Not long ago, before he pushed his band to record three albums all at once and landed himself in rehab, before a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction left him with little to prove, Billie Joe Armstrong had some strict rules for Green Day. Most important, each album and tour had to lead right into the next. Bands that took breaks were never the same when they returned, Armstrong would say, comparing his trio to a vintage sports car: “You’ve got to keep it tuned up, or it’s gonna sit there and rust.” They would practice up to six times a week, like a garage band prepping for its first gig. “It was ridiculous,” says bassist Mike Dirnt, “and great. We put our heads down for 20 years, and never really looked up.”
It all had to keep getting bigger and more ambitious. With 2004’s American Idiot, they recorded one of the most consequential rock albums of a guitar-starved century, and a once-irreverent trio of working-class stoners – Armstrong, his childhood friend Dirnt, drummer Tré Cool – started playing Queen-size stadium shows and developing an eyeliner habit. They laboured over an even more audacious follow-up, 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, packing it full of strong songs, but self-seriousness and bombast crept in – e.g., “American Eulogy (Mass Hysteria/ Modern World)”. “Everything became so apocalyptic,” says Armstrong. “We lost a little bit of our goofiness, the part of Green Day that I always liked.”
By 2012, Armstrong, long an on-and-off heavy drinker, had lost all control, and most of his perspective. Even as he compulsively wrote and recorded songs for the band’s ill-fated near-simultaneous albums, ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! (“this relentless thing, trying too hard”), he was combining pills and alcohol “to a point where I was surprised I would wake up in the morning”, he says. And even though he had a wife and two teenagers at home, his thinking was “fuzzy” enough that the prospect of death didn’t much bother him: “I was being very selfish.”
Now, Armstrong is in his fourth year of sobriety, and he’s trying to ditch his worst career tendencies as well. Green Day have just released Revolution Radio, their first album in four years. With the band fresh from the longest break of its 28-year run, Armstrong no longer thinks of it as a delicate car that might break down after a couple of days in the garage. “It’s totally not true,” he says, twice, nearly doubling over with laughter in a plush grey chair in the clubhouse-like upstairs lounge of his newly built Oakland studio. “I learned that the hard way. You can’t be enthusiastic for the sake of enthusiasm. You have to get out of trying to outdo and one-up yourself all the time. We had to break that habit, because suddenly we weren’t really being ourselves anymore… I was a little burnt out on being in Green Day. We needed to stop.”
For the first time in more than 15 years, Green Day have an album that’s just an album: 12 songs, no gimmick. “This was me, Billie and Tré firing off each other,” says Dirnt, “in the same way as if we were practicing for Kerplunk” – the group’s second album, from 1992 – “without thinking about it like that.” The band sees it as a back-to-basics move, its version of U2’s 2000 reboot, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “There was a thing where it was like, ‘What should we be today?'” Armstrong says. And the answer: “Let’s be Green Day. Green Day is awesome!”
When he walked onstage blackout-drunk at the iHeartRadio festival on September 21st, 2012, the week ¡Uno! came out, Armstrong brought it all crashing down. Confronted with a blinking sign warning the band its allotted time was ending, he flipped out, treating the crowd to a rant that would’ve been hilarious if he weren’t so far gone. “Fuck this shit!” he snarled. “I’ve been around since 19-fucking-88. And you’re gonna give me one fucking minute? I’m not fucking Justin Bieber, you motherfuckers. You gotta be fuckin’ joking.” He proceeded to smash his guitar, and Dirnt, in solidarity, trashed his bass too.
Armstrong’s dire state aside, the bandmates agree they probably shouldn’t have been at the pop-dominated fest in the first place. “Once a punk, always a punk, is really what it comes down to,” Armstrong says. He’s dressed like the rock dad he is: black jeans, black Converse, black button-down with a loosely knotted polka-dot tie and a not-quite-matching brown cardigan. He has some greyish stubble going, rendering his gelled nest of black hair and never-fixed chipped front teeth incongruously boyish. He always seems slightly agitated, as if a truant officer might be around the corner.
“Sometimes you feel like that dirthead kid who for some reason is running for homecoming king,” he adds. “But we have to blame ourselves for putting ourselves in that situation. We have the ability to say no.” He pauses. “Honestly, dude, I can’t remember a word that came out of my mouth.”
