Young Papas of Pop Punk

"It was a total honor. I had a great time — once we were done playing." Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt takes a brief (very brief) respite from cracking wise to reflect on his band's recent televised performance at this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The Northern California trio plied a short, blistering set in tribute to The Ramones; Dirnt admits to a bit of pre-gig apprehension, if only because he and his bandmates have been around long enough for the seminal New York outfit to have had a direct impact on both their music and methodology.

"I'd say they were one of the direct influences. They showed you could live simply, write simple songs and be happy," he says. "That's why, in my mind, The Ramones will always be the biggest punk band in the world. Period."

It's a fitting match. Green Day have undoubtedly turned more latecomers on to The Ramones than any other single entity, simply because they're the best-selling, most widely-recognized punk act (semantics regarding subjective definitions of "punk" being damned, of course) in history. And their loud-ass, straightforward, pop-grounded style seems a reverent West Coast echo of the Bowery boys' primal yet hooky sound.

Dirnt, drummer Tre Cool and singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong brought that sound to more ears than had ever heard it before with their 1994 major-label debut Dookie. A stripped-raw blast of youthful disaffection and barbed melody, Dookie absolutely conquered the post-Nirvana modern-rock landscape, eventually selling over 8-million copies nationally and topping 11-million worldwide. The band broke a burgeoning underground pop-punk scene into mainstream consciousness that remains at the forefront of pop culture to this day.

While subsequent albums Insomniac, Nimrod and Warning: couldn't approach Dookie's watermark sales, all three have gone at least platinum, besting figures for, oh, about 99.9 percent of the fast 'n' catchy outfits that have crowded into the band's footprints. They have kept their fans guessing, and themselves interested, by continually screwing around with their style. The ubiquitous acoustic hit "Time of Your Life" (from Nimrod) and rich instrumental augmentation of Warning: engendered debate over whether Green Day was punk at all anymore, if indeed they'd ever been to begin with.

"We're successful, but it's not a race. We're pleasing our fans, and that's cool. But most importantly, we're pleasing ourselves. Because we're selfish — fuck the kids!" Dirnt says with a laugh.

Families, outside projects and an ever-increasing focus on making good music, as opposed to exhaustively promoting it, have seen Green Day's once-torturous touring and recording schedule pared back a bit over the years. Each of the trio has kids; Armstrong and Cool are married. Armstrong co-founded the NorCal indie imprint Adeline Records, and plays in the side project Pinhead Gunpowder. Dirnt likewise has a one-off outfit The Frustrators (who record for Adeline), but says his other responsibilities render time with the group a rare perk.

"We kind of cram a year's worth of work into about two weeks it gives me a chance to try out different things before I inevitably perfect them for Green Day," he deadpans.

Last year, while material from Warning: was still enjoying steady airplay, the threesome released International Superhits, a singles compilation featuring two new studio tracks. Such a move might be considered a bit offbeat, as the singles comp is usually reserved for punk bands that are either way, way, way underground, huge in tiny Third World provinces, or have been broken up since the early '80s. Rather than regarding the disc as a greatest hits package, however, Dirnt sees it as the highlights-so-far kind of thing.

"It was a little weird, but it was also kind of great — "let's get all this down, and move forward,'" says the bassist, adding with an audible smirk that he envisions Green Day's eventual Greatest Hits release "as more of a box set." Without a new album of material to pimp, the band is nonetheless crisscrossing the country on The Pop Disaster Tour, sharing the spotlight with co-headlining toilet-humor enthusiasts Blink-182 and earnest emo-pop openers Jimmy Eat World. The jaunt puts Green Day back into arenas for the first time in a few years, and its spring/summer scheduling allows the group's children to join them on the road at times. "It's nice to not be splitting our focus between touring and promoting (a new record)," Dirnt says. "We said we'd stop for a moment, and focus on this tour."

As the current kings of the adolescent big-shorts scene, Blink-182 is closing out the show at every stop. Dirnt shrugs off the rumors of longtime hard feelings between the bands, labeling them over-hyped media and chat-room speculation. "People always want to look for that. They always want to see a good fight, but they don't want to be in a good fight," he admonishes. "I went to dinner with those guys last night. We're having a blast." Green Day's shadow unquestionably falls across a larger area of music culture than that of Blink. And many a Blink fan only knows "Longview" from older siblings' record collections and the occasional radio spin. Still, Dirnt has no problem with rocking a middle slot of equal length.

"I suppose that if I was a jaded old fool I would, but I'm not. I don't think it's bad at all," he says. "You get to be done, sit down, have a beer, watch another band play. It's kind of nice, watching somebody else sweat."

Fourteen years into a career that has entailed — thus far — underground hero status, responsibility for an entire genre's rise to prominence, continuing relevance and guaranteed iconhood, Dirnt, Cool and Armstrong know a thing or two about exertion. But rather than struggle and compromise to match the probably unmatchable success of Dookie, they get off on looking forward, challenging their songwriting skills and their enviable audience. For a band who rose from the often all-too-dogmatic DIY scene, they've also made an admirable (albeit sarcastic) peace with becoming lasting mainstream, household-name recording artists. Dirnt enthusiastically urges all purists who long ago abandoned arena shows as impersonal dinosaurs to make this show the one that brings them back to the sports complex.

"What do you have to compare it to? A show you saw eight years ago? You need to come and see what it's done to the rock," he says. "Come and see the Disney damage!"

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or at scott.harrell @weeklyplanet.com.

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