The last time the world saw Green Day, they were riding sky high on the trail of success off their 13 million-selling, 2004 album American Idiot…
The protest-driven epic was perhaps the defining moment for a group that had already reached the top a decade earlier – the Oakland bred pop punk trio’s major label debut Dookie sold 15 million copies worldwide and defined a generation of slackers and potheads. But where Dookie was rebellious pop punk, American Idiot become more than just music (even inspiring a play that debuted in San Francisco).
Its tirades against then US President George W. Bush struck a common chord among the ostracized around the world, and somewhere between playing in front of 65,000 strong at the Milton Keynes Bowl in England, recording with U2 and picking up multiple Grammy Awards, Green Day become arguably the biggest band in America. And perhaps the biggest American band in the world.
By the time the trio’s eighth studio album 21st Century Breakdown hit stores, Green Day has been around for 23 years. Though they look much younger, Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt are 37 while drummer Tre Cool is 36. In other words, Green Day are officially middle aged.
Yet the notorious pranksters who spent their formative years getting high at punk rock club 924 Gilman Street in the Bay Area of California don’t seem to have changed one bit. Inside their studio fortress (barbed wire lines the gate separating their headquarters from their surroundings) in what can only be described as a grungy part of Oakland, the black clad trio burp, giggle and drink beer for several minutes before the interview begins.
This is the band whose last album became a political/cultural movement?
"Listen, we don’t want to get preachy and we don’t want to tell people how to live," says Billie Joe Armstrong in between burps. "With 21st Century Breakdown , we try to take a photograph of what’s happening right now. It’s about capturing the moment." Even if that moment took several years to make, the near-operatic three-act album sets its sights on plenty: religion, life, death, and of course, the classic punk rock theme of fighting the system and sticking it to the Man.
"There’s definitely this watch-out-who-you-obey-and-trust theme with this album," says Armstrong. Before the frontman can even finish, he’s interrupted by Tre Cool, who sits up from his usual slacker slouch position to say "That’s the theme in all our albums, to declare your own independence, so to speak." Armstrong shoots Cool a fake mean stare for interrupting before telling him to go f*** himself. The two giggle. This is the band whose latest album is tackling organized religion?
Despite the group’s loose, seemingly intoxicated behavior, the three have definitely battled through plenty of ups and downs. After the commercial success of Dookie , they were called sellouts by Bay Area punk rockers – most notably their former friends from 924 Gilman Street (Armstrong claims the sting of the initial resentment still lingers today). Then there was the three-year period from 2000 to 2003 when, after their album Warning flopped, they were considered to be post their prime and irrelevant. Even American Idiot began with a hiccup. "We started the tour in Texas, and naturally our anti-Bush album caught some flack," says Cool with a laugh. He then puts on a fake southern accent, "They were like Green Day? More like Green Gay!"
"Yes, our early shows in Texas definitely weren’t too full…"
Armstrong concurs. They’re prepared to face similar controversy on tour, as their new song ‘East Jesus Nowhere’ is about hypocrisy in religion. "I think religion was meant to be a look at your own humanity, but many see it as a way to play God," explains Armstrong. "You saw it during the eight years of Bush and in the suicide bombings, and you see it everyday today. It’s all sort of by Christian design. We just want to say it’s okay to have doubt."
But the anti-Bush controversy worked out in the end for the band, even in a state where the former U.S. President once governed. "I think as the tour went on and more people heard our song, they realized that even if you don’t agree with our lyrics, you can still be drawn in by our energy," Armstrong says, pointing out that by their second time around in Texas, the shows were packed again.
"Yeah, American Idiot brought us back to the top of the mountain," says Dirnt. "I’m at the top and I’m looking around and I’m thinking this is amazing. I don’t want to go back down now."
And so the band went to work.
A lot has changed in the world in the five years between American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown . Most notably, the main target of criticism from the last album, George W. Bush, has been replaced by the universally liked Barack Obama. And while they are U.S. leaders, the band feels that Bush did so much damage around the world that even those who don’t live in the States will be able to relate to their cutting lyrics. They’re also not about to give Obama a free pass just because he offers the promise of change. "There’s still plenty wrong with the world," says Cool. "We may be in a worse state. There’s still a financial crisis. Obama has got to get to work."
With producer Butch Vig (the member of the rock act Garbage who also produced such iconic rock albums as Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Smashing Pumpkin’s Siamese Dream) behind the desk to harness the group’s ambition, 21st Century Breakdown is a juggernaut of a rock album that builds on American Idiot’s punk rock opera concept. Separated into three acts ("Heroes and Cons", "Charlatans and Saints" and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades"), the 18-track opus introduces two young punk lovers, Christian and Gloria, as they embark on a journey after being betrayed by just about everyone they know (including their church).
"Christian is this self destructive person who has personal demons and Gloria is trying to hold onto beliefs. There are moments in this album that are symbolic," explains Armstrong. "It’s not a linear story like American Idiot this time, it’s more symbolic of the world post-Bush."
