Long before Billie Joe Armstrong's on-stage freak-out in Las Vegas last year (and his subsequent stay in rehab), Green Day has been very much in the public eye. As teens, during the late '80s, they regularly appeared in the punk-rock bible "Maximum Rock'n'Roll." During the '90s they broke into the mainstream press and in the following decade they were accepted even more broadly.
Last year -- a quarter-century after they got their start -- Green Day fully embraced their place in the public sphere by inviting cameras into the studio as they began to record their trilogy of albums: "¡Uno!," "¡Dos!" and "¡Tré!." Directed by Tim Wheeler, who worked on "The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights" as well as the adventure documentary "180º South," the resulting movie -- titled "¡Cuatro!" -- is a little different than most music documentaries you've seen.
Think more "Endless Summer" than "Behind The Music."
"Billie Joe is a surfer and there was a connection there that originated from our past relationship [with music videos and the "Bullet In A Bible" album/DVD] and surf films we've made," says Wheeler. "We referenced some styles of films of how we wanted [this new project] to feel -- and it wasn't rock docs. It was surf films. Pretty rad that it started that way."
"¡Cuatro!" screens Saturday, Jan. 26, at X Games Aspen as part of the X Games FILM showcase. (Buy your tickets here!) We recently spoke with bass player Mike Dirnt about the film as well as his love for air guitar, just how ugly Green Day recording sessions become and Billie Joe's recovery.
XGames.com: Billie Joe says in the film that Green Day is "like an old race car: You gotta keep it tuned up or it's just gonna sit there and rust." Talk about that: How long is a lot of time off for a band like Green Day?
Mike Dirnt: A couple weeks to a month. This hiatus we've had now has been the longest we've had as a band. I think it's a good thing at this point; we don't know what else to do with ourselves.
Green Day invited their audience into the studio for the first time in more than two decades. What was that like?
At first it was a little unnerving, and then you leave the cameras there long enough, in place, and you really don't think about it anymore. A lot of the cameras, we would set up still, and a good friend of ours filmed a good chunk of it. He's a really good fly on the wall. So after a while you don't think about it. But at first you're like, "You know, this is really weird." [Laughs.]
What were the early Gilman Street-era recording sessions like?
Really exciting. You go in and you're like, "What's that piece of equipment do?" "What's that piece of equipment do?"
It was just such an exciting time. You are learning so much every time you go in. We're still picking our brains about stuff, but now we have an idea of what recording is and how we like to approach things.
Back then, everything was so new; it was super exciting. And it was also [like] you gotta get it right the first time, because you don't have a budget.
How has the band's process of writing songs changed?
It's definitely changed in the sense of how we all appreciate one another for writing songs. Nowadays instead of jumping all over somebody's idea the second you hear it, we listen a little better than we used to. And we try to let everyone formulate their ideas rather than attacking quite as much. But we have kind of gone back to a kneejerk way of writing too: Whatever feels right, go with it and make sense of it later.
Do you listen to music while writing music?
A little bit. During that process you're writing so much and you're trying to get into each song and find these nuances for each song, so yeah, but when you're spending the whole day in the studio, you only can spend so much [time listening to someone else's music] before you go in.
My thing is, I'll get up in the morning and I'll grab my coffee and I'll put on a record. That will be the thing I listen to that day that inspires me.
What were you listening to for the last recording sessions?
A lot of early Kinks stuff. And my wife would go out and buy Yellowbirds records or Bob Dylan with The Band. Just random old rock-and-roll records and then obscure punk records I've never heard of before, and I'd [say to myself], "Wow, that's really cool," or "Wow, that's awful."
Did the band have a say in the final cut of the documentary?
You know, we kind of stayed off of that. We just told him, "Use whatever you want to use: the good, the bad, the ugly."
I feel like if you're going to be true to a documentary, you can't step on everyone's toes.
Are you a fan of music documentaries?
I am. The one I watched the other day was "God Bless Ozzy Osbourne." That one was pretty great.
