Jello Biafra: The Protest Issue Bonus Interview
Prankster in Chief
Oct 05, 2012 Issue #42 - The Protest Issue
Arguably punk rock’s most tireless political shit-stirrer, Jello Biafra has spent the last 34 years mocking the absurd spectacle of American politics. From his stint as lead vocalist for hardcore pioneers Dead Kennedys through his numerous solo projects and second career as a spoken word artist, Biafra has successfully merged the worlds of art and activism under the umbrella of performance art and comedy. Along the way, he mounted a tongue-in-cheek bid for San Francisco mayor (built on a platform of legalizing squatting in abandoned buildings, making police officers run for election in the neighborhoods they patrolled, and requiring businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits) and came in second for the Green Party’s presidential nomination in 2000. But where many of his contemporaries drifted out of the political fray or mellowed with age, Biafra hasn’t moderated one bit, still raining down fire on Republicans and Democrats from a staunchly left-of-center perspective. Now, with his Guantanamo School of Medicine, he is readying White People and the Damage Done, an album that ridicules our society’s fascination with celebrity, celebrates the Occupy Wall Street movement, and saves some of his sharpest barbs for President Obama.
(Biafra was interviewed for, and is quoted in, two articles in our Protest Issue, one on Barack Obama and another on the challenges of writing protest songs. This is a bonus web-exclusive interview, featuring portions of the interview not included in the print magazine. For more of our interview with Biafra pick up The Protest Issue. You can buy a copy directly from us here. Or you can download the digital version for iPads, Macs, PCs, and Android devices here. )
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Looking at the lyrics on your new album, it seems like the last couple years have provided you a lot of material as a songwriter.
Jello Biafra: They always do. Sometimes I wonder whether I should quit writing these worst-case scenario songs, because they keep coming true.
Does it feel strange that the things you wrote 30 years ago are still relevant and that the same things keep happening?
Yeah, I’ve tried to make the songs so that they’re interesting and showcase my warped sense of humor and sarcasm but that the overall point that I’m trying to make will last beyond the time when I first come out with the song. I learned that with the original “California Uber Alles” about Jerry Brown, of course, and lo and behold two years later something [Ronald Reagan] much worse stormed into the White House, took power from above and below, thus, the update of that song called “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” Sure, Jerry Brown was a potential New Age dictator. I was putting two and two together, coming from a town overrun with weirdoes and cults, namely Boulder, Colorado. I thought of it all by myself, but it turned out to be wrong. Thus, “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” and another “California Uber Alles” update about Schwarzenegger. By then it had become one of those classic pieces of American folk music, where different people were updating it in different ways. Michael Franti, with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, before he was in Spearhead, did one about [California governor] Pete Wilson. Attila the Stockbroker did one about Margaret Thatcher. Several different people turned in lyrics about George W. Bush and a few about his creepy father, as well.
That must have been pretty gratifying to see a song like that live beyond the moment in which it was written.
Yeah. And the music ain’t too bad, either. One of the few I came up with just noodling around on an instrument, on my roommate’s bass, and there it was. The chorus was already in my head, kind of a little harmony to Japanese kabuki music that my dad used to listen to when I was a kid, and I commandeered that record in my hippie pothead days before punk happened. I thought, “Wow, cool. If only George Harrison had gotten into this instead.”
So when you write a song, what sort of response are you hoping for from an audience?
Blow ‘em away with the music and warp their brains with the lyrics. You know, I’m not trying to be a guru or whatever, but I don’t mind infecting people’s brains with what I deem necessary in hopes of spreading some positive disease.
Do you like the idea that some of your listeners will have to do research to know what you’re writing about? You do put some fairly obscure references in your songs.
I’ll occasionally put something in there that only one or two other people are going to get, but if it brings a chuckle to my face, why not? I like art that inspires people to think and preferably get off their ass and do something creative and provocative with the inspiration. I’m still blown away by how many people half my age or younger took the time to research where my name came from.
