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