You’re in the most popular punk rock band of all time, your 1994 major label debut sold 10 million units, and it’s been an upward spiral ever since: umpteen Platinum-selling albums (65 million worldwide), a smash Broadway musical, enough Grammys to prop open a door made of Ununoctium, and a John Varvatos advert that shouts “sell out!”—but you’re smarter than that. So what do Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool do for an encore? After the 3D production glamour of their 2009 Butch Vig-produced opus 21st Century Breakdown, the band reacted by going underground, kicking in the jams, and attempting to recapture/reinvent their punk-rock soul. Recalling the riotous count-off to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ insane 1965 hit, “Wooly Bully,” ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! are Green Day’s response to anyone who ever asked, ‘’Whatever happened to the real Green Day?” A song-packed trinity of punk-rock primitiveness, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! were recorded over a three-month period in Green Day’s Jingletown Recording Studios (formerly Studio 880) in Oakland, CA, but not before a major studio renovation, the purchase of a vintage Neve desk, and a bare-bones recording approach established the band’s new normal. But Billie Joe, why three albums?
“Because we had a sh*tload of songs!” Armstrong exclaims from a tour stop in Zurich. “We had about 70 songs and we were having fun. But we stayed away from being in a professional studio altogether; we thought, ‘Let’s just stay at Jingletown and jam these songs out.’ Before we knew it we had it down to 30-something songs. We didn’t want to do a double or triple record, so we just decided to release in three volumes: ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré! We thought it was funny.”
Green Day reunited with career-long producer and Warner Bros label boss Rob Cavallo, who pondered the psychological implications of releasing three albums successively within three months.
“What is the journey of these three albums and how will we present these to the fans?” Cavallo mused. “What is the intuitive nature that will make a song feel like a ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, or ¡Tré! song? Billie knew what he was trying to say on¡Uno!: that feeling of hope and fun and excitement before a party. Then ¡Dos! is the party, just going for animalistic hedonistic enjoyment, just wrecking yourself. Then ¡Tré! is the next morning where you’re reflective and hung-over.”
Armstrong began writing and demoing songs in 2010 while performing as St. Jimmy in American Idiot: The Musical, on Broadway. Every night after the show, he’d return to his New York apartment and write, working up songs on guitar, bass, and drums and tracking everything, including vocals, on a small portable studio rig. Longtime Green Day engineer (and tour videographer) Chris Dugan details the setup: “There are four mics on the drums: kick, Shure Beta 52; snare, Telefunken M80; sort of an ‘over-under’ stereo mic setup to get the toms and cymbals with a pair of AKG 414s. Armstrong tracks his guitar and bass through a Line 6 POD. And he sings into a Shure SM7. These are all connected to a Mackie 1604 mixer. The stereo L/R outputs are sent to the line inputs of an MBox. All of the levels are set on the 1604. He monitors through a pair of Dynaudio BM6As.”
Jingletown, Green Day’s Oakland studio, features a newly-refurbished Neve 8068. Inspired perhaps by Green Day’s newfound success with the middle-class tourist crowd that typically attends Broadway musicals, or the chart-topping success of 21st Century Breakdown, Armstrong hit his serious songwriting stride.
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block,” he says. “‘F*ck it,’ I thought, ‘I am going to write whatever I want and somehow it will find its way.’ I set up this little studio in my apartment in New York and at night I would do St. Jimmy, and the songs just kept coming, and I kept recording. Then back in Berkeley I’d go surfing in the morning, and end up doing demos at home there too. Whenever I was inspired, I would just do it. I tried to be as disciplined and do it every day if possible. We demoed everywhere, but really, this the most ‘New York’ record we’ve ever made.”
Green Day demoed songs as a band all over the U.S., scoring time and tracks at Electric Lady (NYC), Yellow Dog Studios (Austin, TX), and JEL Recording Studios (Newport Beach, CA). Then they returned to Jingletown, and literally, let it rip.
“They absolutely went for first takes and that energy,” Chris Dugan says. “Before cutting demos at Jingletown, we converted one of the rooms into a jam space. The band would rehearse every day and I would track that with just a couple mics in the room. The guys played the songs, tried out ideas and then we would listen back, and we’d tweak the songs together as a band. Ultimately, that paid off when we tracked, ’cause they would just crank ’em out. It was great.”
Armstrong concurs. “We were so well rehearsed we just went in and blasted through the songs, three records in three months,” he recalls. “We knew the songs and all of our parts and all the arrangements, so it was just, ‘Let’s rock out.’”
“Our intent was to be a little more ‘garage band,’” Rob Cavallo adds. “It had a lot to do with pre-production, though we had specific room mics and ways to make the [mix] sound what I would call ‘hi-fi garage rock.’ You’re hearing two guitars (including second guitarist Jason White), bass, drums and vocals recorded in a very raw, unaffected manner. It’s very old school and natural, not a lot of EQ and no effects, just natural reverb rooms.”
For Dugan, who was encouraged to go production crazy on 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day’s initiative to pare it back and make it raw hit a harmonious internal chord.
