INTEVIEW: JELLO BIAFRA
By Andrew Lennon
Erupting out of San Francisco in 1978, The Dead Kennedy’s kick-started the burgeoning US hardcore movement, spraying shards of unique, visceral sound laced with a distinctive gallows humour. In the years that followed, they went on to become one of the most influential bands of the era, due in part to the originality and acerbic lyrics of frontman Jello Biafra. Since their split in 1986, Biafra has remained prolific, contributing to projects such as ‘Lard’ with Al Jourgensen, and experimental sludge band ‘The Melvins’ - all while simultaneously helping to launch the careers of some of the most original acts to come out of the hardcore/punk scene via his independent label, Alternative Tentacles.
A staunch crusader against censorship, stemming from his run in with Tipper Gore and The Parents Music Resource Centre, which led to a trial on obscenity charges over the DK’s Frankenchrist LP, Jello remains vigilant over freedom of speech and information issues, rallying against Government oppression and the direction of the media.
Whether on stage with his latest full time project ‘The Guantanamo School of Medicine’ or using his sold out spoken word engagements as a forum to tackle his socio-political concerns, Jello Biafra is a man who is never lost for words. Collide Magazine fired up a few questions and strapped ourselves in for the ride.
You’ve done a lot of different collaborative projects and one-off’s over the years but with Guantanamo School of Medicine (GSM) it seems more like a real band, a successor to the Dead Kennedys (DK’s). Are you enjoying that aspect of it and the camaraderie that comes with being in a unit again?
It is good to have something that’s ‘mine’ again, where I can bring the surf and the psych edges back in and not have to work around everyone’s schedules so much. I never intended it to be this long before I had my own band again, it’s just the way things happened.
I heard that it was attending Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday that inspired you to get the band together and start performing live again. That must’ve been quite a bash!
Well I’d been doing live shows the whole time - spoken word, shows with the Melvins and occasional Lard cameos as well. But it was Iggy’s 60th which happened to coincide with a Stooges gig and the place was packed with 2000+ people. I was just thinking ‘I turn 50 next year…boy I’m running outta time,ain’t I? Well, better get something together, and if it’s half as good as the Stooges I’ll declare victory!’.
Are you happy with the way the material and the latest album White People and the Damage Done has been received?
Well in this day and age it’s very hard to survive as an underground independent artist. With parts of the international economy crashing and never recovering, it seems people don’t go to shows or buy albums, and it makes it that much more tempting to stab the artist in the back with file sharing.
Yeah - that’s become incredibly pervasive, although there seems to be somewhat of a renaissance of people appreciating music released on vinyl for the quality of the sound and the fetishisation of the object itself.
I think renaissance is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s gone from selling in the lower hundreds to the upper hundreds and that’s good, but it hasn’t made up for all the other lost album sales and never will. Although, personally, I’m happy to see vinyl making a comeback ‘cos I always liked it better than CD’s anyway - it has more sentimental value for some reason.
Do you think it’s also been detrimental to the way people consume music, in that people aren’t absorbing and digesting entire albums now, but instead taking a more piecemeal approach?
It depends on the person, although I have noticed people get really upset if you don’t include a free download card inside every vinyl LP and 7” we release on Alternative Tentacles, which indicates to me a lot of people who buy them, buy them to be cool and have the LP as an artefact. Then they pull out the download card and upload that to their iPod and that’s the music they actually listen to.
Are there any contemporary acts that are exciting you musically or new signings and releases we should look out for on Alternative Tentacles?
Well you could start with ones down home (Australia). There’s a band that played with us in Melbourne called Kremlin. They apparently have a full length LP out now - it hasn’t reached my mailbox yet unfortunately but their 7” EP was great, so was their live show. I’d say the same about Useless Children but apparently they broke up which I’m very sad to hear. We’ve played with a lot of interesting bands in Australia, some old mainstays like The Celibate Rifles and Grong Grong, bands that the real Dead Kennedy’s played with back in 83. The Spinning Rooms was also a real good act in Melbourne, and of course the Hard Ons in Sydney.
You actually did a project (Tumor Circus) with Charlie the guitarist from Grong Grong right?
Yeah, that was when King Snake Roost came over to tour America and Charlie was staying at my house afterwards. I thought that this might be my only chance to get to do anything with him, with the idea that maybe we could do a 7”. So we borrowed the guys from Steel Pole Bathtub and went into the studio 2 days later with the hope of doing maybe three or four songs, and within a couple of days we had nine! I’ve never had an album that came out so well that hatched so quickly. Well, the whole thing hatched really quickly except the lyrics which took forever to finish. I think it’s one of the more under-appreciated albums I’ve ever made as well as one of my favourites. It’s also one of the sickest and most demented of any of them, lyrically and musically, and Charlie had a great deal to do with that.
