Billie Joe Armstrong:
The BLUERAILROAD Interview
By PAUL ZOLLO
SEVEN STORIES ABOVE THE SUNSET STRIP in Hollywood is the Chateau Marmont, an old hotel rife with the ghosts and scandals of Hollywood’s recent and not-so-recent past. Famous for the elegant, old-world discretion it affords all its guests, for decades it’s been a safe harbor for stars seeking to circumvent the squall of media surveillance. It’s where John Belushi died, sadly, back in bungalow three, and where Jim Morrison wrecked his back by swinging Tarzan-like from the roof, using a drain pipe as a vine. Every star, it seems, from Chaplin and Bogart to Dylan and Lennon have hidden out here while in Hollywood. “If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont,” Harry Cohn, the first boss of Columbia Studios, once told William Holden.
So it’s an appropriate setting for Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of Green Day, to be holding court. Armstrong and the band are no strangers to scandal – they’re the ones who started a mudfight that bordered on insurrection at Woodstock II; they’ve been outspoken about their fondness for drugs and alcohol; they’ve been especially harsh in their expressions of scorn for many other bands; and they’ve frequently “redecorated” hotel suites, bars and Tower Records stores alike with a flair for creative demolition that brings to mind the heady decadence of the Doors and others.
In fact, parallels between Armstrong and Jim Morrison abound. Like the leader of the Doors, Billie Joe is the creative catalyst of his group, but only writes within the fold of his fellow musicians. Like Morrison, Armstrong has been known to walk on the razor’s edge of life, bringing an authentic, expansive passion to every song he sings. He’s also been known to match his inclination to strip his soul bare in song by taking off his clothes in concert. The difference is that when Jim Morrison did it, all hell broke loose, the country was shocked and the singer was arrested. But when Billie Joe does it, he gets acknowledged on the MTV news, Kurt Loder smirks, and that’s about that. Being shocking these days is just not like it used to be.
‘It’s something unpredictable,
But in the end is right
I hope you had the time of your life.”
From “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”
By GREEN DAY
Few things seemed more unpredictable than the thought that Green Day would have a Number One hit with a pretty ballad of all things. Even more unlikely would be that the song, officially entitled “Good Riddance” but better known as “Time Of Your Life,” would become as ubiquitous in the American consciousness as the Star Wars theme. Used on “Seinfeld,” two episodes of “E.R.,” and extraneous sporting events (as when Mark MacGuire became the king of baseball’s home-run derby), Green Day’s ballad quickly became more famous than Green Day itself.
“Good Riddance” now stands alongside Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and Sting’s “Every Breath You Take,” as one of the nation’s most misappropriated hit singles. Like all of those songs, which are much darker if you examine their core than the mainstream ever seemed to recognize, “Good Riddance” actually comes closer to condemnation than the kind of nostalgic celebration for which it’s been used:
“Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while
I hope you had the time of your life. “
From “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”
By GREEN DAY
Though Green Day’s presence on the world stage shifted from popular to astronomical because of this song, many of their old fans felt alienated by their secret heroes’ injection into the mainstream. “[`Time of Your Life’] was a drastic change for us to record,” Billie Joe said. “We knew that there were going to be some people that weren’t going to like it because it’s not a 1-2-3-4-Let’s-go-punk-rock tune. Mike [Dirnt] said, `This is a real beautiful song, who cares what people think?’ So we just went for it. Long term thinking, you know. Punk is not just the sound, the music. Punk is a life-style. We’re just as much punk as we used to be.”
Of course, definitions flow fast and fluid, as purveyors of punk, such as Armstrong, play along the borders of pop. “A lot of punk rock bands are always trying to be so hard all of the time,” he said. “Macho brutality doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good songwriter. I think that some of the Beatles’ songs are way more punk rock than most punk songs written today. Like the song `Yesterday.’ It’s such a bittersweet song. “
Billie Joe was born in 1972 and grew up in Rodeo, a little Californian town just outside of Berkeley. His father and uncle were both jazz drummers. “I was a guitarist in a house of drummers,” he said. His father died when he was ten, the same year he met a neighbor named Mike Pritchard who shared his passion for making music. Together they decided to drop out of high school to start a band, which they called Sweet Children. It was a decision Billie’s mother encouraged. “My mom sort of let me do whatever I wanted,” he said. “When I quit school, she thought that was a good idea because I was really ambitious to play. So I started touring when I was seventeen.”
