Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt headed into 2024 knowing his band was going to be a big topic of conversation throughout the year. Their new album Saviors arrives Jan. 19, they’ll spend the summer on a massive stadium tour with Smashing Pumpkins and Rancid, and they’re celebrating the anniversaries of two career-making albums: 30 years of Dookie and 20 of American Idiot.
What he didn’t expect was that his trio — with singer Billie Joe Armstrong and drummer Tré Cool — would draw heavy fire from the right literally seconds into the new year after Armstrong slightly changed a lyric in “American Idiot” from “I’m not part of the redneck agenda” to “I’m not part of a MAGA agenda” during a performance on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest. “Green Day goes from raging against the machine,” Elon Musk wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) to his 168.8 million followers, “to milquetoastedly (sic) raging for it.”
Back at his home in California one week later, Dirnt is still a little stunned by the reaction. “The song’s twenty years old, and we’re Green Day,” he says via Zoom. “What did you expect? Come on. I think the best part about it is that it provoked conversation. It got people talking. First it was rhetorical, and then it got into conversation. Anytime you can get people talking, you’re always going to have the loudest voices [heard first], and then everyone else in the room is going to figure out what it really means.”
And his reaction to the world’s wealthiest man saying they were somehow part of the “machine?” “Elon Musk actually is the machine,” Dirnt says. “I can’t take anything else from that. He’s not shy about saying stupid shit on the internet. Whatever.”
With that out of the way, we were free to delve into Saviors, Dirnt’s long friendship with Armstrong, the early days of Green Day, the pressure the band faced after the success of American Idiot in 2004, reuniting with Dookie producer Rob Cavallo, waiting all these years to write song about the Trump era, and what they have planned for the new year and beyond.
Billie told me a few years back that had your middle school not merged with his thanks to budgeting issues in the town, you two wouldn’t have become friends, and his entire life would have been completely different. Do you feel the same way?
Absolutely. He’s totally right on that. That’s just kismet, or dumb luck, or whatever. But we’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve known since I met Billie that, musically, he was way ahead of all of our peers that were trying to play music. But we were kindred spirits right off the bat when it came to music.
We were also both latchkey kids after his father passed away [when he was 10]. And my household with my mom and stepdad was really turbulent. We really latched onto each other, and music became this great vessel for us.
In your first Rolling Stone interview back in 1995, you said you had “blue-collar values.” How do you think those values shaped you?
Those values were learned. I worked for UPS in Richmond, California. I cooked seafood for a living at a seafood restaurant. I did hard labor when I was a kid. But beyond that, I think as a band, we have a work ethic. Up until after the [2012 album] trilogy, we practiced anywhere from four to six days a week. We did for the entirety of our career.
That’s so rare for a band in your position. Most of the big groups finish a tour and then take off a few years.
That always blew my mind. I remember a long time ago talking to other bands and they’d be like, “Yeah, we’re going to go in the studio and start writing in another couple months.” And I’m like, “You don’t practice every day? You don’t write or rehearse every day?” There’s muscle memory in Green Day. I think that’s where a lot of the energy comes from. That, and Tré’s foot.
When you guys first started putting out music in 1990, there was nothing like Green Day on the charts or MTV. It was hair metal and Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul. Did you even imagine there might be any place for your music in the mainstream of the culture?
I did on one hand because Nirvana was writing great songs. The Smashing Pumpkins were writing great songs. There was great stuff breaking through. I knew we were writing great records already. I just wanted to capture them sonically in a way that was much bigger.
We took on recording Dookie as a learning process. We wanted to learn about the studio and all the gear. We were like, “How do you record?” And Rob [Cavallo] already had a really good foothold on how to record and get rock & roll to sound great. That was a great experience. We learned a lot very quickly by working with him.
At some point, did the success of Dookie freak you out? You were really young and suddenly inescapable on MTV, rock radio, and magazine covers.
Oh, absolutely. We were leaving the punk community since the shows were just getting too big. And so what were we going to do? Quit and go back to work for UPS or start flipping burgers? No, this was the only choice we really had. But I understand that people held it against us. We used to be their band. We were now the world’s band.
