FROM PHIL ANSELMO TO DEALMAKING DEMOCRATS, JELLO BIAFRA TAKES US TO SCHOOL
Jello Biafra is one of the very few people living today who can honestly be called a musical pioneer. The importance of the Dead Kennedys cannot be overstated, and as that hardcore punk act’s frontman and voice, Jello’s words continue to influence generations of people worldwide dissatisfied with the status quo, whether that apply to the music scene or the socio-political climate. Fortunately, he continues to rail against the crimes inflicted by governments and corporations in his own unique way, whether it be through bitingly witty spoken word performances or those from his new band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine. Yet after all of these years, Jello still prides himself on not stagnating or repeating himself. In his own words:
One thing we’ve gone out of our way to do with [The Guantanamo School of Medicine] and what I do in general, I’m kinda proud that no two music albums of mine have ever sounded alike. Not even the Lard albums or the two I did with the Melvins, let alone Dead Kennedys. There’s so much punk and so much metal that gets put into these little genres and sounds so much like other bands that you wonder, “what’s the point?” This is like drawing in a coloring book instead of making a picture from your imagination as a kid. Part of what that comes from is drawing my sources and my ideas from other parts of music besides punk, including even that weird tiki cocktail lounge music from the Fifties… You wanna put a unique stamp on your band, you’ve gotta draw from forces outside your favorite kind of music. I didn’t even realize until years later that when I’d hide out at my parents’ place in Colorado to write songs and plan out the next Dead Kennedys album that I was listening to almost no punk whatsoever when I was doing it.
Below, check out more from my interview with Jello.
Gary Suarez: You’ve released music from a variety of projects over the past few decades and most of them are seemingly inactive at this point. You have the Guantanamo School of Medicine (GSM) now. Do you see the GSM as a longer-term band for you?
Jello Biafra: Well, hopefully! It’s all local guys and it’s my band, so I can sprinkle in a little more of my weirdness and my sound than I can in a more hit-and-run situation.
So does that mean we’re going to see more shows from the GSM?
They’re in the works as we speak. We may be in New York witin the next two or three months. I’m not sure yet.
I’ve been keeping up with you guys, and we’re written about the band before, so I was really hoping we’d get a New York date out of it.
You mean you’d rather go see a live band than just sit in your room and watch us on YouTube for hours on end?
Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying.
Boy, are you out of step with America! Apparently there’s a lot of stuff on YouTube from the Spanish tour. That might be on a different part of YouTube. I don’t know. There might even be as much as a complete show up there through Voodoo Experience, the festival we played in New Orleans on Halloween. We went on right after Down. Philip Anselmo, he strongly urged his audience to stick around for us and they did. So that was a pretty high-energy wild show. You know he’s got a label going now called Housecore.
Oh yeah. Definitely familiar with that. The Arson Anthem record.
He gave me a double-CD comp that I haven’t had a chance to properly listen to yet.
It’s pretty diverse.
That’s all for the good considering his reputation and the mindset of at least some of his fans. He gave me the CD and told me to expect diversity and I was very glad to hear that. That was my own concept behind Let Them Eat Jellybeans! way back when: to alert the world to America’s punk and hardcore underground but [also] to the all-important weirdcore bands that broke the mold as well.
And you still do a lot of that today with Alternative Tentacles. You turned me on to Triclops. Their album was one of my favorites of 2008.
Well you know their new album’s out in about a month? Alright, maybe two months. And it blows the other one away. Eventually when we get a little more of a live audience, I’m hoping we can take them out with us.
Regarding your work with the Melvins and with Lard, is there going to be any more of that?
Me and Al (Jourgenson of Ministry and Lard) have talked about it for years, but we’ve never been able to nail down a time to try and put it together. The project with the Melvins might have lasted a little longer but obviously their priority is the Melvins. And then Buzz has Fantomas, and Dale has Altamont… and now Shrinebuilder with Wino. Fitting in my shit was kinda tough on both of us and I kinda threw up my hands and went back to spoken word for awhile. I knew I had a really good show together, the one I toured for years that became the In The Grip Of Official Treason CD. So we’re still open to it, and (Tool guitarist) Adam Jones still wants to do more work with me. But it’s a matter of finding the time to do it. Now that I finally have another band of my own going again, I’m realizing how much time it chews up. There are stacks of stuff sitting around my house that aren’t getting done. It hasn’t quite gotten to the point where the laundry’s sitting all over the floor unfolded, but hopefully I can do a better job of keeping up with things than that.
