Americana: More from Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and 'American Idiot,' the musical
Green Day's Mike Dirnt, from left, Billie Joe Armstrong and Tré Cool. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Records.
By Kimberly Chun
Another helping of American Idiot, anyone? Berkeley Rep has obliged by extending the run of the musical through Nov. 1. Meanwhile here’s more from an interview with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong in August -- for the rest of the story, see “No Brainer” in the Guardian’s Fall Arts Preview issue.
SFBG: So what does the album mean to you now?
Billie Joe Armstrong: Um, I think it means that we were right. [Laughs] I think it means ... a lot. I love that album. It’s one of my proudest moments as a musician, for sure -- having the guts and audacity to make a record that was that ambitious, but still, at the same time, be true to rock ‘n’ roll music, I guess.
SFBG: Have your ideas about album or the story changed with the making of the musical?
BJA: No, I think it’s still about the main character, the Jesus of Suburbia, and St. Jimmy and the conflict that goes on between the two. Maybe a lot of people have something in common with those characters.
SFBG: How involved were you in developing the musical’s story?
BJA: You know, it was based on a special packaging of American Idiot -- there were letters inside that I’d written coming from the Jesus of Suburbia character and Whatsername, and [director and co-writer Michael Mayer] sort of used that as the blueprint for the musical. I pretty much let him have free reign.
I have so much respect for Michael. After seeing Spring Awakening, I knew he could come up with something that was great -- and be sincere to the album. And when I saw the first few workshops, I was blown away -- it was even more than I expected.
John Gallagher, Jr. in American Idiot. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.
SFBG: Did you think there was anything in particular that was important to preserve or amplify?
BJA: My main concern was the St. Jimmy character -- they went through a lot of different auditions for that one, more so than, I think, any other audition. Everyone else just fit right in, but that character had to be particular to, I guess, my vision of him.
SFBG: What was that vision exactly?
BJA: I dunno -- just a beautiful antagonist. It’s just something I grew up with, whether it reflects certain friends of mine or something about myself.
SFBG: Was the making of the Green Day’s new album, 21st Century Breakdown, affected by the musical? The two were being developed at the same time, right?
BJA: I think those people really inspired me a lot -- especially [arranger] Tom Kitt who did the new arrangements for the musical. I had him do some string arrangements for 21st Century Breakdown after I met him, because I thought he was just brilliant.
SFBG: Has working with Michael Mayer and looking at an album as rock opera or musical changed your songwriting approach in general?
BJA: Um, probably. I would think that ... it’s definitely had an impact. I remember listening to stuff like, uh, god, like West Side Story and Rocky Horror Picture Show to Tommy by the Who. It definitely made me want to trust my instincts and take on more challenges as a writer.
SFBG: American Idiot came out in 2004 -- what was that year like for you?
BJA: It was just a lot of confusion. At the time I felt like it was sort of a call to arms, because I felt so misrepresented as an American, and this person who was in office that was, you know, really damaged America. The character of America and, internally, the infrastructure. I still felt like we’re dealing with the aftermath of all of that, and we’re going to be dealing with that for probably the next 10 years.
SFBG: I’m curious about how you feel, being in a band that’s punk, successful and politically conscious -- do you feel like you have a lot of kindred out there on the charts? Have things changed?
BJA: I think a lot of people have to watch their wallets and sort of watch their congress people. We’ve been sort of forced into a situation where you can’t be apathetic -- so that’s the way I kind of feel.
But everybody’s going through that. I don’t know if it’s just me, but people talk politics more now than in the past four or five years, more than I’ve ever seen before in my life -- whether it’s homes going into foreclosure or a war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve become ... paranoid -- and have to watch our backs a little bit.
SFBG: Did you see 21st Century Breakdown as a continuation of American Idiot?
BJA: I think it might be -- not a musical continuation or anything like that, but it could be just a natural evolution. It wasn’t like I wanted to write a record that was completely different -- if I did, I probably would have written a party record. [Laughs] But it’s definitely sort of a continuation of idealism.
SFBG: What do you think about the album forms -- you’re making concept albums in an MP3 era. Also thinking about a new song like “Static Age,” which seems so critical of technology -- how do you feel about music changing with new media, and the new ways that people consume or listen to it?
BJA: I embrace it -- I think there’s something about it that’s sad, too -- because it’s sort of like being lost in the Wild West a little bit. Like I said before, you can’t autograph a download -- not that I’m asking anybody if they want my autograph or anything like that! But there’s something about an album ...
To me it’s like when someone writes a novel, you want to touch it. You want to feel it, you want to put it somewhere where it can collect dust, then pull it back out, and blow the dust off, and play it again. It’s something that goes on. I have albums I’ve had since I was 14 years old. It’s just something I prefer, you know.
SFBG: Both albums hark back to a more ambitious time in rock history -- is that sort of thinking missing now in rock or pop music?
BJA: [Takes a deep breath] Outside of a few bands, the problem is that, with a lot of bands or artists, the record company does what the radio stations want them to do. Then they tell the artist that’s what they need: they need a single, and then people get stuck in this sort of bubble.
It kind of takes all the ambition out of making a rock record, and for me, thats what it’s supposed to be about. I think the world needs some really good rock stars and people who stand for something and albums that stand for something -- and hopefully that’s what we’re trying to capture.
SFBG: What are the most pressing political issues today that you wish people would be more aware of or passionate about?
BJA: I think it’s sort of something different every single day. This war going on in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous. Sustainability and the environment are really important, but I think people are catching onto that.
I think healthcare is a really big deal. I think everyone deserves, you know, free healthcare, and I think that the way that these people think of it as socialized medicine ... it’s kind of frightening to think that they don’t really know what socialism is. [Laughs]
Through Nov. 1
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2015 Addison, Berk.