Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: Green Day

| March 2, 2020

On the most instinctual gut level, Billie Joe Armstrong gets it. No question. A la cinematic director Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 visual masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi, life — nationally and around the world — has tipped completely, horribly, maybe irrevocably out of balance. On one recent day alone, the headlines said it all: Freakish, climate-change-spurred floods are swamping Mississippi and Tennessee. Post-Columbine school kids are being subjected to regular Active Shooter and Lockdown Drills. An emboldened post-acquittal Trump administration is demanding access to private E-mail encryption. And a gaggle of unlikely Democratic presidential candidates is awkwardly squabbling their way through the primary season, which some have likened to bringing a butter knife to a gunfight. Perhaps creative minds feel this seismic shift more acutely. Still, we are heading into dark, dark times where democracy may no longer be relevant, and artists could end up being pilloried for their art, simply because it offends the self-appointed new king.

But the always-outspoken Green Day frontman isn’t sitting quietly as the threats grow more ominous. He and his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-inducted trio have responded with a new Butch Walker-coproduced outing Father of All Motherfuckers, which can be heard as a celebration of classic Phil Spector-immense rock and roll influences or — upon serious study of Armstrong’s visceral lyrics — as a scathing political diatribe that draws a line in the sand on the future of humanity.

The record’s title is a phrase Armstrong, 47, came up with years ago, something he’s been saving until now. “I’ll just do a play on words a lot, whether it’s a song or not,” he says. To whom is he referring? He chuckles. “I think on the positive side of it, it could be me feeling like I’m the best,” he replies. “Or, on the negative side of it, Trump being the worst. We live in a really scary time, and Trump, to me, is the most toxic, polarizing politician — not only in my lifetime — but, I have to say, since Adolf Hitler. I think he’s very dangerous for our country right now, and I think that Mitch McConnell is even more dangerous.” Extinction? “That’s where we’re headed,” he sighs. “Whether it be through climate change or the neo-fascism that’s in our political sphere right now. But the thing that drives me crazy is the people who vote against their own interests. And maybe they do it because the Bible told them so, and people switch to religion in a lot of ways just because it feels convenient since they can’t get health care. So, as Stranger Things says, I feel like we’re living in the upside-down, and we are the creatures that are killing ourselves.” Talking sense to any opposing viewpoint, a philosopher recently opined, is useless because “You can’t reason someone out of something that they didn’t reason their way into.”

When Green Day recently appeared on Good Morning America to debut the rousing Joan Jett-sampled single “Oh Yeah!,” the three musicians were in fine form as the audience sang along with the huge handclap-punctuated chorus. Drummer Tre Cool sported a new pornstache, bassist Mike Dirnt wore his muttonchops sculpted into long, stag-beetle-pincer points, and Armstrong was still Bowery-Boy youthful with his perpetually-mussed shock of black hair. Although he sang the words clearly in his trademark nasal drone, they might have been lost on the young crowd: “Nobody move and nobody gonna get hurt/ Reach for the sky with your face in the dirt …Dirty looks, and I’m looking for a payback/ Burning books in a bulletproof backpack… Everybody got a scar/ Ain’t it funny how we’re running out of hope.” Afterward, Armstrong even apologized to show host Robin Roberts for sounding so dark so early in the day. A la the other nine stomping tracks on the album, “Oh Yeah!” delivers its observations like a steel fist in a velvet glove. Or that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

“And that’s the thing that Green Day does so well,” reckons Dirnt, who teamed up with childhood chum Armstrong back in 1987, when they were both only 15. “When we’re firing on all cylinders, you can take our records any way you want to take them — you can take them at face value, or you can dig deep into them. And we don’t need to candy-coat everything, because it’s not rhetorical. But I think Billie’s really on-point for a lot of these songs, but there’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world.”

The always mischievous Cool is more optimistic. “People just don’t want to believe what their eyes are telling them,” he says. “And you can get caught up in that, and it’ll really turn your day sour. Or you can almost find the comedy in it and realize that we live in a crazy, different time, with the way things are changing so quickly amid the landscape of social media, where everybody is a star. It’s a different world out there, but I personally think that there’s a lot of fun to be had still.” He pauses, searching for the right comparison. “It’s sort of like we’re dancing a jig while the world is burning around us.”

