Music: Green Day

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



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Producer Butch Vig

Producer Butch Vig

More often than not, the band was up to the challenge. “They're one of the tightest bands I've ever worked with in terms of how good they are at playing their instruments,” Vig marvels. “And they know each other so well, when they lock in they are a machine.”

Vig says that the “concept” nature of the new album did not reveal itself immediately. “I'd probably been going up there for about three months,” he says, “and I remember one day Billie seemed a little depressed. I think he felt he'd hit a wall; he wasn't sure what the focus was. We came in and rather than jamming or putting the songs up and listening, Billie put these big pieces of paper up on the wall in the lounge of the studio and started writing all the titles down, and then next to the title he'd write something about what the song means — he might have a catch phrase or a lyric or something. And then he'd point an arrow from that — like ‘Know Your Enemy’ going down to ‘Restless Heart Syndrome.’ And ‘Christian’ and ‘Gloria’ kept popping up. We cut the [paper] up so we could move them around and try to figure what songs seemed to be ‘speaking’ to each other. We did that for a couple of days, and I think it really helped Billie understand lyrically what was making sense. And for me and for the rest of the band, we could kind of tell musically what was starting to fit in together, and that was the start of a process that helped define where we were going. Maybe at the end of the second day, Billie said, ‘Maybe this is the title,’ and he wrote ‘21st Century Breakdown’ at the top.”

In August 2008 — mostly to get a change of scenery after months working in Oakland — the action moved to pair of small studios in coastal Orange County, JEL Studios in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa Studio in neighboring Costa Mesa. Many mornings there were spent surfing, and afternoons were devoted to intensive recording. “They just needed a place where they really could shut out the world and play,” Vig says. “So they would play and play and play and I would record it. They would play a song live and then Billie would throw down a couple of passes of vocals to see what the feel was like. We cut stuff really fast. We kept working and working, and at the end of August we had 17 or 18 songs that the band could play and they sounded tight and they all sort of made sense. And it was at that point we split it into three ‘acts’ — these songs are speaking together, these songs are speaking together.”

The band brought very little gear down with them: a minimal drum kit, small amps, a couple of guitars. The goal was to work quickly and document the songs, not make a polished recording. Sessions generally ran from about noon until 6 or 7 p.m., at which point Vig would usually go home, and the band shifted gears and became secret DJs for a low-watt pirate radio station they operated during their time down there.

Next stop was Ocean Way's Studio B, where the band has worked often in the past, for the actual tracking sessions. Dugan describes the space as “a no-frills, very old-school kind of big, tall room. It's a great drum room that has this dome or lid that raises and lowers where they typically set up the drums. We occasionally lowered it to get a more dead sound, but mostly we wanted to get the sound of the drums in that room. That room has a huge ambient sound.”

Engineer Chris Dugan

Engineer Chris Dugan

To that end, Dugan raided Ocean Way owner Allen Sides' legendary mic collection and set up several sets of room mics “to cover all the bases. We had two [Neumann] M50s, which were our main stereo room mics. At one point I had two U67s, but we changed out for a stereo Royer — the SF24. We ended up using that quite a bit; it's a great-sounding mic. Then we also got these old RCA 77s and I had those way up in the air. Then there was also the [Shure] 58 that's there for Billie to sing; that's in there, too. My whole thing is to get as much as you can and then subtract.”

As for Dugan's regular drum-miking scheme for Cool's kit, “My secret weapon is the Telefunken M80 vocal mic on the snare drum. Tré hits his hi-hats so hard, it sounds like he's trying to kill them, and I would end up with too much hi-hat in the snare mic. We used to use a 57, but it turns out the M80 rejects [the hi-hat] really well.” Dugan used Telefunken 251s for the overheads; for the toms, AKG C12As on top summed with AKG 414s on the bottom; and for the kick a Shure B52 and a 47 FET. Dugan says that Cool switched out snares for almost every track, trying to match his kit as best he could to the feeling of each song.

Mike Dirnt's bass chain included an Avalon U5 DI through a Vintech X73i preamp and an Empirical Labs Distressor, as well as two mics on his bass cabinet: a Sennheiser 421 through the Vintech and a Distressor, and a U47 FET through a Neve 1073 and a Distressor. Both bass and drums were recorded to 2-inch tape and to Pro Tools (using Apogee converters).

Armstrong employed myriad different guitars and amps, with a couple of Les Paul Juniors and a Telecaster once purportedly owned by Keith Richards getting the lion's share of the work for the layers upon layers of guitar tracks. Dugan typically miked two of Armstrong's 4x12 cabinets with two mics each: The first might have a chain that included a 57 and a Royer 121 ribbon, through Chandler Germanium preamps and EQs summed to one track though an Altec 1567A tube mixer; the other would have a 57 and a 414 through 1073 preamps treated the same way.

