Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong: “Donald Trump is holding half of the country hostage”
When the first lockdown took hold back in March, most of us kept sane by baking banana bread, binging Tiger King and kidding ourselves that hanging out on House Party wasn’t totally soul-destroying.
Meanwhile, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong used his time in quarantine to a do a little crate-digging and share covers of some of the more obscure gems from his record collection, each and every week. His ‘No Fun Mondays’ sessions were a welcome comfort to fans, as the frontman gave a punk but human feel to tracks by the likes of John Lennon, The Bangles, Billy Bragg, Kim Wilde, The Equals, Johnny Thunders, Adam Schlesinger, The Avengers and many more.
As Armstrong prepares to release all of his ‘No Fun Mondays’ covers on one vinyl album this week, he gave us a quick audience to talk about putting his own spin on his favourite songs, life in America after Donald Trump’s election defeat, and what to expect from new Green Day music.
Hello Billie Joe. How have you been holding up lately?
Billie Joe Armstrong: “In the States it’s been kind of crazy. We’ve had COVID and the election, and it’s just been pretty mad around here.”
It’s certainly been an eventful time over the last couple of months – never a dull moment…
“Oh God, no. It feels like there hasn’t been a dull moment for the last four years!”
Since Joe Biden’s win, does it feel like there’s a change in the mood of the nation?
“I think it’s inevitable that Trump has to leave, but he’s holding half of the country hostage. I can’t figure out which side – whether it’s the people that support him or the people that hate him? It’s a waiting game at this point to get him out, then the temperature will lower a little bit more.”
How did recording the songs for ‘No Fun Mondays’ help you weather the storm of these crazy times?
“I did ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ first, and it all just started off as something to just keep me busy because I knew that the rest of the year was getting cancelled. I released it on my Instagram to fans and the response was really good. Everybody was saying that it was just nice to hear some music and feel a little bit normal. The sentiment was right.”
Your version of ‘Manic Monday’ featuring Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles has had the most streams of all your covers. It has a warmth to it that seems to suit times like this quite perfectly.
“Yeah, it’s wild. Prince wrote the song and he only released his version of it just two years ago. It’s just one of those songs where you feel like you’re going to lay in all bed to it, you know?”
Beyond loving a song, what else do you need from a track for you to cover it?
“I love melodies and feel like that’s in my DNA. I also love doing things that are unexpected or doing songs that people haven’t really heard before. I did ‘Not That Way Anymore’ by Stiv Bators, which is a really rare power-pop song. That was really fun. Everything felt really spontaneous. I have a covers band called The Coverups, and we just go to local clubs to play and a lot of our friends come out. It’s all just about having fun and tying into my tastes in music too.”
What do you think it is that connects all of these songs on the record?
“Outside of a couple of songs, these are songs that feel rare or at least rare to other people. Young Green Day fans have never heard a song like ‘Kids In America’. I don’t know how that’s possible, but they’re able to get turned on to different things. Same with a song like ‘Corpus Christi’ too. That’s one of my favourite songs of all time. I also noticed that I ended up covering a lot of women. Maybe it’s just because my voice is womanly or feminine – I’m not really sure! Maybe it’s just about taking those songs and putting a male take on it. There are songs by Kim Wilde and The Bangles, plus Green Day covered ‘Dreaming’ by Blondie, but that’s not going to come out on this album. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it really.”
Do you feel the weight of their legacy when you step into the shoes of an artist like John Lennon or Billy Bragg?
“No, I think I have a humble approach about the way I do songs like that. With ‘Gimme Some Truth’, I did the Generation X version of it. The first time I heard that song, I didn’t realise it was by John Lennon – I thought it was Tommy James and Billy Idol. With Billy Bragg, he’s so pure. He can write a song with just a clean electric guitar and his voice and it sounds like there’s a full band backing him. I just added bass and drums to give it a different feel, not trying to outdo it but just pay tribute and give it a little justice.”
You really captured the spirit of ‘That Thing You Do’. What did it mean to be able to pay tribute to an artist like the late, great Adam Shlesinger?
“COVID was, and still is, just ravaging through America. You start seeing good people die from it. Adam is one and John Prine is another. I’ve always had so much respect for Adam as a songwriter and I just love this song. I thought I could a version that was a little bit dirtier by beefing up the guitar. Doing ‘No Fun Mondays’ was like just doing my own radio sessions where I had a captive audience, but could release songs in time with where the consciousness of the culture was at, at that particular moment.”
Are there any other covers that captured the madness of 2020?
“‘Give Me Some Truth’ and ‘Police On My Back’ were tied to a lot of the toxic political atmosphere that’s going on right now – especially with ‘Police On My Back’ and what happened with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. It’s interesting just how many of these old songs are still relevant, probably more now today than ever.”
Has the spirit of these songs influenced you with anything else you’ve been writing or working on?
“I’ve been writing a lot. I’m always putting something together, whether it’s a full demo in my small studio or just some voice notes on my phone. The great thing about this is that if I ever feel creatively blocked, I can just do a cover – just to keep the momentum going.”
Do you think the next Green Day album could come around quite quickly because you’ve had so much downtime?
“It’s possible. Whether we do a full-length album or an EP or just a song, we have a lot of different options. It’s a matter of whenever the right moment happens. That’s the beauty of the way you can put music out these days. You don’t have to wait for any gatekeeper to tell you that the timing is right.”
The last time you spoke to NME, you told us that America was ‘too fucked up and depressing’ to draw inspiration from. Is that still the case, or are you likely to make another record of escapist garage rock like ‘Father Of All Motherfuckers‘?
“You know, as long as it’s put to my language, then who knows? There was stuff on the last record that was political, like ‘Graffitia’. There’s a certain amount of isolation and feeling paranoid on the last album that fit with where we are as a society. The way we get information is almost like have voices inside your head. With the new stuff that I’m writing, I don’t know – a lot of it is kind of more self-deprecating and funny. Not that I’m doing a comedy record or anything. On one hand it feels autobiographical and funny, but on the other when you look at it you can put a social commentary twist to it.”
Billie Joe Armstrong’s ‘No Fun Mondays’ is released on November 27. Green Day return to the UK for the Hella Mega Tour with Weezer and Fall Out Boy in June 2021.