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What I’ve Learned: Billie Joe Armstrong

billie joe armstrong
What I’ve Learned: Billie Joe ArmstrongMichael Clement

Billie Joe Armstrong, fifty-one, is the lead singer and guitarist of the pioneering punk-pop band Green Day. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the group's breakthrough record, Dookie, and twenty years since the release of the multiplatinum album American Idiot, which was adapted into a Broadway musical. On January 19, Armstrong and his Green Day bandmates—drummer Tré Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt—are releasing Saviors, the group’s fourteenth studio album. The band starts a major tour this spring and is promising to play Dookie and American Idiot in full at every show, as well as songs from the new record.


I love black. I love leather jackets, and I like having my old favorite T-shirts. I end up buying the same outfit over and over.

I was never Mr. Hardcore. When we first started playing together, there was a big trend of who can play the fastest. And it was like, “Well, I don’t want to do that.” That’s not really musical for me. It became almost a bit macho, which is something we were definitely trying to get away from.

We didn't want to be a bunch of tough guys. We would rather have bigger hearts than bigger muscles.

My dad drove a truck. He was a truck driver for Safeway, and my mother was a waitress. My dad was also a jazz drummer.

I’m one of six kids. I'm the youngest. It was loud. Everybody was funny. Everything seemed pretty much like a normal big family, whatever that means. But then that dynamic really switched when my father passed away when I was ten.

It was dark. Everyone was sort of forced into dealing with that pain. It was that ghost that was always there. It still is.

This woman named Mrs. Fiatarone taught me how to sing when I was really young, four or five. I was almost like this child lounge act. I’d sing show tunes. I would sing at veterans’ hospitals. Children’s hospitals.

I made a record when I was five. It was called “Look for Love,” and it was recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. It got local radio play. That moment stuck with me my whole life. “Oh, you can make records.”

When we toured in the early days, we were staying on people’s couches. If you’re playing in places in Montana or Corpus Christi, you’re getting a real education. Life is just coming at you from town to town.

I married the right person. That’s a big deal. My wife really was smarter than I was. I was more spontaneous and wild, where she could be more practical and knew how to make plans better. But we were the right people for each other.

We got some backlash after Dookie got huge. The mistake that I probably made was taking the bait. If I would’ve known that back then, I would’ve just ignored the bullshit. But when you’re a sensitive twenty-four-year-old person, it’s difficult to just ignore things like that.

Whatever the criticisms were, though, I had enough of a chip on my shoulder that I wasn’t going to let anybody hold me down.

I'm obsessed with music. I just am. If I wasn’t in a big band, I would be working at a record store or teaching guitar lessons or doing anything to support my musical habit.

I love The Bachelor. I love watching Bachelor in Paradise. You could play a drinking game and every time they say, “Welcome to Paradise,” you drink.

The older you get as a songwriter, the more you second-guess yourself. When you’re younger, you have no audience. You say anything you want. And then suddenly you have an audience, and you want them to be stoked on what you’re doing. But at the same time, you have to challenge yourself.

I never grew up in any kind of religion. I tried to go to Sunday school, but it never really worked out.

Surfing is one thing for me that has really been kind of spiritual. When you’re out in the ocean, it’s the most powerful force in the world.

I do pray. I try and think of something out there that is a higher power, just to make sure I’m keeping my ego in check.

I don't live in Los Angeles. And when I do go to Los Angeles, you really get to know what all the perks are of being a rock star. It’s like you’re almost on someone else’s vacation.

I like being a normal person. like being someone that just lives in a community and has good friends and strong relationships that are based on the same life experience that we’re all going through.

Then I'll play a gig in front of a hundred thousand people and I go, “Holy shit!” That doesn’t get old. It’s fun. But I don’t ever want being a rock star to be an excuse for being lazy.

I was talking to someone once and they asked me, “Why are you afraid of dying?” And I said, “I’m afraid of the darkness.” And they said, “How do you know it’s dark?” And I was like, “That’s a really good question. I have no idea what it’s like.”

Sobriety is not a one-and-done kind of thing. I’ve definitely fallen off the wagon several times.

Right now I don’t drink. And I like myself. If I was to put one thing that would get in the way of everything I wanted to achieve in my life, alcohol would be it. I make no guarantees. But right now it feels better.

Punk has never been dead. It’s alive with the kids. When kids get together and want to play music together or create art or create fanzines, that’s what keeps it alive. Not what’s popular or anything like that.

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