Interview: Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong on '¡Uno!,' '¡Dos!' and '¡Tre!'
If there’s any overriding theme for ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! — Green Day’s monumental forthcoming trio of albums—that’s it: the weird phantom zone between having a grownup’s responsibilities and wanting to spend your whole life getting your teenage rocks off. The 36-song set is heavily loaded with some of the most adolescent, loud, fast and obscene pop-punk that Green Day have churned out since their 1994 breakthrough album, Dookie, or even their earlier indie-punk releases, like 39/Smooth and Kerplunk.
But nestled among the tracks are some of Billie Joe Armstrong’s most mature songs to date, the reflections of a 40-year-old man who ignited the mid-Nineties pop-punk revolution, forged the sacrificial bridge between punk and the classic rock opera in 2004, penned some definitive anthems of the American Apocalypse, acted in a hit Broadway show and sold millions of records. Now, as then, he continues to record and perform with his two best pals from his teenage years, and remains married to the girl he fell in love with when he was 19.
“I just think, Holy shit, I’ve been documenting my feelings in songs since I was 16 years old,” he says. “And I’ve gone through 20-something years just documenting how some of those feelings have changed and how you evolve from a kid to an ex-kid, to a man-child, or whatever you want to call it. You realize how juvenile, maybe, some of your feelings still are. And sometimes you see how you evolved as an individual.”
But fear not! This is still very much the same guy who named his band’s major-label debut album after excrement. And he says Green Day had a blast all the way through the making of ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!. “It was a good feeling the whole time,” Armstrong says. “There was never any feeling of pressure. No bad feelings. There was no struggle to make it.”
Armstrong is kicking back in a lounge at a massive rehearsal studio outside L.A. He’s dressed in standard-issue street-punk gear: red Converse, black jeans and a T-shirt. His hair is messy, Beatles-esque and, following another one of his weird blond periods, once again jet black. Out in the hallway, bassist Mike Dirnt is trying on a succession of slim-cut, boldly striped trousers for a photo shoot to promote the new discs, pulling the garments from gigantic wardrobe cases that clutter the corridor. He’s still in his own blond hair phase. When I commend him and the band on coughing up 36 killer tracks, with nary a stinker or dog in the bunch, he shrugs and says, “Well, it wasn’t that hard. We wrote over 80 tunes for this thing!”
¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! were the result of a tremendous burst of creativity on Green Day’s part. It was fueled by several things. For one, they made a firm decision to abandon the narrative, rock opera format of their two previous studio releases, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. Armstrong found it liberating not to have to write songs to fit a plot or conceptual brief. “We definitely wanted to get away from that,” he says. “Closing the chapter on 21st Century Breakdown and that era gave me the freedom as a songwriter just to start getting into the fun of playing music again and changing things up. If anything, there was a conscious effort to get back to basics and just treat each song individually.”
Armstrong also had plenty of time and inspiration to write new songs while he was appearing in the Broadway production of American Idiot in 2010 and 2011. “Being in New York for that long a period of time,” he says, “I fell into this routine where I would get up in the morning, have my coffee, go for a walk, come back to my apartment, write a song and then do the show at night. I set up a small studio in my apartment where I could get my ideas down. Then I’d shoot over to the theater and act like a madman onstage. And being around all the actors, surrounded by all that constant creativity, I just couldn’t help it; I started writing songs.”
Back at their headquarters in Oakland, California, Green Day started arranging and structuring the new material. “Next thing we knew, we ended up with something like 30 songs. So it was like, ‘What do we do with this? Is this a double album? Are we doing Sandinista! here?’” Armstrong says, referring to the Clash’s 1980 triple-album. “So we said, ‘Let’s do three discs and release one record at a time, and wouldn’t it be funny if we called it ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!? It’s almost like Volume One, Volume Two…in the way of Van Halen I and II or Led Zeppelin I and II. Only we have three of them, and we put one of our faces on each album’s cover.”
The joke gets an extra lift from the fact that Green Day drummer Tré Cool adorns the cover of ¡Tré!. Billie is Uno, as befits Green Day’s main songwriter, lead singer and guitarist. But one isn’t sure how Dirnt feels about being stuck with Numero Dos. “At first it started out as a joke,” says Armstrong, who admits to being the one who came up with the names and the whole idea in the first place. “But the more we talked about it, the more we said, ‘You know, it’s pretty catchy.’”
The band, its label and its management also came up with the idea to release the three discs in succession rather than put them out all at once or as a set. ¡Uno! comes out September 25, ¡Dos! hits on November 13, and ¡Tré! will be released on January 15, 2013.
It’s an unconventional move, but one that’s perhaps more attuned to the short-attention-span digital era. Even at the height of the record biz, double and triple albums were a tough sell. And with so much attention on single song downloads these days, even a single-album release is risky business. But then again, the idea of a punk band doing a rock opera seemed pretty crazy back in 2004.
Each of the new discs has its own stylistic character, more or less. Classic Green Day predominates on ¡Uno! whereas ¡Dos! is more in the raunchy garage-rock mode of Green Day’s 2008 side project, the Foxboro Hot Tubs. “It’s a real Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas kind of death-trip vibe,” Armstrong says, “like a party out of control.” ¡Tré! is more of a mixed bag. It contains some of the set’s more reflective songs and some of the most epic arrangements, complete with string and brass orchestrations.
Armstrong says that the pop-punk material is what came pouring out of him first. “Just because I’ve been doing it for so long and I love that kind of music,” he says. “It’s just in my DNA at this point. On the last record I veered away from it so much, to the point where I sort of drove myself crazy. But the last record did have a song called ‘Murder City,’ which is a straight-up Green Day punk-rock song, and it ended up becoming my favorite song on that album.
"So with the new stuff, that kind of thing just came naturally. I think that the first songs that were written were ‘Stay the Night,’ ‘Nuclear Family’ and ‘Carpe Diem.’ So there was this power-pop thing happening. Then it became, like, ‘Guys, no ballads. Let’s just write rock and roll!’ But all of a sudden ‘Oh Love’ came out. It’s not really a ballad, but it’s not a power-pop song either. It’s powerful, but it’s slower and it’s got a groove to it. It’s kind of something we haven’t really done before, and at the same time it’s pretty epic.”