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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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“Welcome to Paradise”

Kerplunk (1992); Dookie (1994)

I had moved out of my house in the suburbs to West Oakland, into a warehouse that was rat-infested and in a really fucked-up neighborhood, with a lot of crazy punks and friends. I was paying $50 a month for rent, which was great, because, being in a band, you got paid a couple hundred bucks here and there — so it was easy to pay for rent, eat Top Ramen, and buy weed.

It was an eye-opening experience. Suddenly, I was on my own, smack out in one of the gnarliest neighborhoods in Oakland. You look around and you see cracked streets and broken homes and ghetto neighborhoods, and you’re in the middle of it. You’re scared, thinking, “How do I get out of here?” Then suddenly it starts to feel like home. There is a sort of empathy that you have for your surroundings when you’re around junkies and homelessness and gang warfare. “A gunshot rings out at the station/Another urchin snaps and left dead on his own” — I was describing exactly what my surroundings were. There’s not a part of that song that isn’t true. It’s a great live song to crank into. I think the musicality of the [bridge] is a foreshadowing of what things were to come for us in the future, whether we knew it or not.

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Dookie (1994)

I had a girlfriend named Amanda, this Cal student. I learned a lot about feminism through her. She gave me an education that I think was very timely for me. I was just a dumb kid, high school dropout. She was telling me about the way women have been objectified for so many years, and I was just listening. I wrote this as a love song to her, but it was also about learning about her activism. When it says “Scream at me until my ears bleed,” I was kind of going, “I’m here to listen.” With any kind of activism, the first thing you need to do is be a good listener. The song becomes about an understanding. That song just feels so good to sing. I’m really proud of it; it’s very stripped down, simple, three chords. It’s kind of a cult hero. It’s one of those songs that wasn’t a single, but it had a life of its own. Those are the special kinds of songs.

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Dookie (1994)

I really loved the song by the Pretenders called “Message of Love,” and wanted to write a song like that, but we needed a bass line. We are all living in this house in Richmond, California, and I think I went to a movie. Everybody back at the house had dropped acid. So I came home and Mike is sitting on the floor in the kitchen tripping balls, and he had his bass on, and he goes, “I figured it out, man! I figured it out.” He played the bass line for me for the first time right there. I didn’t know what to think about it, because I was like, “Well, he’s on acid, so I can’t tell if he’s even going to remember it.” Then we ended up playing it the next day, and it just stuck.

The lyrics to it are about feeling like a loser, watching television, jerking off, and feeling lonely. I was pretty frightened at the time. I was in limbo. I didn’t have a girlfriend — it took, like, four years for me and Adrienne to get together, from like ’90 until ’94. We had signed to a major label, and there was a backlash at the time because we had been this underground band. Things felt out of my control, and it felt like a make-or-break deal. It’s such a unique-sounding song, when you really look at it. Nobody was playing rhythms that swing, or that kind of power in the choruses. Grunge had turned into something that was bastardized by lameness, and I think we were coming from a place that felt a little harder and more upbeat. And it was super-danceable and got people to go crazy.

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“Brain Stew”

Insomniac (1995)

This song is such a dark horse. I had just gotten some recording equipment, and I came up with the riff when I was experimenting with it for the first time: “Oh, this is cool. It almost sounds like a harder Beatles song, like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ ” The song is about methamphetamine, not being able to sleep, and staying up all night. It was something that was creeping into our punk scene at the time, and I definitely did my experimenting with it. It’s just such an evil drug.

Things were getting really scary. I’m such a dedicated songwriter and musician, and when Dookie got so big — it was on par with becoming one of the biggest pop records of all time — I really wanted to be like, “I’m a rocker. I’m a punk rocker. That’s what matters to me more than being some kind of pop star.” That sort of fueled that record.

Everything was happening. I got married, I had a kid, I was 23 years old, and people were climbing in my trees to look inside my house. It was the scary side of becoming a rock star, or whatever. You can’t control the outcome of your life. I wanted to show the uglier side of what Green Day was capable of.

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“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”

Nimrod (1997)

I wrote this back when I was writing for Dookie. It was for a girlfriend who was moving to Ecuador. I went to this house party in Berkeley, where all these college students were passing an acoustic guitar around and singing songs — a “weird dudes with ponytails and an acoustic guitar” kind of moment. I remember going, “Oh, man, I should try doing an acoustic song,” so I wrote that song about her and the end of our relationship. “Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial” — I had tattooed her name on me, and then I had to get it covered up, that’s all that was.

It’s about trying to be cool, accepting that, in life, people go in different directions. This was a wildly different direction: I was getting ready to go on tour and promote Dookie, and had a single on the radio, and everything was starting to happen. She was moving to Ecuador to continue her studies and live with a family there. People come into your life and it’s wonderful, but they seem to go out of your life as quickly as they came in. That’s what the song’s about.

So I wrote it in ’93 — the whole song was done — but I didn’t think it was going to be for Green Day at all. Then when we were doing Insomniac, I did a demo for it, but it wasn’t right for that album, either. I didn’t really know what to do. When we made Nimrod, I was just like, “Let’s see what happens.” We put this little string quartet on it, which was going way outside what Green Day was known for. And it was amazing. It opened up a brand-new world: “Oh, fuck, we can do so much more.”

It took on a life of its own. I was definitely not thinking about weddings and graduations when I wrote it. A girl just sent me a message on my Instagram [saying] she had a brother that just passed away, and that became the song her family would listen to that they related to their experience. It’s really beautiful when you think about it.

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Warning (2000)

After “Time of Your Life,” I started getting into playing more acoustic guitar, and I really wanted to have more for Warning. And there was also a lot of kind of bad pop punk that was starting to happen, and I wanted to go against that genre. This felt like the next step. I had been getting into listening to more of the Kinks and the Who, who found a lot of power in an acoustic song, and used the guitar almost like a drum. “Pinball Wizard” is so percussive. I wrote this right before the election between George Bush and Al Gore. I started feeling the political wheels starting to turn toward conservatism a little bit. I think that song is sort of about declaring that you’re stepping out of the line, you’re not part of the sheep, and trying to find your own individualism. It felt like we were diving into something that was more conceptual for sure.

I’d like to go back and rerecord that album. It was right when Pro Tools started happening. I want to go back and just do everything more live, because I think “Minority” live is a lot better than it came out on the album. But that’s just one of those things that you think about too much.

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“Jesus of Suburbia”

American Idiot (2004)

I loved “A Quick One” by the Who, and I decided I’d love to write a song that felt like a mini-opera. We had a studio that we could work everything out at and experiment, and Mike, Tré, and I had been coming up with little 30-second vignettes and trying to connect them in the studio.

After I wrote “American Idiot,” I was like, “Who is this character?” Then the ideas started firing at me: “I’m the son of rage and love/The Jesus of Suburbia/The Bible of none of the above.” It felt like I was in uncharted territory, really for the first time. I’d taken my songwriting to another level. It starts almost doo-woppy, and then it ends up almost going into this sort of Black Sabbath direction. It’s kind of around-the-world-in-eight-minutes or something. And Jesus of Suburbia ended up becoming the character that ran throughout the entire album.

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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.