For lead vocals, Armstrong used a Telefunken USA U47 that Cool and Dirnt bought for his birthday, “because he needed to have The Beatles' mic!” Dugan explains. That went through a Chandler LTD-1 preamp and a Retro Instruments 176 compressor. Dirnt's all-important backup vocals were sung into Telefunken ELAM 251, which was chained into a Chandler TG Channel Mk II preamp and a Retro 176.

When it came time to lay down the tracks for the album, all the months of preproduction really paid off. Vig says, “I'd get in around noon or one, the band would get in around two, and once we got the sound we wanted, we'd spend time listening to different snares and Billie would pull out different guitars and switch amps around. It was maybe a couple or three takes and we'd have the song. Right after we got a keeper take, Billie and Mike would come back in and we'd overdub the master bass and guitar takes — rhythm takes — in the control room because I could sit right next to them and they could hear really clearly.

“Then we'd go back and start overdubbing if we were going to double guitars. We did a process where we'd do cleaner guitars — like a Tele — as a left-right pass all the way through the song; then he'd do Floyd, which is one of his Les Paul Juniors, into a Park amp, which is sort of like a Marshall, only more dialed up, left and right. And when we really wanted to hit overdrive, he would go back and do a pair of guitars with a Marshall — they used that for a lot of the big guitars on American Idiot. So on some parts of some songs, there are six guitars just playing the main rhythm part, and normally that's really hard to do, but Billie plays so tight — he would do a left-right pass and I wouldn't hear anything out of sync anywhere. And we would track six guitars in about 30 minutes. On some records I would spend days doing six guitars trying to get them to sound tight and in tune.

“Billie's vocals went down really easily, too,” Vig continues. “When he was ready to sing he'd do one run-through and we'd record it to get the levels, and then he'd do three, maybe four passes and that was it. Sometimes we'd do a speed-comp — take this section and this section — and play it for Billie, and he might say, ‘You know what, I think I can beat that third verse,’ and he'd go in and do another take on that. I've never worked with a band where you actually got the performances so fast. I was overjoyed!”

Vig says they cut the album in order, “because it made it easier to make decisions [about effects, treatments and such] when you knew what you had just done and what was coming next.” A few textural elements from the preproduction sessions at 880 and Orange County ended up being used, and late in the game a subtle string section was added to a few songs, most effectively on the Middle Eastern-flavored “Peacemaker.” Strings were recorded in the larger Ocean Way Studio A; though Dugan close-miked the strings, he ended up preferring the sound of a trio of distant M50 room mics.

Vig and Dugan made fairly detailed mixes on Ocean Way A's Focusrite board before turning the Pro Tools sessions over to master-mixer Chris Lord-Alge, another longtime associate of Green Day's (and one of the busiest mixers in the business). Before that happened, however, after the group had finished its work in L.A. and returned to the Bay Area, Armstrong revealed that he had written a new song that might work with the rest of the album. Indeed, the driving, punk-y “Murder City” was sensational, so the group quickly cut it in its entirety back at Studio 880, and it found a perfect spot for it in Act II of the trilogy.

L.A.-based Lord-Alge had mixed both Nimrod and American Idiot at Image Recording in Hollywood, did some post-Idiot one-offs and mixing of live material at Resonate Music in Burbank, but now works out of his own room in the former Can-Am Studios in Tarzana, home of classic recordings by Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and many others. Working on that studio's 72-input SSL G Series board and employing “a frickin' wall of the best outboard gear imaginable,” as well as some plug-ins, Lord-Alge says, “When we were doing the first couple songs and getting the template together, we would put up American Idiot so we could compare that we were in the same ballpark or killing it. So we might use that as a start point tone-wise — because we were in a different studio — and we took it as a stepping-off point. So once we reached the point where we were killing it, we put it away and didn't refer to it again.

“They were meticulous about making sure the roughs maintained the balance they wanted,” Lord-Alge continues. “Then I would take it to the next level. For instance, I took a lot more liberties on ‘East Jesus Nowhere’ than their rough, but they loved it! I literally did ‘East Jesus,’ ‘Peacemaker’ and ‘Murder City’ all in one day and got them out by six that afternoon. Once we were dialed in, it went very smoothly.”

The result of the team's hard work is an album that combines uncompromising punk rock with sonorous ballads, soaring passages with in-your-face rock assaults. It feels at once adventurous and familiar — definitely Green Day all the way.

“When I first started talking to them,” Vig says, “I got the sense that they felt liberated that American Idiot had really raised the bar and they could do whatever they wanted. I was relieved that they wanted to make a fairly ambitious record because I've seen a lot of bands that take a step back when you have that kind of success. It freaks them out. So they go back and make Kerplunk, Part II — a really fast punk-rock record, and put it out. In a way, to me, that's sort of not facing the responsibility of where you are in your career. I was relieved and really happy they wanted to try and go even higher.”

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