It also freaked me out because we had worked before. We worked our ass off up until we wrote Dookie, and then we really started to work. Up until then, we would drive, play a show, and do whatever. But now it’s interviews, radio shows, meeting with labels, lawyers, high-pressure recording, things like that.
In that 1995 Rolling Stone interview, you talked about how hard it was to tour since there was little to do the 23 hours a day you weren’t onstage.
Yeah. We started falling apart. We had a tour during Insomniac where we basically had a breakdown in Europe and we couldn’t handle it anymore. The question becomes, “How do we deal with struggle?” And we’ve always had each other. We’ve been able to have conversations about how we really feel at the time. It’s not always been ironed out smoothly, but the goal is always the same: How do we get to the best version of Green Day?
Billie was under a lot of pressure in those early days since he was the face of the band. People were even showing up at his house. He had to move. Was it easier for you?
Yeah. For one, the last name “Dirnt” is hard to remember. And then, two, I look like your average white guy. If I grow a beard, I’m a little more invisible. I don’t have the most recognizable eyes in the world, like my singer does. And look, Billie’s a very deeply emotional person, and it’s a blessing for all of us, but I never take for granted that it must be difficult. I never take lightly that there’s weight to carry there, too. It’s a weight to bear.
Most punk groups weren’t really built to last. A lot of the great ones like the Sex Pistols and the Clash burned out real fast. How did you avoid that curse and keep going?
The thing that anchors us is that we come from the same place. We had nothing ’til this band. And we weren’t going to blow it. Even if we were playing clubs the rest of our lives, this is ours. It’s sacred to us. We had that little voice on our shoulder for the longest time that said, “Don’t fuck up on drugs. Don’t start doing heroin or go out and do something crazy.”
There’s also been some luck involved, but I think another side is that we’re a three-piece. That makes it a little easier to control all the parts. When you’re a larger band, there’s one more wheel that can fall off. That’s a big part of it.
Bands that failed like Cream, the Police, or the Clash didn’t have real deep friendships at their core. You guys go back to childhood. That helps when things get hard.
I think that’s probably the thing that’s gotten us through the fear of failure part of it. That’s because we’ve failed together. We’ve succeeded together. To me, “band” means you band together for something, right? We’re a gang when we’re in that practice room.
Look, we practice four to six days a week for a reason. Because the world’s scary out there, and it’s a safe place to confront our fears in that rehearsal space, and do it every single day. You know if you just keep chopping away in the woodshed, you’re eventually going to make something great.
Did the insane success of American Idiot take you by surprise? You were 15 years into the band at that point. Most groups don’t have a trajectory like that.
I remember when we finished the record. We met at the studio the day after I did the last backup vocal. We’re completely done at this point. We went into this little loft area at the studio at Capitol, and we sat and we talked. We said, “Don’t read any press. I don’t care what the world thinks about this record. I love this record. We’re proud of it.” And we just held onto that. In hindsight, we probably should have read all the press. It was the one time we could have, but also I think it’s good that we didn’t. It’s good to stay humble.
We did have a real fear about playing the album in front of people. I was terrified the first time. People were just standing there like, “What the fuck are we witnessing?” But after a few songs, they got into it. It started happening.
That album scaled you guys up into stadiums.
I remember thinking about hip-hop artists and how they always reach for the stars. What’s that in rock & roll? That’s windmills. That’s holding your guitar in front of 50,000 people. By the time we finished that record, we felt we had tapped into this new way of writing with suites like “Jesus of Suburbia.”
That’s why I feel like 21st Century Breakdown is a bit of a continuation. You could almost call it a double record [with American Idiot] in a weird way. And it’s a continuation of that style of writing. But that style of writing has become our own, and we’ve been able to tie it into our even further past. And honestly, Saviors brings it full circle.
Did you feel real pressure before 21st Century Breakdown?
That was a miserable record to write. Between all of us, there were 75 songs. Billie had written probably 68, 69 of them. And there was other stuff that we would goof around with. But we couldn’t put it together. Eventually we brought in Butch Vig, and he was sort of the calm in the storm. He just said, “Okay, here’s what you have. Here’s the ones that I see speaking to each other.”
