Cover Feature Green Day: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

The original daft punks are back with their 14th studio album ‘Saviors’ and a renewed fire in their bellies. Lighting the torch paper once more to set the modern political landscape ablaze, there’s no band who do it quite like Green Day.

If there’s something even purists can agree on, it’s that punk rock is an attitude: a need to challenge the establishment, to rage against the machine. And if there’s one band that have always exemplified this spirit, it’s Green Day.

It’s just over thirty years to the day since the release of the trio’s no-skips major label debut, ‘Dookie’ – an album they’d hoped might, at best, shift 500,000 records and instead went on to sell twenty million. Over the next three decades, the band - frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, drummer Tré Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt - have released eleven more records, won four Grammys, been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and sold out stadiums around the world. It’s way more than three anxiety-ridden, East Bay stoner kids could have possibly dreamed of – but musically, they’re still not sated.

This year, Green Day released their fourteenth studio album, ‘Saviors’, which has been hailed by critics and fans alike as a true return to form. While previous LP 2020’s ‘Father Of All Motherfuckers’ branched into new garage rock territory, ‘Saviors’ has brought Green Day back to their pop-punk roots, writing some of the most vital songs of their career and grounding them fully in the horrors of 2024.

“I’m feeling really good about everything,” says Billie Joe from his home in Oakland, California. The frontman is decked out in a black hoodie (hood up), leather jacket and tee, and looks a fraction of his 52 years. “‘Father Of All…’ was like this id [instinct],” he continues. “You take on something completely different and change, and then when you come back to what I think I’m best at – writing melody and trying to expose my own truth to people – it feels more refreshing, instead of always doing what’s expected of you.”

To help create that classic Green Day sound, they roped in Rob Cavallo - the producer behind their most beloved albums ‘Dookie’, ‘Insomniac’, ‘Nimrod’ and ‘American Idiot’. “Billie called Rob and said, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And Rob was like, ‘Are you ready to make rock n’ roll history again?’” recalls Mike Dirnt, his usual impeccable quiff restrained under a black flat cap. “I think Billie was just calling to see if he wanted to grab lunch or something, but when Rob’s hungry to record, it’s always good. We’re a good team when we’re firing on all cylinders.”

“Rob’s energy is undeniable,” seconds Billie. “The great thing was, we didn’t go to LA to record, we came to London, to RAK Studios. All of us were in a space that was brand new for us, and we were able to focus a lot but at the same time we were like kids in a playground.”

At first, London started as some casual studio sessions. Billie was headed across the pond to visit family, but on mentioning the trip to Tré it piqued his interest. The drummer came out to jam and it wasn’t long before Mike and Rob were on a plane to get involved. “It was a lot of fun,” says Tré. “We were focused on being together, both as a band and as friends, in this new environment. There was a real excitement and a real revitalised energy we had going into it.” “It’s Green Day’s job to grow and try new things,” Mike says of the sessions. “But you can’t come back to something in an honest way if you never left.”

Green Day reflect on politics in punk, latest album 'Saviors' and their epic career so far
If you have this idea that rock stars are not supposed to be political or provocative, you really really have no idea what music is to begin with. Billie Joe Armstrong

While recording together in a room might have felt like the early days, a few things have certainly changed in thirty years. Mike Dirnt (named after the ‘dirnting’ he used to do on bass guitar) comes across as the most discerning, his passion for their new music palpable. Billie insists, these days, he’s the band’s barometer for what’s good: “When Mike’s excited, I’m excited,” he nods.

Billie is considered and open with his responses – years of answering journalists’ silly questions not hampering his ability to paste on a smile. And Tré Cool is exactly who you’d expect the man behind one of the goofiest stage names in musical history to be: the joker. Albeit a slightly more dapper one these days.

“I had this posh two-story Airbnb in Knightsbridge,” he admits of his months in London. “Every morning I would put on a suit and walk across town, jump in a cab – every cabbie has the best fucking stories in the world – get in the studio, put my Converse and Zildjan shirt on and play my ass off. Then say, ‘Alright, we’ve got a couple of good songs today, gentlemen’, put my suit back on and head off.”

But while Tré may have been spending his time experiencing the finer side of London life, frontman Billie was busy turning one Saturday night at an iconic Islington dive bar into the stuff of legend. “I was out with my wife. We were like, ‘Let’s go to Slim Jim’s’. We walk in and there’s a covers band playing a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Then they play Alanis Morissette. I say, ‘If they play ‘Basket Case’, I’m getting up there.’ I NEVER do things like that,” he narrates. “But sure enough, the very next song was ‘Basket Case’ and I ran up and almost gave the lead singer a heart attack. I felt like an Elvis impersonator the way they looked at me, but it was really fun. The whole crowd was into it and it was a total surprise.”

