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