Green Day's 'Dookie' at 25: Producer Rob Cavallo on the Punk Album That Changed Everything
Longtime Green Day producer Rob Cavallo is in Atlanta to produce the music for the Super Bowl halftime LIII show when he takes our call to discuss the 25th anniversary (Feb. 1) of Green Day's major label debut and commercial breakthrough, Dookie. Upon learning about this phone call, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine swears he can still sing any song off the album in the proper key without musical accompaniment. He takes a break from halftime show prep to deliver a cappella renditions of half of Dookie; to Cavallo's amazement, he nails the key every time.
Levine's impromptu cover set is just one of endless testaments to Dookie's lasting impact, not only on punk rock but on popular music at large. After their 1991 album Kerplunk sold an unprecedented 50,000 copies on the independent Lookout! Records, Green Day—singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool—signed with Reprise Records under the Warner Bros. umbrella in order to bring their snotty, sugary punk to the masses. But it cost them their membership to the Bay Area punk scene where they originally made their bones: Famed Berkeley club 924 Gilman Street promptly banned the group from its walls upon signing (the ban has since been lifted).
The sacrifice proved worthwhile. With its effervescent hooks, disenfranchised lyrics and far-above-par musicianship, Dookie catapulted Green Day to rock stardom and laid the foundation for the mid-'90s pop-punk explosion that saw platinum releases from bands like The Offspring, Blink-182 and Rancid. Armstrong's lyrics alternated between 420-friendly juvenilia, reckoning with anxiety and coming to terms with one's own sexual orientation, giving listeners an unflinching glimpse into life as a suburban, working-class wastoid in the early '90s. Evidently, a lot of listeners shared these sentiments: Dookie sold more than 8.4 million copies in the United States alone (per Nielsen Music) and remains the bestselling album of Green Day's career.
"Literally I still pinch myself. I can't believe that we actually fucking did it," says Cavallo, who signed Green Day to Reprise and became one of the most sought-after producers in the industry after producing Dookie. Twenty-five years after Green Day's breakthrough album, Cavallo still sounds elated as he discusses slaving over Armstrong's guitar tone and teaching the band members how to play Beatles songs during their first meeting.
How did you first become aware of Green Day?
Well, I was producing a band called the Muffs, and they were from Orange County, and it was the first band I ever produced for a major label. Me and a guy named David Katznelson, we signed them, and the band needed some attorneys. So we knew these guys, Jeff Saltzman and Elliot Cahn, who were Bay Area attorneys. And when we were mixing the Muffs album, I think Jeff Saltzman placed on the mixing desk one night at like 1 in the morning, a little cassette. It said "Green Day" on it. He said, "Listen to this when you get a chance." And I remember thinking at first, "Oh my God, another tape."
And as I was leaving that night at like 2 in the morning, I said, "You know, don't be an asshole. Just put the tape in. You never know, it could be the one." And then as I'm driving home, I went from being a tired guy with his eyeballs falling out of his head to being on the freeway going, "Oh my God, I love this band. What the fuck, this is awesome! This is my kind of music!" So I called him the next day and said, "I gotta meet these guys, they're amazing."
There were quite a few major labels fighting over the band at the time, going to great lengths to get their attention. What was your first meeting with them like?
Well, you're right, it came down to Warner, Columbia and Geffen, and all the A&R guys were definitely going at 'em pretty hard. And I had two things, maybe three things going for me. One was I was at Warner. The second one was I was producing the Muffs and had signed the Muffs to Warner, which Green Day liked. They were like, "Well, you signed and produced a band like the Muffs on a major label." Whatever we called that style of music was not prevalent at the time. I mean, it was more grunge at the time, and much less sort of punk or pop-punk, however you want to call it. So they were impressed with that. And then, Cahn and Saltzman, the management, they said to the Green Day guys, "This guy Cavallo can play every Beatles song"—pretty much any song on the guitar that you could name, from the '50s, '60s, '70s, but primarily the Beatles. So they were like, "Oh, he knows all the Beatles songs on the guitar? Well, we're gonna find out."
So I went to their house, and what I saw was pretty much what you saw in the "Longview" video, 'cause that's what we shot. I mean, I saw the room that they practiced in, which was then painted red and blue, and then the living room that was just filled with stuff on top of the coffee table where he's watching the TV, and that was pretty much it. Anyways, they played a bunch of songs and I was just blown away. I thought, "Oh my God, this band is tremendous." Every song to me seemed like a flawless little gem. That's what I thought when I was sitting there. And I thought, each one of these kids is great on their instrument. They were fantastic instrumentalists, and the way they played together created a fury of excitement. It was just unbelievable to me.
And then they got me really stoned. And then they put me in somebody's bedroom and handed me a guitar and said, "Alright, well how do you play this Beatles song? How do you play this?" So I did it for an hour or two, showed them the descending line in "Help." I remember that was one where they were like, "Oh, we were trying to figure out how to do that." I was like, "Oh, it's this little trick." So I played a bunch of songs, and eventually they decided to sign with me. I won the signing war.
