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From the Berkeley punk scene to the Broadway stage and beyond
Few musicians can claim a successful career that spans thirty years—let alone a career that involves being in just one band. But that's exactly the type of career Green Day's singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt have meticulously crafted. They've spent all thirty years not only playing music alongside each other, but they've transformed their small Berkeley-based punk band into full-blown rock royalty, with 11 studio albums under their belt and 65 million records sold worldwide.
"I first wanted to play guitar when I was really young, but my hands were too small. I was like 5," says Armstrong, spending the afternoon with Dirnt at Guitar Center Pico & Westwood in Los Angeles. "But then I started taking guitar lessons from a guy named George Cole when I was 8." Dirnt chimes in with his introduction to the world of music, "My mom's roommate played guitar, and he used to let me play it—as long as I took my belt buckle off," he laughs. "That was kind of it. When you're a little kid, I can't think of anything cooler than a guitar."
Even with their long and rich history, Armstrong and Dirnt can recall their earliest collaborations. "When Mike and I first started playing together, we were in this band where everyone was playing guitar, and we were all trying to play 'Purple Haze,'" Armstrong says. "So Mike and I kind of split away from that around 7th grade, and we learned three songs together. We had a big variety of tastes—everything from heavy metal to punk rock when it first started coming up, to very basic stuff that was on MTV or the radio."
Though Green Day sells out entire stadiums today, the band started like any other up-and-comer, playing small clubs, backyards and even basements to gain fans. "The hardest part was just trying to get a gig," says Armstrong. "One of the first times we jumped on the bill was at a party in San Francisco." Dirnt takes over, "Yeah, we played on the top floor of somebody's place, between this tiny living room and the bathroom. I mean you're talking about 22 people standing in a room that only holds 11—but it was such a good time, you know? Just add beer," he laughs.
Green Day would eventually sign with Reprise Records in 1994, and has been with them ever since. The two reflect on their decision to join a major label. "When we started out, we didn't know the kind of music we were playing could become popular," says Armstrong. "And then Nirvana came along, and it seemed like there was this small window where we thought it seemed like a good time to do it. I mean, we just wanted to be able to play forever," he laughs. Dirnt adds, "We were at a place where we were selling more tickets to shows than the clubs could handle, so we really had to make a choice,"—Armstrong interrupts, "We were selling more tickets than we were selling records. There were a few naysayers that felt like maybe we were gonna get burned or something by a major label. But it's been nothing but good—I can't think of a bad record or even a bad situation that we've ever truly been in."
Immediately upon signing, Green Day headed into the studio to record their breakthrough album Dookie. "We were just so excited to hear our stuff recorded really well—and not have to knock it out really quick in the same room without any isolation of any instruments," Dirnt says of the recording process. Armstrong adds, "Our first record cost $600. Our second $1,200. This time, we actually had a good budget, and we were like, 'This record rules, and it's better than anything on the radio.' But we didn't know if everyone else was gonna agree with us," he laughs.
Key to the success of Dookie, and an undeniable part of the band's sound since, was producer Rob Cavallo, who also worked with them on Insomniac, Nimrod, American Idiot and their upcoming triple release, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré!. Says Armstrong, "When we first presented him with the idea of doing three albums, I think he thought we were crazy. But then when he came into the studio, heard us rehearsing, and saw the set list for the three different sequences we were working on, I think he was like, 'This is the shit. This is gonna happen, and it's something that's never been done before.'" Dirnt adds, "Rob's great at helping us with recording techniques, getting good guitar sounds—he's a great translator, able to go from what we're going for to the technical aspects of laying it down."
At this stage in their career, Green Day can afford countless studio hours writing and perfecting new material, but the band prefers having everything well thought out and prepared beforehand." Says Armstrong, "You can't create a whole chapter of your life inside a studio within a two-month period. I think it's important to keep documenting things within those couple of years leading up to making the record." Dirnt continues, "If you want, you can be 90% ready and then leave 10% up to spontaneity and fun—that's great. But otherwise, it's just mailing it in—and being haphazard about it."
