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Green Power Billie Joe Armstrong Drives Green Day in New Directions on 21st Century Breakdown

November 1, 2009
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0greenGREEN DAY’S ASCENDENCY FROM THE PUNK SCENE at Berkeley, California’s, small but notorious 924 Gilman Street Project to becoming the mega-selling rock act they are today, somehow implies that the three members— drummer Tré Cool, bassist Mike Dirnt, and guitarist/ songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong—figured out how to create immensely popular music, turned their backs on the punk scene, and went on to have a nice life. A nice life indeed, as the band’s 1994 breakout album Dookie went platinum, and the three followup albums—Insomniac, Nimrod, and Warning sold similarly well. Then came 2004’s American Idiot, which reached so deeply into the psyches of a fresh wave of young listeners that they bought five million copies of it in the U.S. alone—a number that explains why you would have had to have lived at the bottom of the ocean for the past few years to avoid having songs like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” permanently etched into your brain.

Driven by Billie Joe’s intense guitar attack—something that could be described as a blend of Townshend’s shimmering crunch and Johnny Ramone’s thuggish assault—Green Day’s eighth album, 21st Century Breakdown [Warner Bros.], is a bold sonic adventure that exemplifies how this band continues to evolve its sound while maintaining the honesty and punk ferocity that its audience expects. The album lands plenty of direct hits with fist-in-your face rockers such as “Know Your Enemy, “Murder City,” and “Christian’s Inferno.” But dynamic and melodic contrasts abound here, as evidenced by the piano-driven ballad “Last Night on Earth,” the gypsy-on-steroids flavored “Peacemaker,” and “21 Guns,” with its refrain that’s so reminiscent of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” Asked about his concept for the album, Armstrong replied, “It’s about trying to find something to believe in though all the chaos that you get bombarded with. Whether it’s a bombing in Indonesia or swine flu or getting an astronaut’s Twitter address—these are things people find newsworthy that are like junk food to me. I get a lot of inspiration from being confused and irritated with that kind of stuff.”

Tastes in music are constantly changing, so how do you find the balance between evolving Green Day’s sound and giving your hardcore fans what they want?

Ultimately we want to connect to people, whether it’s to a young kid listening on headphones in his room or to an entire arena. In order to do that you just have to be as honest with yourself as you possibly can. You have to challenge yourself to test your own vulnerabilities as a songwriter, and not get tempted into doing whatever is popular at the moment. Success is like a drug, and what people often don’t understand when they first get it is that they’re just being themselves. And by success I mean making great albums. Like Wilco is a different kind of success because they’ve stuck to what they believe in and they make great albums. They’re not necessarily a radio sweetheart or anything like that, but they’re definitely themselves.

What inspires you to write a song?

A lot of it is melody. I’ll get my mind on a melody and the lyrics just come later. But sometimes everything comes all at once. When I have a song idea I’ll write it down on scraps of paper or on my Blackberry. It’s interesting, because looking back I can see where all of those ideas came from. It could have been just a word or a phrase—like “class of 13” or something like that. I’ll think, “What am I going to do with this?” Eventually it starts coming out in a song.

Do your songs tend to evolve in the studio? Also, how do you decide what kinds of tones or instrumentation to use on a particular cut?

Our songs do evolve in the studio because we don’t track our parts live. We’ll get Trey’s drum sounds down and tight, and then sometimes there are certain guitar parts that we’ll keep. But usually I go in after the drums and bass are down, try to find the best guitar tones I possibly can, and then start building a guitar monster on top of them. We have our 880 studio in Oakland [California], which is like a rock-and-roll laboratory for us where can experiment with different gear and ideas. If we get something going we’ll often just throw it down on a 4-track recorder. I think collectively we know what we want because we’ve been a band for so long, but it kind of depends on what we’re going for. Tré knows his tones really well, but I might make a suggestion about using a certain size tom-tom on a particular song, or a certain kind of snare to get a more cracking sound—I think we used five or six different snare drums on this record. When we did the Foxboro Hot Tubs, we purposely went with old equipment to change up the sound. I remember Mike plugging his bass straight into a Marshall guitar amp to get that real crunchy Entwistle kind of tone.

Has adding Jason White on guitar for the live performances affected the way you record?

