Mike Dirnt is an often-cited bass guitar (opens in new tab) influence in these pages and beyond, responsible for drawing many a young player into the joys of bassdom. Furthermore, he blew away the definition of a ‘punk bassist’ years ago.
The man has far more artillery in his cannon than that, as we discovered when we caught up with Dirnt for a much-needed update and some enlightening conversation. With their new album Father Of All Motherf***ers recently unleashed on the world, Green Day are in a good place.
The new record covers a lot of ground, as Dirnt confirms: “There’s definitely some 1950s rock ’n’ roll in there, and we’ve got some 70s glam in there, too; a little bit of Phil Spector and I’m playing with some newer tones that are pushing forward. What was nice was that I was able to play a lot lower, a lot of deeper notes, and drop more actual sub-low bass than I ever have before.”
Sounds intriguing... “Well, I’ve always gone back and forth between the punk side of where we come from and old-school rock ’n’ roll. Much of this album was split between one of my signature series basses and an old flatwound-equipped Fender Mustang, which gave me a kind of old-style Hofner tone. To record that, I was running through one of my Fender Super Bassman amps.”
Having been together for well over 30 years now, Green Day have a familiar way of working that seems just fine for singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, drummer Tre Cool and Dirnt. Even when they’re not recording or touring, the guys are still working together.
“Up until the !Uno! !Dos! !Tre! albums that we did in 2012, we would practice together four to six days a week between tours and records. It shocked me when you’d speak to other bands. I’d be genuinely surprised, like ‘You mean you don’t practice every day?’”
He continues: “After the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2015, I realized that we’ve been practicing four to six days a week for our whole f***ing career! But we don’t have to do that now. We know how to write together, and how to work on songs from different angles.
“Billie will send playlists of what he’s listening to, because it comes from Billie’s core as to what he’s feeling. He’ll work on songs and send us the early demos so we’re all in the loop. When we’re ready to lay down the proper demos, we get together and then he can manipulate it from that point.
“Part of it is not overthinking it, because demos can sound really good these days. I’ve actually used stuff from my phone before. I’ve got a great collection of ideas, melodies, bassline ideas, guitar riffs all on my phone – but you have to keep your ears open for new stuff too.”
With so many miles on the clock together, do tensions ever run high? “Well, I’ve been playing with Billie since I was 10 and a half and I’m 47 now. The thing is, we’re friends and we grew up a long time ago -–so if s*** gets difficult or awkward, we can have a general conversation.
“We’re all different people, but there’s a commonality with music. Billie has grown into a phenomenal songwriter but when we get together, he knows he can depend on Tre and I to get our parts down and lay it out for him. He’s a good drummer too and sometimes he might suggest something – but he knows we’ll play it differently and get all of the juice out of it.
As for studio craft, Dirnt points out that even when you think a song is finished, it isn’t necessarily the case.
“I don’t like to over-listen to something – I like to keep the original inspiration, because you don’t get a first listen again and again,” he explains. “I’ll listen and take notes based on what I’m thinking, play it once or twice and then walk away to let the song evolve.
“When we get to the studio, I might write it out 18 different ways until I get it how I want it, but even then I might not know exactly which road we’re going down with it until I actually lay it down.
“On Junkies On A High for example, there’s a section where the bassline enhances the verses - but not so much that it takes away from the song. Then, on Meet Me On The Roof, that rhythm can be played so many different ways.
“I wrote it a few ways and recorded the whole thing, but when I got in there, I said ‘You know what? The pocket is actually here,’ because I was feeling it differently. At the end, I just opened it up and walked it – turned around into a sort of jazz-walk! –and the guys said ‘What the f*** was that?’ But that was how I felt it.”
Green Day have hit considerable highs throughout their career, to say the very least – most notably with the Dookie (1994) and American Idiot (2004) albums, where their progress was tangible – but it hasn’t all been plain sailing, as Dirnt is quick to point out.
“It’s kinda weird,” he muses, “because you don’t know when you’re going to write a seminal record that’s going to change your career. Both of those albums were exciting, and we knew we were onto something new for us, taking us to a new level – but it’s not the easy stuff that tests your mettle.
