This is definitely the only interview I'm gonna do about it," Billie Joe Armstrong says, dropping onto a couch at Green Day's studio in the Jingletown section of Oakland. "I never want to be the kind of guy who talks about addiction. The last thing I want is sympathy from anybody. I don't want a pity party."
Armstrong, Green Day's singer-guitarist and driving songwriter, is starting a second day of intense, candid talk about the past six months of his life: his violent meltdown during Green Day's set at the I Heart Radio Music Festival in Las Vegas last September; his trip to rehab for alcoholism and addiction to prescription medications; a canceled tour and the disastrous effect on sales of Green Day's three new albums, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre!; and the severe testing of his lifelong friendships with bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool.
"I have not revisited this at all," Armstrong admits, pulling chunks from a muffin for lunch. There are frequent, thoughtful pauses in the conversation, as if he is still feeling his way out of trouble. There is also a healthy impatience in his voice as he reflects on his ordeal, the effect on his family — his wife, Adrienne, and their teenage sons, Joseph and Jakob — and his immediate future. Green Day are back on the road in March, playing North American arenas, European stadiums and festivals into midsummer.
"After our first interview, I was like, 'We talked so much about addiction,'" Armstrong says. "I'm fucking bigger than this thing, better than this shit. This is an incident. It happened. The rest is history. I have so many important things to do. I have my family to take care of. I have my band. I'm a crazy-idea person. I always will be. And that will overshadow anything with my addiction problems."
Sporting a porkpie hat, tight black jeans slightly torn at the knee and coal-black eyeliner, Armstrong, who turned 41 on February 17th, still looks and fidgets in his seat like a punk-rock kid, the furious, articulate imp behind Green Day's biggest albums: their 1994 breakthrough, Dookie, and the operatic 2004 grenade, American Idiot. But the Armstrong who turned up in Las Vegas on September 21st for the I Heart Radio concert — part of an international touring-and-promo blitz for Green Day's new records — was a mess: taking a runaway combination of pills for anxiety and insomnia, compounded by a long history of heavy drinking.
Backstage before Green Day's set, "I took him aside," Dirnt recalls, "and told him, 'Dude, you've got to fucking lay off the sauce.' And the minute I walked onstage, I thought, 'This is not gonna be good.' We're known as a pretty tight band. He couldn't play guitar." Instead, Armstrong smashed his instrument, after a profanity-laden diatribe against the event (promoted by Clear Channel) and the short set time. On September 24th, Armstrong entered a monthlong outpatient rehab program.
"A lot of this stuff dates back to [2009's] 21st Century Breakdown," Armstrong confesses. "There were meltdowns on that tour that were huge." At a 2010 show in Peru, during an anti-technology rant, Armstrong shouted, "I can't wait for Steve Jobs to die of fucking cancer." Jobs died a year later. "It was a really stupid thing," Armstrong says, cringing. "A lot of that shit was going on."
During his rehab, Armstrong had only what he calls "semicontact" with Dirnt and Cool. "I wrote him and Adrienne a few letters explaining how I felt, how I was concerned and proud of him," says Dirnt, 40. Sometime later, as Armstrong relates in this interview, the two friends — who have been playing music together since they were 12 — unexpectedly ran into each other, over coffee, in Oakland. "Billie apologized to me from the bottom of his heart," Dirnt says. "It was just two old friends on a park bench. I hope to be on a park bench with him when I'm old, feeding fucking birds and having conversations."
Armstrong characterizes his regimen of recovery as "meditation through prayer," combined with meetings and common sense about limits. "We're going into this tour and making sure we do everything we can where everybody feels healthy, safe and happy," he says. "We'll see what happens after that." He has started writing new music and mentions two impending milestones in 2014: the 10th and 20th anniversaries, respectively, of American Idiot and Dookie. "There's that to think about," he notes, laughing.
At the end of our second session, I ask Armstrong if he owes one more apology: to the Green Day fans who saw or read about his blowout in Las Vegas. "I let them down," he responds bluntly. "The thing in Vegas — some people love it, some people hate it. I know I'm not gonna relive that. That's a side of me I don't want my fans to ever see again. "I want to put on good shows," he declares. "I want to be reliable. And we plan on being reliable."
When we met last June, during the mixing for the new albums, you seemed normal to me — excited and energetic. How did you really feel?
I was pretty happy, to be honest. That was one of the best times we ever had making a record. It was a big, fun project with a lot of camaraderie. Then right after we mixed the records, I found out my aunt had passed away. I had to go back home. I helped my cousin pay for the funeral. My aunt — my mom's sister — was a big presence in my family. That hit me pretty hard.
