BRAND NEW DAY
For our "Most Anticipated Albums Of 2009" cover story, AP was granted exclusive access to the Hollywood studio where GREEN DAY have been working on the follow-up to 2004’s mega-platinum American Idiot. You’ll have to pick up the issue for the juicier dirt on the songs and the story behind Green Day’s latest opus, but considering all the great material the band left us with, we couldn’t just stop there. In the first of this two-part web exclusive, singer BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG talks about working with producer Butch Vig, bucking rock-star stereotypes, and pushing himself to write the most powerful songs of the band’s 20-year career. —Aaron Burgess
What’s the biggest idea you’re going for musically on this new record?
You know, mostly, I really like fucking with arrangements, and I always try to look at the possibilities of how you write power-pop music. You know, it’s like, how do you take something–and it could be anything from the Creation and the Who to the Beatles to Cheap Trick to the Jam–and try to expand on the idea of what is supposed to be three-chord mayhem? And how do you do it in a way where the arrangements are just unpredictable? So I’m pushing myself to be progressive in songwriting and being a songwriter. I come from a culture where I’m into great albums, and I still believe in that. I’m not saying I can go for it this hard every time–there might be times when I want to have something that’s a little bit more spontaneous and off the cuff–but with this record, the feeling’s been that you’ve got to just go for it.
You guys have spent most of your career working with Rob Cavallo as a producer. What’s it been like to work with Butch Vig?
I think he’s just got a lot of integrity and a lot of class, and one of the things I really respect about Butch is that he doesn’t just go for things that are going to be million-sellers, or something that’s gonna be massive for the sake of being massive, or is gonna look flashy on his resume or something. He works with a lot of different kinds of bands, and it could be a platinum band, or it could be more of a garage band. And he’s got a long history of that. I feel like we kind of come from the same place, where he started in Wisconsin in kind of a garage-y atmosphere and working with bands at Smart Studios, and you know, we made our first record for $700. He totally understands that, and he doesn’t take for granted what we have here, but he uses everything to the best of his knowledge and the best of his ability. I mean, he gets psyched on a fucking microphone! That’s inspiring. That’s amazing. He gets psyched on a fucking song, you know? As far as personalities go, I think it was more of a matter of trying to figure out his sort of "-isms," you know? He’s not a cheerleader type of producer; he’s just a very hard-working, straightforward guy. He’s very Midwestern, too: For example, he’ll turn around when you’re working on something and just go, "That’s badass." And you’re like, "What do you mean, ‘badass?’ Is that more bad, or is it, like, ass?" [Laughs.] So, figuring out all that stuff and all the different stuff that he says, and knowing when he means something’s great or when something sucks. So it’s good.
When you first met with Butch, were there any specific records you handed him and said, "Here, this is what we’re going for?"
Nah, it really didn’t happen like that. I just had a lot of respect for him going into this record, and I knew his history, and so it wasn’t really a matter of having to prepare him with any specific ideas. We talked a lot, and it was more just a thing where I was like, "I want to make something that’s the best thing we’ve ever done, and the bar is really high for us this time." And he was like, "Wow, this could be really daunting, but it’s really exciting at the same time." Because he wants to make the record of his dreams, also, so I think it was just sort of a good fit all around. He wasn’t trying to change our style or anything; he just was really getting into the process, and everyone was kind of just coming together and bouncing ideas off each other and just getting really in-depth with the arrangements and the lyrics and stuff like that.
Are you fiddling around with any new technology?
I’m fiddling more with the arrangements and writing songs. I think the way we make records is just kind of a classic way of making records. Everybody uses Pro Tools now, you know–we use Pro Tools, and we use tape. But I think in all my favorite rock records, the way that they sound–I love something that sounds a bit more analog, and I love the sound of a great amplifier with a great old microphone that’s plugged into a great preamp and hardly needs any EQ. It’s just more soulful to me.
Have you thrown out any songs yet?
I don’t know, I always think of everything as being usable, because it’ll come back to you in time, you know? I’m not much into writing disco for guilty pleasure or something, so nothing I ever do feels like a throwaway. You know, like, a song like "[Good Riddance] Time Of Your Life" was written back during Dookie, and we didn’t use it for two records later.
If you start with Dookie, the gap between your studio records has grown by one year each time. Is it taking you longer to write?
I’m trying to allow more time for things to incubate. I think any time you make a record, you look back and say, "God, this is what I would’ve done differently," you know? If was to look back at like the songs that were on the Slappy EP, I probably would’ve wanted for those songs to be on Kerplunk, or if I was to look at the records that came after Dookie, I would’ve probably allowed myself more time with Insomniac and Nimrod. So I’m learning those lessons, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way I’m ever gonna do anything. The Foxboro Hot Tubs record we did this year was, like, fly by the seat of your pants and just go. But I am allowing time, allowing for the process to happen naturally without having to force it. And that is a painstaking process, let me tell you. It’s miserable.
How do you mean?
It’s just patience, you know? For a bunch of guys that are ADHD, it’s hard to have patience. [Laughs.]
The next major age milestone for all of you is 40-are you writing from more of a "middle-aged" mindset this time?
I don’t think so. I just try to stay in the moment when I’m writing. I never consciously try to write from a 36-year-old perspective, you know, because I don’t think everybody always feels that way anyway. You know, some days you feel younger than other days, and some days you feel older. I think for me, when I’m in a really creative mode, I feel ageless. Not that I’m trying to be young or that I’m not trying to be old or trying to be more mature, but you just sort of get swept away with it.
Legend has it that as you were making American Idiot, you guys started inheriting some of the darker traits–specifically, the hard partying–of St. Jimmy. Has there been much of that this time?
No. I mean, that shit’s just me regardless. That’s just how I am. I think everyone’s got kind of a dark place that they tend to go to, or that they fear and they never go to. It’s just like you get complacent and you start to feel stuck in a box, so you can either do something that’s really positive by going surfing or something like that, or you can do something that’s reckless and can be potentially harmful to yourself. A little bit of nihilism isn’t too bad, you know, but at the same time, you’ve gotta know when to stop before you kill yourself. I don’t want to come across as conservative or a prude, though, because I’m neither one of those.
All three of you also have families. Does that keep you in check?
I think so. You know, though, I always hear people who are rock stars say things like, "My kids keep me grounded," or "My family keeps me grounded." And it’s like, well, isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t you supposed to be grounded for your family, especially if you’re a father of two sons, and one’s a teenager now? I don’t want to say too much about them, though, because I want my kids to have their own identity, and I don’t want to sell them out in any way, because they’re still developing, and whatever way they end up going, I don’t want to it to come back to haunt me. Like [imitating sons’ friends], "Oh, your dad told some story in a magazine about you!" And you’re like, "Oh, fuck." [Laughs.] But you just want them to… I don’t know. I just hope they put a lot of thought into living and a lot of heart into it.
You buck the rock-star model with talk like that, you know.
I don’t know–having a family is a learning process for me, too. I happen to have a really patient wife, and she’s really cool, and she’s really a politically conscious person, especially with environmental issues, and I think she has this sort of fear of the end of the world that’s naturally embedded into her. And sometimes I think that she may have married the end of the world. [Laughs.] So I don’t know, hopefully between the two of us we can raise a family together and lean on each other.
Click here for the second part of this interview.