Billie Joe Armstrong could be forgiven a bit of ego. After all, his band, Green Day, sold more than 9 million copies of its major-label debut, 1994's Dookie, and almost singlehandedly brought punk rock back above ground. In fact, Spin magazine crowned him "The King of Punk" a few years back. So, it would be understandable if he had started to put on some rock-star airs.
But Armstrong, calling from a hotel room somewhere in Los Angeles, still possesses a childlike sense of wonder about it all. Enthusiastically discussing his band's new album, Nimrod, he seems genuinely touched to receive praise, like a kid getting his art-class drawing hung on the refrigerator. If Dookie was his reach for the stars, then Armstrong has done a damn good job at keeping his feet on the ground since.
"I had my heavy-metal heroes and shit like that when I was a kid," he says. "When I realized that when you shoot for anything--like being a rock star like David Lee Roth or Jon Bon Jovi or something like that--[you set yourself up] to become a dismal failure," Armstrong says. "I think for me, punk rock is like, I want to be a dismal failure first."
"It had already been a proven fact that you couldn't get famous off of playing punk rock," Armstrong says. He had help staying grounded. Insomniac, the band's 1995 follow-up, was panned by many critics and sold "only" 1.6 million copies, a disappointment when compared with the success of Dookie. In support of Insomniac, the band went on an extensive tour that ended abruptly in Germany, when the worn-out band canceled the rest of its dates and staggered back home.
"We quit in the middle of the tour. It was just turning into some sort of cliched rock 'n' roll tragedy," Armstrong says. "It was like, Let's get back to reality."
Reality for Armstrong is his wife, Adrienne, and son Joey. The apathetic, pot-smoking punk that appeared on Dookie has become Nimrod's responsible husband and father, trying to keep the spark in his marriage. This struggle animates Nimrod, resulting in some of the band's most personal and affecting work to date.
Ironically, Insomniac's failure to live up to the sales of its predecessor put them in an enviable position: successful enough to do what they wanted, yet without the spotlight of the increasingly bogus pop-punk revival tracking their every move. The canceled tour afforded them something they hadn't had in a long while--time. The band used the opportunity to "try out some new things."
"It's something we'd thought about for a long time," Armstrong says. "I think, for this record, it was an opportunity to sort of expand and just write a lot of songs."
The band spent four months in a Hollywood recording studio--about twice the amount of time it took to record Dookie and Insomniac--laying down tracks for Nimrod. The extra time allowed Armstrong, always a prolific writer, to create more than 40 songs, all of which the band recorded.
"We had double the time, so we had double the songs. We had so many songs that we really didn't know what we wanted to do. We didn't know how we wanted to present this record," Armstrong says. "There was one thought, Let's just make another record that's sort of similar to what we've always done in the past; [another was] Let's do something out of the ordinary and have like a double CD, but then the double-CD thing started to become trendy, the Smashing Pumpkins and all these people. So what we wanted to do was just make a long record. That's what it came down to, and that's what we did."
Nimrod is more than just a long record. It is that rare type of album that allows the band to stretch its wings a bit without alienating its fans. Violins, horns, and harmonica all figure prominently in the mix, but the nut that makes Green Day who they are is still there. Armstrong still bashes away at the cheap guitar his mom bought for him when he was 12, while bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool frenetically provide the backbeat.
Lyrically is where the band has made the most progress. Dookie and Insomniac perfectly captured that period between dropping out of high school and starting work at the auto shop. But that period is over. Armstrong and the band have different problems now, like growing old and raising kids. Armstrong is still fed up, but this time he turns the cynicism inward, recalling two of the band's early albums on Lookout! Records, 1990's 39/Smooth and 1992's Kerplunk!, before pot smoker's ennui took root.
The album kicks off with "Nice Guys Finish Last," a familiar blast of pop-punk that eases the transition between Insomniac and Nimrod. "Hitchin' A Ride," the second song and first single off the album, however, announces its intentions from the beginning, courtesy of a lone violin played by that dog's Petra Haden. "She was sort of the first person we thought of to put the violin thing in there, and it ended up being cool," Armstrong says.
The song, which shamelessly rips off the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut," is like nothing the band has attempted before. Not surprisingly, it is the most difficult song on the album; not exactly a disposable tune, the song is more like: Welcome to Green Day, Mark II. I hope you like our new direction.
Strings show up later on "Last Ride In," the moody surf instrumental that marks the halfway point on the album, and again on "Good Riddance (The Time of Your Life)," which is, of all things, an acoustic ballad--a first among firsts for the band. Other songs, such as "The Grouch," "Scattered," and "Worry Rock," are the kind of pop-punk nuggets that fans are used to, but they have been ever-so-slightly tweaked--more toward the pop than the punk--allowing Armstrong's songwriting to come to the forefront. His songs have always been good to great; it's only that before, they were concealed beneath faux British accents and cheap hair dye. It's a fact not lost on Armstrong.
"For this record, I really wanted to make something that kind of--I don't know--just expand myself, and it takes a lot of hard work," he says. "I definitely work my ass off. I don't take things lightly. My songs are pretty serious; I take it seriously."
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Overall, Nimrod marks an important step in Green Day's evolution, a confident stride that puts the band's punk roots aside without leaving them behind completely--more like switching lanes than exiting the highway. The sound and approach may change a bit, but don't expect any drum loops or samples.
"During the '80s there was like Flock of Seagulls, Howard Jones, Devo," Armstrong observes. "They all used electronics. People are acting like it's this sort of new thing." He seems to bristle at the notion. "Someone was bound to come along and do it, and do it in a way that's more interesting and put it in a song format instead of these long, drawn-out rave anthems or whatever. Music goes in cycles." Regardless of the fluctuations in pop trends and tastes, however, Armstrong knows where he and Green Day fit in.
"Right now," he says with both conviction and pride, "we're one of the last rock 'n' roll bands."
Green Day plays Deep Ellum Live Thursday, October 30.