The former singer and principal songwriter of the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra is well known for his incisive wit, political insight and provocative humor. His current group, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, has a new album slated for release in April on his record label, Alternative Tentacles. He’ll perform a DJ set at the Debauch-A-Reno festival (see this week’s feature story, page 13, for more information).
You’re coming up here to Reno to DJ the Debauch-A-Reno festival. How did that come about?
Oh, I just got tipped to it by Jesse Luscious, the old singer of the Frisk and the Criminals and Blatz and all that good stuff. He now works for me at Alternative Tentacles. He just thought I might want to know about it. I see The Sonics at the top, and my eyes popped out of my head. I got to find my way to get up there. Maybe I can even make myself useful. Maybe I can even find a way to have some fun and make myself useful. I had just been in Seattle and Portland doing some cameo appearances on the Reverend Horton Heat tour, and the reports from people up there are that the Sonics are still pretty damn good. … They’re one of my favorite bands. One of the most important bands in my life ever.
Why?Just the music and the sound itself, and [Gerry] Roslie’s voice. I’d seen them listed as some obscure ’60s punk band in some magazine in L.A.—I can’t remember what it was. It was some pre-fanzine thing, long before punk happened. That was the first time I saw the term ’punk’ used for this kind of fierce, primal rock ’n’ roll. … I made a mental not to check them out. And then an old compilation called Explosives was up on a wall in a store when I moved to San Francisco, and I thought that might be only chance to check them out. So I paid way too much money for it, at least at the time, and brought it home. And unlike most of these things where you expect way more than you’re ever going to get because your expectations are so high, I put it on and was like, my god, this is really, really good. This dude’s voice is amazing. … I thought, wow, the missing link between the Ventures and the Stooges. I would put them in the top five as far as the most important, influential bands of my own music and writing.
Why a DJ set rather than the Guantanamo School of Medicine?For one thing, we’re kind of scattered all over. We’re not really going to resurface until April. And our bassist Andrew Weiss is also a producer. He did a lot of the Ween albums and many more. He may be in Argentina right now recording an album down there. So it’s a little hard to get him out here. And I’ve been DJing on and off since high school, mostly off. But I got back into it a couple years ago through a soul DJ of all people, Jonathan Toubin, who calls his thing Soul Clap. He brought me in to judge a dance contest at one of his Soul Clap nights at the Elbo Room in San Francisco, no doubt so he could get my name on the bill and get more people in there. But it was fun, and we started talking records, and we both knew Billy [Miller] and Mariam [Linna] from the Norton label back in New York where he lived. And then he came back through again with Ian Svenonius of the Make-Up as another guest DJ, and just put me in one of the rooms to see what happen. And I’m no soul music expert. I only decided to start liking it in the past few years after the Bellrays came out and a friend of mine from a hardcore band in Toronto called Porcelain Forehead gave me some old soul 45s because he’d become really fanatical about collecting them and just couldn’t understand why I didn’t love them as much as he did. So he figured he needed to change that and sure enough he did. The top of the pile was Ted Taylor’s version “Ramblin’ Rose,” the one that the basically MC5 covered, and it’s almost as wild as the MC5’s version. It was on the Okeh label—a bunch of great stuff on that label. He had a freaky high voice, an unusual vocal style too. He had a long career as it turns out. He was in rhythm & blues, then he did soul, dabbled in funk, and then he was doing straight blues before he was killed in a car crash in the late ’70s, early ’80s. … So, basically, I did this set at Soul Clap. [Toubin] knew this whole style of music. I brought in obsucrities I thought were really cool but the professional soul DJs hadn’t even heard of. They got into to the point they were dancing their asses off themselves. I was squirting in a surf instrumental here, a little garage here, even “Pets Eat their Master” by Guantanamo School of Medicine, and it all worked. … My favorite is to mix and match, and go all over the place. Of course there will be a lot of ’60s garage, some soul, some surf, maybe some ’50s rock ’n’ roll, probably some punk here and there. I’ve rediscovered how much fun it is to play some of my favorite obscure 45s through a great big PA system in a big room. That’s a lot of fun.
