INTERVIEW by JESS BRAAM
BIAFRA’S VOICEMAIL: “Hooray for Occupy Wall Street! Hooray for occupying the Capitol building in Wisconsin! Boo on corporate cartoon McNews for blacking out the same thing happening in Ohio and Michigan. Hooray for U.K. UnCut for blockading Vodafone retail stores, nonviolently, when they calculated that Vodafone owes almost as much in taxes as the prime minister was cutting from social service budgets and universities. Finally, people are realizing that all the audacity to hope for change goes nowhere if you put all that hope in one person at the top. It comes better from the bottom. After all, Franklin Roosevelt told a labor leader who gave him proposals at the beginning of the Depression, “Okay, these are all good. Now make me do it.” If there had been a Million Uninsured March on Washington, we would have had the public option for health care before now. Hooray for all the insurrection in the streets! Besides, it’s fun.” – JELLO BIAFRA
The last time you talked with Juice Magazine, it was right after the lawsuit with the Dead Kennedys, and it was a really political time. George Bush II, won the election, and we all know how that went.
He didn’t win the election. He was selected, not elected. It wasn’t just through all the digital monkeying with the voting machines in Florida, but for the fact that Al Gore didn’t fight to save his own election, which made me wonder whether the fix was in anyway. There he was bitching and moaning about old ladies’ dimply chads in South Florida and ignoring tens of thousands of African Americans that weren’t allowed to vote in northern parts of Florida. He wouldn’t give them the time of day. The other thing that really contributed a lot to costing Gore that election was his wife, Tipper Gore. It wasn’t Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and fuck the democrats that tried to pin it on him. It was Gore’s wife. There wasn’t much youth support for Gore compared to Obama or John Kerry and I think that was because of Tipper Gore’s infamous hate campaign to censor music. Even now if I mention her name at a spoken word show, people that weren’t even born when she and the religious right worked together on pulling that shit all boo. That’s what cost Gore the election.
Didn’t Gore have the majority vote?
He had the majority of the popular vote. I strongly suspect that’s going to happen to Obama too. We’ll see if he finally has any spine in him because he could have ordered the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute all the people involved in enabling clown Prince Dubya to steal not one but two elections. Look at what happened in Ohio in ‘04. Kerry didn’t fight. Even his own vice president, the weasel with the wayward weenie, John Edwards, urged him to contest it. If he really wanted to be president why didn’t he just go to the State House in Ohio and refuse to leave until this was fixed?
How about John Edwards and all the stuff he did to his wife and family?
He always struck me as this shallow dude who was shoved in our faces by the corporate powers that run the Democratic Party thinking, “He looks good on TV. Maybe we can con people into voting for him.” Here is this guy, “Hi, I’m John Edwards. I talk like Andy Griffith and kind of act like Al Gore. Like my hair?” [Laughs] That’s not a president. That’s a weasel. The only way John Edwards can ever redeem himself now is to go back to practicing public interest law and sue the shit out of people who deserve to be sued. He was good at that but, of course, once people get up in that bracket, they’re more interested in being a celebrity than they are in really making a difference.
I think that might be true for a lot of politicians. You’ve always had a political message in your music from the beginning, haven’t you?
It’s one of my passions. It’s part of my soul. It’s who I am. I was a news junkie, even as a five-year-old. I remember seeing Oswald get shot live on TV in my parents’ living room. I remember the Berlin Wall going up. I have vivid memories of what went down in the ‘60s because my parents would explain to me what was going on in the news over dinner. Instead of changing the channel to something that might not upset the kids, they used it for education. I had very strong views early on about racism, corruption, environmental issues, civil rights, police brutality… You name it. It just breaks my heart now that so many people my own age or younger have no tangible personal memories of the ‘60s or ‘70s or, in some cases, even the ‘80s. Now a good number of my fans were born after Dead Kennedys ceased to exist. They have never known a time in this country when there were actual differences between the Democratic and the Republican Party, and the TV networks were independently owned and took pride in kickass reporting of actual news. It wasn’t accepted that there would be so many homeless people on the streets. That wasn’t always the case. That really got bad under Reagan. There’s the old quote that hung behind Jim Jones at Jonestown on a sign, “Those that don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
[Laughs] That’s too true. I wanted to ask you a couple questions. I wanted to start at where we are now. You have the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which is awesome. Thank you so much for putting a track on the Juice Sk8Tracks. It’s great and people are psyched that we’re getting another interview with you.
Oh, that’s good because it’s getting harder to remind people that I’m still alive and doing stuff, even in an age when we’re bombarded with more information than ever before. Maybe that’s part of the problem, trying to weed through the information. It’s like failing to spot the 9/11 hijackers because we were spying on so many people. It was like looking for a needle in a football field. I’ll always have to deal with people that come up to me as wide-eyed fans being really complimentary on Dead Kennedys and not always having much of an idea of what I’ve been doing since. I’m never quite sure how to react when somebody from their twenties to their forties says, “Oh, yeah, Dead Kennedy’s really helped me through high school.” Okay. Well, what does that mean? Does that mean you just listen to John Mayer now or something? [Laugh] You’ve become an adult and all that punk rock stuff is in the closet somewhere until you sell it on eBay? I hope not.
