Billie Joe Armstrong: Life lessons in punk rock

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong reflects on 50 years on Earth, and how he straddles his punk rock roots with global stardom.

Billie Joe Armstrong: Life lessons in punk rock

For half a minute, Billie Joe Armstrong has been trying – and failing – to answer a question. “Um… um… hmm… hmmmm. Uh… shit,” he comedically groans every few seconds, noisily making Kerrang! aware that he’s deep in thought. The clock is ticking. He hasn’t gotten very far.

“Oh, jeez,” he laughs. “I’m still thinking…”

The Green Day frontman is attempting to sum up the story of his life on this planet in just a short, snappy soundbite. Granted, it’s a big ask. Finally, though, it hits him.

“Young man’s brain, old man’s heart,” comes the eventual evaluation, along with a proud, satisfied chuckle. “I don’t know why, I just think of the song I’m Eighteen by Alice Cooper,” he explains, referencing the lyric, ‘Baby’s brain and an old man’s heart.’ “That line always resonated with me. That ‘I’m not a boy and I’m not a man’ thing.”

Given the off-the-cuff nature of his response, this feels like a pretty spot-on analysis of the type of person Billie Joe Armstrong is. His youthful, infectious energy betrays the fact that he has spent the past 30 years leading his band – completed by bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool – through an extraordinary career of highs, lows and everything in-between. He is endlessly entertaining in conversation, giggling at his own goofy ramblings and dropping sassy jokes at will (“That’s a rude question,” he deadpans at one point for absolutely no reason whatsoever).

And yet Billie Joe is also a certified rock legend, with millions of album sales and countless awards to his name. He’s a songwriting genius, a musical maverick, and one of the most famous frontmen on the planet. Not to mention he also wears the hats of ‘family man’, ‘producer’, ‘guitar shop and coffee company owner’, ‘Broadway play star’ and ‘occasional actor’. In short: he really needn’t be such an obliging interviewee if his “old man’s heart” wasn’t feeling it.

Today, though, as we catch up with the star at home in Oakland, it’s abundantly clear that it’s his “young man’s brain” that is in fine, full swing. Which is handy, because that’s the part we want to dig into. Away from the company of his bandmates on their usual promotional duties, we’re here to simply dive into the life, career, and mind of Billie Joe.

And in 2020, he has every right to be enjoying where he’s currently at. His band’s latest album, the 4/5-rated Father Of All…, hit Number One in the UK Albums Chart upon its release, its no-fucks-given approach resonating with fans and re-energising its creators. And though the frontman’s often gloomy lyrical themes – at times autobiographical, at times more outward-looking – paint a concerned and even morbid picture of life as it is, you can’t help but get the feeling he’s nevertheless still having fun just being him right now.

“There’s always this thing of people wanting to move forwards, but I think sometimes it’s important to kind of move sideways,” he grins. “Father Of All… was just a different thing that we’ve done, and we were able to challenge ourselves, and dig into our musical roots, and put something out there that is taking things to a different place. It was just such a different record for us, and I think it stuck with people. That’s what success is to me these days.”

Billie Joe Armstrong’s definition of success has changed somewhat over the years. It’s unsurprising, really, given that he’s been making music since he was just a child. Aged five, he recorded his first single, Look For Love, at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley (where, 16 years later, Green Day would go on to make their breakthrough third LP Dookie – a twist of fate that the frontman didn’t even clock “until about two years ago”).

Back then, the musician remembers, he was “this little angelic kid” with “a big head of blond, curly hair”, travelling through the Bay Area in his native California to perform at veterans’ hospitals and other local community centres with his father Andrew, a jazz drummer.

Billie Joe was 10 years old when his life would change forever – and in more ways than one. His early musical recitals came to untimely and tragic end as Andrew lost his battle with oesophageal cancer, leaving Billie Joe wondering where to turn. Soon, though, he would befriend fellow Carquinez Middle School attendee Mike Dirnt – real name Michael Pritchard – and discover the world of punk rock…

Growing up, did you fantasise about being the famous rock star type, or was it more just about being able to write and play music for a living?
“It’s sort of both. I remember wanting to be a rock star like Elvis or Angus Young when I was really young. Then when I started getting into punk and more alternative music, it was already proven that you couldn’t become a rock star (laughs). In a lot of ways, when I got into punk there was a lot of, ‘Punk is dead,’ and a lot of bands tried to take that step into stardom. It was a fleeting aspiration to me. When we got into punk, it was almost like it would be illegal! And then when it happened, it was almost like, ‘Oh, I get to do this illegal thing and then be a rock star at the same time.’ I got the best of both worlds. But I love all levels of it. I would still love to be in a van cruising around the country, but also I love to play arenas and stadiums. It’s all about the ride, and trying to make life interesting.”