Such an ambitious approach had the band experimenting and stringing together different styles. With a random collection of vinyl records as inspiration ("I only listen to vinyl. 21st Century Breakdown will be out in vinyl," says Dirnt), including everything from Rick James to the British Invasion to Eddie Cochran, the new release is a smorgasbord: There’s Queen-like loud chorus/soft verse, glossy ballads, and ’70s style anthems. Nearly gone are simple three chord punk songs. Instead, every song sounds like it was meant to rock stadiums. "There was no grand design to try to make this big sounding record though," says Armstrong. "We just wanted to be patient and let the songs reveal themselves."
And the song that did reveal itself is "Know Your Enemy". "I watched a lot of news to soak up information for ideas," Armstrong says. "I realized there’s a lot of bullshit on TV. "Know Your Enemy" is about liberating yourself from the BS. That set the tone for the album."
But for these guys, who can’t go five minutes without cracking a dirty joke or dropping an f-bomb, staying serious for the entire production period is mission impossible. So what did the group do? They put on a mask and recorded a quick album under a fake name. "That whole Foxboro Hot Tub thing was just to blow off steam," laughs Armstrong. Playing blistering paced three chord numbers at small venues was Green Day returning to their roots. It’s the perfect concept for a band that refuses to grow old.
"I realized while touring as Foxboro Hot Tubs that I wouldn’t mind doing this for the rest of my life too," says Dirnt. Armstrong adds that he occasionally wishes he could be a slacker pothead again like he was during their Dookie days. Cool even claims that they thought about going to China to record a quick punk rock record just for the heck of it. "We get wild ideas," he says. Wild ideas indeed for a trio whose members are all married with kids.
It’s been said that the period between a band finishing the album and waiting for the release is the toughest. Doubts and apprehension often creep up as a group wonders if what they did was good enough. Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool decided that if they were going to lose their minds, they would "do it with everyone". The result? Last minute top-secret gigs at clubs in the Bay Area.
"We had several practice sessions after recording the album and we were just tired of only seeing each other’s faces," says Dirnt. "So we made a few bookings." One of the shows, at a spunky theatre named The Uptown, was an intimate gig played in front of only 400 excited fans who paid US$20 for the privilege of seeing Green Day play the new album live in its entirety. It’s this kind of attitude that backs up Armstrong’s claims that despite the band’s ambitions, they are all about the music.
"I enjoy playing in front of 60,000 people and also in front of a few hundred," he says. "With this new album, you can take away from it what you want. You can listen to the lyrics or just the music. I just want the hair to rise on the back of your necks when you hear Green Day."
BEFORE THE BREAKOUT
39 Smooth 1990
A collection of Green Day EPs Sloppy and 1,000 hours. Released on indie label Lookout! Records, it’s an underwhelming record that’s most notable today for featuring the group’s first drummer, John Kiffmeyer. He left the group to attend college after one year.
Dookie’s success and the ensuing backlash from their hometown fans burned out the band, and the result was this angry mess of an album. Although "Brain Stew" would end up being a concert favorite, this one was called a disappointment.
They were learning quickly, for this one sold 50,000 copies-tremendous for an independent release. Backed by the power anthem "2000 Light Years Away" and "Welcome to Paradise" (which the band would re-record for Dookie two years later), Kerplunk put the band on the map. Major labels noticed.
Fan favorites, soundtrack singles … this one had them all. Yet it was "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)", a ballad of sorts which created the mold future anthems would be based on.
American Idiot 2004
The crowd pleaser that brought Green Day back to life and how. Complete with a nine-minute epic ("Jesus of Suburbia") and the ballad heard around the world ("Blvd of Broken Dreams"), the album captured the political and personal zeitgeist of its fans. They responded.
And it all begins here … backed by the riffy and catchy singles " Longview", " When I Come Around", and "Basketcase", Dookie propelled Green Day into the mainstream. Still the best selling Green Day album to this day with 15 million copies sold worldwide.
A hidden gem for fans, but also a commercial flop. But there was a diamond in this rough. Single " Minority" would set the tone for Billie Joe Armstrong’s political lyrics. "I had always wanted to talk politics before, but I didn’t know how to put it in a song until ‘Minority’."
Stop Drop and Roll!!! 2007
Released during a break in recording their latest opus under the band name Foxboro Hot Tubs, this is a loose and scruffy album filled with buzzing power chords that wouldn’t sound out of place as an opening act for a 60s pop band. Certainly the group’s lighter side.
Grown men parading in masks and secret identities don’t only happen in comics. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, and Mike Dirnt have their alter egos as well…
While Green Day publicly acknowledged their Foxboro Hot Tubs side project last year, six years before that they released an album under the name The Network.
Sporting goofy space age masks that covered their entire faces, the guys claimed they were from outer space. And for a while, people were fooled, until the lead singer Fink" opened his mouth and Armstrong’s unmistakable voice was heard.
To this day though, the group refuses to acknowledge The Network.