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An inside look at Green Day's early years
CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE NIGHT GREEN DAY AUDITIONED FOR YOU (IE. WHAT
SONGS THEY PLAYED, WHY YOU DECIDED TO SIGN THEM, ETC)?
They never "auditioned" for me. That is a story that was more or less made up by Ben Weasel when he wrote the band bio for Dookie. The real story is that they came up to play a show with my band, the Lookouts. This was in 1988, when Tre was still in the Lookouts, and John Kiffmeyer aka Al Sobrante was drumming for Green Day (then called Sweet Children). It wasn't actually a real "show,"more of a party for a bunch of kids that went to high school with Tre. But because the weather was bad, and there was some snow on the roads up in the mountains where the party was supposed to be, almost none of the kids showed up. Even the kid whose house it was didn't show up, so the other kids ended up breaking into the house and setting up a generator, because there wasn't any other electricity. So Sweet Children / Green Day ended up playing for literally five kids, and yet they played as if they were the Beatles at Shea Stadium. I mean they played their hearts out, and I was thinking, "I don't care whether anyone buys it or not, I'm putting out a record by this band." As for what songs they played, I couldn't totally remember, except that they played most or all of the songs from 1,000 Hours and some of the songs that ended up on 39/Smooth.
WHY DID THE BAND CHANGE THEIR NAME TO GREEN DAY AND WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE NAME?
I think one of the main reasons was that there was already another band called Sweet Baby, and the guys thought the two names were too much alike. They may have also thought that Sweet Children wasn't a good enough name, I don't know for sure. How did I feel? Well, I was just about to put out their first record (1,000 Hours) and I went ballistic. I was like, "Everybody knows you as Sweet Children. How am I supposed to sell a record by a band called Green Day? Nobody knows who the hell Green Day is. And besides, Green Day is a dumb name. It doesn't mean anything." Stuff like that. Well, I was wrong. I guess I'm better at picking bands than picking names. Green Day turned out to be a very good name indeed.
WHAT IS YOUR WILDEST MEMORY OF SOMETHING THE BAND DID IN THEIR EARLY YEARS?
I don't know if it's very "wild," but I can't help remembering a June, 1989 show I put on in Garberville, a small hippie town of about 1300 people in Northern California. The bands were, in this order, Bumblescrump, Green Day, Screeching Weasel, the Lookouts, and the Mr. T Experience. The original headliner was supposed to be Operation Ivy, but they had broken up a couple weeks before. Anyway, Billie and Mike were just 17 years old (Tre was still in our band, the Lookouts, then), but someone had bought them some beer, a lot of beer, in fact, and by the time they went on stage, they were lucky if they could figure out which way the audience was, let alone how to play their instruments or even how to hold on to them. I know one of them, Mike, I think, was outside puking right before he went on stage. But the amazing thing was that even though they were having a hard time figuring out where they were or remembering all the words to their songs, they still played a better show than any of the other bands who'd been at it way longer (Green Day was only a year old then, while the Lookouts and MTX had been playing since 1985). Even the parents and old hippies who'd dropped by the Veterans Hall to see what all the noise was about were astounded to see some drunken young kids playing some of the best live music they'd ever heard. After the show we drove about 50 miles to my house up in the mountains and Billie and Mike slept in their van. All night long I heard my dogs barking, but didn't think anything of it until morning, when Mike said, "Man, we had to piss so bad, but we were afraid to get out of the van because we thought those dogs would kill and eat us." My dogs were even bigger wusses than I was, so that was pretty funny, but I think the guys were also scared because it was way out in the country and there were no street lights or anything. Oh, and there WERE bears out in the woods, but I didn't tell them about that part.
WHAT WAS THE BAND LIKE IN THE STUDIO WHILE RECORDING THEIR ALBUMS?
I never went into the studio with them. David Hayes, my original partner in Lookout Records, was there when they recorded 39/Smooth and, I think, for at least part of Kerplunk. I think they liked having him there because he almost never said anything except "Sounds good." Anyway, they were extremely fast workers. 39/Smooth was recorded and mixed in two days, which is about how long they took to tune up the snare drum on Dookie. We didn't have much money at Lookout in those days to pay for recording costs, but even still, they could have taken a couple more days than they did and I would have been happy to pay for it. But their drummer at that time, John Kiffmeyer aka Al Sobrante, was very big on spending as little money as possible and doing it as fast as possible. I think that philosophy was largely an outgrowth of his punk roots. As I say, they could have taken a bit longer, but I was still pretty happy with how the record came out. (By the way, it cost $675 to record and sold nearly a million copies.) With Kerplunk, they didn't take a whole lot longer. The only difference was that they went in to the studio in the spring to record half the songs, and ended up deciding not to use those versions, and instead re-recorded those songs plus six more songs in the fall (at least I think I'm remembering this right). That album, if you don't count the spring recording, took three or four days, and still cost less than $2,000.
ARE THERE ANY UNRELEASED SONGS FROM THE BANDS LOOKOUT! RECORDS YEARS? IF SO, DO YOU KNOW THE TITLES OF THE SONGS AND IF THEY WILL EVER BE RELEASED?