Armstrong is of a similar mind on the subject of social media. “You have to take a break from it because it amplifies everything,” he says. “Not only does everyone have an opinion, but everyone feels like their opinion matters. We throw daggers at each other, and we do things without thought. Nobody wants to listen anymore. It’s weird — in 2020, so far, we’ve gone through an impeachment, we’ve had the deadliest fires in human history that just happened in Australia, snd we go through a news cycle so quickly now it’s insane.” For example, he explains, Green Day just played the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis for a rowdy hockey crowd, during which he dropped a few F-bombs from the stage. “And the next thing you know, we’re trending just because I said a bunch of bad words, and I didn’t even have time to enjoy it,” he says. “I mean, trends used to last for years, like skinny jeans or whatever. But that’s the world that we live in now. It moves at the speed of light, and unfortunately, that’s the attention span for what we go through with tragedy, also. You have a bunch of school kids who have to start wearing bulletproof backpacks now, so where did all our thoughts and prayers go? They’re gone. At light speed.”

Full disclosure: This writer first met Green Day in 1994, and I liked them immediately. And over the years, I’ve always felt big-brotherly proud of Amstrong himself, as I watched him reason his way out of some serious situations, like how to handle overnight success. After interviewing Adam Duritz at a campus-adjacent cafe in Berkeley one afternoon, the Counting Crows singer asked me to tag along with him to the quad, where a band he knew was playing a daytime show. And he was remarkably enthusiastic. “They’re these great little kids who write songs about shyly seeing a girl you like in the library, but when you peek back over the top of the book you’re reading, she’s gone. They’re called Green Day, and they’re just awesome!” Coincidentally, I had already set up an interview with them back in Berkeley the next week to preview their then-upcoming Dookie disc, and their personalities were evident from the start. They were tapeworm-thin, and Armstrong’s close-cropped hair was dyed green and spiked with Sonic the Hedgehog tufts, but behind his and Dirnt’s sleepy gazes you could feel a fierce, street-savvy intelligence crackling. Cool — conversely bright-eyed and impish — always looked like he was up to — or had just gotten away with — some prank. They were punks, in the truest sense of the word. They practically had their own lingo and laughed readily at each other’s in-jokes, which they were more than happy to explain to outsiders if they inquired. A week later, they sat around their kooky crash pad with a giant smoking device they’d dubbed Bongzilla, leaning against a Twister mat inexplicably taped to a wall, a Sea Monkeys tank frothing on the windowsill, and sharp-pointed springs protruding from almost every weathered living-room chair. Dirnt still remembers our first innocuous summit with Duritz. “At Sproul Plaza!” he chortles. “Adam was great! He caught on to us really early, and he was telling everybody about us. That was so great of him to do — I was like, ‘Wow! Thanks, man!’”

Of course, no one outside of producer Rob Cavallo had any idea the stratosphere the lads were rocketing to at the time.

But Green Day’s brand of snotty punk rock would soon go mainstream, as chart-topping anthems like “Longview,” “Basket Case,” and “When I Come Around” topped Modern Rock charts and sold over 10 million copies of Dookie, stateside alone. It also earned the band a 1995 Grammy for Best Alternative album. But what happens when your anonymity and privacy suddenly evaporate in the wake of MTV superstardom? In one of the only interviews he granted for 1995’s followup Insomniac, Armstrong wasn’t sure if he wanted such notoriety, ironically hammered home by two giggling schoolgirls in the next booth over at a Berkeley diner, who immediately recognized him but were too timid to say hello. Even though it was technically Green Day’s fourth effort (after two on indie imprint Lookout!), it felt like he was feeling the sophomore-jinx pressure. Slumped low in his seat to avoid further detection, it didn’t help. He was clever and analytical enough to rationalize his way out of it, which he did in grand style on the eclectic 1997 followup Nimrod, with more Bay Area, fraternal pride. It showcased his genuine love of — and enduring fascination with — the nuts-and-bolts craft of songwriting. He saw beyond the three-chord limits of DIY punk, like all great composers. Aptly enough, the gentle ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” would go on to becomes one of the group’s signature sonnets. It even closed out the final episode of the Seinfeld TV series, and it still finds its way onto easy-listening radio playlists.

A few years later, I sat in Cavallo’s Burbank office at Reprise Records, left alone with a top-secret, then-unreleased copy of American Idiot for a story I was doing. I was suitably stunned. Green Day had topped itself yet again with an ambitious concept album that just seemed perfect for a Broadway stage. Armstrong’s eyes twinkled in the ensuing chat as he discussed that possibility. You could tell he was already considering his next big move, which would — with the help of Spring Awakening’s Michael Mayer — eventually hit the stage in 2009. And the reinvention never stopped. Green Day would go on to release its own Rock Band video game; have its series of Converse All-Stars; issue a bountiful trilogy of records (Uno.. Dos…Tre!); put out two greatest-hits compilations; and — on April 24, 2015 — find itself inducted into the prestigious Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on its first nomination. The next time I spoke with Armstrong, he’d battled through an addiction to prescription medication, but also delved into acting and tracked a dusky duets disc with Norah Jones, Foreverly, covering the Everly Brothers folk album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us note for note. “I just kind of go where my voice takes me,” he said at the time, after stumbling upon the stark classic in a record store. His wife, Adrienne, suggested Jones as a singing foil, and the pair kept the project hush-hush until its 2013 release.

