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- Posted on Apr 17th 2009 7:00AM by Steve Baltin
Green Day's highly-anticipated new album, '21st Century Breakdown,' produced by Butch Vig, is as grand as it is adventurous, featuring 18 songs broken up into three chapters -- 'Heroes and Cons,' 'Charlatans and Saints' and 'Horseshoes and Handgrenades' -- and two new protagonists: Christian and Gloria.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong talked with Spinner about the new album, what he thinks of right-wing conservatives, his love for Robert Pattinson and the two things he'll never, ever do.
How did the success of 'American Idiot' influence '21st Century Breakdown'?
The success definitely created an opportunity for us to push even further. I remember right before 'American Idiot' coming out I was like, "Man, I don't know what the hell is going to happen. Are people gonna think I'm nuts? Probably a little bit." And it's even gone beyond that. We took a lot of time and we just wanted everything to come natural to us -- everybody had to be really patient with me as a songwriter. It was like, "We gotta go for it. We can't let ourselves down." I'm getting reaction now for the first time.
Do people still think you're nuts?
[Laughs] No, people have been really cool. Maybe I think I'm a little nuts every once in a while. If you're not climbing to the tents of your vulnerability, then you're not doing it right.
What was the initial reaction from your peers to 'American Idiot'?
If anything, maybe it sparked something where people wanted to dive into more of capturing a concept, or some kind of story in a record. But we got it from looking at outside sources like OutKast, 'Speakerboxx/The Love Below' -- the super two-sided record. We looked at Eminem and him bringing in characters like 'Slim Shady.' That's flesh and blood [that] people can attach to a character in a song -- not just emotion. You can identify with emotion, but we can truly identify when you name names, like Gloria, Christian and St. Jimmy. It just adds a new depth to the album.
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How did you decide on the names Gloria and Christian for the album's characters?
It's like a woman's name for "glory," and it does have some tradition because, obviously, Van Morrison and U2. As far as that character, the emotion of the record is this person that's trying to hold onto the torch -- whether it's your own political values, your own moral value, or just holding on to yourself. Christian was an interesting name because it's also a religious root. So, a song like 'Christian's Inferno,' it's this guy -- he's not carrying a torch -- but he's trying to burn the whole f---ing place down and he becomes a victim of his own demons in a lot of ways.
Who would you want to play Christian and Gloria if this were given a big screen adaptation?
The girl that played in 'Juno' [Ellen Page] -- I think she could be Gloria. The song 'East Jesus Nowhere' -- I got the title from 'Juno.' There was that one part where the mother goes, "Why are you driving out in East Jesus Nowhere to go hang out with that couple." And it was like, "Oh my god, I've heard of Bumf--- Egypt, but East Jesus Nowhere? That's amazing."
And Christian, I'm gonna say maybe that kid in 'Twilight' [Robert Pattinson]. He's a good actor. There's still more to come with that kid.
In the new song, 'Modern World,' you sing "I don't want to live in the modern world." What technology would you dump into the ocean if you could?
The computer ... even though we record on Pro Tools. For me, the information superhighway is totally overrated. I'd have to throw away television because I'm slightly addicted to watching it. But the thing I would always save is a record player. I love vinyl. I was listening to [the Who's] 'Tommy' not too long ago on my iPod, but on vinyl it makes more sense.
What TV shows are you most addicted to?
This goes beyond guilty pleasure [laughs]. I really like a show called 'On Safari' that's on the Fuel network. I like Jon Stewart and love [Stephen] Colbert. He's the funniest human being on the planet. And for shameful, guilty, torturous pleasure is 'Rock of Love' with Bret Michaels. I do watch 'American Idol,' sometimes. That kid that's on there -- Adam [Lambert] -- hitting those high notes? Pretty badass, man.
You were actually on 'American Idol' a couple of years ago.
We played [John Lennon's] 'Working Class Hero.' It was interesting because we had the "F" word and their show is live, so we had to pre-record our song so that they could bleep out the "F" words. We almost got thrown off the show before it even started because they didn't trust us. It's like, "Man, we've done [live TV] so many times. We can do this." And finally they're like, "OK, you guys have to record it before." So we played to a completely empty room.
You performed on the show, but would you go on as a mentor?
Oh, no way. Not in a million years [laughs]. There are two things I would never do: One is I'll never do my own reality TV show, and two is I'll never watch 'Titanic.' I live in Oakland, not Hollywood.
You reference 'Working Class Hero'with the line "I never made it as a working class hero" in the new album's title track. Is that your continuation of Lennon's song?
I mostly just liked the line. It's the times that we live in right now. It's really hard for people to sort of manage the situation they're in, let alone get out of it as far as either be working class, middle class or poor. I think a lot of people end up having this faith-based sense of non-reality that they're gonna win the lottery or something like that. And that couldn't be further from the truth, especially right now. There's a different crisis every week; natural disasters, corporate bailouts, people losing their homes, unemployment. It's desperate times right now for a lot of people. That's sort of what that line represents to me.
Still, 'See the Light' closes the album with some optimism. Are you optimistic about the country's future?
I am optimistic, as long as these right-wing conservative a--holes don't try to ruin things for people -- like throwing around ideas that we're headed for a socialist government. Which, the way they're throwing it around, they don't even know what socialism really is. It's reflected on the record and it's also reflected in society -- there's all this crisis and there is all this crazy s--- going on right now. All you have to do is flick down the channel from 'Rock of Love' and look at CNN, and you could see it. Or Fox News -- they make it look like we're headed for the apocalypse and Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. But at the same time, it's the first African-American in office, so that's totally a progression. And that does give you faith in the idea of America -- it can be a progressive country and we can dig ourselves out, because that was a bold statement. We dug ourselves out of George Bush by putting this new intelligent human being into office.
Do you feel that maybe 'American Idiot' might've motivated your fans, old and new, to vote and play a part in the presidental election?
Barack Obama is such a charismatic person, and with this person being as charismatic as he is and us doing stuff with like punkvoter.com, it could've helped out a little bit. Maybe we at least created a soundtrack for people that are coming of age, and they start thinking for themselves for the first time. And here they are voting for the first time at 19, three-and-a-half, four years later.
Will Green Day be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I saw Lars [Ulrich] from Metallica the other day, and they just got inducted. We're really starting to see people [get inducted] that were maybe not in the same generation per se, but the gap is starting to get closer and closer. It's weird; I've been in this band since I was 16, so I'll be eligible when I'm like, 42, or something. We'll see what happens.
But you'd be down for it, unlike, say, the Sex Pistols, who didn't find it to be very fitting of the punk ethos?
Yeah. I've got my own ethos [laughs].
Nearly 20 years into your career, with millions of albums sold and countless awards, name one anecdote or relic that best represents your longstanding musical enthusiasm.
I don't really hang any awards or anything like that in my house, but the one thing that I do have up on my wall is the picture of U2 and Green Day walking down Abbey Road.