SOME BANDS ARE DESTINED to release a single great album in their career; others, more than one. But few bands can top themselves as successfully as Green Day has in the last eight years. American Idiot, the 2004 punk-rock concept album that became a hit Broadway musical, sent Green Day’s career into overdrive and took its power-punk message of alienation to the mainstream. Five years later, 21st Century Breakdown was the impossible follow-up: smart, catchy, and successful. So how do you relax and savor success after you’ve hit two home runs? You hit three more, of course.
At an age when many punk-rockers are ready to begin slowing down, Green Day is releasing three albums that prove the band still has plenty of fire. The snotty brats who ruled the ’90s with snarling tracks like “Longview” and then went Broadway and political are cock-walking into their 40s full of piss and vinegar, perhaps none more so than Mike Dirnt.
Over the course of eight albums—39/Smooth, Kerplunk, Dookie, Insomniac, Nimrod, Warning, American Idiot, and 21st Century Breakdown—Dirnt has emulated the great punk and rock bassists of the ’70s while continually experimenting with his tone, approach, and gear. The defining characteristic of Mike’s work just might be his melodicism: He can downstroke 16th-notes with the best of ’em, but his favorite bass lines are their own catchy little hooks, a fact that’s gloriously evident on Green Day’s trio of new albums, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!.
As he’s been doing on the band’s last couple albums, Dirnt spends plenty of time on ¡Uno! serving the song, sticking out just enough to remind us he’s there. But on songs like “Nuclear Family,” he’s fast and loose, putting cool fills and riffs in just the right places. His tone is beefy yet blended on “Stay the Night,” and he takes it to the dance floor on “Kill the DJ.” ¡Dos! is even more jam packed: “Nightlife” finds him loud and proud over a hip-hop beat, “Lazy Bones” is a great showcase for his new, buff tone, and “Drama Queen” gives Dirnt a chance to pay tribute to Sir Paul McCartney—on a Höfner, no less. ¡Tré! is an epic and anthemic New Years present to Green Day’s fans, and on tracks like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrel” and “Stray Heart,” Dirnt throws down like a champ.
A quarter-century into his career, nothing is as important to Dirnt as his partnership with singer/guitarist Billy Joe Armstrong and drummer Tré Cool. “I can’t see myself ever not doing Green Day,” he says. “There are side projects I have fun with, and I like doing interesting things, but Green Day will always be my world and my pièce de résistance.”
How did you begin writing for these new albums?
During our last tour, on our days off , we rented little studios all over Europe and demoed stuff . After we had gotten home and taken a couple months off , we started band practices; we got into a groove, playing five days a week in Oakland and just feeding off each other. We had [additional guitarist] Jason White jamming with us the whole time. I played though my Fender Super Bassman and one of my custom Mesa Boogie 6x10 cabs; the guitarists were using smaller amps, and Tré used a smaller kit so we could hear and play off each other.
How often do you write songs for Green Day?
I’m always writing songs; I could write melodic riffs and tracks all day long. Obviously, Billy is the main songwriter in this band, but there are lots of great collaborations all over our records. I was talking to my daughter Stella on the phone one day and playing bass at the same time, and I wrote something, recorded it on my iPhone, and brought it up to Billy’s house that night. It ended up being the main chord structure for a new song, “Missing You,” and the breakdown to the song.
How does the band write songs together?
I know how to bookend a song, tear it apart, and put it back together a million ways from Sunday, and Billy does, too. We’ll bring in bits and pieces or the middle of a song and then put it together in rehearsal. For this album, we kept writing, recording, and trying out songs at shows in Southern California, New York, and Austin.
Was the process different with Breakdown?
When we came back from the American Idiot tour and found ourselves looking at a blank piece of paper, it was terrifying. 21st Century Breakdown was the hardest record we ever wrote. No band in the world wanted to follow American Idiot, and only one band could. It was our job to either phone it in or to really go for it, and it’s just not in our DNA to mail in a record. This time, we had a lot of fun, and we did things in a really organic, blue-collar, super-fun way.
These albums sound relaxed, too.
I purposely kept my playing loose, because the studio can take that from you. Even if something wasn’t perfect, if it had a character, I’d just leave it. When you’re making your way through 37 different tracks, you just gotta let some serendipity happen.
How did you decide to put out three albums?
