Interview: Billie Joe Armstrong Part One

Interview: Billie Joe Armstrong Part One

Continue to Part Two

I had quite a lengthy conversation with Billie Joe toward the end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002, and this is the first part of it.  I think this originally appeared in Hit List.  Could have been Punk Planet, but I’m pretty sure it was Hit List.

It’s been thirteen years since the first time I saw Green Day, and I’ve already told the story so many times that I won’t dwell on it again.  Suffice it to say that I was completely bowled over by these young kids who’d only been a band for a few weeks, who had just come on a wild goose chase of nearly 200 miles to play a gig in a freezing mountain cabin for about five bored teenagers, and still managed to pull it off as though they were the Beatles at Shea Stadium.  I’m not going to claim I knew how big they were going to get a few years down the line, or how their success would change the punk rock scene forever.  I just knew that bands like this didn’t come along very often.

Green Day were by far the most famous band to come out of the East Bay and Gilman Street scene, but they were only a part of that scene, a scene which itself has reshaped the ideals and image of punk rock in ways that, depending who you’re listening to, might be for better or worse.  Billie Joe Amstrong, guitarist and lead singer for Green Day, more or less grew up at Gilman Street, and both of us count the years we spent there as among the most important of our lives.  I had the honor of working with Green Day for their first two albums, before they moved on to Reprise Records and megaplatinum superstardom.  Their drummer, Tre Cool, is an alumnus of my punk rock band, the Lookouts.  A lot of stuff has gone on since 1988, and one day last summer, Billie Joe and I sat down to have a talk about it all.

Okay, you’re coming up on your 30th birthday. The 20s are a pretty tumultuous decade for most people.  It’s when they get started with life on their own, when they make all sorts of choices and all sorts of mistakes.  And looking back on your 20s, you probably carried that to an extreme.  When you were turning 20, your second album, Kerplunk, had just come out, you were part of a band that was starting to get some attention, but still playing a lot of garages and basements and small clubs.  You might have been making enough money to keep you alive, but barely enough to call it making a living.  I’d like you to think about the contrast between then and now, and how you got from there to here…  It’s an obvious question, but could you even have imagined what the next ten years were going to bring for you?

I think at the time I felt kind of bum-rushed to think about my future.  A lot of it had to do with being in Europe.  It was our first time in Europe, we were doing the squats and pub gigs with Christy Colcord and Aidan, and, you know, it was just kind of scary.  I think all of us were scared because we didn’t know what our future was going to be at all.  Reaching 20 was scary, too, because I was like, “Holy shit, I’m not a teenager anymore.”  I felt old, which is ridiculous to think about now, but back then we felt like things had to start moving or something for us.

Are we talking about the typical thing a 20 year old goes through, “What am I going to do for a living, I can’t live with Mom and Dad anymore”?  Or was it more about “What’s going to happen with my music?”

That’s what a lot of it was about.  There’s a side of you that feels you’re kind of dying or something, and you’re scared of that, but then there’s the question of what’s going to happen with this music, this work we’re gonna do? Is it only going to be cool right now to the punk rock scene, or uncool to the punk rock scene, depending who you talk to?  Is it just going to be forgotten, and another group of guys will come along and take our place?  You really start to think about your potential as a musician and an artist, and as a human being, for that matter.  You don’t want it to be all for nothing, and I think that’s one thing that was different with us than with other bands.  We lived for our music a lot more than other bands did.  Other bands seemed more set on things like going to school and playing music on the side, or having a job and playing music on the side, where we wanted to fully live and breathe our music…

You’ve said in the past that you didn’t really have anything else besides your music…

That’s true.  And we were all really passionate about it.  We weren’t just pretending, we weren’t just trying to be punk rockers, we were also good musicians.  But at some point you start thinking, you can’t do this forever, can you?  So you want to get as much out of it as you possibly can…

You’d sold about 10,000 records, which in those days was pretty good for the underground punk scene, but was hardly enough to base a career on.  Did you have any real doubts about whether you were going to be able to keep playing music, maybe even make a living at it?

At that point I’d been playing music my whole life anyway.  I knew that I would end up playing music regardless…

…of whether you got paid or not?

Yeah.  I just didn’t want to be one of those guys driving around in a car with a bumper sticker that said “Real Musicians Have Day Jobs.”

Yeah, those really piss me off.  It’s like you’re saying “I’m a genius, the world just doesn’t understand me,” and I’m like, “If you’re such a genius, how come nobody else seems to realize it?”

Even after all the success we’ve had, I’ve stayed active in the punk scene, and I’ve really had the choice of whether or not I wanted to.  I still have that choice: I could be just some bloated rock star or I could keep busy helping my friend’s bands out, things like playing bass with the Influents, putting out records by bands that I respect…  I don’t have to do that, obviously…

On the other hand, what about the appeal of being a bloated rock star?  Have you checked that scene out as well?

That sounds more like dying…

I was being slightly sarcastic…

Seriously, though, that doesn’t sound like any fun at all to me.

I’d like to come back to the concept of bloated rock stars later, but you brought up something else I wanted to touch on, which was your connection with the punk scene while at the same time being a musician.  Put it this way: when I met you, you were 16, had long hair, smoked a lot of pot.  You didn’t fit the image of a punk.  You came across more as a kid who just loved to play music.  So I’d like to find out a little more about how you got to that point, what you’d been doing in the years before I met you, what made Billie who he was…

I was a singer from a very young age, I was singing these sort of Brat Pack songs, you know.  My dad was kind of a typical Guido, he was a jazz drummer, so I think that influenced the kind of music I first got into.  It’s kind of strange, you know, an eight year old singing “Satin Doll” or something like that.

Were you pushed into it, or was it something you wanted to do on your own?

I don’t know.  I think it was a little of both.  My parents wanted my time to be occupied, and music seemed like the most natural thing that came to me.

You were the youngest child?

Yeah.

Of how many?

Six.  There were a lot of musical influences in the house.  Like my brother Alan was born in 1950, and was 18 years old in 1968, so obviously I was going to hear a lot of Beatles floating around the house.  And I was listening to a lot of heavy metal music, trying to learn how to play the guitar.

What were some of your favorite metal bands?

I liked AC-DC a lot.  I liked Van Halen.  The other night when we saw that band Red Planet, I think I was one of the only people there who knew that cover song they did, something off “Fair Warning.”  And then my sister was into more artsy stuff, anywhere from Bruce Springsteen to REM to the Replacements, and I think that became the biggest influence to me, that bridged that gap from heavy metal to punk.

But you listened to metal before punk?

Yeah.

Would you call yourself a hesher at that time?

I don’t know.  I think I had more diverse tastes.  I was more like a rocker, sort of a dirthead type kid.  I also liked Elvis, and the Beatles a lot, which at that time a lot of my friends thought was…

…old people’s music?

Yeah.  They didn’t know what that stuff was about at all.  And I had an appreciation for Frank Sinatra as well, that sort of stuff was like the classics to me, where a lot of people thought it was just corny.

Ever picture yourself doing a Frank Sinatra type thing when you get older?

I’ve been asked.  I got asked to do a version of “Witchcraft” for the Oceans 11 sound track – they’re remaking it, you know.  And I was like, “I know ‘Witchcraft,’ I’ve known it my entire life.”

The kind of stuff your dad played, right?

That, yeah, but also stuff like Herbie Hancock, that song “Watermelon Man…”  I remember seeing this old guy that would come to my house who had this big goatee, he’d play saxophone and he had one fake leg, I think his name was Al or something like that, and he’d always be like, in this raspy old voice, “Hey, Billie, how ya doin’?”

So this was not like some conventional suburban home, exactly?

No.  It’s weird, because my parents are kind of conventional people.  But my parents were also a lot older than other people’s parents.  I remember my dad was like 50 when I was really young, when my friends’ parents were like 30.  So maybe that’s why there was a lot of jazz and country music floating around the house.

Was it mainly about music, or were they old school bohemians or beatniks?

They were pretty conventional socially and morally.  But they had different tastes.  There were some things that were pretty cool about it.  My mom would talk about how back in the 50s they would work all week so they could go out and buy the nicest clothes and then go to the Melody Club on the weekends.  I think that’s kind of cool, in a way.  My dad looked really sharp all the time, always had good suits and stuff, and he couldn’t even afford it.

Yeah, I was going to say, with six kids there couldn’t have been a lot of money floating around the house…

No. But that was much earlier.  By the time I was growing up in the 70s, my dad was spending a lot of time on picket lines.  He was a Teamster, driving trucks for Safeway, and it seemed like he was on strike, holding signs up in front of Safeway every other month.

Was it just basic labor union kind of stuff, or was he political in a larger sense?

No, he wasn’t political at all.  It was more like union, working class guys trying to get their due.

So there must have been some hard times…

Yeah, a lot of my friends lived with their parents up to their late 20s, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  If you look at it, they have a solid background where their parents care about them and all, but I was out of the house by the time I was 17.  And I’m kind of thankful for that now, because in a weird way it probably turned me into an over-achiever.  I felt I had to fight more for the things I wanted.  And watching my mom work so much, too, I think, affected my way of looking at this band, the ethics of working with it…

With your dad being in and out of work all the time, I guess a lot of the financial burden fell on your mom…

Oh yeah.  I rarely saw my mom because she was working graveyard shifts at a 24 hour diner.  It was hard on her, but she had to do it.  One thing I’m grateful for is that I’m able to take care of her more now.  It wasn’t easy back then.  There was a lot of yelling and stuff that went on in the house.  My mom was so…  you know, she had to work a lot, so she sort of left the teenagers to take care of home…

You touch on that subject in one of your more famous lines, where your mom says to get a job, but “she don’t like the one she’s got…”

Yeah.  Sometimes I feel bad for that line…

It was kind of touching, I thought.  You could picture her trudging home from a really hard shift and looking at a whole houseful of responsibilities and kids… You got the feeling life hadn’t treated her all that well…

Yeah.  She… There’s one thing I have to say about my mom, that she’s a survivor.  She’s been through a lot, she’s been through a lot of husbands, she’s been through dead husbands, and to this day, she still wants to work.  She still works as a waitress.  She could quit any time she wants, but it’s part of her life.  Every place she worked at, those customers ended up going with her.  Some of these customers, she’s had for like 40 years.  It’s pretty cool, in a way.  It’s kind of funny how her hard work turned into her social life at the same time.  She started writing, said she was going to write a book about how to be a good waitress, and I thought that was the coolest idea.  She never really went through with it.  I think she’s pretty self-conscious about anything that has to do with being smart, because she had to quit school to take care of her family…

Speaking of leaving school, how far did you get in school?

I got to the middle of 12th grade.  And quit.

So you never graduated high school?  You’re not a good advertisement for the value of education?

I want to go back to school…

Back to high school?

Well, I’d probably get my GED….

You think you could pass it now?

I think so.  I hope so.

What happens if your own kids get to 11th or 12th grade and start arguing, “Well, you didn’t graduate high school and you did all right, why should I?”  I guess you could always fall back on the old standby of, “Because I said so, and I’m your dad.”  Anyway, were you one of those kids who just showed up for class but didn’t really pay that much attention?

