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A Conversation with Billie Joe Armstrong: "The Rats Have Taken Over The Fucking House"

The Green Day frontman sits down to discuss the current state of American politics, Green Day's new album, and the role of punk in 2016.

The last time Green Day released an album (or three, to be exact) was in 2012 with their Uno! Dos! Tré! trilogy. If you can cast your mind back four entire years, you may remember the world as a comparatively simpler place. Obama was elected for a second term. The state of the British government was merely an "omnishambles" (which Oxford Dictionary recognised by making it UK Word of the Year). Prince, David Bowie, and Lemmy were still alive and kicking. Things weren't amazing, but they were generally heading in the right direction, we thought. Nobody needs a reminder of how wrong we were – although if you'd like a visual aide I suggest you Google the words "bin" and "fire" and peruse the results – but it is fitting that 2016 turned out to be the year Green Day would make their return.

As a band, 2012 was a turbulent time in Green Day's history. Most people will remember it for Billie Joe Armstrong's "meltdown" at the iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas more than the release of a trilogy he described at the time as "the best music we've ever written" (and afterwards as "prolific for the sake of it"). The band stopped half way through a performance of "Basket Case" after a teleprompter informed them they had "one minute" left to finish their set. Armstrong responded with "I've been around since 19-fucking-88 and you're gonna give me one fucking minute? You gotta be fuckin' joking," before he and bassist Mike Dirnt smashed their guitars and walked off. A few days later, the band announced Armstrong had checked into rehab seeking treatment for substance abuse.

Now, several personal journeys and a presidential term later, we have arrived at Revolution Radio – their twelfth studio album in a career spanning three decades. Arguably their most tempestuous and focused release in years, Revolution Radio can loosely be described as American Idiot for the current generation, although that definition is garnered more from context than sound. George W. Bush and Iraq underpinned American Idiot just as Donald Trump and the compounded doom of the year will retrospectively underpin Revolution Radio. With work beginning in 2014, the sentiments on Revolution Radio preceded the boiling point that arrived in tandem with its release. The album may be informed by a broad spectrum of political forces from Black Lives Matter to gun control to climate change, but it was finished way ahead of the period it will, for some, come to define. It serves as a reminder that things don't always happen as suddenly as we like to think.

Considering their most commercially successful album has a fist clutched around a heart-shaped grenade on the cover, Green Day are rarely an explicitly political band. Their approach is more about taking a panoramic glance around the world at large and reacting emotionally in a way that reflects the chaos and confusion of the moment. They are inherently defiant, but rather than getting up in anyone's face they stomp on the ground and try to make sense of the dust that gets kicked up.

It's on a crisp afternoon on November 11 that I find myself sitting opposite Billie Joe Armstrong in a studio in Kensington. We look each other up and down and immediately realise that we've come wearing the exact same outfit; black velvet shirt, black jeans and a facial expression doing its best to belie​ the unmistakable exhaustion of the week's news. "You got the memo!" he says with a levity that feels almost impossible coming from someone a month into an album cycle, just two days after Donald Trump was named the president-elect of the United States, and mere hours after news broke that Leonard Cohen had passed away at the age of 82.

Hey there, Billie Joe Armstrong, how's it going?
I'm good, for the most part.

Yeah, it's not great news is it.
No [laughs]. I'm still processing it. My family is still processing it. There's a lot of feelings going on right now...

I did mean Leonard Cohen, not the politics. Let's not tackle the politics until we both get some coffee.
Oh, that too! I was just thinking – especially after this shitty election and its terrible outcome – now Leonard Cohen? He's the perfect angel though. All these rockstars and amazing artists that die this year and here we are, this week, with Leonard Cohen.

Too tragic. So, Revolution Radio came out last month. Where do you see it as sitting in your discography and what does it mean to you personally?
It's an accumulation of our history. The writing started in 2014 and it was the most excited I'd felt about making a Green Day record in years. So, naturally, it lent itself to something you would hear [on earlier records]. I wanted to play fast again, like the early Green Day stuff, but I also wanted it to be lush and thematic like our later stuff from American Idiot onwards.

I read somewhere you said that the sessions for this album felt like the sessions for Kerplunk?
Yeah! I think it was because we were in such a small space. Back then, I think our first album cost us $700, and we would go and record everything in one day and mix the next day. It was in a tight space with just the engineer. The budget's different now of course, but it was still us in a really small space. We did it in my studio, which I built, in a warehouse in the Temescal area in Oakland. There's a lot of cool shops, a great independent record store, and it's a block away from my guitar store. The feel of that neighbourhood is definitely inside of it.

As well as being a general statement on violence in America at large, a lot of the tracks are super personal. Some touch on you navigating your feelings after rehab. What kind of struggles did you face coming out of that?
Everything felt brand new. I felt pretty vulnerable, but at the same time I felt revitalised. It was really exciting and really scary at the same time. And you're much clearer… You can remember the whole show [laughs]. Or most of it. I don't know what my band members thought, but I think there was this sense that I felt a little more at peace and I was able to – not get nostalgic – but look at my past and what it was like growing up. Having a father that was in the union, the song "Outlaws" is about my old stomping ground and what that means to me now. There's two things you figure out in the record: I'm excited about the things in me that have changed, and there's a certain sadness about things in me that haven't changed. You know? I'm still on that path.

