When setting up an interview with Jello Biafra, I got this light-hearted warning: “There is no such thing as a short interview with Jello.” It’s true, the legendary punk showman/spoken word enthusiast is full of political ideas, historical references, and elder-punk-dude tales. How can he be expected to keep it brief?
Below, we spend an intense half hour discussing the media, corruption, spoken word, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars, and the future of underground rock’n’roll. (For the feature on Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, see this week’s paper):
San Francisco Bay Guardian Where do you gather your news? What are your sources for political commentary in your songs?
Jello Biafra Why, the Bay Guardian, of course! Where would a local voter be without your fine rag? I just hope the new ownership and staff goes pedal to the metal to keep up the standard of muckraking and ethics. There’s so much corruption to dig up in this area.
I think the real renaissance was before the Weekly was sold to New Times/VVM, when the Guardian and the Weekly were both muckraking papers concentrating on local issues and were trying to out-scoop each other. That’s what I’d like to see continue and come back.
But basically I’d read a lot of periodicals. Locally, we have you folks, among others. And then you know Nation, Progressive, Mother Jones, interesting things people send me in the mail, digitally or otherwise, talking to people, putting two and two together -- trying to write songs about stuff that no one else has! Or at least not in the same way.
SFBG Why is that? Why choose to write songs about something no one else has?
JB It’s just filling in the gaps with what’s interesting. I’m proud that no two of my music albums sound alike. Not even the Lard albums sound alike. From Dead Kennedys onward my mission as the main lyricist and composer of the damn tunes, I kind of stick to my punk core -- whether I intend to or not, it’s just who and what I am -- and but kind of widen the base of the pyramid to what you can do with that energy.
SFBG What are some the topics you focused on when writing White People and the Damage Done?
JB I guess it was a little more focused as a semi-concept album, than anything since Frankenchrist. It’s basically about grand theft austerity, and how unnecessary it is, what a scam it is. People have asked me when we go to play different cities or countries, what I think is the biggest problem in the world today and they expect me to say something like “climate change” which I prefer to call “climate collapse” because that’s what it is, or inequality, or war, or whatever, and I say you know, there’s a worse one, it’s corruption. Because that is what’s blocking anything constructive being done about all the other problems. There’s a thread through White People and the Damage Done about that.
The title track is not so much about race specifically, but about this attitude of the higher ups in the United States, the EU, and others, is that other countries, especially ones run by people of color, where we call them “Third World” or whatever, are somehow unfit to govern themselves and need us to pull the strings, plant the puppets, and tell everyone what to do. And it’s often for the purposes of looting their resources and exploiting their people. And what kind of unintended consequences that can have.
For example, we talk about why we need more democracy in Iran, and we don’t have the big bad Soviet Empire to freak out everyone anymore so we have Iran and North Korea instead. Wait a minute, you want democracy in the Middle East? Well Iran was a democracy in the early 1950s, guess who decided to overthrow the democratically-elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh, and put the most hated person in the country, the Shah, back into power? But he was our policeman for the gulf basically, and he got overthrown anyway. And now it’s a theocratic regime. Where would be today if we had just left that region alone in the 1950s?
Same for Afghanistan. I nearly went through the roof when I found out about an interview with Jimmy Carter’s old national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s, whose daughter is on one of the morning cartoon pundit shows, bragged on an interview with French media about what a great thing we did by arming, training, and financing the guerrillas in Afghanistan before the Soviet Union invaded, and how we cracked apart the evil empire, hooray for us, we win.
But look what we created for crying out loud. We were even helping back a young hothead with a trust fund named Osama Bin Laden. And then once the Soviets were out, we didn’t lift a finger to help rebuild the country, let alone take back the guns and rocket-launchers. And now look where we are. That’s another example of white people and the damage done.
[Pause] hold on my juice machine, now I have to turn it off, it’s bouncing all over the counter.
SFBG What kind of juice are you making?
JB Oh, just a mixture of stuff. Spinach, apples, other things.
SFBG Can you tell me about forming Guantanamo School of Medicine?
JB Here we go again. I wanted to have another band ever since Dead Kennedys, it just never quite happened. Either people weren’t available, or I was off doing spoken word or other adventures, but of course I never stopped making albums, there was Lard, two with the Melvins, one with DOA, Mojo Nixon, NoMeansNo.
I kept the music out there, I just didn’t have a performing vehicle. And then when I was down at the Warfield seeing the Stooges on Iggy’s 60th birthday, it occurred to me, "oh shit, I turn 50 next year. I better do something or I may never get another chance." If it’s half as good as the Stooges, I’ll declare victory.
SFBG Do you have any other projects coming up?
JB I started getting back into spoken word. I did a tour in Australia after the band’s tour was done. And at some point, something that will probably see the light of day: some of the New Orleans guys from Cowboy Mouse and Dash Rip Rock dared me to come down there during the jazz fest a few years ago and do a whole set of New Orleans soul and rhythm and blues songs, which I did with some badly needed garage rock added in and we got Mojo Nixon’s keyboard wizard with all the Jerry Lee Lewis moves, and quite the cacophonous horn section, as well as [Cowboy Mouth’s] Fred LeBlanc, and [Dash Rip Rock's] Bill Davis.