“This was a more stripped-down approach in every regard: the music was stripped down, and so was the tracking,” Dugan explains. “There are some similarities between these records and 21st Century Breakdown, but it’s more stripped down overall. Some noises would pop up and we wouldn’t chase them down, we would leave them in. We didn’t spend time nitpicking anything, it was all about the vibe of each song. As long as everything was jelling and locking together, everyone was cool with it. I was always on guard: ‘Oh shit, I’m hearing stuff left and right, a bum note here or there. Should I cut it out? Mute it? It was, ‘No, let it roll.’”
Cavallo and Dugan looked to AC/DC’s Back in Black as a sonic template, adopting its one-two (don’t forget -three) punch of minimal miking techniques and headpummeling goodness to make those about to rock completely satisfied.
“We weren’t trying to re-create Back in Black, but use it as inspiration,” Dugan explains. “Guitar amps were miked with one mic, and we didn’t go for such huge drum sounds. The last record was recorded at Ocean Way because of their amazing drum room; that’s everyone’s favorite drum room. But again, this was more bare-bones. These three records are definitely a departure from the production you heard on the last two records. The last record in particular we added extra guitars and layers of things. There is absolutely no layering on this record. There are two guitar parts, bass and drums and vocals, and a lead guitar. That’s it. We recorded acoustic guitar and strings for a couple songs, but for the most part it’s straightforward rock and roll.”
Before tracking began, Green Day ditched their Dalcon 32x24 board (used primarily for playback) for a refurbished Neve 8068 32-channel recording console purchased from Vintage King Audio in Ferndale, Michigan. Additional mods made the Neve even more flexible.
“We had a guy up in the Bay Area, Sean Green, do a really cool fader-reverse mod which added some cool routing options for playback and mixing,” Dugan says. “I was drooling going to work every day on the Neve. The 8068 is a classic rock-androll desk. We used it for both tracking and monitoring, straight into Pro Tools 10. We used Neve 1073 preamps on guitars, a Chandler LTD-1 for tracking vocals; bass went through the Neve 8068, and drums almost entirely through the Neve, but the kick drum went through the LTD-1 and snare through a Vintech Audio X73.”
In keeping with Green Day’s simpler approach, they avoided the corporate studios of L.A. for the homey climate of their native Jingletown in Oakland. The Neve 8068 console was the final element in making their home-base studio capable of creating an oldschool, yet clean, classic rock sound.
“The guys said, ‘Let’s not go to L.A., let’s do this at home, ourselves,’ “ Dugan recalls, “and that was part of what prompted buying the Neve desk. ‘We don’t need to go to L.A. for a huge sound; let’s make a record that doesn’t sound like that. Let’s make a record here; what do we need?’ So I went looking and found the Neve.”
In addition to purchasing the Neve 8068, Green Day completely renovated Jingletown’s Studio A. “The [425-square-foot] control room was completely remodeled,” Dugan explains. “Kevin Hughes designed it; he’s an amazing acoustician. Dennis Stearns did the installation. This is where the band recorded Warning. And we demoed everything for American Idiot in that room. But we completely overhauled the room, treated the ceiling, treated all the walls. The biggest change was at the rear of the room where there were doors leading into a machine room. We removed the doors and built a sort of false wall with all this crazy batting in it. [The backside of the wall was covered in special wood to which holes were drilled.] That turned the back room into a huge bass trap. The bass trap is approximately 12x8. The low end would filter through the wall and get trapped in that room and in then never come back out. The low end filters straight through it and just blows right past you. The low end doesn’t build up and bounce off the back of the wall, like you would typically expect sitting in front of a wall.
“Now when we monitor playback,” he continues, “we get a clearer window of the music. In a room with a lot of low-end buildup, if I wasn’t in tune with the room or I wasn’t aware of it, I would probably cut a bunch of low end off the bass guitar and bass drum because it would sound too big. When in reality, if you listen to it in a car or on a hi-fi system, you’d wonder where the low end went. Now it’s like wearing prescription glasses; everything is clearer. You have to have a correct room for playback.”
At this point, it goes without saying that Green Day and Dugan wanted a raw, practically primitive sound. While the sonic identity of ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! practically screams more compact, streamlined and somehow less saturated than 21st Century Breakdown, the thing that really stands out is its overwhelming immediacy and presence. Clean, in-your-face, trashy, ugly? Yes. Plug-inproduced? No.
The live at room at Jingletown, from the
“I’d like to say I did all sorts of rad stuff, but we kept it very basic,” Dugan reiterates. “It was truly the band and their choice of instruments to make a song trashier or go for a particular sound; they did it on their own. I didn’t do anything with plug-ins. It was, ‘If we need an ugly sound, let’s bring out that sh*tty amp and crank it up.’ To me, that’s the right way to do it. We captured what it was that everyone wanted to do and how they wanted it to sound. It’s more like, hit Record and make sure that everyone is getting what they want on a very organic level. There were times when we would track everything live, other times we would cut parts individually.”