Even when we whittled down our list of 70 songs to about 28, we knew we still had some good songs in the pipeline that we just hadn’t worked out yet. Making one super-long record sounded stupid, and everyone’s done double records. Billy came up with the idea of doing a trilogy, and I loved it. Plus, by the time we got down to 20 songs, we were really starting to write in three directions. The first one was full of grab-life-by-the-horns power-pop songs, with classic Green Day flair. The next record was like more like a party that’s the greatest time you’ve ever had, but the worst thing you’ve ever done to yourself. And then the third record was more reflective; the songs were epic, with a bit more of American Idiot’s grandeur. It was my idea to put one of our faces on each album, kind of a lighthearted take on what Kiss did when they released their four solo albums on the same day back in the ’70s.
American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown both contained some fiery political commentary, but the new albums don’t really go there. We’ve never wanted to pigeonhole ourselves or write from only one position; we don’t want to be pundits or spokespeople. There was a time when we felt like we were fed up with shit, and we’re in a transition period in this country. Our band is kind of in a transition period, too, but things are moving well. Songs like “Kill the DJ” do address fighting the static, though—the bullshit that surrounds us and invades our minds. The other major political song is obviously “99 Revolutions,” which wrote itself pretty quickly around the Occupy movement.
There are several distinct eras of Dirnt tone. What was your setup on Kerplunk?
My secret weapons were Yamaha G100 guitar heads from the late ’70s and early ’80s, which I used to play through my custom Mesa Boogie 6x10 cabinet. That’s what started my love of 6x10 cabinets. I used that Yamaha and 6x10 on every record except this one, and occasionally, I’ve used an Ampeg, too.
On Insomniac, I played my Gibson G3; you can really hear it on Kerplunk and Insomniac. It’s distinctive, like on the intro to “No One Knows.” On Nimrod, that was mostly my ’69 P-Bass and a ’52 Precision, I think.
You seem to favor passive basses.
Some guys have gotten great active sounds, but that’s just never been my world. Actually, on Dookie, I played an active P-Bass that I rented from SIR, because my basses were broken and thrashed from touring. That bass had P/J pickups, but the way I had it set, it might as well have just been a P-Bass. It went through an Éclair Engineering Evil Twin tube DI, and then my 6x10, and an Ampeg SVT. I had the Ampeg for the low end and the extra sub-lows, and then the 6x10 for that classic punch.
Between the transition from there to Warning, I started working with Mesa Boogie, and that’s when I ended up using two 6x10s sitting on top of an 1x18. I was also using a Sunn head, and I had Mesa make me a 4x10 cabinet that I could use for the high end, to get that click, like tic-tac bass.
Sounds like quite a setup.
It was. After Warning, I just wanted to go “less is more.” Honestly, I probably way over-thought my bass tone back then, but I learned so much throughout that process. When you’re young and something gravitates toward you, go for it, because that’s part of finding your identity; it’s your own journey. Whatever floats your boat, chase it down, because that’s gonna become part of your style. There’s some kid in his garage right now, figuring it out his own way, and he’s just fuckin’ it up—he doesn’t even realize it [laughs]. But that’s how the next rad dude is created.
Between Warning and American Idiot, I began working with Fender on my signature bass. I’m super proud of the tone I have right now because I worked closely with Fender’s R&D department on the new Super Bassman line. I pushed for the amp to have a killer DI [output]. Manufacturers don’t put enough emphasis on how good a DI in the back of an amp needs to be. That’s your signal, and if you don’t have a good DI, you’re gonna lean on the microphone, which has all that stage noise going through it. The other thing I wanted was great distortion. I’ve used a series of pedals over the years, and every one of them cut my signal. I wanted to have the clean channel be crystal clear and unbelievable, and I wanted the overdrive channel to have exactly the same tone, but with bitchin’ distortion; I did not want to lose my low end. And Fender nailed it. The overdrive on the Super Bassman is so cool that lots of people, like Brandon [Campbell] from Neon Trees, just leave it on all the time.
What are your main basses these days?
My signature bass is a big part of the sound of the new record—it’s between that and my ’71 P-Bass with a maple neck that I call “the Weapon.” They’re based on my ’69; that’s Stella, named after my daughter. And I play a Höfner on one song, “Drama Queen,” which has really fat bass.
I actually made Paul McCartney a bitchin’ bass years ago. I had Fender put an ƒ-hole and classic binding on one of my tobacco-burst signature basses, and it had a pickup switch that went between a Höfner sound and my sound. I made one left-handed and one right-handed, and I sent him the other one. He was really stoked. I wrote him a letter with it that said, “On behalf of Green Day and all the other bands you’ve influenced, thanks.”
