The next morning, the sun is shining as we met up with Steve Lamacq and Radio 1's Danny O'Connor (also currently writing the official Stereophonics biography), whose efforts to make a documentary about the summer of American punk were similarly scuppered by yesterday's downpour. Our Mission: to circumnavigate the bewildering, toll-strewn American road system and find Asbury Park, New Jersey - home of Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen and host to today's Vans Warped extravaganza. As we speed through the Lincoln Tunnel, the unmistakable sound of Rancid's "Ruby Soho" blasts out from a vehicle behind us, but it's not the expected bunch of punks in a knackered pick-up, rather an executive in a top-of-the-range Mercedes convertible - a timely reminder that, right now in the States, punk rock is big business. That's reinforced ten-fold by the barrage of corporate branding evident on every available surface at today's venue, a seafront parking lot in the decaying seaside resort (imagine Brighton after the bomb dropped) that even endorsements from Brooooce and Bon Jovi have failed to revive. Sure, the beaches still have their fair share of ray catching hotties, but it's clear that today's punk invasion represents a much-needed cash injection for the neighbourhood. Even if the residents sat on their porches do regard the parade of green mohawks and facial piercings with the utmost suspicion. "This place looks fucked," says Tre, as he greets us backstage. "Apparently, it just died overnight when they built Atlantic City - cause they've got beaches and gambling. You can see where Bruce got all those songs about dying cities and shit from."
Indeed. Quite what the so-called Boss would make of today, however, is less certain. Chances are he'd blanche at the thought of only getting 30 minutes to do his thing, instead of four hours. He'd doubtless bristle at the barrage of anti-American sentiment on display on every stage, stall and T-shirt. And he might shit himself at seeing the way in which punk culture has hi-jacked the blue collar kids who were once his natural constituency. Then again, he might just kick back, rub on the factor 15 ("I personally sorted the fucking weather out for you guys today," grins Mike Dirnt) and enjoy the spectacle. Because, despite the orgy of corporate sponsorship, the Vans Warped remains truer to the festival spirit than many of the megagigs we get on our shores. Out front, they could do with more bars (the one they do have is so ruthlessly policed that even your distinctly-over-21 correspondent is refused service) and foot outlets, but you're never going to get bored. Half a dozen stages pump out a constant barrage of punk/metal/hip-hop, while other attractions range from stunning extreme sports displays to the chill-out area of the Ladies' Lounge (although the less right-on male punks appear to have targeted this as a pick-up joint).
Backstage, thing are similarly happy-go-lucky. There's no rock star egos here: every band, from mega-popular major-label types like Green Day to inaccessible indie zealots like Snapcase, get equal stagetime, while the running order is plucked daily from a hat. There's no elitism either - backstage is basically just a patch of wasteground where the bands get to hang out by the barbecue and swap stories - and they can only get there from their buses by walking through the crowd, ensuring countless autograph opportunities. You'd expect the likes of NOFX to embrace such a set-up, but Green Day? Lest we forget, with the multi platinum success of their classic 1994 album "Dookie", they were officially the biggest band on the planet. The two albums sine then, 1995's brutally uncompromising "Insomniac" and 1997's more accessible "Nimrod", may not have shifted quite as many units, but even the former, laughably described as their "flop" album, actually sold almost five million copies. In short, Green Day are fucking massive - and their new record, "Warning", they're likely to get even bigger, with the band returning to "Dookie"-style pop-punk and, inevitably, WEA insiders predicting a return to "Dookie"-style sales figures. So what the f*** are they doing slumming it here? "It's just great to be back in the swing of things," explains Billie Joe, after catching reggaecore types Long Beach Dub Allstars on the main stage. "We've starved ourselves of doing live shows, so it's nice to be playing again. And, like, our record's not out yet, so it's a great way for us to come back and play with a bunch of punk bands. Sure, it's an opportunity for us to play in front of a lot of people, but we also have similar taste in music to the other bands, so there's a real camaraderie. It's like a giant travelling barbecue - all the bands hang out by the grill and start drinking at 11am. Who's the biggest party animals? The Long Beach Dub All-stars. They should be called the Long Beach Drunk Allstars!" "And it's a double engagement for Mike," quips Tre. "He's skating Vert Ramp at 2pm, so it's like a two-birds-with-one-stone deal."
