Music: Three-chord tricks, and then some
Friday 30 January 1998
There are plenty of great pubs in Dublin's Temple Bar area, but for some reason we've ended up in a sports bar. Billy Joe Armstrong, Green Day's front man, sits with his hands clasped in front of him. Call me a bitch, but his black nail varnish needs retouching. To his left sits Tre Cool, the band's drummer. Tre has the attention span of a gnat, a laugh like Woody Woodpecker's, and a spiky green barnet redolent of London's King's Road circa 1976. Bass player Mike Dirnt, friends with Armstrong since they were 11, completes the trio. He's just had his year-old daughter Estelle's name tattooed on his right arm, and it's itching badly. "I really shouldn't complain," he says matter-of-factly. "She didn't flinch when I tattooed 'property of daddy' on her arm." All three laugh raucously. I smile nervously. On numerous screens, a wrestler takes a fall.
Timing, they say, is everything. When these Californian neo-punks released their breakthrough album Dookie in 1994, the instant fix of their three- chord tricks and colourful, hyperactive videos was a perfect antidote to the grey torpor of grunge. MTV simply couldn't get enough of Green Day's in-your-face energy, and Dookie sold more than 10 million copies on the back of three near-perfect, cartoon-punk singles.
To Reprise/Warner records' relief and delight, Armstrong's songwriting skills ensured that, unlike most punk bands, Green Day were built to last. Billy agrees that the darker lyrical content of their 1995 album Insomniac - depression, drugs, despair - was partly a reaction against the way the media continued to toy with the band as though they were jack-in-the-boxes with guitars. Some accused them of making a deliberately uncommercial album, but eventually fans and critics alike accepted that, musically at least, Green Day had simply grown up.
On the band's current album Nimrod - which has already shifted a cool two million copies in just two months - the sonic and lyrical fine-tuning continues. Together with long-term producer Rob Cavallo, they've souped up the basic punk chassis with splashes of Dixieland brass, and - horror of horrors - even some acoustic guitar and strings. "We just wanted to try something a little different," explains Billy. "We got this girl Petra Haden to add that Eastern European-sounding fiddle to the start of 'Hitchin' A Ride', for example. It's weird all right, but it works perfectly."
Lyrically, the song explores Billy's attempts to find some kind of happy medium in his alcohol consumption. Perhaps it's the sports bar's laddish environment, but before long we're embroiled in a discussion about the demon drink. "There was this interview I did recently for Details magazine, and I was like 'Yeah, I'm on the wagon now,'" laughs Billy. "All I can say is that after all that Guinness last night, I'm shitting ink this morning."
"But this is the wrong business to be sober in," adds Tre. "I don't trust my rock star if my rock star isn't fucked-up. I want Keith Richards."
"I'm a much better drinker now than when I was younger and I've tried enough drinks to know what kind of drunk I want to be," pitches in Mike philosophically. There's your wine drunk, your beer drunk ..."
"And wine drunks sing more softly," interrupts Billy, "but beer drunks sing very loudly, like soccer players." A demonstration from Tre ensues. It strikes me that, considering they're constantly living in each other's pockets, there's still a real camaraderie here. Back in 1996, however, things were less rosy. The latter stages of the US leg of the Insomniac tour had to be cancelled after a nasty case of touring burn-out. What steps do they take to avoid such pitfalls now, I wondered? "A little pill for this, a little pill for that - you know mate," quips Tre in a passable south London accent. Then Billy has a valiant stab at a serious answer. "You know, there's no way you can guard against that kind of thing ... But we've learnt how to give each other space, and we try not to go out for more than six weeks at a time. That's all you can do."
Mike and Billy agree that marriage and fatherhood have been a stabilising influence, and despite the tattooing-the-baby jokes and Men Behaving Badly bravado, if you probe beyond the banter they both speak affectionately and articulately about their spouses and children. Towards the end of the interview, however, Billy concedes that the song "The Grouch", with its wry look at the ageing process, was partly about his fear of becoming overly domesticated. Pipe and slippers angst, Billy? "Well, yeah, except that doesn't exactly sum me up."
"No, you'd be more of a glass pipe and slippers man, wouldn't you?" laughs Mike, back on a roll. "You'd be the guy shaking in your own room as you smoke your crack!"
The song explores the theme of regret: "I was a young boy that had big plans/ Now I'm just another shitty old man." I put it to them that whatever happens from now on, they'll have an eventful youth to look back on. "Yeah, but it's like the song says," counters Billy. "Glory days don't mean shit to me. I don't want to dwell on the past, I want to keep moving forward."
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