“Growing up, I was a sponge for music”

Hear Billie Joe talk about his family’s musical influence on him

You grew up in a very musical household. How important was that in terms of shaping your tastes early on?
“I think my dad being a drummer was a good influence on me. Our parents were just trying to get us involved. I guess they recommended this music school which was in Pinole [in California], and then my sisters went and learned to play the clarinet and the flute and shit like that, and they would do this stuff for school. There was definitely a lot of music in general, and my family had a lot of records around. My mom was listening to Dolly Parton and Hank Williams, and my sister would listen to Fleetwood Mac, and my other sister was listening to Prince and Rick James, and my other sister was listening to Journey. And I was exposed to a lot of Led Zeppelin. My oldest brother, Alan, was way into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I was like a sponge for all of it.”

How much of your own upbringing did you later take into having a family yourself?
“Not much (laughs). I always followed [Billie Joe’s wife] Adrienne’s lead. I think the one thing that I knew how to do was music. I always just had instruments around the house all the time, and it was almost like a way for us to communicate that was outside of being parents and all that stuff. It was like being bilingual, in a lot of ways.”

Within 13 months of releasing Dookie you’d gotten married and started a family, and you’ve spoken about being pretty freaked out by that whole time. Is there anything you would do differently about it if you had the chance to go back?
“Gosh… No, I don’t think so. I have no regrets about any of it. My life was just going so crazy, so why not make it even crazier by adding marriage and kids into it (laughs). It was a lot of reckless behaviour, and then reality kinda kicked in. I don’t know how to explain it, but every day there was something new and crazy that was going on during that time.”

Were there any points where you really struggled to balance family life and your career?
“It was always tough when I would go on the road and be away from them. It was hard to keep it all together. You know, there were times where I’d just be out partying really hard, but I’d also flip the switch and be able to come home and be present, and be a decent parent. It was definitely like living two different lives, in a lot of ways. I would go from being completely grounded to then trying to be an artist at the same time, and I’d get caught up in my own head a lot, and maybe sometimes not quite be always available. It was tough, but I was able to get that together, I guess.”

Were you comfortable with being thrust into the spotlight – especially at such a young age?
“No, it was completely uncomfortable. I was completely out of my comfort zone, because it was all chaos. It was like every day this thing was getting bigger and bigger. It was really exciting, but it was also really stressful, because you suddenly go from doing everything yourselves and sleeping on floors, and then suddenly it was like everybody was in a frenzy to get to me, Mike and Tré. It was just nuts – it was a crazy time.”

Are you comfortable with fame these days?
“No, not really. I mean, sometimes it’s great – when I’m able to communicate with fans and people are cool, and when people get something out of the music and you make these connections. But I think the thing that makes it uncomfortable is how fucked-up social media has become, and how everyone’s got a camera in their pocket now. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t fans who just wanna be guilty by association or something. They wanna hold you in their pocket as a souvenir. And I think that sometimes that’s the part that gets annoying. I don’t like my picture being taken with people (laughs). It’s fine with fans – and I can always tell when someone is a genuine fan. But then there are people where you’re just sitting there in your fuckin’ sweats and they just want to get a piece of you for their own ego. That’s the part that I’m uncomfortable with – when you’re in compromised situations. But it’s par for the course, and I have to kind of wrestle with it a little bit.”

“It gets difficult when people just want you to be the Dookie guy”

Hear Billie Joe discuss change

At the very beginning of the band’s 2005 live DVD, Bullet In A Bible, you say, ‘I am Green Day. That is me. That is my life.’ Has that ever been too much of a responsibility to handle?
“It’s a huge part of me. It’s weird, because I think the success stuff has sometimes fucked up my head. People associate things that I’ve done back when I was 17 or 18 years old – 30 years ago – with who I am now. And you change a lot. I remember a lot of my friends were in these little punk rock or pop-punk bands back in the late-’80s and early-’90s, and then their band would break up, and suddenly they’d be in a garage rock band. Then that band would break up, and then suddenly they’d be in an alt.country band (laughs). I would see how other people have changed, and gone from one thing to another, and for me it’s been a little more difficult. There’s the [label] of being in Green Day, and people associate you with everything that you’ve done in the past. People have a snapshot of you in their own lives based off of something that you did many years ago, and it’s like they’re uncomfortable with change. And I’m uncomfortable with change, too, but it’s inevitable; you have to do it. With Green Day, it gets difficult when people just want you to be the Dookie guy, or the Kerplunk! guy, or the Insomniac guy, or the Nimrod guy. Life just changes, and you have to be able to roll with it, and have new dreams and fantasies about the kind of changes that mean something to you.”