Whatever the motivation, it's clear they're enjoying the reality. They're undoubtedly thrilled to find their fans are still out there, and happily sign every piece of paper/clothing/flesh thrust in their direction. Mike is a constant presence in the backstage compound, chewing the fat with anyone and everyone, while Billie Joe spends most of his time stageside, checking out the rest of the bill with the enthusiasm of a fresh-faced fan, far from the jaded rock star you might expect. And all three of 'em look fit and healthy for a band who've been on the road for a month. "Fuck knows how," laughs Billie. "We've really been partying on this tour. We were playing at the Gorge in Washington and I sank about eight gin and tonics and I just couldn't stop pissing. I must have a small bladder cause I pissed everywhere - in the end I pissed all over the barbecue. Man, that cleared the room pretty fast!" "I tell you, though" deadpans Tre, "the hotdogs never tasted so good as on that day!" Groo!
Declining the offer of backstage catering, we head out to see what else the Vans Warped experience has to offer. The answer is: plenty. Even thought this is the worst possible combination of the bands on this years roll call (we don't get Weezer, The Donnas, Save Ferris, or The Dickies, all of whom have appeared at some points this summer), it's still an impressive line-up: elements of London's excellent Deconstruction festival bill (no-nonsense old skool punk from Good Riddance, comedy pop pogo from NOFX and a particularly ace set from punked-up, suit-free Bosstones), plus added attractions like hot "the new Limp Bizkit" tips Papa Roach, Sweden's premier hardcore-export-that-isn't-pornography Millencolin and laid back hip-hop stylings from Jurassic 5. Even better, the twin-stage set-up means you never have to wait more than a few seconds for the next band to appear. Although you have to feel sorry for heavy-duty skacore types Suicide Machines, who are on before Green Day and consequently play to a crowd that refuses to budge from the empty stage where Billie Joe and co are due to appear. Make no mistake: Green Day may have been away for two years, and they may appear unfeasibly early at 6:30pm, but they're still the reason the vast majority of people are here. And, when they take to the stage, Tre dancing like a loon and Mike demanding, "This is a punk show, right? So stop all this jock shit and pick people up when they fall down!", it's not hard to see why.
They rocket past in a riot of greatest hits (a fiery "Welcome To Paradise", a stripped-down-to-its-rockabillly-roots "Hitchin' A Ride", an ultra-violent "Geek Stink Breath"), Billie Joe resplendent in shorts and new-wave red shirt/black tie combination, leaping around like the Satanic offspring (ha!) of AC/DC's Angus Young and a big bag of amphetamine sulphate. It's a brief-but-brilliant set, but still manages to take in most of 'Day's finest moments ("Longview", "Brain Stew", "Basketcase"), an Operation Ivy cover, a guest guitar spot from one of The Kids, a water fight with customised Green Day supersoakers and the most mental moshing in the world. . . ever! As they finish with a rare run-through of "Going To Pasalacqua" (from their 1990 debut "1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours"), Tre trashes his drumkit before setting it alight. Small wonder much of the crowd leaves as soon as the flames have been extinguished.
Back on the Green Day bus (cold beers, spliffs, copies of Penthouse, the usual), the mood is of unbridled enthusiasm. "It was insane out there today," grins Billie Joe. "Yeah," agrees Mike. "Looking at the moshpit was like looking at footage of live tuna in boiling water!" "That's why we're not doing any new stuff on this tour," explains Billie. "Cause when you do, people want to stand and listen and the energy of the crowd goes down a little." "Plus it's a bit like saying 'Here's a song you can't have'!'" chips in Mike. "Unless it's on Napster already!" The band claim to, "not give a fuck" about Napster, but "Warning" is still being kept under strict security. Billie describes it as "an upbeat record", Mike says, "It makes me cry. . . but they're tears of joy, man." Whatever it's clear from the grins on their faces when they talk about their fave tracks (Billie chooses "Waiting" and "Minority", as he's "particularly proud of the lyrics", Mike goes for "Blood Sex And Booze" and "Fashion Victim" "cause they're the most fun to play" and Tre selects "Misery" and "Macy's Day Parade" "because I'm a completely fucking insane maniac") that they think they've come up with a doozie, if not a "Dookie".
