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.”
As it turns out, the song makes a great 12th-track album closer for ¡Uno! — a graceful counterpoint to the pop-punk mayhem that has come before and a musical marker that points the way to some of the material on the two subsequent discs. To complement the stylistic thrust of ¡Uno!, Armstrong also had a clear sense of the guitar sound he wanted and the overall production approach he wished to pursue.
“I really wanted the record to be a classic Green Day sound,” he says, “but I also wanted to introduce new elements of different guitar sounds—cleaner tones—and to mic the room so you can get the real power of the speakers moving the air to give it more of a live sound. It’s a bit of an AC/DC type of guitar sound, where it’s really powerful but what you’re actually listening to is a clean guitar tone.”
This live-in-the-studio approach was also facilitated by the fact that Green Day rehearsed the songs at the same facility in which they recorded them—their own place, Jingletown, in Oakland. It was formerly called Studio 880 but has since been endowed with a new name and new Neve mixing console. For the sessions, the band also drafted its longtime live guitarist, Jason White.
“He was in the room with us the whole time,” Armstrong says. “He’s been playing with us for over 10 years now, so we figured, ‘Let’s bring him in and he’ll be the fourth member. He can be Cuatro.’ So for all the rhythm tracks, he’s in the right speaker and I’m in the left. He added a really great element because he’s got a really smooth kind of style to him, whereas I’m more percussive. He matches what I’m doing but adds a vibe to it.”
Longtime Green Day producer Rob Cavallo also encouraged the band’s live-in-the-studio approach to the recordings. “When Rob came and watched us jam,” Armstrong recounts, “he was, like, ‘This is what the record should sound like. It should sound like you guys jamming in this room.’”
Cavallo was Green Day’s producer from Dookie onward (although his involvement in 2000’s Warning was minimal). But he fell away from the fold for 21st Century Breakdown, which was produced by Butch Vig. So how did Cavallo get back in the picture?
“By apologizing,” Armstrong deadpans before dissolving into laughter. “He just wanted to mend things. We had sort of a strained relationship after American Idiot. I don’t really know why. I don’t think he even knows why. It just turned ugly for a while. But we started having talks together again, and he said how much he really wanted to do the record. I started getting into playing him demos again, and he started champing at the bit to produce. So it was just a slow process of rebuilding the friendship and the relationship again.”
One other thing helped put Green Day back in pop-punk mode: they started playing songs from their first two albums, 39/Smooth and Kerplunk, while touring for 21st Century Breakdown.
“On our last tour, we were playing a lot of old songs, like ‘Who Wrote Holden Caufield?’ and ‘One for the Razorbacks,’” Armstrong says. “It was really fun. And sometimes when you’re in the middle of playing the song you start to realize, Oh, god, I remember who this song was about. I remember what I was feeling at that time. How is it relevant to me now? You almost get lost in all that, and you’re performing it in front of 10,000 people or whatever. It’s a trip going back like that. I think we were reluctant to do that before the last tour, but then we just started bringing those songs in. We’ve always wanted to write songs that we could play 20 years later, like the Rolling Stones are able to play ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ and stuff like that.”
¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! are certainly awash in songs that reference Armstrong’s punk-rock past as a kid growing up in Berkeley, California’s highly politicized, hardcore Gilman Street scene. The new albums’ overall mood of adolescent pop abandon is tempered by a wistful note of nostalgia that creeps into many tunes, some of the most frankly autobiographical songs that Armstrong has ever written.
“X-Kid” from ¡Tré! deals with the suicide of a close friend of Armstrong’s. “I don’t really want to get into it,” he says. “It’s too heavy.” And “Carpe Diem” from ¡Uno! is also haunted by intimations of mortality. That song’s about living in the moment,” he says. “I think the older you get, you have to appreciate your time on this planet.”