And, when it comes to writing and preparing material, they're quick to clarify it's a collaborative effort. Says Dirnt, "Billie writes the majority of the stuff, but at the end of the day, we all know how to structure songs, write songs, write melodies and put everything together." Armstrong adds, "I usually come in with a skeleton of a song, but the more we rehearse, the more the song evolves, and everyone starts adding." He continues, "For example, with 'Kill the DJ,' Mike said, 'Why don't we try something more four-on-the-floor, a cross between Blondie and Gang of Four?' So, I came in with a riff and a melody, and Mike and Tré jumped all over it."
Most bassists can attest the spotlight is typically reserved for lead singers and guitarists. Dirnt has this to offer about his role as Green Day's bassist, "It's the same role as everybody else in the band," he says. "If everyone's doing their part right, the song will sound appropriate. Sometimes you have to step out and be on Broadway and carry the song—other times you have to sit back. It's about finding what the song is calling for."
With decades spent on the road and in and out of studios, Dirnt has had a lot of time to perfect and hone his signature bass tone—an iconic part of Green Day's sound. "It just kind of happened," he says. "Number one, I play with a pick, and I play with a lot of power, so I think that punches it up a little bit. Beyond that, I think over the years I've had to cut through some pretty big guitars, and that helps formulate me finding my spot. And then, it's just a matter of me playing peak-a-boo with certain parts of the song," he laughs. Armstrong adds, "I think with the new material, the bass comes across a lot more. [¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré!] has a cleaner kind of guitar sound—we're using more vintage amps like early '70s Marshalls, Vox—stuff like that—and Mike's bass lines are able to cut in and really compliment the melody of the song." Dirnt chimes in, "There's some songs on the new record where I couldn't believe there wasn't a rhythm guitar being played—because it sounds so full with just one bass."
As far as recording a triple release, the duo say it was a natural progression of events. "We originally went into the rehearsal studio with a handful of power pop songs," says Dirnt. "But we kept our noses down and kept writing, and when we got to around 30 songs, we realized there were three different elements going on. ¡Uno! is more like classic Green Day, ¡Dos! is more garage rock—a little dirtier, like you're in the middle of the party, and ¡Tré! has this more self-reflecting, epic nature to the songs. Once we saw that each of the three records would have their own personalities, it just kind of made sense."
With ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré! being Green Day's 9th, 10th and 11th albums, Armstrong and Dirnt definitely have seen how advances in technology influence the way albums are recorded and bands are made. "The quality of recording at home is so much faster and so much more usable today—so much cheaper, too. And for me, I think when you hear a good band, everything truly goes back to what the kids are doing in the garage, or in their bedrooms—just trying to get that gig. That's the way I look at it." Dirnt adds, "It's never been cheaper—guitars are so cheap now. I remember when I bought my first Squier Strat. It was like 350 bucks. For $350 now you can get a Fender—especially on a good sale," Dirnt laughs. Armstrong has also once again teamed up with Gibson for his new double cutaway signature Les Paul Junior. "We wanted to do something a little different, so this one's based on a 1960 model—the neck is thinner and it's finished in TV Yellow. No tricks or anything like that—just plug it in, turn it up, and start rocking out."
As seasoned musicians with three decades of experience, Armstrong and Dirnt still know the struggle of picking out the perfect guitar. Their advice is simple, "Plug into everything there," says Dirnt. "People say, 'I don't know what I want.' Well go plug into everything—and, for that matter, actually turn the knobs and see what they do," he laughs. Armstrong adds, "Don't be afraid of the instrument—control the instrument. Don't let it control you. Strum hard. Turn the volume up as loud as you can. Do your Pete Townshend windmills. Don't walk on eggshells around the instrument. Break the thing in—that's what a guitar or bass wants."