Interview: Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong on '¡Uno!,' '¡Dos!' and '¡Tre!'
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.”