On a more cheerful note, “Sweet 16” is an unabashed love song to Armstrong’s wife, Adrienne, written as a gift to her for the couple’s 16th anniversary. They met during an early Green Day van tour while she was studying sociology at the University of Minnesota. At the time Armstrong was 18 and she was 20. It was pretty much love at first sight, although it took them both a little while to realize it fully.
“‘Sweet 16’ is about being in a relationship for a really long time,” Armstrong says. “The first verse is about my relationship with Adrienne when we first met. And the second verse is more about our relationship now. And just how time passes and just kinda, ‘Wow, we’re still here and still together.’”
Perhaps more surprising is the song “Amanda” on ¡Tré!. It references Armstrong’s brief relationship with a militant feminist punk-rock girl, actually named Amanda, during the Gilman Street days. She broke up with him and has haunted Green Day’s body of work ever since, although usually in veiled or fictionalized form. She was the inspiration for Green Day’s mega-hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and also formed the basis for the character Whatsername in 21st Century Breakdown.
“Yeah, she’s in that,” Armstrong acknowledges, “and all the way back to a song like ‘Stuart and the Avenue’ [from Insomniac]. She’s an old friend who goes back to a long time ago—kind of like a recurring dream. She’s shown up in different songs here and there that are bitter or bittersweet. I wrote the song ‘Amanda’ from a perspective of, ‘Okay, now that we’re grown-ups…’ She’s got her kids and her husband, and I’ve got my family. And it’s just asking the question, ‘How are you? What’s life like for you? This is what I’m up to.’ We had a chance to reconnect and talk a little bit. And that was that.”
Gilman Street memories of a different sort pop up on “Rusty James” from ¡Uno!. “The song title is from the name of a character in the book Rumble Fish,” Armstrong explains. “And the song itself is about my old punk-rock scene and the survivors of it—the initial starters of that scene and how some of them didn’t really live up to their promises and just became finger pointers a little bit. And then they disappeared. And just the feeling that…Green Day, we’re still here. Where are you? What happened to all the values that you were bringing to the table? Now you’re gone. All the things you were telling people to fight for, you’re not fighting for them anymore. So that’s probably one of the more bitter songs I’ve written.”
Armstrong is certainly still fighting, having written the two most politically astute rock albums of the new century’s first decade with American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. And while ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! are certainly less overtly political, the song “99 Revolutions” on the latter album celebrates the Occupy movement.
“My idea of the Occupy movement goes beyond just left-wing radicals,” he says. “I think 99 percenters go all the way from that to cops, firefighters, nurses, teachers and lots of people in my own family. My mom’s worked at a diner her whole life. My dad was a truck driver. My brother works as a plumber. So I think there’s a really broad idea of what the 99 percent is. I’m just tapping into my working-class background in that song and then thinking about what is fair and what is not fair. And how the one percent should be taxed more, and how corporations should be taxed more, and how we should have things like free health care and building an infrastructure of schools and bridges and fixing roads. And by doing that, giving people more work.
“And it’s interesting to see some of the Tea Party people. It’s like, You don’t understand: you are a part of that. This directly affects you. With free health care you’re able to start your own independent business. You don’t have to worry about paying certain bills if you get sick, or having to deal with some fucked-up corrupt insurance company. You can be more independent and you can have that load lifted off you and your family a little more.”
While Armstrong supports the Occupy movement in general, some of the protests in his hometown of Oakland got pretty vociferous, and he’s critical of the militant fringe who smashed the windows of small local businesses. “It’s like, You’re bashing store fronts in Oakland?” he says. “Doesn’t Oakland have enough problems as it is? But the core of the movement…there are some smart people who are pushing it in the right direction.”
At the other end of the songwriting spectrum, ¡Dos! serves up raunchy, socially irresponsible rockers, like “Fuck Time.” There’s no mistaking what’s on Armstrong’s mind when the song’s grinding rock and roll chorus slams in with the line, “Oh, baby, baby, it’s fuck time!’
