The Big Read – Green Day: “We live our lives as if we have nothing”

Green Day have spent three decades not giving a fuck – but what's the key to their longevity? Kevin EG Perry joins the band in their tiny Oakland rehearsal room to talk inspiring Billie Eilish, blistering new album 'Father Of All Motherfuckers' and maybe meeting Donald Trump at one of their shows. Pictures: Matt Salacuse for NME

It’s a miserable day in Oakland. The northern Californian skies are 50 shades of shitty and the rain is lashing down, leaving puddles so deep the hipsters are probably wearing waders. You don’t want to be outside on a day like today. The only sensible thing to do in this sort of environment is stay in, get stoned and maybe form a punk band. Welcome to paradise.

Inside an anonymous building on a quiet back street there’s a rehearsal room belonging to three 47-year-old guys who did just that something like a lifetime ago.

These days singer Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool (not his real name) make up one of the world’s biggest bands, but you’d be hard pressed to guess that from the room we’re in. It could almost be a teenage band’s garage.

There are a couple of sofas and a few rugs thrown about, but the most eye-catching feature is a couple of circular drum skins pinned to the wall above a guitar rack. They’ve each been divided into pie slices with thick black pen, and they can be spun to create new musical mash-ups. One side features tempos such as: ‘Fast’, ‘Swing’ and ‘Psychedelic Trippy’. The other genres, including: ‘Glam’, ‘60s Garage’ and ‘British Pop Invasion’.

“That’s for when you come in and you’re like: ‘I got nothing’,” explains the bequiffed Mike. “You go spin the wheel and you’re on deck. Make something happen. It’s like someone whining: ‘I don’t know what to paint!’ Green. Go motherfucker! Paint something green.”

The idea of musical genres being smashed together at speed makes sense once you hear their new album – which, in case you were worried Green Day might have grown up, is called ‘Father Of All Motherfuckers’. Billie Joe, resplendent in a leather jacket that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Hell’s Angel, says the record was inspired by the likes of original ’50s rock’n’roller Little Richard, ’60s garage rockers The Sonics, Motown legends Martha and the Vandellas, proto-Gorillaz cartoon band The Archies and British glam stars Mott The Hoople. The result is fun, frenetic and very, very fast. It’s the shortest record they’ve ever made: the whole thing over in under 27 minutes. “We started off the record writing nasty garage music,” says Billie Joe. “We took all of those influences and just put it through Green Day. We’ve never gone there before, and it sounds fucking rad.”

It’s a far cry from three decades ago, when these three were just a bunch of kids trying to stay out of the rain. Billie Joe and Mike were 14 when they formed their first band, Sweet Children. Before long they’d changed their name to something that reflected how much weed they smoked, played a bunch of shows, snorted a pile of speed and, in 1990, put out their debut album ‘39/Smooth’. It sold fewer than 3,000 copies, and the band’s original drummer Josh Kiffmeyer decided he was probably better off concentrating on school. Tré joined in his place and their next record, 1991’s ‘Kerplunk’, shifted a respectable 50,000 copies. Things were starting to look up, and after the phenomenal success of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ that same year major labels were sniffing around guitar bands again. Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner, offered them a deal. The label hoped the next Green Day record might sell 100,000 copies. It sold 10 million.

‘Dookie’, released on 1 February 1994 and still an objectively perfect album, changed Green Day’s lives forever – they didn’t know it at the time. “We were touring in Europe opening for Die Toten Hosen, doing everything we could to not get booed off stage by their insane fans,” remembers Mike. “I think we sold one shirt the whole time, but then we came back to the States and hit the Lollapalooza tour…”

That tour saw Green Day booked as the opening act on a bill that also included The Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, George Clinton, The Breeders, A Tribe Called Quest, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and L7. By the time the  tour started, the massive success of ‘Dookie’ meant fans weren’t happy about their new heroes playing the shortest sets. “By then we had sold more records than everyone else on the tour,” explains Mike. “They were fucking stupid enough to run us as the opening band and then blame us for rioting and shit. Come on, dude, really? But you know, we were kids. Of course we loved it! Fuck yeah!”

Billie Joe remembers the ill-fated Woodstock ‘94 – which also turned into a riot when 550,000 people turned up even though only 164,000 tickets had been sold – as the moment at which he realised nothing would ever be the same again for him or the band. “When I think about that show and how crazy it was, being in front of a national audience, and flying away in a helicopter afterwards, that was when I realised: ‘Oh, things are starting to happen,” he says. “It was: ‘My life is about to take a totally different turn’.”

For a start, ‘Dookie’ made them beyond-their-wildest-wet-dreams rich – not necessarily the best look for a band who only ever wanted to be thought of as punk. “I’ve always had a strange relationship with money just ‘cause I’ve never really aspired for it,” says Billie Joe. “Maybe I wanted to be a rock star and do that kind of stuff, but it was never to be a big shot. We live our lives as if we have nothing and I think that gives us a better reason to know how to share, do the right things and keep a DIY spirit.”

You can hear that DIY spirit all over the records that followed ‘Dookie’ – 1995’s ‘Insomniac’ and 1997’s ‘Nimrod’ – but you’ll also hear the sound of a punk band becoming musically ambitious. “I think we have transitional records,” says Billie Joe. “When I look back now, on both ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Warning’, we were pushing ourselves in a different direction. Without those records there wouldn’t have been an ‘American Idiot’ or a ‘21st Century Breakdown’. It’s about trying to push things in a new direction all the time.”

