"Back then, I just wanted to write songs I could be proud of and be able to play in five years," Green Day singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong says, recalling his state of mind exactly 20 years ago – on February 1st, 1994, the day his band's third album and big-record-deal debut, Dookie, was released. He has another, earlier memory, just after Green Day got their advance money from Reprise Records, part of the Warner Bros. company, which issued Dookie and is still Green Day's label. "I remember thinking," Armstrong says, "'Let's just record this thing, and make sure we have money left over, so we can pay our rent, in case anything happens."
This is what happened: Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool became overnight rock stars. Dookie rapidly went platinum, then double platinum, ultimately selling more than 16 million copies worldwide and firing Green Day out of their hometown hardcore-punk underground in Berkeley, California, into arenas and stadiums. With 11 studio albums, including the 2004 multi-platinum opera, American Idiot, Green Day are now the most successful punk band in the world.
Armstrong, Dirnt, Cool and Warner Bros. chairman Rob Cavallo – who, as a young A&R rep, signed Green Day in 1993 and co-produced Dookie with them – all spoke at length for a forthcoming Rolling Stone feature on the road to Dookie, its creation and dramatic, commercial aftermath. What follows are exclusive excerpts from my conversation with Armstrong, who remains amazed by that record's original and continuing impact. "Our fans have those times – 'Where were you when you first heard 'Basket Case'?" he says. "That's all I wanted – people to be affected by it, with as much passion as I put into it."
When did you notice major labels sniffing around? Your second album, Kerplunk!, came out on the independent Lookout label in January, 1992, right after Nirvana's Nevermind went to Number One. Were you were riding the tailwind?
I remember [Lookout founder] Larry Livermore saying there were majors calling him. We ignored it. We didn't know what it meant. We thought it was prank calls. There were a lot of those second- and third-rate Nirvanas and Soundgardens around – we didn't fit that mold. The labels weren't really looking for us.
In fact, they were. You became the subject of a three-way bidding war between Geffen, Columbia and Reprise.
We had a pretty large following. But nobody knew what that following was, because it was all about these super-small fanzines, kids booking us into local veterans halls. The guy from Geffen looked at me: "You sold out City Gardens [in Trenton, New Jersey]?" We were also selling out the Whisky A Go Go [in Los Angeles]. Even the people at Warner Bros. were like, "Holy shit!"
This was a critical turn in your future. What were band meetings like? And how did you ultimately decide to go with Rob Cavallo and Reprise?
We were probably stoned. I gotta say that. We were always high [laughs]. It was this foggy process of elimination.
But we had a clear idea of what we wanted to do: "I'm playing my 'Blue' guitar [his first, serious instrument, a Stratocaster copy received as a Christmas present when he was 11 years old]. Mike is going to get the best bass sound. I want to use one amp. That's all we need." That's how we ended up making the record.
You recorded at home, in Berkeley, but at a major studio, Fantasy. That was a big step up in technology and decor from your early records. Did you feel you belonged there?
It definitely had that Seventies coke-y vibe, mahogany and strange dead wood around the place. We would go into the vaults and see all of Creedence Clearwater Revival's master tapes.
But I felt we belonged there. Our first album [1990's 39/Smooth] cost $700 to make. Kerplunk! was like $1200. "Let's record these as fast as we can – because we don't have a choice." [Laughs.] This time, I learned how to dial in good sounds, get the best guitar tones. I was able to take a little time doing vocals. I loved that experience.
Was everything written and ready to be played when you walked in?
We lived at this place at Ashby and Telegraph [Avenues] in Berkeley. We had this room we shared with another band, the East Bay Weed Company, and there were people we knew upstairs. The whole house was communal living. And we rehearsed there every day.
When we got home from touring for Kerplunk!, I had a four-track [recorder]. I was dicking around with it, making demos, just with myself playing. I came up with "She," "Sassafras Roots," "Pulling Teeth" and "F.O.D.". That helped create the stripped-down sound. I'd record a song, and if I didn't have a bridge for it, I would just play another verse. Then I'd show the songs to Mike and Tré.
What was the first song you played on the first day in the studio?
It was probably [the opening track] "Burnout." There were nerves. We felt like little kids in a candy store. But Mike and Tré were tight. That album was some of the tightest they'd ever played. We were ready. We didn't want to be one of those bands that got stuck in the studio. We heard about record labels telling bands, "This is what's wrong. Make it again" – horror stories about spending all this money. We were like, "Fuck that shit. We're going to record this and be done."