Yes. I wouldn’t even consider that the way we record is as a three-piece band anymore. I had to break out of the limitations of being in a trio because there are only so many things that you can do with three people—at least for our particular style of music. And as soon as I started thinking about what we could do with other members in the band, it opened up my songwriting a lot. Now I’m able to write for two or even three different guitar parts, and also for piano and sax and things like that.

There’s a Beatles vibe in some of the guitar parts you’ve created on the new album—like the solo in “Last Night on Earth.” Were they an inspiration for you?

I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan—it’s just those melodies you know? And with all of their eras, they were sort of the blueprint for everything that a band goes though as far as evolving and really getting into their songwriting. The Beatles definitely rubbed off on me in the right way.

The song “Peacemaker” gets bonus points for both its Eastern European harmony and those terrifyingly fast string parts. And what’s with the weird orchestral intro?

That song really called for strings, so we hooked up with this guy named Tom Kitt, who was doing the arrangements for American Idiot the Musical [which premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on September 16, 2009.] I asked him if he’d like to take a shot at couple of these songs. He was really into it, but he couldn’t do the actual conducting. Anyway, we got an orchestra in the studio, and when they played their parts on that song for the first time, they just started laughing because the tempo was so fast— it’s actually one of the fastest songs on the album. So they all started practicing at once, and that’s what you hear before the song starts. We just recorded everything and then grabbed little tidbits of them trying to figure it out.

How did you do that scratchy, lo-fi vocal on “Song of the Century.”

I wanted to open the record with an a capella vocal part, but to make it sound kind of different we ran it though a radio transmitter and then we messed with the radio dial to make it sound like the signal was fading in and out. We liked how it sounded, so we used it as bookends for the album.

So you played your vocal track through a radio transmitter, picked it up on an FM radio, and then re-recorded it coming out of the radio’s speaker?

Right. At the time we were messing around with a pirate radio station we’d built down in Newport Beach. Basically, we got a bunch of radio equipment—like a transmitter and an antenna and all that—and we were playing our iPods through it just for fun. I’m sure there was an easier way of getting the same effect, but that’s how we did it.

How do you get such tightness and intensity in your guitar sound?

I think a lot of it comes from my picking hand. When I play chords, I use a part of my thumb along with my pick. It’s a habit I’ve had ever since I was a kid, and it gives the sound a certain growl in the midrange that I’ve always loved. They way I use my thumb is just for the attack, though—I don’t try to get all Lindsey Buckingham or anything like that. My guitar sound also has to do with the fact that I’m a drummer, too. My dad was a drummer and my brother and my uncle are drummers, so I was kind of the odd man out in becoming a guitar player. But I think I’ve always written songs from the point of view of a drummer in terms of the rhythms and how you can make the dynamics explode.

Dynamics are obviously a big part of Green Day’s sound, so are there technical things you do to make certain sections sound larger than life?

I used to be very anti Pro Tools because I thought it was an unnatural way to record, but I’ve come to realize that you can use the technology in a compositional way, not just to be able to mix and match things to get the best song performance, but to bring out more dynamics in your sound. For a record, it’s just a way of making the choruses stick out more. But there’s definitely a thing about building anticipation in your live sound to where it explodes into some sort of climax. I like to break things down to where the audience doesn’t know where the song is going to go, and then when it does kick into the next section, it’s like ten times bigger than what they expected.

What was your setup for the 21st Century sessions?

I mainly played a ’56 Gibson Les Paul Junior, but I also had a Slash model Les Paul, a Jimmy Page model Les Paul, and my ’59 ’burst. I used an old Park head that has been completely modded out, as well as a 50-watt Hiwatt and an old ’58 tweed Fender Twin, which is like the ones Keith Richards uses. I also got some great sounds with my ’52 Fender Esquire though a Divided by 13 combo—we used that amp a lot on this record. I’ll basically use anything that sounds good, but I get pretty nerdy when it comes to gear. For playing live, though, I just use two 100-watt Marshalls running through four 4x12 cabinets.

Many of your fans felt disenchanted when Green Day first signed with a major label. What were your feelings at the time about leaving the punk scene and moving in more commercially viable direction?