Guitars, bass, drums and vocals were all hit with the same directive: Keep it simple, keep it real.
“I didn’t want to go for a modern Marshall amp sound,” Armstrong says. “I wanted to do something that sounded more like a classic rock tone. I used a Gretsch guitar, and we figured if we couldn’t find the exact vintage amp we were looking for we would just build it. But I did use a Vox AC 30 and a 1974 Marshall JTM45. We miked the room and captured that.”
Where Armstrong used four different amp/cab combinations on the last album, this time, two amps and one 2x12 cab apiece between two guitarists fit the bill, miked by a single AKG 414 through a Neve 1073 pre. “Another factor is the second guitar player, Jason White,” Dugan says. “Each guy tracked a pass, so we had two guitar parts by two different guys on every song. They each had had different amps, Billie through AC 30, Jason through the JTM 45.”
Armstrong also changed out vocal mics but his tried-and-true tracking approach remained. “I’ve always been quick at recording vocals,” Armstrong told this reporter in 2009. “It’s about warming up, getting my throat and chest in the right position, and then emotionally preparing to go for it. When you go through the demo process, you know what kind of emotion the song will need, and when to scream and when to whisper. This is why I like to take time and really get all the arrangements done and know what kind of vocal take I am going to end up doing before I start recording the album tracks. At the vocal session, I start softly and try not to overdo it, so I don’t ruin myself for the day. I get myself in the zone, and eventually, my voice just starts to happen. I sing about eight inches from the mic, and throw down around three takes. We’ll comp performances if necessary, but, most of the time, it’s all pretty much live takes.”
“This time, I wasn’t comfortable using one of the big microphones with the panty hose on it [a Telefunken U47m was used on 21st Century Breakdown],” he says today. “I wanted to use something that was more handheld, ’cause I was so used to that doing demos. I feel like I have more control over my voice using a handheld mic. And I wanted more of a live approach to my vocals, and this is more of a live approach than we’ve ever captured with my vocals than on any album, ever.”
Dugan used a Shure SM7 for 95 percent of Armstrong’s vocals. “He felt comfortable holding it in his hand, and he didn’t have to stand in this little taped-off box on the floor. So SM7/Chandler Ltd 1/Pro Tools, no compression, no nothing. I did EQ the toms kick and snare. But no EQ on the guitars or the bass, really straightforward.”
For Dirnt’s bass, Dugan used a Sennheiser MD 421 on an Ampeg SVT bass cab thru a Neve 31102 pre, then a DI out of the back of a new Fender Bassman head. DI was “post preamp of amp so I got cool grit,” then another DI off Dirnt’s Fender Precision; ultimately Dugan summed cab, bass DI, and cab DI.
Rather than mic each drum, top and bottom, as on the last album, Dugan pared down the mics while remaining basically true to his previous setup. “I used a Shure Beta 52 on the inside of the bass drum,” Dugan says, “then the NS10 speaker trick on the outside of the bass drum. I used Josephson E22s on the toms; for the last record we double-miked toms, top and bottom, but not this time. I stuck with the Telefunken M80 for the snare. I used the same overheads as last time, a pair of ELA M 251s. Then AKG 451s on the ride cymbal and hi-hat.”
¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!’s back-to-the-bars approach is obviously closer to a homestudio intent than the megabuck investment most likely incurred on 21st Century Breakdown. It gave Dugan newfound respect for the home recordist’s means and methods.
“After going through [a simpler approach] myself, [at first] I wanted to reach for a lot of those tools and toys and really mess with stuff. But we just relied on the instruments. There’s no right or wrong way to achieve something that’s in your head or a sound you are searching for. It might require plug-ins, EQ, or nothing at all. There are a lot of things you can do with just a microphone. I would tell someone to start with the sound source first. Try to tweak it and get it to a good place first before having to reach for all sorts of processing. Capturing the source in a very clean way is the right place to start in my book.”
Releasing three albums in a row might appear as hubris, or the out-of-touch provocations of multi-millionaire rock stars, but ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!’s proof lies in the music. From ¡Uno!’s thoughtful opener, “Nuclear Family” and ¡Dos! stocking-stuffer “Stop When the Red Lights Flash” to ¡Tré!’s galvanic “Sex, Drugs & Violence,” this punch-drunk trinity reflects not only Green Day’s desire to reconnect with their fans but a return to a simpler recording ethos that made them punk rock icons, Broadway stars, and wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
“A lot of people were asking me, ‘Will you ever do a record like Kerplunk or Dookie again?’,” Armstrong says. “But I had to be inspired. After 21st Century Breakdown, I felt inspired to get in a room together with Mike and Tré and bash out some songs. We really wanted to capture the sound of everybody being in the same room together and to really bring the listener inside with us. We really captured the energy of why we like playing music. It’s sort of a classic-sounding Green Day record.”
Ken Micallef has covered music for all of the usual suspects, including DownBeat, The Grammys, and Rolling Stone. His first book, Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is currently in reprint status while he ponders the sonic perfection and current resurgence of the vinyl LP.