You probably get asked this a lot, but East Bay Ray and his current line-up are gonnabe here next month doing some shows under the DK’s name. What’s your opinion on that and the fact that this is still going on?
I think some people will enjoy the show, but judging by the complaint letters I get every time they tour, not everybody is gonna dig it. So uh, go at your own risk. What can I say?I’m not even sure a couple of the guys like the music anymore, let alone rehearse.
It’s more of a paycheck for them?
Yeah, you know, the way they’ve treated me… One more piece of evidence is that they want nothing to do with what Dead Kennedy’s stood for. They despise it.They just put out a box set of all the old singles and the lyrics aren’t there anymore. They don’t matter.
Do you think that’s a ploy to deliberately downplay your contribution?
Absolutely. I mean, when they put out that live album (which in my opinion was pretty goddamn mediocre, with all the mistakes Ray made on ‘Police Truck’ which was the first song)they edited out every last comment I made between songs too - which, if you saw any of the gigs in Australia, you’d know is a pretty important part of the show!I mean why would anybody want any of those Doors or Stooges bootlegs that keep coming out if not to find out what one Jim or the other is gonna do between songs? No two shows are alike.
Switching gears a little, you’ve spent time in Israel, Gaza and the occupied territories. I know it’s a subject that caused some divisions within your band when you chose to boycott that show in Israel, but what do you make of the currently escalating situation in Gaza and the media’s reluctance to speak out against the more extreme forms of Zionism?
I’m horrified and I’m very sad, but not the least bit surprised. I think the only person who might be a bigger threat to world peace than Vladimir Putin is Benjamin Netanyahu. It just breaks my heart because I did enjoy the country so much when I was there. I mean Tel Aviv was just electric, and Jerusalem too - but I couldn’t get it out of my head that 20 miles away some of the worst ongoing human rights violations in the world were taking place and that it was the same people behind it!
Of course there were many people that I met there who are now desperate to leave. There’s a whole younger generation who are so horrified and so dejected about what Israel was supposed to be, as opposed to what it has actually become -and with the extreme right locking down their entire grip on power, they just wanna get the hell out of there.
I think it can be incredibly difficult to try and separate yourself from that and explain that the actions of your leaders don’t represent your voice or your ideals.
Well the problem is that they do speak for a lot of these people - that’s what’s scaring the shit out of everybody. The more frightened people become, the more likely they are to want to fight back with violence or fall under this illusion that Muslim extremists, quote “want to push the Jews into the sea”.
Netanyahu actually seriously believes he can “Destroy Hamas” - but what he means by that is that he wants to destroy not just Hamas, but all of the people in Gaza and The West Bank. He wants them gone basically. And he isn’t quite as open about that as the next generation coming through, and this is what really scares me – a lot of the people who vote for Netanyahu or even some of the more extreme right wing religious fundamentalist parties he is allied with, are people who fled the former Soviet Union and migrated to Israel. These are people who are used to strength and authority and a borderline dictatorial government.
It seems such a case of that universal ‘the abused becomes the abuser’ mentality and phenomenon.
Oh yeah, there’s been many, many cases of that over time. I even saw it in school growing up and although I hate to admit it, I think I did shit like that from time to time.
You’re no stranger to the political arena, having run for Mayor of San Francisco and then more recently the Green Party Presidential Candidacy in 2000. Is that an area you’d like to explore more thoroughly or is it more an outlet for Media Pranks?
Well I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for creative crime and pranks and sabotage. In some ways the whole way I’ve lived my life has been one big prank against the corporate society that so many of us despise. The first Mayoral campaign was pure prank and I think I might have even caused a lot more shit if I’d have had the faintest idea what I was doing! I was 21 years old and I’d lived in San Francisco less than a year and a half. I’d come from the smaller town of Boulder Colorado which had a long history of prank candidates running for public office, and I always thought those people were cool.
The 2000 presidential thing wasn’t even really a campaign. Two people from the New York State Green Party who were at the state convention threw my hat in the ring. I came in second to Ralph Nader, so they called me up and asked me if I wanted to run. Only in the second conversation did they go “err… you are green, aren’t you?”.
Unfortunately I couldn’t really do much with it because right at the same time,those same people who run around calling themselves the Dead Kennedys were dragging me through a jury trial on trumped up charges that I ripped them off, which I never did. It was a very, very stressful experience because they won! It practically killed me, which also put big smiles on their faces I’m sure. So I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to a presidential campaign. I hadn’t pencilled in ‘run for president’ on my calendar that year. But I felt if I left my name on the ballot it would inspire other people to get off their asses, hopefully register to vote, show up and vote smart. I also wanted them to get my point that it’s not only about the big two cartoon characters. You can have a lot more impact if you’re voting locally and voting smart.
Are you aware at all of how the winds are blowing in Australia’s political climate lately?