You DJ, play with bands and do spoken word, are those things more alike or different?I would say DJing and spoken word are pretty damn far apart [laughs]. In one, you want people out on the dance floor … and the other one you want people paying attention and listening, not yapping away and clinking beer glasses or, worse yet, smoking and blowing crap in your face while your trying to communicate some brain food.
Is playing with the band somewhere in between?No, a band in some ways might be the pinnacle. I first got into rock ’n’ roll when ’60s garage music was actually current. In the fall of ’65, my parents were trying to get me to shut up and go to sleep. They turn on the radio in my room and blunder ed onto a rock station, and immediately said, “Wait, stop there, I like that,” and then I was hooked.
Were your parents not stoked about you getting into rock ’n’ roll?They weren’t stoked about me quitting college after only one quarter. But I’d been wandering away from Santa Cruz into San Francisco to go to punk rock shows. I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was such an explosion at that point. It was scaring the shit out of all the right people. I realized that instead of being born too late for all the cool stuff in the ’60s, I was born at the perfect time and I like the music even more. And at the time, we thought that punk was going to take over and be as big as beatlemania during the British invasion, but by the time I moved to San Francisco in early ’78, it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen. The major labels had made a decision that new wave was OK, but they weren’t going to touch this punk anymore—too harsh, too negative, too good and too much of the real thing, I suppose, in a way. So if you put on a pink skinny tie and sang bouncy songs about girlies and the radio, maybe they’d sign you, but otherwise the people who had stars in their eyes kind of drifted away. And the people who stuck around stayed because of the music, and the culture and everything that went with it, and thus the music and the culture itself got fiercer and fiercer, and hardcore was born. It’s very different than England where the Sex Pistols had top 10 chart hits.
When was the last time you were up here in Reno?It’s been a while. … The real Dead Kennedys only played in Reno once. I think the phony Dead Kennedys have been through once or twice, maybe three times.
What’s your relationship with those guys, now? I know there’s been lawsuits.It’s absolutely zero. I get a threat letter from their lawyer every once in awhile. And now they have this bum manager who appears he may even be a right-wing Christian, a born-again Christian who runs around cutting deals. People have told me in L.A. That he claims he’s my friend and that everything’s cool, but that’s not the case at all. They still can’t seem to stop all these promoters putting pictures of the band with me in the ad. As far as I’m concerned it’s one of the lowest points punk has ever reached. … But people shouldn’t get this wrong. I’m very proud of Dead Kennedys and very grateful people are still that into the music this many years later. I have no regrets about the band, the music or what we did. I have terrible regrets about what those guys turned into afterwards. They’ve become Republicans. … They bitch and moan that I won’t do scam reunion shows so they can run off with a bunch of money, and make a bunch money off of my name, me efforts and my energy. Why would I want to get back together with people who act like this? They can claim they wrote the songs all the want to, but where are the new songs? The new songs are all with me.
Well, let’s talk about the new album. White People and the Damage Done is a pretty provocative title.The title track only touches on how we’ve treated Native Americans in order to conquer this land. That’s a whole separate song that I haven’t been able to write. But the songs goes more into t things like where would we be today if we hadn’t overthrown a democratically elected government in Iran in 1954 and put the most hated person in the country, the shah, back in? Where would we be if we hadn’t staged a coup and put the shah back in? Look where that got us. Where would we be if we hadn’t financed and trained the Mujahideen ahead of time in Afghanistan to goad the Soviets into invading, so we could try to bring down their evil empire or whatever? And then not collect the weapons or offer any aid to rebuild the country afterwards, not once, but twice. Where would be? That’s what the title track is about. And we seem to be doing the same dub stuff again. … Even the long overdue debate about all the guns and assault rifle s are in this country doesn’t seem to touch on how many of those machine guns are being bought in places like Arizona and Texas and taken down to Mexico, where the cartels kill people with them. That’s one more reason why it’s about time someone said, do you really need a machine gun to kill ducks and rabbits? What’s the matter with you?
You hear so much about border security, and it’s about people coming here, not weapons going down there.Yeah. Hillary Clinton of all people has even brought this up, but it seems to fall on deaf ears even in her own administration.
