Jello Biafra Of The Dead Kennedys Interview

Biafra’s back – and this time he’s packing a ‘real’ band. The former Dead Kennedys frontman is re-energised by fronting a new group, The Guantanamo School Of Medicine, who tour the UK in September 2009. Alex Ogg chews the fat with him

Biafra wrote some of the smartest punk songs extant. In ‘Holiday In Cambodia’, alongside the other DKs, he arguably wrote the best of them all. But skimming over the drama that unfolded amid litigation from ex-members – as well as the spoken word shows and the occasionally inspired collaboration that constitute his post-DKs career – Biafra’s now back at the helm of a going concern. One that, he notes, is a continuation of the Plastic Surgery Disasters era of the Kennedys that he consistently, and mistakenly, counts as its zenith. A cause for unrestrained celebration we say when pondering the Guantanamo School of Medicine’s new album, The Audacity of Hype.

This is your first band proper since the Kennedys, rather than a temporary collaboration.

Jello Biafra: Yeah, it was something I’d wanted for a long time, and adventures good and bad over the years prevented it. If spoken word hadn’t taken off, I’d probably have bored in on it a lot sooner. But when you find you have other gifts than the ones you already realised, and that they’re having the kind of political impact that you were trying for in your music, one has an obligation to use it.

Were you looking to recruit the right people, or the right people just came around at the right time?

JB: Well, I talked to Ralph [Spight; guitar] years ago, and we almost got it going then with Jon Weiss [drums]. But then he decided to go full force with the Hellworms. Then last winter, when we decided to expand to two guitarists, Kimo Ball [rhythm guitar; ex-Victim’s Family] won the day at the auditions. Everybody rocked, but he was the craziest and weirdest of the bunch when we decided we’d see what happened if we just jammed.

So is the band now a permanent aggregation?

JB: Hopefully. Billy Gould [bass] already left, because Faith No More reformed. So he’s off re-conquering Europe as we speak. So for the tour we’re borrowing Andrew Weiss, Jon Weiss’s brother, from Rollins Band, Ween, Butthole Surfers and other things.

Knowing you have the band together, does that inspire you to write more?

JB: If only I had the time! So much of my day is spent with one interruption after another, putting out fires at the label, dealing with phone calls. Do you have any idea how big the backlog is with me! I wish I was as efficient as Billy Childish but I’m just not, and my music doesn’t work that way. I can only get so many songs recorded and finished properly at a time. I probably have around 60 songs where the music and lyrics are arranged, then there’s a whole other pile of really cool riffs and ideas for lyrics that haven’t been put together yet. I’m not very good at doing that quickly, or magically coming up with a great song while riding in a van. I have to be left alone to work on it for it a while. I took that to an extreme after I did the first Lard album and the ones with DOA and NOMEANSNO and Tumor Circus, which were done in one big frenzy.

Then I decided I have to hide to write the songs I really, really want to write. And that wound up taking years. And when I came out of my cave, all the musicians I wanted to work with were gone! They were either in bands that they would be fools to leave, who had gotten much bigger by then, or they had developed drug problems or lost interest in music. Or the big bands signed to a major label and then they lost interest in music, and THEN some of them developed drug problems! So all these things kept flipping in and out of my hands. Plus, maybe I had delusions of grandeur, visualising that it would be great to have this person and that person in the band, ignoring the fact that they all lived in different parts of the country, if not across the ocean, and wouldn’t necessarily want to move.

The whole Dead Kennedys imbroglio seems to have gone quiet for the moment.

JB: Not for me, it hasn’t! I had two threat letters from their lawyer in the past month or so. And now their manager, whose other major client is a Christian folk act, is running around Hollywood shopping a Dead Kennedys documentary project – like the Metallica movie or something. I have no interest in that whatsoever. And I’m going to leave it to YOU to explain why it would be such a nightmare for anybody to try to make something like that, based on what happened with your attempts to do a balanced story [the abandoned 30th anniversary reissue liner notes] about the Fresh Fruit album.

They were trying to use me to persuade you to go on that Fresh Fruit DVD.

JB: Boy, am I glad I wasn’t in that. That’s exactly the kind of stupid-ass documentary of the band they want to make and everything was dumbed down and harmless and lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, burn-out nostalgia. We might as well have been Air Supply. I’m not going to be dragged through that again. Why do I want to spend all this time quarrelling over the past when I have new songs and a new band, and I feel much more alive doing that than going over and over every last little granule of misinformation about Dead Kennedys? I’m proud of the music, I care about it and respect it much more than those guys do. And yes, we will play a little bit of that on the tour. But like the gigs I did with the Melvins, it will be dominated by new songs.