That’s what has kept Green Day going for over three decades now — a restless need to explore, to push sonic boundaries, to maintain that initial level of excitement that came with Dookie. And — with punk and politics inextricably linked — the band was afforded the opportunity via the inventive knob-twiddler Walker to speak its mind and reveal even more of its vintage rock influences on Father.

The album opens with Armstrong singing falsetto on the jarring title track (“I got paranoia baby/ And it’s so hysterical/ Cracking up under pressure/ Looking for a miracle”), segues into the wah-oohed “Fire, Ready, Aim” (“Stick a hammer in your mouth/You’re a liar/ Knock your teeth out”), the “Twist”-echoing “Stab You in the Heart” (“Pictures don’t lie when you’re front-page news/ Dagger to heart coming down on you”), the stomping “Junkies on a High” (“I’m not a soldier/ This ain’t no new world order..rock ’n’ roll tragedy/ I think the next one could be me”), the Duane Eddy-booming “Take the Money and Crawl,” and the Gary Glitter-ish closer “Graffitia” (“This city isn’t big enough for dreamers/ We were all believers/ It’s the perfect crime”). All of the material is anchored in Cool’s propulsive Brontosaurus patterns and so many walls of handclaps that the band gave them its own moniker, Captain Hey. Whenever Walker requested the studio presence of Captain Hey, it was — quite literally — all hands on deck.

The band prepared meticulously for the sessions. Cool began practicing drums every day in anticipation and whittled the huge collection that he brought with him Walker’s SoCal studio. And the Donnas/Brian Fallon producer surprised him at each meeting. “He would just bust out his organ,” he blurts, then stops himself, laughing. “Hey, now don’t take that the wrong way! “He’d play the organ or maybe put some huge line of backing vocals on a song and go, ‘Hey — Whaddaya think about THIS?’ And we’d be like, ‘That works really well!’ We just gave him carte blanche to be creative, and we weren’t keeping it too sacred. It was like we were just a bunch of dudes jamming, like, ‘Let’s have fun!’”

Armstrong honed his compositional skills to an even sharper edge in the process. “For me, there are different kinds of songs,” he explains. “There are songs that push you out of your comfort zone, and then there those that just make you feel good, or that get you high or make you happy.” The “Father” title cut — which is so non-Green Day that fans might think they were sent the wrong download by mistake — covered all those bases. “It was a brand new thing for us, and to be able to say that after 30 years, it is pretty cool, cool to feel like you can challenge yourself in a new way.” Going into the recording, he knew he didn’t want to make American Idiot, Part 2, he adds. “So the record is really trying to dive into the history of rock and roll, whether it’s Little Richard, Martha and the Vandellas, or even Prince and stuff like that.” Or, as Dirnt put it, “We didn’t mail it in — it’s just not in our DNA. It’s a testament to our blue-collar roots, but it’s also a testament to Oakland and the Bay Area.”

And Green Day isn’t claiming to have singlehandedly put the brakes on global warming. But you choose your battles, says Dirnt, who, with Armstrong, launched the eco-friendly Oakland Coffee Works, which uses only certified-compostable bags and Keurig pods, and has traveled all over the world researching his product. His belief system is simple; he says: “If you stand for something, you’ll never die for nothing, and I’ve been saying that to myself for years. Live your life with purpose. I stand for music, I stand for being a good dad, and every day when I wake up, I feel like I’ve got some purpose. And if you have a job where somebody pats you on the back every day and says you did a good job? Hey, that’s a great job — keep it.”

Cool thinks rapidly-advancing technology can actually help our dire fake-news/alternative facts situation. He’s not a fan of social media, he says. “And those little radioactive rectangles in your pocket? I think their primary use is for communicating with your band and your family. But their SECONDARY use is, you can fact-check motherfuckers who are talking shit. Back in the day, some pseudo-intellectual would be at a bar, going ‘Did you know that possums are blah, blah, blah?’ But now, you can go, ‘Oh, really? Lets’s see what Google has to say about this!’”

Ultimately, concludes Armstrong, the burning query at the heart of Father of All Motherfuckers was this: “How do you start a party in the middle of the world crumbling? In front of your very eyes? That’s kind of what the record is about. But take a song like “Take the Money and Crawl,” that’s the sort of toxic shit that’s inside the album if you really peel back the layers of the party that’s going on.”

Appearing August 13, 2020, at Wrigley Field with Fall Out Boy and Weezer.

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