When I was growing up in the 1990s, I had to look up a lot of the names you were mentioning just to get an idea of what those Dead Kennedys songs were about.
Well, that’s the idea. Here’s something I think is interesting that you should also think is interesting. Check it out. The only person who ever objected to the name “Jello Biafra” to my face was Jesse Jackson. “So, does this have anything to do with the Ibo on the Yoruba?” and I said, “Yes, it does.” And he said, “Oh. Interesting.” And he pirouetted on his heel and walked away. For the record, I kind of liked how the two images collide in the mind. One of the ultimate plastic sugary American products with what was then the symbol of mass starvation and genocide, namely, the southwestern part of Nigeria, where the Ibo people tried to succeed and formed the Republic of Biafra, and it was the subject of rescue missions that involved Kurt Vonnegut and others. Vietnam took up a lot of people’s time and brain cells, but this was going on, too, and the Nigerian army, with some British and a bit of American help, shut off the Biafran food supply, and many people, especially children, starved to death before they surrendered. And this was before our mass media was dumbed down and corporatized. Even the three TV networks that existed—NBC, CBS, and ABC—were trying to out-scoop each other. Bloody soldiers from Vietnam—they weren’t forbidden to be run. They were right there on the evening news, as were the race riots in the United States and the mass starvation in Biafra. It was gut-wrenching, but I think it was good that it was gut-wrenching. It kept people more aware and interested and they gave a shit, basically. They gave a shit about something than the Kardashian creatures and the latest adventures of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods’ penis. People knew what [the name] meant then. I liked the surreal way it collided. So I stuck with it.
Would you say the American media is currently at its low point?
Since I’ve been alive, yeah. I’m so goddamn old—I’m 54—that I remember when newspapers and television and radio and zines were actually trying to dig up and report news and took pride in the quality of their work, without some corporate editors up above telling them, “No, no, no. You can’t talk about that. No, no. You’ve got to stretch out this story and not even tell people about that one.” This has all been chronicled in various editions of a book called The Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian. I’m so damn old I remember when there were actual differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. I even remember when they went into their political conventions without a clear nominee, so it was rocking reality TV instead of a bullshit coronation ceremony.
It seems like the role of an artist is more important now than ever before.
It’s always important. It always has been. Why do you think [Chilean dictator, Augusto] Pinochet hauled out the folksinger Victor Jara and executed him right away in the first round of mass murders, or should we say “American-sanctioned mass murders?” I think people, in general, pay far more serious attention to what artists say about different situations than they do politicians. As Stevie Van Zandt pointed out, politicians have to run around saying different things to different people, depending on how they think they’re going to get money out of them. But an artist can say what they truly believe to everybody, no matter who the audience is.
When you write a song now, do you think about the fact that people could be listening to it 30 years later?
Yeah, I’m conscious of that. Much more so after Dead Kennedys toured England for the first time, and that was our first exposure to really big crowds that were into what we were doing and had really looked at the lyrics carefully. Some of them were really objecting to the gallows humor and graphic violence of songs like “I Kill Children” and “Funland at the Beach.” I took that into account, but it didn’t lead me to self-censor to the most bleeding heart of liberals. But it was something that I took into account. OK, now that my audience is international, how am I going to talk about different things? Like the song “This Could Be Anywhere,” there are references both to, say, American suburbia or Orange County or the suburbs of Virginia Beach, where life is incredibly cheap for some reason. And the high-rises of the east end of London figure in, as well.
When you’re writing a song, do you think about how it might play an educational role for a listener?
