If there’s any overriding theme for ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! — Green Day’s monumental forthcoming trio of albums—that’s it: the weird phantom zone between having a grownup’s responsibilities and wanting to spend your whole life getting your teenage rocks off. The 36-song set is heavily loaded with some of the most adolescent, loud, fast and obscene pop-punk that Green Day have churned out since their 1994 breakthrough album, Dookie, or even their earlier indie-punk releases, like 39/Smooth and Kerplunk.
But nestled among the tracks are some of Billie Joe Armstrong’s most mature songs to date, the reflections of a 40-year-old man who ignited the mid-Nineties pop-punk revolution, forged the sacrificial bridge between punk and the classic rock opera in 2004, penned some definitive anthems of the American Apocalypse, acted in a hit Broadway show and sold millions of records. Now, as then, he continues to record and perform with his two best pals from his teenage years, and remains married to the girl he fell in love with when he was 19.
“I just think, Holy shit, I’ve been documenting my feelings in songs since I was 16 years old,” he says. “And I’ve gone through 20-something years just documenting how some of those feelings have changed and how you evolve from a kid to an ex-kid, to a man-child, or whatever you want to call it. You realize how juvenile, maybe, some of your feelings still are. And sometimes you see how you evolved as an individual.”
But fear not! This is still very much the same guy who named his band’s major-label debut album after excrement. And he says Green Day had a blast all the way through the making of ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!. “It was a good feeling the whole time,” Armstrong says. “There was never any feeling of pressure. No bad feelings. There was no struggle to make it.”
Armstrong is kicking back in a lounge at a massive rehearsal studio outside L.A. He’s dressed in standard-issue street-punk gear: red Converse, black jeans and a T-shirt. His hair is messy, Beatles-esque and, following another one of his weird blond periods, once again jet black. Out in the hallway, bassist Mike Dirnt is trying on a succession of slim-cut, boldly striped trousers for a photo shoot to promote the new discs, pulling the garments from gigantic wardrobe cases that clutter the corridor. He’s still in his own blond hair phase. When I commend him and the band on coughing up 36 killer tracks, with nary a stinker or dog in the bunch, he shrugs and says, “Well, it wasn’t that hard. We wrote over 80 tunes for this thing!”
¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! were the result of a tremendous burst of creativity on Green Day’s part. It was fueled by several things. For one, they made a firm decision to abandon the narrative, rock opera format of their two previous studio releases, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. Armstrong found it liberating not to have to write songs to fit a plot or conceptual brief. “We definitely wanted to get away from that,” he says. “Closing the chapter on 21st Century Breakdown and that era gave me the freedom as a songwriter just to start getting into the fun of playing music again and changing things up. If anything, there was a conscious effort to get back to basics and just treat each song individually.”
Armstrong also had plenty of time and inspiration to write new songs while he was appearing in the Broadway production of American Idiot in 2010 and 2011. “Being in New York for that long a period of time,” he says, “I fell into this routine where I would get up in the morning, have my coffee, go for a walk, come back to my apartment, write a song and then do the show at night. I set up a small studio in my apartment where I could get my ideas down. Then I’d shoot over to the theater and act like a madman onstage. And being around all the actors, surrounded by all that constant creativity, I just couldn’t help it; I started writing songs.”
Back at their headquarters in Oakland, California, Green Day started arranging and structuring the new material. “Next thing we knew, we ended up with something like 30 songs. So it was like, ‘What do we do with this? Is this a double album? Are we doing Sandinista! here?’” Armstrong says, referring to the Clash’s 1980 triple-album. “So we said, ‘Let’s do three discs and release one record at a time, and wouldn’t it be funny if we called it ¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!? It’s almost like Volume One, Volume Two…in the way of Van Halen I and II or Led Zeppelin I and II. Only we have three of them, and we put one of our faces on each album’s cover.”
