A Backstage Conversation With Green Day

The punk-rock trio on entering middle age, crafting the perfect set list and the rigors of life on a tour bus

In about three hours, the floor of Washington D.C.'s Verizon Center will be packed with a screaming mass of Green Day fans gleefully ignoring the signs posted every few feet that explicitly ban crowd-surfing. But right now it's soundcheck and the band is facing an audience of two that manages to make those showgoers seem tame by comparison: Ryan Dirnt and Brixton Dirnt. They're bassist Mike Dirnt's youngest children (age six and eight) and they are running wild up and down the empty aisles, leaping over crowd barriers and racing past bemused security guards as the group runs through their 1997 deep cut "King for a Day." Eventually Billie Joe Armstrong decides to join in the fun, grabbing a wireless mic and chasing a squealing Brixton across the the confines of the entire arena while somehow managing to nail every line of the song.

It's an impressive feat of stamina for the 45-year-old Armstrong, especially since the group played a show the previous night. But this is Armstrong's first tour since he kicked his prescription drug habit in 2013 and he's determined to enjoy every minute of it. "Sometimes I have to get a B12 shot just to keep up," he says. "But I actually have more energy now than ever. I have a sense of gratitude every night and I feel like I'm making an impact beyond just playing my guitar. It's giving people an experience whether it's political or musical."

Most shows this tour have focused more on the music than the politics, with the very notable exception of a "Fuck you, Donald Trump!" scream every night during the title track to American Idiot. But tonight they're playing just one mile away from the White House, hours after the Congressional Budget Office announced that Trump's health-care proposal would cost 24 million Americans their coverage. Five songs into the set, Armstrong pauses to let off some steam. "I can't stand any more of these goddamn conspiracy theories!" he screams." I'm sick of the blatant lies and the half-truths and the untruths! I want the truth!" He pauses when he notices a fan up front filming him on his cell phone. "If you're looking at me through a screen, you aren't looking at me," he says. "You stare at that cell phone for 24 hours a day. Not tonight!"

We spoke with Armstrong in his dressing room shortly after soundcheck, and then had a separate chat with Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool.

Billie Joe Armstrong

How did the club tour go that you guys did a few months back?
It was great. We got to play old deep cuts. People were pretty stoked. When you play big places it's a little harder to go deep, but we manage to get in a couple. In smaller places we have freedom to do whatever we want.

Does tonight feel different than other nights on the tour since you're in D.C., so close to the White House?
Hmm. For us, we want to try and keep the energy in the room positive and create a form of unity. First and foremost, I want people to have a really great experience away from the negative press and negative stuff that you see on the news and Facebook. I don't even like seeing people's cell phones. Let's have a human experience and rub up against each other, you know.

You do mention Trump onstage though.
Outside of "fuck you," not a real lot, honestly. People know how I feel. I feel like going negative is just throwing fuel on the fire. I feel like the government is trying to create a culture war between us in a lot of ways. They're trying to get between your average citizens based on red and blue. I think we're in a crisis mode right now. For me, it's important to get back to fundamentally what it feels like to be an American. We all come from different backgrounds, but we come together and create this world. It's like a microcosm for the rest of the world. I want people to feel unity when they come to a show. At the same time, I'm not going to puss out on saying what I feel about him and his administration.

You guys just played a bunch of shows in Texas. Any negative feedback there when you yelled out "fuck you, Donald Trump"?
I don't know. There are a lot of people in the quote, unquote red states that get a big sense of relief when I say something like "Fuck you, Trump." That's because they're in the minority where they live and at our shows they get this sort of release.

I just walked past a long line of kids waiting to get into the show. A lot of them were teenagers. They must have been babies when American Idiot came out.
Our audience is pretty unique. I like seeing the 16-year-olds, but I also like seeing the 60-year-olds. There are a lot of white-haired people out there that love the band. They're here to rock & roll.

You're doing seven songs off American Idiot. Do they feel especially timely now because of what's happening politically?
Yeah. If you look at our career, there's almost like before American Idiot and after American Idiot. Yeah, we play new stuff. We play stuff off American Idiot. It's hard to explain from my perspective because sometimes I'll just start saying to myself, "Look how unique this is. You're able to play in front of 14,000 people and everyone is singing along. Everyone's hands are in the air." We play a song like "Holiday" and its like a flock of birds or something.