No, not really, not studio recordings, anyway. Unless you count the first versions of the songs they did for Kerplunk and then later re-recorded. For all I know those songs may have been erased. There'd probably be no point in releasing them. Actually, there may be some recordings sitting around that I don't know about; for example, from when the band recorded in Minneapolis for the Skene! EP (the four songs which also appear at the end of Kerplunk) or stuff they did at home or on their own, but I don't know about it.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN THE BAND TOLD YOU THEY WERE SIGNING WITH A MAJOR LABEL?
I felt disappointed, of course, but I wasn't completely surprised. They were starting to get popular, and I'd always known they were good enough to become one of the most popular and best bands in America. I guess I'd hoped they'd at least stick with Lookout for one more album, and maybe give Lookout a chance to grow big enough so that it could provide them with the same kind of exposure a major label could. But it didn't work out that way.
DID YOU EXPECT THE BAND TO HIT IT SO BIG WHEN EXPOSED TO A MAINSTREAM AUDIENCE?
I thought they'd be successful, but I really wouldn't have predicted they'd get that big, at least not that fast. I was kind of worried that they were making the jump to a major label too soon. Most bands that sign to majors when they're still relatively unknown end up getting dropped and breaking up, and I was afraid that might happen to Green Day. Of course it didn't, but nearly every other punk band that signed to a major around that time flopped. (I'm not counting the Offspring, because they stayed on Epitaph for a couple more years and got really big before they signed to a major.)
HOW MUCH DID GREEN DAY'S SUCCESS HELP OUT LOOKOUT! RECORDS?
Enormously. Our sales went through the roof. In 1993 we sold about 50,000 Green Day albums (both titles combined); in 1994 it was more like a few hundred thousand, in 1995 almost a million. All the attention we were getting also helped other bands like Operation Ivy (who were already big anyway) and Screeching Weasel greatly increase their sales. The Green Day guys were always wearing t-shirts from our other bands when they'd appear on MTV, and that didn't hurt either. At the same time, it's not always good to grow too fast, and all the new fame and money pouring in created a lot of challenges for Lookout too. For example, other bands started saying, "How come we're not as popular as Green Day? You guys aren't promoting us enough!" To which I'd say, "Write some songs as good as Green Day's and work as hard as they have and I'll make you popular." That usually just made them mad. Also, a lot of the fun went out of running a record label. It used to be just three of us working out of my room, and if we ever got tired or bored, we could just close down the "office" for the day and go to the movies or the beach. Once all the big stuff started happening, we found ourselves in a whole suite of offices, complete with secretaries and phones ringing constantly and everybody wanting something done right now if not sooner. Yeah, the money was good, and it was also a big kick to have people taking us seriously after years of laughing at our "little" record label, but I kind of missed the old and simpler days.
WHAT IS YOUR FONDEST MEMORY OF THE BAND?
I'm thinking of a couple things. One was how they would just come by my room, when it was still the Lookout office, and just hang out, and talk about music or anything and everything else. The other would be the last time Green Day played Gilman Street (well, there was another unannounced time for somebody's birthday, but I wasn't there for that). Anyway, this was right around Christmas, 1993, just before Dookie came out, and another of my favorite bands, Brent's TV, was also playing. Green Day played under a fake name, so only about 150 people were there, and almost everyone knew each other and knew all the words to all the songs by both bands. So we were all dancing and singing along together, and it was all warm and festive and family-like, but there was also this bittersweet feeling that came from knowing that things would never be like this again, that this was the last time we'd all be together this way.
WHERE IS JOHN KIFFMEYER NOW, AND DO YOU KNOW IF HE REGRETS HIS DECISION TO LEAVE THE BAND?
John is married and living in San Francisco, working in various aspects of the media. He hasn't spoken to me in nearly seven years, and the last time he did, it was to yell at me for giving an interview about Green Day to a reporter from Rolling Stone (the band had asked me to speak to him). So I have no way of knowing how John feels about leaving the band, whether he's happy or sad or whatever about it. I know that he did very well financially, even just from playing on the first album and two EPs, because the band still gave him his full one third share of the earnings, but as to whether he wishes he were still in the band, I have no way of knowing. After he left Green Day to attend college, he played in several other bands, most notably the Ne'er Do Wells, but as far as I know, he's not playing music, at least not in a band, anymore.
IF YOU HAD TO PICK A FAVORITE GREEN DAY ALBUM, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
That would probably be 39/Smooth, mostly because there's not a single song on there that I couldn't listen to over and over. I like Kerplunk just about as much, but there's something about 39/Smooth, a sort of warmer, fuzzier kind of sound, that always makes me happy, whereas Kerplunk, while better produced, is just a bit slicker and doesn't have that same kind of feeling. I remember after I got back from mastering Kerplunk, I put on some headphones and listened to a cassette of it, and within about ten seconds of the first song starting, I said to myself, "Holy shit. These guys are going to be massive." Dookie is most people's favorite album, and while it has some of their best songs and production, it's almost too powerful for me, the production, anyway. Warning is my other favorite, probably because it gets back to that kind of warm, almost home-made feeling I get from 39/Smooth.
WHY DID YOU LEAVE LOOKOUT! RECORDS AND WHATS IN THE FUTURE FOR YOU??
I forgot to ask Lawrence this question originally, so i'm waiting for a response on this one.