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Green Day: From Punk to Platinum

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During the recording of Insomniac, Green Day broke another long-standing punk taboo by embracing high production values. Punk's do-it-yourself aesthetic has always demanded that the music remain simple; that rehearsing be kept to a minimum; and that recording be done cheaply, poorly and quickly. The original idea was to eschew the inflated sense of importance engendered by pompous arena-rock acts like Yes and Led Zeppelin. But these days, Green Day are playing those very same arenas. Consequently, the challenge for the increasingly proficient trio was to craft a monstrously loud and powerful sound while maintaining its trademark stripped-down essence.

According to Rob Cavallo, who co-produced both Insomniac and Dookie with the band, Green Day were after the sound of classic pop albums by groups like the Beatles and Cheap Trick rather than the sound of sloppily made punk 7-inches. "Tre changed the sound of his cymbals on almost every song," Cavallo says. "Mike had a specific idea of the amplifiers and bass he wanted to use. And Billie and I have this little ritual: We line up a bunch of guitar amps, pick out the ones we like best, and then we develop a guitar sound." But Tré bristles at the notion that studio trickery alone accounts for Insomniac's urgent wallop. He claims it was excess amounts of caffeine. "Every time we went to roll the tape, we said, 'OK, this is it,'" Tré says. "'We're going to squeeze every last drop of energy that we have, and we're going to put it into two minutes, and then we're going to rest afterward.' And if it wasn't quite all together, then we'd just wait for a little while until we got our energy back up, drink some coffee, then go back and go, 'Yeah, let's do this.'"

Thinking expansive classic rock while crafting three-and four-chord punk nuggets with nary a guitar solo produced a few startling breakthrough tracks. "Panic Song" begins with an extended cavalcade of Pete Townshend-style power chords. "Bab's Uvula Who?" (named after an old Saturday Night Live skit) translates teen self-loathing into a churning call-and-response rocker. "Brain Stew" features a sluggish three-chord progression suspiciously reminiscent of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long."

But Green Day's gnarly punk roots are usually visible. "Brain Stew," Armstrong explains, is the nickname of James Washburn, a longtime friend of the band. "He used to have a big mohawk; now he's a total ratchethead [California slang for a car buff]," says Armstrong. "He'll say something like 'Oh, man, that guy fuckin' slipped a gear,' when someone snaps. He's a big lyrical influence on me." And the opening lines of "No Pride" ("I'm just a mutt/And nowhere is my home/Where dignity's a land mine/In the school of lost hope") are owed to "Gonna Find You," a song by another mentor, Jesse Michaels, who led the late, great Berkeley act Operation Ivy, whom Armstrong calls "a punk-rock Kerouac."

Clearly, Green Day can't shake their blue-collar punk ethics. This band's idea of a good time is kicking back at the converted Oakland, Calif., warehouse where their friends in Fetish, an up-and-coming local band, live and practice together. Matt Olyphant, Fetish's lead singer and lyricist, first met Green Day two years ago outside a local gig. "We were just hanging out afterward, talking and getting high in the parking lot," he says. After the other Green Day members got to know Olyphant, then an amateur spoken-word performer, they inspired him to form Fetish, his first band. "It wasn't so much what they were doing, it was how they treated me," Olyphant says. "They were really, really considerate."

It appears that a streak of nice-guy community consciousness runs through nearly everything Green Day do.When the band signed to Reprise, part of Warner Music Group, it insisted that Lookout! Records, the Berkeley, Calif., independent that issued the band's first two albums, 1990's 39/Smooth and 1992's Kerplunk, retain full rights to both. Then Green Day invited Pansy Division, a Lookout! act, to open a major tour; another Lookout! band, the Riverdales, filled the opening slot on Green Day's recent trek across Europe and North America. In May, Green Day played two nights at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, in Oakland, and donated all profits (including T-shirt revenues) to Food Not Bombs, which provides quality meals for the homeless and three other charities.

"They've [made good on] everything they said they would do," says Ben Weasel, guitarist for the Ramones-style Riverdales. "But I like the fact that they don't make a big production out of it."