Pritchard changed his name to Mike Dirnt, Tre Cool replaced Al Sobrante as official drummer, and they called themselves Green Day, a Bay-area euphemism for a day spent smoking pot. Their first release was an indie EP called 1000 Hours, after which they signed with Lookout Records to make 39/Smooth and Kerplunk. In 1994 they ascended to the major leagues, signing with Reprise, and released Dookie. They soon became an MTV mainstay, and their mudstorm performance that year at Woodstock cemented their reputation as a band on the edge. Three more singles followed, as did sales of more than eight million albums worldwide, and a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance.
Insomniac was released in the fall of ’95, but instead of going on a European tour as planned to launch it, they elected instead to stay home and write and record more songs. The result was the most popular, and most critically acclaimed album of their career, Nimrod, which included “Time Of Your Life.”
Warning was the new album at the time of this interview, and the impetus for Billie to talk. Inspired by the rich lyricism of Springsteen’s The River and Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Green Day went away for a while to write and play the songs before recording them. It’s their first self-produced and most sonically adventurous album to date, blending layers of acoustic guitars in with the electrics, and with some unexpected detours, such as the German beer-hall stomp of “Misery,” and the Clash-meets-Kinks pop-punk of the title song.
“Caution police sign you’d better not cross
Is the cop or am I the one that’s really dangerous?
Sanitation expiration date question everything
Or shut up and be a victim of authority
Warning, live without warning…”
By GREEN DAY
Today Billie Joe is ensconced within an overstuffed burgundy couch in his hotel suite. Although he’s drinking coffee from china cups, and eating fresh fruit and croissants from a silver tray, he’s remained loyal to the punk lifestyle, and is wearing a black t-shirt and baggy jeans. Prior to our talk, rather than linger in the luxury of his suite, he ducked down into the hotel’s bleak back stairway for a cigarette. Though he’s undeniably a star of the first degree, he’s uncomfortable with such designations, and shuns all the trappings of stardom. As opposed to the Ferraris and Lamborghinis driven by his peers, an old Ford Fairlane remains his vehicle of choice. He did admit to one extravagance, however, which he revealed somewhat sheepishly. “As soon as I could afford it,” he confessed, “I went out and had it primered.”
BLUERAILROAD: You write all the songs together in the band. Do you start songs on your own and bring them in?
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: Yeah, sometimes. I’ll come up with the song with the chord changes and the lyrics, and then I bring them into practice, and then we sort of restructure them together. I like to come in with a tune. I’ll just play guitar and sing it for them, and then we start to learn it. And as soon as we start to learn it, we can make changes and come up with a different structure. Move the chorus around, make the verse a little longer. That kind of thing. I definitely like to think of it as a collaboration between the three of us.
Do you always change the songs?
Well, we have a lot of songs. There have been some that I have brought in and nothing really needs to be done. Sometimes I’ll suggest a part that needs to be worked with, and we’ll try some different things. And then they’ll write their bass-lines and drum parts around it.
Do you ever have a problem sharing credit on songs you wrote alone?
Well, we’re a band. We’ve been able to stick through a lot of years because the three of us support each other. The songs come from Green Day, and I like to stick by that. We like to just keep things equal in the band, and I think it’s what has made our band healthy over the years. We give each other respect. There is no one who stands out more than the other one in this group. Especially since we’ve known each other for so long.
These days do you write on electric guitar?
No, on acoustic. I have a Silverine Harmony. But it sounds good. I just have it around the house, so I’ve written most of the songs on it.
Do those songs then shift a lot when you bring them to the band, and play them on electric?
No, because I always have it in the back of my head about the dynamics of electric guitar and drums and bass. Between me and Mike and Tre, I always have that dynamic in my head – what am I going to bring to the table that they’re going to be able to play, and which will have our certain energy. I always keep our energy and our music in mind, sort of subconsciously. But I think that’s the beauty of this. That not only can I play these songs with a band at full volume, but also that I can play them on a cheap, acoustic guitar. And it can have the same kind of impact.
“Warning” would work that way.
Yeah, it does. That kind of came all together at the same time. I think lyrics on this record were really important to me, and to have a well-rounded record as far as what kind of topics I wanted to write about, and sing about. That was one of those songs that seemed to just write itself. It just came really naturally.
Is that unusual for you, the feeling that a song writes itself?