Then I started getting overwhelmed. We were doing press every day. There was the tour. We were thinking of another tour after that, then another tour after that. I was overbooked and exhausted. I thought, "My God, I feel like this, and the [first] record hasn't even come out yet."
What drugs were you taking?
I don't want to say. They were prescription — for anxiety and sleep. I started combining them to a point where I didn't know what I was taking during the day and what I was taking at night. It was just this routine. My backpack sounded like a giant baby rattle [from all of the vials inside].
How much were you drinking? What's your idea of heavy?
Some people can go out, have a couple of drinks, and they can take it or leave it. I couldn't predict where I was going to end up at the end of the night. I'd wake up in a strange house on a couch. I wouldn't remember [how]. It was a complete blackout.
I've been trying to get sober since 1997, right around Nimrod. But I didn't want to be in any programs. Sometimes, being a drunk, you think you can take on the whole world by yourself. This was the last straw. I had no choices anymore.
Drinking was a big part of Green Day's original image — three guys making great punk records around a few bottles and a six-pack.
Or smoking. We were total potheads — hence [the name] Green Day. We've always been drinkers. Our favorite bands were drinkers. Growing up around [the nonprofit no-alcohol Berkeley club] Gilman Street, we drank behind the bushes until we were old enough to get into bars.
I played onstage loaded a lot. I'd have anywhere from two to six beers and a cou ple of shots before I went onstage, then go and play the gig and drink for the rest of the evening on the bus. Fall asleep, wake up the next day, feel like shit, do soundcheck.... It was over and over again. In that way, I was a functioning alcoholic.
Were there any warning signs on the way to Las Vegas?
It's funny, because there was an incident in England. We were playing some shows in Europe. I was at my pill-taking height at that time, medicating the shit out of myself because I couldn't sleep. We went to Japan, we went to England, we were zigzagging everywhere.
One night, I called a friend of mine who was in the hotel room next door. I said, "Come over, have some coffee." It's 7 a.m. I'm like, "I just took all of this stuff, I can't sleep." It was all normal talk, like how we're talking now. Afterward, I'm sitting in my room, and I get a text from my manager: "Come on down, we have to talk about the Reading Festival."
I went down there, he was sitting there, and he goes, "We're getting on a plane. We're canceling the rest of this tour, and you're going into rehab." I was like, "What? What the fuck are you talking about? I'm not going to do that."
We talked about it later. We got to this theater gig we were playing in London. I said, "I don't want to cancel these gigs. It just can't happen. Tell you what. As soon as we get home, when we're done with the press and this stuff, after I Heart Radio, the week following I'll go to rehab. But I can't cancel any of this shit now."
It turned out I was a week ahead of schedule.
A week before the Las Vegas incident, I saw Green Day at Irving Plaza in New York. It was a great gig — 40 songs over nearly three hours. You also looked like you were dancing on the edge of control. You were drinking a lot, and I remember thinking, "He could easily lose it here."
It was the New York jitters. I threw back four or five beers before we went on and probably had four or five beers when we played. Then I drank my body weight in alcohol after that. I ended up hungover on the West Side Highway, laying in a little park.
There are a lot of gigs where I definitely walk that line between what is control and what isn't. I like the feeling, like you're walking on air. It's like flight — and danger. But that show was also the 30th anniversary of my father's death. [Andrew Armstrong died of cancer in 1982, when Billie Joe was 10.] That was weighing on me. We finished that set with "Wake Me Up When September Ends" [written about his father]. It was a pretty heavy night.
In Las Vegas, though, you completely lost control.
As soon as I landed in Las Vegas, I was in a bad mood. To be honest, a lot of it was trying to come up with a set list. I should have thought of it like a TV show, not a concert. I was thinking, "How can I bring that mentality, that spirituality, of Irving Plaza to playing after Usher?" And I couldn't. I'd say to Adrienne, "What do you think of this set list?" Then I'd text Mike: "What do you think of this?" I remember this feeling of "What the fuck am I doing here?"
I got really pissed off. I went to this place where [guitarist] Jason White was having lunch and a glass of wine. I'm trying not to drink. But I was already filled up with lots of drugs. I go, "I think I'm going to have some wine." And at some point during that time, I was just [snaps his fingers] gone. I blacked out.
I remember tiny things — getting to the venue, being backstage, trying to shake the buzz off. I remember seeing the 15-minute sign clicking down — click, click, click. Then I went out and got hammered the rest of the night. The next morning, I woke up. I asked Adrienne, "How bad was it?" She said, "It's bad." I called my manager. He said, "You're getting on a plane, going back to Oakland and going into rehab immediately." I said, "All right."