There are a fair amount of live recordings of me with the Melvins, but we haven’t really gonna through them with a fine toothed comb yet… Buzz called me at one point and said that he wanted to tackle that at a certain point, and then I didn’t quite respond as I should have at the time because the window closed again. And now where are we? So hopefully that will see the light of day someday.
Well I’m sure once the Melvins fanatics read that these things exist and that there was at least talk about it at some point, you might see some clamor about it. Because you know the Melvins’ fans love everything. A lot of completists out there.
Not all of them liked my stuff, liked them working with me. There was one self-styled, snooty little rock writer in San Francisco who twice got assigned previews of live Jellvins shows. The first time was skeptical, go-for-the-Melvins; second time wrote a long thing about “The Decline of the Melvins” because they were working with me. So those people are out there. Meanwhile, a lot of the Dead Kennedys fans have yet to get hip to that stuff, because they assume it’s gonna be all slower Melvins-type avant-stoner rock, if they even know who the Melvins are. Plus, I, of course, am not allowed to alert anybody on the Dead Kennedys website as to what I’m doing. That’s only reserved for the others.
So 2009 was a hell of a year. Recession, protracted wars, the whole health care debacle. And all on the watch of a guy who so many progressives and people on the Left rallied behind. So now that Barack Obama’s been president for a full year, has he disappointed as much as you anticipated or worse?
I would say worse, even though I knew enough about him and the corporate Democrat agenda that I didn’t vote for him. I voted for the Green Party candidate instead, as I have for years. As Ralph Nader put it, you’re wasting your vote if you condone this behavior. Granted, [Obama’s] up against alot of obstacles with such a coin operated Congress, bureaucracy and even the Defense Department. On the other hand, he had so many people in the palm of his hand, he hasn’t really gone to them to get the kind of support in the streets that he had before. And the reason may be that he was never really down with that much change to begin with. It was a great ad campaign; it won advertising campaign of the year from the organization who awards those, beating out Disney and McDonalds and the rest.
Even during this campaign, I remember him saying that he wasn’t for a single-payer health care system because it might lead to too many unemployed health insurance workers. Which is kind of like saying we should never prosecute anyone in the Mob… because it will lead to too many unemployed gangsters! There’s some times where you can’t keep subsidizing corporations whose time is up. Otherwise we’d still be paying for wagon wheel repairmen and zeppelin makers or something. When I go out of the country to do these shows, people come up to me with their heads in the hands, asking how can Americans be so dumb as to put up with such a terrible rip-off health care system. What all these insurance companies really do is act as toll booths and gate keepers and shakedown loan sharks and don’t do anything to cure what ails you. As cute as the Aflac goose is on TV, the Aflac goose is there to steal your money and keep you from getting health care. The estimates of people who die due to lack of health insurance or who not having enough or due to slipshod cost-cutting hospital procedures like doctors not washing their hands enough is almost 100,000 people a year. Contrast that to the few dozen who’ve died from swine flu or the number of people killed on September 11th which gave us the excuse to launch all these wars. It’s just ridiculous.
I think what’s made the Democrats so disappointing and so horrible over the years–at least since the Reagan era–for the public faces they cultivate dealmakers over leaders. Bill Clinton: dealmaker. Al Gore: dealmaker. John Kerry: dealmaker. And now we see Obama is much more comfortable as a dealmaker as well. If he pushed for a kick-ass climate change bill thst he could bring to Copenhagen for that conference, a lot more would’ve gotten done… Then there’s following Bush and Bernanke’s lead in just handing eight trillion dollars, all told, to banks when they start to go belly up, instead of the people whose homes are about to be foreclosed. You give the mortgage holders the money, they pay off the bank, the banks get the money anyway, but the people get to stay in their homes.
That’s why I’m all for more people forming neighborhood brigades like they have in Boston and some other places, as they did both in cities as well as in rural America during the Depression in the Thirties. When somebody tries to seize a person’s home, the rest of the neighbodhood shows up and blocks them, media in tow. In Boston it’s been very effective.
Well then it turns into something where you’re not just stopping the injustice, but also naming and shaming by bringing the media along.
