INTERVIEW BY RAY FLORES
INTRODUCTION BY RAY FLORES
PHOTO BY JAY BLAKESBERG
I have no idea why Jello Biafra calls himself Jello Biafra, I forgot to ask him all the times I’ve been around him. But, I was first introduced to Biafra back in about the mid 80’s at a club in San Francisco called Mabuhay Gardens. I thought he was phenomenal. Needless to say, the Dead Kennedys are one of the most influential bands of all time. Jello is an amazing musician, poet, philosopher, politician, ecologist and preserver of human individuality and human rights. He really needs no introduction, he’s Jello Biafra.
How are you doing, Biafra? I’ve been better. I can understand. I heard about all the weird lawsuits?
The lying worked.
What’s up with that?
Greed! They just don’t give a shit about anything the band stood for.
“PEOPLE NEED TO START TAKING THE BULL BY THE HORNS AND RECLAIMING CONTROL OF THEIR OWN LIVES AND NOT FEEDING INTO THE CORPORATE FORCES THAT FEED THEM BULLSHIT ALL THE TIME ON TV. THAT MEANS NOT JUST SHOWING UP AND VOTING. IT MEANS DON’T HATE THE MEDIA, BECOME THE MEDIA.”
Not just that but the courts themselves siding, because of such a stupid thing like you didn’t promote it or something.
The jury had down right contempt for punk rock grass roots ethics. Their expert witnesses said ‘well, you should have had videos on VH1’. They didn’t know any better. That’s how fraudulent the whole thing was!
It’s amazing. So, you’re from Colorado?
Boulder, Colorado. Born, raised and escaped.
When did you start writing songs?
Well, I’ve had pieces of music in my head since I was a small child, some of which wound up as Dead Kennedys’ songs. I didn’t really start writing music or lyrics or turning them into songs until I went to San Francisco.
When did you conceive the Dead Kennedys?
I think we played our first gig right after I turned 20, but we started rehearsing when I was still 19. That was July ’78. We played our first show after rehearsing for one week.
It was pretty much instant fame for you.
There was a notoriety and an audience early on. The name didn’t hurt and my stage behavior didn’t hurt, either. Plus, there was already a thriving punk scene, through the hard work and sweat of the other bands. Crime, The Nuns and Mary Monday came first. Then the next batch was the Adventures, the Dils, the Mutants, the Sleepers, UXA, Negative Trend and the Off. The Off got us our first show.
Where was that?
Well, they were at Mabuhay Gardens and that was the other key element of having such a thriving scene to walk into. It wasn’t like in Colorado where it was over 21 bar bands, where you had to play four sets a night, mostly covers. This was get on stage, play 30 minutes of your own stuff, blow the doors out, leave and the next artist came on. The person responsible for that primarily was Dirk Dirtson, who booked the punk shows at the Mabuhay Gardens. He was important especially for two reasons. Number one he was willing to give Crime and The Nuns a chance, when no one else would touch anything like that and, number two, he also made sure that the shows were all ages so people my age and younger could get in, even though we weren’t legally old enough to drink. There weren’t even under 21 shows at all. I mean, we weren’t just up against a hostile rock establishment, we were up against the whole adult rock stereo.
Did your family support your career?
More or less. They would rather I was doing other things, like going to school. I got money out of them in the beginning because I was going to acting school, so they were willing to put up with that, especially because my late teenagerhood had been so rough. They figured it was either pay him to move half way across the country or pay for a mental hospital or a funeral. The choice was obvious. They grew to respect what I was doing because I stuck to my beliefs and they didn’t always agree with them. I stuck to my beliefs and didn’t sponge money off of them and I didn’t move back home when I was 25 or 30, so they’re down with it.
Who influenced you in the early days?
Boy, that’s really hard, because my tastes are really diverse and I’ve always had encyclopedic knowledge about music I like. I got into ’60s punk all because of one night in 1965, when I was seven years old. My dad was fumbling around on the radio trying to get me to go to sleep and blundered into a rock station and I was like ‘yeah, leave it there’, and I quickly decided I was way more into the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and The Raiders and The Music Machine, than I was The Beatles. “Talk Talk” was a big hit at the time and in some ways it might be one of the best songs ever written. I mean there’s so many cool parts in there, it’s so hard-hitting. I think about three killer guitar leads all done in under two minutes. We were heavily influenced by The Music Machine. In fact, they were our idol band in our previous band called The Unclaimed. We emanated them down to their costumes and their black gloves.
I didn’t know The Unclaimed had the gloves?
