Interview with Jello Biafra posted in Punk News on August 23, 2012
Jello Biafra was the singer of the infamous San Francisco band Dead Kennedys back in the late-'70s and early '80s, founded Alternative Tentacles which is one of the first independent label to emerged of the punk rock scene back in 1979, ran for mayor of San Francisco that same year, is a member of the Green Party of the United States and will put out two records in the upcoming months with his band Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medecine. The first one is an EP entitled SHOCK-U-PY and then there will be a full length, White People and the Damage Done which's release date is to be determined. Two records on which he has a lot to say about corporate America, banks and Obama. Starting August 22nd, he will go on tour with his band to play a few of dates in Canada and the United States. Punknews collaborator Alexis Charlebois had the chance to talk with Jello Biafra to discuss about these albums, some of the songs on them and many other things 'cause, you know, it's Jello Biafra.
[Ed. Note: Unlike most interviews this piece opens with Biafra asking a question, not Charlebois.]
Are you recording?
Yes of course.
'Cause I'm not doing it twice. Don't be like SPIN Magazine and get a silent recording. The sad thing is that it was me and Ice-T in the same room right after the Rodney King riot and it was a very interesting conversation and we had to recreate the conversation over a phone interview and it wasn't nearly as good. I had a t-shirt on mentioning George Bush's involvement with drug running and SPIN airbrushed the image out of the photo. I don't know if it was to protect their beloved Bush or if they had a ''no drug'' policy or something. The war on drug was basically a war on who controls the drug. The Bush family has a lot to answer in that department.
Do you think the Bush [administration] will ever go on trial?
I doubt it. I don't know if there was ever allegation about George W. There were allegations during the Contragate scandal about both daddy Bush and Jeb Bush. A lot of drug had been running through Florida on cigarettes boats at the time.
You have a new record coming out pretty soon.
Actually there's two of them. The SHOCK-U-PY EP is coming out before the presidential cartoon election and the full album White People and the Damage Done will drop early next year, when I'll finally get the damn thing done.
Do you want the LP to be ready for the elections?
I hoped but it isn't working out that way so we're doing SHOCK-U-PY first and one of the song called ''Barackstar O'Bummer'' is of the album and on the EP. I'm doing that for the sake of vinyl because a 78 minute CD has to come out on double vinyl. Back when vinyl was king you very rarely had people putting out double album unless it was a double live album or if you had an ego as big as Springsteen or The Clash. Now because of the possible length of a CD there is more and more double LPs coming out that probably shouldn't be double LPs.
Do you think that Barack Obama ever read your open letter?
Hum…I doubt it. I got caught up too; he seemed like the cool guy on TV and a good friend of mine who I met through Punkvoter in the 2004 campaign was working on the Obama campaign in 2008 as one of his internet gurus. He was the guy who realized that the Shepard Fairey HOPE poster had to be used during the campaign. So I called Scott and said ''Hey! When is Obama going to hang out with me? I got a lot I want to say to him!''. He was not sure if he had to laugh about it. Instead he just told me to do like everybody else and send my recommendations to Change.Gov. A lot of people were sending Twitter sized sentences; you know the first grade reader attention span type of stuff. But I wrote something and held back on my usual sarcasm in case somebody up there did read it. But what came back was just typical comments like ''That dude's too old. Why don't he just shut up'' and stuff like that and as usual people were too chicken shit to sign their own name.
Can you say that you were deceived by the guy or you knew from the start that he was not going to be really different than any other president?