Well, I try to go for inspired moments. But if I want to write a song that sounds like it has a pop kind of edge to it, I really want to be able to say something. I have to say something – it’s vital for me. I can’t just write something that would be sugar-coated, and have a pop song with nice lyrics that go along with what everyone is doing on the radio these days. It’s very important for me to have a message that goes along with the writing. So, you know, what comes to mind for me is a song like “The Ballad of John & Yoko,” where [Lennon] had this really nice sounding song. But the lyrics penetrate like a knife. “They’re gonna crucify me…” That’s kind of nice way — nice, I mean, in an oxymoronic sense – to put forward something you want to attack.
You’ve done that in many songs.
Yeah, I think it adds a sort of demented side a little bit, sort of like a clown in a circus. But it also makes the lyrics a lot stronger. If you take a band like Rage Against The Machine, the music is aggressive, and the lyrics are aggressive at the same time. And I love Rage Against The Machine, but sometimes it feels like you getting bombarded by someone’s else’s point of view. The person is not telling you to think, but what to think. And that’s one thing that I really wanted to come across in the music and the lyrics. To think about the world around you, and not what to think, so to speak. And at the same time, to have my opinions coming through at the same time.
Are you always clear about the meaning of a song while writing?
No. That’s hard. I mean, sometimes I’ll have things in the back of my head that I want to write about. But I never want to come across as pretentious or preachy. So I just wait for my thoughts to settle. To a certain extent, you have to be a little self-righteous and I think it’s healthy. Especially when, nowadays, there’s so much stuff that is about decadence. And when it comes to rebellion, a guy who has a Rolex watch and is driving around in a Porsche, talking about that he really wants something to break, I don’t really think of that as rebellion, I think of that just as a decadent rock star.
Do you have any kind of routine for songwriting?
Last record I was just sort of pounding songs. Anytime I had any inkling of an idea of anything at all, I would just grab my guitar and play it and work on it no matter what the song was like. Whether it was inspired or I just got drunk and started playing. But this time I waited for inspired moments. And I think it took me a long time just because of that. I wanted everything to sound refreshing, and something that would make you want to turn it up a little more.
Did you have times when you tried to work and nothing would come?
Oh yeah. You get frustrated. You feel, “Man, I just want to write a fucking song.”
And sometimes it’s just not there. And you can’t dwell on that when that happens. You have to just let it go.
I don’t ever want to try to outdo myself. I feel like if you try to outdo yourself from the last thing, instead of just working on your inspiration, I think the music kind of suffers a little bit, sometimes. Sometimes I’ll just get a very general idea about the kind of song I want to write. And I’ll just sort of store it in the back of my mind and see what comes out. It can come out in five minutes, it can come out in five days, five years, five decades.
Are there songs you worked on for years?
Yeah. “Longview” was one that we worked on for years. We knew what we wanted to write about. I told Mike to write a bass line and one day I came home. This is when we lived in the same house. He had just dropped some acid (laughs) and he said, “Listen to this.” And I said, “Okay, I guess it sounds good.” He came up with this bass line that really worked well, so we ended up practicing and came up with the song.
Are there many songs you start that you don’t finish?
Yes. And I’ll just wait for the right time and the right place for it. There are some songs I finish but then I think it’s not right for the record we’re working on. There’s a couple of songs like that off of Nimrod. “Time of My Life” had been written a couple of years before.
That song resounded in enormously with the public. Was it just a fluke, or did you sit down with the intention of writing that kind of song?
Both. I think that anyone can sit down and write a song. Whether or not it’s any good is another thing altogether. You know, there’s no school you can go to that will help you learn how to become a songwriter. But you can sit down and do it. Especially with rock & roll. But to put something down that is actually really great, it does go beyond you a little bit, and sometimes it takes patience.
Do you write all the time?
Yeah. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know. Or if it’s appropriate for what kind of idea or sound that we want to get across on the record.
Where do you think the great songs come from?
I don’t know. I really don’t. It comes from somewhere deep down inside of you that you didn’t even know existed. It’s kind of like seeing a shrink or something. (Laughs) There can be a lot of anger, or sadness, or joy, that you had but you didn’t even know you really had – but it can all come out. You feel a connection with it, and so other people can, too. You strike a nerve.
Does songwriting get easier the more you do it?
I think so. I think you definitely learn more as you go. I think you find new ways to motivate yourself. You test yourself a little bit more and see what comes about. And you challenge yourself in new ways to see what comes out. You learn new ways to get the engines going. But whether or not it does get easier, it’s what I do. And I love doing it.