|Recently we caught up with Mike Dirnt, co-founder and bassist of Green Day, to discuss basses, amps, the writing process, and his philosophy. Check out Green Day live during the Pop Disaster Tour with Blink 182. And while you're at it, pick up Green Day's newest release, "International Superhits" from Reprise Records.
GC: What's the band up to now? Are you working in the studio?
Mike: No, we're just writing songs. We practice two or three times a week, not to overkill. We're just in a creative mode right now--we have a handful of songs we feel really good about. And about two handfuls of songs that we're kind of throwing around. That's pretty much it. We're raring up for a couple of tours.
GC: So, you're writing songs for another record that's coming up soon?
Mike: Yeah, we're writing for our next album.
GC: Is there any kind of schedule for that?
Mike: Not really. Probably early next year, but we're not really looking at it like that right now. We're just looking at it like, "We will sell no wine until it's time."
GC: It seems like that's a good way to work.
Mike: Yeah. In the back of our minds, the thought of another album keeps us going. However, we don't want to force anything. We let our songs take on their own growth pattern.
GC: In other words, you'd rather write in a chilled-out sort of way, you don't think you write better under pressure?.
Mike: I don't think we write really badly under any particular circumstance, but I think there's something to be said about songs that come out naturally. Some of our songs come out really fast. Sometimes we'll go in and "Pow!" there's a great song at the end of the day that pretty much wrote itself. Other times we'll go in and try a song for a year before letting it go, only to have come out again another year later and naturally come together. In other words, we don't flog a song in order to make it happen.
GC: Tell us about your basses. What do you use and why do you use it?
Mike: Right now, I'm using anything from 1963 to 1974 Fender P-Basses, mostly ash bodies. Sometimes I'll swap out the pickups, if they're dying, to a Seymour Duncan antiquity, which is a pretty hot pickup. I used to use a Gibson G3 bass years ago. I played at least 700 shows out of that thing before Tre accidentally broke the neck on it twice on stage by pushing over my amps. P-Basses are just the ultimate basses for me--they're easy to play and they sound really great all across the board. I also play a couple of custom-made basses that Fender has made for me.
GC: How do those basses differ from a regular P-Bass?
Mike: One of them is like a '51 P-Bass reissue, which is not the Tele P-Bass style--it's the '51 standard P reissue. He also copied some of my old basses so I can keep those for the studio. And what I've done, is kept them out on tour so through all the rattling, noises and temperature changes, the wood has dried out at an accelerated pace. When I first got them they sounded really good, but a little round--they were only about 85% of what my good old dry ones sounded like. Now they're right up there at the top.
GC: Is drier wood better?
Mike: I think that when things dry out, they end up with micro caverns in the wood. It just resonates really well. Especially for wood, just something with it being lighter, there's more vibration to it. I'm not sure exactly how it works.
GC: So you use your different basses for different things? Like you might use certain ones in the studio, certain ones for live and certain ones to write on?
Mike: I use old and new ones on tour. And the ones that I smash on stage, we rebuild every day. If I ever smash one on stage, it's usually a Mexican P-Bass. We'll rebuild it and put it back together and play it again, until it dies entirely. Then we'll auction it off or give it to a fan.
GC: Do you ever smash one up a few times and then realize that you're starting to really like the sound of it?
Mike: Totally. At the end of a week or so, after the bass has been in the fire a couple of times, it starts to dry out. It gets louder and starts to sound really good. And every once in awhile, I'll break one on accident and I'll be like, "f--- that bass was sounding really awesome". And then I have to start over again.
GC: Do you think there are certain bass and amp combinations that are just a magic combination?
Mike: I totally think so. I had a Gibson Ripper bass similar to the Grabber with a Bill Lawrence pickup system, the same thing that Chris Novoselic used to play. And I could never really get a great sound with it. I sold it to a friend of mine really cheap and he plugged it into a Sunn head and a Sunn T50 cabinet and it sounded so good! It was one of the best bass sounds I had ever heard! It wouldn't have worked for Green Day, but it was an incredible sound. It made his band. I used Sunn amps on our last record and they were incredible. I used them and my Mesa/Boogies.
GC: What kind of amp are you running now? What do you use and why?
Mike: I use a Mesa/Boogie M-2000 head. I use four of those; actually I use three of those because it has an adjustable blend between tube & solid-state preamps. Half of it is solid state and the other half is tube. So I run one half kind of gritty and the other half really clean. And it allows me to adjust by how hard I play, how much the bass grits out and breaks up.
GC: So you're blending the two of those?
