The bay Area of punk trio of Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, Has been turning it up and giving our ears whiplash since 1989 and despite moving onto major label Warner in 1993 from their Lookout! Records roots, their sounds remain fierce and their lyrics incendiary. Follwoing a return to fighting form on the ambitious, contentious and critically acclaimed American Idiot comes follow up opus 21st Century Breakdown in which they collaborate with producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins). In an interview exclusive, Green Day talks about the hazzards of dissing Bush in Texas, selling out, saving the world and hanging on to their sanity as the world unravels. Just like old times….
How was it like working on your 8th record?
Dirnt : It’s been probably the hardest record we’ve ever made. We had some new tools for how we wanted to approach songwriting, but we didn’t have a f**king idea where we were going to go.
Billie Joe Armstrong : You know when you see the runner at the end of the marathon and they just collapse? And everyone’s going, “Yeah! You won the race!” But there’s this depleted human being lying there. This record has exhausted me.
Let’s backtrack a little to your previous effort, do you think 21st Century Breakdown has more depth than the protest-packed, American Idiot?
BJA: I remember being in Fort Worth, Texas… at the heart of George W. Bush’s home state, a fortnight before the Presidential election, singing, “Well maybe I’m the faggot America, I’m not part of a redneck agenda.” It’s one thing when you’re in California and you’re saying f**k George Bush, but when you’re in Texas, it’s a mixed response. That’s a weird noise, man. Half the crowd were booing and half of them were cheering.
We are sinking deeper into recession and the news is so thick with doom that everyone is putting their hands up, almost like we’re giving up, but you (Armstrong) seem to be the only one still willing to write the soundtrack of the world…
BJA: There’s a fine line for me in writing about political stuff. It’s more like calling it as it is than calling it like I think it should be.
Tre Cool: He’s not on the soapboax, he’s reaching out to lend a hand, or to get a hand. We’re all going overboard.
Armstrong : I feel most powerful when I am able to use my words as weapons.
Exactly. Yet, no other record has quite a cultural hit like American Idiot.
BJA: I remember saying, “Give me an A or give me an F” because I don’t want anything in between. I drank a lot during those days just because who knew what was going to happen? It was like, this could either be the best thing that could happen to us or the worst disaster. We’ll figure out what’s going to happen later. I’ve just got to put the tie on and go to work.
Is it true that 21st Century Breakdown took three whole years to record?
BJA: Yes. It’s bigger, bolder, fiercer and more turbulent than what we have done before. I guess we had to tear things down to build them up again and it takes time. It seems t be the way most things work.
So, what is 21’st Century Breakdown really about?
MD: What it’s like to be living in America at the present. It’s the end of an era but the beginning of another one.
Tre Cool: It’s an audio scrapbook of what bothers and fascinates us on a daily basis.
BJA: It’s a record about chaos and fire in the streets and revolt and people marching down the street with torches while you’re making out with your girlfriend, I guess.
Green Day was known, and still is known, as one of the most popular indie bands and your fans from your indie background grew up with you until today. Some of them though, had said in the past that Green Day would have achieved great success even if you had not signed with a big label.
BJA: We were signed by Warner Brothers in 1993 and at that time, it kinda sucked! It’s good that you have this conscience about what’s going on, but every step you took had to be politically correct. There were these people who are like, “Warner Brothers are holding back Noam Chomsky from putting out a book!” You felt paralyzed in a lot of ways. You couldn’t enjoy what was happening, it was preying on your conscience so much! We kept thinking if we were doing the right thing, signing with a major label.
Did you feel guilty?
BJA: Yeah I think a little bit lingers here and there.
Was American Idiot a kind of atonement? Taking the activist spirit of a tiny punk club and blowing it up to stadium size?
BJA: Yeah the most exciting thing was that we weren’t preaching to the choir. We were saying something like, “Maybe I’m the fa***t America” and this shit is playing on the radio! I wrote American idiot in one furious splurge. I looked at the guys and asked if they mind that I wrote about this. They said, “No, we agree with you”. And that was where we started the ball rolling. I felt like we were breaking new ground. There was something apocalyptic about the whole thing, “Oh my God we’re unravelling!” I never thought I’d see a war brought to you on TV, 24 hours a day, and it became like entertainment.
MD: We were kind of all on the same page. We were like, “F**k it, let’s make a f**king bold statement and swing for the fences. If shit gets too safe, sometimes you just want to rattle the cage.
Wake Me Up When September Ends (due to 9/11) made a big impact as well.
BJA: I wrote that because I felt like it was something I wanted to be apart of and take responsibility for. The things that I’m writing now, I’m just trying to build on the courage that I had.
