Q&A: Green Day's Punk Opera

Above: Green Day's video for "Know Your Enemy," the first single from new album "21st Century Breakdown," due worldwide on May 15

Green Day returns this month with a rock opera that's thrashtastic enough for its old fans -- and new ones. In this extensive Q&A, expanded from the Billboard cover story, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool talk about how they turned the massive success of 2004's "American Idiot" into creative fuel for their new album, "21st Century Breakdown," and crafted a major summer tour to match.

"21st Century Breakdown" continues the rock opera format of "American Idiot." Does it concern you that people may see it as "American Idiot, Part II"?

Billie Joe Armstrong: No, I think we're working harder and diving into our songwriting harder than ever. And we know that. There's no stone left unturned. If anything, "American Idiot" gave us an opportunity to become even more creative. Right now it's sort of an era for us, where we're writing the best material we've ever written in the past five years.

What's the basic concept of the album?

There are two characters. The main one is Gloria--she's a person who's trying to hold onto her beliefs, while still trying to have vitality in life and hold the torch. The other side of it is Christian, who is becoming a victim of his own demons. And instead of carrying the torch, he's trying to burn everything down. I sing through those two characters, from my own experiences. That's the personal side of it.

The political side of it goes from different things we've had to deal with as Americans in the past five years, whether it's natural disasters or other crises. It's trying to make sense of everything that you watch on television or on the homepage of your computer screen every day, and everything that's blasting at you. The main message is trying to make sense out of desperate times and chaos.

Would you say that it's Green Day's most ambitious album so far?

Yeah, it's the most ambitious and the most vulnerable at the same time. I taught myself how to play piano, so I broadened my songwriting abilities a little more. We just set the bar really high and tried to have as much patience as we could to get the ideas down, because these songs start to come in and you don't know what's going to fit and what';s not going to fit. I was sitting around reading the lyrics to everybody, and that's when the idea for "21st Century Breakdown" really started to glue together.

Lyrically, what were you drawing from for the material?

A lot. The song "21st Century Breakdown" is sort of about growing up in a working-class family, and what that represents in a financial crisis and how everyone feels paralyzed and frightened right now. A song like "Know Your Enemy," that's probably the boldest call to arms I've ever written. Then it gets into "Christian's Inferno," which is when I was in the most diabolic state in my head, and vomited out this song. And there's "East Jesus Nowhere" which is calling out the hypocrisy in religion and how it sort of drives our society. It's hard to sit and pinpoint everything, because it's a lot of shit.

Some songs feature piano, strings arrangements and falsetto vocals. Were you trying to expand the sound of Green Day even further?

You just do whatever the song calls for. "Last Night On Earth" is a love song I wrote for my wife. I wrote it on piano and then sang it. It's one of those things where it's only directed toward one person, like an intimate moment. And you say, "Wow, I never sang falsetto before, that's pretty cool." Even on our harder rock numbers, like "Murder City," I was doing it a little bit of falsetto. There are two different kinds of falsetto people can do. One is the irritating kind, and then there's the other kind, where it sounds like it's an appropriate thing for the song.

Rob Cavallo has produced most of Green Day's previous albums. This time you went with producer Butch Vig. What did he bring to the table?

Butch brought a lot of class. It's the biggest sounding record we';ve ever made. After coming off any big record, for a producer, it's kind of daunting to think about what's going to come next. He was completely not intimated whatsoever by the task. There were times where I felt like I was losing my mind, and Butch always brought in a sense of calm throughout the entire thing.

Which songs exemplify Green Day's growth from previous albums?

I would say "Restless Heart Syndrome," "Before the Lobotomy," "Peacemaker" and "See the Light." But I can't really think of a song where we haven't grown, because in some sort of way we're always trying to tweak with arrangements and bring things on more of a grand scale, while maintaining the street music where we come from. I'd say the entire album has been a big step for us.

Do the songs stand on their own, or does the listener have to hear the whole album for it to make sense?

The thing we tried to achieve on the last record and this one is that you can kind of pop into the record any place you want to and not feel like, "What's going on right now?" Because they're all individual songs that are linked together, and the story is more about what the characters reflect on and not something more linear, like "Quadrophenia." You're not going to feel lost.

This might be too early to ask, but will Green Day continue this rock opera format of writing?

I don't know. I just want to let things happen naturally. Right now I want to get a more objective point of view of what I just did, because I've been so far inside of it for so long. We'll see what happens.

"American Idiot" scored Green Day its first No. 1 on the Billboard 200. What do you think drove its popularity?

It was a combination of reasons. One, it's a kick ass record. We kind of hit the nail on the head with what we were signing about. There's fearlessness about it, too. And there was a new sense of creative energy going on that drew people in. There was freshness about us. Beyond that I have no fucking clue.

Does its success intimidate you at all, going into this new record?

