B illie Joe Armstrong seems shocked when Billie Eilish tells him her favorite Green Day song. It’s not a hit; it’s “All by Myself,” the acoustic hidden track on 1994’s Dookie. “Oh, that’s Tré Cool!” says Armstrong, clarifying that the band’s drummer sings the song. “I know it is!” says Eilish. Adds Armstrong, “That’s a dirty little song.”
Though Dookie came out seven years before Eilish was born, you can see why she would love it. Its themes — boredom, anxiety, self-doubt — are ones she takes to twisted extremes on her own breakthrough, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Eilish, 17, has been listening to Green Day since she was nine. Her older brother and musical collaborator, Finneas O’Connell, was such a huge fan that as an early teen he emulated everything about Armstrong, down to the “little undone tie and the guyliner.” “He was basically a downgrade of you,” Eilish says. “Well,” Armstrong says, laughing, “he’s an upgrade now.”
The two are in the back of Armstrong’s ’63 Ford Falcon in Los Angeles. He bought the car for $1,000 on Craigslist, rebuilt the engine himself, and had it brought in from his house in Newport Beach for today’s photo shoot.
“It’s fire,” says Eilish, who just got her first car, a black Dodge Challenger (“my dragon baby”). Excited that Eilish wanted to sit down with him, he came with a box of “Billie”-inscribed mechanic shirts for her. Armstrong, 47, is excited to step out after a year in the studio making Green Day’s 13th album, Father of All Motherfuckers, which has them incorporating soul, New Wave, and vintage R&B into their sound. The band just announced a summer 2020 stadium run with Weezer and Fall Out Boy, while Eilish is getting ready for a U.S. arena run kicking off in March. Though she and Armstrong have a lot in common, sometimes their generation gap becomes clear when they’re together. Before the photo shoot, Armstrong looks into a stylist’s mirror and says, “My eyebrows are on fleck.” Eilish breaks into laughter. “On fleck?” she says. “It’s fleek!”
ARMSTRONG I know this sounds [weird], but I always gravitate toward music that sounds like freedom. And that’s what I get from your music. It’s like an earnest person that’s expressing themselves and incorporating new sounds. Some of it sounds like jazz to me, if that’s cool to say?
ARMSTRONG But the lyrics are also just very real. That’s important when you’re surrounded by things that sound synthetic and not very real.
EILISH Thank you. I’ve been surprised people like my music. Because there’s such a world of liking nothing, music that’s not really doing anything. I remember having this conversation with my mom about “Bury a Friend.” We were like, “Nobody’s gonna give a fuck, because the lyrics are ‘I want to end me.’ ” And I really, honestly did not think anyone would care. That’s why this whole ride has been so weird.
ARMSTRONG That song, you’re talking about death. That’s as real as it gets. That’s real, real stuff. When I was writing music when I was really young, it was always important to me to feel like I’m writing songs that I can sing 20 years later. A song like “Basket Case,” it’s a song about losing your mind. As you get older, it gets more and more real. And that’s what creates longevity.
EILISH Did you try to do that? Because it’s so genuine, what you did.
ARMSTRONG We’ve seen so many different trends come in and out. It’s hard, because that’s the golden carrot people dangle in front of your face: “Do I want to sound like somebody else so that I can stay relevant?” At all costs, it was “no.” Even though it is tempting to sort of sell out, you have to keep being real. When it comes down to it, I have to wake up and look at myself every morning and respect what I do. And I don’t love everything I’ve ever done.
In 1994, “Dookie” sold 10 million copies. What do you remember about that time in your life?
ARMSTRONG Gosh. I was only 22. I had a kid at the same time, and I was married. So it was a crazy year. I remember being pretty freaked out. I was playing a kind of music that had never been on that kind of scale before. But what I really wanted to do was keep working, and keep writing songs. I never wanted to feel like I was taking advantage of the situation. I didn’t really stop and smell the roses. Later on, I was kind of like, “Did I enjoy myself enough? Was that fun?” Because the feeling of when you first get popular as a musician, that never happens twice. After that, you have to keep creating new stuff to keep things interesting in your life.
EILISH Did you enjoy it?
ARMSTRONG Not all the time. I was sort of lost at sea. There’s extreme highs, and you’re playing to a new audience really excited to hear you. But I think what was really important to me was being real. I think I worried about that too much, the part where you’re thinking, “I need to stay rooted at all costs.” Sometimes I would get very hardheaded about that. And the record after that, Insomniac, was a really dark record. I was pretty numb to everything.
EILISH [My next album] haunts me. There was a period where I was like, “Do I even enjoy music?” It just felt like so much touring. And I don’t mean the shows. The shows are always my favorite part. But it was just traveling and being alone all the time, on a cold bus in Europe, horrible food, and when you come back, everyone’s kind of moved on from you. This last tour I went on was the first I’ve ever enjoyed. I feel like I have this amazing thing that now I actually see.
ARMSTRONG Yeah, you go out on tour, you’ll be out for a year, and people get married, things change. You have to have good people around you, and good distractions to keep you sane.
EILISH Hey, I don’t even know how to ask this, but what gave you the urge to, like, moon the audience, or kick people in the head and stuff?
