His multicolored pompadour in outrageous full effect, his powerful punch-to-the-gut drumming a testament to his long-term success and ongoing love of life and music, Tré Cool is the world’s eternal punk rock poster boy.
Green Day has released twelve albums and sold millions and millions of records. In an era when rock ’n’ roll claws and scratches for market share as the masses are engrossed by tween pop and hip-hop, Green Day thrives. The band did seem on the verge of joining the league of gentleman-rock has-beens in the early 2000s, but its seventh studio album, 2004’s American Idiot, propelled the group back to the kingdom of rock royalty and festival fame, where it remains.
How has Green Day prospered when others simply collect moss and rolls of fat? Punk rock keeps the trio young. And talent motivates them to do more. No better example of the band’s timeless punk appeal exists than in live performance. At the 2016 American Music Awards, while playing “Bang Bang,” the first single from the group’s latest album, Revolution Radio, like a mob of flaming sledgehammers, singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong chanted, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” This is the face of punk rock, USA, 2017.
As timeless as the music of Green Day is the drumming of Tré Cool. Now possessing the wisdom provided by time, Cool hasn’t slowed, he’s grown—his pocket wider, his rolls more balanced, his fills more dangerous. Twenty-five years in, he still takes glee in drum-throttling, still glories in the magic of punk rock precociousness.
Like a Keith Moon slashing, crashing, and burning punk rhythms into digestible kernels of USDA Grade A rhythm, Cool’s good-natured personality is a major part of the Green Day story. Growing up in a mountain community where he slept in a tent and used outside latrines, Tré didn’t make his first phone call until he was fourteen. By then, he was already playing drums in the Lookouts, a seminal punk rock trio wherein you can hear the roots of Green Day.
Riding the crest of the wave generated by Revolution Radio, which debuted at number one in the U.S., the U.K., and several other countries, Tré Cool, with his positive demeanor and riotous drumming, shows no signs of slowing down in his forty-fourth year. And the band continues to expand its horizons, recently executive-producing the documentary Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, directed and produced by Corbett Redford.
“It’s a hell of a badass movie,” Cool says. “We interviewed all of the people from the scene. It’s not a movie about Green Day at all. We’re definitely part of it, because we had a lot to do with the story. But we have Metallica, Guns n’ Roses, and Jello Biafra—and it’s narrated by Iggy Pop.”
Modern Drummer spoke with Tré as the group was taking a break between legs of its year-plus-long international tour.
MD: How did Revolution Radio differ from earlier Green Day records for you?
Tré: We recorded Revolution Radio following a pretty long break. We were off for three years. I felt like an out-of-work musician for a while. Billie demoed the songs. He’s a good drummer himself. He’ll start with drums on a song, throw down a scratch guitar, come up with melodies, and piece the song together.
He’ll create these outstanding demos and send them to me and Mike [Dirnt, bass]. Nine times out of ten we’re blown away. His demos sound better than a lot of people’s records. We’ll learn the music and then play it together as a band, gauge when we’re ready, and then ask, “Are we making a record now?” That’s how Revolution Radio happened. We realized we had twelve or thirteen songs and we hadn’t released anything for a long time. Everybody was healthy and we were champing at the bit to go, so we did it.
Tracking Revolution Radio
MD: How did you record the drums for the album?
Tré: We decided not to go back to our Jingletown studio in Oakland; we’ve been there for years. We felt like we’d used up all the mojo. The past was literally on the wall—the graffiti from 21st Century Breakdown is on the front door as you walk in the studio. So Billie built a new studio, a very small studio. You wouldn’t believe how small this place is. Billie calls the place “Otis.” It’s a good size for a record store maybe, but not a studio space. But we put a wood floor down, put the drums on one side of the room, and figured out how to get great sounds out of the space.
We have a kick-ass stereo mic in the bathroom. We had another kick-ass vintage mic in the hall. When I’d track drums we’d leave all the doors open. There’s a living space above the studio and a stairway leading to it that we used like an echo chamber. The tile bathroom had a real cool room sound as well.
