Billie Joe Armstrong on Green Day’s Provocative New LP
Two years ago, Billie Joe Armstrong was driving into Manhattan when he came across a throng of protesters. Outraged by a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer for the killing of Michael Brown, they filled the streets and backed up traffic for miles. Armstrong was inspired. "I got out of my car and marched with the people," he says. "It was a trip to see people rebel against the old order."
The experience inspired the title track of Green Day's new album, Revolution Radio (due October 7th), a collection of songs about the chaotic state of America in 2016. It’s not strictly a political concept album like American Idiot – there are also more-personal songs like "Ordinary World," a sweet ballad that ends the album. But most songs touch on pressing social issues: "Still Breathing" is a scorcher that, according to Armstrong, "goes from the life of a junkie to the life of a gambler to the life of a single mother and a soldier and how we’re all kinda intertwined." The most incendiary song is lead single "Bang Bang," written from the perspective of a mass shooter.
Revolution Radio is Green Day’s first album since Armstrong went to rehab in 2012 for prescription-pill addiction, which forced the band to postpone dozens of tour dates in the wake of their trio of albums released that same year, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre! Armstrong recovered, but the band was soon sidetracked by more adversity. In 2014, bassist Mike Dirnt’s wife, Brittney, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not long after, touring guitarist Jason White found out he had tonsil cancer. Talk of a follow up to ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre! stopped. Thankfully, by late 2015, both White and Brittney Dirnt were in remission, and Green Day began work on a new LP at their studio in Oakland, producing themselves for the first time since 2000’s Warning.
We spoke with Armstrong about Revolution Radio, the group's difficult past few years, the mixed reception to ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre!, and their upcoming world tour.
You guys have been gone for four years. Did you intend on taking such a long break at the end of the last cycle?
The time just ended up happening. It just so happened to take a long time.There was no real effort to start anything too soon. There was no like, "OK, we're starting a record!" The day after the tour for ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! we just took a break. There was, like, just stuff going on in everybody's lives and then suddenly I had a couple of songs out of nowhere so that's just kind of the way it starts.
What was the first song that got the ball rolling?
I moved into a new studio that I built in Oakland and I just started messing around with different riffs. The first song where I was like, "OK, I'm onto something" was "Bang Bang." And then the first track of the record, "Somewhere Now." I started doing demos and I showed them to Mike and Tre. That's the test. And they absolutely loved it.
When do this happen?
Two years ago.
Were there two years where you weren't doing much writing?
I made a movie [Geezer] and wrote "Ordinary World" for that. Then I also wrote music for a play called These Paper Bullets. I never stopped writing. I also did the Norah Jones record. But the approach for this record was not to approach. It was just sort of to let things happen. I just was in these different projects and spread my wings a little bit and then suddenly I felt inspired to write a song, "Bang Bang." It just happened.
The previous three records were incredibly ambitious. I take it you wanted to take a very different approach this time.
Yeah, I think you just go into the unknown. ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! was very much like a writing machine and just kept going no matter what. Even to the point we're forcing the material. And this time it's just the exact opposite and just sort of let life roll out and then see what happens.
There's so many great songs on those albums. I just think for some people it was too much to digest all at once.
You think?! [Big laugh] I think that there's some really good songs on there. If I was gonna do it over again I'd probably do it. … The intention was to make it more raw and off the cuff and the opposite happened, but I do like the songs. I think it was a fun record to make.
Can you talk about "Bang Bang" and what inspired it. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it sure sounds like it's from the perspective of a mass shooter.
Yeah. It's about the culture of mass shooting that happens in America mixed with narcissistic social media. There's this sort of rage happening, but it's also now being filmed and we all have ourselves under surveillance. To me, that is so twisted. To get into the brain of someone like that was freaky. It freaked me out. After I wrote it, all I wanted to do was get that out of my brain because it just freaked me out.
Was your goal to get into the character's head and understand his crazy rationale for doing something that awful?
I wouldn't even say I was trying to understand it. I was just trying to figure out the character. I don't know why someone would ever do something that horrific because I know I never would. It's just sort of meant to also reflect the culture a little bit without sounding pretentious.
You've worked with outside producers on your albums for the past two decades. Why did you decide to self-produce this one?
For us it was just like, "Let's get in there the three of us with our engineer Chris Dugan and just do this ourselves." This time I just wanted to feel the freedom of just depending on ourselves and getting in a room. There's no in-between person and we're forced to sort of be in there with each other. So it was really interesting to kind of see how everybody interfaced with each other. Tre's drumming on this record is I think the best he's ever done; I could say the same with Mike's bass playing. He really got into his musicianship as being a bass player. He even took lessons. And it was just really great to see how he sort of flourished on those bass lines.
It must have been challenging at times because you're use to having Rob Cavallo or Butch Vig in the room.
Well, the hard part is to sort of arrange songs without them being typical or stock-sounding. That's the hard part. Producing and adding stuff is the fun part. It's just coming up with the lyrics and coming up with the arrangement where everything sort of feels like everything is fitting together. It's like putting together a puzzle.
I play a lot of bow guitar on the record, sort of like Jimmy Page. Everyone said, "Oh, my God, I've never really heard of someone doing that," but it was like coming up with almost like string arrangements for using a bow on songs like "Outlaws" and "Forever Now." It was really fun.
Some fans are going to read "Still Breathing" as a song about your personal issues these past few years, but it seems to be more universal than just your own story.
I try to. I don't wanna be selfish. [Laughs] I'd rather write something where my eyes are forward, not so much internal. I hope it makes people happy and creates a difference in some way, just by people recognizing themselves in the song.
Did the cancer battles of Mike's wife and Jason play any role in the development of the record?