Mike: Yeah, a solid-state amp, when you turn it on, whatever you can get, is right there immediately. That's why sometimes GK has a really great tone. A tube amp warms up to the sound.
GC: How long does it have to warm up to get the best sound?
Mike: I guess it just depends on the amp. I would think that you should let it warm up for at least 20 minutes. At least 20 minutes for me...
GC: If you have this dial, what percent tube and what percent solid-state are you using?
Mike: For the most part, 60/40. I'd have to say 60 clean, 40 dirty, but it depends on what the stage is. If the stage is cement, then I can roll a little more of the gritty on or more of the dirty. If I'm getting tons of low rumble out of things on a wooden stage, then I might have to turn up the clean. Every floor has a total different affect on your amp. And you might think your amp is dying or your tubes are dead or whatever...
GC: Is the ideal mix for a certain venue hard to judge from on stage? Do you have to have someone out in the audience tell you?
Mike: No, I've played enough shows to where I can figure it out for myself. I can tell one speaker is out just by listening to it. My bass tech, he's great, but sometimes I'll tell him that there's a speaker out somewhere and he has no idea. But I'm able to point out exactly where it is.
GC: And that's out of how many speakers? Twelve?
Mike: No, here's the thing, I run one amp to two 18"s on the bottom. And then I run one M-2000 each to two 6x10s.
GC: So you have certain amps devoted to the 10's and certain ones only for the 18's?
Mike: Yeah, I really like the 6x10's. They're punchier and a little cleaner. They don't break up as quick as an 8x10. The cool thing about an 8x10 is you can get that low end, but then it breaks up sooner. So I put the 18"s underneath it. The 6x10 is cool because you can carry it in your car. Mesa/Boogie made it for me, but doubted that it was going to sound really good--now they carry it in their line because it sounds great!
GC: What is the coolest recent addition to your set up to your rig, bass or amp?
Mike: I just had Fender custom make me a bass, I wanted that '51 reissue Telecaster-looking bass. But when I got it, they sent me a regular P-Bass that was all hot-rodded out instead. I called Fender and said, "This bass is amazing, you're not getting it back", but what I ordered was the Tele-looking P-Bass. I was as excited as a kid in a candy store! You know it was like my first bass. When I opened it up, it was just this black-on-black incredible bass. I was like, "Oh my god!" I wouldn't even plug it in until we had band practice because all the amps at my house were kind of substandard. Fender had a P-Bass pickup in there that he made for the guy from Rage Against the Machine, Tim Commerford. And I don't know if he ordered it like that or not, but it's a f---ing bad-ass pickup! I was like, "Holy s--t! Whoa." I had to lower the pickup a little bit because the volume was twice that of the other bass I was playing.
GC: How was it different than a normal pickup? What did he ask for originally?
Mike: I don't know. It's just a hot-rod pickup. One of the things most people don't know is that most guitars are put together and made by women! Because their hands are small and they can put all the pieces together and wind the coils and all that stuff. Think about all those little bolts... Well, not only are they shaped like women, but they're put together by women. That's kind of cool. They're mostly played by men, but have the heart and soul of a woman--ironically enough. I think maybe that pickup was just wrapped by a particular person or maybe they put more copper on the coil or something.
GC: What's the next thing you'd like to get? What's on your wish list?
Mike: Since I recorded with that Sunn amp and I borrowed it from a friend, I had to give it back to him. I would like to get a combo with that because with those two 15"s, you get a really cool click sound that I enjoy. It sounds like an upright. They use to do that thing where to get a "tick tack" bass they'd run a baritone guitar or a baritone bass along with the upright to get that click. Those 15's help me achieve that sound and a 15" puts out a really warm sound, too. So anyway, I want to get one of my own setups like that. I've been waiting a long time for a good Sunn head to run it because they work well together.
GC: So do you use your big rig in the studio? Do you use different kinds of amps on different songs or if you're in a different mood?
Mike: I've used a 6x10 combo on every record we've ever done, this old Acoustic 6x10 cabinet that I have. It just depends on the song. Last time, I had six different channels and six different amps running and that was only because I didn't want to have to rewire for every song. So I just got all of them and knew the combos that I wanted to use. I would really only use two amps per song. I'd use a little 4x10 guitar combo for the super highs, maybe an Ameg, and a Mesa/Boogie 6x10, along with some other stuff. Basically, I'll just do a blend of two amps.
GC: So you had six tracks of bass running for any given song and you were just picking the two that you liked?
Mike: Yeah on any given song, I was basically using only two tracks. I just didn't want to rewire all the time.
||GC: So were they all going down to tape all the time and you just decided which ones you liked after the fact at mix down?