I have a way of not paying attention some times…

Had you gotten much out of school, or were you getting passed through the years just because you were there?

I think I just wasn’t into it.  I probably could have done the work if I applied myself, but I just was not interested at all.

What were you interested in then?

I was interested in the punk scene at that point.  I was learning so much more through going to Gilman Street, and hearing the songs… either the personal ones or the political ones…  I talked to Aaron Elliott (Ed. Note: aka writer/zine publisher Aaron Cometbus) about this once, and he was of the opinion that not only can people work out their aggressions through punk rock, but they can become really educated on top of that.  Going to Gilman, and seeing how militant the politics were about racism and sexism, that was the first time I’d thought about some of that stuff.

How do you account for the fact that some people seem to get dumber through punk whereas others get smarter?

I think you can get really dumb being jaded.  I don’t know.  I’ve seen a lot of my friends get dumber.  Like I think Lucky Dog (Ed. Note: Former bassist for the group Fifteen, now deceased) got really dumb.

That’s the kind of thing I was thinking about, not him in particular, but after the East Bay pop-punk scene got big, there seemed to be this reaction against it, where the old school punks were saying, “I’m not going to sing nice songs, I’m going to be really hardcore, dirty and nasty, I’m gonna do hard drugs and be miserable,” and that seemed to become the new ruling esthetic of the East Bay scene.  A lot of our friends went down that way, and some of them didn’t come back…  What do you think accounts for that?

Like you said, a lot of people were reacting to what happened with us.  The funny thing was, everything we were doing, we were being heartfelt about it, we were singing love songs because that’s what we felt like.  That’s what was in my heart.  And I think that creeps people out a little bit.  Vulnerability really creeps people out.  I had friends who were really into my band, not just musically, but on a friendship level too, and when things started happening for us, they changed…  Started acting more distant. Of course, there were always a lot of hardcore bands, I mean we were one of the only bands who were that poppy at that time, besides maybe Sweet Baby or Mr. T Experience…

Sewer Trout…

Yeah, and maybe even Crimpshrine… Like a song like “Pretty Mess” is a really heartfelt song…

Oh yeah, that’s what really made them, in my opinion, the way that despite the slightly crusty overtones, they spoke and sang from the heart…

Yeah, totally.  I think there was a problem with drugs coming into the scene.  People were getting heavily into speed, and then graduated from that and started getting into heroin.  It was a really ugly time.  I have to say that I indulged in that scene myself at one time, but something scary was happening.  My friends were showing signs that this was not just a party anymore, this wasn’t just experimenting, this was a full-on lifestyle and they were going to take it to the bitter end.  People started turning into just, kind of skeletons.  They were walking dead people.  And you know, I had responsibilities.  I had two kids.  I couldn’t afford to turn into that.

But it’s usually people like you who are expected to turn into drug burnouts.  You’ve got the money and the free time; you could just hang out and do drugs all day and yet you made the choice not to.  A lot of the people we’re talking about, some of our old friends, they’re barely getting by, it’s a hard enough struggle for them to survive, let alone take on the burden of being a junkie.  Whereas other people at the street level of the punk scene kept on working and growing.  What do you think accounts for such different things coming out of what was once all the same scene?

You know, I don’t know.  I think a lot of drug dealers started noticing what was going on at the time…

Yeah, but drug dealers can’t make somebody buy their stuff if they don’t want to…  You brought up Lucky Dog, and I was thinking back when he wrote a letter to Lookout zine, when he was still in high school, something like 1987.  And he was this fun-loving, goofy, kid.  It was kind of a silly letter, but he was writing about his band, No Dogs…

Which I tried out for…  They didn’t want me…

And it was just so sad to see him over the years get really bitter and self-destructive…

Yeah, he was also politically active, he was doing collage art, sort of Reagan-era protest art.  A lot of people from that scene were really smart, and vital.  I don’t know, Lucky just had one of those personalities where he was getting addicted.  Drugs to some people just become a disease after a while.  I think it just ate away at him.

How close did you come to getting addicted to drugs?

I think I was addicted to partying a little bit, but the older I got, the more I realized that I couldn’t handle drugs.  Because what people get addicted to is not only the high, but the low.  They’re into the low.  But I can barely handle it when I’m coming down from coffee.

You get depressed?

No, I just feel terrible.  Like I drink a really strong cup of coffee, and after a while, I’m like, ewww, I feel like vomiting.  Ok, occasionally I get a little stupid, and want to go out and pretend I’m still 21, and end up feeling like shit the next day.  But I think I learned from my hangovers that this isn’t as fun as it once was…

Your fourth album, Insomniac, seems to be riddled with drug influences or references.  Maybe it’s just me reading something into it, but it really felt like that.  It was probably your darkest album, and you mentioned amphetamine directly in one of the songs…

Yeah.  That was during the time when I saw a lot of my friends going down that route, doing dope.  It just was scary.  At the same time, I indulged here and there.  For some of that stuff…  I was on drugs when I wrote some of those songs.  It was a rough time for me, but I’m lucky enough to be one of the people who learned from that experience and moved on, where other people just got addicted and more addicted and more addicted until it killed them.

It didn’t sound like a happy record.  That always made me wonder, because by rights it should have been one of the best times in your life.  You’d just become international superstars, sold 10 or 20 million records.  All your dreams had come true, and then you come out with this dark and brooding album that sounds like, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I even want to go on…”

At the time I think I was really worried about what people thought of me, because there was so much of a backlash against us.  Thinking back, I sometimes feel I should have just taken more time to look for myself, and to spend with my new baby and my wife.  I should have taken that time and reflected a little more.  But I was reacting so much to things that were happening around me.  I was really confused.  I’d been married for a little over a year, a lot of people were acting really strange around me, I wasn’t a guy who was just part of the crowd anymore.  Even the people who were closest to me, it seemed like they didn’t know how to act around me.  Friends were telling me things like, “Well, I don’t want to bother you…”  That’s part of why I wasn’t seeing so much of my friends anymore.  So suddenly I just felt alone, and I got really self-conscious about the mainstream acceptance of my band.  People didn’t hesitate to tell me I was doing the wrong thing, and I thought, holy shit, all I was doing was living up to my potential as a musician.

Could you give me an example of somebody who had you convinced you were doing the wrong thing, or was doing a good job of convincing you of that?

It was a lot of people.  At the same time, my tastes were getting more into harder-sounding music.  It felt like such a bleak time.  But for example, the things that Maximum Rocknroll was saying, sort of leaking over into what the people from Spin magazine were saying, to what the people at Rolling Stone were saying.  This sort of crunch started happening.  I never really hid the fact that it bothered me, and I think it really came out, and I reacted to it.  And it came across in the music.

Did you feel you had something to prove then, that you were going to make an album that was more “difficult,” not as poppy and accessible?

Um, even though I think there’s a lot of that element to that record, it’s still very poppy…

Sure, but not by comparison with the earlier records…

Yeah.  I think I was just lost.  I couldn’t find the strength to convince myself that what I was doing was a good thing.  I was in a band that was huge because it was supposed to be huge, because our songs were that good.  I couldn’t ever feel like I was doing the right thing, because it felt like I was making so many people angry.  That’s where I got so confused, and it became really stupid.  I would never want to live that part of my life over again.  Ever.

The years when you made all sorts of money and were internationally famous, being mobbed wherever you went?  That sounds like every kid’s dream…

And had a child, and married the girl of my dreams…

So all of this great stuff was happening to you, and yet you say you’d never want to live it over again.

Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to react that way.  I was too afraid that I might not be doing the right thing.  A lot of that anger, well that was a disguise.  What was really happening was that I was scared, and that I was really sad that I couldn’t go back to where I came from.

Like that song, “86.”  “There’s no return…”

Yeah.  People say that was a dark and angry period for me, but what was really happening was that I was sad, really sad.  But the good side was that I was able to work it out.  And I had a lot to work out.  Hell, I was like 24 years old…

A difficult age…

Yeah.  I remember Shane, from Dead and Gone, he was going through a similar period, and one day he said, “What are we doing, man?  We’re not kids anymore.  We can’t live our lives like this forever.”  Like, everybody living with each other, having these sort of punk houses….

Did you ever feel like asking, “Why not?”

Um, no.  Because at the time I was really freaked out, and I was asking myself, “Yeah, what are we doing?”

I guess I was thinking of that 7 Seconds song, “Young Until I Die.”  That’s at least one part of the punk ideal, isn’t it?  Refusing to grow up?

What I kind of came to is that it’s okay to grow up, it’s just slowing down that’s the scary part.  Running out of time.  It’s okay to grow up, but it doesn’t mean you have to become like your parents.

I’d like to ask you about your relationship with your first drummer, Al Sobrante (aka John Kiffmeyer).  He was an original member of the band, but left in 1990.  Were there ruffled feelings on either side about that?  It seemed like he wasn’t that supportive of the band once you started getting successful…

Well, one thing, I didn’t even hear from him that he was leaving the band.  I heard it from someone else, in passing conversation.

Really?

Yeah.  Me and Aaron Elliott were walking around in Benicia with a couple of girls – remember Stacy and Mitchell? – and Stacy was like, “Yeah, everybody’s leaving town this summer, going away to college, etc.”  and then she mentioned that John was going away to college, too.  And I’m like, “John’s leaving?  What do you mean, John’s leaving?”  And Aaron looked at me and goes, “Oh man, he didn’t tell you, did he?”  And I’m like, “No, he didn’t tell me.  Where the fuck is he going?”  That’s how I found out.  And I was hurt.  It blew me away.  One, because I had to hear it from someone else, but also because, yeah, he was a big influence to us.  We were so young, and he’s a really smart person.  We learned a lot from him.  He was already a veteran of the scene, with Isocracy.  He knew so much, and he worked really hard.  But I think he’s one of those guys who got really self-conscious about the kind of music we were playing. And he was talking to the guys in Brent’s TV about being in a band with them up in Humboldt.  That was sort of behind our back, which was really weird.  We’re the kind of people who are like, “Look, if you wanna leave, then leave.”  Just be upfront about it, and don’t bullshit me.  It was hard.  I didn’t even know if I wanted Green Day to go on after John quit.  I was really confused.

This would be not too long after your first album had come out, and you hadn’t even gone on your first big tour yet, which wasn’t till that summer…

And I had quit school.  There were a lot of things going on in my life, too.

That was the year you quit school?  So while you weren’t sure if you wanted the band to go on, it sounds like the band was the main thing you had going for you…

Yeah, but we were really confused, we didn’t know what to do.  We were angry, and we didn’t want him to leave.  We were writing new songs, and the songs were getting better…

Like which songs?

Like the songs that were on the Slappy EP, songs like “409″ and “Paper Lanterns,” “Why Do You Want Him?”  We felt like we were moving, like we were coming into our own.

Starting to get a lot of fans, too, at least on the grass roots, underground punk scene…

Yeah.  And John was responsible for a lot of that.  He did handle booking the shows and all that.  And it was time where we weren’t feeling so self-conscious anymore, where we were getting more respect from the punk scene.  And then he up and split.  That guy had the worst communication skills…

I remember him speaking to me about it at the time, and I had no idea that he hadn’t told you.  My impression was, from the way he put it, was that he needed to have this experience of going away to college, it was a part of growing up and something he really wanted to do.  But I also got the impression that he expected you guys to put the band on hold while he went to college.  Did you have the same impression?

