The Sound Of A Revolution

Green Day’s Oakland, CA, studio is about what you’d expect from one of the world’s biggest rock bands. The fenced-in complex includes a Ping-Pong table, outdoor weight room, vending machines, vinyl library, huge motorcycle garage, basketball hoop, and almost anything else a young punk could want. About the only thing it doesn’t have is its own tattoo artist. Bummer—because the place would have been an amazing source of inspiration.

The indoor and outdoor walls are covered in an incredible graffiti shrine to the Bay Area trio. In the same way the band mixed their ambitious new album, 21st Century Breakdown, within, designer Chris Bilheimer’s art was born and crafted on the outside, along the walls. “The cover of the record was actually made from a 12 by-12-inch stencil. It took [Bilheimer] about 10,000 years to cut out and spray and then take pictures of it,” bassist Mike Dirnt says, laughing. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Those visuals are already—or will soon be—inked forever on the men whose music inspired Bilheimer’s art. Dirnt, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, and drummer Tre Cool are like walking billboards of their band’s history. And why the hell not? More than two decades into their careers, they’ve experienced plenty, becoming the biggest band on the planet with ’94’s Dookie, falling into self-described valleys, and reemerging as bona fide rock auteurs with 2004’s American Idiot. Green Day have morphed from pop-punk kids into what Armstrong calls “the most socially conscious band out there.”

And on the stunning new 21st Century Breakdown, they’ve done it all while mixing the trademark Green Day hooks and fired-up anthemic rock with some of their most audacious and complex arrangements yet. It’s a worthy successor to the world’s first punk rock opera, and an album the band—and their fans—should be damn proud to get tattooed all over them. INKED visited the band in the Bay Area to talk to each member about tattoos, family, rock stardom, and The Who.

INKED: When did you get your first tattoo?

BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: I was 18 and in Memphis, TN. It was one of the Madball faces from our first album. A guy named Rocky tattooed it.

What’s your favorite tattoo that you have?

My favorite tattoo would have to be the photo booth ones of [my wife] Adrienne and me.

Who do you go to these days to get tattooed?

Bonnie Dobbin in Canada.

Did anyone in your family have tattoos? How did they react to yours?

My dad, brother, and sister have them, so nobody really reacted.

Let’s talk about the new album. Did the success of American Idiot give you the confidence to really challenge yourself on 21st Century Breakdown?

I think it was everything. The success definitely had something where you felt, like, free to do it. And the bar was raised so high, it’s like, we gotta go for it—we can’t let ourselves down.

One Green Day album that never got the respect it was due was Warning.

Around Warning, we started to develop more and more. And we’re naturally evolving, not trying to force evolution, which is cool. What we were known for back in, like, ’94 was being the slacker band. Now I feel like we’re known as being the most socially conscious band out there. It’s like we’re going from one extreme to the other within a period of 12 to 15 years.

American Idiot came out a decade after Dookie, and yet you were able to create something that transcended pop music to become part of pop culture. Very few artists ever do that twice. How do you think you were able to do it 10 years apart?

I don’t know. When you make a record you make sure there’s no stone left unturned, and I think when you’re writing from a political standpoint, what’s important, for me, is that you have to write from the same place that you would write a love song. Even on the new record, it goes from “Christian’s Inferno” to the song “Last Night on Earth.” One is one of the angriest and most diabolic songs I’ve ever written, and the other is the most pulling-at-your-heartstrings, romantic song that I’ve ever written in my life. I think that’s where purity comes from. When I hear a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” there’s something in it that I can reflect on, about myself. And that’s why people feel like, “That’s my song. I want that song to be played at my funeral. I want that song to be played at my wedding, or I want that song played at my graduation.” We’ve been really lucky in the fact that we’ve been able to do that.

So what Green Day songs would you pick to play at a wedding, graduation, and funeral?

“Time of Your Life” is a song that’s always been played at graduations and funerals, it seems. [Laughs.] I would have to say for a wedding, “Last Night on Earth” would be really great. And a funeral? “See the Light.” That’s a good one.

What did producer Butch Vig bring to the process of making 21st Century Breakdown?