You bring a fan onstage to play guitar every night. How did that start?
The first time I remember doing it is on the Insomnia tour. We were playing a show in New Orleans and having a rough time. I just remember feeling like it was a drag. I remember going, "I don't want to play anymore. Who else wants to play?" So we brought someone up onstage and when the kid started playing, the whole room lit up and it changed the show for me. It was an amazing experience.

That was over 20 years ago. It's amazing to think of how many kids have played with you over the years. I'm sure for many of them, it was a life-changing experience.
I would imagine. I think some kids ended up forming bands because of that. I think that's what happened to the guy from the 1975.

How do you choose the kid each night?
There's no science to it. Sometimes you can look at someone in the eyes and tell they know what they're doing. But if someone can't play, it creates a different kind of magic. I'll look and go, "Oh, shit, this person can't play a note." And so I'll get behind and play the chords while they strum and it ends up turning out alright.

They always get the instrument at the end of the night. That can't be cheap.
Well, we have a good relationship with Gibson.

I noticed you aren't doing anything this tour from Uno/Dos/Tré. Why is that?
I really want to focus on the new album. When you're doing seven songs off a new album, there's not a lot of room. People want to hear other stuff, too. I have nothing against that record. We happen to not be playing anything from it.

You've got about 70 shows to go on this tour. Is that daunting to think about?
No, because I've realized the older you get the more you understand how time can pass. Fifteen years ago I would have been like, "Wow, we're going to have a big year." But now I look at it and go, "Oh, my God, it's only a year." That's the difference.

There's clearly a family atmosphere backstage here.
Yeah. I love when the families are out. It's a creates a sense of calm. I love Mike and Tre's wives. They are awesome people. And my wife is great. Everyone gets along really well. It's cool.

So often you hear about bands that barely speak offstage. That's obviously not the case here.
There's no way you could get me onstage with someone that I didn't like. No way. I would never do that. We have our gripes and stuff like that. All bands have their drama, but life is too short to be miserable around somebody that you don't like.

You guys have a friendship that goes back before the band. That really helps.
Yeah. We grew up together. We were so young. Tré was 17 when he joined the band.

Even though you've been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a couple years now, you're still pretty young. Most groups get in when they are much older.
I think we might be the youngest inductees ever. That's something to be proud of.

So what still drives you? What's left to prove?
Nothing. I have nothing to prove. I just want to follow the music. I love making records. I love playing live. That's it. There's nothing outside of that. I look forward to the weirdness that's in front of us every day.

We live in an age where it's basically impossible for a rock band to get a big radio hit. Do you care?
We just had two huge radio hits.

I mean Top 40 radio. In the 1990s, rock bands could have hits on that. It just doesn't happen anymore, to anybody.
That was a small window. There was a time between '91 and '95 where alternative bands and the like could get on the radio. But in the big scheme of things, it wasn't that long of a time period where you could. When it comes down to it, we're a rock band. I don't really give a fuck about the mainstream. The mainstream doesn't offer me anything. Why would I offer it anything? I love the world I have. I love the sort of subculture that Green Day represents.

You guys have an amazing freedom. You can make whatever kind of record you want and still go out and play arenas.
I'm super grateful for that. There's not a day that goes by where I don't say, "Holy fuck, I'm in Green Day." It's pretty awesome.

So many pop acts are forced to work with co-writers and teams of producers. They have big hits, but not a lot of freedom.
It's hard. When people start writing songs for award shows, there's a very limited palette you can use. You end up not sounding like you. You end up sounding like somebody else. You end up getting what the record company thinks they can market. I think bands need to look themselves in the eyes and say, "What do you want? Do you want this fleeting moment of six months of success or do you want to build something that can last a lifetime?" I've seen it ruin bands. It's terrible. I've seen bands that have had this amazing underground following for many years, and then suddenly they get a hit and suddenly they need to feed that beast every time.

Switching gears back to politics here. … In the age of Trump, do you feel any obligation to be a voice of the resistance?
I feel we're a voice to join the resistance. I don't know what shape or form that's going to come in. I mean, you can see a little bit of that now with people showing up at town halls. But it's hard. To think we're only in the second month of this presidency. It's like every day you're fed a different form of bullshit. I think that's what people are: They're victims of constant bullshit.

Do you look back at George W. Bush any differently now that we're living through Trump?
No. Bush, as far as I'm concerned, is a war criminal. With Trump, we have no idea. Right now it's just a freak show.

Are you scared for your kid's futures?
Umm... I look at my kids as the Harry Potter Generation. There's a sense of justice about that, in beating Voldemort. It's a classic tale of good versus evil. To have a role model like Harry Potter that says you can defeat evil, but still be a complicated human being. That gives me a lot of hope.