How is it to play with Tré after all these years?
When Tré first started playing with me and Billy, on Kerplunk!, he was a sick drummer, and I had to get better, quick, to keep up with him. By the time we started nailing it with songs like “Welcome to Paradise” and “Eighty,” Tré and I got a thing going, and now it’s to the point where I’ll play something that forces him to do something or accent it, or he’ll play something that forces me to accent it. I’ve learned how to play drums so I could tell him what beats I want him to play.
But Tré hasn’t picked up bass, has he?
Actually, Tré has played bass on a song, and I played drums. He played my candy-apple red ’65 Jazz Bass, which I’ve never played on a song. It’s an unreleased B-side, but it’ll come out one day. And we switch instruments pretty often at band practice. I’ll go jump on drums, or I’ll jump on guitar, and Billy gets on bass, too.
Who was an early bass hero to you?
Cliff Burton. I met him when I was in fifth grade. He was walking through San Pablo, carrying a boom box and listening to metal, wearing his jeans, and I was with my cousin, who knew him. I didn’t even know who Metallica was. And then I go to [concert series] Day on the Green with a buddy, and Metallica comes out, and I’m like, Holy shit! I met that guy!
Let’s face it—he was a ridiculous bass player. Honestly, there are only two guys of that caliber: There’s him, and there’s Entwistle. You can put other guys in there, too, but as far as the aggression … and if you ever looked up their bass solos, you’d see the similarity. They were both super fast and distorted.
Did you practice hard so you could play fast lines?
I’d probably be a lot better if I had actually studied more when I was a kid. You wouldn’t have caught me in my room practicing scales—I was too busy trying to figure out other things [laughs]. I’ve worked for everything I play. Like on “Panic Song,” from Insomniac, where I do that fast line for a minute and 57 seconds before the song really kicks in—I couldn’t do that before then. I earned that from playing it on tour.
Those bass breaks on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrel” are pretty tasty.
That’s probably the fastest stuff I’ve ever played on record. I didn’t think I could do it, but the other guys were pushing me. I was like, “Nah, it’s too noodly,” and they were like, “Just fucking go there!” You’ve got to let your fingers fly sometimes [laughs]. And there are the occasional times when I have to be really creative about a part. I soul-searched to find just the right part for the beginning of “Basket Case,” for example.
If not “the fastest,” what title do you aspire to?
I want to be the catchiest. If we’re all out there writing our parts, I want to be the guy everyone ends up playing along with, because I wrote the hook. That’s what my angle has always been. I never claimed to be the best—I just want to be the catchiest. It’s never been anything more than that.
SUPER BASS MAN With their slab ash bodies, 1955- era arm contours, and classic 1951-shape pickguards, Mike Dirnt’s Fender and Squier signature basses are inspired by the original ’51 Precision Bass, as well as classic ’50s and ’60s colors. The Fender Dirnt bass has a rosewood fingerboard, Custom Vintage 1959 PBass pickup, Leo Quan Badass Bass II bridge, vintage-style ’70s Fender stamped opengear tuning keys, and a thick, C-shaped maple neck modeled after Mike’s ’69 P-Bass. His signature-model Squier P-Bass, meanwhile, features an agathis body, a standard P-Bass pickup, standard 4-saddle chrome bridge, and a thick, C-shape maple neck with a rosewood fretboard. All of Dirnt’s basses, as well as his ’69 P-Bass (“Stella”) and ’71 P-Bass (“the Weapon”), are strung with Fender Super 7250 roundwounds gauged .045–.105. His collection also includes a Höfner, a black 1982 Gibson Victory bass, a ’65 candy-apple red Jazz Bass, and an Olympic white ’62 P-Bass that “sounds like a Steinway.”
Dirnt’s journey with Fender amps began around 2003 with Bassman Pro and TB-1200 heads and 810 8x10 Pro cabs. In 2010, he became involved in helping Fender design a new bass head; artist relations manager Billy Siegle says they talked about “impactful bass, transparent high end, warm midrange, and overall, a classic yet refined tone.” The result of that collaboration is the Super Bassman. “I’m very proud of the tone we came up with,” Dirnt says. “Plus, these amps look bitchin’ and sound amazing.” On tour and in the studio, Dirnt uses Super Bassman heads and 610 Neo 6x10 cabs.