Hum…I had little hope but I didn't vote for him. I voted for the Green party once again. I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want and get it. The reason is also that I had kept an eye on Obama's voting record in the Senate and it wasn't too good. Every single part of the Bush agenda going easy on illegal spying and holding people without trial, Obama always voted the way Bush's people told him to. Human rights, banning torture and not holding people in prison for no reason especially because of something they said and the color of their skin are very big issued with me. Unfortunately, Obama, has been pretty bad on those. It's just like when the first Bush got kicked out and people were so relieved. Again the marketing for Bill Clinton was, ''The man from Hope''. Hope, Arkansas where he did not really actually grew up, he grew up in Hot Springs, a resort town. So the people were like ''The Bush is gone, now we can sleep easy!'' and they just went to sleep. It was not the Reagan and Bush team but Clinton adopted measures that had cruel cutting backs on the benefits for poor people and the unemployed and there was a further explosion of the homeless population including a lot of families with children. It was Clinton who deregulated the telecommunications laws so people like Clear Channel and FOX News could swallow everything and have nothing but right-wing borderline neo-Nazis doing talk shows with nobody allowed to reply. And of course it was Clinton, not the Bushes or Reagan, who planted the seeds for the economic collapse by taking away the laws that were passed during the Great Depression to prevent commercial banks from investing other people's money in the casino world of investment in the stock market. There were walls put up against that and Clinton let them come down. The same thing is happening now with Obama. The people are so relieved that they don't have to see W's face on the screen every night that they're not watching carefully. Clinton did that stuff behind the scene and with Obama it's worse and worse laws against human rights and more and more illegal unconstitutional spying. The exact kind of shit that got Nixon run out of office in the '70s but it's legal now and it gets all the Bush mobs off the hook. That's the sneaky shit that people aren't keeping an eye on that is going to haunt us for the rest of our days. It also hasn't helped that when the economy collapsed he surrounded himself with the same neoliberals who helped plant the seeds to wreck the whole thing when they worked for Clinton and of course their first duty was to save the banks at all cost. All that money could have gone directly to the home owners to pay the banks and keep their home but that's not the way it was done.
Why do you think that social movements haven't been able to force the Obama administration to adopt social politics inspired by the New Deal?
I think in part it's what I was already talking about unfortunately. ''The Bush is gone now we can sleep easy so let's just go to sleep'', let MoveOn.Org do the work; let the Barack star wave his magic as long as we're happy. If there had been a Million Uninsured March on Washington during the healthcare debate we would have a public option by now closer to the Canadian system where it's not just insurance gate keepers and racketeers making a mockery of the disease industrial complex to rip off everybody's money. What I just said can be found in the lyrics at the end of the ''Barackstar O'Bummer'' song. ''He let us down or did we let ourselves down? Oprah-in-Chief will do the work while we sit at home reminiscing all about our lost youth on Facebook.''
Do you think that social media can be a tool for people to organize?
Oh yeah! I mean it's definitely one of the better sides of social media. Like any new tool social media have upsides and downsides and it depend if people use it intelligently. One of my ex-girlfriends and Klaus Flouride, bassist for the Dead Kennedys, both put up a really dirty blog about how of an evil guy they thought I was and then all the people who had nothing better to do that day than reading that shit commented to say things like ''I always knew he was a dick'', ''That's terrible, what a horrible person'' without questioning whether the person who put up the blog was telling the truth. People have to apply the same kind of cynicism they have toward commercial TV news. You have to apply that to the net too. Don't just question authority, don't just question Biafra, question bloggers too. So yeah, I think social networking is a good thing as long as you don't get so caught up in it that you forget how to have conversations with people and how to drive your own car and crash into somebody 'cause your texting.
I also get a little weird out by people who are more interested in collecting their Facebook friends and showing stuff on their wall and calling it a life. Living in a world of imaginary friends was considered a mental illness. I'm also concerned that social networking is creating a new kind of social pressure on kids who have to get the right friends and to do so they have to market themselves the right way. You are who you advertise yourself to be and I don't think that 12 years old kid should be worrying about that kind of stuff. I'm just glad I grew up with a strong bullshit detector. By the time I was in High School everybody gets beat up by the fashion police, you got to be built like a sport star or Britney Spears or you're nothing but I didn't care. It was bullshit to me and I said ''OK, I'd rather be myself thank you very much bye bye." Social networking can be a good thing for that too because when a kid is the only weird misfit in his town or school, or at least he feel like he is, he can meet somebody over the net from another town and find someone like him instead of writing a letter to Jello Biafra moaning about his situation with his parents and his school and wanting advices. It's much better when they can find like minded people who might even be in their own town. That's one of the really good side of social networking.
On your upcoming record you have a song call ''The Mid-East Peace Process.'' I guess it's a song inspired by the trip you made to Israel and Palestinian territories last summer. I know you wrote a very long story about it that is up on the Alternative Tentacles website. Can you sum it up for us?
Actually the song was written before that. I can't really sum it up because it's so complicated. I would just refer people to that. It's a combination on visiting the place and then being caught up in a cross fire and then becoming public enemy number 1 for some element of the boycott movement. Some of whom were very diplomatic, very rational and made very strong points and some of the others were clearly the kind of fanatics who are a very big part of the problem. Of course there is plenty of that on the other side like Netanyahu and the Israeli settlers' movement and the American just support them. There's not a lot of detail in the song. It's more like a primal scream of a plea for peace which is a very hard thing to come by when on both side people in their own family may have been needlessly murdered by the other side. How do you overcome that? I'm just grateful that hasn't happen to me. To me the song was more about the innocent civilians caught in a cross fire.
