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Billie Joe Armstrong: My Life in 15 Songs

The Green Day frontman tells the stories behind his biggest classics, from punk squats in West Oakland to worldwide fame, broken hearts, and political fury

Billie Joe Armstrong at Webster Hall in New York, Oct. 8, 2016

Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times/Redux

Billie Joe Armstrong remembers asking his guitar teacher a question that would change his life. “I said, ‘How do you write a song?’ ” says the Green Day singer-guitarist, 47, at his studio in Oakland. “All he said was, ‘It’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus — mix it up any way you want.’ ” Pretty soon, that was all Armstrong could think about. His three-chord anthems about growing up — with all the loneliness, anxiety, drug use, and masturbation that can come along the way — resonated with a generation on 1994’s diamond-certified Dookie and beyond. Whether he’s writing punk songs or a politically powered rock opera, Armstrong has the same rules: “It’s so important to try and be as honest as you possibly can with your audience,” he says. “When people find a deep connection, it’s because you’re trying to find your own connection inside of yourself. I think that that’s the thing that actually ends up transcending.”

Some hits have come to him in five minutes, others take longer. He recently finished a song he’s been tinkering with since 1993. And in February, 30 years into their career, Green Day will unveil an exciting new sound on their 13th album, Father of All … Armstrong says it comes from going on a soul kick — Motown, Prince, Amy Winehouse, and others — and “putting it through the Green Day filter.” On the title track, he sings in falsetto while drummer Tré Cool pounds out a wild, Mitch Mitchell-style beat that Armstrong calls “one of the most insane things he’s ever played.”

“Billie was pushing himself to get to a newer place,” bassist Mike Dirnt says. “And we had to chase that down. Which is par for the course, because nobody digs deeper than Billie.”

In conversation, Armstrong is friendly, but also a little reserved, taking long pauses between answers about his process. “I don’t want to sound like a baboon,” he says, stopping himself at one point. Cool, his bandmate and friend of three decades, once described him as “gifted and tormented. Billie’s brain is like 18 tape recorders playing simultaneously in a circle. Then he tries to have a conversation … and he’ll be looking you in the eye going, ‘Huh?’ ”

“Fuck him!” Armstrong says now, with a laugh, after hearing that quote. “What does he know?” But Armstrong admits that he’s not quite sure how his brain works when it comes to songwriting. As many songs as he’s written, he still gets anxious when he hasn’t written one in a while. “You feel like, ‘Oh, my God, am I ever going to write another song again?’ Then, all of a sudden, something pops up and you go from feeling like a loser to king of the world.”

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American Idiot (2004)

That was a time when our country was moving into a war for fictitious reasons. A lot of it had to do with politics and oil. It felt like the country was beginning to come apart. I think the catalyst of where we’re at now, really, is with George W. Bush. So this song was just about trying to find your own voice and your own individuality and questioning everything that you see on television, in politics, school, family, and religion.

I was jumping into character a little bit. I wanted something that sounded very nasty. I definitely wanted to do something that was provocative. So I was like, “Sieg Heil to the president Gasman,” invoking old Nazi Germany propaganda films, contrasted with the American branches of government. I was just kind of messing around and using the English language against itself. With the riff, I was messing around with chords in a different way and putting in some echo and delay on it, doing what I normally do and trying to come up with riffs.

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“21 Guns”

21st Century Breakdown (2009)

I got really burned out, because I was pushing myself to take things to a new level musically and lyrically, and that got pretty serious and dark. I had this feeling of wanting to surrender. I was just kind of living like a tortured soul. And you end up kind of torturing the people that are around you, whether it’s your family or your friends, and nobody understands what it is that you’re going through, and maybe that’s just being an artist or the pains of getting older. So, that’s sort of what that song is about, where you just get so lost in what you’re doing that at some point all you’re doing in life is just trying to find your way back. Maybe back to sanity. Sometimes you have to figure out what’s worth fighting for, because you might just be fighting yourself. I think that that’s the one thing that’s a theme throughout a lot of my songs: the feeling of being lost.

