Green Day: How the Year’s Most Ambitious Project Came Together
July 11, 2012 | By Phil Gallo
Two hundred fifty people packed into the Tiki Bar in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa, Calif., on Aug. 11, 2011, paying $20 a head the day before to see one of the world’s biggest rock bands after an eight-month hiatus. That audience – along with ones at the Webster Hall Studio in New York; 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland, Calif.; Mezzanine in San Francisco; and Red 7 in Austin – was unknowingly treated to 20 songs that would appear on Green Day’s next three albums.
The trio saved favorites like “Welcome to Paradise,” “St. Jimmy” and “Minority” for the encores, hitting the fans with one new track after another – “Nuclear Family,” “Stay the Night,” “Let Yourself Go” and “Carpe Diem” – the first four songs on its next release, “¡Uno!”
“We went and played 20 songs that no one had ever heard – in a row. And with no plan of a record even coming out,” Green Day singer/songwriter/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong says during a break from a mastering session in New York with longtime producer (and Warner Bros. Records chairman) Rob Cavallo and Ted Jensen, who has mastered the group’s last seven albums. “That was terrifying. It reminded me of the times we played in front of crowds that had never heard of us before – nothing was familiar. There was nothing being marketed. It was really exciting and it made me want to throw up with fear at the same time. We were treating ourselves like we were a new band.”
The music Green Day performed at those five shows will be heard across three albums – “¡Uno!,” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tré!” – which in an unusual move will be released Sept. 25, Nov. 13 and Jan. 15, respectively. Extensive writing sessions yielded nearly 40 songs that Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool completed. Once sorted out thematically, the three-man band felt it had three distinct collections that it wanted to put out as individual albums.
“I’m not going to conform to some consumer need,” Armstrong says of the highly unorthodox audio triptych. “I believe people want to hear this kind of music, that people want to hear records that have a story. Or maybe they don’t. I have no idea.”
Armstrong is certain of this much: The rock-opera approach of “American Idiot” (6.1 million sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and “21st Century Breakdown” (1 million) will stand. “I want to write killer songs, but I want them threaded together and to speak to each other within an album, which in this case is basically inside three albums.”
Ideas about different time frames and packages were kicked around until Green Day and Warner Bros. Records executives wound up with the unique, and challenging, idea of spacing them out across 16 weeks.
“Billie and the band were going back and forth on how do we give each album time to breathe,” Warner co-president/COO Livia Tortella says. “They wanted to communicate a sense of urgency but not too far apart so everyone understands they’re connected. We felt that what made sense was a six- or seven-week separation.”
Armstrong returns to the word “accident” again and again when discussing this project. Winding up with nearly 60 songs? Not a plan, an accident. The order of the songs? Accidental, as was the connective tissue on each of the albums. The three-album idea even sprang from a whim.
“Putting out even a double-record, let alone a triple-record, it didn’t seem like it would work for us in this day and age,” Armstrong says. “We wanted all of it to come out because we were proud of it, and then I was thinking in terms of volumes – one, two and three. I was in my kitchen and thought, ‘What if we called them “Uno,” “Dos,” “Tré,” just as a joke?’ And I told my wife about it and she said, ‘Actually that’s kind of a brilliant idea.’ Then I brought it to the guys and asked them what they thought. They let it sink in and said yeah. Put my photo on the first one, Mike on the second one and Tré on the third.”
Mention a triple-album and most people think of the Clash’s 1980 set, “Sandinista!” Magnetic Fields did it in 1999 with “69 Love Songs” and Joanna Newsom two years ago with “Have One on Me.” Then there’s the idea of dropping two albums on the same day, famously done by Bruce Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses and Harry Connick Jr. and more recently by a few underground rap acts.
The three-album idea was floated before Warner executives near the beginning of the year, and Tortella admits that initially it was “terrifying.” They eventually came to embrace the concept as three chapters in a single book.
“The creative is what matters,” says Cavallo, who makes decisions on the financial end as chairman of Warner. “These guys wrote 38, 39 songs. We’re supposed to service the creativity. It’s not the other way around. The artist should lead.”
Leaders of various eras in rock’n’roll don’t shake up their sound, musical intent or ambition and have as much commercial success as Green Day. The band arrived at Warner/Reprise in the early ’90s with a small stack of independently released singles and LPs and a brattiness more in line with the early Beastie Boys than the rock groups that would soon become its top 10 peers: Counting Crows, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden.
Power chords, suburban nihilism and a fan-friendly brand of anarchy not only turned Green Day into a punk powerhouse – its 1994 breakthrough, “Dookie,” has sold more than 8 million copies, according to SoundScan – it sent other major labels searching clubs for similar-sounding acts.
The band’s commercial power dissipated with 1995’s “Insomniac” and 1997’s “Nimrod,” each of which has sold 2.1 million copies. The latter release, however, contained a change of pace for the band, the acoustic “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” that became one of the most ubiquitous radio hits of 1998. While it peaked at No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Airplay chart, it spent 43 weeks on that list, making it Green Day’s longest-running single.
It also provided a new marketing angle: Green Day was growing up, tackling more mature themes and expanding its sound. It almost clicked with 2000’s “Warning,” which hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and found Armstrong starting to write more seriously about rebelling against authority. Four years later, “American Idiot” would change the entire conversation.