Do you think people there will ever live in peace?
I can only hope but I'm not optimistic.
I just finished reading a book by Joe Sacco entitled Footnotes in Gaza. After reading it you can pretty much only be on the side of the Palestinians people and not see anything positive to Israel's politics. Is it the feeling you had when you went there?
Hum…not a 100% black and white no. To automatically assume that every Israeli person or every Jewish person is automatically evil and bad is just as bad as assuming every single Arabians, Persians, Palestinians person is a terrorist. It's not that black and white.
Many international relations experts are predicting a war between Israel and Iran in a not so distant future. What do you think it would mean for that region?
Hey…I hope it doesn't mean World War III frankly. My guess is that our military would much rather have Israel be the target for any attack on Iran. Iran would be a much more difficult country to try to conquer than Iraq. There's way more people, they hate our guts way more, there's a lot of mountains so it's pretty much impossible for tanks to advance. It also is scary that the front man in Iran who doesn't really have final say, but the so-called President Ahmadinejad seems to be a doomsday cult guy himself [Ed. Note: The "final say" Bifafra is refereeing to is Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, who serves as the highest ranking political and religious authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran] .
These people just scare the shit out of me. Just like the ones who have run for president as Republicans and who are assuming greater and greater positions of power are also strong believers in Armageddon. Sarah Palin is one, Rick Perry is another so what happen if one of them is in charge and decide to push some button and start with Iran just to see what happen. On a morning talk show Sarah Palin said: ''Oh yeah! Israel needs to expand its settlement movement as quickly as possible because there's going to be a lot more Jews moving there soon.'' That's Rapture talk, that's end-time talk and nobody called her on it. That's the whole reason why the American Christian right put so much money and support into the Israeli settlers. They couldn't care less about the settlers themselves, they just believe that the Jews have to establish a certain territory for their fundamentalist Christian Messiah to come back. The people in Israel told me that the settler people know that and that they take the money anyway because they think they're just using the Christians.
Recently your label Alternative Tentacles re-released Kill from the Heart and These People, two albums of The Dicks first released in the mid-'80s. Why was it important for you to make them available again?
Oh, I mean to me it's some of the best punk music ever made as well as some of the most courageous. Kill from the Heart is the first of the two and is with the Austin, Texas line-up where The Dicks started. When they signed a song called ''Anti-Klan'' they're going up against the real thing including calling out the fact that there were police officers in the Klu Klux Klan. I had to do an interview two days ago with the LA Times about so-called hate rock and punk's connection to that neo-Nazi who killed all those people in the Sikh temple near Milwaukee. I had to tell them that those people are not nearly as big a threat as people who go around killing people of color wearing a police uniform knowing that they can get away with it and the numbers have been going up for 30 years. Neo-Nazis who know enough not to admit they're neo-Nazis and then get a badge and a gun and go to town that's the really scary stuff. So yeah, even songs that sounds as basic as ''No Nazi's Friend'', ''Anti Klan'' and ''The Dicks Hate the Police'' there's a lot going on behind that 'cause it was not the most tolerant time and the most tolerant place for openly gay people either. The Dicks were very very courageous and Gary Floyd is one of the best vocalists to ever come out of punk. He's a great blues voice, he just happened to sing punk before he went more back to his roots with Sister Double Happiness and the later Gary Floyd Blues Band. He's soulful and when he signs something he means it man.
I have a question that may sound sad for you. Do you think that one day Alternative Tentacles won't be a viable label anymore and that you're going to have to put an end to it?
We are already not a viable label. It doesn't make money it loses money, and I'm running out of money to lose. Some really great labels just pulled the plug over the past five years because of the collapse of the music industry. That means I kind of have two opinions about file sharing. I think that the RIAA running around and suing kids and single moms just to see how much they can extort from them and using that as their main source of income getting 100 millions of dollars from suing people and not giving a penny to the artists, that's mafia as far as I'm concerned. But at the same time I wish people would be a little more conscious of what file they share. With major labels it doesn't really bother me because these labels themselves use every trick in the book to try to rip their artists off from the inside.