We maximized the room as much as we could. We had a total of seven room mics going for the drums to pick up as much as we could. We wanted to capture the dynamics of the drums. We wanted to make it sound like, Okay, here’s a unique drum sound. We were looking for something original, and to not add a lot of processors on the drums so they sounded like everyone else’s drums.
MD: And I hear you did your own teching?
Tré: Yes, I did all my own drum teching on this record as well. I changed all my own heads, did all my own tuning. It was very slow going! But once we start recording, it doesn’t take me long. I only need a few takes of each song, and we’ve got it. I’m not one to futz around; I just need to focus. If it sounds good to me and it’s human, then that’s what I want. I’m not trying to make it perfect or put it through Beat Detective. I put on my headphones and push and pull the time a little bit, but I want it to sound human, like a musician.
MD: Your drumming always sounds big, fat, and in the pocket.
Tré: Thanks. I try to make it sound real. The drum sound on Revolution Radio is no bullshit. It’s a drumset in a room with a bunch of mics on it.
MD: Did you use any vintage drums from your vast collection on Revolution Radio?
Tré: I used all SJC Custom drums. They made me a special recording kit out of mahogany, and where I really hit pay dirt was using different drumheads. On tour, I use Remo Coated Emperor heads for batters and Clear Ambassadors for resonants. That’s where I started in the studio, and it sounded cool, but I wanted to try some other heads, so I experimented with the Remo Vintage series—always Remo heads. I tried Vintage heads, thicker, thinner, Clear, Black Dot. And remember, I’m changing all that stuff myself!
So whenever I had a new idea, I had to tell the guys, “Sorry, it’s going to be another day. I haven’t found the sound yet.” Until I find the sound, we’re not going for the performance. We know the song, we know what it’s supposed to sound like, the structure. We know what we’re going for. But sonically it’s a tough nut. You have to get the perfect balance to get a good drum sound: the heads, the materials, the shell, the sizes of the shells, the tuning. If one little thing is bugging me, then I’m going to tweak out until the whole kit sounds right.
MD: Why be your own tech?
Tré: Kenny Butler, my longtime drum tech, retired. And my other guy, Mike Fasano, has his own gig, Tiger Army, God bless him. And I wasn’t going to use some new guy. It’s such an intimate situation. Our engineer, Chris Dugan, and I worked together on getting drum sounds. We trade ideas and think about a vibe, and he has the capability to achieve that vibe. We used a lot of vintage gear as well, but we didn’t record to reel-to-reel tape. We’ve done that in the past and it seems counterproductive. The warmth we thought we were getting didn’t really exist. We would run everything through a Studer tape head, then into Pro Tools, but now we don’t have the room for a tape machine. And you can end up going down the rabbit hole with that kind of stuff. We just wanted to make a new record.
I did finally find a great drum tech: Nathaniel Mela. He’s way on top of all the drum and cymbal gear. I’m really happy with Nathaniel. I worked with Kenny Butler for twenty years, and I hope Nathaniel will also be long-term. He’s great with the Green Day family, a total drummer, an inspired drum geek. Nathaniel worked side by side with Johnny Craviotto for seven years, handcrafting those gorgeous handmade drums. He learned from the master. You have to trust your drum tech everywhere you play. On festivals, we’ll play for over two and a half hours, and if something is off you might even get hurt. But Nathaniel handles everything. He’s a badass.
MD: Billie gives the demos to the band, then you go in like true studio craftsmen.
Tré: Right. It’s like someone has given me the blueprints to a building, then I get to work to make the structure. I’d be the framer and the roofer. I got both jobs. [laughs]
MD: What did you record drums to—guitars, bass?
Tré: Billie’s scratch guitars. We recorded takes live. Billie would be playing guitar in the room with me so we would get the performance. Then Mike is really good at creating to the pocket I’ve recorded. Mike is so great; we’re so lucky to have him.
Green Day, Masters of the Punk Rock Universe
MD: Green Day is an enduring phenomenon in that the band remains current, decade after decade. Your influence seems to only grow. What makes Green Day timeless?