The multitrack recording was a trainwreck, but then Ben Mumphrey who works with Frank Black and the Pixies and many others, called me up and said he could rescue this recording. Slowly but surely he has been rescuing it. So Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars will see the light of day somehow. We haven’t been able to pull it together to play a show though.
SFBG I was wondering your opinion of this new, kind of second tech bubble taking over in areas like the Mission?
JB Again, I refer you to one of my songs. It came out on the EP of the rest of the recording session when we recorded The Audacity of Hype with Billy Gould. The song is called “Dot Com Monte Carlo.” And sure enough there was a little mini firestorm on the Internet of course. A lot of people writing in were too chicken-shit to sign their own names, but they said 'oh that’s such an old topic, it doesn’t matter anymore.'
Well I had this funny feeling we weren’t done with the Dot Com Holocaust. Sure enough, now it’s more aggressive and obnoxious than ever. Dot Com Monte Carlo -- that’s kind of what Willie Brown’s puppets are trying to turn this city into, yet again.
It has been really sad for me to see so many cool people and artists and service-workers and people of color just bull-dozed out of this town to make room for more mini little yuppies who treat San Francisco as a suburb of Silly-clone Valley.
And now you don’t see people like me when I was 19, just moving out to San Francisco chasing a dream. There was a time when the vitality of the underground was maintained by entire bands moving here as a unit. Everybody from MDC and the Dicks to DRI and later, Zen Guerilla, the only one I can think of in recent years, who dare tried to relocate to San Francisco were I believe No Doctors and Sixteen Bitch Pile-Up, and I’m not sure either one of them exist at this point. Maybe they all packed up and left. A lot of that underground fire, and that’s not just confined to rock of course, but a lot is going on in Oakland now.
SFBG Yeah, I’ve had a lot of bands telling me they can’t afford San Francisco anymore, so they’ve been moving to the East Bay or beyond...
JB I mean, I’d hate to see San Francisco turn any further into a giant Aspen, Colorado, or even Boulder, Colorado, which is where I fled from in order to come here [in ’78.]
SFBG Are there current East Bay or San Francisco bands that you feel like are doing good things?
JB Of course I always brain-fart on this question. Well, of course I’m going to support my label bands, I love Pins of Light.
SFBG How involved are you with Alternative Tentacles? Are you going out and finding bands?
JB Well I’m still the absentee-thought-lord, the buck stops with me. Someone deeply suspicious of capitalism has wound up owning a business by default, whether I should or not. Luckily there’s still money to pay a shrinking staff and to make sure we can keep putting out cool things. But it’s becoming harder and harder because of the combination of a crashed economy, rents going through the ceiling all over country, and file-sharing on the other hand. Of course, one feeds the other when people don’t have any money.
That doesn’t mean I support these misguided efforts, these major label RIAA scams to blackmail people and sue them for file-sharing. They’ve raked in over a hundred million dollars doing that and no artist has seen a penny. That’s not the way to solve this.
On the other hand, when I see one of the best bands we’ve seen in years like the Phantom Limbs break up way too soon, I can’t help but wonder whether file-sharing might be a part of the problem, with so many people going crazy over them and going to their shows all over the place, and then hardly anybody buys the album.
When you’ve got people in the age of high housing and transportation cost trying to keep themselves fed or also sustain a family, that hurts. I wonder how many people save up money from their shitty jobs for years in order to make some really cool piece of music only to find that nobody actually gives anything back; they’re that much more likely to quit making anything.
Maybe the solution is, for people who want to get their friends into really cool music, don’t just send them the whole album, pick some favorites and send them a little teaser package, a little file to inspire them to check out them more.
Not to mention, be conscious of whose file you’re sharing. Major labels go so far out of their way to rip off their artists anyways, with an army of lawyers to back them up. But when it’s an underground artist or label, that’s different. I never would have thought that GSL would’ve stopped, for example. Or that Touch and Go would draw mainly into reissues and back catalogue. It’s not just the economy and music industry crashed that’s to blame, it’s also people who don’t think artists should get any of their support.
SFBG Do you still love performing in front of a crowd? Do you have any recent performances with this band that you’ll take with you?
JB I’m not sure I’d be doing it if there wasn’t this inner need to do it. I’m really greatful that at my age anybody even cares about what I have to say, or new stuff I’ve been making.
We’ve been able to play a lot of places Dead Kennedys weren’t, because countries hadn’t opened up yet and they were still under the boot of Communist dictators or Latin American military or whatever. And we get to play for people in those places now. I don’t have the kind money where I can go jet-setting around to these places, I have to play my way to places like Buenos Aires or Slovenia, or I’ll never get there.
Bringing these musical riffs in my head to life and to have them actually work and getting to play them for people, that’s always pretty cool.
Some of the stranger moments were last time we were in Geneva we had a stage-diver in a wheelchair. The crowd was very gentle with him, passing him around, and making sure he was reunited with the chair, which was floating somewhere else in the crowd. Three or four songs later, he’d be back again! That was good.
Also, being able to scrape together just enough of my high school Spanish to be able to talk to people in Buenos Aires from the stage about some songs that were written with them in mind. I mean, “Bleed for Me,” the old Dead Kennedys song, was written about the Dirty Wars. And this was the first time I could actually dedicate “Bleed for Me” to the Desaparecidos in Argentina and explain it a little bit.
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine
With D.I., the Divvys, Girl-illa Biscuits
Fri/26, 9pm, $15
1928 Telegraph, Oakl.