GREEN 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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 sharing the
evidence of Green
Day’s social awareness
can be witnessed
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
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]