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Green Day

Opera for punks

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By Gary Graff  
artist

Green Day blew out of Berkeley, California, in 1989 as a punk band -- but, its members felt, a different kind of punk band. And that's proven true in the ensuing years. Displaying a melodic sensibility that's as much Beatles as Buzzcocks, the group kicked around for five years before establishing a commercial beachhead for itself and a whole movement of nuevo punk rockers with Dookie, a ten-million selling phenomenon that won a Grammy Award and launched the hits "Long View," "When I Come Around" and "Basket Case" -- in which frontman Billie Joe Armstrong asked the prototypical question, "Do you have the time to listen to me whine?"

But rather than turn that success into a formula, Armstrong and his bandmates -- bassist and co-founder Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool (Frank Edwin Wright III) -- broadened and experimented with their sound in directions both heavy and melodic, culminating in 1997's smash "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," which Armstrong performed on acoustic guitar, accompanied by strings.

In 2004, Green Day stretched the punk model even further on American Idiot, crafting a full-fledged rock opera "concept" album with heavy political and social overtones, and two extended, suite-like pieces -- putting the band in league with the Who, Pretty Things, Pink Floyd and David Bowie. The album debuted at No. 1 and earned the group yet another Grammy, and boosted its already lofty credibility factor even higher.

Q: It's safe to say that "punk rock" and "opera" have been mutually exclusive genres for much of musical history. Is American Idiot really a "punk rock" opera?

Dirnt: You know, we just phrase it as a story. I don't know how to say it. I just say punk rock opera for lack of a better term. There really isn't a term that defines it, necessarily. But if you look at the people in the past that have done similar things, there's only a handful to draw from -- at least in our vein, like a rock 'n' roll sort of vein. When you look back it's things like Tommy or Quadrophenia, or The Wall, things like that.

Q: As bold as it seems, American Idiot is a kind of natural extension of what Green Day's been doing for years. You guys could've done Dookie forever if you'd wanted.

Armstrong: My philosophy on it is you don't establish a set of rules on top of yourself. You do what you want, and just be an individual rather than playing songs that sound like the Ramones or something. I think there's a lot of cliches that pop up. If we were to put out the same record again and again, I think we'd get really bored.

Dirnt: We love what we do, and we work very hard at that. A lot of people don't seem to understand it. Maybe other bands get big and rest on their laurels or don't still get together in a small room and practice. For us, that's fun.

Q: Prior to American Idiot you released a pair of retrospectives, International Superhits! and the Shenanigans rarities collection. Did those let you clean the slate and get more ambitious?

Dirnt: Sure. They let us pull the tablecloth out from everything we've made and set a new table. We were ready to stomp new ground and that kind of thing.

Q: Similarly, did "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" help to liberate you in that respect, since it was such a departure for the band, but such a big hit, as well?

Armstrong: Yeah, I think that song kind of freed us up to be able to tap into other styles a little more, instead of what would be a "Basket Case" kind of song. I think it allowed us the freedom to do anything that we pretty much want to try.

Dirnt: I think each one of our records exemplifies where are at a given moment. I don't think we worry about fitting it into what we've done in the past. I think that's more for other people to worry about. I think it's always gonna fit to some extent, 'cause what we do is bass, drums and guitar -- notice I put bass first. What it comes down to is, we've got to live with ourselves. All we really know how to do is make the music we make.

Armstrong: I think we've always known how to play different styles. We know how to jam or whatever. We're just capable of doing more.

Q: How did American Idiot come about?

Dirnt: We'd just been recording a lot of songs, and we set ourselves up in an environment in the Bay Area in this studio where the only rule we had was to record. If you've got nothing, record something. If we needed to be creative and we couldn't be, it was like "Tre, go into a polka number" or "Mike, go in and lay some acoustic thing down," just something always to keep it creative and inspire the next big thing that was eventually going to be the album. We got to a point where we'd basically written a whole record, and then Billy wrote "American Idiot" and that was where it was like, "OK, now we've raised the bar 'cause this song stands above all the songs we've done." And we got into that.

Q: As you got further in and realized it was conceptual, were you apprehensive?

Dirnt: Yeah. It was fuckin' terrifying, to tell you the truth.

Q: But is it still punk rock?

Dirnt: Man, most people who would label us punk have no clue whatsoever what punk is. In a nutshell, punk to us is something that has a set of ethics, that stands for or against something. It really means no rules, going against the grain sometimes. It's a lifestyle thing, too, punk rock. It's just something that's me. It's the music I like -- not the only music I like -- and the kind of point of view you live with and see things through. But I never thought of punk rock being my uniform. I always thought of it as just kind of a cool thing that I was into that didn't not include other people.
One of the cool things Green Day does in its show is pick kids from the audience and let them play your instruments. You form a band, basically, with fans. How fun is that?

Dirnt: It's hilarious to me. We did it once when we didn't really put together a band. There was a whole band at our show in Italy, and we finally realized it was a whole band, so we called them up onstage and had them play. I dove out in the crowd and watched 'em play. It was pretty cool.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.