The joke gets an extra lift from the fact that Green Day drummer Tré Cool adorns the cover of ¡Tré!. Billie is Uno, as befits Green Day’s main songwriter, lead singer and guitarist. But one isn’t sure how Dirnt feels about being stuck with Numero Dos. “At first it started out as a joke,” says Armstrong, who admits to being the one who came up with the names and the whole idea in the first place. “But the more we talked about it, the more we said, ‘You know, it’s pretty catchy.’”
The band, its label and its management also came up with the idea to release the three discs in succession rather than put them out all at once or as a set. ¡Uno! comes out September 25, ¡Dos! hits on November 13, and ¡Tré! will be released on January 15, 2013.
It’s an unconventional move, but one that’s perhaps more attuned to the short-attention-span digital era. Even at the height of the record biz, double and triple albums were a tough sell. And with so much attention on single song downloads these days, even a single-album release is risky business. But then again, the idea of a punk band doing a rock opera seemed pretty crazy back in 2004.
Each of the new discs has its own stylistic character, more or less. Classic Green Day predominates on ¡Uno! whereas ¡Dos! is more in the raunchy garage-rock mode of Green Day’s 2008 side project, the Foxboro Hot Tubs. “It’s a real Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas kind of death-trip vibe,” Armstrong says, “like a party out of control.” ¡Tré! is more of a mixed bag. It contains some of the set’s more reflective songs and some of the most epic arrangements, complete with string and brass orchestrations.
Armstrong says that the pop-punk material is what came pouring out of him first. “Just because I’ve been doing it for so long and I love that kind of music,” he says. “It’s just in my DNA at this point. On the last record I veered away from it so much, to the point where I sort of drove myself crazy. But the last record did have a song called ‘Murder City,’ which is a straight-up Green Day punk-rock song, and it ended up becoming my favorite song on that album.
"So with the new stuff, that kind of thing just came naturally. I think that the first songs that were written were ‘Stay the Night,’ ‘Nuclear Family’ and ‘Carpe Diem.’ So there was this power-pop thing happening. Then it became, like, ‘Guys, no ballads. Let’s just write rock and roll!’ But all of a sudden ‘Oh Love’ came out. It’s not really a ballad, but it’s not a power-pop song either. It’s powerful, but it’s slower and it’s got a groove to it. It’s kind of something we haven’t really done before, and at the same time it’s pretty epic.”
As it turns out, the song makes a great 12th-track album closer for ¡Uno! — a graceful counterpoint to the pop-punk mayhem that has come before and a musical marker that points the way to some of the material on the two subsequent discs. To complement the stylistic thrust of ¡Uno!, Armstrong also had a clear sense of the guitar sound he wanted and the overall production approach he wished to pursue.
“I really wanted the record to be a classic Green Day sound,” he says, “but I also wanted to introduce new elements of different guitar sounds—cleaner tones—and to mic the room so you can get the real power of the speakers moving the air to give it more of a live sound. It’s a bit of an AC/DC type of guitar sound, where it’s really powerful but what you’re actually listening to is a clean guitar tone.”
This live-in-the-studio approach was also facilitated by the fact that Green Day rehearsed the songs at the same facility in which they recorded them—their own place, Jingletown, in Oakland. It was formerly called Studio 880 but has since been endowed with a new name and new Neve mixing console. For the sessions, the band also drafted its longtime live guitarist, Jason White.
“He was in the room with us the whole time,” Armstrong says. “He’s been playing with us for over 10 years now, so we figured, ‘Let’s bring him in and he’ll be the fourth member. He can be Cuatro.’ So for all the rhythm tracks, he’s in the right speaker and I’m in the left. He added a really great element because he’s got a really smooth kind of style to him, whereas I’m more percussive. He matches what I’m doing but adds a vibe to it.”
Longtime Green Day producer Rob Cavallo also encouraged the band’s live-in-the-studio approach to the recordings. “When Rob came and watched us jam,” Armstrong recounts, “he was, like, ‘This is what the record should sound like. It should sound like you guys jamming in this room.’”