“At the time during “American Idiot,” everything felt so polarized,” Armstrong says, “and writing political songs for me has got to come from the heart. I didn’t make a conscious effort to step away from politics or anything like that, but now you have a president where the Republicans won’t compromise on anything. They have their own agenda. It’s not for the greater good of the country.
“I don’t want to beat on some topic that the country is up in arms about. Leave that to the talking heads to figure that out. Besides, they’re getting on my nerves anyway.”
“American Idiot,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, returned Green Day to arenas after a few years of touring large theaters. (In 2005, it grossed $37.7 million from 67 shows by selling nearly 1 million tickets, according to Billboard Boxscore.) A concept album, it was the adult project that would take Green Day to a new level (winning the best rock album Grammy Award, along with the record of the year Grammy for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) before becoming a musical in its native Berkeley, Calif., and eventually Broadway. Bolstered by the album’s ambition, the band followed it in 2009 with “21st Century Breakdown,” which hit No. 1 and also won the rock album Grammy.
In the fall of 2010, Armstrong did a weeklong run on Broadway in “American Idiot” that returned the flagging show to sold-out levels before the band resumed its “21st Century Breakdown” world tour. He came back in January and February for two months of shows. During that time, he began writing the songs that appear on “¡Uno!,” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tré!”
In September 2010 while in New York, Armstrong says, “I was in a world where no one was paying attention to me, so there was no pressure, and I wrote seven or eight songs. We went to South America and I showed them the songs. They were ambivalent about it so I just kept writing.”
On earlier parts of the tour in Europe, Armstrong would rent studios on the band’s days off “rather than boozing it up.” After Helsinki, Berlin and Stockholm yielded songs that he would finish, Armstrong felt he could continue with a similar system while performing in “American Idiot” on Broadway.
“When I was actually in the show and living in New York, I was surrounded by incredibly talented people, something I hadn’t [experienced] in years outside of my band members,” he says. “Inspiration came from that every day. Me and some of the cast members getting together, listening to records and talking about music and seeing all these people singing with these incredible voices. I was engulfed in creativity and it wasn’t mine necessarily – I was feeding off everybody else and their drive. I set up a small studio in my apartment and wrote 30-second songs, one-minute songs, recorded them and ran off to the theater. I did that almost every day.”
Eventually he had more than 55 songs that he wanted to present to the band as it was beginning to practice. “We were just in a zone, writing songs and rehearsing them, staying away from the [recording] studio,” he says. “It was just kind of like doing things the way we did when we started as a band. It was good experience.”
The work the group invested was obvious, Cavallo says. “The band was very well-rehearsed. They burned in [the songs] and rehearsed them almost like a show.”
Getting the tracks recorded started to shape the flow of the music. While not character-driven in the manner of Green Day’s last two albums, Armstrong saw themes develop: “The first record is getting the party started, the second record is the party happening and the depths of hell in the party, and the third one is trying to pick up the pieces, self-reflection and the hangover.
“What I really wanted to do was write real power-pop kind of music that had that old Green Day energy, so the original Green Day sound became “¡Uno!” I was also writing this garage-y stuff that was kind of like [Green Day side project] Foxboro Hot Tubs. The third record was a bit more reflective and internal. Writing records like that comes with life and experience – shooting from the midlife-crisis hip.”
Cavallo says the songs were recorded in order 90% of the time, which he says results in a band approaching songs differently based on knowing where they will land on a particular album. Light and powerful as “¡Uno!” is, it’s highly likely than when “¡Dos!” is released, much will be made of its solemn closing track, “Amy.”
Armstrong says the tribute to Amy Winehouse took him less than 20 minutes to write. “I felt like there was this connection with R&B of the past and R&B of the present. What she did, her knowledge of old music and old Motown, it’s something in the chain of music that is gone forever. She never got the help she needed. I know what it’s like to go down a really dark path and I have had good people around me to help me survive. Maybe that’s why I was able to relate to it.”
“¡Tré!” also has a song based on a person’s life, which Armstrong was able to use for inspiration and reflection: “Little Boy Named Train.” Armstrong’s son was a schoolmate in Berkeley with a boy who was being raised by two women.
“One of the parents was born a hermaphrodite and [his parents] cut off the penis. His/her whole life, this person wanted to be acknowledged as a man. The parents wanted the child to not be identified as a boy or a girl, and the child didn’t really have a name – one week it’s Tigger, another it’s Train. Many years ago I wrote it down and I always wanted to write a song called ‘Little Boy Named Train.’ It happened to someone else, but there’s a part of me I was thinking about when I wrote it. There’s a line: ‘I’m always lost, I’ll never change. Give me directions and I’m lost again.’ Kind of autobiographical.”
Cavallo and Tortella feel particularly inspired by the Green Day triple play. The timing of the releases plays to strengths in promotional opportunities (see story, above) and both executives see enough stylistic and lyrical differences among the three albums to generate conversation among rock fans.
“Billie thinks really big,” Cavallo says. “He’s an exciting writer, an exciting performer. I wish we had more like him in the world. We’d have a more exciting industry.”••••
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