“That was originally going to be a Foxboro Hot Tubs song,” he says. “But we liked it so much that we said, ‘Why waste it?’ It’s just a big, fun, stupid song. It doesn’t imply anything; it comes out and says it. A lot of old rock and roll songs like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” or some of Elvis’ old songs imply sex. Or just the term rock and roll: rockin’ and rollin’—well, that means fucking. So why not say it? Just go there.”
Among their other virtues, ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! certainly set the record for the largest number of obscenities per song on any Green Day album. “You’re not the first one to point that out,” Armstrong says, laughing. “It was totally by accident.”
The only things raunchier than some of the lyrics on the three discs are Armstrong’s wild guitar solos. There is hardly a tune on which he doesn’t bust out some frenetic six-string moves.
“Yeah, I haven’t pulled that shit out since 1991, since Kerplunk, ” he says. “When I did guitar solos on the last two albums, I wanted to do things that were more tasteful. But this time I just wanted to throw the book out on that, do whatever the song called for, rock out and create a party atmosphere. Might as well show off what I can do and just go for it.”
Armstrong’s guitar solo in the song “Make Out Party,” from ¡Dos!, attains a degree of adolescent shreddiness not heard since the days of early indie-punk proto Green Day tracks like “Dry Ice” from their 1990 EP, 1,000 Hours. “That one’s channeling Jimmy Page a bit,” Armstrong says of the “Make Out Party” solo. “Page has a way of playing guitar solos that, when he goes into fast stuff, it almost sounds sloppy, like some of the guitar solos on Led Zeppelin II. So I was just going for that kind of thing—making it dirty, slightly bluesy but also kind of out there at the same time.”
This kind of guitar work didn’t come easily to Armstrong at first. “It was difficult to re-enter that mode,” he says. But then I just started doing it more. And Mike was really, like, ‘Fuckin’ go for it man! Just go!’”
For all of Armstrong’s precociousness as a songwriter and spokesman, Green Day remain very much a band and an equal partnership. The egalitarian Gilman Street power structure lives on in the band’s internal dynamic. Armstrong defers to his bandmates on most musical matters. He’ll even hesitate to play a new song for his wife before running it past Dirnt and Tré first.
“I don’t want to piss off the band,” he says. “They’d be, like, ‘Why are you playing the song for someone else before we get to listen to it?’”
One wonders how it’s possible to get any kind of serious musical comment out of the irrepressible Tré Cool, who always seems to be in full-on prankster mode.
“Yeah, Tré does a lot of clowning around and says a lot of crazy stuff,” Armstrong allows. “I love him for that, and that’s part of him. But when he’s behind the drum set, he’s completely focused and completely in his element. I think he’s one of the best drummers out there. His character comes out in his drumming. It’s like some singers, where their speaking voice sounds like their singing voice. It’s authentic.
“And I think Mike is the same way as a bass player. Mike is really focused too. And I love his kind of melodies on the bass. He’s kind of the secret weapon on these records in a lot of ways, ’cause the sound of the guitars make room for his bass playing to come out a little bit more.”
Dirnt was the catalyst for another expletive-studded, standout track, “Kill the DJ” from ¡Uno!. “Mike wanted me to write something four-on-the-floor,” Armstrong says. “Something like Gang of Four or Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass,’ almost a disco kind of song. I didn’t really have any references for that kind of thing, outside of maybe the Clash. So I wrote that song and I just like the irony of writing a dance song that’s saying ‘kill the DJ.’”
But Armstrong denies that the song is any kind of comment on the contemporary music scene and the ascendancy of superstar DJs like Skrillex and Deadmau$. “No, not at all,” he says. “I hope some of those people take that track and remix it! I think the line ‘Kill the DJ’ is more a take on all these opinions you get when you watch television these days—anything from Bill Maher to Bill O’Reilly: culture wars and all that; the static noise that keeps coming at you. And there’s that moment when you just say, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ That’s my take on it: ‘Just give me fuckin’ peace.’ Also, the song has the vibe of a party that’s gone gross—the feeling that everyone’s in the bathroom at the same time doing cocaine together.”
