Jello Biafra Tells Us About His Reverend Horton Heat Collaboration That Never Was.
Age hasn't done much to mellow out Jello Biafra.
Now in his mid-50s, the ex-Dead Kennedys frontman is just as opinionated, outspoken and longwinded as he's ever been.
And these days, when he's not doing spoken word tours, working on putting out reissues via his Alternative Tentacles record label or serving as a talking head in yet another music doc, Biafra heads up Guantanamo School of Medicine, a musical venture that admittedly sounds a bit like some of his earlier projects. The biggest difference in his latest project is simply that Biafra and Co. don't shy away from surf-rock and psychobilly tendencies, which are now more prevalent than ever.
Another thing you might notice, should you pick up a copy of the band's latest — a condemnation on the corruption of the banking industry called White People and the Damage Done — is Biafra tackling his strangest subjects to date, namely the Kardashians and Snookie.
Still, Biafra's still got plenty of political fury inside him, which we found out — and then some — during a recent phone interview in advance of Guantanamo School of Medicine's performance at Three Links this coming Saturday night.
I've been listening to your most recent album, and I noticed there are a lot of lyrics about getting older, living in suburbia, reality TV and stuff that's maybe a little different subject-wise than what you've sang about in the past.
I never conceived it as a “getting older” album. Doing the topical shit I do is kinda my way of singing the blues. People say, “Why don't you write something more personal?” Every once in a while, some of that leaks out. But a lot of the stuff I write down like that, I look at it and think, “You know, this really is personal. Nobody but me needs to read this.” Plus, I get so tired of people going on about, “Oh, boohoo, my life is so tough. Here I am in this great big emo band, and our parents bought all the equipment. And we just got signed to Sony. And goddamn life has so many issues.” I get sick of that shit. I don't want any part of it. If you want emo, try coming and begging for change on the streets of San Francisco — or the streets of Dallas for that matter. I don't usually plan things like concept albums ahead of time, but since Audacity of Hype, the inequality and the corruption and the fall of Rome downward spiral going on this country was so much in everyone's face that a lot of what came out of me was one big austerity decree. I didn't call the album Grand Theft Austerity. Maybe that'll be the title of another album if it keeps going.
It sounds like you're still pretty passionate about what you're doing…
Why wouldn't I be? I've always been a person with strong views.
I just mean that you're definitely not resting on your laurels, that you've still got plenty left to say. You also seem like you're still pretty excited about doing it in front of people.
Again: Why wouldn't I be? I mean, I wouldn't have any business running around doing that otherwise. I guess there's plenty that do these days, some of whom I was once in a band with. With me, I can't really rest on any laurels because I'm not the resting type. I look in the mirror and I don't see this alleged rock legend or anything. I just go downstairs and find all the piles of work and projects I still haven't gotten done. Then I get frustrated and depressed and try to cut my way through the jungle to have something to show for it.
You've mentioned before the overarching theme of your latest album has to do with money and corporate shit kind of being the root of all evil. You must really be a big fan of place like Dallas, then…
I've never seen the TV show; I've only seen the city. But only in bits and pieces because I rarely have an extra day there to run around and do weird shit or anything. I'm friends with Richard Hunter, the old bassist in Killbilly, who is now a radio talk show guy out of Fort Worth. So I may actually be a little more familiar with Fort Worth than Dallas. He let me crash at his place any number of times when I didn't have anywhere to go. I do appreciate that. And his mayor campaign was hilarious. I tell people one of the main reasons to run for office is for all the really bizarre people you're going to run into that you never would otherwise. The candidate in that race was a right-wing nut job by the name of Clifford Pope. Now that I think about it, a lot of the stuff that came out of his mouth — that Richard and I would sit and laugh at when we watched the video at his house — is now taken as the new normal by people who don't do enough to challenge the Tea Party. The reason the oil barons put so much money into a fake grassroots uprising like the Tea Party is because they know that even if a lot of the big time lunatics don't actually win — except maybe in Texas — the mere act of responding to these people is giving them an equal platform, and shifting the normal further and further to the extreme right. It's to the point where people don't notice that Bill and Hillary Clinton had more in common with Richard Nixon than they did with LBJ or Kennedy or FDR. Obama may be a step further in that direction in some ways. In a number of ways, we've been subjected to one Reagan after another ever since that regime got in.
What is your life in politics these days? Do you think you'll ever run for office again?
I'm always involved, but mainly through my art at this point. The thing with running for office is I've got to put the suit and tie on and go knocking door-to-door if I ever try something like that again. I've been around long enough that people will expect me to have intimate knowledge of how San Francisco works. That takes a lot of time, work and commitment. But I have no idea what will happen there. However my songs, and even my spoken word, that affects people all over the world. The advantage the artist has is that the politician has to say different things to different people depending on which group is going to give them money or whatever. Whereas the artist can say what they truly believe everywhere they go and stand by it. That goes a long way towards explaining why during the last two presidential elections, a lot of people were getting their news from Jon Stewart's Daily Show and [Stephen] Colbert, because they felt it was more accurate than any of the other networks. They know if it is somebody that's billed as a comedian, they can cut through a lot more of the BS like a hot knife through butter because they can get people to laugh. The more you can stick in actual information with that — that people can actually use – the better. I'm a big fan of info-tainment.
So you see your art as a more effective tool at getting across your politics than running a campaign?
Yeah, there are some things I'm more competent at than others.