ARMSTRONG Oh, Jesus, kicking people in the head? Did I kick somebody in the head?
EILISH There’s a video that’s the hardest shit I’ve ever seen. There was somebody in the crowd doing something, and you just jump on the person in the crowd. That was the hardest, most gangster shit. Like, what made you be so dope?
ARMSTRONG I think someone was getting kind of aggro, and then we started having a back-and-forth yelling at each other. And then I was literally fighting with someone in the crowd. I wouldn’t recommend it. Please don’t do it.
EILISH I won’t, but it’s dope that you did it. Also, I don’t have the same crowds. It’s a very different type of crowd.
ARMSTRONG I saw your show. It’s the same energy. It was such a good show. Everybody was singing along; it was like going to a football game in England. But they were singing along to dark stuff. It was almost like being in a cathedral.
“Your music sounds like freedom to me. A song like ‘Wish You Were Gay’ is a rad song, and I think it saves lives.” – Billie Joe Armstrong
EILISH I have never been so conscious of myself during a show than knowing that Billie Joe Armstrong was in the crowd. I’m so glad you came to that one and not a shitty one.
ARMSTRONG Do you have bad shows?
EILISH I will say that the bad shows are still . . .
ARMSTRONG It’s all good.
EILISH It’s just my stupid brain deciding, “Oh, that show sucked.”
ARMSTRONG When you play that many shows, it just becomes part of your day. You wake up and you’re at a new venue. Having an off night for a show is basically like having an off day. Some days you’re more self-conscious. Other days you’re, like, streaking down the road.
Billie, how did you learn to deal with the pressures of touring?
ARMSTRONG For me, it’s learning what gratitude means to you. My life could have definitely gone in a different direction. I’m just glad people show up. Now, if I have an off show, I kind of don’t care. Things are supposed to be messy. Life is messy. I’m supposed to sing like shit one night. My guitar is gonna break. Mike’s gonna annoy me. I’m gonna annoy Mike. Tré’s gonna throw a drumstick at me.
But that’s the part of what drew me to punk, because it’s all one big imperfection. It’s like taking trash and making it beautiful. It’s OK to be ugly. That’s one thing I really liked that you said to your fans when I saw your show. You said something about not having it together.
EILISH I told them, “It’s OK that you’re all ugly.”
ARMSTRONG Is that what you said?
EILISH No. I’m just fucking with you.
ARMSTRONG You said something about how “you’re in the right place if you’re crazy.” I think about that a lot, because that’s what a lot of people come home with. A song like “Wish You Were Gay,” that’s just a rad song, but I think it saves lives — I do.
EILISH I can’t believe I’m in the room with the guy who was my wallpaper.
ARMSTRONG I was your wallpaper?
EILISH Yeah, on the lock screen on my phone.
ARMSTRONG Oh, that wallpaper. Awesome!
You both were introduced to music through your siblings. What was playing in the house?
EILISH We grew up on everything. I got all my music from my parents and my brother. It ranged from the Beatles and Green Day and My Chemical Romance to, like, Sarah McLachlan and Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra.
“I have never been more self-conscious than when you came to my show. I’m glad you came to that one, and not a shitty one.” – Billie Eilish
ARMSTRONG When did hip-hop come in for you?
EILISH That was when I was 11 or 12. I remember finding Tyler, the Creator and just feeling, “Wow, this is what I’ve been needing to have as, like, a part of me.”
ARMSTRONG I think it’s great, because with all of those influences, it’s like you’re part of a generation where music becomes, like, genre-fluid.
EILISH Oh, I can’t stand that!
ARMSTRONG Stand what?
ARMSTRONG I thought you meant “genre-fluid.” Like, “What you said was bullshit!”
EILISH I bet it was hard to kind of be in a world where it was only genres. Right now, it’s kind of like there’s no limit to what genre you can put yourself in. There’s still a little bit of a barrier, but I think when people were trying to be not everything else, there was a line. But people were like, “Wait, we like everything else!”
ARMSTRONG That’s good. Things happen so rapidly now. It’s like people go through a cycle of music like it’s a fucking Instagram page, where you just sit there and flick through pictures all the time. I think it’s a new frontier for [Green Day], which is really fun. We’re not gonna have a record deal, which is awesome. I’m able to put out whatever I feel like anytime. I did the Longshot record, and I got to put stuff out on SoundCloud. So it’s like it doesn’t matter if you’re in a punk-rock band or in a pop group or hip-hop. It doesn’t matter anymore.
EILISH Where did you find the kid in the “Jesus of Suburbia” video?
ARMSTRONG Oh, he [Lou Taylor Pucci] was an actor in a movie, Thumbsucker, this little art independent thing. Sam Bayer, the director, got him.
What advice would you give your younger self?
ARMSTRONG I really don’t have any advice because when I was that young, I wouldn’t have listened to anybody.
EILISH I don’t really believe in advice. Sometimes when I’m given advice, I do the opposite. It’s just how I’ve been my whole life. Nobody has ever been through exactly what you’re going through, ever. [Billie Joe] is the only person that’s ever going to live through what he has. So no one can know except this dude, and the fact that he’s still sane, he’s still gorgeous, he’s still him, having gone through all this shit? It’s like, I don’t even know.