Few may have predicted it 15 years ago, but the scrappy NoCal punks behind 1994's blockbuster Dookie grew up to become America's most ambitious rockers. 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 third of our exclusive Q&As with each bandmember, Fricke speaks with drummer Tré Cool about growing up punk, loving the Who and finding his groove.
The general impression of your childhood is that you, Billie and Mike all came from stressed-out homes. But you all have rich family lives and speak honestly but respectfully of your parents.
I didn't have a normal childhood by any means. But it was what it was, and I appreciate what my parents did for me.
Such as letting you join a punk band, the Lookouts, at the age of 12.
Back in '93 and '94. when Dookie was being made, my dad built this tour bus for us, out of a bookmobile. We toured in it for the first year. It was a really bad idea, by the way. Kids, if you're listening to this at home [leans towards the tape recorder], if you're gonna go on tour, don't build your own tour bus. It was super-bouncy.
But it was awesome. We rolled up to Lollapalooza next to 20 tour buses with a fucking bookmobile. We were parked in Oregon one time, buying a bag of weed off some guy. Some woman pulls the [back] door open, and goes 'Woah! This isn't a bookmobile! Sure smells good in here, though."
We still have the bookmobile. It's on my dad's land. Maybe we'll do something with it someday. He was really supportive. When we were in pre-production for Dookie, we all went up to my dad's house — he still lives in the woods — and set up our gear in his living room. I remember going through 'Welcome to Paradise" and perfecting the middle part up there. Me and Billie got lost in the woods on a hike — seriously lost in the deep-ass woods. We finally found a strip of road to walk down. That was fun.
The cliché about punk rock is that it is supposed to be anti-parent, anti-authority, whereas Green Day's records are a mix of nuances — about confronting convention yet being emotionally connected.
We had to break free. But that changes as you get older and especially when you start having children. We're a family. We gotta reconnect, get close together. I've been working on my relationship with my parents and my sister over the years. We have become more close. I think having kids makes you want to keep the gang together.
When you joined Green Day in 1991, was it hard for you to fit in with Mike and Billie? They had been tight for so long.
They went to school together. They grew up together. They were constantly talking about people I didn't know. Then I started meeting these people: "Oh, I heard a story about you." I think I now know every person in their circle — that they still care to know [laughs].
I had trouble fitting in, in a musical sense. A lot of drummers get sidetracked by the instrument. It can engulf you. You start opening these doors — different ways of setting up your kit, these metal guys with all of these drums set up in a circle around them — and you get addicted to it. When I started, I had too many drums. I was a little reggae-happy and into fancier beats than was needed. It took me awhile to get it: Play the song, don't play the instrument. I started figuring out how to make the band a stronger unit, to make it jump.
That has to do with rocking with Mike, once we were locked up — my foot and his fingers. He's got his own style. It's really rhythmic. There are a lot of in-between notes — grace notes and movement. My job was to make him sound better, instead of playing more fills.
Mike said that on your early tours with the band, your exuberance was hard to take the first thing in the morning, especially if he'd been driving the van all night.
I did more driving than Mike [laughs uproariously]. C'mon! He did more driving before I was in the band. Billie maybe drove once, for a couple of hours. He was smart. "Eh, I don't want to drive. I'll just piss in the Gatorade bottle in the back." My hyper activity and high energy — that's all I know. I'm still pretty much of a nutball, when I wake up 'til I pass out.
Do you feel albums like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown validate punk rock as an art form? Do they prove the music is not just about physical and emotional release?
After all is said and done, we were right. When I was 12 years old, I had patches on my jacket and fucked-up hair, earrings and shit. People were spitting, trying to fight me, yelling stuff. But we were right. Look at all these punk bands out there. They're successful. Some punks say it's almost too big. But I think that's great, man. Punk rock has become another viable art form. It always was. But now it's like everyone's doing it.
Do you think that, in a way, you represent your punk-rock generation the way the Who sang for their peers, British and American teenagers, in the Sixties?
The Who were never hippies. They came from a working-class street background, similar to Green Day. What is different is we are still a part of that background. They went grander and bigger. They were keeping up with what was happening, trying to stay modern and relevant.
I thought it was interesting that in a soundcheck yesterday, you were playing "Shakin' All Over." And there are Who-ish references all over your new album.
I saw the Who last year, and they were so awesome. I'd never seen them before. I wanted to go see them as a kid. I was invited, and my parents were like, "You don't need to see the Who with those people." So I didn't get to go. In hindsight, they were right [laughs].
What impressed you the most about that show?
That Pete Townshend can play the fucking guitar! It's incredible. The records are great, but to see him do a solo live — it's like he's yelling, "Yeah, fuck you!" at the crowd as he's bashing his instrument. He is not a young man anymore. But he has that teenager spirit. "My Generation" still speaks to my generation. It speaks to my kids' generation. Pete is timeless like that.
More Green Day: