Conspicuous as hell, we’re circling up and down a breezy suburban street that effectively demarcates the border separating Oakland from Berkeley, looking for an unusually-colored late-’60s muscle car. It belongs to Tre Cool and is supposed to be parked in front of Green Day’s rehearsal studio, which is nothing more than the attached garage of one of the band’s many East Bay punk pals. We don’t even have a street address, and there’s no dream machine in sight. Where’s Tre Cool? He could be anywhere, we justifiably fear.
Down at a corner mini mall, we frantically phone his publicist in L.A. Tre’s running late, apologies all around, he’ll be at the studio in an hour. It’s noon, so we have lunch (a BLT in a sea of blue hair) then head back up the road. This time, the unmistakable car’s there, and so is Tre, equally unmistakable, holding court with two enthralled neighborhood kids.
Tre Cool is the King of Berkeley. No question about it.
The smell of skunk hangs heavy inside the darkened garage where the band wrote and rehearsed Insomniac. Set lists and scrawled lyric sheets are haphazardly tacked to the walls. There seem to be five or six drum sets of various descriptions stacked in the shadows of the crowded room. As we walk in, Tre’s friend Kent is bashing the one kit that is set up.
Tre loves drum sets. He owns dozens of them, stashed in numerous annexes — friends’ houses, studios, at home. It seems like everyone in Berkeley has one of his drum sets in their living room. And he’s never sold a single one, including his first: A Pearl Export that he bought when he was 12. And now, at the age of 23, with a little more cash and a load more credibility, he can’t seem to stop buying drums.
Shooing Kent from behind the kit, Tre shows off his newest acquisition — a brand spanking new set of Slingerlands with a psychedelic wrap finish. It’s cool. It matches his hair. Kent disappears into the back room, which is stacked to the ceiling with hundreds of copies of NME, an English pop music tabloid. We just begin discussing bearing edges and throw-offs when Tre announces it’s time to leave.
It wouldn’t be the last time we beat a hasty retreat that day. Tre Cool doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. He requires constant input, diversity, stimulation — tons of stimulation, in fact, of every description. Maybe it’s a reaction to his growing up in laid-back Mendocino County — two hours north of Berkeley — where urban yuppies vacation in quaint bed-and-breakfasts and there isn’t a damn thing for kids to do. Except skip school, get loaded and jam with friends. He became a hell of a powerful drummer up there.
We slide into the buffed car, and Tre grinds the ignition. Immediately the heat gauge maxes out, though we haven’t yet budged an inch. A viscous liquid drips from the engine onto the driveway, but we zoom off anyhow, tires screeching. We’re flying down a hill, obviously too fast, battling inescapable G-forces, when Tre, in a calming gesture, explains that the bottom of his car is armor-plated. It’s a good thing, considering our trajectory, though the plating clearly isn’t leak-resistant.
A whiplash turn and we’re on the freeway heading … somewhere. North, it looks like. Sidling up to us, a bunch of fraternity party boys in a ’96 Mazda recognize Tre, and begin hollering and gesturing excitedly. For the remainder of the afternoon, every corner we turn brings some new, startled Green Day spotter who either treats Tre like an intimate friend or tries a little too hard to pretend they aren’t swayed by his presence. He informs us, not without some conceit, that this happens all the time.
After a hard right onto University Avenue — Berkeley’s main artery, which rises toward the hills like a fused spinal column — Kent, in the back seat, passes a freshly loaded-bowl to Tre, who fires up. Police cars sit on every corner. One merges into the lane behind us. Paranoia runs deep as Tre announces that his car is unregistered, so be cool. Oh great. We haven’t even begun to discuss the spatial relationship between his bass drum beater and pedal board, and we could easily be on our way to jail within minutes.