Are you inspired to write new songs now that we're in this new political era?
I don't know yet. I'm just kind of scratching the surface of that stuff. I mean, it takes a long time to make a record. But it's either that or freak out and do something weird.

Does it feel cathartic to go out there every night and get out your frustration with your songs?
It gives me a tremendous amount of joy and that's a great thing at this point. I think that's the experience people leave the room with.

You've played "Basket Case" hundreds and hundreds of times. Do you still feel the energy you had at the time you wrote it?
Every night. It's an anthem for the weirdos and freaks. The song is about losing your mind, and I think the majority of people have had that experience in some way, shape or form in their life.

Do you want to be singing it in 20 year when you're 65?
Yeah. When we started, I always wanted to make sure that I could grow into my songs. I think we've really successful at that.

Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool

Note: Tre was absent for the first few minutes of the interview.

How is the tour going?
Dirnt:
Great. Georgia in the Duluth/Atlanta area, for the South, was an unbelievable show. There have been some amazing highlights for us. Sometimes you're backstage and you think, "OK, how is the body going to react? How is the show going to be?" But it's proven to be so symbiotic. We feed off each other and have a great time. I think there's a lot of gratitude for us to be in the same room together again.

You've been off the road for nearly four years. Did you miss it?
Dirnt:
I did. It's so funny. I was doing these insane workouts. All of a sudden one day I was running around a lake in Oakland and I stopped for a second and started walking. I realized, "What the fuck am I working out so hard for? I don't have anything coming up?" So that was kind of funny. But at the end of the day, it was a well-needed break. It's nice to appreciate and want to go on tour. The thing is really wanting to go on tour. And wanting to go on tour is having a great record, and I think we have a great record. We're playing half the record and the fans are loving it.

That's a rare thing. Most bands 30 years in and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are doing one new song, if that.
Dirnt:
It's funny you say that. For me, when you get to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there's a side of me that goes, "What does that mean? Are you still relevant after that? Do they put you on the shelf along with the award?" I don't know, but that's the last thing we wanted. But I think taking our time and getting in a room and just becoming who we are naturally as a band, doing what comes natural as Green Day, led to this record. It's a really organic process of writing. There's was nobody else in there but me, Billie and Tré. One friend would occasionally come in and help tech and engineer, and that was it. It really makes me feel like this is a new chapter and it's just the beginning.

It's very easy for a band to coast on their past, but you've never gone there.
Dirnt:
Yeah. This band has never mailed it in, to our detriment at times, too. There were times, I mean, Uno/Dos/Tré ... I don't know what people thought about them critically, but I listened to them the other night and they're fucking great. I don't care what anybody thinks. It's a lot to absorb at one time. But they are there for new Green Day fans to discover, or even old Green Day fans. Warning was looked at back in the day like, "What the hell are you doing?" It wasn't a success, but now it's the favorite record of so many Green Day fans.

I can imagine fans looking at Uno/Dos/Tré differently in a few years.
Dirnt:
I think so. It was a lot to take in. And let's face it, Green Day had never gone away entirely. Maybe it would have worked had we gone away for four years before that, but we didn't.

You guys aren't playing any of those songs on this tour though.
Dirnt:
No, not right now because the new record is being received so well. We have good problems. We're playing for two-and-a-half hours now. We could easily turn it into a four-hour Springsteen set, but I feel like we're putting out Springsteen's energy in two-and-a-half hours. Also, at a certain point you just exhaust the crowd. I saw somebody say the other day, "They played a couple of covers when they should have squeezed in some more of their old catalog, but I guess it's OK since they did 33 songs." Fuck you. Who plays 33 songs? Not to mention, some of those songs are seven and nine minutes long. Come on, man. Give me a break here.

Do you think you better appreciate what you have with Green Day now that you're older?
Dirnt:
I think everybody understands that once they get older. I hate saying that youth is wasted on the young since it's so fucking stupid, but I think you realize if you're fortunate enough to realize what you have, you don't want to sleep as much or squander any time. It's weird, but early in your career you don't stop to smell the roses since you're too busy picking them.

You guys went from clubs to Woodstock '94 really quickly.
Dirnt:
Yeah, it went from 2,000 people to 10,000 people. That's a big jump. We knew this is what we have and it's the only thing. I mean, we weren't going to go back to college. I wasn't going to go back to cooking fucking seafood. Those are great jobs and that's fine, but this was my passion. At the end of the day, you have to go after what you're passionate about.