It's a trip because you get a greater understanding for who that artist is and what their process is.
What may surprise some fans in the documentary?
We've been a closed book for a long time. A lot of our fans, even as much as they know us, they don't really know us. It's a funny thing. But we always needed a certain "church and state" [separation] as far as our private lives go.
So you see a bit of that in there, but you see a lot of our process. You can really see how much work goes into these records. And how ugly we are when we're writing records.
Spiritually or physically?
Physically. Mentally. We turn into trolls. We don't look at the outside world around us and we turn into dirtbags. It's a really ugly process. I see a lot of bands in documentaries and am like, "You guys look as bad as we do when we're writing songs: pimples and hair growing everywhere."
It's just ugly. [Laughs.]
Were there any drawbacks to having a documentary crew in the studio with you?
Occasionally, when you're trying to articulate something and it's really emotional or you just don't know how to say it. Or if it's something you want to say in private it's not that you're editing yourself, you just don't want to stop in [the] middle of a sentence and second-guess what you're saying because someone is pointing a f---ing camera at you.
So you just have to ignore it and say "F--- it" and say whatever anyway and hope that at the end of the day, they have some common sense of decency in editing.
It's been almost a decade since "American Idiot"; did writing that record change the way you look at songwriting as a storytelling medium?
To Billie's credit, he managed to write a single perspective for so long, it was actually an avenue for him to take -- to be able to write from other people's voices, which is really great. As a band, it was a great way of letting us break free [of] whatever rock-and-roll values we thought there were and go nuts with song structures and feelings throughout songs.
During grade school you had a reputation for playing "air bass" nonstop. You even made the noise "dirnt, dirnt, dirnt" as you pretended to pluck the strings. That sound became your nickname. Do you still play air bass?
Drummers have their pencils [to virtually play]. [Laughs.]
I do. I'll always think of The Ramones lyric for "Rockaway Beach." It starts out with "Chewing out a rhythm on my bubblegum."
It's that sort of thing. You can't stop fidgeting. I'm sure that pissed off a lot of my teachers.
On recent tours, you've been reaching way back into the archives and literally taking audience requests for songs that are 20-plus years old. How do you rehearse for this?
You kind of just skim through everything and hope when the number comes up that you're on it. It's really hard.
I remember going to see The Rolling Stones' band practice about 10 years ago in Toronto. They had all of their set lists on all the walls. It was like looking at the history of rock and roll. It was amazing.
Nowadays, with the Internet, you can put a set list together, but the next town knows it before you even play the whole thing. You just go online [assumes a fan's voice], "This is exactly what they played and they waited exactly 30 seconds between each song ."
There's an element to the unknown, and even if you f--- up and it's coming from a real or genuine place, people appreciate that. I'd rather play with heart than be too calculated. The sense of the unknown keeps us interested and excited about shows.
Green Day recently made touring guitarist Jason White part of the band. Has that affected the band in any way?
He's been with us for so long. He's kind of our Ronnie Wood; he's got a good sensibility. He plays like us as far as his picking style. He's a good musician. When we ask him an opinion, it's educated but it's arbitrary.
Compare playing your early shows at [the] 924 Gilman St. [venue in Berkeley, Calif.] to playing a sold-out stadium.
Well, I'd say there's a lot of the same going on. It's the same chaos on stage, just an extended dance version of it. We used to be the kings of the 27-minute set, and now we're becoming the kings of our own three-hour set, in a weird way.
I say just keep it interesting. If you can feel like it's your first time on stage
I'll give you one more example: When we first started writing these songs, we got through, like, 20-something songs and played 18 [new] songs back to back. It shows this in the documentary. And it really was like being a brand-new band again. It was like playing naked on stage. And that's the kind of thing we look for to keep us excited.
Billie Joe went to rehab recently. How is he doing?
He's doing great. We're all getting our heads straight. Everything is ready to go. We're laying out plans and we're ready to take off and make up some of these shows and really get close and personal to our fans again.