"We had a great time doing this record," confirms Billie. "We've taken the next step after 'Nimrod' - we didn't try to go back and pretend it was 1993 again or anything like that. It's like, what's the point of us hyping the record? I think it's a great record, but - hey! - I happened to write it! What other people think of it is beyond our control: it could be the best Christmas present in the world or it could be used as toilet paper." "It's like bringing your kid to kindergarten for the first time," claims Mike, who, as a proud father, should know what he's talking about. "Is the kid next to him going to kick the crap out of him or is he going to make a lot of friends?" "It is," concludes Billie, "a very vulnerable place to be." In this context, the Vans Warped tour is a last hurrah before the real work starts. "The band is like a marriage," declares Tre. "We get onstage and fuck each other!" and, while that might be going a bit far, the tour is certainly the chance to continue the studio japes that saw the band hire Mistress Simone, a professional dominatrix, to contribute whipcracks to "Blood, Sex And Booze". "Yeah, we had our engineer flogged for that track," cackles Mike. "you can hear him being beaten silly with a cat o' nine tails on the song - she kicked him in the nuts, slapped the shit out of him, put her stiletto heels on his throat, the whole deal!" Did he enjoy it? "Oh yeah," says Billie. "We created a monster. He's only 19 and he has already discovered a whole new world for himself." "He came in the next day and it was like he'd grown his first pubic hair," giggles Mike. "He had this air of masculinity. He went in a boy and he came out a man." "And if you'd like to work for Green Day," laughs Tre "just call 1-800-MASOCHIST!"
The tour has been similarly chaotic, with brushes with the law a constant feature. "Tre nearly got arrested for setting off fireworks," titters Mike. "The cops were shouting, 'Get your hands in the air!', like he had a gun. When they left, we started whistling and clapping our hands so it sounded like fireworks, and the cops were flipping out. We were, like, 'What? Whistling is illegal now?'" "In Utah, the cops go around on horseback," says Tre. "They came backstage on their fucking horses, but one of the bands has got a dog on tour and he got loose and just attacked this horse. He was gnawing on its dick! That was pretty fucking funny!"
This capering is a far cry from the last time I interviewed the band in 1995, when Billie Joe was suffering from panic attacks and the whole band were finding fame pie a hard one to swallow. "We searched inward and dealt with it," shrugs Billie Joe. "You have a lot of information coming at you at the same time and a lot of people kissing your ass - and that made me paranoid. Y'know, are people being honest with me? Is the music good or not? Now, I don't care - we look to each other for the opinions that matter." With huge expectation for the new records, and punk rock bigger than ever, do you have any fears about getting back into the fame game? "Hey, I'm just glad I'm still here," says Billie. "Doing an interview with Melody Maker, like I was in 1994. I never thought that would happen - when 'Insomniac' came out, I was like, 'I don't know about this any more.' We've been successful at maintaining things while staying level-headed. We're just trying to write good music and be true to our core audience."
Of course, Billie's core audience (ie, America's huge teen population) has enjoyed a lot of competing attractions in the last two years: from the rise of nu-metal ("'The Bad Touch' is a real guilty pleasure for me," says Billie. "In fact, it's not even a pleasure, it's just guilty") to the increasingly bland pop scene ("Hanson come along and, of course, we're not fans of Hanson," stresses Billie. "But then some other boy band comes along and you go, 'Well, at least Hanson write their own songs.' But well, what the fuck! You're supposed to write your own fucking songs!"), Green Day have watched, unimpressed, itching to get back in the fray. And, while success for The Offspring and NOFX has gladdened their hearts, there is also the band known in Green Day's camp as "Blink 18-who?" "Well, y'know," shrugs Tre. "They sound like a good band. In fact they sound exactly like a good band!" And that good band is , of course, Green Day. We love Blink, of course, but don't you feel like ringing them up and saying, "Where's my check?" "Aw, no, no way, man," says Billie, magnamoniously. "We got a lot of shit because we weren't the original 1977-era punks and I don't want to sound like these old farts that go, 'Oh, you're just ripping me off.' If they sound like us, I can only take it as a compliment." "They're just keeping the barbecue warm, man," grins Mike. And for once, Billie's not going to piss on it.
So, as the band prepares to heed the onstage advice of Fat Mike from NOFX and "Get the hell out of this town before it gets dark", Mike promises they'll be in Britain in the autumn, Tre dispenses the chronic and Billie Joe laughs off the "High Fidelity" scene in which Dick gets lucky by pointing out the similarities between Green Day and Stiff Little Fingers. Man, I hope people really are using our records to pick up chicks. Or guys. I like the thought of people having sex to our music. I also like it when people die listening to our music. Like, when people get in a car wreck at 100mph, I always wonder what was on the stereo to make them go so fast. Y'know, was it one of ours?" Green Day are back. Don't wreck your motor to anything less.