Butch brought a sense of calm, fearlessness, and encouragement to the whole process. He was never daunted once by anything that was going on, even when we were going, “Oh my god, are we going too far?” He always had a sense of calm, a sense of class, and sort of like a quiet storm about him. I think he’s the only man for the job for 21st Century Breakdown. He got everybody in a calm place, he got me feeling like I could write: “Don’t look at the outside pressures. We’re all here, and let’s crack open a bottle of wine, and let’s make a kick-ass rock album.” Sitting down with him and reading my lyrics was a big thing because as I was reading the lyrics to everybody the concept of the record started to unfold, and everyone was seeing that there are different things that are happening and different themes that are reoccurring. And Butch really identified with that stuff and tried to make it hit home even harder.

So you went over the lyrics rather than just letting them come through the music?

Oh yeah. I didn’t know how important a role the lyrics were gonna take, but I think for us it became probably the most important part, arguably. But I’m slightly biased because I did write them all. [Laughs.] The content of it was just there, and the themes of Christian and Gloria were all there and it was great.

You played the American Idiot album in its entirety on select tour dates. Will you do the same on this tour for 21st Century Breakdown?

I think we’ll do it here and there, for sure. We just played in San Francisco, and we played the album from beginning to end. And I kind of look at it as rock ‘n’ roll theater in a lot of ways. All the dynamics to it—it feels really good to play. It’s getting better and better.

Are there songs from your catalog you’ve developed a different appreciation for—or that you’re really excited to play live?

We played “Jesus of Suburbia” the other day, and that really stretched out our brains to start tackling new arrangements for 21st Century Breakdown and to be unpredictable in sort of arranging a song. So that song really made a lot of sense playing with the new album.

The American Idiot musical opens in Berkeley, CA, in September. In the annals of Green Day history, where does having your own musical rank?

It’s probably one of the coolest things to happen in my career. For the first time we feel like we’re going into new territory, and very few people have actually been able to do something like this. And we’re doing it with Michael Mayer, who did Spring Awakening, which was really groundbreaking and really cutting edge. It gave a kick in the ass to the whole art form of musicals. The first time I heard they were going to do it, I thought, This is so crazy it just might work. And actually watching it, I was like, This is fucking genius, man. So this goes beyond an award; this is like art.

Will any of the songs from 21st Century Breakdown be included?

Yeah. “Before the Lobotomy” is one song, “Know Your Enemy,” “21 Guns,” and I think that’s it. So those three made it into the musical for now.

When people talk about 21st Century Breakdown two decades from now, what do you want them to say?

For me, people should look at it as a great era for Green Day and a record that people look back on and say, “That was one of the best rock records of all time.” That’s what you hope for, that’s what you reach for, and that’s why we did it—to make one of the best albums ever made.

INKED: When did you get your first tattoo?

MIKE DIRNT: I got my first tattoo the night I lost my virginity. I was 10.

What was it?

My first tattoo was a question mark on my ankle. My friend Razzle did it.

Did anyone in your family have tattoos?

My mom and sister have tattoos on their knuckles. When I got my first tattoo, their reaction was, “It’s about time.”

What was it?

My first tattoo was a question mark on my ankle. My friend Razzle did it.

Did anyone in your family have tattoos?

My mom and sister have tattoos on their knuckles. When I got my first tattoo, their reaction was, “It’s about time.”

What’s the craziest Green Day tattoo you’ve ever seen?

The craziest tattoo had to be a heart hand grenade on the head of a penis.

Who do you go to these days to get tattooed?

Mark Mahoney at Shamrock Social Club.

Have you seen him lately?

My wife just tattooed my name inside of her lip. Mahoney did it. It was the first lip tattoo he’d ever done. He did it once before, but it actually came all the way out—then he did it again. Now he’s done two on the same person.Your wife must be really tough.

She’s a pretty tough cookie. She had an 8-pound baby boy and she’s tiny. So she’s pretty badass.

If you got a tattoo in your lip, what would you get?

I’d probably just do something like “Punk.” I’m a punk in both senses of the word. I don’t know—I’d probably write my wife’s name. Fair is fair. Why not? I’ll one-up her; I’ll tattoo my eye.

What’s the next tattoo for you?

I’m gonna get my son’s name on my arm, next to my daughter’s name. We just haven’t had time yet. I’m thinking next week maybe I can fly down.

Once you start the tour it’s pretty extensive.

We don’t fuck around! [Laughs.]

Most bands also don’t have the balls to say, “We want to be the biggest and best band in the world.” Was there a moment when you realized you wanted those titles?

