Green Day: Rebel Yell
I wrote this song, “Before the Lobotomy,” that starts as an acoustic ballad and then turns into this completely different song. And then it goes back to the original acoustic ballad thing, but done in a gushing power chord way. I love messing with arrangements and seeing how they ebb and flow.
GW I think that’s one of the defining characteristics of this album.
ARMSTRONG Definitely. I had the song “21st Century Breakdown” as a demo version, just a four-track. And we had this whole other song “Class of 13,” with an Irish kind of part in it. Those were two completely different songs, and I just thought, You know, if I drop the key of “21st Century Breakdown” and I put it together with the “Class of 13,” that could really work. And I realized that that’s really what this whole record is about: breaking down a moment in time to try and make sense of it. And, literally, it’s like a nervous breakdown.
GW It’s also a societal breakdown. The breakdown of American society, really.
ARMSTRONG That’s what I mean, yeah. It’s pretty freaky what’s going on right now.
GW That’s for sure. The economy melting down…
ARMSTRONG Well, it’s a different crisis every week, you know? Especially since 2005. Natural disasters, the environment is fucked up, the automotive industry is taking a dive, there’s a financial crisis, economic bailouts, there’s two wars that we’re still fighting. And then we finally got rid of, thank God, the president and the administration that was pretty responsible for the shit that’s been going on. So there’s an anxiety about how everything has gotten fucked up in the past five to eight years. But there’s also this sense of hope, or maybe fear, of what’s going to happen in the future. Because the future is unwritten; it’s unclear. And I think a lot of that is reflected in the album. Especially when you come to the conclusion and a song like “See the Light.”
GW The lyric is “I just want to see the light” rather than “I see the light.” It’s as if you are wanting to be hopeful rather than being hopeful.
ARMSTRONG Right, right. “See the Light” is almost a call to arms spiritually. Something like “Know Your Enemy” is one kind of call to arms—a big, fat rebel song, definitely. But “See the Light” is a call to arms within yourself. As a songwriter, you’re trying to find the truth of every song that you’re writing. But when you’re actually doing the writing, you don’t know what that truth is. You don’t know what’s the big picture that you’re looking for. And with “See the Light,” I think the truth there is, “Oh fuck, yeah. I just want be happy!”
GW So after dragging us through this mire of misery…
ARMSTRONG Yeah, it took me a while to get to it. [laughs]
GW How did Butch Vig help in this process of find the truth of each song?
ARMSTRONG When we brought in Butch I think we were at the point where we were driving ourselves crazy. We’d done some writing and we’d reached the point where we said, “Okay, now it’s time to bring in an outside perspective.” When Butch came in, I just started throwing around ideas of how I wanted the record to be. And he threw in a couple of ideas. One thing we came up with was the phrase “rebel songs,” because, looking at the material, there are a lot of rebel songs. So things like that helped to start defining the album a little.
And Butch would also champion certain songs, like “Horseshoes and Handgrenades.” I’d kind of forgotten about that one. You lose perspective because you’re so close to the material and you start taking certain songs for granted. But Butch was like, “We’re recording that goddamn song!” And then I showed him the melody to “Restless Heart Syndrome.” As a songwriter, sometimes you start a song and put off finishing it. With that song I was like, “Oh, I’ll just wait and record that five years from now. I’m not ready for that song.” But Butch said, “No, no, no. You gotta chase down that melody now, and you gotta find the lyrics for it now.” So he was very encouraging.
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