I never thought of Green Day as being a typical angry hardcore band. We’ve always done songs about love and relationships and places in time, and I think that’s what has sort of separated us from the other punk bands in the scene that we came out of. But I don’t think I ever removed myself personally from the punk scene. Every person who has ever been involved in punk rock has had to take a different path. I was reading this book the other day about Gilman Street Project, and it was about all the people that worked there who were either running the place or doing security or cleaning up garbage or booking shows. And the one thing they all had in common was that almost all of them left. This is a collection of stories that goes though about 15 years worth of people, and it was interesting because everyone had the same sort of story. My band just moved on, and that’s the only way I can really say it. We just went where the music was taking us.

GREEN DAY’S JASON WHITE

JASON WHITE HAS NEVER PLAYED ON ANY of Green Day’s albums, but his guitar work has been an essential element of the band’s live sound ever since he started touring with them in 2000 for the album Warning. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, White was one of many scuffling young punkers who orbited around the scene at 924 Gilman Street Project in the early ’90s, which was ground zero for punk rock on the West Coast at the time. After replacing guitarist Mike Kirsch in the band Pinhead Gunpowder White, found himself playing guitar and writing songs alongside Green Day’s main man. The rest, as they say, is history. —AT

What drew you out to the San Francisco Bay Area in the first place?

It was pretty much the music scene that was happening at the time. There were a lot of great bands coming out from there that were touring, and I’d go see them in Little Rock or Memphis. They’d tell me, “You should come out to the Bay Area and check it out.” And that’s what I did as soon as I got out of high school. I moved out there in 1992, and Gilman Street was the first place I went the night I got there.

How were you recruited to play in Green Day?

I’d been in Pinhead Gunpowder for a number of years with Billie Joe, and in 1999 Neil Young invited Green Day to play the Bridge School Benefit concert. It’s an all-acoustic event, and the band wanted to thicken up their sound, so they asked me if I would play acoustic guitar with them for that show. So I did it and it went well, and when they were getting ready to go on tour for the album Warning, which had a lot of acoustic guitar on it, they asked me to do that too. I’ve just kind of stayed on with them ever since.

What makes you a good fit for this band?

It was just the fact that Billie and I played and sang well together. We’re also from the same underground community and punk scene, so I got along well with everybody in the band.

What were some of the challenges of stepping into Green Day?

The biggest challenge was when I first started doing electric stuff with them. They’re an extremely tight band, and if you don’t jump right in, you stick out like a sore thumb. So I had to tighten up my playing really fast. Billie and Mike and Tré have a certain rhythm that they play together, and you just have to get it. But I was a fan of Green Day before I started playing with them, so I was familiar with their style and with what they were doing.

How do you learn your parts for Green Day’s songs?

Billie will basically have a bunch of songs that he wants to try out for whatever tour we’re starting, so I just woodshed on them before we start rehearsing. They usually give me a week’s time to learn everything, and then it’s just a matter of jumping in and swinging for the fences. Everything is very set in this band, and what I play is as close to what is on the record as I can get it.

Did you have to adjust to performing on larger stages?

Oh for sure. I think there were 20,000 people at that first show I did with them, and I just couldn’t even look out at the crowd. I had to just buckle down and try to do what I was there to do. But once you’re onstage with people that you’ve had some experience with, if the nerves hit you, you can just kind of look towards them to feel some sense of normality. It really helps that you’re among friends and everybody is there to help you along.

Why do you think Billie Joe still enjoys playing in Pinhead Gunpowder and doing things like Foxboro Hot Tubs?

I guess it’s about being able to do something without having the constraints of being the band Green Day. It’s a way to stretch out in a different way, leave the trappings of what people expect of you, and just be able to do what you want. I think it’s also cool to be able to play smaller places and go in under the radar.

In those situations, do you try to sound or play any differently than you do with Green Day?

No. With Foxboro Hot Tubs it was just sort of get in a room and have some fun, play whatever you want, and write a song in ten minutes. They let me write one of the solos on a song called “Mother Mary,” which was really fun for me. Pinhead Gunpowder is a totally different band, so it’s a collaborative effort between Billie and myself and the other two guys. We all share the writing in that band.

Are you playing more solos in Green Day now?