Rather than battling Ticketmaster to keep ticket prices low, Green Day have decided to lower their own profit percentage. "We don't give a fuck about Ticketmaster," says Tre. "We're charging what we're worth, and we don't think we're worth $22.50. We take a lower cut than Pearl Jam. I'm not picking on them – I'm just saying that to anyone in general who's complaining about it. I don't go around buying tickets from Ticketmaster with my credit card anyway, so I'm not crying about that. You don't want your tickets being $27 and shit? Take a lower cut, guys. Slim your tour down a little bit."

But as Green Day's world gets bigger and bigger, keeping control isn't always so simple. Last July, when a few radio stations, including KROQ, in Los Angeles, began broadcasting "J.A.R." – a song the band recorded for the soundtrack of a box-office bomb called Angus – weeks before it was scheduled for airplay, rumors began circulating that Green Day's managers, Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman, were to blame. It was assumed that Cahn and Saltzman had proffered copies of "J.A.R." as an enticement for stations to play acts on (510) Records, a new label the managers had recently started with MCA. Saltzman contends that these rumors are false.

Armstrong will not say on the record who he believes made the blunder. Regardless, the band fired Cahn and Saltzman as soon as the dust cleared. Today, Green Day are managing themselves, a practice virtually unheard of among bands at their level on a major label.

"We felt like we weren't being treated like people anymore but as assets," says Armstrong. "And so we were just like 'Fuck this.' We'll never have a serious corporate manager again."

"I'll tell you the truth – I had a lot more fun a couple years ago," says Mike Dirnt.

It's barely 12:30 on a sunny afternoon in Berkeley as Dirnt, instantly idenifiable by his quotation-mark eyebrows and ubiquitous plaid polyester pants, downs his second beer of the day at a Telegraph Avenue microbrewery."On tour we have the most exciting lives in the world for one hour a day," he says, "and the rest of the time it's the most boring job in the world."

Not that he's ungrateful. Of the three members of Green Day, Dirnt (né Mike Pritchard) appears to have experienced the greatest hardship growing up. He was only seven years old when his adoptive parents, an American Indian mother and white father, got divorced. The split threw the young Dirnt's life into chaos; he estimates he moved seven times before he left home at the age of 15.

According to Dirnt, his complicated early years ended up being perfect preparation for the precarious life of a rock star. "I had to do a lot of thinking for myself," he says. "I grew up with my more hating the white man but loving me – and call me perceptive, but I was able to figure out that my mother loved me and hated other people for political reasons." Early on, Dirnt learned to be a mediator, a role he maintains within Green Day. "I was one of those kids who'd walk around the neighborhood and talk to the adults and learn a lot. I'm good with people."

When Dirnt's father began to prosper as a computer programmer, it only confused matters further. "Monetarily, my father is higher middle class, and my mother is lower class," he says. The fleeting nature of financial stability left a permanent mark on the bassist's psyche. "I just set my life up so I could be happy regardless of what my income was. If you can set up a lifestyle where you're always going to be happy – mine was around musicians and friends – and have no other expectations, then anything else that happens is icing on the cake?

The only member of Green Day with a high school diploma (though Tré has his GED), Dirnt is also the only one who didn't get married and start a family in the middle of last year's firestorm. (He and his girlfriend, Anastasia, have set a wedding date for next August). Although he recently bought his mother a house and admits after a bit of prodding that he purchased a small one for himself as well, Dirnt laments that he'll be paying them off for years.

Armstrong seems similarly uneasy about the fruits of Green Day's chart triumphs. Not surprisingly, the band's lead singer has paid the highest price for fame. He and his wife, Adrienne, purchased a house in North Berkeley before their son, Joey, was born last March. "It was in a good neighborhood, right across the street from a grammar school," Armstrong says. "Then some kids started showing up at my house a little bit, which wasn't that big of a deal. But the fucked-up part was that some girl announced my address on Live 105 [KITS]. So I had to leave that house, which really sucked because both me and Adrienne really liked that house a lot. We had to go through all this bullshit to try to keep some kind of privacy."

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