Green Day have never been a band prone to gimmicks. With their sights always set on the next record, they’ve dodged the pitfalls of becoming just another ageing legacy group - in fact, until now, they’ve rarely stopped to acknowledge their past at all. But 2024 not only marks three decades of ‘Dookie’, but 20 years of ‘American Idiot’ too. It’s cause for celebration.

“At first we were reluctant to drop ‘Saviors’,” says Mike, “because we didn’t want it to fall in the shadow of those two albums. But the fans started posting stuff and celebrating these records, and you could see what they meant to people. But at the same time, they also wanted new music. So we realised, it’s not taking away from, it’s adding to.” “It felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity,” echoes Billie. “All the records sort of lift each other up.”

Green Day reflect on politics in punk, latest album 'Saviors' and their epic career so far Green Day reflect on politics in punk, latest album 'Saviors' and their epic career so far Green Day reflect on politics in punk, latest album 'Saviors' and their epic career so far
It’s Green Day’s job to grow and try new things, but you can’t come back to something in an honest way if you never left. Mike Dirnt

Whereas ‘Dookie’ changed the course of their lives for the first time, bringing a new brand of palatable punk to the masses, ‘American Idiot’ marked a serious sea change in Green Day’s history. At a time when President George Bush was waging war on the Middle East, Billie’s rebel core took the band political. They started dressing differently – black shirts, red tie, thick black eyeliner – and made a rock opera about the state of “subliminal mind-fuck America”. None of their previous albums had matched the commercial success of ‘Dookie’, but ‘American Idiot’ was a global hit, introducing Green Day to a new generation of disaffected youth.

“I remember just having copious amounts of fun all the time,” recalls Tré of the mid-’00s. “We were together a lot. We did a lot of, you know, extracurricular activities between the actual recording. A lot of goofiness.”

For Billie, it was a time when his drinking and prescription drug use first started to get out of hand. He got sober in 2012 after an on-stage rant prompted a stint in rehab, but in 2017 had started drinking again, at first manageably, but soon things inevitably took a turn. Today he has “no relationship with alcohol” having been sober again for a few years. ‘Saviors’ track ‘Dilemma’ is about the decision to kick the bottle. “I don’t want to be a dead man walking,” goes the chorus.

“There was no big drama around getting sober this time, I was just over it,” he says. “The older you get, the more time means to you. When you wake up sober and you hear birds singing or chirping in the yard, it’s the greatest sound in the world. But when you’re hungover, it’s the worst thing that you could ever hear. I like being sober. I feel stronger now about it. A lot of people that I know are not drinking anymore because they’re just over it. There’s other aspects of the addiction where it’s like, once I start I keep going, I don’t have that off switch. I wrote ‘Dilemma’ while I was drinking. It turned into one of the most honest songs I ever wrote.”

When everything else in the world is going to shit, the three of us can get in a room and have a language of our own. Everybody else should be so lucky. Mike Dirnt

Since dropping ‘American Idiot’ back in 2004, Green Day have maintained the outspoken, political edge that made that record’s name. On New Year’s Eve 2023, while making a US TV show appearance, the band changed the lyric to that album’s title track from “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” to “I’m not part of a MAGA agenda”. It wasn’t the first time the band had made a swipe at Trump but it ruffled a few feathers. “Green Day goes from raging against the machine to milquetoastedly raging for it,” tweeted (or X-ed) Elon Musk, while right-wing TV channel Fox News also lambasted the band, with one commentator professing, “People are so sick of being preached at about politics from rock bands.”

“I was surprised, frankly,” Billie says of the response. “Not to give away the secrets of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, but we pre-recorded it earlier in December and on New Year’s Eve I was actually doing an event in LA with my covers band for a chimpanzee sanctuary called Project Chimps. The next day I woke up to a thousand texts, my brother was like, ‘I’m so proud of what you said – you’re not just hiding behind a keyboard’, and I was thinking, ‘Did I say something about the chimpanzees…?’ And then I remembered I changed that one word; that’s how sensitive people are. I meant what I said, but I’ve been saying it for the last six years. I’m glad it was effective. But if you have this idea that rock stars are not supposed to be political or provocative, you really really have no idea what music is to begin with.”

There’s a depressing irony to the fact that so much of ‘American Idiot’ could so easily be about the politics of today, but Green Day have always had a timelessness to their music. Even with ‘Dookie’, Tré insists the goal was to “make a record in 1994 that would sound good in 10 years time.”

