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Billie Joe Armstrong On the Fire and Freedom Behind "21st Century Breakdown"

Green Day frontman talks battling demons, finding refuge in punk rock

May 13, 2009 8:30 AM ET

The scrappy punks who became superstars 15 years ago with Dookie are now America's most ambitious rock band. For our new cover, David Fricke visits Green Day at home in Oakland to get the story behind their epic new punk opera 21st Century Breakdown. In the first of three exclusive Q&As with each bandmember, Fricke speaks with singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong about the group's darkest days and leaving it all onstage. (Read Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool's Q&As.)

Last night, I saw you perform all of your new record and an entire second set of hits. How have you changed as a performer from the band's early days — when the sets were shorter and the songs more simple?
It's developed over time. When Tré first got in the band, we thought we were pretty tight. But we weren't communicating fully. There was a self-consciousness onstage. We ended up going to Europe for the first time in '91, and there was a language barrier. We're playing in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain. We played in Poland. And there was no communication at all. We played 64 shows in three months, all on borrowed gear. At that point, we started getting good. Because it became, how do you communicate with the crowd without talking to them? We started going up there, wearing dresses, anything to get a reaction out of people, get them engaged.

You do your best under wartime conditions?
Yeah. By the time we got back from that tour, playing for 300 to a thousand people, we had mastered that. We got really ambitious around Dookie. Things were starting to happen. But then this guilt complex came in, around Insomniac. I didn't know what our ambitions were. Or we felt like we weren't allowed to have ambitions. That period, '94, '95, was all about the introverted rock star struggling with his demons. I couldn't relate to that, but somehow I got caught up in it, and it didn't work for us at all.

Then around Nimrod, we started playing festivals more. As a performer, as a lead singer, I wanted to project. That goes back to the Gilman Street days [the legendary Berkeley punk club and co-op]. There was a lot of rock theater going on there: people heckling, street theater, trying to get worlds to meet.

Was there a moment during the show last night when you asked yourself, while performing the new album, "Did I go too far? Why did I have to write 18 songs? Why not 12?" Did you need every song on the album to tell your story?
If I want to align myself with the tradition of really creative records and great musicians, then I want to make sure there is no stone left unturned and we are getting the most out of the moment. There are no regrets whatsoever. At the end, last night, we played "Homecoming" [the mini-opera on American Idiot]. We were scratching our heads: "Should we do it after 'Minority'?" We knew the crowd was burnt at that point. But I've often felt deprived of doing the thing I love most. We haven't played live for so long, and I have a lot of love and enthusiasm for what I'm doing.

Do you get stressed as you write, trying to keep up the momentum?
I love the moments of inspiration, when you feel pretty good about yourself and things are okay. It's the shit in between, when you're blocked — you have a melody in your head and no words for it. It drives you fucking crazy. I had the melody to "Restless Heart Syndrome" [on 21st Century Breakdown] for a year. I had nothing to write about. I would be sitting there: "I feel stupid." "Little Girl" and "21 Guns" were the same way. But you have to stick with it. It's the patience that drives you crazy. But the moments when you nail something — that's when you're most free. There is no outside stress. You're just in the zone.

Mike Dirnt told me that music is enormously important to you — that if you didn't have it, you'd still be a great husband and father but with a big hole in your life.
When things were boiling over in my household, as a kid, I started to depend on music. I remember coming home from school and just playing guitar for hours in my room. Music was an escape on all levels. I could put my headphones on and listen to an album, front to back. I loved the feeling when the hair on your arms stood up.

What records were a particular refuge for you?
When I started getting into rock, it was Van Halen, Women and Children First. Then I started getting into punk. I would listen to the first Operation Ivy record. There was one band called Rich Kids on LSD. And Hüsker Dü — Warehouse: Songs and Stories hit me like a ton of bricks. It took me to a different place. I was getting into the Beatles, the way they affected me. Music would take me over. I always had an emotional response to it.

Mike was also talking about the period after the Warning album, when your sales were slowing down and the crowds getting smaller. He said it was a dark time for him — and for the band.
We had to question ourselves deeper than we ever had before — investigate our relationships, how we feel about each other, how we get on each other's nerves. We had to step it up about 10 notches.

The interesting thing about that time was we were playing live shows better than we ever had before. We were playing like we did last night, when nobody was noticing. We're like, "We know that we're a great band. Why isn't anybody else noticing?" But we had never had a monumental record, where we did that on record. "We can't listen to the record company. We can't do things the way they are now. Bands are listening to A&R guys who say you don't have a single, who are hearing that from the radio stations." I don't want to play that game. I want to make sure we're making an album that is pure, bold — a statement with one song that leads to the next, and each song is an experience in itself.

You've done that with 21st Century Breakdown. But you are addressing demons — in songs like "Christian's Inferno" — from a position many would consider comfortable: success, a nice house, a good family. Why are the demons still there? And why put them out in public?
They're just photographs of what goes on inside my head — and wanting to connect with yourself, and your audience too. I'd like to write something more about joy and happiness. But for me, that's the release, putting it out there. To put it out there and create some kind of human connection and strive for something that's about humanity. It's like trying to battle past all those demons, your confusion and chaos, to reach something on the other side.

I don't know why I'm like that. I've always felt desperate in some way.

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