I don't feel like I ever tried to write something in specific about them, but obviously I think as time goes on you start to go, "Holy shit. Life is happening and it can get really intense." So I think that's probably in the record, I would imagine. But I would never be as shallow as to write a song about someone's family crisis or anything.
Those things must have slowed down the whole process.
Yeah we didn't do anything. I mean that was first and foremost. These people are family members as far as I'm concerned. I didn't wanna push anybody to do anything. There's no point. I didn't want to do anything. It's like missing a limb. I can't be creative knowing that, and I wouldn't have the audacity to try to be creative in something like that.
How did the sound of this record come together?
We just let it happen. I mean, honestly, I got into my studio called OTIS and I just grabbed my Marshall and my Les Paul Jr. and plugged it in and was like, "Let's start with that." And that's basically how it went. I knew that when we recorded I wanted to feel like the drums have a different character about them. I think in the first week we went through, like, four different kick drums just to find the one that's not the typical kind of sound to it. And we even worked with tom-toms. I mean that's all nerdy kind of stuff.
How long do you thin the whole process took?
I would say probably about five or six months. But that's a schedule where we're going from noon to 5 p.m. It wasn't us trying to push late hours or anything like that.
You mentioned that "Revolution Radio" was inspired by seeing a protest march in New York. Can you talk a little more about that?
I was just watching this controlled chaos, and it was going and happening all over the country. I was feeling that people don't want to feel obsolete in the things that we care about. That's sort of what the song is about.
Is there a theme to the album?
It's interesting. These songs were written before this presidential election. I use a lot of metaphor, and I blow things out, as any good punk rocker should. And it was interesting to see how songs like "Bang Bang" and "Say Goodbye" went from metaphor to literal, and that's the part that was tripping me out. It was almost, kind of like, predicting the future, in a way.
What is "Too Dumb to Die" about?
That one is more personal. It's about growing up totally working class and not knowing what the future was going to be, and being sort of a dope-smoking kid. And then it's also a reference to my father, who was in the teamsters and watching him go out to work in the picket line. I remember my father being on strike a lot. The song is kind of like feeling like, "Is anything really changing?"
"Ordinary World" is a very nice note to end on.
After all of the chaos that's on the album, whether it's pop culture or whatever new apps we're using, everything gets so complicated. At some point you want something simple. That's sort of what "Ordinary World" is about.
The album is coming out weeks before the election. Is it partially meant to reflect all the chaos of this moment in history?
I can only go from my own personal life, but this is the most chaos I've ever seen in an election. It's just so freaky. I don't want to add more of the outrage or anger. I'd just try try to reflect it. This is the first time that this election has preyed on fear and anger. And I think with both of those, we're sort of in this fight-or-flight mode. Everybody's freaked out. Neither side, nobody can rationalize with each other because everybody is stuck in fear and in anger, and there's nothing in between. In a nutshell, that is what the record reflects. But I'm trying to also look at myself as part of the problem.
"I can only go from my own personal life, but this is the most chaos I've ever seen in an election."
Are you looking forward to playing these songs live?
Yeah. We're probably going to be announcing dates pretty soon. We've been in the garage hammering them out, and it sounds great. Jason White, Jason Freese and Jeff Matika are back with us, and we've got the gang back together.
Do you miss being on the road? This has been one of the longest breaks of your career.
I absolutely miss it. I can't wait. It's hard to come home and to do nothing, because honestly, you start to feel like you're unemployed. You sort of try to figure out where your purpose is in life. That's the hardest thing about being in between records. When you take a break, you're taking a break from something that you absolutely love. It's not like going on a vacation because you don't like your job and it's like, "God, I need a break." It's hard! Because at first it feels great, and it's like, "Yes, I can do anything that I want." And then, suddenly, a couple weeks into it, you're like, "OK, now what am I gonna do?" So it's great. Everybody's really psyched.
Whenever I see you in concert, I'm also shocked to see so many really, really young people.
That's a very rare thing we have. I don't think anybody can create new fans the way we do. Honestly, I don't mean that in an arrogant way, at all, but it is something that I've observed through the years. You always have a batch of like 15-to-20-year-old people, and suddenly, 10 years later, you'll get guys, people that will come up to you that are 25, 26 years old and go, "Fuckin Dookie was my first record," or "Idiot was my first record" or "Nimrod was my first record." I'm pretty sure that's gonna happen again. Every time we put out a new album, it always happens, and it's freaking awesome.
Cynics always say "rock is dead." It sure doesn't feel that way at your shows.
That's such a broad-stroke, absurd thing to say about any genre of music. It's like saying, "Air is dead" or "Water is dead." It makes no sense to me why people say things like that.
I know the band has had some really tough times these past four years. How do you feel now that the album is all done and you're gearing up for the tour?
Honestly, I feel better than I ever have in my life. I'm just so grateful to have this band that's been around for over 25 years. I've been in a relationship for 22 years. My friends are doing great, and they're good people and I love hanging out with them. They always say that they love hanging out with me [laughs]. Everything is cool. It's a great time to be able to go on tour, for a record to feel like this.
Are you optimistic about the future of the country or are you worried we're headed for a dark place?
I feel optimistic, honestly. A lot of what people cover on sort of the corporate news outlets is the shit show. And it's the reality TV show of like, "Look at what this election has turned into." But look at the other things and movements that are happening. I think Bernie Sanders broke new ground, not just as a protest candidate, but he broke into the inside of Washington. I think that getting these young people to start voting and down-balloting, and running for office in their own towns … I think that the next 10 years is going to be a big game-changer.
Finally, what do you hope the fans get out of Revolution Radio?
Shit, man, I don't know! I just hope they love it. I hope that they sing along while we're singing with them.