I get very suspicious when punk bands say, really, we were just a rock & roll band all along. Sorry! The Clash being the obvious example.

JB: You said it, I didn’t! Cos no-one’s supposed to rag on The Clash, because Joe Strummer died so prematurely. But I agree with that. When they came over here on their first American tour, they denied they were a punk band and denied they were a political band.

I guess I grew up suspicious of the attitude that rock & roll stood for – macho, conservative, self-satisfied.

JB: That was part of the thing that drew me to punk so much – finally there was the true spirit of rock & roll brought back again – it was scaring the shit out of all the right people, plus the lyrics didn’t have to be so stupid any more. I’ve never liked love songs. I hated them when I was a seven-year-old in second grade and first discovered rock & roll in the fall of ’65. Then as a teenager I realised that love songs weren’t just stupid, they were lying to me! Romance didn’t work like that at all! All it did was string people along on false hope like hope-dope dealers or something. Another thing that came to mind after staying away from this all these years – it’s kinda sad. I wrote down all the songs from my past that might be cool to play in this band some day, and there turned out to be so many of them, we’d have had to play a set as long as the Grateful Dead. So some of those songs will never see the light of day on a stage – there’s Dead Kennedys songs, Lard songs, the ones with Tumor Circus, DOA, NOMEANSNO. We haven’t gotten to it yet, but I really want to see what an audience does if I can get the band interested in the idea of playing our really heavy songs and then playing one of the country songs off Prairie Home Invasion [Biafra’s 1994 collaboration with Mojo Nixon). And then go right back to playing the heavy shit again. I think that would be cool.

That reminds me of your update of ‘California Uber Alles’, ‘We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now’, on In God We Trust, which worked really well, going from lounge jazz to hardcore and back.

JB: That was just a result of the band goofing off at practice and at sound-check. Will Shatter from Flipper was one of our harshest critics – and one of everybody’s harshest critics! He said, ‘You’re always so stiff, playing the same way – why don’t you play it THAT way!” So it just wound up becoming an alternate version. Who knows, THAT might come back eventually too!

If you’re taking requests, I’d love to hear ‘Life Sentence’ again.

JB: Too bad! The Melvins wanted to play that, so we did. It’s not going to be in our set, though. Dale Crover – it was his idea to play the song. But as we learned it and everything, he realised it was draining him so badly as a drummer, that he was liking it less and less.

Quite hard on the vocals as well – with the neo-yodelling!

JB: Yeah, there are some places where I ran out of breath. The tour that blew my throat the worst is the one that was dominated by a lot of the songs on In God We Trust. I didn’t realise till I listened to some live cassettes after the 82 tour in England, that we turned almost every song into an In God We Trust song – there was no difference in tempo between ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ and ‘Man With The Dogs’.

The new album starts with ‘The Terror Of Tinytown’ – a Bush II song.

JB: Yeah. The question being, why a song about him, and why now? Well, is he really gone? His policies are still in place and Obama seems to be clinging to more and more of them with each passing week. I’m really frightened that he’s reneging so much on trying to put a stop to human rights violations and torture.

You’re frightened by the fact that Obama is backtracking – but are you surprised? When you did your spoken word show 18 months ago, you didn’t seem sold on the idea that Obama represented a brand new dawn.

JB: It was weird to me from the very beginning that all the big banks who backed George W Bush for two terms threw all their money into Obama next time around. They weren’t giving that kind of money to Hillary or McCain. So something was up from the get-go. ‘Terror Of Tinytown’ is an infamous low-budget movie from the 1930s – an all-midget western. It’s so metaphorically similar to Bush’s rationale and mentality going into Iraq, that I just couldn’t resist.

And you pointedly note that 9/11 was more Spinal Tap than conspiracy.

JB: My point was a reply to people who are obsessed with the idea that Bush and Cheney, and the people around them, blew up the World Trade Center themselves, and it was all an inside job. You know, I love conspiracy theories, but I prefer that they be supported by logic and science. Bush and Cheney weren’t smart enough or competent enough to pull off something like that. They couldn’t even overthrow Hugo Chavez, for Christ’s sake, when they tried that coup over the weekend. He was back in office by Monday morning.

The point being that the wild theorising distracts from what’s really taking place?