Well, we took them off after awhile, because it was too much. But we kept the black sweat shirts and the haircuts and the stove pipe pants and so forth. Then as I got older, I always gravitated towards the hard stuff, Born To Be Wild, then Black Sabbath. I went through a big Alice Cooper phase, which was probably a major influence on my writing style later, especially after Plastic Surgery Disasters. Then, when I was 15, I discovered## the used record store. There was one a couple of blocks from my high school, so I went there everyday after school and slowly but surely listened to every single thing in the store. I was so fed up with bad mellow adult rock radio that played The Eagles over and over again. I couldn’t stand that, so I began getting into stuff through trial and error. Plus, there was this rock critic for the Denver Post, named Jerrid Johnson who did all these capsule reviews of albums and at one point he said that he thought Paul Simon and The Bee Gee’s were the greatest composers of the 20th century. Meanwhile, whenever he’d review something like Alice Cooper or Black Sabbath, he had encyclopedic knowledge of other bands like them that he hated and so it was like Black Sabbath was almost as bad as The MC 5. So, my immediate reaction was ‘God, I gotta check out The MC 5!’ So, I got into them and Iggy and The Stooges. I was one of about three people in my high school who liked that stuff, but for some of us, good taste is timeless. Plus, this used record store would throw anything they didn’t think they could sell quickly into the free box. I cleaned out the free box every single day for three years. I got the 13th Floor Elevator, Naz, Seeds – all the ’60s stuff. I took it all home.
These are bands that you consider ’60s punk?
Well, I didn’t hear that term until about ’75. There was a little zine out of L.A. that referred to that stuff as ’60s punk. It was an early record collector magazine. Then the term punk surfaced again when describing like the Live at CBGB’s album. Then, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols started using the term punk and it exploded. For a brief time, anything that was an alternative to everything that was horrible about the ’70s, everything from the Talking Heads to Survival Research Lab t#o Richard Hell and DMZ, was all considered punk. Then the major labels and corporate taste makers decided the last thing they wanted was more ’60s style rebellion, so from now on new wave is good and punk is bad. We will accept Blondie and The Cars into our ranks, but quickly people like The Dead Boys were dropped from major labels. The last true punk band to get a major label contract was The Dickies. Then there was a ten year drought until Husker Du got signed to Warner. Supposedly, one of The Dickies had an uncle that worked at AandM or they wouldn’t have been signed either.
Who else influenced you?
Well, obviously The Stooges were important, Hawk Wind was important for the space rock element. All the ’60s punk bands. The Sonics I found later and that was pretty important. And The Ventures, I had a phase through that. I was pulling surf instrumentals out of thrift stores long before people were getting hip to it because I thought they might be ’60s garage unknowns. Then when I played them I decided I liked that too. When I decided to look for that, I started buying rockabilly and RandB by mistake. I realized later on that a lot of times I’d go back to Colorado to hide from all the mayhem in San Francisco so I could get songs written. I was listening to no punk rock whatsoever but gleaning influences and ideas from everything else. When I wrote Plastic Surgery Disasters, the main stuff I was listening to was Bauhaus, Les Baxture and The Groundhogs.
I see these commercials on TV with all these old songs; surf music and ’60s punk. You’ve been approached to have your music on commercials. Can you tell us about that?#
Let me start by saying, I’m utterly disgusted with the former members of the Dead Kennedys. I can’t believe they would turn around and piss on everything the band stood for and reveal themselves to be such utterly greedy and rotten people. Basically they sued the shit out of me using a lawyer who’d represented Bill Graham, wanting damages for not being that kind of corporate rock. What triggered the falling out was my refusal to let “Holiday In Cambodia” be used in a Levi’s commercial – Dockers, no less. I mean, to me, that would be the worst possible stab in the back I could give to everybody who’s supported our music and the vision behind it all these years. To turn around and say ‘ha, ha. I didn’t mean anything I said in those songs. We were just after quick money.’
How can they sue you if those were your songs?
They claimed that I signed them all over to them and, even though there was no written transfer of ownership, the jury fell for it. They also claimed that they wrote all of my songs and that I owed them damages for lack of promotion using this axiom that if X amount more money had been spent on advertising, X amount of extra albums automatically would have been sold. And anybody knows that’s horse shit. So, I’ve been hit for all these damages for albums that don’t even exist. Their expert witness on the promotion was from Grateful Dead Records and he even claimed that I should’ve been out actively pitching our stuff to VH1. I can’t believe those guys would pull a stunt like that. I’m having a hard time trying to preserve my pride in the music and the good memories and separate it from what rotten back-stabbing people they’ve turned out to be. Now, we have to appeal it, which is gonna cost a fuck load of time and money that I’d rather be spending on creating new music.