"We weren't used to someone with that much high energy," Dirnt says of Cool, which is rich coming from the fast-talking bassist. "Honestly. We'd wake up on tour, and he'd be going first thing in the morning, talking loud. When he was younger, his voice was a lot higher. I'd go, 'Dude, shut the fuck up. I'm gonna kill you.'" In his defense, Cool calls Dirnt "a mean sleeper. Anything for Mike in the morning is a drag. Nobody wants to wake him up. You have to poke him with a long stick and still know where the door is."
Armstrong is Green Day's king songwriter, but there is plenty of truth in the credit line on the band's albums, ALL MUSIC BY GREEN DAY. Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool arrange everything together and rehearse the results with almost military intensity. "They share a sensibility that only comes from time, being so close for so long," says Vig. 21st Century Breakdown is the first record he's made with Green Day. (Most of their previous Warner Bros. albums were produced with Rob Cavallo.) But he first met them when Green Day and Vig's band Garbage shared some European festival bills.
"They were their own little gang," Vig says. "They would finish each other's sentences. And they were incredible players. When they do that Green Day thing – that uptempo, super-locked-in rhythm – Billie almost turns into a machine."
"We still move at breakneck speed – we wait for no man," Dirnt declares cheerfully. "There is a kid inside each of us that is more substantial than most of the people we grew up with – or most people who grew up in functional families. I feel like a good test to see if an adult has lost their inner child is if they don't have a lucky number anymore or a favorite color."
"I still do. My lucky number is 11. My favorite color is a dark shade of blue."
"Ok, requests!" Armstrong shouts. "It's request fucking hour!"
The night after the Fox Theater show, Green Day are onstage again – across the street, crammed onto the tiny stage at the Uptown Bar, playing for a cheek-to-jowl crowd of about 220 people. The band performs all of 21st Century Breakdown again. Then Armstrong throws the second-half set list away, breaking out a Buzzcocks cover and leading the band through a sizzling portion of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" ("We're capable of playing 30 seconds of any song, ever," Armstrong crows). When someone in the audience yells, "Cheap Trick!" Green Day launch into a fantastic medley of "Surrender" and the Replacements' "Bastards of Young," pingponging between the choruses of each song.
"I feel like I've deprived myself for the past three years," Armstrong says that afternoon before the show, referring to the time Green Day labored on 21st Century Breakdown. "I get onstage, and I feel completely in my element, totally happy. This is where I belong." And that is where he and Green Day will be for at least the next year.
Actually, it doesn't take much coaxing to get Armstrong to talk about the ideas piling up in his head for another Green Day album. The most fanciful one: "I'd like to make a record in China. I'd also like to see Mike become more of a songwriter. I'd like to strip things down, become more acoustic – see how quiet we can get and still have the drama and power behind it."
Armstrong is already involved in a theatrical adaptation of American Idiot, directed by Michael Mayer and opening September 4th at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. "Billie is very much a part of it," says Mayer, who directed the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Spring Awakening. "I keep e-mailing him different versions of my scenario – he is totally into the experiments I want to do." Recently, Mayer says, Armstrong told him, "'The next thing I want to do is write something completely new for you to direct.'"
"Right now, he's cursed with a new song in his brain, I'm sure," Cool says. "He can't quiet that." But there is a hint of worry, of nerves, in Armstrong's constant excitement, as if he can't stop running for fear of falling behind. The guitarist tells a story about a school friend, James Washburn, who took a copy of Green Day's first album into English class shortly after it was released.
"I'd already dropped out," Armstrong recalls. "He said to the teacher, 'Look what Billie just did.' The teacher looked at it and started correcting my spelling on it." Armstrong makes a grim chuckling noise. "That can make someone feel pretty insecure and vulnerable."
"Maybe that's the reason most people don't go for it," he says. "You can scare yourself with ambition – having the audacity to want to be as good as John Lennon or Paul McCartney or Joe Strummer. There has been so much great shit before me that I feel like a student: 'Who the fuck do I think I am?'"
"But you have to battle past that," he insists in his rapid forever-punk chirp. "It's the people who are overconfident who are the ones putting out the biggest piles of shit. If you're at that place where you're working hard but don't feel like you know what you're doing anymore, then you're on to something."
Armstrong can't say if Green Day's next record will be another concept monster or just a hip bunch of punk songs. But he will know the idea when it comes, "because it hits me over the head like a ton of bricks. And it's not just an idea. It's an obsession."
This story is from the May 28, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.
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