Tré: I think it has something to do with where we come from. The punk rock community in the East Bay is a very cool thing. And all the bands we looked up to weren’t trying to become rock stars. We didn’t come from the Sunset Strip or the New York scene. That’s cool and all, but we looked up to bands that were having a good time and speaking their minds and being more political, who spoke out against racism and sexism. That sort of camaraderie within the East Bay community and that sort of mindset was very important to us.
MD: How did success feel initially?
Tré: When success first came to us, we were in denial. We were just doing our thing and playing shows, and, sure, we got bigger and people noticed there was something different. We were getting paid money. That was cool—we knew we were going to eat and we could pay our rent. We got a tour bus. Things became a little more comfortable. But it wasn’t like we needed more.
MD: Did the band have a goal?
Tré: One thing that we’ve always had as a mantra is: Make music that’s going to sound good in twenty to thirty years. You can’t help the music being dated through certain things, like, Oh, that song reminds me of high school or My wife and I used to bone to that song! The songs will remind you of a certain time in your life. But we never did a mash-up with a hip-hop artist. We never jumped on trends. Those things can be cool, but we just wanted to make good music that makes us happy. If it inspires a kid to pick up a guitar or the drums, then all the better.
MD: I’m sure you’ve inspired thousands of musicians.
Tré: Almost every day someone I meet for the first time will say, “I began playing music because of your band.” That’s success for us. We’re moving the arm forward and keeping people interested in guitar music and rock ’n’ roll. That in itself is harder and harder to do. The epidemic of DJ culture and people paying good money to see somebody push buttons on their laptop—that’s not our thing. And I’m really proud that we do inspire younger people to pick up an instrument and try it for themselves.
MD: Are Green Day punk purists?
Tré: No. We can write a pop song, but it’s going to sound like Green Day. We have it down; it’s not like we’re going for something. When I play drums and Billie plays guitar and Mike plays bass, it’s f**king Green Day. You hear it and you know it. It’s a musical fingerprint. If we wanted to change it, we could. But luckily we all like it, and we continue to be motivated and inspired by each other. It’s a real honor to play music with your best friends and travel the world and make people happy at the same time. We just play music and try not to be dicks. I’ve been in Starbucks and somebody will drop stuff on me, like, “I was going to kill myself, and your song saved me.” I mean, wow. Cool. You have to not be a dick. A lot of famous people turn into dicks. It’s really easy—don’t be a dick!
Tré Cool 101
MD: Who were the first punk bands to have a big influence on you?
Tré: When I first started playing drums I was in a punk band. I always played with other musicians. I wasn’t playing alone or by myself, trying to put beats together. There was always a bass player and a guitar player. I had to figure out: What’s my part? Cymbals were really fascinating to me. I was an eleven-year-old rambunctious kid with ADHD. I thought cymbals were awesome. In one band practice, halfway through the first song, Larry Livermore, our guitarist in the Lookouts, said, “Whoa! Stop!” He takes all my cymbals away, including the hi-hat. He says, “Start by playing the drums. Once you get the drums down I’ll start giving you your cymbals back.”
I went to band practice and started figuring it out on my own, and I got my hi-hat back! And eventually my crash and ride cymbals. I went into playing with bands from a songwriting angle. That was the context. That carries over to my drumming today. I don’t play super-flashy or technical. I’ve got some licks like that, but I’m not a Steve Gadd kind of drummer. I’m the best Green Day drummer in the world.
MD: Do you remember the first records you bought?
Tré: My cousin lived with us, and he liked a lot of heavy metal. The stuff I gravitated toward was AC/DC, Judas Priest, Foreigner, all when I was ten. Foreigner songs are super-catchy; they have good song structure, and I’ve always been a fan of good songs.
One of the first punk rock bands I got into was 7 Seconds. Then the Dead Kennedys, NoMeansNo—their drummer, John Wright, is amazing. He was a huge influence on me. And the Mr. T Experience—their drummer, Alex Laipeneiks, was really nice to me when I was young. He’s one of the few guys who actually took the time to sit me down and show me some stuff on the drums. Again, that band was about songs. Down the road a couple years I was into bands like Operation Ivy. A lot of the East Bay bands had a lot of energy and were fun; they all had their own sound. The common denominator in all the bands was their energy.
