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Mike Dirnt on Green Day's Dark, Drunken Path to Rock & Roll Glory

"I wanted to be in the biggest fucking rock & roll band in the world - and the best"

Mike Dirnt of Green Day.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
May 14, 2009 3:07 PM ET

Fifteen years ago, Dookie turned the scrappy punks in Green Day into international superstars — now they're America's most ambitious rockers. For our new cover, David Fricke visits the trio at home in Oakland to get the story behind their epic new punk opera 21st Century Breakdown. In the second of three exclusive Q&As with each bandmember, Fricke speaks with bassist Mike Dirnt about the band's near-breakup and tapping into his inner child.

I'll be blunt. I think the new album is better than American Idiot.
We thought it was taboo to say it, but we think we beat it. We know we worked hard enough to beat it. I know Billie did, for sure. It was a test of our patience with one another.

You've made a record about young people at a crucial juncture in their lives — at a time when you are all parents, with kids who will be facing those same issues.
There is an inner child in all of us in the band, especially Billie. Those emotions are reflected in the way you see your own kids. The album is a saturation of their childhood with what we grew up in and where we're at now.

We grew up in an era that was a lot more fucked up on the surface. But things are way more fucked up right now. We have hope with the new president, but he's got a lot of work to do — we've all got a lot of work to do. The kind of things we grew up with was literally the first half of the song "21st Century Breakdown." We grew up in refinery towns, kids going out and getting drunk to all hours of the night. Big-time fighting in the house. Our kids aren't seeing that. But as a kid, I didn't look ahead and think, "There's a mountain of shit I'm going to inherit, severe problems that I'm gonna have to fix.

Those are heavy things. People can police the Internet all they want with their kids, but they can't stop the front page from saying we're at war. Kids see that. They're not stupid, even if they're not talking about it all the time. This record — it's not telling people how it should be. We're telling them how we see it.

Because you started so young as a band, a lot of your mistakes and wrong turns were made in public. What was it like after Dookie, when your albums were not selling so well? Was it hard to accept that, to figure out what was wrong?
With Nimrod and Warning, we were more creative as a band, but we were seeing some of the lowest crowds we'd had since Dookie. We'd go to Europe and play for 1,000 to 1,500 people. It was frustrating. We always said, "If we're packing 500 people in a club, we should be thankful." But we had been packing hockey arenas. It's a blow to your ego.

Was it a stress on your friendships with Billie and Tré?
It's a stress when you're touring heavily, drinking heavily, and your popularity is going down. At one point, we were in Europe, talking to the German record label, having lunch with the guy, and he tells us, "This record [Warning] is not going to do good here. You're not going to sell many records." That was discouraging, to go all the way there, do everything we can to promote this record, and he's like, "Well, nice try." And as he's driving away in his Mercedes, he goes, "Hey, look at the car punk rock built." I'm like, "Fuck you. This is art. You didn't get it."

We came home and did some soul searching. We were still writing some of the greatest rock & roll music coming out. I look at Warning as a phenomenal record. Why is it not clicking? We had to ask ourselves the hard questions. First of all, we were drinking too much. We looked like shit. Second, I didn't think we were all on the same page as a band.

Was this a single meeting?
It was a series of meetings. At one point. Billie called me. He's like, "Do you want to do this anymore?" I said, "Honestly, it's not any fucking fun. I'm miserable. Why are we going to band practice? To hash out another record? To do a single, to go on tour? Where's the fucking difference? In us, in growth, in the music?" We kept asking ourselves: What do you want?

What did you want?
I wanted to be in the biggest fucking rock & roll band in the world — and the best.

Do you feel you made it?
We've reached new heights. We're not in a holding pattern anymore. I have had people tell me, who saw us in those in-between years, "You guys were a lot happier when you were busted broke." Well, we had a lot of stress. We had families. We were on tour all the time. I was divorced when I was young. I didn't have time to process it, because you're giving all this time to your band. I don't expect anybody to understand that. People see my house, and they think it's all cool. But I have a 1980s Café Racer motorcycle in the garage that I haven't ridden in six months, because I haven't had time [laughs]. There's prices to be paid. We didn't win the lottery.

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