You start off when you’re a young kid wanting to be the greatest thing since sliced cheese. You want to be a rock star, you want to rock a million, trillion people and have a blast doing it. And after we got there and got really big, we saw some peaks, and then dropped back into the valleys. It’s easy to lose sight of what you want. And sometimes you gotta kind of lose it to want to regain it. So we did have a point where we said, “Fuck it, dude. Let’s just go for it.” That was where we started with American Idiot and at the end of that touring cycle we felt, We’re only gonna get one chance to follow this one up. Maybe American Idiot gave us the audacity and the courage to think that we could follow it up in a grand scheme, or still keep writing the best songs and try to get to another level. I’m glad we went for it. I love going in the studio and banging out punk rock records too. That’s part of what the Foxboro Hot Tubs thing was—just banging out trashy garage band stuff and knocking out most of those songs in a night. But you want to keep bettering yourself, and we got to a point where we just said, “Let’s go for it.” And maybe having a kid had a little bit to do with it. But I think you set a hell of an example for your kids and for yourself when you show them that if you’ve got a fucking dream, and you’ve got something you want to go after, then it’s worth working for. And nothing worth doing is ever easy.

Do you feel like a rock star at this point?

Fuck yeah, I do.

Was there a first rock star moment for you?

Yes, there was. I was eating at a restaurant in New York called Peasant and I was talking to the waitress. She said, “I bought my husband a ’60s Mustang bass.” And I go, “That’s a really fucking cool thing to get him.” I gave her a guitar pick and told her to give it to her husband. She said, “Actually, my husband’s the chef.” So I went over and talked to him for a minute. The guy was supercool. I was sitting there with four or five friends, we even had wine, I said we wanted the check and she goes, “Oh, you’re good, the chef got you.” Wow, what a great return on my guitar pick. Are you kidding me, man? That’s got to be the most a guitar pick has ever gone for.

Were your friends impressed?

That’s why I felt like a rock star. My friend turned to me and he goes, “Wow. That was pretty badass, Mike.” I’m like, “You’re telling me. That was cool.”What does it take to be a rock star?

Part of being a rock star is tapping into your inner kid, just getting up there and wanting to jump around and have fun and play. I’m no virtuoso. We’re a punk band, but we know our way around our instruments pretty good. Yeah, I make mistakes here and there, but at the end of the day I get most of them right. You just get up there and you swing for the fences every night—you don’t leave anything out there onstage. You pour everything into it every night and when you’re done, if there’s nothing left on the stage, you know you did your job right and you had a fucking blast doing it.

Do you still feel like that punk band that started more than two decades ago on Lookout! Records?

Yeah, I do. We are that band. But to the same degree it’s just a part of us. I think if you take each individual of this band and the sum of all of our parts, it’s probably a lot more complex than even we know about. [There are] a lot of different parts to each one of us, whether it’s just the type of music that we like to play or the range of emotions and how we all express them and everything.

All of the songs on 21st Century Breakdown follow two characters, Gloria and Christian. What do they mean to you?

There are times where you feel very connected to your ideology and to your beliefs. And there are other times where they are so questioned through life, or whatever else you have going on, that you just fall into this nihilistic, fuck everything sort of attitude that goes with it. And that’s a fully rounded person, if you ask me. So give me some drugs and fix it. [Laughs.]

INKED: When did you get your first tattoo?

TRE COOL: I was 20 years old. It was something goofy done by Rangoon Ricky in Vallejo, CA.

Who do you go to these days to get tattooed?

Kat Von D did the last one. It’s the “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” one.

Did anyone in your family have tattoos?

My dad started getting tattoos when he turned 50. He started getting Green Day tattoos. He has something from every record.

What art did he get for this new album?

He hasn’t got it yet. I’m not sure what he’s gonna get. He’s got a lot of canvas left on him, though. And we’ve got a lot of records to make, so hopefully he keeps his tradition up. [Laughs.]

What did he get for American Idiot?

He got the grenade. It’s the whole thing; he got the hand holding the grenade.

Do you guys have any matching tattoos at this point?

Oh no, not so much. Me and my mom both have a cobra on our neck—no. [Laughs.]

Your parents definitely sound supportive. Was there a moment when they realized this was not just a dream, but that you were going to be able to do this for a living?

They were always supportive and they knew I was gonna do it regardless. My dad’s always giving me advice like, “Hey, keep it together. Do your thing, do what makes you happy.”

What’s the next tattoo going to be?