How long did you think you were supposed to play?
I heard 15 minutes. Adrienne seemed to think it was a half-hour. We usually play for two and a half, three hours. I barely break a sweat in 15 minutes. I should have just played a few songs and been done with it.
My sister Anna was watching it [on the Internet]. She called my other sister and mother, who were there. She was like, "What's going on?" My mother said, "He's drunk!" [Laughs sheepishly]
Do you have any memory of what you did or said onstage?
No. People will remind me a little bit. Or I'll see a photograph. And it makes me so sick. What I said or did — that's not what really bothers me. It's the fact that it wasn't me. I'm not that person. I don't want to be like that.
I'm a blackout drinker. That's basically what happened. Sometimes people will talk about it, and I go, "Yeah, yeah." But it's like amnesia.
Did you consider watching that footage, as part of your rehabilitation?
No. I can't go there. That's my last drink. Which is good — it's documented. Anytime I feel like drinking, I can think about it.
Stardom is supposed to be about the privilege of saying "no." Why didn't you turn down the show when it was offered?
I would have if I was more sane. The insanity comes before the alcohol. When you look at things on a piece of paper, it just looks like, "Oh, this is 20 things we're doing." But then you end up some place where you feel completely awkward.
Playing that show sober — maybe I would have enjoyed it. Chances are I would not. But it's important for this kind of music to be represented. There are kids out there, somewhere, who need this music and the history lessons we hope come with it. If a kid picks up a Green Day record, there's a good chance he'll pick up a Ramones record too. It's good to be the oddball, in the ether of pop music.
We've played some things where we thought after, "Ugh, why did we do that?" But it's part of our ambition at the same time. Doing a Broadway musical — I never thought we'd do that. Maybe I thought I Heart Radio...I don't even know what it is, to be honest. It was a pop-radio show that went terribly wrong.
The consequences — including several months of canceled and postponed shows — hurt the sales of your three new records too. There was no band to promote them.
It was pretty weird. Going through withdrawal and watching ¡Uno! come out was not exactly what I had in mind. But I don't think of those three records as a failure. Most important, to me, is my rock & roll spirit. That comes before anything else, what it sells or ends up selling. I listen to "99 Revolutions" [on ¡Tre!] and think it's one of the best things I ever wrote.
I remember when everybody was saying Give 'Em Enough Rope was the Clash's sellout record. I mean, give me a break! There's trends and all that. We've been through that. After Dookie, when we did [1995's] Insomniac, everybody thought we were over. Life goes like this [makes a deep-wave sign with his hand]. But I love making albums. And I'm going to keep making them.
Do your sons buy albums? Or are they download-and-Spotify guys?
They do the iTunes thing. But I had the greatest experience with my younger son. I was putting in a new turntable. I took out the old one and said, "Hey, Jakob, you want a record player?" He goes, "Yeah!" He loves the Strokes, so I grabbed a Strokes record, and we went into his room. He puts the record on, picks up the needle and goes, "Where do I start? Is it the little lines in between?" [Laughs] He drops the needle, the song comes on.... [Smiles] It was so cool. That made my year.
Describe your first week in rehab, at home.
I was going through withdrawal. That was gruesome, laying on the bathroom floor and just feeling like... [pauses] I didn't realize how much that stuff affected me. And it's not the stuff that is immediately in your system. It goes back to how long you've been using. It was working its way out.
I was going through so much shit. Even into the second week, I was like, "I don't belong here. I'm not convinced." The sick part of it is I wanted to get all of the narcotics out of my system so I could start drinking. But that's the insanity of the whole thing. You make excuses. You rationalize. You can take a shit in a mailbox. That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.
Did you speak with Mike or Tré while you were in rehab? Did you know what they were feeling?
There was semi-contact. I think Tre was scared. Life got real serious there for a while. Mike was fucking pissed. Right when I got home, after [Las Vegas] happened, he said all this stuff. It was everything within three or four sentences: "You're scaring me. You're fucking up your life. You're fucking up everybody else's life. You need to get your shit together."
The great thing is we've known each other for so long that we can be like that without coming to blows. After about three and a half weeks [in rehab], I started going down to this doughnut shop to have coffee. And sure enough, one day, here comes Mike Dirnt, walking down the street. We sat down and had a great talk. Me and Mike have been friends since we were 10. Sometimes Green Day gets in the way of that, because we're around it so much.
Was it rough on your wife and sons to be at home, watching you go through withdrawal?