Dirnt agreed with everything Armstrong said onstage. “But what I couldn’t agree with,” the bassist says, “was seeing the degradation of my friend. The fucking path had gone too far. And he didn’t even see it yet. It was, ‘We’re done. Recognise it. I can’t think about playing with you right now. You got to get right.'” Armstrong entered rehab, and while he was away, Dirnt wrote him letters of encouragement tempered with blunt realism. “If we make it through this and we get back together,” he told him, “we’re either going to be stronger than ever or we’re going to not be doing this.”
Over the years, Armstrong had made periodic attempts to get sober on his own, but even after a well-publicised DUI bust in 2003, few around him guessed he had a real problem. During a literally beer-soaked New York club show with the Green Day side project Foxboro Hot Tubs in 2010, musician Jesse Malin, a longtime friend, watched as Armstrong “just whipped it out and peed all over the stage. I always thought it was just the spirit of it. I’ve done stuff like that sober! But it might’ve been a sign of where things were going.” There were plenty of other drunken nights that seemed harmless, where Malin and Armstrong stayed up all night geeking out on music: “We’d just be yakking away about songs, like, did the Replacements steal that one part of ‘Little Mascara’ from the Clash’s ‘Death or Glory’?”
Michael Mayer, who grew close to Armstrong as the director of the Broadway version of American Idiot, calls him “the most functioning addict I’ve ever seen in my life. It seemed to go in phases as opposed to being a constant thing. It was not like he was drunk or on drugs all the time. But he’d go into these meltdowns occasionally, and it became harder for him to recover.”
After a while, Armstrong didn’t feel high-functioning at all. “That’s just on the outside,” he says. “That’s not the reality of what was going on. The other part of my life was falling apart slowly. My foundation was cracked.” If he hadn’t quit, he says, “honestly, I don’t know if I would be around”. And he’s pretty glad he is. “I want to be an empty-nester,” he says – his younger son, Jakob, will soon graduate from high school. “I want to watch my kids go through their experiences. I don’t want them to have to deal with that kind of darkness ever in their lives.”
Armstrong says sobriety has come pretty naturally. He doesn’t mind if his bandmates drink in front of him. He’s even learning to enjoy days when not much happens, when he can wake up; walk his four dogs (“Mojo, Mickey, Rocky and Cleo – they kind of sound like a band”); hang out at his recently opened Oakland guitar shop, Broken Guitars; check in at the studio; head home for dinner “and watch Game of Thrones like everyone else”.
Two years ago, he and his wife, Adrienne, celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, renewing their vows in a Las Vegas ceremony. Later that night, he formed an impromptu supergroup with guests – Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Malin, Duff McKagan and Tré Cool – and blasted through a bunch of covers at a local club. The anniversary party served as the real wedding he and Adrienne never had; back in ’94, they had a BYOB backyard party (“We had friends bringing in 40-ouncers,” Armstrong recalls). “Me and Adrienne grew up together, let’s face it,” says Armstrong. “My sons practically grew up with us too. Which is cool. We’ve always been younger than most of the other parents.” (Sometimes they play music together as well: One year, Armstrong recorded a single with his wife and kids and sent it out to friends in lieu of a Christmas card.)
Armstrong’s home studio has been commandeered by his sons, who have both embarked on music careers: Joey as the drummer in the indie band SWMRS, Jakob as the frontman of his own Strokes-influenced band, Jakob Danger, who’ve already released an EP on the hip label Burger Records. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch with Jakob,” says Armstrong. “He’s a quiet guy, and one day he and Joe were like, ‘Dad, let’s go record something.’ Jakob had these songs. I was like, ‘Where the fuck did this come from?'”
By middle-aged-millionaire Hall of Famer standards, at least, Green Day still keep it pretty DIY. They like to build stuff. Dirnt served as his own contractor on a big house in Berkeley years back, constructing it with enough skill and care that when he recently stopped by, the current owners offered profuse thanks. Armstrong recently reconstructed the engine of an old Ford Falcon, adding a Joey Ramone stencil to the hood as a finishing touch. “I just got greasy every day,” he says.
Revolution Radio was equally handmade. The band members served as their own producers, recording the whole thing in near-total privacy: It was just them and longtime engineer Chris Dugan in the studio every day. They didn’t tell their label, Warner Bros., about the album’s existence until it was almost finished. “When nobody knows you’re working, sometimes that’s the easiest time to work,” says Dirnt. “Nobody is going, ‘Did you finish that thing up yet?’ You did it because you wanted to, not because you had to.”
Armstrong scoffs at rock bands that seek out cutting-edge producers and pop-star guests. “We were rejecting the thought of having to work with other people to get a hit,” he says, with a ’94-worthy sneer. “We don’t need to do that. And most other bands don’t either. They just do it because they’re pussies!”
