Fans who attended Willie Nelson’s show at San Francisco’s Fillmore earlier this month were surprised to see an unexpected guest onstage: Tré Cool, the longtime drummer of Green Day. According to reports, Cool was onstage for almost the entire show, playing bongos and a washboard, without being formally introduced. Cool appeared again onstage in California a few nights later; the site Saving Country Music quoted one fan who observed, “I’m sure 99 percent of the arena had no idea who the dude playing a washboard was.”
It turns out the appearance was a lifelong dream for Cool. He grew up a Nelson fanatic and connected with his band through Nelson’s son Micah, after attending one of Micah’s concerts with Particle Kid. Says Micah, “I used to bounce around head-banging on the school bus listening to Dookie on my Walkman, so it kinda blew my mind to see Tré doing the same thing in the front row of a Particle Kid show. We connected afterward about music, drumming, and our love for Bowie and the Blackstar record.”
Rolling Stone caught up with Tré Cool about the experience of playing (and smoking) with his hero, and what the rest of Green Day had to say about it.
You and Willie are from two different musical universes. How did you come together?
My friends Vintage Trouble opened up for him on New Year’s Eve in Austin one time. I was introduced to Lukas [Nelson], and he brought us on the bus and we met Willie and had a toke. I saw how the gig was: a family band, the brothers Paul and Billy English on drums, with just a snare drum and a lot of percussion. It was really interesting. I met [harmonica player] Mickey [Raphael]; my wife, Sarah, was pregnant with our son, who we incidentally were going to name Mickey. We started shooting the shit with Mickey, and then he’s like, “I’m playing with Chris Stapleton next week,” and he invited us to that show and we got to see him blow with Chris Stapleton, which was insane. Those guys can rock out, my God.
Then we were at the Fillmore and Paul English was out sick, and [they said], “Do you want to come jam?” Well, sure! So I just wound up walking onstage with him, unannounced, and playing the show in San Francisco. I just walked out there and played the gig. After Willie walks off, we finish the song, hug each other and walk away. “That was fun!” Then I found out they were playing in Ontario, [California,] so I said, “Hey, do you guys need a guy to fill in?” They said, “Yeah! Come on down.” It was really organic, just bros jamming.
Did you have to learn the setlist?
There’s no setlist with Willie Nelson. He just fires ‘em out, and you have about a half a second to catch up and be on time and figure out what song you’re doing and which instrument you’re gonna play. There’s just a plethora of instruments up there. So I was just kind of making parts up and trying to play along with different shakers, keep it interesting with different tambourines and bongos. Playing “On the Road Again” on bongos with Willie Nelson is kind of a surreal moment in my musical story.
“When Willie Nelson looks at you during a solo and smiles, giving you the nod, that’s pretty cool.”
Do you have a memory in your life tied to Willie?
I’ve always loved Willie Nelson. When I was a kid, I used to run around telling people that Willie Nelson was my uncle, for some reason, because I had an uncle who looked just like him. He had red hair and braids, the whole works. I used to tell people, “Yeah, my uncle’s Willie Nelson,” and people would say, “Oh shit, his uncle is Willie Nelson!” I’ve always loved him. On my motorcycle, I have a license plate that says, “God Bless Willie Nelson.” I’ve had that for a lot of years. It was a treat, and the family couldn’t have been nicer. I got to meet Willie’s wife, Annie. She’s momma bear, you know, she keeps everything real respectful and fun. Lukas, that guy plays all the time. It’s a musical family. They’re country music royalty.
What’s unique about that band?
The bass player and the drummer are just holding it down, and they’re communicating — they shoot each other looks and they know which endings to make. They’re winging it, and it’s so seamless and natural and rocking. There’s not a drum set, there’s not a high-hat or a kick-drum to be found. So you’re shaking and you’re slapping, and it’s really cool. It’s a human-sounding band. And man, Micah and Lukas are motherfuckers on the guitar. When Willie Nelson looks at you during a solo and smiles, giving you the nod, that’s pretty cool.
Has Willie ever come up in Green Day practices?
Well, we sure talked about it when we went to band practice the day before I played the Fillmore. [Laughs.]
Were they surprised?
Well, yeah it’s very surprising: “You’re going to do what? You’re playing with Willie Nelson? That’s fucking awesome.”