Tré Cool enters.

Hey Tré. Walk me through your typical day on the road.
Cool:
Well, we ride into town on a golden steed with our swords drawn! No, I think the first part of the day when we get here is just trying to get comfortable in the environment we're at. When I go to an arena show to see a band it feels like a big ol' place. You're shuffled through the place and you find your seat. But when we come to play a place like this, we spend the afternoon trying to shrink it down to make it comfortable for us. We want to make it home. I'll hide sticks in the nosebleed seats.

Dirnt: It's hard to say when a tour day starts because you have to start with the after-show the night before. You finish a show, drive five hours on a bus on roads that suck, because all our tax dollars are going to stupid shit, so you get no sleep. Last night I didn't get to bed until six in the morning and I woke up at noon. Then I started stretching out. You shave and do whatever shit you have to do, then you check out the venue and do a soundcheck. We always try to get one in so we know everything is going to sound good. Then we have a small bite to eat, more stretching, more working out and then get in a little bit of high jinks.

You guys were a major voice of the anti-war movement during the Bush years. What is your obligations in the Trump era?
Dirnt:
Early on I learned to question everything. But I feel like everything is so divisive right now. Going against the grain would be to not be divisive and be inclusive. That's the disruptive way to go about it.

Cool: I think we have an obligation to put on a fun show and put on a concert that's memorable, that's energetic and that spreads joy and open-mindedness. If being open-minded and joyful is against your political beliefs, then you know, fuck you.

You don't want to whole show to be "Fuck Trump."
Dirnt:
I don't. That doesn't define us. I mean, American Idiot wasn't fuck George Bush. That was a personal question that Billie was writing. "I don't want to be an American Idiot." We're watching the fucking war take place on television for the first time in our lives and we were like, "This is bullshit." But it was not a Bush record. And I certainly won't give Trump the credit of saying this is a Trump record. He gets enough press as it is. But the way, he loved the [American Idiot] play.

He saw it?
Dirnt:
Yeah. I'm like, "What the fuck are you doing here opening night? That guy is at the opening of every envelope." The thing is, again, this record isn't about him. We were in Paris and the election was going one way; we went to bed and we woke up and all of a sudden it was a different way. A lot of the songs and their meaning had an exclamation point on them at that point.

Cool: The majority of the record was written and demoed as complete songs before the mudslinging of the election began.

Dirnt: It was even before the candidates were announced.

Cool: But I love our country. My dad served in the army. I always grew up with a song sense of belonging as an American. But I was also in the counterculture and I was coming from a place of fearing the police. So I was anti-establishment, but also loving your country. It's kind of an ironic sort of upbringing.

I often see bands with touring musicians that push them onto the side of the stage behind a curtain, or literally under the stage. You've never done that with your extra musicians.
Cool:
Jason Freese is a handsome devil. We're not going to hide that. And there's no smoke and mirrors with Green Day. We're not playing to any tracks. We're not hiding any musicians in the corner. What you see is what you get. We're a bunch of old dudes playing music through a PA system with microphones on our instruments. It's old-fashioned. It's raw. It's gritty.

When I spoke with Billie Joe he said he divides the history into pre–American Idiot and post–American Idiot. Do you see it like that?
Dirnt:
I almost see it in three sections: van, bus, jet.

Cool: And back to the bus right now.

Dirnt: Back to the bus. Buses and jets.

What do you guys want to accomplish in the next decade or so?
Dirnt:
I feel like Revolution Radio kind of validated the next chapter of our life going forward, but we've never pre-thought things too much. It's just about writing, keep writing and trying to stay awesome [laughs].

Cool: It's also about not abandoning our past. I think a lot of older bands will either go and become a legacy band, saying, "Oh, man, shit was so much better in the 1980s or 1960s" or whenever their heyday was. Others will go, "I don't want to talk about my old stuff. I'm here to promote my new record." We realize that we've got songs stretching through generations and we've actually grown up with our fans. So we want to move forward, but still treasure the past and present it and rock the shit out of those old songs, but still move forward and write new stuff.

Dirnt: The future is going to present its own challenges, and I look forward to that. Since we became slightly more mature adults, we've always wanted to grow older and wiser.

Cool: As long as each day comes with a nice fresh cup of Oakland Coffee [a company owned by the band] then everything will be alright [laughs].

Billie Joe Armstrong invited a disabled fan to play guitar with Green Day during the group's show in London.