On the eve of the US Presidential results i thought it would be interesting to look back on a chat i had with iconic Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra on the way the wind was blowing before the current electoral cycle really went southbound to crazytown. Originally published in issue 2 of Collide Art & Culture Magazine, the version I present today is the full, unedited rantologists screed never before seen. Strap yourself in. You weren’t doing anything important today right?
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.
Hey Jello, we heard you just returned from Europe? How was it? What did you get up to over there?
Well I’ve been doing a lot of live shows, I was in France earlier in the year and then we did some in the States. I went over to do a one off spoken word performance at this big festival called ‘Rebellion’ that even had some Australian bands in attendance and we did a bit of DJ work too.
Have you been doing much DJ work lately?
Oh, here and there, it’s not my main thing obviously, it’s just a fun way to let off steam.
You’ve done a lot of different collaborative projects and one-off’s over the years but with Guantanamo School of Medicine it seems more like a real band, a successor to the DK’s. Are you enjoying that aspect of it and the camaraderie that comes with being in a unit again?
Well the camaraderie goes both ways, I mean, we lost Andrew White the bassist within about an hour of our last Australian show in Newcastle. But it is good to have something that’s ‘mine’ again where I can bring the surf and the psyche 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 y’know? Spoken word and full shows with the Melvins after those albums came out and occasional Lard cameo’s as well. But it was Iggy’s 60th, which happened to coincide with a Stooges gig, and the place was packed with 2000 + people and I was thinking ‘Hey, y’know, I turn 50 next year…boy I’m running outta time aint I? Well I 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, they don’t 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, and 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, the live show was great. I’d say the same about Useless Children although they apparently 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, 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.
Well you’ve been nothing if not eclectic. Is that because you get bored?
Well I think it just comes more from enthusiasm because I like many different kinds of music. Of course the core of everything is the wild shit and it always has been. I didn’t hear The Stooges till I was about 15, but I was into garage rock when I was 7, when it was actually still current on the radio in 1965. I always went for the nasty stuff, the raucous stuff, and I think that’s so important to when punk broke out in 77- it was a rebirth of the spirit of rock n roll. Not just with punk bands but the ones called new wave and other things, suddenly there was some actual teeth and they rocked again.
You probably get asked this a lot, but East Bay Ray and his current line-up are going to be 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?
Um.. I think some people will enjoy the show, but judging by the complaint letters I get every time they tour , not everybody is going to 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 pay check for them?
Yeah y’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.
That seems incredible to me because such an important part of what DK’s meant to me was in the intent and the agenda behind the music and lyrics. The two things seemed inseparable.
Well obviously those guys disagree! 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 – starting 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 GSM gigs in Australia you’d know that that’s 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 going to do between songs? No two shows are alike.
You’ve spent time in both 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 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 cos 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, including the main person that was trying to put on the GSM show 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 want to get the hell out of there. They don’t want it on their hands or in their souls but of course you can’t totally ever wash that off and they know that.
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. I know America has had that problem, but I imagine that that problem would be particularly pronounced for the Israeli’s.
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”, and Netanyahu has all but said he wants to push Palestinians and Arabs into the sea. And that’s what he’s trying to do.
He actually seriously believes he can quote/unquote “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. People told me that since arriving they’ve never really assimilated, as evidenced by the huge number of Russian language newspapers on the stands, and Russian language TV channels, and there aren’t that many TV channels there to begin with. I would estimate that one third or more of them are Russian language. The guy who was Netanyahu’s foreign minister until recently, Avigdor Lieberman was from Moldova originally and he is out and out an open white supremacist who wants the Arabs expelled from Israel period. Y’know “Get rid of the brown people”. Even though he got nailed on a corruption charge, people from that half of Israel seem to have a way of coming back. Remember when Netanyahu had to resign over a corruption charge?
Now he’s back.
He’s back! And Lieberman is the next Vanguard for those people, and from what I was told there, the former Soviet Union expatriates all vote as a block. And they vote! And Lieberman’s their guy.
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 mentioned in the piece you wrote on your trip to the region that whilst there and becoming embroiled in it you felt similar to the protagonists from Werner Herzog’s films Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.
The reason I brought that up was I guess I felt it was a little like when (Menachem) Begin went into Lebanon, which did so much to send the Israeli’s and Palestinians on the trajectories they’re on today. He thought he had a surgical operation on his hands but he stepped in a quicksand full of shit and he sank, he couldn’t totally get himself out or even know what to do.