Yeah, Billie has me playing a lot of the leads now in order to free him up to interact with the crowd and that kind of thing. But he’s still carrying some of the lead playing. I had never really attempted to play lead in any of the bands I was in, and Billie just sort of threw it in my lap—and that was a huge thing for him to put in my care. But he’d go, “You can do it, I trust you.” Those kinds of things he has done over the last nine years have helped me become a better lead player for sure.

Are you as tweaky about your gear as Billie Joe?

I love messing around with stuff, but I’m definitely not a gear head. I like to plug in and go, and I’ll fiddle with the knobs only so much. I don’t spend much time with that kind of stuff.

What are your main guitars and amps?

For this tour I’ve been playing mostly Les Pauls. My main one is a ’58 plain-top replica and I also have a ’57 reissue goldtop. My only old guitar is a ’59 Les Paul Special, and I use it on songs where we need that dual P-90 attack—like on “Know Your Enemy” and “American Idiot.” For this tour, Billie is playing mostly Les Paul Juniors, so he has that brighter sound. I’m carrying more of the low-end humbucker sound. I play Gibson ES-335s on quite a few songs too. They’re equipped with piezo pickup bridges so I can do my acoustic parts on them. For amps, I’m using two modified Marshall 100-watt heads and four 4x12 cabinets.

What do you do to keep your chops up when Green Day isn’t touring?

I record stuff in my garage just like everybody else, and I have a band called the Big Cats that I occasionally play with back in Little Rock. I go back there a couple of times a year and we’ll do a holiday show, and we also write songs and record together whenever we get the chance. Other than that, I don’t really have any side projects besides Pinhead Gunpowder, and we only do that once every three or four years. When Green Day is in the studio, I’ll drop in occasionally to listen to what they’re recording and check out the amps and the guitars they’re using. It always gets me excited about what’s coming up.

Spreading the Green

Billie Joe Armstrong’s creative muse also manifests itself occasionally in side-project bands like the Foxboro Hot Tubs—an incognito version of the live Green Day lineup—that has released one album called Stop Drop and Roll!!! Then there’s Pinhead Gunpowder, a collaborative group formed in the early ’90s that features Armstrong, his ex-guitar tech Bill Schneider on bass, Jason White and Mike Kirsch on guitars, and Aaron Cometbus on drums. With five albums and numerous EPs and compilations under their belt, Pinhead Gunpowder underscores how Armstrong’s punk sensibilities haven’t diminished in the wake of all that he has accomplished. To put it into perspective, could you imagine Bono or the Edge making records with their pals and crewmembers and sharing the profits? Further evidence of Green Day’s social awareness can be witnessed in Mike Dirnt’s donating all of his royalties from the sales of the 45 RPM shoe, a stylish, noanimal- products boot that he co-designed with Macbeth Footwear (available online at journeys.com), to Soles4Souls, an international shoe charity dedicated to providing free shoes to people in need. —AT

GREEN MACHINES

Billie Joe Armstrong’s two Marshall 100-watt 1959 SLP reissue heads (above) are modified by Martin Golub at L.A. Sound Design. The top head has a Crunch mod (a.ka. “Dookie” mod) and the lower head has Golub’s SE Lead mod, which adds another preamp tube for more gain. Guitar tech Hans Buscher (lower right) controls Armstrong’s sounds via an RJM RG-16 switcher and a MasterMind MIDI controller. The controller’s presets are Clean, Mid (both settings bypass the Marshalls’ preamps in favor of a CAE 3+SE tube preamp), Big (both Marshalls without the CAE preamp), and Big Effect (which kicks in a Boss Blues Drive pedal for solos).

Armstrong’s mid -’80s Fernandes S-style guitar (lower left) features a Seymour Duncan JB humbucker in the bridge position. Buscher holds Armstrong’s ’56 Les Paul Junior “Floyd,” and the acoustic in the guitar rack is a reissue Gibson J-180 equipped with a Martin Thinline Gold Natural pickup. Jason White’s tech Greg Howard (lower middle) holds White’s Gibson Les Paul 1957 Gold Top reissue and Gibson ES-335 Dot reissue, which features a Fishman PowerBridge for acoustic sounds. A Fishman Aura Spectrum DI has also recently been added to the signal chain.

 

[Photo by Eva Mueller]

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