*This post was originally published as the cover story of The Aquarian Weekly, Vol. 2-706 (Apr. 3, 2013)
From the blasting bassline on “Longview” and introductory riff of “Brain Stew,” to the simple timelessness of “Good Riddance,” Green Day have trademarked sounds that are culturally embedded into the ‘90s musical yearbook.
They’ve been a band for 25 years, and their enthusiasm now is very much comparable to that of their chaotic and fun younger counterparts during their inception in 1987. Lead vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and bassist/backing vocalist Mike Dirnt met as middle school kids in Berkeley, California, and with drummer Tré Cool, started Green Day. They integrated guitarist/backing vocalist Jason White into the band, after he toured with them for 13 years.
In their early days, Green Day looked and acted like the ultimate “punks.” But it was important that they did. In being themselves, the true musical geniuses of color, wonder, and defiance, they pioneered a movement.
They made it okay to act and jam out. So much so that, after seeing their video for “Basketcase” at eight years old, I marched up to my sister’s bedroom, pillaged the dresser for her Dookie shirt, and put it on with pride so that I could represent at school.
It’s not just about punk music. It’s about the energy and excitement of the movement. It’s about saying what you want to say. Green Day stayed and played through years of evolving music. And countless bands were influenced by their rigor for rocking out.
Green Day made a “second splash” with 2004’s American Idiot, a “rock opera” that brought their rage and rebellion to a new generation. It was turned into a play by director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), and gave Green Day an additional platform to echo their message.
They did before, and they still do, speak to a population of excited, passionate youth (who are now adults) loving 2012’s trilogy album compilation, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tre!
Coming full circle, Dirnt took some time to connect from the road to talk about their current tour, taking an album to the bright lights of Broadway, and that memorable performance that catapulted the band to fame after Woodstock ’94.
It’s great to see you guys back on the scene! You kicked off a world tour in early March, and will be on the road through the summer. How does it feel to be back in the groove after hitting pause for a bit?
Honestly, it’s nice. It’s nice to have a purpose! It’s nice to connect with the fans again. They’ve been really great and supportive of us over the last few months. And honestly, it’s just good to be on stage playing again. It feels like we’re firing on all cylinders again. That’s what we like to do—play live.
Don’t we know it! Going back a ways, Green Day’s Woodstock ‘94 performance is an iconic moment of that era. From your perspective, what role, if any, do you think this had in your rise? How do you reflect on your humble beginnings?
I ended up writing the first two pages of the CD booklet [for the next album] because, for me, [that festival] was a whole experience. As we were walking in, some people were walking out all miserable from just being stuck in the rain and mud for like three days, so at the show you’ve got people in there having a great time, but when we got in, there was like 300,000 people and it was just the craziest thing we had ever seen in our lives up to that point. We played the show and we were truly able to connect with the audience, have fun, and enjoy everything about the experience. And at the end of the show, I got tackled by a security guard. He actually sheared my teeth, and I blew like five teeth. Only one of them died. I fixed the rest of them, but he all sheared up the back of my teeth. It was horrible. But the great thing about it is that I was able to get out of there, and I’d do it again tomorrow if I had to.
It was just that kind of show. It was completely memorable. We went on stage after Paul Simon, and all these other musicians. We went out and thought, “Oh God, we’re gonna get killed.” We were just able to connect with the audience’s misery through humor.
Were you cognizant of the fact that you were pioneers of punk, or were you just doing your thing?
We were on tour for Lollapalooza and we were opening for L7, which shows how early on it was. People would rush the stage causing security to come out, and, of course, we’d get in trouble for it. Everything was moving at the speed of light. It was an exciting time for music in general. Woodstock ‘94 definitely marked something changing, and in the middle of Lollapalooza. After that happened, the shit hit the fan with Green Day. We were much bigger immediately.
From selling 75 million records worldwide and earning a handful of Grammy Awards, to transcending your music to Broadway, there’s really been no stoned unturned for the band. Was this celebrity stature your ultimate goal, or just a result of natural progression?
As a band, even since Billie and I were just little kids, we’ve always had a really good work ethic, and we’d get together every day. At the least, we used to practice three days a week. At the most, it was five or six days a week. During this last trio of records, that’s why we had so much music. It wasn’t that we were trying to be the most creative people in the world—or arrogant—it’s just that we were in a mode. And we were really enjoying the process. You can see that with the movie ¡Cuatro!
But at the end of the day, it’s just what we do best. We’re fortunate to have realized early on that we didn’t really have any other options. It’s not like I was gonna stop playing with Green Day and go to Harvard for a while. This was our option and I always felt like, whatever you’re going to do, do it to the best of your ability, and if you’re lucky, it will be what you do best.
The documentary, Broadway Idiot, is an interesting look into the band’s foray into Broadway with the play American Idiot. What made you guys decide to take that leap of faith when Broadway is so temperamental?
We had all the same concerns a lot more than most people, because obviously,American Idiot was our baby. But we wrote that song and album with a narrative. It was a loose narrative through the whole thing. Granted, we had to write it to stand on its own as a record with songs that can be played on the radio, too.
We had to write it within those parameters to make it work so it wasn’t too linear. We were approached by Michael Mayer, and he just came with a confidence, and we said, “We wrote it imagining it very visual in our heads,” and he wanted to do some workshops on it and we said, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt—go ahead.” And after doing that, we went out to New York and saw the kids performing it and thought, “This is amazing. Keep going; go to the next step.” It was a slow process. We flew back and forth to New York 10 times or so over two years to meet with the crew and watch every progression along the way. It was very collaborative. Billy wrote the libretto with Michael and it was just a matter of us having “hands off but eyes on.” If there was something we were concerned about, they’d listen, but for the most part, they really just got it. Michael understood what we were doing and got the narrative of the record, and he understands the music behind the songs. And when [orchestrator] Tom Kitt worked on the arrangements, he was sensitive to that. We told him to push it further. The song structures and melodies were there, and they just got it.
It’s one of those things where, if you hear the idea, you may not be sure. But when you see it, you absolutely get it. It’s rooted in our world. For us it was the greatest gift. The one thing about Green Day for us is that we will never get to see Green Day live!
Green Day have been together for 25 years, which is an accomplishment in itself, but you’ve really been around to see the music industry and selling landscape change drastically. What are your thoughts on how fans consume music today?
We believe in it. That’s why we put out free records. Other people think, “Let’s get [our albums] out really quick [to avoid it being leaked],” but that’s okay. You put something out that’s great, the fans are going to hold onto it. You make great music and it lasts forever, that’s the way we’ve always felt. The truth is, it’s weird, because my daughter will listen to anything from like, Falling In Reverse or 2 Chainz, to Owl City. Kids’ musical tastes are a lot more diverse because there’s a lot of “If you like that, you’ll like this…” going on online.
But I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different from when I grew up. I had to search through the record store a lot more. The record stores are gone now and nowadays you’re subject to whoever is bringing the records in—unless you can actually find them in a pop store. With the click of a button, and with sharing playlists, you can really dig deep and get those rare tracks that you used to have to be one hell of a DJ to get before. Nowadays, you spend hours on the computer and you can get those amazing songs.
Green day are playing April 7 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For more information, go to greenday.com