We were just too close to it. And then it started making sense, the songs that were speaking to one another. We were able to make good sense of the record and get through it. But yeah, that was a really hard time. We had to accept the fact that the only way to follow up American Idiot…well, the only ones who could do it is us, and it’s going to be hard-ass work, and it needed to be done.
How frustrating was it to make this great record in 2020 with Father of All Motherfuckers, and then have Covid hit weeks later and you couldn’t tour it?
Well, it was frustrating in a sense of I really wanted to get out and play this record for people, because we had a clear idea of what that record was. It was definitely more experimental, and we had people freaking out on both ends. They were freaking out for it and against it. But we really never got a chance to go out and prove that record’s merit. But what is a cool thing to me is I feel like that record is really discoverable now for people.
For sure. Most of the songs have never even been done live.
We just played “Graffitia” in Las Vegas a few months ago for the first time ever, and it was awesome. We’ve been playing “Father of All…,” but we just finished the touring for 2020 in 2023. You want to talk about getting put back?
I was at opening night of the Hella Mega tour in Dallas in 2021. I hadn’t been in a crowd that big since Covid started. I’m not sure anyone had. What was it like to walk onto that stage and see everyone?
It was really cathartic, I think, for everybody involved. The crowd, the band, everyone. It’s like you hadn’t been in a crowd in forever, and now you’re in a 50,000-person crowd. It was beautiful. It was a little bit scary, but I think the best part of it was the goal was for everybody to just leave their problems at the door, and come in and sing and dance like nobody’s looking.
When you first went into the studio to start work on Saviors, what were your goals?
When we first started, we just wanted to get into a room and play together. I remember Billie kept saying, “Let’s just get in a room.” We had been sending demos back and forth, and we had worked out a handful of things that we thought was the beginning of a good record. And then as we progressed, Billie went out to England to do some demoing, found a studio, RAK Studios, and we got to a point where we had five or six songs.
We were talking about touring for the rest of 2023. And we came to the conclusion that it just doesn’t make sense. We were like, “These songs are really good. Let’s chase down and see if we can’t write a great record, and something essential, hopefully. A great tour lasts a summer. A great album is the goal. That’s eternal.”
It’s great hearing you back with Rob Cavallo again. The four of you have such a chemistry.
Yeah. But I do think it’s also about the timing. There have been times where we worked with Rob where it wasn’t all sparks and lightning. But we took time off from recording after 2020. It gave Billie time to reflect and really work on the lyrics and the songs, and then it gave us the time to craft the songs. But then also you can hear, for lack of a better description, the passion of us wanting to be in a room and play together again. We really, really missed the thing that we have and hold dearest.
Why did you record it in England? That’s pretty far from where you guys live.
Billie had been spending some time with family out there. He just made the suggestion, and it felt like a good one. So many of our musical heroes have come from England, whether it’s British Invasion, or early punk rock, or Britpop. There’s just so much good music. And it’s very evident as you’re walking around England. It’s just a cool spot. It’s got its own vibe. And we could get in a room, zero distractions, and play in a studio environment together, and record live together.
Father of All had a real glam-rock vibe to it. It was a bit poppier. Saviors is a bit rawer, a big punkier. Is that how you see it?
Absolutely. We love glam rock. We love just garage rock, just good pop songs presented different ways, and we got to stretch. We’ve got to spread our wings and try new things as a band. I wouldn’t want to try and write Dookie 14 times. That’s crazy. We’ve got to try and grow as a band, and that’s our job. It’s not the listener’s job to grow.
I remember when we did Insomniac, people were like, “Oh, it was nowhere near as successful,” and it sold four and a half million copies. We’re like, “Yeah, it’s not Dookie,” but fans love that record. Then we did Nimrod, and it’s more expansive. That’s where we really started to learn different things.
You go to Warning and people are like, “Oh, they’ve gone soft on us.” And now people are discovering that record going, “Nah, that’s a great record.” Well, the listener may not be at the same point in the progression of our band as us, but that’s our job.
Fans often think they want their favorite albums to be basically remade over and over, but they don’t really want that.
