Sobriety, colonoscopies and fighting the MAGA agenda: Green Day on making a racket in 2024

Green Day rang in the new year by irking the richest man in the world.

Singing the California punk trio’s George W. Bush-era “American Idiot” on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong tweaked a lyric about Bush’s “redneck agenda” to register his disgust with the “MAGA agenda” that former President Trump hopes to bring back to the Oval Office. Conservative pundits and other figures on the right promptly freaked out, including Elon Musk, who told his 168 million followers on X that Green Day had gone from “raging against the machine to milquetoastedly raging for it.”

For a band of longtime rabble-rousers, it was an auspicious start to 2024 — and a great way to drum up attention ahead of its new album, “Saviors.”

But as befits a group with deep roots in Berkeley’s radical-collectivist punk scene, don’t think that Armstrong is anxiously awaiting an invite to play a rally for President Biden.

“I’m really reluctant to get in bed with any politician,” the singer says. “Not that we’ve ever been asked,” he adds with a laugh. “I think there’s a side of us that people might look at as being anti-American, so they hold us at arm’s length.

“But if we didn’t care about this country, we wouldn’t say anything.”

The intemperance of rebellion and the wisdom of experience — that’s the balance Green Day strikes on “Saviors,” the trio’s 14th studio LP. Due Friday, 30 years after the release of 1994’s breakthough “Dookie,” the new album is by turns bratty, tender, furious, witty, knowing and aggrieved as the songs ponder politics, sobriety, parenthood and sex; the sound is gleaming but raw, thick with distorted guitars yet speedy in tempo and riddled with hooks. Rob Cavallo, who produced “Dookie” and 2004’s “American Idiot,” oversaw the recording, his first time working with Green Day in more than a decade.

“We are the last of the rockers making a commotion,” Armstrong sings in the slashing title track, and while that’s not quite true — U2 and Pearl Jam, among others, would like a word — “Saviors” does showcase one of the relatively few Gen X rock acts still capable of filling football stadiums, as Armstong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool, all three aged 51, will do this year. (Three summers ago, Green Day mounted a stadium run called the Hella Mega Tour with Fall Out Boy and Weezer.)

The members of Green Day know that some of their success on the road, including their headlining slot at October’s When We Were Young festival in Las Vegas, has to do with fans’ eagerness to relive fond memories of the ’90s and early 2000s, when the band was churning out hits like “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around,” “Brain Stew,” “Minority,” “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

“They literally started doing emo nights [at clubs] like two years after My Chemical Romance broke up,” Armstrong says of the pop-punk revival enshrined at When We Were Young, which also featured Blink-182, the Offspring, Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and dozens of other groups. “You’re like, wait, it’s not even old yet. Give it another seven, eight years and then you can feel the nostalgia.”

But the band isn’t just rehashing the glory days that lately have inspired even pop stars like Olivia Rodrigo.

“Green Day made me realize that as you get older, you don’t have to die creatively,” says Ian Shelton of the up-and-coming hardcore band Militarie Gun. “When you’re a kid, you think that’s the case. But I’ve been listening to Green Day since I was in elementary school, and I turned on one of their new songs this morning and enjoyed it in my 30s. That’s pretty psycho.”

Says Armstrong of the band’s crackling performance at When We Were Young: “I know none of those bands wanted to follow us.”

A man raises his right arm on a stage.

Green Day causes trouble on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest.”

(Gilbert Flores/Penske Media via Getty Images)

It’s the day after Green Day pre-taped its “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” performance, and Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool are seated shoulder to shoulder on a banquette at the Sunset Marquis’ dimly lighted Bar 1200. The three hung out here the night before after the show, Armstrong drinking the nonalcoholic Heineken 0.0s he says he enjoys with one caveat: “Those things make you piss so much. It’s like water and a diuretic at the same time. I had two of them, and I swear to God, I peed 27 times.”

“If any of your readers have pee-pee fetishes,” Cool offers, “Billie Joe is your man.”

Armstrong has been sober for nearly 18 months. He quit drinking for about five years after an infamous onstage meltdown at the 2012 iHeartRadio Music Festival but began again “almost out of FOMO,” as he puts it, meaning the fear of missing out. “I was like, I wanna have a beer and hang out with my friends,” he says. “And then it just escalated. By the time I was ready to kick it, I felt like I was becoming a human garbage can: ‘Oh, there’s drugs around? OK, sure.’ I was acting really impulsively, and it was stressing out my family.”