Yeah, I did, but we were way too young and full of energy to want to wait six months or a year for someone to play gigs.  At the age of 18, that’s like half a lifetime.  We didn’t want to wait.  At the same time, I had this romantic thing in my head about how the gang doesn’t split up, and a band never splits up.  I didn’t want to look for a new member, it was too cheesy, too lame…

It seems like there was a difference separating you and Mike from John, in terms of background and expectations.  He came from a more middle class family.  Do you think because of that, the band thing was less serious to him, more of a game, something you could pick up and put down, while you guys were more like, “This band is all we’ve got…”?

Yeah.  The thing is, my education was music.  I knew I’d be playing music no matter what.  That’s all I thought about, I was obsessed with it.  I’m still obsessed with it.  It gets the best of me sometimes.

It’s been thirteen years since the first time I saw Green Day, and I’ve already told the story so many times that I won’t dwell on it again.  Suffice it to say that I was completely bowled over by these young kids who’d only been a band for a few weeks, who had just come on a wild goose chase of nearly 200 miles to play a gig in a freezing mountain cabin for about five bored teenagers, and still managed to pull it off as though they were the Beatles at Shea Stadium.  I’m not going to claim I knew how big they were going to get a few years down the line, or how their success would change the punk rock scene forever.  I just knew that bands like this didn’t come along very often.
Green Day were by far the most famous band to come out of the East Bay and Gilman Street scene, but they were only a part of that scene, a scene which itself has reshaped the ideals and image of punk rock in ways that, depending who you’re listening to, might be for better or worse.  Billie Joe Amstrong, guitarist and lead singer for Green Day, more or less grew up at Gilman Street, and both of us count the years we spent there as among the most important of our lives.  I had the honor of working with Green Day for their first two albums, before they moved on to Reprise Records and megaplatinum superstardom.  Their drummer, Tre Cool, is an alumnus of my punk rock band, the Lookouts.  A lot of stuff has gone on since 1988, and one day last summer, Billie Joe and I sat down to have a talk about it all.
Okay, you’re coming up on your 30th birthday. The 20s are a pretty tumultuous decade for most people.  It’s when they get started with life on their own, when they make all sorts of choices and all sorts of mistakes.  And looking back on your 20s, you probably carried that to an extreme.  When you were turning 20, your second album, Kerplunk, had just come out, you were part of a band that was starting to get some attention, but still playing a lot of garages and basements and small clubs.  You might have been making enough money to keep you alive, but barely enough to call it making a living.  I’d like you to think about the contrast between then and now, and how you got from there to here…  It’s an obvious question, but could you even have imagined what the next ten years were going to bring for you?
I think at the time I felt kind of bum-rushed to think about my future.  A lot of it had to do with being in Europe.  It was our first time in Europe, we were doing the squats and pub gigs with Christy Colcord and Aidan, and, you know, it was just kind of scary.  I think all of us were scared because we didn’t know what our future was going to be at all.  Reaching 20 was scary, too, because I was like, “Holy shit, I’m not a teenager anymore.”  I felt old, which is ridiculous to think about now, but back then we felt like things had to start moving or something for us.
Are we talking about the typical thing a 20 year old goes through, “What am I going to do for a living, I can’t live with Mom and Dad anymore”?  Or was it more about “What’s going to happen with my music?”
That’s what a lot of it was about.  There’s a side of you that feels you’re kind of dying or something, and you’re scared of that, but then there’s the question of what’s going to happen with this music, this work we’re gonna do? Is it only going to be cool right now to the punk rock scene, or uncool to the punk rock scene, depending who you talk to?  Is it just going to be forgotten, and another group of guys will come along and take our place?  You really start to think about your potential as a musician and an artist, and as a human being, for that matter.  You don’t want it to be all for nothing, and I think that’s one thing that was different with us than with other bands.  We lived for our music a lot more than other bands did.  Other bands seemed more set on things like going to school and playing music on the side, or having a job and playing music on the side, where we wanted to fully live and breathe our music…
You’ve said in the past that you didn’t really have anything else besides your music…
That’s true.  And we were all really passionate about it.  We weren’t just pretending, we weren’t just trying to be punk rockers, we were also good musicians.  But at some point you start thinking, you can’t do this forever, can you?  So you want to get as much out of it as you possibly can…
You’d sold about 10,000 records, which in those days was pretty good for the underground punk scene, but was hardly enough to base a career on.  Did you have any real doubts about whether you were going to be able to keep playing music, maybe even make a living at it?
At that point I’d been playing music my whole life anyway.  I knew that I would end up playing music regardless…
…of whether you got paid or not?
Yeah.  I just didn’t want to be one of those guys driving around in a car with a bumper sticker that said “Real Musicians Have Day Jobs.”
Yeah, those really piss me off.  It’s like you’re saying “I’m a genius, the world just doesn’t understand me,” and I’m like, “If you’re such a genius, how come nobody else seems to realize it?”
Even after all the success we’ve had, I’ve stayed active in the punk scene, and I’ve really had the choice of whether or not I wanted to.  I still have that choice: I could be just some bloated rock star or I could keep busy helping my friend’s bands out, things like playing bass with the Influents, putting out records by bands that I respect…  I don’t have to do that, obviously…
On the other hand, what about the appeal of being a bloated rock star?  Have you checked that scene out as well?
That sounds more like dying…
I was being slightly sarcastic…
Seriously, though, that doesn’t sound like any fun at all to me.
I’d like to come back to the concept of bloated rock stars later, but you brought up something else I wanted to touch on, which was your connection with the punk scene while at the same time being a musician.  Put it this way: when I met you, you were 16, had long hair, smoked a lot of pot.  You didn’t fit the image of a punk.  You came across more as a kid who just loved to play music.  So I’d like to find out a little more about how you got to that point, what you’d been doing in the years before I met you, what made Billie who he was…
I was a singer from a very young age, I was singing these sort of Brat Pack songs, you know.  My dad was kind of a typical Guido, he was a jazz drummer, so I think that influenced the kind of music I first got into.  It’s kind of strange, you know, an eight year old singing “Satin Doll” or something like that.
Were you pushed into it, or was it something you wanted to do on your own?
I don’t know.  I think it was a little of both.  My parents wanted my time to be occupied, and music seemed like the most natural thing that came to me.
You were the youngest child?
Yeah.
Of how many?
Six.  There were a lot of musical influences in the house.  Like my brother Alan was born in 1950, and was 18 years old in 1968, so obviously I was going to hear a lot of Beatles floating around the house.  And I was listening to a lot of heavy metal music, trying to learn how to play the guitar.
What were some of your favorite metal bands?
I liked AC-DC a lot.  I liked Van Halen.  The other night when we saw that band Red Planet, I think I was one of the only people there who knew that cover song they did, something off “Fair Warning.”  And then my sister was into more artsy stuff, anywhere from Bruce Springsteen to REM to the Replacements, and I think that became the biggest influence to me, that bridged that gap from heavy metal to punk.
But you listened to metal before punk?
Yeah.
Would you call yourself a hesher at that time?
I don’t know.  I think I had more diverse tastes.  I was more like a rocker, sort of a dirthead type kid.  I also liked Elvis, and the Beatles a lot, which at that time a lot of my friends thought was…
…old people’s music?
Yeah.  They didn’t know what that stuff was about at all.  And I had an appreciation for Frank Sinatra as well, that sort of stuff was like the classics to me, where a lot of people thought it was just corny.
Ever picture yourself doing a Frank Sinatra type thing when you get older?
I’ve been asked.  I got asked to do a version of “Witchcraft” for the Oceans 11 sound track – they’re remaking it, you know.  And I was like, “I know ‘Witchcraft,’ I’ve known it my entire life.”
The kind of stuff your dad played, right?
That, yeah, but also stuff like Herbie Hancock, that song “Watermelon Man…”  I remember seeing this old guy that would come to my house who had this big goatee, he’d play saxophone and he had one fake leg, I think his name was Al or something like that, and he’d always be like, in this raspy old voice, “Hey, Billie, how ya doin’?”
So this was not like some conventional suburban home, exactly?
No.  It’s weird, because my parents are kind of conventional people.  But my parents were also a lot older than other people’s parents.  I remember my dad was like 50 when I was really young, when my friends’ parents were like 30.  So maybe that’s why there was a lot of jazz and country music floating around the house.
Was it mainly about music, or were they old school bohemians or beatniks?
They were pretty conventional socially and morally.  But they had different tastes.  There were some things that were pretty cool about it.  My mom would talk about how back in the 50s they would work all week so they could go out and buy the nicest clothes and then go to the Melody Club on the weekends.  I think that’s kind of cool, in a way.  My dad looked really sharp all the time, always had good suits and stuff, and he couldn’t even afford it.
Yeah, I was going to say, with six kids there couldn’t have been a lot of money floating around the house…
No. But that was much earlier.  By the time I was growing up in the 70s, my dad was spending a lot of time on picket lines.  He was a Teamster, driving trucks for Safeway, and it seemed like he was on strike, holding signs up in front of Safeway every other month.
Was it just basic labor union kind of stuff, or was he political in a larger sense?
No, he wasn’t political at all.  It was more like union, working class guys trying to get their due.
So there must have been some hard times…
Yeah, a lot of my friends lived with their parents up to their late 20s, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  If you look at it, they have a solid background where their parents care about them and all, but I was out of the house by the time I was 17.  And I’m kind of thankful for that now, because in a weird way it probably turned me into an over-achiever.  I felt I had to fight more for the things I wanted.  And watching my mom work so much, too, I think, affected my way of looking at this band, the ethics of working with it…
With your dad being in and out of work all the time, I guess a lot of the financial burden fell on your mom…
Oh yeah.  I rarely saw my mom because she was working graveyard shifts at a 24 hour diner.  It was hard on her, but she had to do it.  One thing I’m grateful for is that I’m able to take care of her more now.  It wasn’t easy back then.  There was a lot of yelling and stuff that went on in the house.  My mom was so…  you know, she had to work a lot, so she sort of left the teenagers to take care of home…
You touch on that subject in one of your more famous lines, where your mom says to get a job, but “she don’t like the one she’s got…”
Yeah.  Sometimes I feel bad for that line…
It was kind of touching, I thought.  You could picture her trudging home from a really hard shift and looking at a whole houseful of responsibilities and kids… You got the feeling life hadn’t treated her all that well…
Yeah.  She… There’s one thing I have to say about my mom, that she’s a survivor.  She’s been through a lot, she’s been through a lot of husbands, she’s been through dead husbands, and to this day, she still wants to work.  She still works as a waitress.  She could quit any time she wants, but it’s part of her life.  Every place she worked at, those customers ended up going with her.  Some of these customers, she’s had for like 40 years.  It’s pretty cool, in a way.  It’s kind of funny how her hard work turned into her social life at the same time.  She started writing, said she was going to write a book about how to be a good waitress, and I thought that was the coolest idea.  She never really went through with it.  I think she’s pretty self-conscious about anything that has to do with being smart, because she had to quit school to take care of her family…