They recorded the album at Armstrong’s new studio, Otis, in a gentrifying neighbourhood in the band’s native Oakland. There’s a Chuck Berry LP cover on the front door, a vintage jukebox upstairs stocked with Armstrong’s formidably curated collection of 45s (from Little Richard’s “Keep on Knockin'” to the Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” to the Buzzcocks’ “Orgasm Addict”), an old issue of Zap Comix on a side table. A huge California state flag is stretched across one wall in the lounge, near a framed poster for a 1955 Alan Freed “Rock N Roll Halloween Party” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In the hallway is a locker from Armstrong’s old high school, retrieved by his brother, who was a custodian there, during a remodelling. Inside is a sticker advertising a March 16th, 1990, Green Day concert. (“Isn’t that crazy?” Armstrong says, pointing it out.)
The actual studio space, a rectangular room with hardwood floors and a string of lightbulbs on the ceiling, is almost absurdly small – some pro studios have bigger kitchens. The band just finished recording in July, and the equipment is still crammed in there. To get a drum sound worthy of songs destined for arenas, Green Day stuck microphones out in the hall and in the tiny bathroom attached to the live room. “It captured what you’d hear if you’re in there taking a shit while I’m playing,” Cool notes. “Assuming you left the door open and the fan off. Which we don’t recommend.”
After 2004’s ‘American Idiot’, “Everything became so apocalyptic,” says Armstrong. “We lost a little bit of our goofness.”
Recording the album was painless enough, but getting there was tough. Dirnt spent much of the time off facing one of the most painful challenges of his life, after his wife of seven years, Brittney, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s now in remission after “nine surgeries and chemo and all that shit”. Dirnt shaved his head in solidarity, and the family moved south for eight months to focus on her treatment. Having two kids under the age of 10 made it all the more harrowing. “The last thing you want to do is lose the better parent,” says Dirnt with a small chuckle. “But she’s also the stronger person of the two of us. I probably would have crawled up in a ball and said, ‘I’m fucking done.'” Dirnt has a classically sturdy bass-player personality – you’d want him by your side in crisis.
His wife’s treatment did leave Dirnt with enough spare time to do some serious work on his bass playing: He learned Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” note for note, then dug deeper, hooking up with a jazz teacher. But when Armstrong first suggested starting a new album, Dirnt said he needed more time. “The one thing cancer gives you is the gift of perspective,” he says. “With that said, you can’t come right out of that bubble and then jump back on a pirate ship. It’s like, ‘No, man, I’m not ready.’ I wanted to feel like I had a minute to absorb some other emotion.”
Tré Cool wasn’t eager to get back to work either. He was on an extended honeymoon with his new wife, Sara Rose, a thirtysomething musician who had purple hair at their wedding – thanks to her, there’s a drum set right in his living room at the moment. “We did a little travelling around Europe and Mexico and Belize and Jamaica,” he says. “Being a newlywed and just doing whatever we felt like that day. It was a treat.”
Cool grew up in a rural hippie enclave in Mendocino County, and he still seems psyched just to be in civilisation. At 43, he manages to pull off spiky hair the colour of a blueberry Popsicle, not to mention calling himself Tré Cool. And he’s settling in for the long haul, working out hard to prepare for life as “a buff 60-year-old playing Green Day songs” – he even once asked Charlie Watts for advice on drumming longevity, though the suggestions (a caloric energy drink, hitting less hard) weren’t superhelpful.
As for Armstrong, his idea of a break could easily be mistaken for frantic productivity. He remade the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us with Norah Jones on a collaborative album called Foreverly; wrote a set of dead-on faux-Beatles songs for the Shakespeare-inspired musical These Paper Bullets! for the Yale Repertory Theatre; and played guitar on several dates for one of his all-time favourite bands, the Replacements.
Armstrong wasn’t the same after making his Broadway debut as the decadent rock-god character St. Jimmy in the American Idiot musical. The experience could have exacerbated his substance abuse at the time (“He was Method acting,” says Malin), but it also left him hungry to try new things. He began to cautiously seek out acting gigs, and after turning down many scripts, he eventually signed on to play a former-musician-turned-midlife-crisis-afflicted-dad in a sweet indie dramedy called Geezer, making a debut as a leading man at age 44. The film, now titled Ordinary World after a ballad Armstrong wrote for it, will come out the week after Revolution Radio. Armstrong is in nearly every scene, delivering an impressively naturalistic performance alongside Fred Armisen and Selma Blair. Writer-director Lee Kirk encouraged Armstrong to think of it as an alternate timeline: The guy in the movie also released his major-label debut around the same time as Armstrong, but in his case, it didn’t work out. “We talked about it as ‘This is a story of what if Dookie didn’t sell 10 million records’,” says Kirk. “Maybe this is a life he could have led.”