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“Fell for You”

¡Uno! (2012)

I always wanted ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre! to be our power-pop Exile on Main Street, and I understand it sounds a bit stiff and the production isn’t great. I love those songs, but a lot of it feels half-baked. It was a weird time. I sort of had my own private nervous breakdown. Well, it wasn’t really private. I think it was just a lot of exhaustion. There’s, like, 36 songs on that album. It’s insane. But when I revisit it, “Fell for You” is what stands out. I was listening to a lot of power-pop music. I always say that power pop is the greatest music on Earth that no one likes, whether it’s something like Cheap Trick or [another band]. That was like, “Let’s just write a gooey bubblegum song about dreams and love and crushes and all the stuff that kind of keeps us alive.”

Those things never really stop as you get older. You always come across people that you want to spend time with, but you have to be realistic about it. When you’re a kid, it’s OK to be more impulsive. When you grow up, it can cause a lot of wreckage in your life, so it’s best to maybe write a song about it.

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“Ordinary World”

Revolution Radio (2016)

I was in a movie called Ordinary World in 2016, and the director, Lee Kirk, wanted a song that kind of summed up the character’s life. I had a couple of strikeouts with it. One of them was “Outlaws,” which is also on Revolution Radio. Then I ended up writing this song, “Ordinary World,” that sounded more country, and it just sort of fit the movie. It’s about family, really. [“Where can I find the city of shining light/In an ordinary world?/How can I leave a buried treasure behind/In an ordinary world?”] It’s just finding out that the things in life that are more simple are actually the biggest connections that you can have. We tend to overthink the things that are not really important.

I think about this song as an extension of “2000 Light Years Away,” 20-something years apart. I value my relationships so much. I’m very deeply connected to Adrienne, and I’m very deeply connected to Green Day. People ask me, like, “Why do you maintain these relationships for so long?” I don’t know. Roots matter to me, I guess.

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“Love Is for Losers”

Love Is for Losers (2018)

I recorded an album as the Longshot, which was kind of an extension of ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre!, except where I produce it myself and not overthink it. I recorded all the instruments myself, and just started putting stuff out on SoundCloud and releasing little clips on Instagram. It taught me how to have fun with making records again, and how cool it can be, you know? It was this concept that ended up turning into a real band. I was dipping into music that’s way more rock & roll and more like, I would say, mid-career Replacements, or this band I love called the Exploding Hearts. I was also thinking of the Ronettes and early Beach Boys. I remember when I came up with the riff in that song, and I love the first line, “I’m riding shotgun in a car that’s broken down.” It’s just like, you’re going absolutely nowhere. It’s sort of like the anti-Valentine’s Day song. I think I got back to something that felt more self-deprecating and dumb, and when I’m dumb, I’m at my best.

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“Father of All …”

Father of All … (2020)

I was getting deep into Motown and soul music, and trying to channel that. You have to kind of thread the needle with Green Day to make sure that all of a sudden we’re not just trying too hard to be something that we’re not. It takes a weird balance. I had the riff, and I sat down with Tré and we did a demo. I’d been listening to the first couple of Prince records. He really threads the needle on ticking every genre — he was taking funk, R&B, and old classic-rock music, and he was able to turn out this sound that is so uniquely Prince. And everything is in falsetto. I wanted to try to sing through a falsetto. I was like, “I don’t want to sound like me, necessarily.”

At the same time, I was in this weird kind of depression, and that’s what the song is about. I was just struggling in life, and I think it has to do with reflecting on the current culture that we’re in. It’s hard to write songs about Trump. With American Idiot, there was a rallying cry. With Trump, it’s this toxicity that’s in our culture and we’re deeply, deeply divided to a point of paranoia that we’ve never felt before. It’s just bloody, and it’s gross. There’s a line: “We are rivals in the riot that’s inside of us.” I feel like that’s what’s happening in our culture. There’s this civil war that’s brewing. With Mike throwing the bass on top of it, it just sort of created this ultimate Green Day song. And I’ve never been more proud of a single before in my life.