Green Day: The Billboard Cover Story
How the year's most ambitious project -- three albums over 16 weeks -- came together
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.