Q&A: 28 Minutes with Jello Biafra – Full Interview
Earlier this month, Riffyou.com published our interview with important punk rock figure Jello Biafra in three separate features. In case you missed any of those, or would like to take in the full conversation in one shot, this will do the trick:
Speaking with legendary punk rock frontman, spoken word artist, censorship battler, political activist, and all around thoughtful, yet controversial human Jello Biafra is much like bouncing a rubber ball really hard off of the ground: once your action is complete, you’re not quite sure which direction Biafra will take.
One thing is for certain, and that is the fact that Biafra is not interested in mindless chit chat. When you get into a conversation with him, get into it intelligently, pay attention, and – as much as possible – avoid assumptions. If you can do all that, as well as think on your feet, what you’ll encounter is a very aware individual with a lot of fascinating things to say. He may even let you feel slightly comfortable.
Yes, he was the lead man of Dead Kennedys, and yes he is now a part of Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo Bay School of Medicine. But beyond all that is someone who has seen the world from a ton of different angles.
RY: You released White People and the Damage Done in 2013, so I was wondering if you guys have begun thinking about the next album?
Jello: “We’ve mostly been touring this one, so I haven’t had a chance to hide and write some new stuff. Also, I’ve been having a harder time focusing and getting things done because so many people dear to me have died lately. There hasn’t been an epidemic of death like this in years.
“The ones you would know would be people like Dave Brockie from GWAR, who was a close friend of mine, and H.R. Giger. But, it also includes people like my father and two of my closest friends, as well as Dave Gregg from D.O.A. and Scott Asheton from The Stooges. It’s been a really nasty time.”
RY: Sorry to hear that. Have those passings made you think more about your own mortality?
Jello: “Maybe it does, I don’t know.”
RY: Is that subject matter you would write about, or is that too close to home?
Jello: “I have no idea. If something comes out and I feel it’s worth putting a song on an album for, you’ll hear about it. I don’t usually use a lot of the personal stuff when I write, because later on I look back on it and go ‘you know, this is actually so personal, does anybody really need to hear this? Does the whole world need to be tweeted about what I bought at the grocery store today?’ No. I mean, I really like to stay away from this whole self-absorbed emo mirage… ‘oh boo, hoo, my parents just bought me all of this great equipment, and we’re so popular, we just got signed to a major label and goddamn life has so many, difficult, personal, issues. Boo, hoo, poor me!’ I can’t stand that shit.”
RY: Why do you think that self-absorbent behaviour in some of today’s music has continued to grow in popularity?
Jello: “Oh, maybe it strikes a chord with people,” laughs. “Maybe it even strikes a chord with self-absorbed people and offers them comfort in being self-absorbed. I have no idea. I’m sure some of the people who traffic in that would justify it as their own way of singing the blues. There may be an argument there. That’s just not my thing.”
RY: Do you buy the argument that people who listen to that stuff flock to it because they want some escapism from their day-to-day grind?
Jello: “It’s possible. Some people listen to me for the same reason. Even if sometimes I’m preaching to the choir – especially from spoken word – the goal is to fire up the choir. Uplift the choir. Provide deeper, more gruesome details about why things are the way they are. Obviously, I try to provoke people into thinking, provoke people into reacting, and stuff like that. I like being a gateway drug.
“But, the escapist culture has been around as long as there’s been culture, in a way. I’m sure if academics were able to go back in a time machine and communicate with the people who created the cave paintings in France, they might find some of that too.
“In my case, I was fortunate enough to blunder into rock n’ roll when the ‘60s garage period was still going on and local bands got played on commercial radio. I was seven years old and Beatlemania was still in full swing. But even then, I saw a lot of the ‘I love you baby, shoobee, doobee, doo’ lyrics as corny and stupid. By the time I was in high school, I realized that that whole area of escapism and fantasy was a great big lie, and it had nothing to do with love or how friendship and romance really works.”
