For much of 1996 and '97, Green Day -- the band that drop-kicked punk rock into the post-grunge mainstream -- was conspicuously out of the public eye. It was quite a switch from two years prior, when the California trio seemed to be everywhere you looked.
Back then, Green Day's breakthrough CD, Dookie, had already sold more than eight million copies, and its 1995 follow-up, Insomniac, was on its way to double platinum. The band had (dis)graced the cover of most every major music publication, was a mainstay on MTV and was packing arenas around the country. Yet, by the end of the Insomniac tour, singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool felt it was about time to step off the rock-and-roller coaster and return to some semblance of a normal life.
"We were tired," Armstrong says simply. "It was just beginning to not be fun for us anymore."
Normal life for Green Day, however, didn't mean simply turning the hiatus from scrutiny into an extended vacation; they had music in mind. "We played like every day for a year," Cool says. "We just took it back to what we knew and what we were used to before, using the old garage, you know. We just wrote all these songs -- you know, demoing them ourselves -- and kept practicing and practicing them and got them really tight."
For all the hype that surrounded Green Day while Dookie was soiling the face of rock radio, that less-hyped woodshedding period may provide a truer picture of what makes the group tick. Nimrod's 18 songs bring out subtle and offbeat dimensions rarely associated with the band in the past. Sure, there are still plenty of the catchy, rapid-fire anti-anthems ("Nice Guys," "Platypus" and "Jinx," to name a few) that have always been Green Day's signature. But also present are resplendent melodies to make any power-pop band proud ("Redundant" and "Worry Rock"); an acoustic ballad ("Good Riddance"); a deliberate surf-rock instrumental ("Last Ride In"); and a tune ("Walking Alone") that combines harmonica and hooks à la the Beatles' "Love Me Do."
"[Previously], we were hesitant in showing [diversity]," Armstrong admits. "On the last one, we purposely wanted to do a record that had more of a one-track mind. This time, we let it all hang out. I think we left ourselves a little bit vulnerable [to criticism]."
Making Nimrod more multidimensional turned out to be anything but simple. "I think it was the longest process we've ever taken," says Armstrong. "We had a lot of songs. We ended up recording everything -- well, close to everything. I think when we got to 30 [tunes], we decided it was a good idea to stop there. Otherwise we were going to be in the studio for the rest of our lives."
Almost in spite of itself at times, Nimrod has restored Green Day to its place as a major commercial presence. For his part, Armstrong seems to be enjoying life in a touring band again, and looking back, he confesses that Green Day's initial rise was nearly as dramatic as it seemed. Armstrong and Dirnt, friends since fifth grade, both grew up poor. They met Cool, broke into the festering Berkeley punk scene and built the now-renowned Gilman Street clique. Soon thereafter, the trio began making waves in underground circles outside the Bay Area with two independent releases, 39/Smooth and Kerplunk, touring small clubs nationwide.
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Armstrong says he has taken pains over the years to make sure he hasn't lost touch with those modest beginnings.
"I got married and I have a kid, so that's definitely an adjustment within itself," he says. "And money is just ... you know, I've never been a big spender anyway. Like I have a cool little house and I have the same car I've been driving for like the past six years. Punk rock has been a part of me for the past ten years of my life, even longer than that now. And I can't just completely abandon the past ten years of my life. It's just something that's set in stone. This is a lifestyle that I chose, and it's really kind of a religion, too."
But that isn't to say that Armstrong is living in the past. "I've got to go forward," he says. "I can't keep trying to find something that I sort of lost a long time ago. It's like, the other night I had friends over in my back yard, and we just sat around and roasted marshmallows over a fire. Having an illegal fire in your back yard is great. That's a scene within itself. Maybe [that scene is] not going to be at Gilman Street anymore, but it's always going to be somewhere. Let the other kids sort of take over that place now."
Green Day performs Thursday, April 30, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. Doors open at 7 p.m. Sold out. Samiam opens. For info, call 629-3700.