‘American Idiot’, released in 2004, proved to be their biggest hit since ‘Dookie’: an ambitious ‘punk rock opera’ inspired by a simpler and more innocent time when we all truly believed that George W. Bush was the stupidest man who would ever be President of the United States. “He was just a different brand of stupid,” says Billie Joe, with a laugh. “There’s a variety of stupid. Right now it’s just straight fascist stupid.”

‘American Idiot’ took on a life of its own. It was adapted into a stage musical in 2009, moving to Broadway the following year, but Billie Joe reveals that previously announced plans for a film adaptation have now been “pretty much scrapped”. He adds that, in a truly bizarre turn of events, Donald Trump actually turned up to opening night in New York. He’s not sure whether the two actually met. “I didn’t… wait, maybe I shook his hand?” he starts, before Mike chimes in: “You shook so many small hands that night!”

Billie Joe can explain why Trump showed up, and it’s not that he’s a closet ‘Insomniac’ fan. “At the beginning of ‘American Idiot’ there’s a montage of all this pop culture garbage, one being ‘American Idol’, and another was him saying: ‘You’re fired!’,” he says. “So that’s the reason he came, because he’d heard that his face was going to be on the screen. He’s a sociopath, you know?”

Despite what you may assume, the title of the band’s new album is not in fact a reference to the current President. “I mean, you can’t help but think about Trump a little bit, but that wasn’t really in the front of my mind,” says Billie Joe. “‘Father Of All Motherfuckers’ is just a badass title.”

Generally speaking he’s steered clear of writing about politics this time around. “It was just too obvious,” he says. “We live in really dangerous times right now. Everything feels sort of unpredictable. America is really fucked up and it’s hard to draw any inspiration from it because it just depresses me.”

It may be a party record, but the state of the world can’t help but creep in to the lyrics. On the title track, Billie Joe sings: “Choking up on the smoke from above / I’m obsessed with the poison and us / What a mess ’cause there’s no one to trust.” It’s hard not to think of the devastating fires raging in Australia when you hear those words, and Billie Joe points out they’ve had similar experiences closer to home.

“We’ve had to deal with our own fires in California as well,” he says. “It’s displaced a lot of people and really fucked up the environment. With a lot of these songs there are certain lines that I’ll come up with and it’s almost foreshadowing things to come. Songs like ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Minority’ have stayed relevant to this day without me really trying.”

This summer, the band head out on tour with Fall Out Boy and Weezer for a series of stadium shows dubbed the ‘The Hella Mega Tour’. It will call at Glasgow, London, Huddersfield and Dublin this June. “It’s been pretty fucking hilarious so far,” says Mike. “Everyone’s taking the piss a little bit. It’s like our version of the Monsters of Rock. I don’t think anybody’s taking themselves too seriously, and I think people can sense that by the giant rainbow-puking unicorn that is the icon of the entire fucking thing.”

Back in 2012, Billie Joe had a well-publicised onstage meltdown at the iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas, smashing his guitar and screaming, perhaps redundantly: “I’m not fucking Justin Bieber.” He immediately checked into a rehab program for alcohol and prescription drug abuse and spent several years sober, but says that’s now changed. “I’m not really sober anymore,” he says. “I had a time where I needed to learn to grow up a little bit and take responsibility for myself and for my own independence, and I did. Now I’m moving forward. I had a good run, so let the good times roll!”

34 years since first getting together themselves, Green Day can make a reasonable claim to being one of the world’s leading causes of people picking up a guitar or forming a band. The 1975’s Matt Healy has said that the moment he became determined to become a musician was when, aged 13, the band pulled him out of the crowd to join them on bass during a show in front of 10,000 people at Newcastle Arena. Billie Eilish – who wasn’t even born when ‘Dookie’ came out – has stated that it’s one of her favourite albums.

“Her brother Finneas came to one of our shows and Tre gave him a pair of sticks when he was, like, 12 years old,” adds Billie Joe. “Even Ed Sheeran saw us play Wembley Arena, heard ‘Time Of Your Life’ and was inspired by that. That’s cool to us because that’s the way we feel about the people that we admire, our favourite musicians and bands. It’s just a trip. Time is crazy.”

The secret of the band’s longevity is probably not, as Tré jokes, “micro-dosing heroin”. It’s in their music. “We still aspire to make good records,” says Billie Joe. “We’re still trying to find different influences and sounds, and the lyrics change depending on where you’re at. I feel like I’ve been able to document my time on Earth through songs.”

“We all have a real deep desire to leave this music on this planet because it’s gonna be around a lot longer than us,” adds Mike. “It’s timeless. That’s meant something to me for so fucking long. This is the biggest thing I’ll ever do – that’s just a fact.”

The eternal teenagers may now be pushing 50, but the future Matt Healys and Billie Eilishs (and Ed Sheerans, sure) of the world can rest assured Green Day have no plans to retire – at least, until the final curtain. “There’s a day where everybody retires,” says Mike doomily, making his bandmates laugh. “The big sleep!” elaborates Tré, but the last word belongs to Billie Joe: “‘Til death do us part, I guess.”

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