We had some very good bands on AT who break up too soon because they couldn't make a go off things and one of the reasons might have been all the rage on the internet that made that hardly anybody was buying the album. It's much harder to sustain a band now. Even though this band is getting pretty much the same guaranties Dead Kennedys got way back in the '80s everything else has gone way way up. Rent as multiplied by about six fold in the San Francisco Bay area, gasoline as at least tripled so it gets really hard. It's even harder to do if you have family obligations and student loan hanging over your head. There's far more economic pressure to stay at a straight corporate job you don't like and hardly ever take a vacation let alone go on tour with the band because otherwise you might be unemployed for a very long time, possibly the rest of your life.
A lot of people probably file share because they too probably don't have any money to buy music. But if you do, please think of people in the underground community who are just trying to survive. Not everybody that works a 9 to 5 straight job as time for their art after work. They might be physically exhausted or have kids who want them to play with them or something like that. So the idea that the musician or any artist is evil for wanting to be paid a little bit for their work, most of the people who have that stupid attitude I noticed are people with well paid .com jobs. It's easy for Courtney Love to say that everybody should be grateful to work for tips when she was born super wealthy and then as lived off other people who were super wealthy. Not everybody has that.
Courtney, Courtney, Courtney…I just saw today that MCA from the Beastie Boys had made some arrangements before dying to make sure that a Beastie Boys song was never going to be used in a commercial and I think it's amazing and…
Yeah, come to think of it there hasn't been any Beastie Boys stuff in a commercial. ''Fight for Your Rights'' and ''No Sleep till Brooklyn'' would totally fit but I don't think I've ever heard those in a commercial so more power to MCA and anybody else who takes that stance. I totally applause John Densmore for blocking The Doors' ''Break On Through To the Other Side'' from being used in a shitload of Cadillac commercials. That was going to be their campaign, Break on through, so instead they called it Break through and used ''Rock and Roll'' by Led Zeppelin and there was so many of those ads for so long that I got sick of the song itself. When Bob Seeger's ''Like a Rock'' was on all those damn truck commercials he played it on stage and got booed. My lesson was easy and I got sick inside when a Stooges song came on a Nike commercial. I thought ''Easy lesson man, don't let it happen to you'.'
I could never imagine that others ex-members of my own band would be so hell bent on selling out to TV commercial. They sued the shit out of me to walk away with everything and abuse it anyway they want. Sure there was an accounting error on Alternative Tentacles part for which I am very sorry and for which we paid them in full dating back to something like 15 years before they sued. I'm still as proud as I've ever been of Dead Kennedys' music and our legacy and all the cool shit we did together but I'm just embarrassed to know those guys now. People are asking me to do reunion shows but I have a list of reasons a mile long why I don't want to do that. I'm not a big fan of reunion but when I saw The Stooges it was not lost on me how much it would mean to people to see the real Dead Kennedys line-up back together but for that everybody has to be willing to get along and treat the other people with respect and they have no intention of doing that.
Did they ever asked you to do a tour?
Not directly, they have a lawyer do it. We haven't talk in a dozen years. In their hearts they've become Republicans and I just wouldn't do something like that unless we can bring back the real thing. In a way getting me back into the band would be their worst nightmare, like make them rehearse. When people tell me that I owe it to the fans to regurgitate nothing but old music with the people I used to play with, that's totally the opposite of what punk and Dead Kennedys means to me. The true spirit of the whole thing is to keep going, keep moving and make more new stuff. Nobody was more cynical than the original punks about nostalgia and retro because of all the rage on TV and people started to get nostalgic in goofy ass ways for the sixties and they were thinking, ''Yeah, that will never happen to us.'' But now it seems like punks are just about the least choosy when it comes to nostalgia. Sometimes there's just one guy left from the original band and sometimes there aren't any in the case of the Spanish Angelic Upstarts tour I heard about. But people went anyway, what were they thinking they were going to see!?! What kind of spirit were they going to get? They just wanted to be spooned fed something they already know that comforts them just like older people get when they get to see the Eagles. That's not what I'm here for, sorry. It's not as if the people who come to the Guantanamo School of Medicine shows wanting nothing but old Dead Kennedys songs don't leave with a smile on their face once they've heard the new songs. It's not like I've forgot how to write this shit.
Earlier this year 3 women who are part of the band Pussy Riot performed an anti-Putin prayer in a cathedral in Moscow. They've been charged with hooliganism and risk a few years in prison. Do you think it means that punk rock is still a threat?
