Name a Green Day song and Billie Joe Armstrong knows exactly where his head was at, where he was physically and who he was with when he wrote it. The last part isn’t that, hard considering his bandmates Michael “Mike Dirnt” Pritchard and Frank Edwin “Tré Cool” Wright III have been central characters to the story of his life that he’s telling in full detail.
The 49-year-old punk rocker reintroduces fans to the trials, tribulations and triumphs he’s faced throughout his personal life and professional career in his new Audible Original experience Welcome to My Panic, which arrived Thursday (April 22). The hour-and-a-half-long audio experience, co-produced by Gunpowder & Sky and Audible for Audible’s recently expanded Words + Music musical storytelling initiative, intersperses his raw storytelling with reimagined performances of Green Day’s biggest hits like “Basket Case,” “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “American Idiot,” which were all top five hits on Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay chart in the 1990s and 2000s.
“It felt really good to actually talk about it and break the songs down and the history of where my head was at, what’s changed and what hasn’t changed. I always speak of my music in terms of the spaces that I was in. I always had these pictures in my head of where I was at writing songs,” Armstrong tells Billboard over the phone. “‘Basket Case’ was a really weird time for me. I just remember being in Berkeley and working the songs out with Mike and Tré. A song that was really fun to rework I think was ‘Time of Your Life,’ because instead of doing an acoustic version, I did kind of more of an electric version. This is a great excuse to dive into that.”
Switching things up while maintaining success has long been part of Armstrong’s blueprint, even at the expense of his mental well-being. While revisiting the hits that projected Green Day into superstardom — the antithesis of punk culture that Armstrong says in Welcome to My Panic “invented cancel culture” and turned the term “rock star” into an insult — he went back to the bleak mindset he had while making 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day’s eighth studio album and follow-up to the rock band’s early aughts masterpiece American Idiot.
Their rock opera did not disappoint in its second act: Much like Green Day’s magnum opus, 21st Century Breakdown topped the Billboard 200, won a Grammy for best rock album and earned platinum status from the RIAA. But in hindsight, the pressure Armstrong put on himself to surpass what they had accomplished might not have been worth it. Armstrong saw a fork in the road at Green Day’s direction post-American Idiot — either suffer the namesake 21st-century breakdown in efforts to make the better record or have fun making an “epic album” that ended up being under their garage rock side project Foxboro Hot Tubs — and despite his ability to do both, he recalls taking “the hardest road I could with that record.”
“I was like, ‘I am going to raise the bar so much higher for myself, and I’m going to deal with this pressure.’ That was a really dumb idea,” he cracks up. “But the interesting thing is it’s like when I felt all that pressure, there was one night, all of us were at the studio, and we have all this vintage guitar gear, like old guitars and old drums. We got together just to jam, and we were playing poker, and it was just dudes night out or whatever. And then we suddenly, out of nowhere, wrote like 10 songs in one night, all of these really supercharged garage songs and became the Foxboro Hot Tubs. … That was such a fun collaboration that I have with Mike and Tré that sometimes I think that really is what the record was after American Idiot, was Foxboro Hot Tubs. And we had so much fun making that, and the juxtaposition of 21st Century Breakdown was like having a nervous breakdown at the same time as coming up with sort of an epic album.”
The Green Day frontman recalls 1982 as an even more volatile time period — or, as he calls it, when the “earth shook for me”: A then-10-year-old Armstrong attended a new school before starting fifth grade, met his future bandmate Dirnt and lost his father to esophageal cancer. The tribute he wrote for his mother and five siblings who also endured losing “this very big spirit in our family” — which became the Hot 100 No. 6 hit “Wake Me Up When September Ends” — marked September as a month of death and rebirth, loss and renewal. Released on Aug. 31, 2005, the tribute broadened for victims of Hurricane Katrina that same year and the September 11 terrorist attacks four years prior.
“I think of [September] as being the new year in a lot of ways, especially [because kids are] back to school,” he says. (When I tell him Ethiopian New Year falls on September 11 due to the Gregorian Calendar, he comments, “Wow, you just gave me the chills. The hair on my arm is standing up right now.”) “Sometimes you lose touch with people that you’re actually close to for two, three months because of summer vacation, and then you see them later and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you look like a different person right now.’ It takes one summer to become a full-on punk rocker.”
But to become a full-on punk rocker back then, one had to accept their fate that fame might not be in the cards. “Punk, the way that we played it, was proven that you couldn’t get famous from it. We saw all of our heroes try,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2015 inductee says in Welcome to My Panic. The recent surge of guitar-driven pop punk music within the younger generation, from Machine Gun Kelly and his Billboard 200 No. 1 album Tickets to My Downfall that blink-182’s Travis Barker produced to 24kGoldn and his Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Mood,” featuring iann dior, proves that statement wrong. But as a veteran of the genre, he says hip-hop’s influence in today’s punk scene is nothing new.
“I find that music nowadays is… I would call it genre-fluid. There’s no category so much. There’s been so many subcategories that’s in the family tree of rock and roll,” he says. “People are just kind of taking… ‘I’m gonna take this of hip-hop, and I’m gonna take bits of pop punk, whether it’s something like The Buzzcocks‘ — I’ve always thought ‘Hey Ya!’ by OutKast sounded [like] a Buzzcocks song. I remember Operation Ivy had a lot of hip-hop influence to it, so it was kind of like they were playing ska, and in a lot of ways, it had a lot of similarities with Public Enemy. … It’s exciting to see people are taking something and they’re making new out of it.”
Looking ahead, Armstrong has his fingers crossed that the Hella Mega Tour with Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer can still happen in the near-future after it was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All three rock bands announced in May 2020 that the joint jaunt had been rescheduled to this summer, with its official website showing the European leg of the 28-date stadium tour beginning on June 9 at Vienna’s Ernst-Happel Stadium and the North American trek starting in Seattle’s T-Mobile Park on July 14.
“It’s looking promising that we’re gonna do Hella Mega later this year in the United States. It’s so crazy that it got put off another year because of COVID. This tour is three years in the making at this point,” Armstrong says, who announced Hella Mega during his fall 2019 Billboard cover story alongside Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. “So hopefully, if the world would open up, and everybody will be able to get into stadiums, we’d be able to get a big, giant barbecue fiesta of rock and roll music.”
Listen to exclusive audio clips from Armstrong’s Welcome to My Panic Audible Original below, and listen to the full hour-and-half segment here.