There's pressure, but it's happened to us before, so we knew we wanted to take our time and get distance from the last record. But at the same time we didn't want to burn it down or anything. We wanted to outdo and make a better record than we've ever made before. But it was just a matter of getting distance from the last album, being patient, and waiting for those moments where you feel like being a good songwriter. The pressure is there, but that's part of the challenge. It's enticing. We're game for it.

How does it feel that "American Idiot" is being made into a musical?

It's f*cking crazy. There are three new songs off of "21st Century" that are going to be on it, and a couple of songs that never made anything. [Director Michael Mayer] created this story and it's like Jesus of Suburbia kind of trapped inside his own head. When we saw the workshop, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. It's going to be amazing. I don't know if it's going to hit Broadway or if they're going to tour it in tiny rock clubs, but it's amazing and a dream come true.

Has there ever been a time in your career where things were a little shaky and you just thought about hanging it up?

The only time I ever really felt like that was some time around "Warning." It was a time where we had to evaluate our situation and our relationship as a band, and truly get into making the records of our dreams. But quitting? Nah. Nobody leaves this band unless it's in a coffin.

NEXT PAGE: Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool >>

Green Day 2009. Drummer Tre Cool (left) and bassist Mike Dirnt (right) flank frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.

How does "21st Century Breakdown" expand from "American Idiot"?

Mike Dirnt: It was a really trying time for our patience, because we're used to banging things out. Rather than have the next record be a reaction, kind of like what we did with "Insomniac" after "Dookie," we wanted to take everything we had gained from "American Idiot" and reach even higher. It was really scary to make that decision, but it had to be made because we knew it would be a long haul. So we went for it.

Did you consciously go into the new album wanting to make another rock opera?

Dirnt: That didn't really come along until [producer] Butch [Vig] came into the picture. We had written from a bunch of different perspectives. There was this kind of Foxboro Hot Tubs's garage band element that came in at one point, and there was some hardcore punk stuff, and then there was stuff that was just way out there. When Billie wrote "Know Your Enemy" it really struck a chord because the song is saying something. It's a broad stroke on a really bold statement. So we asked how we could reach for that.

Green Day recently played last-minute club shows in the Bay Area. What was the idea behind that?

Tre Cool: We said, "Let's just jump into the f*cking frying pan and go out and play for people." It was a guerilla Bay Area Green Day assault. I'm really proud of this band. We've come so far from the blank page of, "What are we going to write about after "American Idiot"?" to having written our best record and played it live four times. It feels like we really own it, and I can't wait to tour it proper.

After "American Idiot," Green Day formed the side band, Foxboro Hot Tubs. What brought that on?

Dirnt: That was a combination of a time when we were listening to a lot of old vinyl, and then we were sitting around one night and drinking a bunch of wine at the studio. We decided to write a bunch of trashy songs. We got this old analog eight-track and wrote the music to ten songs and recorded them live that night. Then we went through the next few weeks and finished the songs up. It gave us a platform to put something out and have some fun and get out from underneath the Green Monster. It really paid off, because it put us onstage again in down-and-dirty club environments and brought the physicality we needed.

Is “21st Century Breakdown” a more physically demanding album to perform?

Cool: I've got these new muscles on my arms that I don't know where the hell they came from. My hands are getting torn up, too. I had to get fingerprinted today for a passport and I didn't have a fingerprint on one hand, because it had worn off from my drumstick. So I could be a cat burglar, if this music thing doesn't pan out.

"American Idiot" was your first No. 1 album. What drove its popularity?

Dirnt: When Billie wrote "American Idiot," he asked Tre and me if we were okay with him saying these things. And we said he should say more. Maybe it's the punk scene we come from -- people related with that because they were fed up. Then they got into the record and realized they could relate with the characters on the record and the stories in it. It was a reflection of what was going on in America at the time.

Was there ever a time when the band thought about breaking up?

Dirnt: We went from playing hockey arenas across Europe to playing for 1,100 people. We were always grateful to have that crowd, but that's a blow to your ego. We came home and literally had meetings, me, Billie, and Tre. My question was, "Why the f*ck aren't we in stadiums? I think we're writing some of the greatest rock'n'roll I've ever heard. What's going on? Where do we want to be as a band?" So we set the goals and tried to achieve them. In hindsight, those records really are the building blocks to where we are right now. I'm super fucking excited to be playing shows again -- we haven't played in over three years. Most bands that don't play for three years break up.

Looking back on "American Idiot," how does the whole experience register with you?

Cool: I've been in this band longer than I haven't been in this band. I tend to refer to periods of time as the record we were doing. I'll look through old pictures and say, 'Oh, that was "Nimrod,"' like someone in college would say, "Oh, that was my freshman year" The album cycles become that chapter of your life. But we're going for our doctorate by now. I think we're brain surgeons at this point.