The movie left Armstrong anxious to try more stuff: “Fuck, man, I want to try acting more. I want to try doing musicals and I want to try just mixing it up. There’s no pressure to be perfect. There were times doing Ordinary World where I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
Ordinary World‘s midlife-crisis theme also pops up on Revolution Radio – through Armstrong’s pen, it’s a close cousin to that teenage feeling of dislocation he’s always captured so well. “Sometimes when you’re home by yourself,” he says, “there’s that feeling that you’re kind of spiritually unemployed, and you’re trying to figure out who you are. It’s about going, ‘What’s the most honest thing I can say about myself right now?'” The album begins with the Who-ish anthem “Somewhere Now”, which finds Armstrong feeling “spiritually broken”. “It’s just that gloom and trying to rise above it,” he says. “That’s sort of what the record is about.”
The album also grapples with what Armstrong sees as a troubled America. “The world looks like an old Dead Kennedys album cover now,” he says. There’s more than one reference to police brutality (an issue he was talking about in the Nineties) and Black Lives Matter protests. “I think my role is to shut up and listen,” he says. “A lot of white people should shut up and listen. They really don’t know what the African-American experience truly is. When you have people getting shot in their cars for no reason and being put in fucking jail cells and it’s for profit, we have a serious problem, and the first thing you need to do is get educated. Don’t try to do this, like, ‘Blue lives matter.’ Don’t try to do the ‘All lives matter.’ Just shut up and listen to the experience. And then move forward after that.”
The day after Green Day surprise-release “Bang Bang”, the first single from Revolution Radio, Tré Cool is driving his 1963 Volvo down Gilman Street in Berkeley, toward the club where it all began. What were once abandoned warehouses, he points out, are now Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and condos. About half a mile from the club, his engine light turns on, and the car starts sputtering. “I’m breaking down,” he says, somewhat amused. We pull over, and we end up pushing the car together around the corner, into a parking spot on a quieter street.
Maybe it was a sign from the punk-rock gods, a belated punishment for signing to a major all those years ago, but we ignore it and walk over to the empty club. 924 Gilman is still communally run, the way it was when Green Day started playing there in the late Eighties, before Cool joined. It’s a little brick building that you could easily walk right past – but then again, so is Sun Studios in Memphis. “It doesn’t look like much,” says Cool fondly. The window is full of fliers for young bands that have played there recently, with Jakob Danger prominent among them. (“It’s like a movie,” Armstrong says later of this full-circle turn.)
Cool and his bandmates have embraced the fact that Dookie is now older than, say, The Dark Side of the Moon was in ’94. “I remember joking when Dookie and Insomniac were new,” says Cool, “that we were gonna be on classic-rock stations next to fucking Led Zeppelin and shit. Like, wouldn’t that be funny? Now I literally hear our music next to Led Zeppelin on rock radio.”
With their deceptive power-chord simplicity, Green Day have inspired more young bands to start than any act this side of Kiss, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. When Armstrong saw Jakob play recently, he connected with a cherubic teenage garage-rock trio named Destroy Boys, who, like Green Day, have released their debut LP while still in high school. As we hung out at Armstrong’s Broken Guitars store one day, the band knocked at the gate: “Hey, we’re Destroy Boys!” They handed over a band T-shirt, and he promptly posed with it on for his Instagram.
Green Day have never stopped making young fans, so unlike many veteran bands, they still see plenty of fresh faces in the audience. But last year, a month after their Hall of Fame induction, Green Day returned to 924 Gilman to play a secret show for the oldest crowd they’ve ever seen: It was a class reunion for their early-Nineties scene, a club packed with grown-up punks. “That was so emotional,” Armstrong says. “Looking out in the crowd, you see familiar faces that once had piercings and dyed purple hair, and now it’s covered in grey.” Some of those punk kids are now “educators, they’re artists, they’re authors”, who used punk as Armstrong did, as a door “into the idea of being able to express yourself”.
“It’s like running into an old friend,” he says, “and you’re playing catch-up on all the things that happen in a 40-year life span – you think of how much has changed in your own life. It’s a trip. Fuck! But here we are.” Armstrong sighs. “If that was the last gig I ever played for the rest of my life,” he says, “I could walk away happy.”
From issue #780 (November 2016), available now.