It’s a miracle, but as we turn left onto Shattuck Avenue the cops head straight toward the university. So, naturally, Tre guns the car to about 80 in a 35 mile-an-hour zone while pedestrians instinctively scatter. Why aren’t we being stopped? Perhaps even the local gendarmes revere their King enough to let such colorful infractions slide. After all, it’s Berkeley. The authorities are busy chasing Charles Manson wannabes and Patty Hearst look-alikes, not jacked-up punk-rock jokers. Like Tre Cool.
We drop Kent at Green Day’s management office — a tasteful little bungalow at the foot of the Berkeley hills. As it turns out, Kent is the soundman for NOFX and promises to ask the band’s drummer, Eric Sandin, to let DRUM! talk to him (even though NOFX normally decline interviews). Everyone agrees that Sandin is bitchin’, and we’re gone again, barreling south, toward downtown. Tre asks if coffee sounds good. Coffee sounds good, so we turn to Peet’s, a caffeine mecca on the campus’ north side.
Tre virtually pulls a wheelie in the middle of the intersection to nab a parking space, and we both gulp coffee, nervously. I soon notice that his hands are shaking. So are mine, actually. Peet’s serves some awfully good coffee.
Ready to talk, we turn back toward the Bay, toward the landfill of San Pablo Avenue, the most downtrodden corner of Berkeley, near Gilman Street, the infamous punk club where Green Day cut its teeth, past the seafood restaurants and Irish bars that dot the marina, to the very edge of the Bay, where Tre parks the car, finally ready to talk. Someone flies a kite nearby. It’s about 2:10.Do you play as much these days as you used to?
“When we’re on tour I play all day, and then we play a gig at night. We keep a little Slingerland practice kit backstage, the one that I actually use at my house. It has a rack tom and a snare and one cymbal and a hi-hat. We have little teeny amps for bass and guitar. And we just play backstage, like surf songs or whatever, because we don’t stay in hotels. We stay at the gig on the bus and hang out with the crew all day. But I don’t drum at home as much as when I’m on tour, because there’s so much stuff to do around the house.”After you’ve been off the road for awhile, do you find that it takes some time to get your drumming back up to speed?
“My hands are the first things I have trouble with, because the calluses wear off. Like right now I’ve got totally baby hands. Usually it’s like crazy calluses all over the place. So here’s a drummer’s tip — soak your hands in salt water every day for a week before you go on tour again. It toughens up your skin. When you take a bath put tons of salt in the bath, swim in the ocean, go surfing or something every day for a week. It dries out the top three layers of skin with the salt, and strips the oil from it. You don’t want any live skin touching the stick.”Do you ever practice on your own anymore?
“Yeah, when I’m by myself practicing at my house, I usually like to put on a metronome and play straight time for ten minutes without even doing a single drum roll. And then after that I’ll keep time with my foot, and do really simple rolls. Or if I’m mad, I’ll go in and I’ll just go off on a snare. That’s what gets the aggravation out. I can always pretty much feel better about myself or about any bad situation [when I do that].”It’s good therapy.
“It is, totally. The reason I just play the snare is that if you play the whole drum set when you’re mad, it can sometimes piss you off more. Because it’s a lot harder and you can be more critical. On a snare, you don’t expect anything of what you’re playing. But what happens is you end up doing something totally incredible with just one drum. And then you impress yourself.”Have you ever played a drum solo?
“Yeah. Lookouts [Tre’s former Mendocino band] did drum solos, dude. We were mad with drum solos. But no guitar solos, ever.”Do you still do drum solos?
“No! No way! We have a couple of songs where it’s just drums for awhile. Like ‘Armitage Shanks’ [from Insomniac] starts out with just drums, and then in the middle it breaks down to the drum part again.”Obviously you play a lot of fast songs. Do you have to pace yourself on stage?
“I just go and play. It’s not a question of resting or stopping or wimping out or hitting soft. I play as hard as I can. We just know how to wring ourselves out. On demand, we just put in every ounce of energy that we have. It’s getting harder. The bigger places that we play it gets harder to get the energy, because it takes longer to get ready and you’re there longer and it’s boring and stuff. But we don’t pace ourselves. By the end of it we’re just wrecked.”Playing at such intense levels, do you ever have problems with cramping?