Speaking of leaving school, how far did you get in school?
I got to the middle of 12th grade.  And quit.
So you never graduated high school?  You’re not a good advertisement for the value of education?
I want to go back to school…
Back to high school?
Well, I’d probably get my GED….
You think you could pass it now?
I think so.  I hope so.
What happens if your own kids get to 11th or 12th grade and start arguing, “Well, you didn’t graduate high school and you did all right, why should I?”  I guess you could always fall back on the old standby of, “Because I said so, and I’m your dad.”  Anyway, were you one of those kids who just showed up for class but didn’t really pay that much attention?
I have a way of not paying attention some times…
Had you gotten much out of school, or were you getting passed through the years just because you were there?
I think I just wasn’t into it.  I probably could have done the work if I applied myself, but I just was not interested at all.
What were you interested in then?
I was interested in the punk scene at that point.  I was learning so much more through going to Gilman Street, and hearing the songs… either the personal ones or the political ones…  I talked to Aaron Elliott (Ed. Note: aka writer/zine publisher Aaron Cometbus) about this once, and he was of the opinion that not only can people work out their aggressions through punk rock, but they can become really educated on top of that.  Going to Gilman, and seeing how militant the politics were about racism and sexism, that was the first time I’d thought about some of that stuff.
How do you account for the fact that some people seem to get dumber through punk whereas others get smarter?
I think you can get really dumb being jaded.  I don’t know.  I’ve seen a lot of my friends get dumber.  Like I think Lucky Dog (Ed. Note: Former bassist for the group Fifteen, now deceased) got really dumb.
That’s the kind of thing I was thinking about, not him in particular, but after the East Bay pop-punk scene got big, there seemed to be this reaction against it, where the old school punks were saying, “I’m not going to sing nice songs, I’m going to be really hardcore, dirty and nasty, I’m gonna do hard drugs and be miserable,” and that seemed to become the new ruling esthetic of the East Bay scene.  A lot of our friends went down that way, and some of them didn’t come back…  What do you think accounts for that?
Like you said, a lot of people were reacting to what happened with us.  The funny thing was, everything we were doing, we were being heartfelt about it, we were singing love songs because that’s what we felt like.  That’s what was in my heart.  And I think that creeps people out a little bit.  Vulnerability really creeps people out.  I had friends who were really into my band, not just musically, but on a friendship level too, and when things started happening for us, they changed…  Started acting more distant. Of course, there were always a lot of hardcore bands, I mean we were one of the only bands who were that poppy at that time, besides maybe Sweet Baby or Mr. T Experience…
Sewer Trout…
Yeah, and maybe even Crimpshrine… Like a song like “Pretty Mess” is a really heartfelt song…
Oh yeah, that’s what really made them, in my opinion, the way that despite the slightly crusty overtones, they spoke and sang from the heart…
Yeah, totally.  I think there was a problem with drugs coming into the scene.  People were getting heavily into speed, and then graduated from that and started getting into heroin.  It was a really ugly time.  I have to say that I indulged in that scene myself at one time, but something scary was happening.  My friends were showing signs that this was not just a party anymore, this wasn’t just experimenting, this was a full-on lifestyle and they were going to take it to the bitter end.  People started turning into just, kind of skeletons.  They were walking dead people.  And you know, I had responsibilities.  I had two kids.  I couldn’t afford to turn into that.
But it’s usually people like you who are expected to turn into drug burnouts.  You’ve got the money and the free time; you could just hang out and do drugs all day and yet you made the choice not to.  A lot of the people we’re talking about, some of our old friends, they’re barely getting by, it’s a hard enough struggle for them to survive, let alone take on the burden of being a junkie.  Whereas other people at the street level of the punk scene kept on working and growing.  What do you think accounts for such different things coming out of what was once all the same scene?
You know, I don’t know.  I think a lot of drug dealers started noticing what was going on at the time…
Yeah, but drug dealers can’t make somebody buy their stuff if they don’t want to…  You brought up Lucky Dog, and I was thinking back when he wrote a letter to Lookout zine, when he was still in high school, something like 1987.  And he was this fun-loving, goofy, kid.  It was kind of a silly letter, but he was writing about his band, No Dogs…
Which I tried out for…  They didn’t want me…
And it was just so sad to see him over the years get really bitter and self-destructive…
Yeah, he was also politically active, he was doing collage art, sort of Reagan-era protest art.  A lot of people from that scene were really smart, and vital.  I don’t know, Lucky just had one of those personalities where he was getting addicted.  Drugs to some people just become a disease after a while.  I think it just ate away at him.
How close did you come to getting addicted to drugs?
I think I was addicted to partying a little bit, but the older I got, the more I realized that I couldn’t handle drugs.  Because what people get addicted to is not only the high, but the low.  They’re into the low.  But I can barely handle it when I’m coming down from coffee.
You get depressed?
No, I just feel terrible.  Like I drink a really strong cup of coffee, and after a while, I’m like, ewww, I feel like vomiting.  Ok, occasionally I get a little stupid, and want to go out and pretend I’m still 21, and end up feeling like shit the next day.  But I think I learned from my hangovers that this isn’t as fun as it once was…
Your fourth album, Insomniac, seems to be riddled with drug influences or references.  Maybe it’s just me reading something into it, but it really felt like that.  It was probably your darkest album, and you mentioned amphetamine directly in one of the songs…
Yeah.  That was during the time when I saw a lot of my friends going down that route, doing dope.  It just was scary.  At the same time, I indulged here and there.  For some of that stuff…  I was on drugs when I wrote some of those songs.  It was a rough time for me, but I’m lucky enough to be one of the people who learned from that experience and moved on, where other people just got addicted and more addicted and more addicted until it killed them.
It didn’t sound like a happy record.  That always made me wonder, because by rights it should have been one of the best times in your life.  You’d just become international superstars, sold 10 or 20 million records.  All your dreams had come true, and then you come out with this dark and brooding album that sounds like, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I even want to go on…”
At the time I think I was really worried about what people thought of me, because there was so much of a backlash against us.  Thinking back, I sometimes feel I should have just taken more time to look for myself, and to spend with my new baby and my wife.  I should have taken that time and reflected a little more.  But I was reacting so much to things that were happening around me.  I was really confused.  I’d been married for a little over a year, a lot of people were acting really strange around me, I wasn’t a guy who was just part of the crowd anymore.  Even the people who were closest to me, it seemed like they didn’t know how to act around me.  Friends were telling me things like, “Well, I don’t want to bother you…”  That’s part of why I wasn’t seeing so much of my friends anymore.  So suddenly I just felt alone, and I got really self-conscious about the mainstream acceptance of my band.  People didn’t hesitate to tell me I was doing the wrong thing, and I thought, holy shit, all I was doing was living up to my potential as a musician.
Could you give me an example of somebody who had you convinced you were doing the wrong thing, or was doing a good job of convincing you of that?
It was a lot of people.  At the same time, my tastes were getting more into harder-sounding music.  It felt like such a bleak time.  But for example, the things that Maximum Rocknroll was saying, sort of leaking over into what the people from Spin magazine were saying, to what the people at Rolling Stone were saying.  This sort of crunch started happening.  I never really hid the fact that it bothered me, and I think it really came out, and I reacted to it.  And it came across in the music.
Did you feel you had something to prove then, that you were going to make an album that was more “difficult,” not as poppy and accessible?
Um, even though I think there’s a lot of that element to that record, it’s still very poppy…
Sure, but not by comparison with the earlier records…
Yeah.  I think I was just lost.  I couldn’t find the strength to convince myself that what I was doing was a good thing.  I was in a band that was huge because it was supposed to be huge, because our songs were that good.  I couldn’t ever feel like I was doing the right thing, because it felt like I was making so many people angry.  That’s where I got so confused, and it became really stupid.  I would never want to live that part of my life over again.  Ever.
The years when you made all sorts of money and were internationally famous, being mobbed wherever you went?  That sounds like every kid’s dream…
And had a child, and married the girl of my dreams…
So all of this great stuff was happening to you, and yet you say you’d never want to live it over again.
Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to react that way.  I was too afraid that I might not be doing the right thing.  A lot of that anger, well that was a disguise.  What was really happening was that I was scared, and that I was really sad that I couldn’t go back to where I came from.
Like that song, “86.”  “There’s no return…”
Yeah.  People say that was a dark and angry period for me, but what was really happening was that I was sad, really sad.  But the good side was that I was able to work it out.  And I had a lot to work out.  Hell, I was like 24 years old…
A difficult age…
Yeah.  I remember Shane, from Dead and Gone, he was going through a similar period, and one day he said, “What are we doing, man?  We’re not kids anymore.  We can’t live our lives like this forever.”  Like, everybody living with each other, having these sort of punk houses….
Did you ever feel like asking, “Why not?”
Um, no.  Because at the time I was really freaked out, and I was asking myself, “Yeah, what are we doing?”
I guess I was thinking of that 7 Seconds song, “Young Until I Die.”  That’s at least one part of the punk ideal, isn’t it?  Refusing to grow up?
What I kind of came to is that it’s okay to grow up, it’s just slowing down that’s the scary part.  Running out of time.  It’s okay to grow up, but it doesn’t mean you have to become like your parents.
I’d like to ask you about your relationship with your first drummer, Al Sobrante (aka John Kiffmeyer).  He was an original member of the band, but left in 1990.  Were there ruffled feelings on either side about that?  It seemed like he wasn’t that supportive of the band once you started getting successful…
Well, one thing, I didn’t even hear from him that he was leaving the band.  I heard it from someone else, in passing conversation.
Really?
Yeah.  Me and Aaron Elliott were walking around in Benicia with a couple of girls – remember Stacy and Mitchell? – and Stacy was like, “Yeah, everybody’s leaving town this summer, going away to college, etc.”  and then she mentioned that John was going away to college, too.  And I’m like, “John’s leaving?  What do you mean, John’s leaving?”  And Aaron looked at me and goes, “Oh man, he didn’t tell you, did he?”  And I’m like, “No, he didn’t tell me.  Where the fuck is he going?”  That’s how I found out.  And I was hurt.  It blew me away.  One, because I had to hear it from someone else, but also because, yeah, he was a big influence to us.  We were so young, and he’s a really smart person.  We learned a lot from him.  He was already a veteran of the scene, with Isocracy.  He knew so much, and he worked really hard.  But I think he’s one of those guys who got really self-conscious about the kind of music we were playing. And he was talking to the guys in Brent’s TV about being in a band with them up in Humboldt.  That was sort of behind our back, which was really weird.  We’re the kind of people who are like, “Look, if you wanna leave, then leave.”  Just be upfront about it, and don’t bullshit me.  It was hard.  I didn’t even know if I wanted Green Day to go on after John quit.  I was really confused.
This would be not too long after your first album had come out, and you hadn’t even gone on your first big tour yet, which wasn’t till that summer…
And I had quit school.  There were a lot of things going on in my life, too.