How do you feel about the Obama administration generally?Well, you know the “Barackstar O’Bummer” song on the Shock-U-Py! EP that came out before the election? The whole album was supposed to come out before the election but I didn’t get it done in time, because it’s basically an anti-austerity concept album, with a lot of buried information and exposes, and pitchforks into the rear ends of the listeners scattered throughout. But people asked me after that song came out, “aren’t you worried that Romney or the Tea Party will use this?” Not if they look at the words. Basically, it’s business as usual—or, dare I say, Bush-ness as usual. Not one bankster for all the crimes that crashed our economy. Instead, he made one of them Secretary of the Treasury. And an old Contragate figure who had to know about all the drug running and the terrorism and the murders is his Defense Secretary. I’m still convinced that a lot of the bailout money that went to the big banksters was quote-unquote reimbursing them for the losses of money that didn’t even exist. You talk about housing bubble where the value was inflated on paper in the digital realm. Where’s the cash? Oh, look, we valued it this much. We lost all our money. Give us money for the full value of the property, and we’ll still kick the people out who bought the bad mortgages. What could’ve happened is that that stimulus money could’ve gone straight to the homeowners who were underater on the condition that they turn around and right a check to the lender for the full amount. That way, everybody could keep their home, the lenders could get their money back, and we’d all be cool. But they couldn’t do it that way. They just gave it to the banksters with no strings attatched. People ask me sometimes what do I think is the worst problem going on in the world today. The think I’ll say something like war or climate collapse—I don’t call it climate change. It’s climate collapse at this point. But no, it’s corruption, because corruption is what’s preventing people from doing anything meaningful about all these other problems. … Those of us who are really disappointed and even heartbroken over what’s gone down versus our audacity to hope for change, we’vegot to remind ourselves that we didn’t do our job. If there had been people in the street and a million uninsured march on Washington during the health care debate, you would have a public option right now. … When President Barackstar got it, it was just like when Bill Clinton first got in, who also marketed himself as the man from Hope, and people were so happy that they didn’t have a Bush in the White House anymore—ding, dong, the Bush is gone—now we can sleep easily and they just went to sleep. And what we got the last time while people were sleeping were the worst nightmares of the Reagan-Bush years: NAFTA, the WTO, the telecommunications act that got rid of all these monopoly rules so Clear Channel could swallow the radio and Fox News could swallow everything else. And he signed Newt Gingrich’s welfare bill, throwing that many more hundreds of thousands of people in the street, including a lot of families and kids. Now we realize that was the poison pill that destroyed the economy. The Glass-Steagall Act that prevented consumer banks from using our money to play casino as investment bansk and lose it all, that was made illegal after the Depression. Who got rid of those laws? Not one of the Bushes. Clinton.
So you think Obama and Clinton are there to make people complacent?My worry is that so many people got so inspired in 2008 and focused their energy on a person … and not for real change. My worry is that the more the Barackstar regime becomes like Clinton and the Bushes, the less likely those people will be to get off their butts and vote and try to change everything again. … I don’t think people are apathetic and don’t agitate or even vote as much as they should because they’re apathetic. I think it’s because they’re heartbroken. And a lot of the actions now, even with the Tea Party clowns, are because they’re scared. And Michael Moore is right, deep down, they’re concerned about the same things we are.
Like what?Feeding their families. Climate collapse. Violence and gun violence in general. It’t a lot of the same stuff, but people get scared, so of course the extreme right-wing corporate McMedia machine just steers them all toward anti-immigration bigots, keep your gumming hands off my medicare and things like that. Keep in mind that the Tea Party got turned into pop stars overnight, even by MSNBC complaining about them all the time. Where again, if we’d been in the streets at the same time pushing for a pulbic option, we would have had the media focused on us instead of these clowns.
Don’t you think that’s part of what the Occupy movement was?Oh yeah. Some pople are now claiming that Occupy was a big failure, if they mention it at all. The real message being don’t you ever try anything real like this again. I think Occupy was a huge success, because it brought inequality to the front of the 2012 election and it became the main issue. If it weren’t for Occupy, Romney’s 47 percent phone recording wouldn’t even have been reported as big news. Basically, we’re in the first election where the corporate powers that be favored candidate got done in by one camera phone. I’m not down with people living on their phone all the time. I can’t stand that, but let’s not forget all the good that this technology has brought to the world.
That being the prime example.Well, the prime example would be all the Twitter feeds that brought people into the streets in Iran, and in Britain. It’s going to happen here, too.