MD: Were you into cassette tapes as a kid?
Tré: Yeah, all cassettes. I grew up in the mountains, so we didn’t really have record stores. We’d have to drive hours to find a record store. My family was very environmentally aware, but a few towns over there were cow towns. I would burn cassettes off my friend’s boom box. We made mixtapes of different punk bands, and we’d all pass them around. That’s how I got a lot of my music.
We lived in Mendocino County, on Spy Rock Road. It was a pot-farming community then. We lived up in the sticks. We didn’t have running water or electricity; we didn’t have any of that for a long time. We had to pump water up from the creek and then depend on the gravity flow. Eventually we had a water tank on the top of the hill above our house. We used 12-volt solar panels for electricity. I used to do my homework [by the light of] kerosene lamps.
MD: Were you homeschooled?
Tré: Regular school. We would carpool with other people who lived on the mountain.
MD: Do you remember your first concert?
Tré: I was in the band drumming at my first concert! The Lookouts were playing gigs since I was twelve. We recorded a record in 1986, One Planet One People, and another one, Spy Rock Road. Lots of songs. That’s my old band when I was a young lad. And pretty good drumming!
MD: Your dad must be proud of you.
Tré: He was our first tour bus driver. He had a bookmobile that we outfitted with bunks for our first tour. We played Lollapalooza from a bookmobile. We were stoked because we weren’t in a van anymore.
MD: What do your kids listen to?
Tré: My son likes rock music—Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, all the classic bands. My daughter likes a wider variety of music. They didn’t go wrong there.
The End of Life on Planet Rock?
MD: If Green Day showed up today in the era of electronic pop and hip-hop, how would they become successful?
Tré: We’ve always oversimplified everything: Make good music, play with your friends, enjoy the people you’re with. Let people make their own mistakes. Don’t do it for the wrong reasons. Don’t play music to be successful. Play for yourself and make yourself happy. More than likely, if you enjoy it, someone else will too. Beyond that I don’t have a lot of advice to aspiring punk rock musicians.
MD: Are we really seeing the death of guitar rock bands?
Tré: No way. It always goes in waves. Before Green Day hit and got really successful the first time, the biggest bands were pop bands: Backstreet Boys, In Sync. Even the big rock bands, like Spin Doctors—that kind of bubblegum pop. Jesus Jones. Then Nirvana, Green Day, and the Offspring came up and the bubblegum bands were gone. Now we’re in a guitar recession, I suppose. A drum drought! [laughs] Not to say that there isn’t awesome music being made—it just doesn’t involve [guitars and] drummers.
But a lot of the beats in these hip-hop songs are fantastic. Some of the hi-hat rhythms blow me away. I challenge you to play those on a drumset. Questlove can play that shit on a drumset and make it look easy. He also has the feel and technique to play that kind of stuff. I’ve seen the Roots many times and it blows me away how they can turn a hip-hop record into a live band performance. I don’t dislike hip-hop or pop—it has its place in society—but I root for rock, rock ’n’ roll bands. That’s my favorite. This weekend I’m going to see One Less Zero, which my wife, Sara, happens to be the singer of.
Finding the Perfect Drumset
MD: Why SJC drums?
Tré: I think they’re the best handcrafted drums out there right now. They’re the most creative, they’re a young company, they’re in the U.S. They really care about their product. They’re trying to grow the company, but not at the expense of their drums. They’re at the higher end of the price range of American drumsets, but they’re more of a [boutique] company. I also have a huge collection of vintage drumsets, all stored in a big warehouse.
MD: How many sets?