That was the year you quit school?  So while you weren’t sure if you wanted the band to go on, it sounds like the band was the main thing you had going for you…
Yeah, but we were really confused, we didn’t know what to do.  We were angry, and we didn’t want him to leave.  We were writing new songs, and the songs were getting better…
Like which songs?
Like the songs that were on the Slappy EP, songs like “409″ and “Paper Lanterns,” “Why Do You Want Him?”  We felt like we were moving, like we were coming into our own.
Starting to get a lot of fans, too, at least on the grass roots, underground punk scene…
Yeah.  And John was responsible for a lot of that.  He did handle booking the shows and all that.  And it was time where we weren’t feeling so self-conscious anymore, where we were getting more respect from the punk scene.  And then he up and split.  That guy had the worst communication skills…
I remember him speaking to me about it at the time, and I had no idea that he hadn’t told you.  My impression was, from the way he put it, was that he needed to have this experience of going away to college, it was a part of growing up and something he really wanted to do.  But I also got the impression that he expected you guys to put the band on hold while he went to college.  Did you have the same impression?
Yeah, I did, but we were way too young and full of energy to want to wait six months or a year for someone to play gigs.  At the age of 18, that’s like half a lifetime.  We didn’t want to wait.  At the same time, I had this romantic thing in my head about how the gang doesn’t split up, and a band never splits up.  I didn’t want to look for a new member, it was too cheesy, too lame…
It seems like there was a difference separating you and Mike from John, in terms of background and expectations.  He came from a more middle class family.  Do you think because of that, the band thing was less serious to him, more of a game, something you could pick up and put down, while you guys were more like, “This band is all we’ve got…”?
Yeah.  The thing is, my education was music.  I knew I’d be playing music no matter what.  That’s all I thought about, I was obsessed with it.  I’m still obsessed with it.  It gets the best of me sometimes.
You mentioned earlier that seeing how your mom had to struggle, the kind of background you had, made you a bit of a workaholic…  “Overachiever,” you called it…  I’m getting the impression that John just wasn’t that bothered…
John had options.  He had opportunities, like being able to go to school.  And I don’t have anything against that, but I didn’t want to feel like anybody’s side project.  And that’s the way I was starting to feel when John…  Because we even tried to do the part time thing.  But then we started playing with Tre, and John would come down from Humboldt and sort of steal the gig away.  Like there was this big gig with Bad Religion – we were opening for them at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma – and John comes down and suddenly takes the gig away from Tre.  And I was like, wait a minute, Tre has been working with us for months, and you come down to play this one gig.  That doesn’t seem fair to Tre, who by then was becoming a good friend of ours.
That was one of my biggest regrets about Tre.  I’m sure he’ll never tell me that it bothered him, but it was a pretty awful thing that we did, letting John play that last big gig.  I don’t think he deserved to play that gig, because at that point it felt more like he was just showing off and being the loudmouth from Humboldt.  I was hearing stories from Humboldt how all he’d talk about was that stupid fucking first tour.  People were like, “Man, that ex-drummer of yours is a nut.”
Looking back, and supposing John had decided to stay in the band, do you think he would have been up to the kind of stuff you went on to do?  Or did it work out better in the long run?
Well, I think he would have kept on handling the business aspects.  Because after he left, no one handled the business part.
Yeah, but I was also thinking in terms of playing drums…
Um, I don’t know.  At the time I had no intentions of ever throwing him out.
You think Green Day could have gotten as big with him on drums?
No.  I don’t think we would have.  I think eventually we would have burned out, probably around the Kerplunk days.
Because of his musical skills or because of his attitude?
Because of his attitude.  Me and Mike got more stubborn as we got older, too.  I don’t think we would have kept thinking some of his goofy ideas were cool.
What sort of goofy ideas?
Oh, I don’t know.  I think eventually he would have been doing infomercials for people anyway, and that would have been his main priority, so whatever…
What difference did it make when Tre joined?  One thing I can think of is that instead of being a couple years older, he’s the same age as you.  Was he more on the same wave length as you?
Yeah.  And he was more of a musician.  He was a lot like us, he was…
…a guy who smoked a lot of pot?
Yeah, there was that.  And when he entered the band, it was weird, because we were sort of these nice guys that would stay at people’s houses on tour, and we had a really good rep because John kind of portrayed us that way…
Sort of like the Beatles, the way they were supposed to be these nice, well-dressed young men, as opposed to those bad, foul-mouthed Rolling Stones?  And John was your Brian Epstein?
Yeah.  And then when Tre joined, it was suddenly like Mick Jagger was on drums.
Mick Jagger or Keith Moon, or a combination of the two…
So we traded in one lunatic for…
…a totally different kind of lunatic…
Exactly.
Having played in a band with Tre for five years before he joined Green Day, I know what you’re talking about.  But during the time he was with us, he wasn’t fully grown, and you could still at least occasionally tell him what to do.  From what I’ve seen, he’s gotten more demented since then.  But he’s also a brilliant drummer…
He’s an amazing drummer.  I think he’s the best drummer in rock music, period.  He has his own sort of style, and he doesn’t look like every other drummer that’s playing.  At the same time, he embodies the drummer persona…
The kind you have to keep chained up in the basement until it’s time for the gig?
Yeah, he really is that guy.  He doesn’t have to try to be, he just is.  He’s got this deranged sense of humor, which in the long run I think has made us a cooler band.  It was hard at first, because I was still sort of stuck on John being in the band.  I can remember the gig – it was one of the rare times we played in San Francisco in those days – when we realized we sounded really good, and we decided Tre was now our full time drummer.
So if John never told you officially that he was leaving the band, did you ever tell him officially that he was out and Tre was replacing him?
No, I don’t think I ever did…
Returned the favor, in other words?
Yeah.  Then I found out he was playing with the Ne’er Do Wells anyway, who he’d been sort of moonlighting with for a while.  He really wanted to play sissy college boy music.
Once it had sunk in with him that he was no longer in the band, did he respond to you in any particular way?
He always wanted me to feel like, “Oh, the best years are behind you,” the real Green Day years.  At the same time, we were touring our asses off.  And it was a great feeling, because we ended up playing with the Ne’er Do Wells, and he knew we were standing there watching.  He was playing really hard, and trying to make it look like he was the man, and one thing you can not do to Tre Cool is to outdrum him.  Especially if you are a mediocre drummer at best.  One of the first songs we played was “Longview,” which is like a great drummer’s song, and from that point on, it was like, “Dude, you’re so over.”
It was weird, because he always wanted to make it look like our best years were when he was in the band, and that they were behind us now.  And we were like, no, they’re not.  And we’re going to keep writing better songs, and keep making better records.
I take it he wasn’t very supportive when you started getting a lot bigger?
He was just kind of cynical about it.  He never said to my face what he thought, but I started hearing things, as though he was going around telling people, “They’re ruining everything I did,” and we were like, dude, you did… nothing.  I told you how to play drums.  I taught you how to play those parts.
I didn’t mean to turn this into a whole John-trashing thing…
He deserves it sometimes…
Yeah, sometimes.  I think almost everyone who knows him has bumped heads with at one time or another.  But I guess I was thinking more about how he might have represented the old school scenesters who copped an attitude toward you guys when you started getting big…
If “trust fund punk” was in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of John.
Not just talking about John anymore, though, how much of the hostility you’ve encountered within the punk scene has been due to jealousy or misunderstanding, and how much to people wanting to keep their scene small and private?
I think to someone like Aaron Elliott, or maybe someone like Jeff Bale, it does make sense to keep it an underground thing.  And I think there definitely should be an underground scene, there always should be.  Punk rock isn’t supposed to be for everyone.  There is that sort of private club mentality, which is necessary.  It keeps things from getting watered down and boring.  But there was a lot of jealousy and resentment towards us.  A band like All, for example, were insanely jealous that…
…you had melodies and they didn’t?
Yeah, that too…
You’d already seen Operation Ivy go through some of the same stuff, hadn’t you, where as soon as they started getting popular, people would…
…call them ska-boys…
…yeah, and heckle them.
But it never affected Jesse Michaels.  I mean, I guess it did, but he was so great on stage, so charismatic, good looking, with insanely great lyrics… that’s what I was into about him.  And I always thought he had that sort of sensibility, that he could work both sides of the fence, the people who were into him because they had great music, and the people who were into them because of the things they stood for.
Why do you reckon he pulled the plug, then?
I don’t know.  That’s a wild mind he’s got there.  I think only the people closest to Jesse could tell what was going on with that.
Yeah, because who knows what they could have gone on to?  They were the ones back in the early Gilman days that everyone picked as the most likely to become big stars out of the East Bay.
I don’t think it had to do with…  I don’t think he was afraid of success, which a lot of people made him out to be.  I think there was stuff internally in that band so that they couldn’t get along with each other anymore…
Tim and Matt came to see me the night Jesse quit, and they were genuinely shocked, shocked and hurt, kind of the way you describe feeling when you heard John was leaving your band.  This idea of, “How can he do this, why is he doing this?”  Music was their whole life, too…
I don’t know.  I wasn’t in that band.
Yeah, we’re getting off-topic anyway.  Let me try and relate this to some of my own experiences.  When Lookout Records was starting to get big, I remember lying awake all night sometimes, with all these questions going through my head.  This idea of, hey, this might go to be something way beyond the punk scene, and do I want that?  It’s going to change everything.  Because at the time Gilman was almost like a family. You’d walk in there, it’s like walking into your rec room and seeing all your friends.  Everybody knows you…
Like Cheers…
Yeah, except without beer… That was outside…  But I was thinking, yeah, these bands I like are going to get their music heard, and that’s cool, yet at the same time so much of the scene that produced those bands is going to get wiped out.  And I’m asking myself, should I do it, should I go ahead with it?  Did you ever have that feeling?  Like, if you keep getting bigger, you’re going to shine this great big floodlight on Gilman Street, and the whole world will see it and come rushing in?
Yeah.  But inevitably, it’s like we’re responsible for ourselves.  We did belong to that club, but the songs belonged to Green Day.  It’s our music and it’s our lives.  It doesn’t have to do with shining spotlights on anybody.  If people want to come along and hang on to our coattails, then fine.  But we didn’t ask anything from anybody, we didn’t use anybody as a stepping stone to anything.
You were a musician before you were a punk…
Yeah, and we liked to hang out in the scene, but we didn’t run the scene.  We were one band out of many, and we decided to try and take it a step further.  It had nothing to do with anybody else, and that’s what killed me, that here’s these people who are like declaring ownership of my life.  And I’m like, it doesn’t apply to you at all.  What I choose to do with my music is… that’s my prerogative, as Bobby Brown would say…
In the early years, Green Day was mostly about sweet love songs, almost Beatles-esque kind of songs.  You guys never even swore in your lyrics.  After you supposedly “sold out,” people were like, “Oh, they came out of the punk scene,” and yet you were the most unlikely punks.  It wasn’t till after you were big that you started swearing and spitting and doing a lot of the stuff that’s commonly thought of as “punk.”