Mike: Yeah, pretty much. And you know what, when it comes down to it, half the time the best thing you can do is plug in one amp at a good DI and call it a day. Ultimately what I've found it comes down to is: if the bass sounds good not even plugged into an amp and it has a decent pickup in it, then it's probably going to sound that good coming through the amp. The bass that was sent me the other day was the loudest bass I'd ever played acoustically. That's why I wouldn't plug it into an amp until I got to band practice. Billie walked into the room and was like, "Dude that is the gnarliest bass sound I've ever heard." The bass player for The Living End, Scott, he does a really cool thing. He actually runs a P-Bass type of pickup on his upright, I don't know if it's an EMG or a P-Bass pickup. You know anything's really possible but ultimately it's not going to sound good if his upright is a piece of s--t!
GC: Do you have a home studio that you use to write or record ideas with?
Mike: Yeah, we all have home studios. If we want to record anything for B-side we can do it at Billie's house. He has a better studio than Tre or I. I basically split monitor a little Mackie 1604 and use it like an eight-track recording studio. You know, it's not any better than a four track, it's just more channels. The best thing you can do is get back to the basics and put a tape recorder in the middle of your room. I like it when you're excited about a crappy recording. When you take a tape recorder, put it in the middle of a room and listen to that song that you guys all played together, sometimes you get a great mix out of that. You can then take that mix and play it at the same time as you're recording a vocal line into another tape recorder. We try not to get demo-itis because if you make too good a demo or too good a home studio tape and it starts altering, you go into the studio and go, "well before, I had this..."
GC: In regard to the studio, you guys wind up doing demos, but you don't necessarily like to write that way? In other words, you guys don't pass tapes around?
Mike: No, if we have a song we want to record, each one of us will demo our own stuff. The other day we had a handful of songs, and I said, "Let's just go in, lay down the music and not be ready or perfected." We'll do demos and we'll leave the mistakes just to get it on tape real fast. We just want it on tape for reference. It's not like we are trying to reinvent the wheel.
GC: What's your attitude on mistakes on the final, real deal?
Mike: Unacceptable. What do you mean mistakes? Are there players out there that make mistakes? I'm kidding. I'm anal I have to say--you've got to live with whatever it is you do. Sometimes you end up with serendipitous things that are really cool.
GC: Sure, but do you go in and punch over them?
Mike: Yeah, you try and do one good take where you're really flowing. The most important thing is that you get one really solid drum take with good energy. If you have to, you can punch in over that then everybody else can jump in on the good energy that's already there.
GC: Does everyone in the band contribute to the writing process? Do all of you put your heads together and come up with stuff or do you tell one another what to play?
Mike: We all write our own parts. Billie will come in with an idea for a song, tell us the kind of vibe he has for the song and he'll play it for us. Then we'll jump in and then it's just a matter of deduction? Hopefully everyone is doing their part, but if it's not working we just tell each other that we need a little more energy in a particular part. Most of the time we try not to step on each other's parts. Sometimes if I need help, I'll ask Tre if there is something that he can do to help me out and I just let him figure it out. We all have to figure out our own deal--that way we all feel satisfied at the end of it.
GC: If someone's doing something that you don't like, do you just wind up discussing it or arguing about it until you come to a decision?
Mike: Usually, the person will figure that out. We try not to tell each other that we don't like something. Unless, for example, Billie has a direct idea for a song he'll tell us if he would like us to play it. Playing and writing a part is totally different. I can describe things to Tre, but I'm not a drummer. I can play drums, but I can't play drums for a band. Everybody's just doing their own part. I came in with a song the other day and described it to everybody and told them how I wanted it to go. At the end of the day everybody was like, "Damn, that rocks."
GC: As far as the writing goes, you guys have a pretty focused, targeted sound. How do you maintain quality control? Do you set out to write a Green Day sounding song?
Mike: You know, we write all sorts of different tunes. We don't try and stick ourselves to a Green Day format. We just write a bunch of songs and at the end of the writing process, we see which ones make sense together. And as far as the writing, we like to play our guitars like percussive instruments so we're looking for something that we can play because it has a motor of its own. Or maybe one of us has a melody in our head that's kind of catchy, so we work off of the little bits and pieces that come to us.
GC: Do you ever get stuff that's weird and way out in left field so you don't use it?
Mike: We'll still record it. We've gotten to the point where we will still record it because we do use B-sides. For example, on "Nimrod" there's "The Last Ride In" and then there's that song, "Espionage" which is a spy tune that we put on the Austin Powers record. "The Time of Your Life" is another example. There are a lot of songs on our records that if people heard individually, they would wonder who it was.