The second disc’s closing track stands in stark contrast to the “party out of control” vibe of the preceding songs. Titled “Amy,” it’s a posthumous homage to Amy Winehouse. “I saw a video of her singing and playing guitar,” Armstrong says. “I didn’t realize how great a guitar player she was. And that inspired me to write that song, kind of sending my condolences.”
And “Amy,” Armstrong says, served as a catalyst for the opening track on ¡Tré! “Brutal Love” is a searing R&B ballad in the style of the late Otis Redding. It’s a song that demonstrates Green Day’s remarkable range. Few, if any, of their pop-punk peers could pull off anything remotely like this, complete with a horn chart right out of the Stax Records heyday, no less.
“In the past, whenever we did horns or strings, the person who was doing the orchestration had to fit the arrangement inside the melody and all the guitars and try to get it heard,” Armstrong says. “But this time I talked to Tom Kitt, who did the all the arrangements, and I said, ‘I’m gonna leave it wide open so you can do whatever you want.’ So he wrote all the arrangements to just a bare-bones vocal and guitar track. That let him build that tension on ‘Brutal Love’ and give it that Otis Redding kind of feel.”
If ¡Uno! is the disc that will appeal most to Dookie fans, ¡Tré! is the one most likely to win approval from those who prefer the Green Day of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The final disc of the new trilogy closes with “The Forgotten,” a piano ballad embellished with lavish strings.
Certainly, it’s not every day that a band records three albums of new music. To commemorate the occasion, Green Day are preparing a documentary film on the making of the discs. “I really like certain surf documentaries, like Sprout, Seedling and One California Day,” Armstrong explains. “We wanted to do a film like that, capturing the spirit and lifestyle of the band. We didn’t want to do something where you just sit down and talk and it’s just your face on the screen. So there’s not really a narrative behind our film; it’s just more about what went on while we were making the album. We had a pirate radio station and we built a skateboard ramp. There’s surfing and us jamming, of course, playing throughout the whole thing. We wanted to make something that looks really good, almost like an art documentary in a lot of ways.”
Meanwhile, the world awaits another new film release, the American Idiot movie, which is likely to include a screen role for Armstrong. “It’s all in the works right now,” he says. “It’s just about that long process of movie making. I think I might play Saint Jimmy for the movie. There are talks about that. The great thing was to be able to do it onstage first and not be in front of the camera right away. But I got the acting bug a little bit, and I’m kind of easing my way into it. I want to learn more about it and learn from my friends who are actors. That’s kind of where I’m at with it now, just asking questions. I’ll start getting into it more and more after we do this wild run.”
The “wild run” in question is the marathon Green Day tour behind ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! which kicked off in August. “We’re touring our asses off,” Armstrong confirms. “We’re looking at anything from playing festivals and arenas to clubs and theaters. The idea is to design our production to be able to fit into all those different kinds of buildings. I can’t wait. You get to the point where you’re just talking about your new record, and now I just wanna get out there and play the new stuff.”
But he does have one last thing to say about Green Day, the Gilman Street punk band that became one of the most significant rock and roll bands of the 21st century. “It’s weird when people ask me, ‘Are you still a punk band?’” Armstong says. “I don’t know! I don’t know if we were ever really a punk band to begin with, because we’ve always loved melody. We’ve never really been like Minor Threat. I love Minor Threat, but I never wanted to be that. My favorite stuff was the Undertones, Generation X and the Ramones. The Ramones wrote melodies like the Beach Boys. So is that punk? And some of the later Clash records—do you consider that punk? A song like ‘Bankrobber’: Is that a punk song? It’s backward reggae! I’ve always loved power pop and I’ve just tried to push it forward, see how far I could take it and make it even more powerful. I just feel like we’ve continued this tradition of rock and roll and punk rock and made it better. I mean I’m slightly biased, but…”