Did you feel as if you had just tapped into something that no one else had discovered yet?
I didn't really know it. I never had that kind of confidence, really. I always tried to stay humble. But I started to know when we were making rough mixes, after Billie had sung a few of the songs. So we had guitars, bass and drums and some singing on there, and Billie had a couple of friends come over to Fantasy Studios. So a couple of kids came over, and it's rare that you see this—I now can recognize it, but it's a funny thing. You know when you play some people a song and then they kind of lose their minds over it? They're kind of like staring at you with big eyes and their mouths are open and they're going like, "I can't believe it. That's it!" There's like electricity in the air. So anyone that came and heard it immediately had a reaction like I definitely had never seen before to new music, which was like, "Oh my God, this is huge. You don't even know what you just did."
This was Green Day's first time recording in world-class studio with a big budget. What were the recording sessions like at Fantasy?
You know what's great about Green Day? They're really smart guys, so they're never really flummoxed. They understood what they were doing, and they knew it was a new experience, so they took to it quite easily. They asked me, "How do we do this?" And I said, "Well, we're gonna set you guys up and get a really great drum sound and a great bass sound and a great guitar sound, and we're gonna have you play live. We want it to sound like you guys. Then once the drums are really cooking, then we might overdub the bass and the guitars over those drums, so that you guys can sound really tight to what you originally played. And then we'll just put some vocals on it." And what it was really like, was we did our 10 to 12 hours a day of just focused, hard work. There was always the fun and the shenanigans that were going on, but really, we got down to work. It was no fuckin' around. It was like 98 percent, "We're making a record. We're there to show up every day and basically kick ass." So that's what we did. We made the whole record in four or five weeks, really, and then a couple weeks of mixing.
Did you have any expectations for the album when it came out?
I used to run around the Warner Bros. building saying, "Well, we could sign them for $200,000, and we could probably sell 100,000 records at a $4-a-record profit, which means we would net a $200,000 profit." I always thought there were like 100,000 cool kids. I thought, if they could sell 10,000 Kerplunks on an indie, I think that there's 100,000 kids that are like me. That's what I thought. I thought, there's 100,000 kids that are like me, that kind of like the Beatles and kind of like the Sex Pistols, and thought you could relate to this music. That's what I thought. I clearly was wrong. [laughs] So wrong.
Dookie turned Green Day into superstars. Did it change things for your career as well?
Oh yeah. Well I mean, first thing I should say—I would like to say publicly to Green Day: Thank you so much for recognizing something in me that would make them want to choose me, because I was a $23,000-a-year guy, $500-a-week or whatever I was making. And I remember, my wife and I were looking to buy a house, and we were having trouble finding one. But then the royalty statement came in, and I was like, "Honey, we can buy a much better house." But then what happened is, it doesn't come right away. There were certainly other bands that were interested in me. That's very true. A lot of bands started to call and say, "Hey, can you produce me?" So yeah, I did start to get recognition. Most of it in the beginning, though, was only in that sort of punk rock genre. But after the record got really big, next thing you know, I was in the studio with Fleetwood Mac or Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood. And these guys were like, "Hey, here's this new kid that's musical. Let's try him out." So it was pretty amazing for me.
Were there any moments from the Dookie sessions that stand out as truly unique or special to you?
I remember listening to the guitar sound that we got with [Billie's] Marshall, and I remember just kind of being sort of nervous to myself, being like, "Is this the right sound? Is this the right sound?" And then hearing Billie play through it, and he said, "This is a good sound, man." And I remember in my own head, it's ping-ponging back and forth, trying to get enough objectivity to the guitar sound, and then it clicking into gear and me being like, "Fuck yeah, this is the right sound. I do think we have it." It's one of these things, 'cause as a producer, you really want to make it special. I can't tell you how much it has pleased me over the years that people point out the guitar sound on that record, because I kind of slaved over it and worried over it a lot to get it right. But I do think there's so much character that comes out of—you know, you think of Eddie Van Halen's guitar sound. Any great guitar player's guitar sound is part of the character. It's what makes it unique. So we were trying to get something. So those are just, on the producer side, on a technical level, those are some things. I think the rest of it was just, we had a fucking ball. We laughed our asses off. Everything was hysterical. They're a bunch of characters, fucking amazing cartoon characters who are really smart. We were just kids fucking living the dream.
I can't imagine Billie expected guitarists would try to emulate his tone for the next 25 years.
It's one of those dreams I think that every guitar player or band guy would have. And it's so amazing. Literally, I still pinch myself. I can't believe that we actually fucking did it. It's amazing. It's such an honor. I remember walking into Guitar Center in 1995 or 1996, just as I had done for 15 years before that as a young teenager. And then, oh my God, all the kids that are checking out the guitars are playing the songs that I just produced. How about that for a fucking-you-up moment? I almost fucking died. I was like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm walking into Guitar Center, and in the cacophony of sounds, there's like three or four or five different guys playing 'Longview,' 'Basket Case,' 'She.'" It's like, wow.