it set up for your music to be in another Tony Hawk game?

John Feldmann: I don’t really know because they didn’t contact me. Once you get going, you get a team of people. For the first year, we played so many shows when Here In Your Bedroom was on the radio all the time. There was really no time off. At that point, we had managers, we had lawyers, our publishers. So at that point, it was kind of like they would send us requests and for Tony Hawk, we were just like, “Fuck yes, we will do it.” I’ve never met Tony and I’m really grateful that he’s helped us.

Alex Obert: Outside of being a frontman and a songwriter, what drew you to getting into producing?

John Feldmann: I see how much social networking the bands I produce have to do throughout the day, doing all the press. Some of the real successful ones I work with, they’re up at 7 AM to do press all day and they’re in the studio for twelve hours a day. In between takes, they’re connecting with the fans on Twitter. It’s like it wasn’t like that for us, we’d do a radio interview for an hour and then I’d play a show for an hour, having another twenty two hours in the day to just kind of hang out in town and do whatever. I was just kind of stemmed from boredom. We played the Fireside Bowl in Chicago, this old bowling alley that did punk rock shows. And this band Showoff opened for us. They gave me their demo cassette after the show and I watched their whole set. On the flight back from Chicago to LA, I had my little Walkman and listened to their demo and I knew just from my limited experience of producing Goldfinger’s first record that I can make their demo better. And I called him up the next week and said, “I really like your songs, do you wanna try and do a demo?” We did three songs together at my house and I got them a record deal really quickly. I produced their record and it just fell into place. It wasn’t like an intentional thing, it just happened and I fell in love with it.

Alex Obert: Growing up, what do you feel were some of the best produced albums outside of your work that really captured your attention?

John Feldmann: I’ve always noticed little things. I remember, as a kid, trying to match the bass tone for Six Pack by Black Flag. I started as a bass player, not as a singer or a guitar player. I tried matching that tone in Six Pack. And I remember hearing the song, You Say You Don’t Love Me by the Buzzcocks, hearing that kick drum and the bass guitar being syncopated together. It was the same thing on the kick as it was on the bass. At the time, I was thirteen or fourteen years old and I was wondering how they got the bass to sound so thumpy and I realized the kick drum was playing along with it. My mom liked The Beatles so much that it kind of turned me off, I never really gave them a shot. But when I moved out of the house and I was kind of on my own, someone played a Beatles song, it may have been Rain. I listened to it and went, “Holy crap!” This sounds like they really cared about the way they recorded their music. I started studying The Beatles and reading all their books. I read Geoff Emerick’s book, the engineer that did all the Beatles records. And George Martin’s book, the coffee table Beatles book that shows every mic, every preamp, and every compressor they used for each song visually. I just studied it. Without even meeting him, George Martin became like a mentor. And then it became Brian Eno. I studied U2 and Peter Gabriel. And I started looking at credits. These are the songs that I love listening to, I can hear all the nuances. Even on Appetite for Destruction, I could hear the shaker coming in and these little sounds that they would do. I just got infatuated with, “How did they do it? How did they make it sound so full?”

John Feldmann: For me, I really studied the production. When it came to the metal stuff, talking with Tom, he showed me how to reverse – I made my first record on 2 inch tape and my second record on 48 track digital tapes so I made probably four or five records on tape before I learned how to use Pro Tools. I learned how to use Pro Tools in 1997. I knew the tricks like whispering behind gang vocals to make it sounds like you’re in an arena or the reverse cymbal. I learned all that stuff by watching them cut tape. I remember being in that studio and watching them make the Metallica Black album and I remember looking on the wall and seeing thousands of pieces of tape that were cut up little sections; little sections of 2 inch tape that they stuck to the wall saying this is kick drum number 46. They’d take those pieces and move them around on the actual 2-inch piece of tape so if he was behind the beat they’d move the piece forward so he’d be on top of the beat. All that stuff – I never paid attention to the production on Def Leppard and those records, I just didn’t care.

Alex Obert: Regarding the bands you’re working with at the moment, what are you taking out of working with a newer band such as 5 Seconds of Summer? It seems as though they may have grown up with music differently, being from a different generation.

John Feldmann: I took them to see Aerosmith recently. Watching them see Steven Tyler perform and Dave Grohl was standing next to us. Dave Grohl’s one of their heroes and he can see them engage in this history of rock ‘n roll. In my book, Elvis was the first boy band. He didn’t write his own music, he was just a handsome guy with a cool and unique voice. To me, The Beatles were the beginning of rock ‘n roll. They wrote their own music and they played their own instruments. That was important for the world, it was like ’65 or ’66. And Aerosmith started less than ten years later. If I say The Beatles are the beginning of rock ‘n roll, Aerosmith is only five or six years into it. Watching the band in 2014, the biggest band in the world, see Aerosmith for the first time, it’s a historical moment for me. Watching them meet Dave Grohl, he was in a group that reinvented music completely, Nirvana is as relevant today when it came out back in the nineties. That, to me, is really exciting working with a new group that’s as popular and successful as 5 Seconds is.