I love discoverable records. I love circling back to a band that I like and listening to a record and going, “I totally didn’t get this record back then, but I totally get it now,” because the speed that I listen to music wasn’t there yet.
When Trump became president in 2016, a lot of people naturally assumed you guys would make an American Idiot-style record right away. That obviously didn’t happen.
Well, it’s funny you say that, because [the Saviors track] “The American Dream Is Killing Me” was written by Billie almost four years ago. But we all knew it was just low-hanging fruit. We’re not a parody of who we are, and songs like that need time to be fleshed out. If that means just sitting back and letting life happen, so be it. And it was one of the last things we recorded. Rob’s like, “What else do you got?” As we get towards the end of recording, it was two songs. It was that one and “Father to a Son.” And those two songs, Rob’s like, “Oh, you’ve got to record those.”
And then Billie had to go in for “American Dream” and just deep dive on the lyrics, and just tweak a few things here and there. But “The American Dream Is Killing Me” was the line a while back ago. We were like, “Yeah, it’s just not the right time.”
This feels like the right time.
I think it’s a wider statement than Trump. It’s more important than him. It speaks to the fact that Billie’s dad was a Teamster truck driver, and his mom was a waitress, and somehow they could afford to raise five kids and buy a home, and that just doesn’t work for everybody anymore. We are back-asswards right now.
Let’s talk about a few of the songs, starting with “1981.” I really dug that one.
That is a barn-burner. It’s so fun to play, and that kind of hearkens back to early MTV era. You think of Billy Idol pumping his fist, “I want my MTV,” when music was discoverable and fun, and you’re dancing in your room. And yeah, it’s just abandoned.
“Dilemma” is a great ballad.
I love the honestness of that song, the earnestness. It’s just a really raw statement that a lot of people can relate to.
In what sense?
Whether you’re struggling with drugs, alcohol, or love. It says, “I was sober, but I’m drunk again. I’m in trouble and in love again.” It’s like we all have our addictions, and recognizing them and putting them on paper for the whole world to poke at, it’s a scary thing. But it’s important that people do it, because once you find out you’re not alone, you’re on a path to somewhere better.
“Corvette Summer” is going to kill onstage.
I love that song. It’s a top-down banger, man. You just want to crank up your stereo, throw the top down in your car, and gun. It’s got a little bit of that glam Seventies rock thing going.
“Fancy Sauce” is a nice way to wrap it up.
Yeah, I think that’s well put. If there is a theme throughout the record, it’s making sense of all of the chaos around us, and realizing that, “Yeah, I may be insane, but it doesn’t change the fact that the world’s been gaslighting me for the last four years. Shit is bananas out there.” When I hear that song…maybe it’s the rubber room portion of it or whatever, but it is circling all the way back to “Basket Case.”
Why do you call it “Fancy Sauce.” Is that a reference to Step Brothers?
I haven’t actually asked Billie that. I could see that, because it’s a brilliant movie. We could have called the song “Shark Week.”
Do you think if Green Day started now, you guys could break out and find a mass audience?
I think it would be a different trajectory. It’d be something, but it would be different. Because when we were growing up, all of our heroes were all still on the radio. I was listening to the Beatles and the Stones and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. There was classic rock, classic R&B, soul, modern hits, whatever. And all of that led to hyper focus on what I consider to be a really great time for songwriting and stuff.
Is it ever strange to turn on a classic rock station and hear “Back in Black,” “Stairway to Heaven” and then “Basket Case?”
I love it, man. You kidding me? Good company. What’s been really neat is we just launched a SiriusXM Green Day Station. It’s really neat to hear some of the songs of ours that I’ve never heard on the radio on the radio. I guarantee there’s fans out there that are like, “What the hell is this?” because they haven’t discovered that record.
I saw the Stones a few months back and they just blew my mind. I know it’s 30 years away, but do you think you’ll still be doing shows at age 80 like they are?
I don’t know, man. I’m a race car, not a pace car. I might blow a gasket by that point. But I think one of the strong points of this band is we just stay in the moment. Don’t look backwards, and don’t look too far forward. Stay in the moment, but appreciate the moment.