For a while, when Trump was elected, Billie veered away from political commentary, seeing it as “low hanging fruit”. But on ‘Saviors’ he’s more direct, referencing very real concerns of modern-day America such as the homelessness epidemic [‘The American Dream Is Killing Me’], mass shootings [‘Living In The ‘20s’] and the opioid crisis [‘Strange Days Are Here To Stay’].

“It came more natural this time,” he says of the songs’ political leanings. “In the States and particularly in California, we have so many houseless people that are literally living in tent city; we’ve become this sort of shantytown. I haven’t seen anything quite like this since driving through Bangkok. There’s a massive fentanyl crisis that’s going on here and there’s Defund The Police, which is a terrible slogan. I understand what they’re going for but it just doesn’t make any sense. I think about information that we get and how I don’t trust the majority of things that I’ll see on social media – people’s takes on the political climate right now – because it’s a lot less reporting and more opinion that just gets [flung] around by the algorithm.

“I stopped putting political stuff on my Instagram because I wanted to create more community and not just be a parrot of propaganda,” he continues. “When it comes to certain social media and algorithms that people are on, it just causes this bigger separation. Cable news is awful. A lot of things that I write about are just things that you hear on the street. In ‘Strange Days Are Here To Stay’ when it says, ‘Everyone is racist / And the Uber’s running late’, it’s combining these two things that have nothing to do with each other. It’s like that scroll in our brain, the swipe-right world that we live in right now.”

Green Day reflect on politics in punk, latest album 'Saviors' and their epic career so far
I stopped putting political stuff on my Instagram because I wanted to create more community and not just be a parrot of propaganda. Billie Joe Armstrong

Green Day’s platform in part comes thanks to the DIY punk community from which they were raised. Their first ever show as teenagers was at notable Berkeley punk venue Gilman St in 1986 – a place who famously banned them when they “sold out” and signed to a major (but welcomed the band back to play a one-off show in 2015). With grassroots venues being such a huge part of Green Day’s story, it’s hard to see so many of them under threat.

“It’s really difficult for mid-level bands right now,” says Billie. “They’re not able to pay their rent. Streaming works well for us because we’re a massive band, but to try to be able to sustain a living off of being a band that has 100,000 followers is nearly impossible. And then there’s gas prices, hotel rooms, venues that are taking a percentage of the merch – it’s just not sustainable. There are great venues like The Smell [in Los Angeles] and Gilman that are volunteer-run which is a great thing. I hope more of that pops up in the future.”

It’s hard to imagine doing anything for thirty-five years and still enjoying it. But Green Day seem to still have as much fire in their bellies as when they started out. On their upcoming tour the band are bringing out old Gilman Street pals Rancid, along with The Linda Lindas; a group who represent a whole new wave of punk.

“I want to see a new generation of bands making their own scene,” says the frontman. “That’s what my experience was. I loved all of the classic punk rock from CBGBs and ‘70s UK punk. But towards the late ‘80s, I also wanted to be a part of something new, which was playing with bands like Operation Ivy and Rancid – that was my scene. So for new bands, I want to see them appreciating the past, but also creating new fanzines, new bands and backyard parties. I see it now a lot, and it’s really exciting.”

“This is the beginning of another era. Not to burn Taylor Swift, but she can’t have that word!” jokes Tré. “But it is. It’s a whole new time for Green Day. It’s great to look back and be grateful for the 30 years of ‘Dookie’ and 20 years of ‘American Idiot’. But I see this as sort of a whole new thing. I’m just really proud of it. The record’s sensational.”

“For some reason, we’re always able to create the next era and it has become so generational. I think it’s the energy of the music, the way we play together,” ponders Billie. “It’s me, Mike and Tré – our own characters that all shine.” “We believe in the power of rock‘n’roll,” adds Mike. “When everything else in the world is going to shit, the three of us can get in a room and have a language of our own. Everybody else should be so lucky.”

With a sold-out stadium tour this summer that promises to play ‘Dookie’ in full as well as give ‘Saviors’ its first proper airing, there’s plenty to look forward to. “We just made the best rock record of the year. We’re also the best live act you can see. Not to mention our incredible good looks and how nice we are,” quips Tré.

All now in their early fifties, Green Day are hardly elder statesmen of rock when you pit them against a band like The Rolling Stones, but they’re no young bucks either. Does the idea of still rocking out at 80 like Jagger appeal? “Oh yeah! He’s a handsome devil. A fine wine,” chuckles Tré.

Billie pauses for thought. “I would like to be doing it that long, yeah,” he nods. “I think I’m a lifer when it comes to making music. You never know what’s going to happen but every morning I wake up and I’m like, ‘Yep, still alive. Let’s have band practice.’”

‘Saviors’ is out now via Reprise.

Tags: Green Day, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the March 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

Read More

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Stay Updated!

Get the best of DIY to your inbox each week.