I kept it away from my sons pretty good. My dogs kept looking at me, wondering how I'm doing. They can sense that stuff. I could have gone to a facility, but this way I could be around my loved ones. And my wife doesn't drink. Never has. She doesn't like the taste or the smell.
Was she your nurse as well?
No. I had a nurse that came in and made sure I wasn't having seizures and stuff like that. But Adrienne is a strong woman. She knew the deal. I'm sure it was rough for her to see me going through this. At the same time, I think it's safe to say there were some choices she had to make.
Am I going to get kicked to the curb? I'm sure the thought crossed her mind — that if I didn't get sober, I could potentially lose all of that stuff. I could have lost the band too. I didn't realize how destructive I was. I thought everybody was in on the joke. But I was the joke.
The lyrics on ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tre! are loaded with references to dangerous excess and midlife crisis. "Amy"is about the late singer Amy Winehouse. You wrote "X-Kid" about a friend who never figured out how to be a middle-age punk. Were you consciously writing these songs about yourself?
Yeah. The guy in "X-Kid" died from the same habits I had. ¡Uno! is definitely the sense of "Be young, be free." The second album is the midlife crisis: "I want to live my life dangerously, because I haven't lived dangerously enough." And the third record is the reflection on reality. I've lived that arc my whole life, since I was 17.
Were you sober when you wrote "Amy"?
I was on heavy medication. I was sober, but I wasn't clear. Seeing how it went down with her — something drew me to write that song. I don't write about people that pass away very often. I think I've done it three times: "X-Kid"; the one about my dad, "Wake Me Up When September Ends" [on American Idiot]; and "Amy."
In a weird way, I'm almost desensitized by death, because I learned about it at such an early age. I have this family that is much older than I am, and I have a lot of friends who have committed suicide, gotten into drunk-driving accidents, hung themselves. So death has always been in my life. [Pauses, laughs grimly] That sounds really funny.
But if you look back, I've been writing about addiction forever. There's this other side of me going, "I told you this shit was going down. You wouldn't fucking take it seriously."
Can you cite examples where you were writing more autobiographically than people suspected?
"Hitchin' a Ride" [on Nimrod] is one. "Lazy Bones," on ¡Dos! — that song makes me well up, just thinking about it. "Little Boy Named Train" [on ¡Tre!] — that song is so me. It's about being lost. When I was a kid, I'd always wander off and not really know where I was at. Or I'll lose myself in thought.
Tré once described you as "gifted and tormented" — that your brain is "like 18 tape recorders playing simultaneously in a circle." That kind of overstimulation means you can write three albums at once, really fast.
It also meant I could be a moody bastard and a train wreck of a drunk. That static is why I used drugs: so I could make it stop. Now I have to figure out a different way to get it to stop.
Have you been clinically diagnosed with insomnia? You actually called one of your albums Insomniac.
I've never been diagnosed. All I know is I can't sleep very well at night. It takes me a while to get to sleep. I could just be nocturnal. I have my nighttime witching hour where I hang out, listen to records or watch TV. That was the hard part of having kids: trying to be on their schedule, then fighting to get to sleep while they are sleeping.
Is there a history of alcoholism in your family?
I don't really want to say. [Long pause] I'll just say that I grew up in a house of love and chaos. I remember seeing it. I knew it was there. But at some point, I stopped trying to care about it.
How would you describe your early punk-rock lifestyle, when you and Tré were living together in the house on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley?
We lived with a band called the East Bay Weed Company [laughs]. So it was a lot of beer and smoking dope.
How much time did you manage to spend writing and playing music?
That was all the time. At least half of Dookie was done there. Mike lived down the street; we would get together two or three times a week. So there was always jamming going on.
There was a lot of nihilism going around. Dropout kids, people that felt like outcasts — they were coming into this scene. Things like scarification, bad tattoos, drinking booze, snorting methamphetamine — nobody thought of it as addict behavior. We knew everybody that was doing that. And we were doing it as well.
We'd be at a party at someone's house where bands were playing. Someone would have speed, and we'd do it. Then I would start writing songs when I got home. It wasn't a necessity. The song was already there. The courage was what I needed. The fear was always there, even when we were doing American Idiot.
What were you afraid of?
I'd get this voice in my head: "Who do you think you are? Why did you write a song like 'Holiday,' you high school dropout?" I think the working-class part of me comes out. Sometimes the people who have the loudest mouths are upper-class, upper-middle-class. The quietest are often working-class people, people who are broke. There is a fear of losing whatever it is that you have. I come from that background.
In fact, American Idiot is the most topical and outspoken record you've ever made.
