Music: Green Day

Jul 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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From left: Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool and Billie Joe Armstrong

From left: Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool and Billie Joe Armstrong

Following up a smash hit album is never easy. Expectations run high — from fans, the record company, even the artists themselves. Green Day's epic 2004 album, American Idiot, was an especially tough act to follow because it became a worldwide phenomenon that not only sold 14 million copies and spawned the biggest tour of the group's career, but was also an across-the-board critical success that brought hard-earned respect (and even Grammys) to the veteran punk/pop band. So what do they do for an encore? They turn to a new producer and engineer — Butch Vig and Chris Dugan — and turn out an equally ambitious and satisfying work: 21st Century Breakdown is an 18-song concept album, divided into three “acts,” about a desperate and rebellious punk couple (Christian and Gloria) making their way through a bleak, broken and cynical America.

Home base for Green Day has long been Studio 880, owner John Lucasey's unlikely recording oasis in a converted warehouse in a sketchy neighborhood south of downtown Oakland, Calif. Open since the late '90s, the multistudio complex's client list includes dozens of big and small acts, but Green Day is the studio's most loyal and successful client, and no one seems too upset about the constant references in the press to Studio 880 being “Green Day's studio,” when it is actually so much more than that.

On the day in late May when I interviewed engineer Dugan about 21st Century Breakdown at 880, there's no question that Studio B is Green Day's room: The tracking space is brimming with countless axes and amps owned by the group's visionary leader and guitarist, Billie Joe Armstrong, and bassist Mike Dirnt. “B” is a mid-sized room, perfect for a three-piece like Green Day (power-drummer Tré Cool rounds out the lineup), though the band also likes to blast it in the much bigger Studio A next door, a good live room. In between is a large equipment and storage room that at the moment also houses a fleet of mostly vintage-looking motorcycles owned by the band and Dugan. The good-sized control room of B is outfitted with an SSL 9000J that Green Day put in early in 2006 and racks of top-of-the-line outboard gear, old and new.

Dugan has worked with the band in a few different capacities for several years now, and at the same time he and fellow engineer Willie Samuels have run their own studio, Nu-Tone Recordings, in Pittsburg, over the hills east of Berkeley. Dugan did a considerable amount of preproduction work on American Idiot (and later helped with the video documentation of the world tour), but the bulk of the engineering on that album was done by Doug McKean, who was brought onboard by producer Rob Cavallo, Green Day's audio shepherd since their 1994 breakthrough, Dookie. 21st Century Breakdown marks the first Green Day album since then that Cavallo hasn't been a part of, but his imprint on the band runs deep — down to the group's decision to again do preproduction for their latest album at Studio 880 and primary tracking at Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles.

It's hard to pinpoint when work on 21st Century Breakdown formally began because the band is always using the studio to jam and try out ideas, and that process is ongoing. Near the beginning of preproduction, too, the group and Dugan took a detour in the fall of 2007 and made a decidedly lo-fi, '60s-inspired album called Stop, Drop and Roll! under the moniker Foxboro Hot Tubs, cutting on a quarter-inch Tascam 8-track. But it was also around that time that the band approached producer Butch Vig — famous for work on great albums by Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, L7 and his own band, Garbage — about producing the follow-up to American Idiot.

“I had known them for years but on a very casual basis,” Vig says from his L.A.-area studio. “I bumped into them on tour with Garbage; we'd be playing an Italian festival or something and we'd hang out backstage and have a beer. But in November or December of 2007, when I was working with The Subways, I got a call about working with Green Day, so I met with Billie Joe in Hollywood. We talked for about three hours about politics and art and baseball and food and restaurants and books we'd been reading — everything except making a record. [Laughs] It was great, and I got a good sense of what makes him tick, and I think we started to develop a rapport.

“Then I flew up to the Bay Area, probably March of 2008, and met with the band and we started taking baby steps together. I think they were a little nervous about working with someone new because they'd done so many records with Rob [Cavallo]. After that, I started going up to Studio 880 and sorting through songs,” some of which were “rough and scrappy” 4-track demos recorded by Armstrong at home; others that had been fleshed out and polished a bit with Dugan at Studio 880.

“There were probably 70 pieces of music I started sorting through,” Vig continues, “and of those, there were three or four songs that were very focused, like ‘See the Light’ [the album closer] was already in a pretty finished form, and ‘Know Your Enemy’ [the first single] was close. But then there were these others, which we called ‘the beasts,’ which were like nine- and 10-minute jams.” What's a Green Day jam like? “It might start out with riff or a power chord thing, and then go into a tangent where there might be a drum groove, and the bass and the guitar just go for a while, and then it goes into a completely different tempo. I started making note of things that I thought were the strengths of the jams and the songs — picking the best things. For instance, in ‘21st Century Breakdown,’ the front end of that song starts with very Who-like power chords, and then right after the second chorus there's a scene change, and that was actually from another song called ‘Class of 13,’ which was like a 10-minute song that had this Celtic riff in the middle. When I heard that, I told Billie, ‘We've got to put that somewhere!’” The riff found its way into “21st Century Breakdown,” but only after the band had changed the key and then practiced it extensively to make sure it made musical sense in its new setting. Vig notes, “There were a lot of moments on the record like that, and the band was very insistent that they could play it — that it wasn't going to be cut together in Pro Tools. It had to sound like they could perform it naturally.”

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