JB: Well, as you might guess, I get some hardline 9/11 conspiracy theorists at my shows. And they are furious with me when I don’t devote the whole show to 9/11 conspiracies, and then even more furious when they find out I don’t even agree with them. It’s like trying to reason with an anti-abortion zealot or an uber-vegan. It’s just complete religious fanaticism. Besides, it makes no strategic sense from a military point of view to blow up your most valuable real estate and kill 3,000 of your own people just to launch a war you were going to start anyway. All they would have had to do was stage another attack on a ship like the USS Cole, or better yet, do it all at the special effects department at Fox News, and we would be stuck in Iraq anyway.

‘Clean as a Thistle’ – there’s another reference to a former president there – Clinton – and sexual hypocrisy.

JB: Yeah, in a way it’s a song that’s never out of date because some other right wing, fundamentalist Christian, family values Nazi Republican lets his penis get him into trouble yet again. Right after we finished mixing that song, sure enough, Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, who some were projecting as a Republican nominee for 2012, completely disappears for a week. It turned out he was down in Argentina fucking some woman he’d met [Sanford’s voting record includes attempting to impeach Clinton over the Lewinsky affair]. And he still hasn’t resigned! He’s also the same governor who walked into the state legislature wielding a live baby pig, claiming that there weren’t enough budget cuts to services in the state budget, and the pig let go and shit all over his nice new suit. Wrecked the carpet too, from what I read.

There’s a fair amount of medieval references and imagery, notably on ‘New Feudalism’, which attacks NAFTA specifically. Is that how you see it? That we’re back in a robber baron era where the strongest prevail?

JB: We’re not going back, we’re there. We’re right in the middle of a full-on robber baron era. I first started using the term ‘new feudalism’ in the late 70s to describe the slow, ongoing corporate coup, and of course it was put in writing and shoved in everyone’s face with the GATT treaty that spawned the infamous WTO. NAFTA stands for North American Free Trade Agreement, and there’s nothing free about it. It’s just corporate managed trade. It’s the same scam as the GATT Treaty and the World Trade Organisation, where laws passed by democratically elected governments go out of the window if a corporation thinks it’s interfering with its right to make money. That means environmental laws, factory and workplace safety laws, the right to organise a union, etc. Or, in the case of places like Colombia and Mexico – the right to organise a union without getting killed. There’s a wrongful death lawsuit winding through the American courts now filed against Coca-Cola on behalf of the families of murdered union organisers in Colombia.

In terms of NAFTA though, what’s amazing is the numbers, where they can sue governments for, in terms of exercising any kind of restraint – for example, restricting importing petrol additives into Canada.

JB: Plus they can also say you don’t just owe us for profits we lost this year – you owe us for profits we would have made in the next 20 years, and you have to pay all 20 years of those profits right now. That was the logic that East Bay Ray and co got away with when they sued me too! They brought the Grateful Dead’s accountant in to claim that if ‘x’ amount of money is spent on advertising, that means ‘x’ amount more sales will automatically happen. And the jury of yuppies fell for that. It’s sort of the same thing if you have a dairy cow that dies prematurely of mad cow disease or whatever – what is the value of that cow? The milk that you already produced that you took to market and sold? Or should somebody pay you for the rest of the theoretical life of a normal dairy cow. And that’s the angle that all those Wall Street robber barons used to get all that bail-out money out of the American government – this is the money we would have made if these real estate scams hadn’t gone belly up. Therefore we should get all that money that was based on speculating on money that never existed in the first place.

Reminds me of the sheep compensation schemes run by the Ministry of Defence here, where a few farmers worked out it was cost-effective to herd their older sheep straight into firing ranges.

JB: I know a better one that! A friend of mine’s father knew someone in Denver who lived at the bottom of a hill. In Denver it snows and gets very cold in the winter and there’s a lot of ice. So he would leave this car at the bottom of the hill, and pour water all over the street to ice the street up. He’d wait for a car to skid and crash into his car. He’d get his money from the insurance company and then never fix the car! The next time it got icy, another car would hit the same car and he’d collect on it again. That’s the American spirit in a nutshell.

‘Panicland’ seems to be about people losing the ability to communicate with each other.

JB: Yeah, also, it’s how hysteria imposed from the outside can affect the herd too. You know, you can’t fly if your name is Mohammed or Ali, cos we’re terrorised by terror on TV.

Later there’s that line about not being able to book an airline ticket if you’re black.