Well obviously it is to fucking Putin. For him anybody who disagrees with him I guess is a threat. Russia is rapidly evolving into a fascist dictatorship and unfortunately that may have been part of a design. There was a great cartoon after the communist fell and the economy was collapsing over there and a Russian was lamenting to an American saying ''Look at what's happening to our country, everything's getting looted and wrecked. Capitalism isn't working!'' and the American smuggling smiles and say ''No, capitalism IS working.'' But, I'm hoping that there's enough world outcry about what's happening with Pussy Riot that they're going to let them go. I think the attitude of the Russian government will keep being that nobody can tell them what to do and that they can send anybody to Siberia just like Stalin did any time they want. They're trying to make an example out of Pussy Riot to discourage more Pussy Riot. But Pussy Riot wasn't a band so much as activists pranksters and they whore mask which also meant that anybody in any town can put up a mask and call themselves Pussy Riot and do their own prank which is part of the beauty of the whole thing and part of what I think was scarring the authorities enough to send people to prison and two of the three defendants reportedly even denied that they were even in Pussy Riot.
Let's say that punk is 35 years old...
I don't think we can. The spirit goes back far further than that of course. Now they call '60s punk, '60s garage but there was some really wild shit. Some writers were calling the Stooges punk several years before the Pistols broke through. And of course those '60s band were inspired by people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and the early Elvis Presley. I'm glad we no longer live in an era where just wiggling your legs on TV scares the authority almost as much as Pussy Riot has.
Was punk meant to grow up?
Hum…I think it was meant to expend. What people forget is that hardly anybody was listening to it in the '80s. For everybody who was digging Black Flag there were another 10,000 people who were more interested in the Eagles or Saturday Night Fever. Originally punk had to be simple, raw, and crude and it had to scare people. It was the perfect music for the time. It may even have kept me from committing suicide who knows. So basically what it did and why so many people from so many musical fields come from punk is because it brought back the spirit of rock 'n roll. Something that had been largely eradicate by major labels by the mid 1970s.
Do you think that punk rock still scares people in America?
It depends. I'm a little disappointed that the cycle didn't repeat itself 10 or 15 years later in some new extreme form of rock 'n roll that scared even me. I keep waiting. Instead it's some kind of re-interpretation of what has come before. You know, '70s hard-rock, rebirth of stoner rock and hardcore being a more fast extreme kind of punk. So to answer the original question, I think that sometimes it does. I mean, even if I put up something as diplomatic as an open letter to Barack Obama and people say they're tired of hearing that thing, that I'm too old and that I should just shut up they're also expressing fear are they not? They don't like being reminded of this shit and violating their comfort zone. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is what I was born to do. Is that the spirit of punk or the original side anti-war hippie movement which I was also down with as a kid before punk happened, I don't know.
I don't know if you've heard about it but lately there was a very large student strike in the Province of Quebec to protest a major increase in tuitions fees.
I've only heard little bits about that, it's largely blacked up of the news maybe because they don't want people getting ideas down here knowing that this close to the United States there's direct actions on this level.
What do you think of a free higher education?
I think it should a basic human right by law just like the right to healthcare. In many countries that is a human right by law. Here we have all these clowns from both political parties saying that America is so behind in education compared to the Chinese, Dutch, German and Ukrainian but they discourage people from going to school by slapping them with student loans. They don't see the connection and it amazes me.
Other countries want a healthy workforce, they're happy to pay to make sure you stay healthy and see a doctor. Other countries want an educated work force they realize that it's actually better even for greedy businessman if they got educated workers. Not America. So, I think that if the students and their supporters don't continue to fight the jacking up of fees the fees are just going to go up more and more and more because every time people increase the fees as much as they think they can get away with. That's the whole right wing corporate way of doing things: draw a line in the dirt and then cross it, draw another one and cross it again and again and again. Because in the long run I suspect that if all the conservatives wet dreams came true in Canada education would be completely privatize right down the elementary school like they're trying to do in America. I think this whole mentality that really has been pushed on Americans ever since Reagan got in is that nothing is worth doing unless there's a profit in it, that we shouldn't care about community and each other; we should only care about ourselves and that schooling and maintaining the roads or whatever is not worth doing unless there's a profit in it and it's such bullshit. Getting people to see outside of that bubble is getting harder with each passing years.