I fear the worst. When I was there, the so-called election hadn’t happened yet, although your corporate media had already anointed Tony Abbot as the next Prime Minister and it seemed that the people in opposition had just resigned themselves to it.
I think part of the problem was that the Labour party were imploding so badly with the whole Rudd/Gillardswitcheroo and that they had swung so far to the right by backpedalling and capitulating to the interests of swing voters that there was a real sense of disillusionment..
It’s not a matter of a swing, it’s a matter of extremes. People’s idea of normal is shifting further and further to the right. I mean, back in 1972 people would have smelled Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as being Trojan horse clones of Richard Nixon. Not now. Was it really Labour trying to pander to swing voters, or were they merely pandering to mining companies and big business?
Of course there’s an element of that, although there were attempts to move towards things like a tax on mining and carbon emissions. Initiatives that they weathered a lot of shit for trying to implement. They were crucified in the press with relentless scaremongering.
We get that here too, where people are misled again and again and into attacks on the idea of rich people raising their own taxes. We’re taught from kindergarten that taxes are automatically bad.
I find it stunning and incredibly frustrating that the people who will benefit most from the infrastructure that these taxes enable oftenseem railroaded into being its most vocal opponents.
Well they’re deliberately misled by corporations owned by the greedy right. They own almost all the broadcasting outlets big and small here. And Obama is quietly trying to get rid of internet neutrality behind the scenes and hand even more to them.
Under pressure from Viacom and Comcast?
Exactly. It means we have a very censored mass media over here. I didn’t realise how censored till I went to Europe 5 days after 9/11. It was stunning to me how much more news coverage there was there - how much more in depth it was and how many more viewpoints were allowed to be heard. I came back armed with all this information and people were staring at me blankly going “Holy Shit! We didn’t hear any of this over here.”
Did that make a lot of people angry?
Either that, or just horrified and heartbroken. I think, in a way, that’s the real enemy. People accuse young people of being apathetic, but I think the disengagement comes more from heartbreak, both in America and in Australia. A lot of young people are scared shitless they may not even have a job or a place to live or whatever, so they don’t even try and fight back on the big picture issues. They’re exhausted from working 2 or 3 jobs. That’s why nobody even leaves their house or even sees their own kids. I agree with Michael Moore that the reason a lot of the people fall for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News or the extreme right radio talk shows is because they’re frightened. Deep down they’re concerned about the same things we are - they want meaningful work, they want to be able to have quality of life, be able to pay their bills and feed their families.
You’ve obviously got a lot of thoughts and opinions on these issues you want to express. Is that why spoken word performance appealed to you? Because you had a breadth of ideas and things you wanted to articulate that couldn’t be condensed into the short sharp shock of a punk rock song?
Well it started slowly but surely thanks to the same person who got Henry into it, Harvey Kubernik, down in L.A. He kept calling me and calling me, wanting me to give it a try - so finally I did. And what I brought away from it was the shit people liked the most was the supressed information I was leaving in, and of course my sick sense of humour. So I just went further and further in that direction. And then who hands me the break of a lifetime when it comes to spoken word but the LAPD! They tried to make me Tipper Gore’s pigeon, and put me and originally four other people on trial for the contents of a music album, which had never been done in American history before. I think they thought they were going to get a guilty plea, where I would have it bargained down to a small fine, get my wrist slapped and be on my way.
They obviously hadn’t been paying too much attention then.
Well maybe I might have even fallen for that if I hadn’t gotten the news that the city attorney was calling this giant press conference for NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN and all of them to trumpet that he was doing this! Before I was even served a summons, I was getting all these calls from giant media outlets that otherwise would never even have admitted I existed. So immediately it gave me this platform to expose Tipper Gore and her right wing DC society ladies for what they were - a front for the extreme Christian right. As soon as I found out I had been charged via a press conference I knew that we had to fight.
Even though they were shut down in the hearings and the Parents Music Resource Centre was bargained down to those ‘Explicit Content’ stickers, it still had a big effect on distribution for certain artists, with some chains refusing to stock the stickered LP’s.
Oh it still does! It’s the same today. A lot of the censorship happens in-house at major labels or even on metal labels where most of the art will wind up getting dumbed down in order to avoid a Tipper Sticker so they can get it into the chain stores. Sometimes it’s done against the artists will, like the blacking out of the foetuses on the back of Nirvana’s In Utero album where nobody asked the band. They did that kind of shit to Ministry, Rob Zombie and many others who only found out after the fact that they’d been censored in order to get the albums into places like Wal-Mart.
So what’s next for you? What do you have on the horizon?
There’s a few more GSM dates on the horizon but for the most part I’m trying to stay home for awhile, and hopefully get away from all the daily bullshit long enough to get the next batch of GSM songs ready. And I wannaget my cat to remember me again!
Thank you Jello. Stay angry. And Say hi to your cat for me.