That was another fear. If I don't say this now, when I'm 31 years old, when am I ever going to say it? It's something I had to do. If I'm worth my salt, then I have to fucking say it.
Dookie came out in the same year that Kurt Cobain died. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder was publicly struggling with his celebrity, and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots was battling addiction. How did you cope with overnight success?
We came from such a punk-rock background — "rock star" was a four-letter word. It was a tough time. Later, I was like, "Man, did I enjoy that? Was I even there?" I loved watching the crowds getting bigger, the excitement of people singing every word. But we got the backlash more than all those other bands together. I firmly believe that. Coming from Gilman Street and the Maximum Rock N Roll era of bands, which was basically a socialist mentality, what we did was straight-up blasphemy: becoming rock stars.
When did you finally get comfortable with your stardom?
Around Insomniac, I was afraid to walk around onstage. If I was to walk over to this part of the audience, that means I'm being an asshole [laughs]. I was that self-conscious. Then during Nimrod, my drinking took off. I was like, "Fuck this, I'm really going for it." I started raising my hands in the air, getting people to clap. I realized that's what people wanted. They want to have a good time, and it's OK to be a ringleader.
All of that built up to American Idiot. It took me until I was 32 years old to actually speak for myself and do it with confidence.
Does it seem ironic now that the alcohol helped?
Yeah. I can't remember the venue, but we were playing in Austin, Texas. It was a 2,000-seater. I was nervous. That's when I decided to start drinking before shows. It started off with two beers. Then it went to many more after that. Liquid courage — it made me loosen up and not give a fuck.
As a punk-rock kid, what was your take on rock's original fallen stars — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison? Did you empathize with their excesses and insecurities — or consider it weakness?
I loved the Doors. I think Jim Morrison is the first real rock star. There's people like Little Richard, who was doing the flamboyant thing. But Morrison took it to another level, being a poet, elegantly wasted. In getting that fucked up, he was trying to reach a new consciousness. He was a singing [Charles] Bukowski.
But it's a dangerous place. When I listen to those Doors records, it makes me want to get fucked up. Especially a song like "Roadhouse Blues" — "I woke up this morning, got myself a beer." It's the ultimate "fuck you" to society, to any kind of conventional living. And you're doing it through alcoholism. There are times when I lived by those words — and almost died by them.
Have you started writing songs again?
I write guitar riffs. I'll come up with melodies in my head and write 'em down in here [picks up his iPhone] and keep a little log going. Let's see [He punches his iPhone screen. A scrappy acoustic-guitar riff comes out of the tiny speaker.] Stuff like that. I always write lyrics.
Can you tell a difference in what you're writing, because of your recent experience? Is there a "rehab" album in the works?
It's too early. I feel I have to wait this one out. I don't want to jump in and get myself overwhelmed.
I can only take it one song at a time. I just want to write good songs that people love, which is a tough thing to do. It would be great to do another rock opera, but using more low-fi technology. I love shitty-sounding records [grins]. I'd love to do more stuff with Green Day that is 100 percent live. Sometimes I wish we would have recorded our last records that way — that Exile on Main Street feel, where you just get some good tones and go.
One thing I can't do is do anything half-assed. I want to make sure everything is right, that the song is fully realized. I think of the first Ramones album and the first Clash album — those songs are fully realized, well played. You can almost hear them doing it in a practice room. You can tell how time goes on, when you fast-forward to [the Clash's] Sandinista! You know all that stuff was done in the studio.
Actually the first Clash album was produced by their live-sound engineer.
Yeah! It's a brilliant record. I want to make sure that while we're evolving, we still sound like a unit.
So you can envision doing this — being in Green Day — at 50.
Oh, yeah. Keep going! You have the Rolling Stones as a role model for that now. The great thing about the Stones is they've become old bluesmen. Seeing them on that 12-12-12 show — they blew everybody off the stage. They were so inspiring. And seeing all that white hair Keith Richards has now...[laughs].
You will be back on the road soon. Have you, Mike and Tré come up with some rules and changes — such as no alcohol backstage — to keep your sobriety going?
We still have to talk about that. Everybody knows it's coming — what's going to keep me from falling off the wagon, where everybody is happy at the same time.
Sometimes I'm not sure I'm ready. There is still the obsession for alcohol. There's also sleepless nights. But I have to work on it every day. Because I know what goes on out there. I'm hosting this giant party for people. At least 70-75 percent of the people in the audience have been getting a drink on. I've got to watch my step.
The next time you want a drink, what will you have instead?
I'll probably run outside, hail a taxi, go back to my hotel room and have a soda. Probably a root beer. I love root beer.