The singer says that he didn’t do AA or any other program but that he’s careful about where he puts himself these days. “If it’s a social situation that’s intolerable without drinking, I’m just not in that situation anymore,” he says.

“You’ve probably had every meaningless conversation you need to have,” Dirnt tells him.

“There’s no party I haven’t seen,” Armstrong confirms. “So why do something where I wake up in a park the next day?”

Cool turns to his bandmate, suddenly serious amid his usual barrage of jokes. “We’re both really proud of you,” he says.

A man peers out from behind a bush.

“There’s no party I haven’t seen,” says Billie Joe Armstrong, sober for 18 months. “So why do something when I wake up in a park the next day?”

(Ariel Fisher / For The Times)

As the New Year’s Eve kerfuffle made clear, Green Day is jumping back into the political fray this election year after lying relatively low during the Trump era. For the band’s last album, 2020’s garage-rocking “Father of All Motherf—ers,” “we purposely stayed away from politics just because everything was such an easy target,” Armstrong says. “We didn’t want to be like this CNN band. And I think in the back our minds we knew that MAGA and the divisiveness was gonna be there four years later anyway.”

“Saviors” opens with “The American Dream Is Killing Me,” in which Armstrong rhymes “huddled masses” with “TikTok and taxes” as part of a bleak (if darkly comic) portrait of a country overrun by homelessness, depression and baseless conspiracy theorizing. “It’s the feeling of just being completely lost and confused in the era that we live in,” says the singer, who adds that he wanted the song’s quick-cut images to evoke the chaos of a social media feed.

He remembers scrolling recently with his wife, Adrienne, when the two came across a vintage Jon Stewart monologue about Israel and Hamas. “And then Adrienne flipped to the next screen and it was an older woman with no teeth who’s singing into a microphone and then farts into it,” he says. “It was like, Wow, that sums it all up.”

Armstrong nods to those evenings at home with his wife in “Bobby Sox,” a fuzzed-out love song about sitting on the couch watching reruns on TV. In the song he asks, “Do you wanna be my girlfriend?” which he says is among the sweet nothings he often whispers to Adrienne. “But then in the next verse, I thought I should flip the script,” he says. “I’m kind of playing the character of the woman, but it also felt really liberating to sing, ‘Do you wanna be my boyfriend?’” adds Armstrong, who identifies as bisexual. “It became more of a queer singalong.”

Not long ago, the singer played “Bobby Sox” for an old friend about the same age as him. “And it brought a tear to his eye when he heard the second verse,” Armstrong says. “Nowadays it’s more common for kids to be LGBTQ, and there’s more support. But for us, back in the day, that was like the beginning of when people were able to openly say things like that.”

What do Armstrong and his bandmates make of the current moral panic over transgender youths?

“I just think they’re f—ing close-minded,” Armstrong says. “It’s like people are afraid of their children. Why would you be afraid? Why don’t you let your kid just be the kid that they are?”

Three guys in a black and white photo.

Green Day in 1994.

(Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

The singer attributes his progressive politics to what he calls the “reeducation” he happily received at 924 Gilman, the legendary all-ages Berkeley club where Green Day came up in the late ’80s alongside bands such as Operation Ivy and Samiam. Yet the scene’s fierce idealism came back to bite Green Day after “Dookie” blew up — to date the album has sold more than 10 million copies — and the members were scornfully branded by Gilman hard-liners as rock stars.

“‘Rock star’ was like a bad word,” Armstrong says. “That really hurt my feelings. It was like suddenly we were different.”

Did they feel different?

“I had the same bumper stickers on my Ferrari that I had on my other car,” Dirnt answers with a grin.

The three look back on the mid-’90s with a kind of amused detachment, as does Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, the guitarist with Orange County’s Offspring whose band exploded around the same time as Green Day. Noodles recalls walking into a truck stop on tour in that era and seeing a teen magazine with “Offspring vs. Green Day” splashed on the cover.

“I still have it somewhere in a box,” he says, laughing. “They tried to make it this battle between us, which was obviously so dumb — and extra weird, of course, because coming from the punk scene, we weren’t supposed to have success.”

