Billie Joe Armstrong could be forgiven if he were to display a bit of an ego. After all, his band Green Day sold more than nine million copies of its major-label debut, 1994's Dookie, and almost single-handedly brought punk rock back aboveground. Spin magazine crowned him the "King of Punk." So it would be understandable if the 25-year-old frontman had started to put on airs. But Armstrong, calling from a Los Angeles hotel room, still possesses a childlike sense of wonder about success. Discussing his band's new album Nimrod, he seems genuinely touched to hear praise, like a kid getting a drawing hung on the refrigerator. If Dookie was his ticket to the stars, Armstrong has done a yeoman's job of keeping his feet on the ground since.
He's had plenty of help. Insomniac, the band's 1995 followup, was panned by critics and sold 1.6 million copies, a huge disappointment next to Dookie. In support of Insomniac, the band went on an extensive tour that ended in Germany, where the worn-out guys abruptly canceled the rest of their dates and staggered back home.
"We quit in the middle of the tour. It was just turning into some sort of cliched rock and roll tragedy," Armstrong recalls. "It was like, 'Yeah, it's time to go home and just hang out with our friends and write some songs. Fuck all this bullshit. Let's get back to reality.'"
Reality for Armstrong starts with 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 commercial relative failure and the band's aborted European tour put the trio in a unique and enviable position: successful enough to do what they wanted, yet without the spotlight of the increasingly bogus pop-punk revival shadowing their every move. The abbreviated tour also afforded them something they hadn't had in a long while: time.
The band spent four months in a Hollywood recording studio laying down tracks for Nimrod -- about twice the time taken to record each of the previous two records. The relaxed schedule allowed Armstrong, always a prolific writer, to write 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 explains. "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 did was just make one long record."
Nimrod is more than just a long record. It is that rare disc that allows a band to stretch its wings without alienating its fans. Violins, horns, and harmonica all figure prominently in the mix, but the bracing power-pop chops that have become Green Day's hallmark are still in full effect. Armstrong still bashes away at the cheap guitar his mother bought for him when he was twelve years old, while bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool provide the frenetic backbeat.
The band has made the most obvious progress in the lyrics department. Dookie and Insomniac capture that stage of life right after dropping out of high school but before starting a job at the auto shop. For Armstrong, however, that era is over. He and his mates have different problems now, like growing older and raising kids.
Armstrong's still fed up, but on Nimrod he turns the cynicism inward, recalling two of the band's early albums on Lookout! Records, 1990's 39/Smooth and 1992's Kerplunk!
The album kicks off with "Nice Guys Finish Last," a familiar blast of power chords that eases the transition between Insomniac and Nimrod. "Hitchin' a Ride," however, announces its more ambitious intentions right from the start. It opens with a lone violin, played by Petra Haden from that dog. "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.
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. "Good Riddance" is the type of song that the band wouldn't have even attempted three years ago, but the fact that they pull it off so beautifully is sound evidence of Green Day's musical growth.
"I think it would have been sort of inappropriate if we had done it before. But this time, we deliberately tried to make a different kind of record -- for us, anyway," Armstrong says. "I wrote that song right before Dookie came out, and I just sort of kept it. It had sentimental value to me."
Songs such as "The Grouch," "Scattered," and "Worry Rock" are the kind of pop-punk nuggets that fans have come to expect. But all have been ever so slightly tweaked to allow Armstrong's juicy melodies a more prominent place. His songlines have always been solid, but previously they have been concealed beneath lo-fi clamor and faux British accents and cheap hair dye, a fact not lost on Armstrong.
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"For this record, I really wanted to make something that kind of, I don't know, just expanded 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. At least, I take them seriously."
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 or forgetting them completely. Green Day will always be Green Day, for better or worse. The sound and approach may change a bit, but don't expect any drum loops or samples.
"During the Eighties 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. But someone was bound to come along and use those same techniques, and to do it in a way that puts them in a song format instead of these long, drawn-out rave anthems or whatever."
Regardless of fluctuations in pop trends and tastes, Armstrong says he'll be forever grateful that he came at rock from the punk direction. "I had my heavy metal heroes and shit like that when I was a kid," he says. "But I realized that when you shoot for 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. So punk came to me at the perfect time. 'Cause punk is like, 'I want to be a dismal failure first.'