We got into playing music at such a young age.  When John joined the band, I was 15 or 16 years old.  People were watching us grow up, literally.  If you look at those records, we were growing up in front of people’s eyes.  A lot of people don’t ever get into punk rock music until they’re 21 years old; by the time I got into really serious hardcore punk rock music, I’d already been in a band for six years.
You and Mike had been trying to get a band going for years already before you hooked up with John, right…?
Yeah, we always played together, me and Mike played together since we were ten.
How long had you been playing guitar before you started playing with Mike?
Off and on since I was eight.
So it was more a case of an already established musician finding a really cool social scene, not like you came to the punk scene because you hated society and wanted to pierce your nose and break bottles…?
Well, at the time that was looked at as sort of a cliché anyway.
Gilman was kind of rebellion against the old clichés of what punk was supposed to be…  It was more about building stuff…
Yeah, that’s what it was about.  And it was a place to feel accepted for more reasons than just being punk.
For all the misfits that nobody would hang out with anywhere else…
And of course a place to use as a stepping stone to major label success…  (laughs)
Oh, yeah, I forgot about that part…
Seriously, I remember right before Dookie came out, Pinhead Gunpowder decided to do a tour.  And I wanted to experience as much from that tour as I could.  We played Olympia – Olympia had a really great scene at that time – and we were playing at the Lucky 7 house, and I just wanted to experience as much out of that as I could, because I felt like there was no turning back, that anything could happen.  It was a crapshoot.  And it was scary, thinking about what might be ahead.  There was the punk scene, and what might happen to the punk scene, but at the same time, I was thinking about what the fuck is going to happen to my life.
At that time you were already more or less making a living from your music?
Yeah.
I heard when you left on your first big tour to promote Dookie, that you left your house on Ashby, didn’t even move out, just sort of walked away from it and never came back.  Is that true?
Yeah.  Well, all I had…  I was sleeping on someone else’s mattress at the time.  It was someone else’s room before mine.  I put my clothes in a garbage bag, grabbed my guitar and my four-track, and I left.  I think some people ended up squatting the place after that.
I heard that the punks came and looted it as well…  Had you guys intended not to come back?  Like, we’re going to conquer the world and we’ll come back on top or not at all?
Well, I was living really close to Telegraph Avenue, too, so I just knew things could get kind of uncomfortable…
Oh, I thought you were thinking, well, it’s close to Telegraph anyway; if this rock star thing doesn’t work out, I can just come back to Telegraph and live on the sidewalk…
It really was that black and white.
Seriously, what do you think would have happened to you if Dookie had flopped?
I’d still be playing music.
On a street corner…?
No, I think eventually… we would have found our way back somehow.  I mean, after all our success, we found our way back.  I’d end up playing music.  That’s what I was meant to do.  That’s what I’d done my whole life up until that point anyway.  I would have never stopped.  I would have always kept writing songs.  It wasn’t like a make-or-break situation.  It was a part of my life.
Somebody who’s always going to play music is one thing, somebody who’s going to earn their living and support their family from it is another.  When did it first sink in that you could be fully confident in your ability to make your way in the world solely through playing music?
Probably when I was about 13.
Serious?
Yeah.
Even though you admit to being nervous and scared years later?
Yeah.
But you say you knew you could make it as a professional musician at 13, and yet at 20 you were still scared half to death about what you were going to do for a living?
Well, there’s a lot of fear that creeps in, the older that you get.
At least you had your dad as a role model. There was a guy who always brought in at least some money from playing music…
Yeah there’s that…  And I look at someone like Blake, who’s in Jets To Brazil.  He was in Jawbreaker, and they went on to a major label, and basically everything they did was along the same lines as us, same manager, same producer, same guy that did a video for them.  But even though it didn’t work out as well for Jawbreaker as it did for us, he went on to get Jets To Brazil together.  If you’re a musician, you can’t just walk away from it.  Unless, of course, you’re going away to college… (laughs)
So at some level or another…
Exactly.  I would have ended up in Jets To Brazil eventually.
Who would get to be lead singer then?
I’d probably be bass player.
Speaking of bass players, you’ve been teamed up with Mike practically forever.  How much of a team is that?  What would it be like if there were no Mike?
It wouldn’t have happened.  Period.  There would have been no such thing as Green Day.
I’m thinking especially of the trademark harmonies that tell you instantly you’re listening to Green Day…
It’s more than that.  Mike and I really influenced each other.  That’s the thing that bummed me out about that VH1 (Behind The Music) thing, that they barely talked about the connection we’ve had for so many years, how we’ve always been a team, how it’s always been “Billie and Mike.”  When we first started hanging out on the scene, if I was ever by myself, people would come and ask, “Hey, where’s Mike?”  And likewise with Mike.  When he was 16 he ended up moving into my mom’s house because his mom moved to Louisiana to avoid earthquakes.  I give more credit to him than I would to anybody for the success of Green Day.
A lot of people who aren’t musicians don’t understand how vital the rhythm section is.  In fact they’re not always that clear on what exactly it is that bass players do, whereas musicians know that without a really great bassist and drummer, even the best guitarist or singer in the world is still going to sound like crap…  But I was wondering: wasn’t it a bit hard on Mike when so much of the attention went your way because of your being the lead singer?
In the long run, I don’t care what people think about that.  That’s been an issue ever since pop music began.
It’s just that some bands seem to be able to deal with it and others don’t…
I think even if it did bother Mike, he wouldn’t tell me.  But ultimately it takes three members to make this band, and we all know that.  Fortunately, we’re one of those bands that people look at as a band, not a guy and his two sidekicks.  From early on we were adamant about how every member of this band has an opinion, his input, and is equal.  Even the way we get paid…
Is it true you divide everything three ways?  That’s sort of the old school punk way, isn’t it?
Well, if it wasn’t for Mike and Tre, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now, and if it wasn’t for me and Tre, Mike wouldn’t be where he’s at.  And so on…  We’re a band, that’s the way it works.
What do you think about all the pseudo-
Green Days that have sprung up in the wake of your success?  Some of them have gone on to be nearly as big as you guys.
I don’t know that much about them.  In a way it’s cool to have bands that imitate you.  People eventually go to the source anyway.  Are you talking about, like, Blink 182?
That name might have been lingering in the back of my mind…
I think it’s cool.  I don’t think they have quite the same background we did.  We were one band out of several bands, out of a scene, that sounded completely different from each other.  We didn’t try to imitate what Filth or Blatz were doing, or even what the Mr. T Experience were doing.  We were never the typical Beach Blanket Bingo punk style, which is what has happened to a lot of those bands that came after us.  But for the most part, I think it’s cool, and if any band says they’re influenced by us, I’m totally flattered.
A lot of the new stuff sounds like pop punk in a can, doesn’t it?  And spread on bread with a lot of cheese?
Outside of a couple bands, yeah, that’s true.  It’s like Disney punk or something.
Who would you give props to, then?
I like the Get Up Kids, I like Dillinger 4 a lot, I’ve think they’ve definitely taken things into a new dimension.  Jimmy Eat World…  There are a lot of bands that have taken a DC influence into writing melodic punk rock songs, adding new elements to it…
You don’t think bands like Blink 182 are?
No, not really.  Anyway, I never thought of Blink 182 sounding like us.  I think they’re more influenced by NO FX.
What about the other band that broke big from the underground at the same time you did, the Offspring?
I never thought that there was anything remotely similar in our bands…
I wasn’t thinking of similarity in sound, but that both bands came out of a similar scene.  I remember seeing them at Gilman not too long before Dookie came out and they were playing for like 12 people.  Then I was away in England for a while, and when I came back, I’m like, “Isn’t that amazing, Green Day have a gold record!”  And people are like, “That’s not all, the Offspring….”  and I’m like, what?
I remember around the time their first record was out, they were looking for a label, and they were asking us about Lookout.
Yeah, there was talk about that.  If I’d been more aggressive and “businesslike,” I might have ended up with not only Green Day, but Rancid and the Offspring all on the same label.  And I probably would have had like 50 ulcers and a brain tumor by now, but oh well…
Yeah, I remember seeing those guys play years ago too.  Their guitar player, Noodles, his amplifier was basically like a tin can.  They definitely came from the lowest up to the highest…
I’m remembering one of those all-day Gilman fests where both Green Day and the Offspring played under the Lookouts, and I’m thinking, where the hell did I go wrong?
Maybe the Potatomen will become huge.
Yeah, there’s still another century in which that could happen.  Anyway, since the big punk rock explosion that you guys helped spearhead, much of the excitement has died down.  Bands aren’t selling as many records as they used to, people are saying, “Well, I guess punk had its day and now it’s over.”  Of course they said that back in 1979 too…  I’m wondering, though, do you think rock and roll itself may be near the end of its run?  Say, in the way that jazz dominated the first half of the 20th century before giving way to rock and roll…  Do you think rock and roll has maybe had its day now too, and is going to be replaced by something like rap or dance as the music of choice among most young people?
I think it’s always gone in cycles.  But the difference this time is that it doesn’t show any great signs of coming back.  That’s the scary thing.  Right now there’s so much crap on the radio, anywhere from rap-metal to generic hip hop to Britney Spears type pop.  There’s always been an element of crap to music, but now there are so many people buying it.  Record sales are bigger than ever for some kinds of music…
But not guitar rock…
Yeah, not guitar rock.  I think some of it will come back, but it won’t necessarily be punk rock.  Things were really bleak right before Nirvana came along…
That’s always been my theory, that things are most likely to happen when everything else sounds like crap.  It was a big part of my thinking when I started the record label: I hated everything I heard on the radio, so I figured if I wanted any decent records to listen to, I’d have to make them myself.
Well, that’s where all good music comes from, I think.  Anything that’s likely to have an impact on pop culture comes from a point where there’s no expectation of it becoming anything other than personal.
Speaking of pop culture, what’s your place in it?  Are you going to go down in history?
I dunno.  (laughs)  We’ll go down, regardless.  Seriously, I try not to think about that.  I’m not ready to be classified or categorized just yet.  That’s the thing with a lot of these so-called “old school” bands.  They don’t get much respect or attention until they’re way past their prime, and, like, harmless.  They’re like, “I was playing punk rock when you were still in diapers, blah blah blah…”  Well, the difference is, you’re harmless now, so it’s ok for people to accept you, even make up stories or over-romanticize how cool you were back in the day.  So I don’t want to rest right now.  I’m not ready to be too accepted, because that means we’re not really a threat anymore.
Speaking of threats, your last record is called Warning.  What’s that about?  What do you want to warn us about?  What do you want to threaten?
For us, it was about people still raising this argument about whether or not we’re a punk band.  Seven years on and people are still arguing about that…
More like 13 years, really.  I remember when you first wanted to play Gilman in 1988 and Tim Yohannan said no, you can’t, you’re not punk, you’re a pop band.
Yeah, well, as long as they’re still arguing about you…  It’s like people arguing about whether Elvis was a truly original rock and roller or he just ripped of black rhythm and blues artists.  As long as people are still talking and arguing about you, you’re still some kind of threat…