[Laughs] I hope not too. I was doing some research on Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine and how you got started and I found out you guys hooked up with Matt Kelly that did Hieroglyphics and Digital Underground?
He and I were working together before he did that stuff. He just happened to be the engineer when I was working with John Cuniberti who worked on some of the Dead Kennedys’ albums. We did a project called Tumor Circus with three guys from Steel Pole Bathtub, plus Charlie Tolnay, an Australian guitar wizard from a band called King Snake Roost, who we’d released earlier when he was Grong Grong. The music was so out there that Cuniberti got a little weird about it and so Matt inherited the session. We hit it off really well and he’s edited most of my spoken word albums and worked on the stuff I did with the Melvins as well, so he and I go way back. I have to see him at the end of the week to do a cartoon voice for a project in Australia.
Yeah, I want to get more into that. I suppose if I had an agent and an L.A. residence, I’d be doing pretty good right now. My voice is so weird to begin with and I can bend it in all sorts of ways. I was the guy who had all the teacher imitations when I was in school. I could imitate people like Bullwinkle, Rocky, Nixon and Howard Cosell and many others. It only occurred to me later when I realized what I really wanted to do was sing rock n’ roll. I had a pizza delivery job, at the time, so it occurred to me, “Hey, wait a minute. If I’m so good at imitating and making fun of my teachers, what if I start doing that with people I like?” I kind of perfected my voice while driving around delivering pizzas in Boulder, Colorado. After a while, I could do Jim Morrison. I could do Eric Burdon. I could even do Robert Plant before I burned up that part of my voice smoking too much weed, before I quit that when I moved to San Francisco.
That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that.
It was something to make fun of, especially Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music. There’s another vocal track on the 2-inch 24-track master for Fresh Fruit… where I sang, “Kill the Poor” in a Bryan Ferry voice. I thought it would add to the whole statement and satire being made there, but it just didn’t work as well as the vocal we used.
Have you always been that involved in how your voice sounds and thought about different ways to say certain lyrics to make them more impacting or is it just organic and it comes out the right way?
I think it’s a combination of both. Sometimes, if it’s a jam or when Al Jourgensen would send me a recording with no vocals that he wanted to use for Lard, I made sure I’d flip on my little Walkman because maybe the first gibberish wailings with no lyrics that came out of my mouth might turn out to be the best for the vocal and the melody. It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes I have to try several, especially if I try to put the whole song together myself before I teach it to the other guys with my feeble voice. In the studio, I have to try things different ways just to find one that works. I couldn’t hit the high note at the beginning of “Kill the Poor” as easily as I can now. Finally it was like, “What if I try Feargal Sharkey, the guy in the Undertones?” Lo and behold, I hit it. Another one I discovered when forced into a karaoke situation a few years ago on a dare. I went with “Delilah” by Tom Jones. I discovered quickly that the more I made fun of Tom Jones the more I could sing like Tom Jones.
[Laughs] Do you do karaoke a lot?
You might see that one on stage sometime because the theatre I can put with that is really over the top. I did it again drunk out of my mind on Guinness rolling around in the mud and in a tent at a festival in Ireland. There wasn’t a single person in that tent that wasn’t paying attention with their eyes popping out of their heads by the time I was done with that one.
You’ve always been a very aggressive and expressive performer. In your last interview, you said one of your proudest moments was when you were so crazy at a show that you had the entire crowd scrunched back against the walls like they were afraid of you.
That only happened once at The Rat in Boston. The only band I had ever read about that had that affect on people was the Stooges. That was a moment of pride on an otherwise miserable tour. That was cool. There’s an urban legend going around that one of the waitresses beat me up that night, but that wasn’t what happened at all.
The beauty of the early Dead Kennedys’ shows, before people realized who we were, was I could just go through the crowd and fuck with people. I’d pour people’s beer on them at the back table or whatever. I once shampooed a bunch of RCA executives’ hair with their ashtray full of cigarette butts at the Whiskey in L.A., at which point, they stormed out and decided to not sign Dead Kennedys because we were too violent. To me, of course, that was mission accomplished. I never wanted to be on a major label anyway. That tour was in 1979 when California Uber Alles had barely made it out of the trunk of Ray’s car. We went to the East Coast as a complete unknown and found a much more uptight, old school over 21 bar band scene there. There was plenty of room for shock value, so I had already been running through the room at the Rat and there was a waitress with an entire tray of beers and pitchers looking at me like, “No! No! Please don’t knock this out of my hand!” Yes! Yes! Of course, the beer went flying everywhere, as did the glass. She chased me round and round the room and finally tackled me and began trying to claw my chest open and made a few scratches while all these other people piled on as well. In the meantime, I wiggled out of it and got back on stage and finished “Holiday in Cambodia.” That was the end of the first set. We were actually opening for a local powerhouse called The Neighborhoods who were a great band. They were kind of like the Jam crossed with the Dils. They were just amazing. Their later records don’t really do justice to them at all, but I have very fond memories of seeing them live.