RY: So, more or less you viewed them as distraction tools?
Jello: “Yes, so I got attracted lyrically, first, to Alice Cooper, then [Frank] Zappa, then lyrically and musically to the MC5 and The Stooges. It was pretty lonely being just about the only fan of that music in my whole school, when a lot of my other friends veered off into Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The good side was that I had a lot of cool music to myself, because it would always get marked down in the used record store, or thrown into the ‘free’ box for me to take home.
“Of course, I was one of who knows how many dozens of, if not hundreds of people, who were exactly like I was, feeling all alone and tapping into this really cool, rebel rock power. We left our towns to move to bigger towns, and started punk rock.”
RY: Do you remember that first instance of when you got into politics and wanted to use that as your lyrical motivation?
Jello: “I can’t really remember the first instance, because I was in Newtown (Colorado) practically since I was old enough to walk. I remember seeing [Lee Harvey] Oswald getting shot live on TV in my parents’ living room. I was five years old. But, a lot of it had to do with my parents choosing not to shield me from reality and what was going on in the world around me. When race riots, bloody and wounded soldiers from Vietnam came on the evening news, they wouldn’t just change the channel or turn the TV off to not upset the kids, they would discuss with the kids and explain. I guess this is why I had very strong views about things like racism, pollution, corruption, and war from a very early age.”
RY: Was that common place, or were a lot of other kids around you being shielded from those aspects of reality?
Jello: “Yes and no. I would say by about fourth grade we knew who was for or against the Vietnam War. It was that volatile and that divisive, an issue. And, the ’68 election was coming up…which was a real battle royale in a number of ways. But, it amazes me how many people I run into from back then who’ve told me that I remember their own childhood better than they do. That finds me scratching my head, thinking ‘how could that possibly be? What happened?’
“Some of it, I think, was well-meaning parents trying to shield their children from what was going on around them. Thus, their children lose tangible memories of important events by the time they become adults.”
RY: Do you think that not being shielded and being allowed to be exposed to the realities of the world is what led you to become the fearless, artistic type that you now are?
Jello: “Oh, I’m sure it helped fuel the passion. I’m sure the other part was – when I was in second grade – there was a primetime TV show called Hullabaloo, and it had really great rock bands on there every week. I was allowed to watch that, and from that point on I guess my ambition was to be in a rock band.
“That kind of went by the wayside a little bit, then by eighth grade there were those late Friday night shows that came on. In Concert was the first one, then Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The very first band, on the very first In Concert, was Alice Cooper. That In Concert was shot in a live venue, with a real audience, in the raw. This was shot in the raw and it was before Alice Cooper got toned down, slicked up, and went to Las Vegas. That made a very powerful impression.”
RY: When you started performing, at what point did you want to talk about stuff that was more significant than what the pop acts of the era were talking about?
Jello: “I think that happened pretty early on. I didn’t relate to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lyrics. I didn’t relate to ‘I love you baby, buy my record,’ ones. So my first avenue out of there was Alice Cooper. He shocked so many people! It was so negative and so hell bent, so that was cool. That prepared me for the satire of Frank Zappa, and then musically, I was more into the Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The MC5, and The Stooges side of the fence…I always liked the heavy, extreme shit. I still do in a lot of cases.
“From there, it was ‘how could this be combined?’ I wasn’t even expecting to write the lyrics at first, but then I realized ‘holy shit, I’m one of the only older people who moved out to San Francisco, so if anything is going to happen, I’m going to have to write the words.’ I had to write good ones.
“My lyrical style is a little more along the lines of Sparks or Zappa, much more than it is Iggy Pop or Hank Williams. So I figured, ‘okay, that’s the way I do stuff, that’s what I’m going to do.”
RY: Were you surprised by what came out of you when you started writing?