Cavallo was Green Day’s producer from Dookie onward (although his involvement in 2000’s Warning was minimal). But he fell away from the fold for 21st Century Breakdown, which was produced by Butch Vig. So how did Cavallo get back in the picture?
“By apologizing,” Armstrong deadpans before dissolving into laughter. “He just wanted to mend things. We had sort of a strained relationship after American Idiot. I don’t really know why. I don’t think he even knows why. It just turned ugly for a while. But we started having talks together again, and he said how much he really wanted to do the record. I started getting into playing him demos again, and he started champing at the bit to produce. So it was just a slow process of rebuilding the friendship and the relationship again.”
One other thing helped put Green Day back in pop-punk mode: they started playing songs from their first two albums, 39/Smooth and Kerplunk, while touring for 21st Century Breakdown.
“On our last tour, we were playing a lot of old songs, like ‘Who Wrote Holden Caufield?’ and ‘One for the Razorbacks,’” Armstrong says. “It was really fun. And sometimes when you’re in the middle of playing the song you start to realize, Oh, god, I remember who this song was about. I remember what I was feeling at that time. How is it relevant to me now? You almost get lost in all that, and you’re performing it in front of 10,000 people or whatever. It’s a trip going back like that. I think we were reluctant to do that before the last tour, but then we just started bringing those songs in. We’ve always wanted to write songs that we could play 20 years later, like the Rolling Stones are able to play ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ and stuff like that.”
¡Uno! ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! are certainly awash in songs that reference Armstrong’s punk-rock past as a kid growing up in Berkeley, California’s highly politicized, hardcore Gilman Street scene. The new albums’ overall mood of adolescent pop abandon is tempered by a wistful note of nostalgia that creeps into many tunes, some of the most frankly autobiographical songs that Armstrong has ever written.
“X-Kid” from ¡Tré! deals with the suicide of a close friend of Armstrong’s. “I don’t really want to get into it,” he says. “It’s too heavy.” And “Carpe Diem” from ¡Uno! is also haunted by intimations of mortality. That song’s about living in the moment,” he says. “I think the older you get, you have to appreciate your time on this planet.”
On a more cheerful note, “Sweet 16” is an unabashed love song to Armstrong’s wife, Adrienne, written as a gift to her for the couple’s 16th anniversary. They met during an early Green Day van tour while she was studying sociology at the University of Minnesota. At the time Armstrong was 18 and she was 20. It was pretty much love at first sight, although it took them both a little while to realize it fully.
“‘Sweet 16’ is about being in a relationship for a really long time,” Armstrong says. “The first verse is about my relationship with Adrienne when we first met. And the second verse is more about our relationship now. And just how time passes and just kinda, ‘Wow, we’re still here and still together.’”
Perhaps more surprising is the song “Amanda” on ¡Tré!. It references Armstrong’s brief relationship with a militant feminist punk-rock girl, actually named Amanda, during the Gilman Street days. She broke up with him and has haunted Green Day’s body of work ever since, although usually in veiled or fictionalized form. She was the inspiration for Green Day’s mega-hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and also formed the basis for the character Whatsername in 21st Century Breakdown.
“Yeah, she’s in that,” Armstrong acknowledges, “and all the way back to a song like ‘Stuart and the Avenue’ [from Insomniac]. She’s an old friend who goes back to a long time ago—kind of like a recurring dream. She’s shown up in different songs here and there that are bitter or bittersweet. I wrote the song ‘Amanda’ from a perspective of, ‘Okay, now that we’re grown-ups…’ She’s got her kids and her husband, and I’ve got my family. And it’s just asking the question, ‘How are you? What’s life like for you? This is what I’m up to.’ We had a chance to reconnect and talk a little bit. And that was that.”
Full interview at Guitar World: HERE