Brian Hiatt
September 17, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a blindingly sunny August afternoon in the barrio, and Green Day are ready to indulge in a little drinking and driving. Luckily, the trio have an enabler on hand: A six-foot-tall, snaggletoothed pink bunny, his nappy fur encrusted with dirt, emerges from a nearby studio, cradling four Bud Lights in his filthy paws. Keeping one for himself, the plushy beast hands a bottle to each band member — singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool — and they gratefully sip, holding on to their respective steering wheels. ”Oh, my God! Holy f—! I’m gonna crash!” Tre Cool yells, sweating under his hot-pink-on-pink shirt and tie.

Don’t worry. Though the power-chord-like roar of Highway 880 plays in the background, our trio is safely ensconced behind the wheels of tiny go-carts. Furthermore, those carts are immobilized on wooden blocks for the sake of a photo shoot. But thanks to the beer bunny (a crew member in an ill-tended costume of mysterious origins), the overall scene still screams ”punk rock.”

Earlier, Armstrong had nixed a plan to stage their fake go-cart race on the infamously rough Oakland streets outside the fortress-like Studio 880 compound, explaining that they didn’t want to draw attention from locals. ”We’re here all the time,” he says, as the band huddles with a photographer. ”We don’t want to flaunt who we are.”

And who are they? Only, in our humble opinion, the most influential band of their generation. For all of the greatness of fellow power trio Nirvana, it’s Green Day that provided the template for an entire thriving genre. Their 10-million-selling major-label debut, 1994’s Dookie — with hit singles like ”Basket Case” and ”Longview” that combined powerhouse rock, wry teen-angst lyrics, and melodies as incandescent as their Technicolor music videos — paved the way for an endless stream of pop-punk, Warped Tour acts, from blink-182 to Simple Plan, and even inspired pseudo-rocking pop stars like Avril Lavigne. ”There would be no Good Charlotte without Green Day,” testifies that multiplatinum band’s frontman, Joel Madden.

Armstrong doesn’t disagree. ”Do I consider myself a leader of this genre? F— yeah, I do,” the spiky-haired 32-year-old says on the day after his go-cart outing, smacking a purple couch cushion for emphasis. ”And I want to prove that it’s not just dumb music for kids. It’s not just a trend; it’s something that can be taken to a higher level.” For Armstrong, the proof is Green Day’s seventh and by far most adventurous album, American Idiot. Don’t be fooled by the title track’s concise, radio-friendly assault on Bush’s America. The CD finds rock’s premier three-minute men committing punk apostasy: It’s a full-on rock opera, complete with a Born to Run-meets-Quadrophenia plotline (about a split-personality-plagued kid pulling out of a town full of losers, girlfriend at his side) and two nine-minute song suites.

The album began as a studio game, with the musicians chal-lenging each other to link a series of 30-second songs (Dirnt kicked it off with a ”grandiose vaudeville tune”). ”It was funny at first,” Armstrong explains. ”But then something more serious started happening. We were like, ‘It’s fun, it’s dramatic, we feel like we’re living up to our ambitions and expectations as musicians, so let’s just do it.’ I think the biggest doubt was that people would think we’re f—ing crazy.

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