You mentioned "Outlaws", which throws back to your guys' lives as teens. How do you think punk has evolved since then? Do you think its morals or ethics have changed, its role in society has changed?
I think, by definition, punk rock is about freedom. It's up to young people. That's what I get excited about – seeing young people getting into it for the first time and how it's interpreted through fresh eyes. That initial spark still feels the same. There's a band called Dog Party that I really like, and I look at Lucy [Giles, Dog Party] and she's 18-years-old and the way that she and her sister Gwen interpret something like The Ramones and power pop – you see what they do with it and it feels very real. It feels familiar, but it's something new.

You've said a few times that "Revolution Radio" was inspired by a Black Lives Matter protest in New York that you came across by accident and took part in. What was that experience like for you? What made you get out of the car?
There was something therapeutic about it, honestly. I didn't want to be a bystander so, instead of standing there and watching, I walked with them. I wanted to somehow show my support and solidarity and it had an effect on me to the point where I wanted to write songs about it.

Have you been involved in protests before?
Being from the Bay Area of Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco, we come from protest culture. So I would see it all the time and a lot of my education comes from protest songs, especially in the punk scene and Gilman Street. Green Day was never a political band – probably not until writing a song like "Welcome To Paradise" – but the biggest education I ever had was [realising] if there's something that you don't agree with, it plants the seed for revolt. I think that's the most important lesson I've ever had in my life.

Right now massive artists – whether it's Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Solange – are becoming more socially conscious and weighing in on politics in a way that would never have happened four or five years ago. Do you think there's an argument to be made that where pop is at right now has kind of taken the place of where punk was in the 00s in terms of its place and voice in the mainstream?
We're going through a really hardcore political time in pop culture, so it's natural for anyone from Beyonce to Bon Jovi to be involved in something like that. Especially when you have a candidate like Donald Trump, who has a fascist agenda. It's great, but the problem is… it didn't work. We got our asses kicked. Collectively. Across the board. Big time. And now I'm trying to figure out: what does that mean? What does it mean when you have that many white nationalists that said, "No, we're not having it. We're not having it, Bruce Springsteen. We're not having it, Green Day." I think it's a wake up call, and a lot of liberals got their asses humbled. It didn't work... This time, anyway. Now everyone's collectively picking themselves off the ground after being punched in the face.

Revolution Radio was written way ahead of where we're at now but a lot of the themes that underpin it – racial strife, class warfare, gun control – are going to resonate with people even more in the weeks to come. When you were writing it did you ever think this would be a place we would get to?
The best way for me to describe how I'm feeling is in songs, because I can take my time and soul search. So I was looking at issues, whether it's Black Lives Matter or climate change or the desperation that's going on in America – and globally, to a degree – and writing songs like "Bang Bang" and "Revolution Radio" and "Say Goodbye". But when you're writing you're in the moment. It starts with something particular and then all of a sudden these songs take on a different meaning.

I think about American Idiot and writing it after George W. Bush got elected the first time, and then what it meant after he got elected the second time… The main part of America that people want to reflect is: "USA! USA! USA!" There's no compassion. When I hear that over and over and over again – whether it's at a sporting event or a Trump rally – I don't relate to it. It sounds like aggression.

To be honest, everything is so fresh that it's really hard to even promote an album. I kind of want to be a part of the sorrow right now. So we'll see what happens. I think it was Judd Apatow who said something like you can't laugh if you're scared, and that's sort of what's happening right now with music. It's hard to create when you're scared.

American Idiot was remade recently with an entirely black cast and tailored to reflect issues that directly affect the black community. Obviously the reach of that album has been huge, but why do you think it's resonated with so many people?
Man, I don't know!

Were you surprised when you found out about it?
I was really happy. If people are feeling some form of injustice and music strikes a chord I think it can be interpreted in all these different ways. It's kind of like "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. How many times has that song been covered? So many that he told people to stop. American Idiot is kind of the same in that people can interpret it however they want if they're feeling marginalised in some way. Black Lives Matter made it work, that cast made it work for them, and it's their statement. It's not even Green Day's statement, and that's what makes it so beautiful.

Do you think Trump will become a poster boy for fascism in punk in the same way Bush and Reagan have been?
I think he already is. Just the campaign alone… Hillary lost and it's over. As far as I'm concerned it was fair and square. But I look at the kind of campaign that he ran and we're already seeing the fallout from it. People are saying 'make America white again' and putting up swastikas. The KKK and other white supremacist organisations have been emboldened by it. The Republican party is like a big house. There's the fiscal conservatives, the Christian right, and they left a little bedroom in there for the white supremacists… But they're like rats, and now the rats have taken over the fucking house.

You put up a statement on Instagram after the election emphasising that racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobic attitudes aren't welcome at Green Day shows. Do you think punk can still have a role in bringing people together?
There's a negativity that we end up seeing that's in our faces, and our Facebooks, all the time. We need to have a focal point where people can feel unity that's not about taking a cell phone picture. Let's come together and feel united and try to create something that's positive. For us, we want anybody who feels marginalised, and especially feels scared right now – and there are a lot of people of different ethnicities and sexual orientation who are scared – to see our shows as a place to feel like you're welcome in a country where you feel unwelcome.

Green Day has been going for over two decades now. When you were young did you ever see the band coming this far and lasting this long?
I knew I wanted to play music forever, and I love the chemistry of my band. The biggest dream that we have is to stay together and have this unity and be able to make records and keep evolving. So yeah, I did think "I want to be in this band for the rest of my life."

I am pleased that you got to. Thanks Billie!

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