Jello: “It’s not as though all of these supposedly magical words of wisdom just poured out of me like Joseph Smith blundering into the Book of Mormon or something. That’s not the way it happened. It was trial and error. A lot of the early lyrics – and a lot of the earlier lyrical versions of Dead Kennedys songs – kind of sucked in retrospect. But, everyone has to start somewhere and then start pushing themselves to improve, and figure out how to do that…who they are, and how they go about it. I didn’t have to be all that self-conscious about any possible place in rock history…about never being as cool as Jim Morrison or Iggy. I didn’t have to worry about that after I ran for Mayor of San Francisco. I realized ‘ok, that area of my ego and vanity are off of my shoulders now, and I can just relax and be me.’”
RY: What inspired that political run?
Jello: “Oh it was kind of dumb. I was there, it was a prank. Bruce, our first drummer who goes by Ted on the early records, had me folded in the backseat of his Volkswagon. He, Claus and I – and maybe another person or two – were all driving to a concert in San Francisco. Bruce said, ‘you have such a big mouth, you should run for President. No wait, a minute, you should run for Mayor!’ I thought, ‘aha, I think I will.’ So I walked into the venue telling everyone that I was running for Mayor and they got excited. I thought, ‘ah shit, now I need a platform.’ So, I started writing out my platform with a felt tip pen on a napkin.
“A lot of my favourite ideas from there – like making the police run for election every four years – just kind of popped into my head that night. I think I would’ve had a much bigger impact if I had the faintest idea of what I was doing,” laughs. “But I’m a big believer in magic accidents.”
RY: Do you wish that you took that political run more seriously?
Jello: “You’re making an assumption that isn’t true. I always take these things seriously, but I always have more fun using satire as a weapon. It’s not my only weapon, but it’s one of them. It wasn’t a matter of not taking it seriously. The whole thing engulfed me, so I was scrambling like crazy to do what I could, and all sorts of people were pulling me in all of these different directions.
“I got invited to dozens of campaign functions where all candidates were supposed to go. I only wound up going to two of them. I never went door-to-door at all. People ask me why I don’t run again. This time, I’ve been around long enough and I know how it’s really done, and what I’d really have to do to be affective. It would mean giving up music completely and going door-to-door and delving much deeper into the ins and outs of the issues that affect the city of San Francisco.’ Follow the money. Where are the bones buried? How do we pay for this program, when we also need to pay for this program?’ The danger of me ever being elected to public office, is what if I turn out to be incompetent?
“Although, I really do regret not jumping into that Governor’s race during the free-for-all re-call election that got Schwarzenegger elected. But, I decided not to, because there was a really good Green Party candidate who looked like he had a chance of winning, at least until Schwarzenegger jumped into the race. I didn’t want to do anything to detract from [that Green] campaign.”
RY: So, would you ever consider giving up music and running for office again?
Jello: “No, not at the moment. I mean, I don’t necessarily believe in planning these things.”
RY: I have to ask you a little bit about the Dead Kennedys stuff. What are your thoughts now regarding the band being out there touring?
Jello: “Well, is it only Dead Kennedys, or is it the world’s greediest karaoke band? Is it Dead Kennedys, or is it a cover band? It really pisses me off how often my own picture appears in ads for their shows. To me, that is outright fraud. They always point fingers and say that the promoter got the wrong photo off of the Internet. But in my opinion, all they have to do to put a stop to that is put it in their contract that promoters couldn’t do that.”
RY: Even with all of that crap (primarily legal battles) that’s gone on between you and the Dead Kennedys over the years, when you look back at your heyday with that band, are you still able to have fond memories?
Jello: “I think I have more love and respect for our songs, and the band, and our legacy, than anybody else who is [still] in the band. I wasn’t the one who wanted [to place a song] in a Levi’s commercial. I wasn’t the one who wanted to do a cover of “Too Drunk to Fuck” for a brutal, pornographic, rape scene in a movie. That’s not what those songs are for.
“Every artist has to decide for themselves whether they want their music used that way or not. If another artist does, we’re not going to stand in his way. But for my own work and my own sanity, the answer is ‘fuck no!’