Exactly. Direct action, which we need a lot more of. I mean, I was worried about this that when Obama got in, it would be the same thing that happened when Bill Clinton got in, when the public hated Bush’s father as much as they hate Bush now. “Oh great, everything’s solved! The man from Hope, Arkansas–there goes that word again–is gonna save everything! Now we can sleep easy!” And people just went to sleep, as Clinton rammed through some of the worst fantasies of the Reagan-Bush years like NAFTA, the GATT treaty that gave us the WTO, gutting our welfare system, multiplying the homeless people by, God, what, millions? And deregulating the telecommunications industry, so we get stuck with Fox News and Live Nation over and over and over again. Fox News, Clear Channel, and Live Nation. Even Bob Dole called the Telecommunications Act of 1996 corrupt. And for him to think it’s corrupt, that takes doing! Here we go, people go “Oh! Hope! Change! Now my hopes are fulfilled, and I’ll go back to not even changing my own life!”
You’ve described a complacency or even an apathy that once there’s a Democrat in charge, there’s a willingness on the part of even those more active during the Bush years to kinda say, well, everything’s okay now. It’s obviously not.
Another one of the big disappointments that scares me is not only is Guantanamo Bay still not closed, thus the name of my band, but also he went back on his word that he was gonna stop kidnapping and torturing people. It’s still going on.
The extraordinary renditions.
Yeah, the so-called extraordinary renditions. That’s basically the same old neo-Nazi, banana republic Saddam Hussein torture tactics. We were brought up to believe that our country would never do a thing like that. A lot of our ancestors died in World War II, and senselessly in the Korean and Vietnam wars to prevent this sort of thing from spreading. And here we are spreading it ourselves and Obama has taken backdoor steps to allow it to continue. To me, one of the biggests tests is whether or not the war criminals and the other gangsters taking all the bribes, rigging all the elections in the Bush administration are brought to justice and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Wholesale vote fraud, bribery, you name it. And so far he’s not even lifted a finger to do that. What really scares me about that is if you let these people off the hook, they have a way of coming back in the next four, eight years knowing they can get away with anything now and chomping at the bit to do even more damage…
Robert Gates is still the Secretary of Defense. That motherfucker should be in jail! The number two to William Casey at the CIA when Casey was running the Contra War. That’s inexcusable. And Elliot Abrams, the guy who did get a jail sentence and was later thrown out, for ContraGate crimes, out of the State Department. He came back in W’s administration as Undersecretary of State for Mid-Eastern Affairs, where he was holding regular roundtable meetings with religious right and Jewish right leaders to make sure they were all on the same page as to where Israel’s borders should expand to for when the Messiah comes back. At least in Watergate those guys got punished. Otherwise we might have been stuck with things like CIA Director G. Gordon Liddy.
Now he can just be a Fox News commentator.
Now that they’ve got Sarah Palin, she may wind up being more powerful than she ever would have holding public office. Was it Naomi Klein who said she was our Evita Peron?
There’s been plenty written about Jello Biafra. Will we ever see a proper Jello Biafra memoir or autobiography?
How much free time do you think I have? I mean, spoken word is already on ice for the time being, puttiing all my time into the band. I have not had time to put together a full spoken word show. Plus, I want to wait a little while and see where the dust settles with Obama. I write slowly and I don’t particularly like writing; I just bleed it out of myself. I figured if I’m going to have to write the words to the songs, they better be good. I work real hard at that; it does not come effortlessly from me. I admire anybody who can meet a deadline of a day or two and whip out a readable column, let along get a decent book going. Maybe I’ll pop it out in another fifteen years, when I have more adventures to regale. But I don’t think we’ll have that anytime soon.
In a way it’s sad, because I see the other books written about the early punk days and realize how many gaps I can fill and how many insights I can provide. Especially since my memory is intact because I didn’t do a whole lot of drugs. Hardly anybody has reflected on what it was like to come of age in the sober stupid boring Seventies, except for Dazed And Confused and a few other things. People act like the Seventies and the Eighties were this Golden Age because it was the dawn of punk and hardcore. But hardly anybody was into that. It was maybe the only thing that made the Eighties bearable, but for everybody who was into Dead Kennedys or Minor Threat, there were another 50,000 people who’d much rather listen to the Eagles or Saturday Night Fever. That’s what we were up against. And those of us who’d gotten a whiff of how wild and cool the Sixties were, to see it all get dumbed down and mellowed out and sold back to us at twice the price in the Seventies before punk happened, that was a horrible heartbreak. Right when we were coming of age, the acid’s no good anymore and all you’re presented for music is soft rock and disco. No wonder punk happened!
[The Audacity of Hype, the debut album from Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, is now available on CD and LP from Alternative Tentacles.]