Tré: I don’t know. Lots. Hundreds of snare drums, close to a hundred full kits, tons of cymbals—and I’m not being figurative. I’ve got every drumset that has been in a Green Day video or on a Green Day record. I’ve got an original Gretsch Birdland kit from 1954 or 1956, the crown jewel of the drumset world. It’s green with gold hardware. And a Ringo Starr 1960s Ludwig black oyster kit. Tons of Gretsch, Slingerland, Ludwig, Leedy & Ludwig, and Pork Pie for good measure. A clear Fibes acrylic kit, but the finish is like a shower door—pretty badass. A bunch of Vistalite—clear, candy-stripe. I’ve got a bunch of Noble & Cooley snares, including the Dookie snare, which I played on lots and lots of records. And tons of ’60s and ’70s Rogers kits. It’s a good time in the warehouse.
MD: You love the beauty of the old drums?
Tré: And the vibe and the sound. I’ll set them up and start playing, and each kit makes me play differently. [Green Day side project] Foxboro Hot Tubs began when I picked up a ’60s Rogers kit. I set up those drums in the big live room at Jingletown and started playing, then [Green Day touring guitarist] Jason White came in with an old Gretsch guitar and we started playing these old-school mod riffs from the ’60s. It brought that spirit out. These old drums carry the spirit of music that was played on them. It sort of goes through you and possesses you when you play them. Guitar players say the same thing about old guitars from the ’50s and ’60s. There is some sort of spirit that gets stuck in the wood.
MD: Can you speak to drum endorsing?
Tré: I’ve endorsed almost every American drum company. They’ve all been great—all the drums are good. But where I felt like SJC won a million times over compared to other companies is that they are so personal. If I have an idea, they’ll take it seriously. I know who’s there, and they pick up the phone. SJC has some of the best craftsmen in the world. And I don’t feel lost in a shuffle of a million drummers with SJC. Gretsch was awesome, but they have a lot of artists. If you can get with any of the big three, go for it. The drums will be good no matter where you go, be it DW, Ludwig, Gretsch….
When Mr. Zildjian Is Your Friend
MD: What is your relationship with Zildjian?
Tré: I’ve been with Zildjian since 1993. I’ve seen the company change a lot over the years. They want to make money, so I’ve seen them go after the consumer and do what people want. And I’ve seen them go through a lot of R&D. Then I noticed that they stopped making some of the cymbals that I liked. So rather than bitch, I called and asked them to make the new cymbals similar to the old ones I liked. They’d send me prototypes, then ask me a lot of questions. It’s been a discourse, communicating with them.
Zildjian is all about bonding with the artist, like they did with Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. All those guys were buddies with Mr. Zildjian. They have that mentality of making cymbals for artists and that sound good on records. And if the cymbals sound good on records, they’ll sell to the kids.
MD: Have you asked Zildjian to make a Tré Cool line of cymbals?
Tré: They don’t do that. That’s a can of worms Zildjian doesn’t want to open, and I don’t blame them. And I love Zildjian—they sound so good. They make so many different styles of cymbals, for jazzers, rock guys, pop guys, everything.
MD: What’s the most fun you have when not on the road with Green Day?
Tré: I really enjoy being on the road and hanging out. But I fish and play golf, and the kids and I enjoy water-oriented activities like scuba diving, surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding. Standing up protects your vitals if a shark comes along. That’s my favorite fun thing to do right now. Perhaps it’s not as cool as surfing, but it’s more fun. It’s kind of nerdy and dorky—but I’m a dorky guy!
Tré Cool’s Live Setup
Drums: SJC maple with Revolution Radio custom graphic finish
A. 6.5×14 aluminum snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×18 floor tom
E. 18×22 bass drum
1. 14″ hi-hats (A Rock top/A Dyno Beat bottom)
2. 19″ K Dark Thin crash
3. 19″ A Custom Medium crash
4. 22″ Tré Cool Custom ride
5. 22″ Constantinople Hi Bell Thin High ride
6. 19″ K Custom Hybrid Trash Smash
Heads: Remo Coated Emperor snare batter and Hazy Ambassador snare-side, Coated Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador resonants, and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Ebony Powerstroke 3 front head
Sticks: Zildjian Tré Cool signature model
Hardware: DW 9000 series hi-hat and cymbal stands, 5000 series single bass drum pedal
Accessories: bicycle bugle horn