Alex Obert: And what if you taken out of working with Sleeping with Sirens?

John Feldmann: When I first heard them, I definitely heard in influence from The Used. I was a huge part in helping The Used when they first started out. I saw them play and I was blown away. Especially the singer’s voice. I’ve always loved Perry Farrell and Anthony Green, that real high, gritty, emotional voice. And Kellin has that voice. They played at the Key Club down in LA and I went to watch them. It was sold out in the crowd was just ballistic. There was such energy, a circle pit and crowd surfing and stage diving, this is like a real punk rock show. And it was only two years ago. I remember hearing If You Can’t Hang and thinking the lyrics, the melody, the whole structure of the song was way beyond what I thought of a young band, these early twenties kids. They did it all themselves. And I was just blown away by that. I became friends with the singer in the guitar player, Jack. One of my old friends was actually put in this band called D.R.U.G.S. that was signed to Warner Bros, they ended up joining Sleeping with Sirens eight months ago. That’s when we really started talking about working together. They’re a fucking unbelievable live band.

Alex Obert: You’ve also worked with Foxy Shazam. What are your thoughts on them?

John Feldmann: I think actually met them so far back that it was on MySpace. The guitar player, Loren, actually MySpaced me one of their videos just playing in Cincinnati for a show and no one was there. The camera was just on Eric and he had a full goatee. He was kind of dressed like Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean, dreadlocks and makeup and the whole thing. And I was like, “Who is this guy?” I just kept in contact with Loren over the next six months and kept sending songs. Then that first album came out, the indie record. I saw the video and I was just like, “Holy shit! This guy’s good!” And then I went and saw them at the Troubadour with a hundred people there. This was the best live band I’ve ever seen in my life. At least the frontman is best frontman I’ve ever seen, just so fucking good live. And then I started talking to them. I invited them up to the house to see the studio. I talked about my process and told them what I think and how I can help them. We did a song together, then we did a couple more. I got them signed to Warner Bros., I got them a manager, and we put the record out. I would say it’s their best album, I’m biased!

Alex Obert: With other aspects of your life, being a vegan, how do you eat on the road while touring?

John Feldmann: Well it’s interesting because when I started being vegan thirteen, fourteen years ago, we were in Eastern Europe and Japan. There were these markets that had nothing, there was no soy milk in Starbucks. When we toured Japan for ten days, I only ate bananas and cashews. I couldn’t even get a drink at Starbucks, unless it was black coffee. It was really challenging while being in Poland and the Czech Republic. I couldn’t read ingredients on labels and it was really hard. Now it’s really easy, there’s twenty websites you can go to and type in a city and it’ll tell you the closest vegetarian restaurant to wherever you are. If I’m in Chicago, I know I’m going to Chicago Diner. I know what sandwich I’m getting. I know where to eat, I’ve toured every city that I’ve toured at least ten times, so I know all the restaurants to go to. It’s definitely changed. Having kids, I still have the same beliefs and everything. But I used to be such a vegan nazi, I wouldn’t sit at the table if you were eating cheese.

Alex Obert: At home, do you have any favorite vegan recipes?

John Feldmann: I make a pretty mean taco. I make a pretty mean French toast. I make an incredible vegan shake, it took about five months to really perfect. That’s probably my specialty. If I was to open a food truck, it would be vegan tacos and shakes.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, I must ask, if you could tell your 1996 self anything, what would it be?

John Feldmann: Lighten the fuck up. Life’s short. Don’t take yourself so serious.

Alex Obert: What advice you have for aspiring musicians?

John Feldmann: Be true to yourself, really. Everyone’s gonna have opinions. And you know in your heart what’s authentic to who you are. You grow up and try to figure that out. I was in my first band, Family Crisis, playing shows with 7 Seconds and Bad Religion. That was, at the time, who I was. Then I morphed into loving Fishbone and Jane’s Addiction. I experimented with more of an alternative thing with guitar solos. And then I figured out as I was growing up, this is who I really am. If there’s any advice, don’t listen to an old guy like me, follow your fuckin’ heart.

Alex Obert: Which websites do you have at the moment for readers to check out?

John Feldmann: I’m on Twitter all the time, @JohnFeldy. That’s the best way to reach me.

Alex Obert: I’d love to thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed this fun interview.

John Feldmann: Sure, man! I appreciate you reaching out, dude! Thank you!

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