So you haven’t become background music just yet?
No, I don’t think so.
Which prompts me to ask: have you heard any of your songs turned in shopping mall muzak yet?
No, the closest thing I heard was something called the Moog Cookbook, where these guys did our songs on Moog keyboards.  It was pretty awful.  And pretty funny.
I heard a string version of “Anarchy In The UK” in a supermarket once…
Talk about old and harmless and not threatening…
You’re talking about the Sex Pistols?
Yeah, I am.
Do you think they were among the more overrated bands of their time?
Um, I don’t know.  I wasn’t really there.
Good point.  But as young as were then, you’re not a kid anymore now.  You’ve got kids of your own, you’re a respectable family man, dealing with the same responsibilities that millions of other husbands and parents do.  At the same time, “mature” or “grown up” almost seems like a contradiction in terms when you combine it with “punk rock.”  Many of your songs are anthems of teenage rebellion, and yet you’re trying to raise kids of your own.  How do you bridge the gap between those two realities?
I don’t know.  I’ve always wanted to have a family, and I guess a certain amount of rebelliousness just goes with growing up.  Just because you sing songs about a certain feeling doesn’t mean you have to go feeling that way forever.  You can sing about that for the rest of your life, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t going to change in your own life.  I don’t raise my kids the same way I was raised.  You might grow up with a lot of anger, but what’s important is how you educate yourself, what comes out of that anger, how does it apply later on in your life?  How are you going to take your anger and the knowledge that comes out of it, and turn it into something that’s positive?  Otherwise you just end up bitter and not want to have anything to do with society at all.
Don’t you think there are some parents out there, maybe not even that much older than you, who are afraid of you, afraid of your music and the effect it might have on their kids?
That’s part of the problem with music, especially our kind of music.  It’s three minutes of one emotion.  I’m not the kind of person who could change the way I’m thinking within a single song, so it’s more about the entire body of work through the years.  Then you can make more sense out of it, see how we’ve evolved, see how I’ve evolved as a human being.  At this point I’m not so interested in singing a song about masturbating…
But you do almost every time you go on stage…
Yeah, but I sing songs about hope, also, and about love, and about trying to have courage.
That raises the question: out of all your work, is there anything you’d feel embarrassed about singing in front of your own children?
Yeah, sometimes the kids will hear a Green Day song on the radio in the car, and there’s a cuss word or something’s a little suggestive, and I’ll cough really loud, or turn it down a bit…
That’s not always going to work, especially when they get older…
They’re going to get older, yeah, and they’re going to have figure some things out, especially when they get to puberty, to their teenage years, and start evolving into their own men.  And a part of that is to reject your parents…
So you think they’ll be really polite young men and never swear and go around in suits and ties, and that will be their way of rebelling against you?
Well, I don’t think that necessarily…  I don’t raise my kids in an environment that would be stereotypically punk rock.  I don’t sit around drinking beer and spitting and saying “fuck you” to them…
You’re destroying the illusions of your fans who think that you live in a squatted punk rock commune with about 37 little Spike Anarkies…
(laughs)  I don’t really care about that.  I have to raise a family.  I want my boys to be smart.  And that’s a part of punk rock that people don’t understand as much…  Like we were saying earlier, the scene at Gilman was sort of a rebellion against the old way of being “punk.”  It was more about building something.  And I’m helping to build two young men, who I want to be smart.  I can’t tell them what to be in their lives, tell them they have to play music or they have to be punk rockers.  Those decisions are part of being your own human being.  But I can encourage them to be healthy…
Healthy in mind and body, to paraphrase Jesse Michaels…  So here’s a question: all parents presumably want their kids to be smarter than they were.  How do you do that?
I think you try to create a foundation for them that they can build on.  You try to have dialogue between parents and kids.  Part of the problem with parents and kids is that they don’t talk to each other.
At least not about real things…
Yeah.  Part of the problem, too, is that kids get their anger suppressed.  They’re always being told, “You’re not supposed to be angry, you’re not supposed to act like that.”  And the kids end up thinking, oh well, if I can’t talk to you about what I’m feeling, then I’m not going to talk to you at all.  Instead they take it out in different areas, or on themselves.  And also, you can’t meddle in a kid’s life too much.  They have to have their own lives.
If you could pick one of your songs to sing to your kids that would best sum up the idea of, “Hey, my sons, this is what I am about,” is there a song of yours that could do that?
(long pause)  Probably one of the newer ones, I would think.  I’m not really sure.  It’s hard.  Right now they’re at such an age where I’m still scared to death about how they’re going to turn out.
But let’s just suppose that they were going to live their lives – like some kids do – according to a song or songs they’ve heard.  I guess we’ve all done that to an extent..  In that case, which of your songs would you most like them to be influenced by?
Probably a song like “Waiting.”  I’d say “Waiting” right now, because it’s about putting your best foot forward, even if you don’t have any idea what’s in store for the future, about trying to make a difference in your own life, about having high goals even though you’re not fully sure of what you want or where you’re going to end up.  You just keep moving forward and don’t give up.  That’s good enough for me.
When your boys are a bit older, how would you feel about them being out in the pit at a really big Green Day show?
(laughs)  That’s cool, if they want to do that…
You wouldn’t worry?
I’d worry about them getting hurt.
How does that feel, playing music that becomes a soundtrack for kids being really aggressive and rough, and some actually getting hurt?  Do you feel like that detracts from your music, adds to it, or is just an inevitable byproduct?
Yeah, it can get really violent.  We try to learn how to do crowd control.  When you’re dancing that hard, with that many people, people do get hurt.  And you do the best you can, you tell people to look out for each other, you try to break things down a bit to let people take a breath, you throw water on them…  Because some kids just lose their inhibitions, they lose them so much that they’re in danger of hurting themselves or hurting others.  So you just try to learn how to work a crowd the best you can.  A lot of these rap metal bands, they couldn’t care less, they look at violence as rebellion, they look at stupidity as rebellion, and if someone gets hurt or killed, they’re like, well, as long as they get the publicity…
You think they’re that cynical?
I think they’re that dumb.
I take it you don’t have a high opinion of most rap-metal bands?
No.  I think most of it is really just testosterone-heavy.  I don’t think there’s much difference between it and professional wrestling.
Are there any particular bands of that type that you especially like or dislike?
There’s the obvious ones like Limp Bizkit…  That’s just such an old mentality…
You don’t feel like you’re being the grownup now, complaining about this newfangled music kids are listening to these days?
No, because I didn’t like it when people were playing it years ago either.
So you think it’s not even anything that new?
No.  I didn’t like Faith No More either.  I don’t think there’s much sensibility about it.  A pit at a rap metal show compared to a pit for say, Nirvana, when they first came out, they’re completely different.  There’s a different frame of mind.  Like when we played Woodstock in 94 compared to when Limp Bizkit played there in 99 – it’s funny how much times change in five short years…
From mud fights to gang rapes…?
Yeah.  And yet a lot of these bands never even spoke out about what was happening to women there, they sort of swept it under the rug.  Whereas I think what we do… there’s a lot more fun involved in it, it’s not just thinking of something to break.  Think about the big crowds in England, like at the Reading Festival.  That crowd unites, they’re singing along.  They’re not being wishy-washy, everyone is getting an opportunity to work out their energy, but it’s not like a football game or going to see wrestling.  Of course there’s always been an element of fighting around some parts of punk rock…
What about Eminem?
I don’t like his lyrics.
But you’ve got all these intellectuals, or at least quasi-intellectuals, going, “Yeah, but he’s an artist.  We don’t have the right to question his art…”
I think that’s bullshit.  If the guy is going to stand up and sing these songs that are basically about killing gays and killing women, he’s got to answer to the consequences. Yeah, he does have the freedom to say whatever he wants, but people also have the freedom to have an opinion about him.  But like some artists… Well, I was watching, for example, Melissa Etheridge on TV, and when she was asked about Eminem, she was like, oh, he’s an artist…  But I think people are just saying that because they’re afraid to show their true opinion.  Saying that Eminem has artistic freedom is not an answer to the question.  “What do you think of Eminem?”  “He’s got artistic freedom.”  Well, yeah, doesn’t everybody have artistic freedom?  But that’s not what the question was.
Well, you’re an artist…  People don’t hesitate to criticize you…
Yeah.  They don’t.  But with Eminem, I think the things that he says are bullshit.  Maybe he says that they’re a joke…
But jokes are supposed to be funny… Actually, some of them are very funny, provided you abandon any kind of moral sense.  Sort of like what Nietzsche said: “A joke is an epitaph on the death of feeling.”
Yeah, and like people listening to Skrewdriver because, “The music sounds good, man.”
What would you say if, when they’re older, your own kids started listening to something like Eminem?
I’d talk to them about it.  As much as I could.  They have minds of their own, and maybe I can’t tell them what to buy or listen to, but it would raise issues.  I don’t think I would give them the money to buy something like that.
But if they got jobs and earned their own money and went out and bought those kind of records…
What can you do?  There’s “parental guidance,” but it only goes so far.  You can try and educate them, show the history and meaning of what this guy is talking about…  I don’t like Eminem.  Yeah, I’m 30 years old and I can distinguish between what is real and what isn’t, but an 11 year old can’t always do that.  Joke or not, part of what Eminem is saying is that this kind of behavior is ok, that you’re a man and it’s part of your rite of passage or something, and that’s bullshit…
Some people say that the real danger is not that people take Eminem’s lyrics literally, but that it desensitizes them, by making horrible things into a joke, until they just don’t seem as serious or as horrible anymore…  And that that’s why kids often seem so ready to pull a trigger or to smash somebody’s head in, because it’s like a cartoon to them instead of a real thing…
And it’s such fake rebellion.  It’s testosterone-driven.  It’s got nothing to do with using your fucking brain, which is what rebellion is about to begin with.
One thing I’ve thought about both metal and rap is that they’re both pseudo-rebellions in another way: they both operate pretty much according to the same values they’re supposedly rebelling against.  They’re about acquiring lots of money and lots of power and being able to dominate women, which is essentially already mainstream culture.  They’re just doing it on a somewhat cruder, more basic level.  Anyway, you say you’re not a big fan of Eminem; what about other rap music?  It’s one of the most popular kinds of music happening these days…
To tell you the truth, I don’t really buy rap music.  The way that it sounds, it just doesn’t appeal to me.  I’m sure some rap artists are saying great things, but I’ve just never been into that sound.  I like guitars. I like bands.  And I like rock and roll.  I don’t want to come across like a purist.  I respect rap music and hip hop, but it’s not something that really appeals to me.
Back when Tre was in the Lookouts, he used to listen to NWA a lot.  In fact we all did, and it got to where the three of us could pretty much recite all the lyrics, which is often how we’d entertain ourselves on the way to gigs.  Some of those lyrics are pretty terrible too, I mean, what they’re talking about, and yet somehow they seemed funny.  I’m wondering if it’s just me getting old that makes me find Eminem not as funny…
I think the difference is that NWA came from somewhere.  It was part of real life, it was Compton…  And they were brutally honest…