“And, I really resent all of their heavy-handed efforts to force me into prostitution.”
RY: Are you disappointed now that these are the things that can easily come to people’s minds first when thinking about Dead Kennedys? Perhaps, it’s even affected the possibility of what the band could’ve been?
Jello: “Well, let’s not get mixed up with the whole idea that every band’s fantasy is to stay together for 20 or 30 years. We broke up before we sucked, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m proud of that. I’m not one of those people who want to freeze in the 1980s and never come up with any new songs.
“There are some songs that I’ve done since that would’ve made great Dead Kennedys songs. And there are other songs that either the DK lineup couldn’t play or wouldn’t want to play. I have to keep doing what I’m doing.
“They can run around and claim that they wrote all the songs all they want to, but on every last thing they’ve lied about in relation to me, I think history is on my side.”
RY: I know it’s well documented already, but how did the DK members manage to get away with taking your writing credits away…
Jello: “It was a fluke verdict by a jury of yuppies and doctors who were successfully bamboozled as to how the music business actually works. [DK] got huge [financial] damages [from me] for lack of promotion, because they weren’t constantly promoted in Rolling Stone, SPIN, or that industry rag Billboard, year after year, after the band broke up.
“Here’s a band that played ‘MTV Get off the Air,’ and still does, wanting damages because they’re not in regular rotation on MTV. The whole thing was just completely sick. I’m not sure that we have anything in common as people anymore, at all…except that years and years ago we were in this really cool band.
“What am I supposed to talk to them about now? Their 401-K accounts? Dollars and cents from licensing images to fancy skate-wear companies or something? I don’t know. That’s not how my brain works…I just don’t want anything to do with that.
“We did some great stuff together, but nowadays, in their hearts, they’ve become Republicans…where the almighty dollar trumps everything else, possibly even including self-respect. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
RY: In your wildest dreams, could you ever have expected this Dead Kennedys situation to happen?
Jello: “No. I was too trusting of the wrong people. I thought Klaus and D.H. would be my brothers for life, but then Levi’s came calling. Of course, it was the perfect storm, because there had indeed been an accounting error on the part of Alternative Tentacles (Biafra’s label) to which I am sorry, and take full responsibility.
“But, when we, not they, realized where the error was and got the figures together, we paid them. Only after they got that money, did they sue claiming that I had ripped them off. It’s pure and simple sick greed.
“Maybe Klaus will run around and tell the media that I am somehow punishing the fans by not going back to front their current scam, but in my opinion it’s a sullied lineup of what was a really cool band that’s now punishing the fans.
“Some people are going to really, really like them when they see them. But, I don’t look forward to the avalanche of complaint letters I sometimes get after one of their tours. Maybe avalanche is too strong of a word, but you know what I’m saying.
“The other complaint I have gotten repeatedly is that they don’t identify the lead singer by name, and all of these mall kids walk away thinking it was me.”
RY: Wow, that’s weird.
Jello: “Well, it’s also not very honest.”
RY: Does being with the Guantanamo School of Medicine help ease those bad feelings? You guys seem to be on the right path and really enjoying what you’re doing.
Jello: “I guess what means the most to me is when some idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for weeks, months, or years, finally comes to life…and the song is actually working, and doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and feeling like it’s supposed to feel. That’s one of the greatest kinds of gratification I get from all of this.”
06/24/2014 The Chance Poughkeepsie, NY
06/25/2014 Asbury Lanes Asbury Park, NJ
06/27/2014 Highline Ballroom New York City, NY
06/28/2014 Union Transfer Philadelphia, PA
06/29/2014 The Ottobar Baltimore, MD
06/30/2014 Mr. Small’s Theater Pittsburgh, PA
07/02/2014 Beachland Ballroom Cleveland, OH
07/12/2014 Rumble on Pine Long Beach, CA
w/Rev. Horton Heat