Besides Rob Cavallo, you guys have looked for Linda Perry as well? (Pink, Christina Aguilera)
BJA: Yeah, she had some good advice. Like, you guys should just wait. I think that was the biggest thing; the patience.
Did you guys have a concept before getting into the studio to create 21st Century Breakdown?
MD: No, we began with no idea at all. We were throwing everything against the wall. At one point, we mounted two kick drum heads on the wall and turned them into wheel of fortune; one featuring different genres and one featuring different ears. We spun the wheel and wrote accordingly.
BJA: I had one song that went from psychedelic 60’s to 80’s hardcore. So it went from sounding like Marmalde to, like, Crass. It’s the most bizarre thing we have ever done. (Grins) But that’s not going on the record. But since there’s no audience for it yet, no idea is a bad idea. We’ll know when we go too far.
What about lyrically?
BJA: I made myself a sponge, sucking up on things I read or saw on TV until it made sense. Sometimes I don’t know where I get these lyrics from. When I was singing “Sieg Heil to the president gas man” on ‘Holiday’ (American Idiot), I freaked myself out for a moment. It was kind of like, “Where the fuck is this coming from?” It was like taking an ugly picture and making it even uglier. The thing that justifies it is that it was true. I had the same feeling, writing two songs from the new record.
How did the idea of dividing the album into three chapters came about?
TC: We were sitting on the floor, and we had all these lyrics and a big piece of paper asking, “What songs go together?” Then we decided to divide the album into three chapters; Heroes & Cons, Charlatans and Saints, Horseshoes and Handgrenades.
MD: It makes it easier to digest.
And there are a few characters in your new album.
BJA: There are two recurring characters; kissing cousins of American Idiot‘s St. Jimmy and Whatsername. Gloria, the conflicted activist fighting to hold on to her youthful idealism, is part Billie Joe and part Adrienne. And then there’s Christian, the kamikaze nihilist, that’s like a side of me I try to keep under wraps. Because Christian’s Inferno is sort of the ugliest place you want to go to in your brain. A lot of people have a self destruct button. I think for a lot of musicians, if you’re celebrating it turns into partying and then suddenly you’re fucking yourself up and destroying something you’ve worked so hard to build up. There’s this shiny red button that you just want to push.
And do you ever push it?
BJA: I don’t do it in public. (laughs) Part of the fun of it is that it’s your own personal time (Serious) For me, there’s a job to do. Being driven to be a good songwriter, I let that take over instead of being an ass. I like to have fun, don’t get me wrong, but nowadays we live in a society where nothing is sacred. I was coming out of the hotel just two days ago in Los Angeles and there are guys out there with cameras. The first thing I thought was, Thank God I don’t live in Los Angeles. People just want to f**k you.
In 2006, you guys took a break and went separate ways to do your own thing. What were you guys doing?
MD: I went backpacking in Europe with my fiancÃ©e. I wanted a break, just needed a simple life, to have a cup of coffee and a good conversation with a friend.
TC: I was at Cuba taking drum lessons.
Even with the US economic boycott then?
TC: Anywhere that my government tells me not to go, I’m going to want to go there. (Laughs)
What about you? (Armstrong)
BJA: I went to New Orleans to help out with building houses for the homeless people affected by Hurricane Katrina. It had been a year since the hurricane and it was still f**ked up! We were hanging faucets on the porch, doing some roofing. It was amazing because the woman that was getting the house didn’t know I was in Green Day and she was just overwhelmed. The idea of the trip, really, came from my wife, Adrienne. (activist) I was just riding shotgun, “Here’s the hammer, honey!” (laughs)
Was there ever a time when you guys felt like it was time to just stop?
MD: I remember Armstrong phoning me up one day and asked, “Do you want to do this anymore?”. And I was like, I don’t know. Because (a), we’re not enjoying ourselves and (b), what are we after? We sat down and asked ourselves some tough questions. What do we want to be? What do we want to do? Other bands might break up, or go to therapy or do whatever they want to do. We’ve never been those guys. We still have our anger and shit but there’s a greater good involved here. If there’s anything we can say about this band, it’s that we’re not quitters.
BJA: I think after dookie, the worst thing anyone has ever called me was a rockstar. I was trying to destroy everything that had to do with it. You know, I could have enjoyed myself a little more. It took us 10 years. During American Idiot it was like, Man, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. Let’s just enjoy ourselves more.
TC: You can’t drive the race car with the parachute out and your other foot on the brake. It’s easier when your foot’s on the gas.
So you guys have never seriously considered calling it a day?
BJA: I think we wanted to be one of the best bands there ever was, so we felt like there was still work to be done. I still think that.
Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown is available in all good record stores. ‘know Your Enemy’ is the first single from that album. More Green Day at www.greenday.com.