“Holiday in Cambodia,” isn’t that what the lawsuit was about?
Well, the lawsuit was me not wanting that song, my favorite of all Dead Kennedys’ songs to be in a fucking Levi’s commercial. That’s not what our music was for then and it’s not what it’s for now. Every time a Stooge’s song comes up with a commercial, I get physically sick. I realize that Iggy and the others and me are just going to have to agree to disagree on that topic. It’s not going to prevent me from enjoying their music or their friendship, but I have very strong feelings against my favorite music being in commercials. Unfortunately, it was a perfect storm because there was indeed an accounting error on the part of Alternative Tentacles, for which I am profoundly sorry, but when WE, not THEY, figured out what it was, we paid them in full even going back much further than the law required. I felt this is my family. I have to do them right and it must be done honestly, so I paid them every penny. Their response was a completely dishonest scam where they got the same lawyers that represented Journey, Boston, the Doobie Brothers and Bill Graham and said this was a 15-year conspiracy to steal their money, which amounted to a whopping $1,500 per person per year. They claimed lack of promotion because they weren’t in Rolling Stone or Billboard all the time. It was just a complete scam with wholesale perjury top to bottom. It’s like the success of the Republican Party and the Supreme Court being bought out now. The people who are the most conniving and the meanest tend to win sometimes.
That’s true. This skateboarder Jason Jessee interviewed Wayne Kramer from the MC5 in the last issue of Juice, and Jason has this phrase, “Everything sacred will be raped.”
That’s a very good way of putting it. Yeah, I haven’t talked to Wayne in a long time. I gotta give him a call one of these days just to see what’s shaking. I think the part I really value about knowing Wayne Kramer is, not just being this lonely kid that was just about the only MC5 fan in my town growing up and then here I am on stage with the guy in Sweden playing “Kick out the Jams,” and what an emotional moment that was, but he’s also one of the few people with all kinds of deep wisdom about the MC5’s heyday and what went down in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He’s able to connect it and translate it. He can connect all the dots. Wayne’s wisdom knows no bounds. I really admire and respect him a lot.
His way of addressing certain issues puts everything into perspective.
He was able to hold onto and reclaim and rebuild his spirit after all that went down in his life. He’s a great profile of courage for anybody who doesn’t think they can pull themselves together.
I agree. On the same note of what Wayne is doing, he’s got a whole slew of things that he does. He’s got Jail Guitar Doors, which is about bringing music into the prisons and he also does a lot of soundtracks for TV shows. Is that something you’ve ever considered doing?
It wouldn’t be a priority. I mean I have some pretty neat movie and cartoon show scenes in my head, but I don’t know if they’ll ever find a home. Top priority has to be Guantanamo School of Medicine. As much as I wish I was Billy Childish and could crank out a hundred albums before I was 50, I just don’t have that kind of talent. I have a way of making things complicated sometimes, if you haven’t noticed, from the kinds of songs that turn up on my albums. I’ve never been really good at working fast in the studio.
What is the main focus of the lyrics?
Because of the Occupy Movement, a lot of the lyrics are focused on the here and now, although, I don’t think they’re going to be disposable a year from now. I’ve been pretty good about that over the years. The new album is geared towards what people are worried about. The tentative title of the album is White People and the Damage Done. If all goes well, it will include songs like “The Brown Lipstick Parade,” about how things are done behind closed doors, both in D.C. and San Francisco and many others like L.A. What else do we have on the agenda? “Shockupy.” That one’s pretty self-explanatory. “Barackstar O’Bummer” is another one that you can kind of guess at. What else? “Crapture” is about what happens if the doomsday people like Rick Perry and Sarah Palin turn out to be right and there go all these fundamentalist bigots flying up into the sky into heaven. Is it a bad thing if we’re left behind? No. We’ll finally get the planet to ourselves. It’s a good thing. Maybe all the hellfire on earth that they’re worried about has already been caused by their own oil companies, and what they’re really worried about is that they might be trapped on Earth with a bunch of black metal fans. Hell. Why not? It’s a good thing. Another one is called “John Dillinger” pointing out that the corporate media of the day branded him public enemy number one. People were worried about these small time bank robbers instead of going after the real public enemy number one, the Wall Street robber barons who caused the Depression in the first place, just like now. They should have gotten what Dillinger got. Let’s put it that way. No. That’s going too far since I’m anti-death penalty, but there is always room for gallows humor in my jello.
[Laughs] What do you think about the United States still having the death penalty?
It just shows how Americans are deliberately kept in the dark, not just by the increasingly dumbed-down corporate cartoon media, where it’s Romney and Gingrich all the time. Not even Tiger Wood’s penis rates a mention anymore, let alone stories on actual unemployed families and what it’s like for them to try and survive. Noooo. Most Americans don’t seem to realize that we’re one of the few countries left on earth that even has a death penalty. Once you get outside our borders, it’s one of the main reasons people look at us as being a bunch of barbarians. It really does not go over well. Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade suggested decades ago that everybody should have to go to school abroad for a year before they graduate from high school. I think that’s a really good idea.