“Yeah. Tendinitis and cramps. I get bone bruises. It seriously hurts really bad and lasts a lot longer than a normal bruise. It’s deeper. It’s like a throbbing, pulsing, dull pain. We just take tons of Ibuprofen and try not to hurt too bad.”Are there particular things you do to warm up before you go onstage?
“A little stretching is good. I like to get a chicken and make a small incision right below the beak, swing it around backstage, and color the room in chicken blood. Make sure that goes in the story.” [Dear Tre: per your instructions, the chicken blood reference made it into the story. Sincerely, the Editor.]
We chat a bit longer — about the spatial relationship between his bass drum beater and pedal board, as a matter of fact (The verdict? Tre can’t figure it out.) — then shoot back toward University Avenue. Without warning, Tre slams the breaks and exclaims, “Jesus Christ! Did you see that?!” He quickly reverses the car 30 feet and stares with genuine incredulity at a group of new-agers standing in a field, engaged in a ceremonial group hug, who stare right back at his spiky, green-tinged coif with equal disbelief. Tre emits a quick, high-pitched, odd little laugh, shakes his head, jams the car into first gear, and squeals the tires for about a quarter-mile stretch. He’s a punk, all right.
Traffic is jammed on University Avenue, so we swing right to detour through Berkeley’s notorious crack ’hoods west of San Pablo Avenue. Not much going on — in fact, it seems strangely quiet around here. We begin discussing the virtues of Charlie Watts when Tre swerves the car and hisses, “Oh, no, no, no! I can’t get away! I’m trapped!” Visions of gangbangers with automatic weapons leaping from behind dumpsters jar this reporter’s psyche to attention before Tre finishes his thought: “Speed bumps.” The street is lined with them, apparently to minimize the flow of drive-up cocaine transactions and drive-by shootings. But the unyielding concrete mounds also play havoc with the car’s low-riding armor plating, loudly scraping at its underside. A group of heavy-looking street-corner dealers laugh and comment on the car’s slow progress as we inch by. “Keep that tape recorder down,” Tre advises. The King of Berkeley is not known here. Once we clear the corner, we’re out of there, fast.
Safely past San Pablo, the conversation resumes. Tre reveals that he doesn’t currently own a CD player, only a portable mono record player he bought in Japan, plugged into two Walkman speakers. He listens only to vinyl. We turn right onto Telegraph Avenue, the heart of Berkeley’s three-ring freak show, and Tre asks if beer sounds good. Beer sounds good, so we park a half-block away from the Bison Brewery and saunter in as all eyes turn our way. We order two pints of amber and sit on the balcony where Tre can keep an eye on his car. A Green Day song comes on the jukebox. It’s about 3:20.What would you like to talk about now?
“Dynamics. Dynamics are my next thing.”Do you feel that you haven’t used dynamics very effectively with Green Day?
“No … like yeah. Dynamically we just hit hard all the time. I think that the energy’s best when I’m hitting as hard as I possibly can and it sounds like the drums are at their maximum stress level and they’re opening up nicely. I play loud all the time, and when it’s time to go louder than loud, I play louder than loud. And then I go back to super loud.”Have you ever been in a band that wanted you to play quieter?
“Yeah. I did big band stuff [at Mendocino College]. They didn’t necessarily want it to be quiet all the time, but sometimes they would want me to come down. And I was in this orchestra at the college. We did some classical stuff, but we did tons of contemporary stuff, too. I was playing the trap kit and snare drums and cymbals and percussion instruments for that.”Were you reading music at the time?
“Yeah. A lot of the time they never had drum charts so I would just go off a trumpet chart. The classical stuff was my toughest reading thing, because I would have a bass drum, a snare and some cymbals and then like a triangle, and I would have to go hit the triangle and right away get over to the bass drum and go, ‘boom, boom.’ And then go over and hit the cymbals and do some snare stuff and other parts. And I had these horns.”Like car horns?