“After Dookie, we wanted to get right back into the studio, because we’d signed to a major label [Reprise/Warners], so everyone was freaking out, and we wanted to show that we weren’t a one-trick pony.
“By the time we recorded American Idiot, we said ‘We don’t care what the world thinks. We’re either going to swing from the heavens or we’re going to strike out –and that’s it. There’s nothing in between.’
“That tour was immense. Those were truly epic shows for us. The Bullet In A Bible documentary was spot on, the sun came out and the planets aligned. That film documented our step up into the next league, playing major stadiums and festivals around the world. It was a pivotal moment for Green Day.”
He continues: “The follow-up to American Idiot was probably the hardest writing and recording cycle of our careers – because we’re just not built for mailing it in, and we could have done that. There was a lot of pressure, because there was nothing on the table ready to go.
“Our next album, 21st Century Breakdown (2009), was the perfect continuation – and we put our heads down and went to work. After the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, I wanted to channel our energy into putting something new and great out, to let people know – again – that we’re not done.”
Moving on to bass gear, Dirnt’s signature Fender Precisions have proved incredibly successful since their launch in 2004 – but they started life out of necessity rather than as a commercial enterprise. Dirnt’s intention was to prevent vintage instruments from being bastardized, as he explains.
“One of the reasons I went for the Tele headstock was to stop people buying up the original Telecaster and Precision basses and ruining them, routing them out for a pickup they were never designed for.
“I remember the day I paid Fender to make one of these basses: they sent me several variations before they came to me around 2003 to do a signature model. Nothing happened for around a year, so I made one with my tech and one of our engineers.”
We love the pickup he uses, we tell him. “That’s a ’59 Custom Shop wrap – and it’s a great pickup,” he enthuses. “I love to give them to bassists who are much better than me and watch them go, ‘Oh s***!’ What else is in the signal chain, Mike?'” He laughs as he tries to recall what’s behind him onstage.
“I usually play four or five basses per show,” he says. “We have a lot of older songs tuned down to Eb, but with the newer stuff, for simplicity, I’ll play in regular E tuning. I have a little Fender Mustang for things like Macy’s Day Parade and other songs that have a different tonal requirement. It’s a simple setup.”
Asked about the Fender Super Bassman amps which he uses, he tells us: “I love that amp, and I know Fender redesigned it around six years ago, as they were heading in the wrong direction. I wrote them a letter saying ‘I’d be happy to champion that amp, but here’s what it needs’ – so I sent them a bunch of my old amps for specification purposes.
“I wanted the DI from an old amp, and I wanted the bass and treble knobs to have the push/pull functions that they used to have and to restore the blend option, so I didn’t have to go through a pedal to distort. That way I could have my clean tone and a distorted tone running side by side, so when I hit the button, I wasn’t losing any of the signal from my cable.
“I’m still using Fender 45-105 strings, Ultimate Ears for my IEMs and standard yellow [0.73mm] Dunlop Tortex picks. I move my arm a lot, but my sound really comes from my wrist. I don’t actually hit the strings as hard as people think I do, because I’ve figured out how to get the same attack without going so far through the strings. I like to let the pick move between my thumb, finger and wrist.”
Needless to say, Dirnt has acquired some veritable bass gems on his travels. Prepare to drool, folks...
“I’ve got some really great ’60s Precision basses. My wife wanted to buy me a great bass, so she found a ’58 Olympic White model – it eats my friends alive that I take it out and play it live! A few years back, Darryl Jones sold me his ’64 Jazz – it’s sick; very nasty.
“I also have a ’62 Jazz in Olympic White with a magical neck on it. You play a note on that thing and it sounds like a sine wave, I’ve never heard that much attack. The lows are really low and the highs are almost bell-like. I give away more basses than I buy; I give a lot away to charities and schools.”
With Green Day’s rescheduled ‘Hella Mega’ world tour starting in November and running through mid-2021, Dirnt is going to be exceptionally busy – but that’s what he wants, right? With a chuckle, he says: “Anything is possible at this point, which is exciting for Green Day and for me. We can do whatever we want.”
- Green Day's new album, Father Of All Motherf***ers is out now (opens in new tab) on Reprise.