I’ve got a couple of Banksy tattoos, the graffiti artist from England. One is a little girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon, and the other is a TV flying out of a window. And there’s another Banksy I’d like to get, which is rats that are like bouncers. They’re standing outside a rat hole with a red rope and there’s a little red carpet coming out. I was thinking of putting that somewhere over my heart or something, to guard the entrance to my heart. I don’t know what I’m gonna get. I still have to pay Kat Von D for the tattoo on my arm. She said it’s not finished yet and I have to come in, but I’m a fucking pussy when I get tattooed, so I like to procrastinate.

So what was the most painful tattoo?

There’s an anchor on my wrist. I was in Oakland getting it and I was like, “Oh, let me get some air, take a break.” I went outside and just passed out on the fucking sidewalk, on Broadway, in Oakland. This homeless dude runs up: “Yeah, he’s gone into shock. He needs a Coke or something. Give him some sugar.” I passed all the way out.

What’s the craziest Green Day tattoo you’ve ever seen?

I once saw this really skinny girl that had realistic portraits of each of us from our publicity photos shot by Marina Chavez.

Speaking of fans, the show last night was great.

Oh thanks, we had fucking fun. That was good. We went up with a set list for the first half, jumped offstage. I pissed in the alley, then came back in and took requests. It was pretty fun.

When you get back to playing arenas will you still be able to do things like bring fans up on the stage, or is that more of a small venue thing?

No, I think we always like to break down the barriers between audience and the band. It might be inviting them to come play with us, we might go down there with them—nothing’s really planned. Even when we go in the big arenas it might have a little more structure and production on some levels, but everyone’s just ready for anything.

What’s the first concert you went to?

The first concert I ever went to I was actually playing in the opening band. I grew up in remote wilderness, so we went to Berkeley, and we played with NoMeansNo, Mr. T Experience, Sweet Baby Jesus, and Victor’s Family. My band, The Lookouts, opened. Fucking amazing! And I got to stand behind the drummer of NoMeansNo and watch him play. To this day he’s still one of my favorite drummers.

Who else is on your list of favorite drummers?

Oh, there’s Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, of course Gene Krupa. Buddy Rich was phenomenal. But then I love the unsung heroes—like the dude from Generation X was amazing. All the drummers from AC/DC have been killer. I think they just laid it down. And I appreciate, like, Ringo—drummers that can be unselfish with their playing, choose their moments wisely, and lay it down for the song.

Who is on the wish list of bands you’ve never seen but would love to?

I recently saw The Who and they fucking kicked ass. I saw them in Los Angeles at the Nokia Theatre. We were stoked. We got to stand pretty close to the stage. Pete Townshend is a force, man. I’ve always loved his records, but to see him live for the first time and be standing in front of a guitar amp and hear him shredding is really a pleasure. And then Zak Starkey was on the drums and he was the perfect drummer for The Who. I was blown away by them.

You mention Pete Townshend. Is there anybody who made you starstruck?

When I met Mick Jagger I was starstruck, when I met Paul McCartney I was starstruck, and when I met Pete Townshend I was starstruck. Those are the three times I’ve felt a little awkward about meeting somebody because of being a fan. So that’s pretty cool.

When did you meet Jagger for the first time?

We were in Canada and we were invited to watch them practice. We watched them at rehearsal and after, he came up and said, “Yeah, it’s great to meet you.” He’s a knight and a gentleman. [Laughs.]

They always take out amazing opening bands. Would you ever open for them just for the sake of playing with the Stones?

Oh, yeah. I would like to play with them. That would be great. I think I’d rather just go see them and not have to worry about putting on our show and playing with them. [Laughs.] They have a great list of bands that opened for them. On this American tour we’re taking out some pretty amazing bands. We’ve got The Bravery on the first leg, we’ve got Franz Ferdinand, and then we’ve got Kaiser Chiefs on the other leg. We’re taking bands we really like out on the road and making sure it’s a kick-ass show. All three of those bands are just smoking live.

Are there any songs from the new album that have become favorites to play live?

“East Jesus Nowhere” rocks balls. It’s probably one of my favorite songs right now just ’cause it’s just so hammering. It kinda hits on a lot of levels for me.

In “See the Light” Billie sings, “I just need to know what’s worth the fight.” What is worth fighting for, to you?

What do you got? I’d fight for this band, fight for your right to party, fight for music, fight for art, fight for your relationships. You know—fight for your family.

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