“Yeah, there were three of them. [Singing] Dee dee dee. Doo doo doo. Dee dee dee. ‘American In Paris,’ dee dee dee, doo doo doo. Pshh! I was all over this stuff. It was cool.”How did the big band and orchestra change your drumming?
“It just got me ready for other things. It just opened my skills. I was also playing reggae with some friends when I was in high school, during summers and stuff.”Reggae’s fun to play.
“Yeah, reggae’s the opposite of jazz. The upbeat’s on the bass drum instead of the downbeat on the hi-hat. It’s the exact opposite. And you play reggae totally dead-straight and choppy, and you swing everything in jazz. Oh no, there goes my ticket right there! I’ll get a ticket right now! See that meter maid coming up? Watch, I’m going to get a ticket. I hate that. I’ll get a double ticket: registration and a parking ticket. It’s going to be 60 bucks.”Do you get a lot of tickets?
“Yes. Because I don’t have a registered car. They’re checking it out. Cool, I just got free parking all day.”Did you want to get another one of those?
“I was going to get half a pint. Do you want a half?”I’ve got to drive home after this. I’m going to get something non-alcoholic.
“Aw, man. No, we’re both getting halfs.”
Tre makes a phone call, so I head downstairs to procure two foamy halfs. Funny, the bartender is considerably ruder than before, obviously feeling no obligation to kiss a hack journalist’s ass when he’s not standing next to the King. I guess he didn’t really want another tip, after all. Upstairs, we play a game of slop pool while some locals self-consciously hover around, trying to bask in the aura of Coolness. Tre wins when I accidentally sink his last ball, and agrees to join DRUM!’s advisory board. He asks, “Can I tell you when you suck and stuff?” Sure. That’s the whole idea.
Back in the car, we discover that Tre was ticketed only for a parking violation — not a more costly registration ticket. Somewhat more buoyed by his good luck, Tre swings the car back to Green Day’s rehearsal studio. We’re there in minutes.
Once inside, he continues to choreograph the proceedings. “Let’s jam,” he insists, grabbing an extraneous floor tom from the other room. He nods his head in the direction of the Slingerland kit, indicating for me to play the drums, and launches into a Bo Diddley beat. It suspiciously feels like a test, to see if this hack journalist actually knows a thing or two about drumming. What the hell. I join in.
We play a straight groove at full-throttle for a couple minutes, and then Tre brings it down. I follow his dynamic lead, and we begin to trade rhythmic motifs back and forth. He drops out for a few bars, letting me solo, then I drop out, too, returning his favor. His eyes are closed. He’s listening, leading, following, composing, communicating just like any great jazz improviser. Maybe one only hears a straight-forward 4/4 beat when Green Day comes on the radio, but Tre Cool — lost in the groove of the moment — has all the tools and inclinations to be so much more than that.
But the room has become a sweatbox, and after ten or twelve minutes, we stop and awkwardly pace around, gulping air like boxers between rounds. “You sound pretty good, man,” he says, perhaps with a hint of disappointment. I turn on the tape recorder. It’s about 4:10.Do you enjoy jamming with other drummers?
“Uh, yeah, it’s okay. Listen, I told my wife that I’d be home over an hour ago. She’s alone with the kids.”What?
“So I’ve got to get going.”Is that right? Tre Cool, the personification of punk rock rebellion, has to get home to help his wife with the kids? Hey Tre, thanks for the interview. It was a lot of fun.
“Well, I’m glad you had fun.”
There wasn’t much time to consider his distinct emphasis on the word “you” before he and his oddly-colored muscle car careened out of the driveway. At that moment, the same two neighborhood kids from earlier in the day ran up to the car. Tre exchanged a few final words with them, then sped off as fast as Einstein’s theory of relativity would allow, rubber burning, smoke and dust rising.
The kids had huge smiles on their faces, and shook their heads in awe as the King of Berkeley disappeared over the crest of the hill. Of course, they’d seen it all before.