If Green Day were just starting up as a new band now, in the age of social media and streaming, how do you think you would fare?
“Ooft. I don’t know! It’s getting more and more rare to get three or four people together to make a rock’n’roll band, you know? Especially because people are able to do home recordings, so I feel like there’s maybe more solo artists now. Getting a band together… God! I don’t know. It’s a tough question to answer because it’s all hypothetical, but I think that we would definitely have people that dug what we do. But do I think it would be on a level that it became back when Dookie and all that happened? I’m not sure. I think we always generate new – and young – fans, and people still seem to be discovering albums like Dookie. I think there’s something about the energy that always shined through with us. But my answer is: it would be likely and unlikely at the same time (laughs).”

You’ve spoken about not succumbing to trends just to try and stay relevant. Were there ever points where you tried to fit in?
“No! It’s important to never give people what they want; you give people what they don’t know they want (laughs). It can definitely turn people off, but, I mean, with me, Mike and Tré, it’s always just been this collective effort. It’s like being a three-headed monster. I never really thought about it. I mean, doing something like [1997 Nimrod mega single] Good Riddance was terrifying for me, to put myself out there and be that vulnerable. I thought people were probably gonna fucking hate it, you know? But I think the way that it resonated with people, I was able to kind of go, ‘Okay, now I’ve really accomplished something that was a shift.’ And, as an artist, I felt more empowered that I could keep doing my thing without having to feel like I had to please everybody.”

What’s the most visceral reaction you’ve ever had to a lyrical breakthrough while you were writing a song?
“On Junkies On A High [on Father Of All…], there’s the line, ‘Rock’n’roll tragedy / I think the next one could be me.’ I think that rock musicians are very troubled people, and I think that that’s what sets us apart from pop music, because it’s not all lollipops and rainbows for us. You think about someone like Chris Cornell, or Chester [Bennington], or Kurt Cobain, or even Tom Petty – nobody knew that the guy spent a lifetime on opiates. It’s like numbing yourself until you murder yourself. Music has always kind of been a big drug for me, but, at the same time, when you see these casualties, you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, when is this gonna happen to me?’ I never expected to live this long – and who knows how long I’m gonna stick around? You know, I could get hit by a fucking bus tomorrow (laughs), or just one day not wake up. It’s a scary fucking business.”

Is that something you actually think about? ‘If I go outside today, I could get hit by a bus’?
“(Laughs) No, not really.”

Mental health is a more prevalent theme in music these days, but back when Green Day were starting out and writing songs about your own anxiety, did you ever have any internal battles about not putting that side of yourself out there?
“I feel like I started going through a mid-life crisis when I was 20 (laughs), because I didn’t think I was gonna live that long! It’s something that’s always been in my head. Whether it’s people dealing with PTSD or… like, everybody’s got a part of their brain that is neurotic, or maybe even paranoid, or bi-polar, or they have a personality disorder. The punk rock scene, for me, was a scene of all these people with personality disorders coming together a lot of the time. And I didn’t really realise that until later on. If you’re into punk and hard rock, it kinda mellows people out. In a way, it’s the antidote for really troubled people. And I think that maybe Green Day is kind of the same way: I sing about a lot of anguish and despair – but I try to do it in a funny way. And I think that’s maybe what’s relatable about it… I don’t know. It’s just being real.”

Speaking of being real, are there any misconceptions out there about Billie Joe Armstrong that really bother you?
“Hmm. Misconceptions? I kind of revel in the misconceptions about me! I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel on the spot and you’re making me crazy right now (laughs). I feel like everybody gets it wrong, in a lot of ways. It’s like they say, ‘Oh, you’re this punk!’ And I’m like, ‘No I’m not.’ Or, ‘Oh, you’re a popstar!’ And I’m like, ‘No, I am not.’ Or, ‘Oh, you’re St. Jimmy.’ ‘No I’m not!’ So then it’s, ‘You’re not St. Jimmy!’ ‘Yes I am!’ I don’t know, I just think I’m a little bit of everything.”

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