JB: Yeah, trying to buy an airline ticket in cash while black? That’s in ‘Three Strikes’. That was a real case too, where an African-American florist was flying from Nashville to Houston to buy a bunch of fresh flowers that had just come in from the Caribbean, and those transactions were always done in cash. By paying for his plane ticket in cash, and because he was black, he fit the Reagan/Bush administrations’ official regulations for the profile of a drug dealer. So they confiscated the money on suspicion of dealing drugs and refused to return it. That’s what they can do, under the draconian anti-pornography and drug laws; they can seize all your property and sell it before you even come to trial.

I was fascinated by ‘Electronic Plantation’ – there are too few songs about RSI!

JB: They want some people to wear GPS devices while at work now, so they know where everybody is in the building, that might be costing them money. Never mind all the money hiring people to watch all the GPS on the radar! There’s also a pun in there that’s probably not familiar to you – ‘Locked in the Research Triangle / Shirtwaist Fire’s flame’. The research triangle is a hi-tech boom area of North Carolina, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a very famous tragedy in the annals of union organising in America. There was a sweatshop where the female workers were chained to the desks, and the door to get out was locked. The building caught fire and they all died. I think it was before WWI. However, not that much has changed. On Prairie Home Invasion one of the songs Mojo sings is ‘Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster’, which really was a chicken processing plant in North Carolina where they locked all the workers inside and they got killed in a fire. And that happened in the late 80s/early 90s. And just think – thanks to our friends at the WTO and through NAFTA, we can have more and more of this brought back! Now they’re telling all the laid-off auto workers in this country, hey, the only way we can save your precious General Motors or Chrysler – never mind paying you good wages to design and build bullet trains or more fuel-efficient cars, forget that, no! You want your job back? You can work for the same wage that someone would get to make the same car in Mexico or even China. And Obama is backing this.

I wanted to talk about ‘I Won’t Give Up’. That’s probably one of the more personal songs you’ve written.

JB: Yeah. The fangs aren’t as sharp in that one as they usually are with me, but it’s kind of my opening salvo for the age of Obama. The heartbreak already goes on in the first verse, but at the same time, should we just give up now? No, fight harder.

It does have that ‘We Shall Overcome’ feel. In terms of the rest of the album, you riff on a lot of the problems. But it’s quite a striking antidote to the rest of the album’s contents.

JB: The only time I tried to write a Fugazi song, or an anthem or something. Trouble is, I discovered to my horror in the studio that it’s a motherfucker to sing right – so I don’t think it will ever spread as far and wide as ‘We Shall Overcome’. But at least I tried.

On ‘Strength Thru Shopping’ – you revisit that old DKs line, "Give me convenience or give me death". You talk a lot here about how self-delusionary consumerism can be.

JB: That song actually had to be cut way down, there were several more verses, and we couldn’t figure out which ones to pull out, because they were all so funny.

I guess there are so many idiotic manifestations of consumerism to pick from.

JB: Yeah. I think took out the part about people buying fake fruit and putting it in the refrigerator and locking their jewellery inside it? There are also fake rocks available too that’s actually a safe – and no-one will think to look in your garden for your precious family jewels. And I can just see the jewels’ owner all dressed for the ball running around – ‘Harold, Harold, I can’t find my brooch, where’s my brooch, it’s disappeared!’ ‘You’re going to have to have to go out in the garden and get it, dear.’ ‘Dressed like this?’

No, and which rock was it?

JB: Yeah!

‘Pets Eat Their Master’ – that’s a good old-fashioned Biafra fantasy revenge thing, a bit like ‘Funland At The Beach’. Having some fun with the idea of roasting corporate yuppies.

JB: Then again, I often wonder if I should quit dealing with so many worst-case scenarios, because they keep coming true! ‘Islamic Bomb’, from Never Breathe What You Can’t See [Biafra’s 2004 album with the Melvins] came true right before the album came out. They caught Mad Doctor Khan selling Pakistan’s nuclear secrets in $60 million gift packages to Libya, North Korea and Iran.

But do you have fun writing those types of songs? Some of the other songs are very didactic, they contain a lot of information.

JB: I really feel triumph if I’ve finally got the lyrics done and they make me laugh. And I feel diabolical again! I was never about the rock & roll hero thing – I always liked playing the villain and the saboteur. Sometimes that even means I sabotage myself, but somehow I’m still here.

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School Of Medicine play Bristol Academy (7 September 2009), London Academy (8 September 2009) and Sheffield Academy (9 September 2009).

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