Like Aguirre in the Amazon.
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. And then 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, and only in the second conversation did they go “ err… you are green aren’t you?”
But unfortunately I couldn’t really do much with it because right at the same time, those same people who now 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. And 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 and check the websites of Ralph Nader and the Green Party and hopefully register to vote and show up and vote smart, and 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.
Being aware of local candidates and what they stand for…
Yeah, who the mayor is, who the city councils are, and of course no one pays more attention to who is on the school board than right wing Christian supremacists.
So your focus isn’t on what might transpire in 2016. Do you think the republicans can even field a viable candidate?
I think that people should shut the fuck up about 2016! Just shut the fuck up about Hillary Clinton, and get those ‘Ready for Hillary’ stickers off their fucking cars and put on a sticker of somebody who is running for smaller office and focus on more important things. It’s not going to make any difference if Queen Hillary finally gets crowned in 2016 if the Tea Party is running both the Senate and the House of Representatives. They’re very, very close to seizing the Senate now which means that if one of the more liberal Supreme Court justices dies or retires while Obama’s in office, they’ll block or filibuster any nominee who isn’t another corporate puppet right wing extremist like Clarence Thomas and Scalia. They’ll block them and then just wait till 2016 when Jeb Bush kicks Hillary’s ass. After all, it wouldn’t even matter if Hillary got 80% of the votes, the Bush family knows how to win elections. It doesn’t matter if you get the most votes if you know where I’m going with this.
Yeah we’ve seen it twice before.
And so if people don’t pay more attention to 2014 and you get Jeb or somebody worse like Rand Paul who’s a real Christian supremacist extremist, in 2016 you’re going to have the tea party running all three branches if you count the supreme court.
Do you think that’s why the media is so focussed on speculations over 2016? To distract people from more local and/or pressing issues?
Oh absolutely. The more of a cartoon show it is the better. The more people are really caught up with presidential shit way before the actual election and don’t pay attention to who’s their own representative in the state house the better. There’s hardly any coverage of local elections in local TV news broadcasts anymore. Its’ all cartoon stuff they get from up top, and there’s a reason for that.
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, that it was inevitable that that’s what was going to happen. I was telling people at GSM shows and spoken word shows “Look-it hasn’t happened yet! And you’re just resigning yourselves to it! Plus there’s all these other ways to counter that shit if you’ve got strong local opposition voted into public office.
If anything positive has come of it it’s that it’s lit a real fire under the ass of the left and lead to a galvanising of the protest movement that we haven’t seen here since the Howard years. I think part of the problem was that the Labour party, which are at least in theory supposed to be a more left wing alternative, were imploding so badly with the whole Rudd/Gillard/Rudd switcheroo and that they had swung so far to the right by backpedalling and capitulating to the interests of swing voters that there ere was a real sense of disillusionment.
It’s not a matter of a swing, it’s a matter of extremes, and part of the reason that the people on the right, who are afraid of the Tea Party, continue to value them and treat them like pop stars in the corporate media is that they know it shifts the whole debate to the right. It shifts people’s ideas of ‘normal’ further and further to the right. I mean, back in 1972, even 76, people would have smelled Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as being Trojan horse clones of Richard Nixon. Not now. And also, is it really Labour trying to pander to swing voters or is it merely pandering to mining companies and banks 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 because after all those guys in the three corner hats, the Boston Tea Party, who jump started the American revolution rejected all that tea and threw it into Boston harbour because there was tax on it that they didn’t wanna pay.
I find it stunning and incredibly frustrating that the people who will benefit most from the infrastructure that these taxes enable, seem railroaded into being its most vocal opponents..
Yeah, I don’t know that ‘railroaded’ is the right term, but yeah, deliberately misled by corporations owned by ultra-greedy right wing white males who 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 five days after September eleven and it was stunning to me how much more news coverage there was there. How much more in depth it was, how many more points of view were allowed to be heard, and I came back armed with all this information and people were staring at me blankly at spoken word shows and in conversations going “Holy Shit! We didn’t hear any of this over here.”
Did that make a lot of people angry?
Well I would hope so! 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.
In America they’re scared shitless they may not even have a job and may not even have a place to live or whatever, and they just don’t even try and fight back on the big picture because they’re either scared or they’re exhausted from working 2 or 3 shift jobs. That’s why nobody even leaves their house or even sees their own kids.