Except Green Day kept having it, topping Billboard’s album chart a full decade after “Dookie” with “American Idiot,” which even spawned a Broadway musical. Inevitably, perhaps, the band’s commercial fortunes have dwindled a bit in more recent years: Of “¡Uno!,” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tré!,” released as a trilogy of go-go power-pop records in 2012, Armstrong says, “We might have related to it more than our fans did.” And “Father of All Motherf—ers” was hardly helped by the fact that it came out mere weeks before COVID — nor by a widely mocked ad campaign that guaranteed “no Swedish songwriters” and “no trap beats.”

Asked if he regrets that fuddy-duddy framing, Armstrong says, “It was meant to get a reaction, and it did. But it wasn’t my favorite moment. I’d rather have just put the music out and let it do the talking.”

“But then 2020 hit,” Dirnt adds, “and we didn’t really get to give life to the record.”

“So we were stuck with the billboard,” Armstrong says with a shrug.

For “Saviors,” Cavallo could tell right away that “the energy was right,” the producer says — “that combination of inspiration and enthusiasm and the abandon to just say, ‘F— it.’” Green Day recorded most of the LP in London because Armstrong “needed a break from the USA,” he says. “America was like a girlfriend you need time apart from.”

The separation didn’t exactly restore a sense of optimism about the country’s direction. Armstrong can “absolutely” envision Trump winning the presidency in November, he says. “I think he’s crazy, and I think he’ll say anything to get elected.” The criticism of President Biden’s age strikes Armstrong as unfair — “He’s surrounded by good people,” he figures — though he laments an overabundance of “old men” in government.

“There’s not a single Gen X person in higher office right now that has any real influence,” he says. “It’s boomers that don’t want to give up their power. I see millennials like AOC,” he adds, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “or Lauren f—ing Boebert. But Gen X, we’ve gotten skipped over” — one reason he believes that the American idea of “giving something over to your kids that they can build on — that’s just dead.”

Speaking of which: If you’ve seen the Taco Bell commercial soundtracked by the new album’s blistering “Look Ma, No Brains!,” you should know that the fast-food chain originally wanted to use “The American Dream Is Killing Me.”

“I was like, Hmm, I don’t really think that’s the appropriate song for a seven-layer burrito,” Armstrong says. Was licensing “Look Ma, No Brains!” a tough call?

Cool laughs. “We made a bet amongst ourselves that we could get Taco Bell to show the person eating a taco while Billie sings, ‘Sick boy, and I s— the bed,’” he says — which indeed the spot does (albeit in censored form). Even so, it’s been years since the trio stopped making decisions based on the fear that some fans might call them sellouts.

Says Cool: “If we walked on water, they’d say we can’t swim.”

Three members of a rock band pose by a swimming pool.

“There’s not a single Gen X person in higher office right now that has any real influence,” laments Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. “We’ve gotten skipped over.”

(Ariel Fisher / For The Times)

Beyond the high-energy stuff, “Saviors” contains a handful of ballads in keeping with the ruminative sound of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” each of which has more than half a billion streams on Spotify. Norah Jones, who recorded an album of Everly Brothers tunes with Armstrong in 2013, isn’t surprised that this once-scrappy punk band has scored some of its biggest hits in a folky acoustic mode.

“His singing has so much character, and he hears harmonies so well, which not all frontpeople do,” she says of Armstrong. The pop-jazz star remembers hearing “Good Riddance” for the first time as a teenager watching TV — “Was it on an episode of ‘The Real World’?” she asks — and almost being moved to tears. “Man, that’s a beautiful song,” she says.

The most affecting ballad on “Saviors” is “Father to a Son,” about Armstrong’s discovery that “a love could be scarier than anger,” as he sings in his signature California whine.

“Becoming a dad so young, I was really immature,” he says regarding his two sons, now both in their 20s. “My wife led the charge, because she’s just a natural-born caregiver. I had to figure out how to grow up, and I know I f—ed up as a father. But your hope is that you didn’t break their heart in any way.”

Did turning 50 as he watched his children move into adulthood trigger any kind of midlife crisis?

Armstrong says he “prepared for the number” by working on his mental health and ramping up his physical exercise. As a celebrity, he admits, “you worry about the vanity part of it.” He also got a colonoscopy.

“I went into the hospital, and we’re trying to be discreet,” he says. “Nobody’s saying a word about anything, so I’m like, Cool, nobody knows who I am. They roll me in and give me the drugs and I’m out. I wake up and the doctor comes in and says, ‘Everything looks great — no issues.’” He laughs. “Then the nurse goes, ‘Just to let you know, we’re big fans, and we listened to Green Day the whole time we were in there.’”

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