You think they represented Compton the way our friends’ bands represented the East Bay?  I first heard NWA around the same time the whole East Bay scene was really taking off, and though on the surface you wouldn’t see much in common between Compton and Berkeley, I did pick up on one similarity.  We were like the ugly stepsister to glamorous San Francisco, the East Bay – hell, the Frisco snobs used to call it “East Berlin” – was more working class, more gritty, and in my mind, more real…  And in the early days of Gilman, we started up this whole fake rivalry between the East Bay and the West Bay…
East Beast vs. West Beast…
And they took it seriously, the Frisco people…
Well, that’s because they’re not as smart as we are…  Seriously, San Francisco just seemed like it was in a different country to me.  Occasionally we would end up playing in the city, but most of the time it was all 21 and over places.  We couldn’t get in ourselves, let alone play a gig there.  It’s weird.  Now I look at San Francisco in a different light.  I appreciate it as a beautiful city.  But back then the East Bay was just so happening – and to a certain extent still is – that it seemed light years away from San Francisco.  And the scene was so much younger, and the energy level was so much higher.  I mean, I’m still younger than most of those people were at that time in San Francisco.
Every so often in the history of music, lightning strikes a particular part of the country.  Like San Francisco had its day, even if it was almost 40 years ago.  Detroit had its time, first with Motown and then with the MC5 and Stooges.  Is it just like coincidence or magic?  Or is there some reason that a certain community comes together at a certain time and turns out some whole new musical and cultural thing?
Shit, I don’t even know.  At that time there was just a lot of things happening.  I think it was just a coincidence, really.  Gilman Street sort of solidified it.  Everyone had a place to go, and play, and it was developed by people that sort of thought the same way.  It’s weird, all over the East Bay, even in places like Pinole and El Sobrante, there was a ton of bands.  And us coming from a small place like Rodeo, Isocracy from El Sob, No Dogs and Corrupted Morals from Pinole, Blatz is actually from Pinole…
Well, the genius behind Blatz, anyway!
Jake Filth being from El Sob…  There were just so many people.  You can’t really explain it  Or maybe you can, but we weren’t up to intellectualizing about it back then.  We were just having fun.  It’s kind of pointless to analyze it even now.  The wild thing is how many people all over the world try to make something like that happen and it just doesn’t work out.  A month or two later it falls apart.  What’s amazing about Gilman is that it’s been around so many years..
Even longer than Green Day!
Yeah.  It’s unexplainable, I think.  It’s a magical thing.  That’s all you can really say about it.  And it came out of nowhere.
I’m thinking it didn’t come out of nowhere.  To me, it came out of some people that didn’t a voice before and were able to find one.  Maybe that’s a romantic way of looking at it.  But it’s what excited me about the East Bay.  Which brings me to ask: you’ve been successful, you could afford to live anywhere you wanted.  But you’re still here in the heart of the East Bay.  You even came back here to record your last album.  What keeps you connected?
I don’t know.  It’s just where I’m from.  It’s home.  It’s funny, a lot of the Berkeley kids used to be all, “East Bay, blah blah…” and I’d be like, “You don’t live in the East Bay. I live in the East Bay.  I’m from Rodeo, I’m from the sticks, that’s the East Bay..”
You saw the Berkeley kids as more privileged or middle class?
Some of them I did, yeah.  And then there were others that weren’t, obviously…
Berkeley’s more of a toytown in some ways…
Well, it’s a college town.  That keeps it kind of removed from the rest of the area.  Think of a place like Gainesville, Florida, or Athens, Georgia.  It’s a small, little bohemian place, but just outside of it you’re dealing with inbred hillbillies.  And that’s what I was…
That’s what you were dealing with or that’s what you were?
Ha ha.  That’s what I was dealing with.  I think also that what came together when Gilman started was this hardcore passion, like everybody wanted something to happen, and they made it happen.  I mean, if it didn’t have so much passion behind it, it wouldn’t still be happening now, like 13 years later…
14 this New Year’s Eve…  I was thinking recently about how, a year and a half after it started, Tim Yohannan pulled Maximum Rocknroll’s money out of Gilman and closed it down.  He said he didn’t like where it was going, that it wasn’t righteous enough.  And his assumption was that that was it, the dream was over.  I don’t think in his wildest imagination did he believe a bunch of punk kids could reopen it and keep it going for another 11 or 12 years.
Yeah, that’s what makes it such an East Bay thing.  I mean, it is a hardcore, political place.  It never lost that at all.  It’s almost self-destructed because of that many, many times.  I like the fact that Tim Yohannan helped start Gilman, and that’s great, but essentially it belonged to the people who cared enough about it.  Like the people who run Gilman have changed so many times over the years, and it keeps attracting new people who have the drive to keep it going.  Right now it seems that there’s a really cool thing happening there…
I agree.  But does it hurt to know that you can’t play there?
I can play there with Pinhead Gunpowder.  But Green Day can’t play there now, yeah.  And I understand that.  You sign to a major label, and that’s that…  Anyway, it’s a place that gives opportunities to lesser known bands.  But they have lightened up a bit.  Alkaline Trio played there recently and had a tour bus out front.  That’s pretty…  I’d never heard of a tour bus out in front of Gilman before…
Do you ever wish that some night you could pile into a little van and just drive down to Gilman and play an unannounced show there?
Um, I’d probably do it if they said, hey, you guys wanna play?  But it’s been about eight years since anybody’s called me up and asked if we wanted to play a gig there.
Would that be a pretty emotional moment for you, setting foot on that stage again?
Well, it’s like I’ve played in front of 300,000 people before, but to me Gilman will always seem bigger.  Even when I go to see other bands…  Like I went to this new club, The Pound, in San Francisco, and the woman who owns it came up to me and asked, “Isn’t this place bigger than Gilman?” and I said, “Nothing’s ever gonna be bigger than Gilman.”
A couple quick questions about politics…
Oh boy…
Last fall you played – depending on who was doing the describing – either a rally to help the musicians who were being evicted in San Francisco, or a Ralph Nader rally.  It was never quite clear what your take on it was.  I think Tre told me that the band wasn’t there specifically to support Ralph Nader…
It was supposed to be a “million band march.”  It didn’t quite make it to a million bands…  A lot of my friends were getting thrown out of Downtown Rehearsal Studios, a place that bands had been practicing for years, because the new owners wanted to raise all the rents.  That sort of hit home with me because it was about music and art, and it wasn’t just that studio; every day you could read in the paper how it was getting worse and worse for musicians in San Francisco.  Rents were skyrocketing, even to the point where clubs were having a hard time staying open.  After a while it starts to piss you off, and I thought my band could at least help bring attention to the issue.  It’s funny, because there a guy who buys and sells property who hangs out at my mom’s work, and he was telling her, “Oh, your son doesn’t understand.”
How do you feel, being told that you don’t understand the issue?
Well, that’s obviously coming from someone who doesn’t see the other side, that’s never even been on the other side, that doesn’t know what it’s like to be thrown out of where you live.
Somebody might argue that you’re pretty well off, that you’re not likely to get thrown out of anywhere…
Just because I’m successful doesn’t mean I don’t have a conscience.  People say, “Why are you angry still?  You’re successful now.”  Well, I think that’s even more of a reason to get involved with the things that you care about, because it makes your voice even louder…
But at the same time I get the impression you’re reluctant to be too outspoken about politics…
That’s because I don’t really know how to speak about politics, to verbalize my thoughts that much.  It’s hard.  I think as I get older I’m figuring it out a bit more.
The closest thing I’ve ever heard to a Green Day political song might be “Welcome To Paradise.”  As far as I know, it’s about when you moved into a warehouse in West Oakland, which was a pretty rough neighborhood. You were still fairly young kids at the time.  Was that kind of a shock for you?
Yeah.  I don’t think it was necessarily about politics, though, more about discovering life on your own.  Most people wouldn’t think of West Oakland as paradise, but in a way I thought it was.
I was thinking of it more as gut-level politics, like “Welcome to the real world…”  When you were making your first video, I tried to talk Tre into doing “Welcome To Paradise.”  I was like, you can do some social commentary, let people know your band is a lot of fun but also cares about things.  And he gets this real serious look on his face, like he’s thinking about it, and he says, “Yeah, you’re right.”  Then there’s a long pause, and he says, “Nah.  We’d rather drive a car into a swimming pool.”
Ha ha.  All right, Tre.  Yeah, I was reluctant to put that song out as a single, though a lot of people wanted us to, because it had already come out on Lookout Records before that.  We were reluctant to put it on the album at all because of that.
I was glad you did, because I felt it deserved to get heard by a bigger audience.  Anyway, on your newest record, it seems like you’re reacting a bit more to the world around you.  It feels like a very thoughtful record, maybe a bit more “grown up,” though that might sound like a terrible thing to say…
Well, some things that make me angry are the things I see on television, the stuff that’s dumped on young people about how they’re supposed to look or feel, how they need to buy products to make them feel good or look beautiful, sort of holding up this image and saying that “This is the life you should lead.”
Sort of like making them think they can buy a life instead of building one?
Yeah.  Exactly.  It’s not just fashion.  There’s so many artificially big breasts on TV now, and so many men that have to have these perfect bodies, and the thing is that most people don’t look like that at all.  The scary thing is that it’s getting to a point where people are paying thousands of dollars for supermodel eggs so they can supposedly make these perfect human beings.
What would you think if someone came to you with a proposal to sell rock star eggs?
How much money you got?
I trust that’s a joke?
Yeah, that’s a joke.  C’mon.
Do you vote?
Yeah, I did.  I voted.
Have you always, or was this your first time?
I voted the first time I was eligible, when I turned 18.  But then I went through years where I didn’t vote at all, because I was disillusioned with the system.
Are you basically optimistic or pessimistic about the way things are going, both in your local community and America and the world at large?
I try to be optimistic.  I voted for Nader this time.  I was sort of torn between that and the lesser of two evils argument.  I don’t know, I got there and I was going to vote for Gore, and as soon as I got inside the booth, I couldn’t do it, so…
You travel a lot.  Based on what you see, is the world getting better or worse?  Do you fear for your children growing up, or are you hopeful for them?
I fear for them a lot.  I think about moving out of Oakland a lot.  Sometimes I think it’s just too close to Los Angeles…
Spiritually or physically?
Both.  Sometimes California gets to be a bit much.  I don’t know if I want my kids growing up the way I did.  I’ve thought at times about moving to the Midwest.  So I don’t know.  Do I see things getting better or worse?  Downtown Oakland is sort of rebuilding itself, and it’s hard to figure out whether or not that’s a good thing…
Jerry Brown, the mayor, says, “What’s the alternative?  Leave it a slum?”
Well, I definitely don’t want that.  But I also don’t want people to be chased out of affordable neighborhoods.  Hopefully there’s a way of building up a community in what are so-called slums but without chasing people out of them.  A lot of artists are moving out to Richmond because they can’t even afford Oakland anymore.  Which sucks.  Who the hell wants to move to Richmond?
True.  And once upon a time, it was like, “Who the hell wants to move to Oakland?”  Poor old artists.  It seems like wherever they go, the gentrification quickly follows.  It’s like they’re the shock troops, they go in and make the neighborhood safe enough for the bankers and the stockbrokers.  It’s got to where if you see artists moving into your neighborhood, you might start thinking it’s time to get out…
Yeah, here come the suits…  As soon as I see a paintbrush, man, I’m gone…

Continue to Part Two

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