GC: So you think you're more tolerant of that as you guys go along...
Mike: I don't think you should censor yourself musically. Lyrically is another thing, with that you can have some discretion, but musically I don't think you necessarily need to censor yourself.
GC: Being in a three-piece band, do you feel you have to take up the extra space by playing differently, for example, busily or flashy?
Mike: I try not to overplay, basically. I'm always leery of not crowding anyone and of not overplaying. I think less is more.
GC: If there's space in the songs do you embrace that?
Mike: As we play along, if it seems like it's fitting and if I keep hearing something in my head, I'll ask the guys what they think. A perfect example of that is "Minority" I had that bass note in my head and Billie wrote the song. At first it was just power chords. I had this melody in my head and we were playing it like a standard Green Day format song. I asked the guys if they minded if we tried something different and I played them the melody that was in my head. Billie really liked it; he changed the vocal melody at the end for a little turnaround. I asked Tre if we wanted to commit to the song being kind of Irish sounding, if he wanted to go to the snare and do a kind of marching drum roll. And he nailed it.
GC: So making sure you have the general idea of the whole song before you dive in with more, pays off?
Mike: Yeah, a lot of bass players tend to be like Venus fly traps. They're waiting in the wings to see where the next lick is going to come from. I can't stand guys that play like that, it's so inappropriate. Some guys are really good at knowing what's appropriate a perfect example is Flea. That guy can play so much more than he does. But that's also coming from a guy who's a fan of songs. I like jams too, but ultimately I'm a song guy.
GC: Do you practice a lot and if so, how?
Mike: I don't now, but I did when I was a little kid. It never really got me anywhere though. I think the thing that helped me the most to get someplace was hearing a melody in my head and figuring out how to play it. I'd make myself have to play it.
GC: So it's more of a mental approach as opposed to physically getting your chops totally together?
Mike: Yeah, it's more of a song-by-song basis. Like ok well this is what it's calling for, this is what I'm hearing in my head, I got to make myself be able to play that. You know then I figure out how to play it and Billie says, "I have an idea for a harmony here." And I'm like "Shit." Then you have to figure out how to tap your head and rub your belly at the same time.
GC: Do you warm up at all before a performance?
Mike: Rock 'n' Roll calisthenics...I try and jump around, but nothing really prepares you for it. I guess it's like being a professional swimmer. You can stretch out and do all the calisthenics and jumping you want, but the fact of the matter is you're going to dive into cold water in a minute. Once you hit the pool you're going to do things that you didn't think you were going to do--you could cramp up or just go like lighting.
GC: What advice might you have for a young player wants to model their career after yours and be successful?
Mike: I would say, first of all, play music with friends. Don't just play with somebody because they happen to have a lot of skills. Play with people you get along with because happiness is a road traveled, not a destination. If you can find it within yourself to be happy with working 40 hours a week and having a gig on the weekend or just having something to look forward to as far as having different shows and playing with friends. If you can be happy with that, if you can be happy with the least, then you've already succeeded. Chances are, all it's going to be is you gigging from weekend to weekend for the rest of your life or until you get going.
GC: Do you think being happy with the process equates to a higher percentage of being successful? Or do you think even if you're not successful, at least you're happy?
Mike: I think if you're happy, you're successful in life in general. What are we really striving for? There's no such thing as a golden carrot. I just strive to be happy in general. That's all that my mom ever wanted for me. She said, "Hopefully whatever you do, you'll do to the best of your ability and hopefully that will be what you enjoy doing." The main thing is that you are having fun. I'm not saying everything is always honky dory, but for the most part it should be. There are some guys that join bands and are so career oriented. It's too driven and inorganic. I'm not saying that having drive is a bad thing. But don't forget to have fun.
GC: Have you or do you shop at Guitar Center at all and if so, what do you think about it?
Mike: I always shop at Guitar Center. I know it sounds funny, but a lot of my friends that I hang out with, work at Guitar Center. It's nowhere near what it was like when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I felt like a Guitar Center would ream me whenever I bought a guitar. The whole industry in general, a Squier Strat was like 350 bucks back then! It seemed so expensive. The price of guitars has really come down. I think it's the fact that now rock stars are more on a level of regular people again. I get a discount at Guitar Center but, a lot of the time my discount doesn't count because the prices are marked so low anyway. I don't think there's ever been a cheaper time to start playing guitar, drums or any instrument. Like I said, the people in the Bay area who work at Guitar Center are actual musicians. Don't let the commercials with the guy with the monster truck pull you away. I think most of the people working at Guitar Center are real people.
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