I agree with Michael Moore that a lot of the people who do fall for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News or the Tea Party or the extreme right wing radio talk show hosts that never allow anybody to reply to them on the air, is again because they’re frightened. But deep down they’re concerned about the same things we are. They want meaningful work, they want to be able to have a quality of life and be able to pay their bills, feed their family and live in a way where they aren’t humiliated day in and day out by rich motherfuckers. So that’s why they put the pedal to the metal and push it so far into overdrive, so they can get people to believe the reason things are so dire for so many people, isn’t because of rich people stealing more and more of the money, it’s because of brown coloured immigrants.
Or ‘entitled welfare recipients’ or what have you…
I guess it is like welfare recipients, where you can play the race card without playing the race card. When people say ‘immigrants’ in a nasty tone of voice, or in the context of an anti-immigration sentence everybody knows what they’re really saying is “Fuck the Mexicans! I hate Brown People! I hate anybody who makes the Mexican food I like so much when I get it at Taco Bell! I hate anybody who was raised speaking Spanish or has darker coloured skin.”
And yet, at the same time, the right is so desperate to woo the Mexican and Latino vote. They’ve recognised there’s a key gap in their demographic and they can’t seem to figure out why they’re not getting votes from that particular percentage of the population…
Well they’re also banking on the fact that a good number of Latino immigrants, especially the older ones, are conservatives. They came from conservative countries run by dictators and they were brought up as Catholics, and they don’t like the idea of two guys kissing each other on TV, let alone moving in next door to them. I mean some of the worst homophobia left in this country are in Latin Catholic churches and black churches.
In Florida it’s even more intense because a lot of those Latino immigrants came from Cuba and so the anti-Castro rhetoric is just fierce. Even two generations down the line, where maybe grandpa fled Cuba but the next 2 never even set foot in the place, it’s still al about ‘the communists, and Castro, and anyone who wants to try and open that country up is some kind of evil commie”.
So from Obama on down they’re basically held hostage by the ‘Cuban American National Foundation’ (CANF). So just like what lawmakers will do and say in regards to Israel and Netanyahu, it’s governed not by conscience but by ‘The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee’. You suck AIPAC’s dick if you wanna run for public office.
They’re just as threatening and nasty as the National Rifle Association only more successful because they have both sides and not just the gun nuts on their side. They also really fearfully attack any argument from American Jews that say maybe we should be doing something more peaceful. I mean the second biggest Jewish lobby is ‘J Street’, but AIPAC is so much bigger. It started out just advocating friendship with Israel but, slowly but surely got seized by interests that wanted it to act as shock troops for the Israeli far right.
You’ve obviously got a lot of thoughts and opinions on these issues you want to express. Is that why spoken word performances appeal to you? Both yourself and Henry Rollins have found new avenues primarily in public speaking. Do you think it’s because you had a breadth of ideas and things you wanted to articulate that couldn’t be condensed into the short sharp visceral 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, even before the Dead Kennedy’s broke up.
And what I brought away from that 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. The LA city attorney’s office even revealed that they picked me because, I quote “We feel that this is a cost effective way of sending a message”.
The prosecuting attorney even showed Don Bolles, the old Germs and 45 Grave drummer who was writing for the LA Weekly, these files they had in depth on other artists and other bands that they were gonna prosecute if they got a guilty verdict on me. I think they thought they were gonna get a guilty plea where I would have it plea 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 there to trumpet that he was doing this! So 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, namely a front for the extreme Christian right. I knew that as soon as I found out I had been charged via a press conference that we had to fight.
Even though they were shut down in the hearings and the PMRC were 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. At Wal-Mart now if you have a Tipper Sticker on your record it ain’t gonna go in the store. So 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, they did it to 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.
It seems you’ve always got a project on the go, whether creating or touring or researching, but it’d be interesting to know what you like to do with your downtime! What’s a typical day like for Jello fuckin Biafra?
What makes you think I even have any downtime?? I haven’t even had a chance to listen to half the vinyl I brought back from Australia yet and that was over a year ago!
Do you feel compelled to stay busy or is it just that your schedule keeps filling up?
Um, It’s a schedule thing, there’s always more and more stuff landing on my plate, this interview included.
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 a while, and hopefully get away from all the daily bullshit long enough to get the next batch of GSM songs ready. And I wanna get my cat to remember me again.
Thank you Jello, It’s been a pleasure. Say hi to your cat for me.