Well, it puts more pressure on me, the artist, and I think it’s good pressure in a way. I have a legacy to live up to, and I’ve got to make sure my stuff is good. I realized early on after Dead Kennedys broke up that I could keep cranking out the same stuff and end up like the other guys, singing “Holiday in Cambodia” in titty bars in the central valley of California, or the equivalent thereof. Spoken word kind of landed in my lap. It wound up being a major focus, in part, because I realized there was another gift here I didn’t realize existed, and in some ways it’s having a deeper political and educational impact than my music ever has. It was and is a way to get some of that out. But I see everything I’ve ever done—Dead Kennedys, Lard, the albums with The Melvins, D.O.A, NoMeansNo, the rootsy country-ish one with Mojo Nixon, Tumor Circus, Guantanamo School of Medicine, and the spoken word activity—it’s all part of one big whole. In a way, both musically and lyrically, they all connect.
Do you see your musical work as being a part of the tradition of singer/songwriters like Woody Guthrie on through to bands like The Fugs?
Maybe slightly closer to The Fugs, because they were more cynical and had a little more in mind to fuck shit up, but let’s not forget that Woody had “This Machine Kills Fascists” right there on his guitar. Thus, you didn’t see him cast on something like Showboat or a Busby Berkeley musical. Even Jimmie Rodgers got put in movies lip-synching his songs, but Woody never got that! My songs are a little less sing-along oriented, because my main musical interest isn’t that strain of folk. You get that from time to time. “I Won’t Give Up” was meant to be a sing-along thing, and we’re reviving a song off of Prairie Home Invasion, the album I did with Mojo Nixon, called “Burgers of Wrath.” Now there’s a more punked out version of it that’s going to be on the new album, White People and the Damage Done. I always really liked that song, and it works really well as a punk rock song, too, and I’m not going to write a better song about unemployment and homelessness. You talk about some of my stuff being more relevant than ever, and “Burgers of Wrath” might be at the top of the list.
Have you been surprised by how eager your audience has been to follow you through whatever you happen to be doing?
Again, it’s that same kind of positive pressure. If I’m going to keep doing new music, it better be good. I don’t think I’ve forgotten the old family recipe. The other ex-Dead Kennedys can claim they wrote all that music as much as they want, but how many new songs have they come up with since 1986. This is the well from which they spring. Guantanamo School of Medicine was never meant to be any sort of retro trip or Dead Kennedys clone, but when I was working with The Melvins, Buzz [Osborne] and Dale [Crover] both said, “You know, whether you like it or not, this stuff sounds like Dead Kennedys.” That’s just the way I write stuff. It’s what comes out of my feeble brain.
As an artist, do you like making your listener uncomfortable?
There are times when that’s what necessary. Some of my jokes at the spoken word shows have been designed to do that, too. If there’s any PC halo over my head, I have to get rid of that from time to time and let them know that the punk rock side of me that likes to fuck shit up is still alive and well. I’ve even gone back and forth with a longtime very Guthrie-influenced musician who is my voice teacher and directs the San Francisco Labor Core and is very much in that union folk sing-along and activist tradition. And we were working on my song “SHOCK-U-PY” as a tribute to the Occupy movement, and she objected to my saying that “sabotage is fun and necessary” in there. And I countered with “That’s the side I come from. I like pranks. I like the street theater aspect. I like the fact that people non-violently comfort the afflicted but also afflict the comfortable.” That’s what resistance is for, for crying out loud. It’s not all fun and games, of course, but there should be some joy and celebration at the end of the day, as well. It should be something besides some grim monastic ritual of the proletariat against the big bad bourgeois fascist pigs, and “You know what’s we’re going to do? We’re going to have meetings, goddamn it.” That side of it drives me crazy. I’d rather rock.
From what you can tell, does music play the same role in the Occupy movement as it did in the Vietnam protests or the Civil Rights movement?
It always does, yeah. People have to uplift the spirit of each other to keep this thing going. I know very few people that don’t like any music whatsoever. I’ve always wondered whether the Ayatollahs in Iran, who banned music, actually listen to something or at least have melodies going through their heads. After all, the call to prayer from the minarets, when I first heard it, it sounded very musical. It sounded sung, and basically it is. [Music is] what people turn to to bring back a smile to their face, put a twinkle in their eye, and recharge their batteries. And, for me, there ain’t nothing like the cathartic adrenaline-fueled release of a band live, where I’m either dancing my ass or my brain is.
Do you think the Occupy movement will kick off a new generation of socially-conscious songwriters?
I think it already has, and there will be more. In some cases, it’s people’s first exposure to this kind of resistance. To me, it’s the rekindling of the spirit of Seattle, which was militantly anti-corporate, for good reason. Then that energy got derailed by Bush’s wars, but now it’s back again, because in the meantime our corporate lords were hell-bent on turning the world into a corporate feudalist dictatorship and have been stepping on the gas to accelerate the corporate coup and crush us all with virtual tanks and bulldozers. If it creeps along slowly enough, you don’t notice until the tread is about ready to crush your skull. But every once in a while they see an opening and they step on the gas, and they saw the economic collapse they deliberately engineered as a major opening, with full cooperation of their appointed puppet Barackstar Obama. Do you really think it’s an accident that all over the world these economies crashed at the same time? And everyone is pushing austerity, like, “Oh, you little people have to live with less,” and they won’t bring up that maybe all the money rich people stole when tax laws got gutted all over the world, maybe that money should be taken back and the budgets would be balanced overnight. The Nation even ran an article showing that these other countries—Spain, France, Germany, even Britain, as well as the United States—you do the math on how much money was lost when they lowered taxes for rich people years ago, if that money was put back, none of them would be in the red. This isn’t capitalism anymore—this is feudalism. Thus, the “New Feudalism” song I performed at the Seattle protests and then brought back for the first Guantanamo School of Medicine album.
Is there a difference when you’re criticizing a Democratic president rather than a Republican one?
Well, the mad cowboy disease that goes on when the Repugs are in there is a little too much to leave alone, but how much difference [between the two parties] is there? Bill Clinton was a Trojan horse for corporate takeovers in the economy and the gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act that caused our new depressions, deregulating telecommunications, NAFTA, welfare deform, where he signed Newt Gingrich’s bill at the urging of Al Gore, who bragged about it later.
Looking over the lyrics of this newest record, what’s most striking is that you’re writing as directly and as provocatively as you ever have. You haven’t backed down an inch from where you were before.
Well, I’m not a fan of subtle art. I don’t care if it’s paintings or if it’s books or journalism, I like blunt instruments. I like something that sends my brain spinning and inspires me to think. That’s why I love H.R. Giger’s work so much.
Do you ever feel like your work is sometimes preaching to the choir?
I was astonished when people pulled me into the independent media center during the Seattle protests just to speak to a room of people about whatever I wanted to, and I looked and a lot of these people were people who had been in the trenches at these kinds of events since at least the fucking ’60s. What do I say to them? So I thought, people are sitting in this room, they’re tired, we’ve got a long way to go. Just act as a cheerleader and fire them up again and out the door we go to keep fucking with corporations and their police. We all pick each other up at times like that. It’s part of the role of the artist or anybody with a big mouth who knows how to use it. And if you don’t, there’s always a first time. [Laughs]
Do you feel like that’s your responsibility as an artist?
Yeah, especially because of the kind of stuff that’s in my art. Some people say “Why don’t you write about more personal stuff?” And my response is, “Hey, wait a minute. Don’t you get enough of that from other people whining about their love life? And ‘life is so tough, and I’m in this emo band, and our parents just bought all this equipment, and we’re about to sign with a major label, but, gosh darn, my poor little brain has all these fucking issues.’” I can’t stand shit like that! If you want to feel some emo, go beg for change in San Francisco. So, I say, “Hey, wait a minute. This is my way of singing the blues. I write about things that interest me.” Even if it’s a topic that other people have weighed in on, I try to do it in a different way. We’ve all heard many boohoo nuclear war is bad songs—many of which are great songs—but I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. What about using some of my method acting training and writing from the other side, from the point of the view of the military industrial complex?” So out came “Kill the Poor.”