Do you think we'll ever see things heading back the other way? Will we see a major Independent or Green Party candidate elected? What would that take?
More organization and push from the ground up, obviously. And in an age where the supreme court has legalized bribery. With the Citizens United decision, people can spends hundreds of millions of dollars running attack ads. It's going to take a lot of, basically, grassroots insurrection such as demanding that a viable third party candidate be allowed to participate in the televised debates. In California, they've done the opposite, whereby the fall elections are all a runoff between the two top vote-getters in the primary elections. In one congressional district, you have an old, kind of liberal establishment Democrat incumbent running against a young techno-yuppie who thinks the incumbent isn't business-friendly enough. And they're both democrats. But it also means that, when your ballot arrives in the mail, you're given Choice A and Choice B and no other choices because all the other third party candidates got eliminated during the primary. I almost never vote for Democrats, let alone Republicans. I'm not a Libertarian, either. I'm a strong believer in taxing the rich, and not making it so easy for lunatics and agents of Mexican cartels to trot on down to the sporting goods store and buy a bunch of rifles.
Getting back to your album: I wanted to talk about the track, “John Dillinger.” Jimbo Wallace from Reverend Horton Heat plays on that one. I read that Mike Scaccia had worked on it some, too.
Yeah, I had that riff around for a while. Like some of these, like “Too Drunk to Fuck” or “Winnebago Warrior” or “Hollywood Goof Disease,” it started as a surf instrumental, but I needed to find something for me, the singer, to do. Eventually, vocals were added. There had been real loose talks with Jimbo and even with the Rev years ago of, “Hey let's to make an album together, or something.” That never really got any further than talk, but just talking with them about that made it click in my head how that riff could work. Then it occurred to me later: This could both work as sort of a psychobilly song, or a Lard song. So then noise was getting made about maybe doing another Lard album, and Mike Scaccia flew up here and spent some days at my house woodshedding ideas. I brought up “Dillinger,” and, of all things, “Crapture,” as a complete change of pace. Then he showed me some stuff he had, but that was as far as it got. What really breaks my heart is I was really looking forward to showing Mikey those songs, because he would ask me about them later when he'd come through on tour with Ministry. I also thought if [Guantanmo School of Medicine] was going to do it, there would be a way of working some of the psychobilly vibe back in, in with all the heavy guitar. There's an electric bass on the bottom and Jimbo playing upright in his inimitable style on top and you get both. Jimbo had been asking for years, “If you ever need an upright bass player, be sure to call me.” And I'm thinking, “Yeah, yeah, Jimbo. You're always on tour. When would I ever find you?” And then, sure enough, we were trying to finish this record, and the Rev was coming through town, and we got it done.
There's been plenty of other Dallas ties during your career, though. Like, Alternative Tentacles put out some of the old Butthole Surfers things back in the day, and…
We put out the first Butthole Surfers thing back in the day — when no one else would touch them.
And then there was the whole Rock Against Reagan thing, not to mention the fact that the Dead Kennedys' name is tied to the biggest event in our city's history.
[Laughs.] It's beyond that. Granted, it was another case of me putting value in shock value and using the name on a dare, on a hunch, to see what happens. Kinda like calling the new album White People and the Damage Done. We used the name first to freak the fuck out of people, then found heartfelt explanations for it later. To me, it was sort of the beginning and the cause of the “Me” generation — especially with John Kennedy's killing in Dallas, and then later with Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and all, and then Watergate — into thinking, “Y'know, I don't have any more control over my own life. Why should I bother with anything but my own life?” East Bay Ray said later, what it meant to him was the end of The American Dream, which I also think is a pretty good way of putting it. In some ways, losing Robert Kennedy was even worse, because had he lived, we might have never been subjected to Richard Nixon as president.
Somewhat weirdly, Dallas still kind of clings to its place with regards to JFK's death. We had the big 50th anniversary ceremony here last year, which kind of felt a little morbidly like a celebration.
Celebration of what? There's a difference between celebration and remembrance. I mean, remembrance? Hell yeah. Maybe you wouldn't believe this, but I have vivid memories of when the assassination actually happened. My mother was crying on the couch and broke the news to me. And then Oswald gets shot live on TV and all that. Just knowing what that did to the country ever since, whenever I get a reminder of that, especially when the visual footage comes in, I get pretty choked up.
Well, our official city slogan is “Big Things Happen Here.”
[Laughs.] That happens every time some corrupt mover and shaker unzips his pants when he's got a woman in the elevator.
Anyway, there was recently a tour bus here that caused kind of a stir for about a day when it put a picture of JFK's head on the side near the words “Big Things Happen Here.”
You'd think somebody would have proofed that ahead of time and spoken up. It's amazing how clueless some people can be at times. Remember when Northwest Airlines shortened their name to NWA and had no idea who already had that name? Then they came back: “Nobody in our focus groups said anything about this!” Well, who the fuck were in their focus groups? Every time I see one of those, I just laugh and think at least I don't have to fly on Gangsta Airlines.
Before I let you go, and since you're such an outspoken person, I wanted to get your thoughts on what's happening with the Ebola situation.
I think it actually is the scars of Nixon and the entrails of Reagan, this whole idea that we're taught in kindergarten that taxes are automatically bad, and there shouldn't be any more sense of community for the common good anymore. Therefore, budgets should be cut to the bone even if it means shitty schools, roads full of holes and no money to the CDC to come up with an Ebola vaccine. The head of the CDC said we could have started on that 10 years ago and probably had it by now if the funding hadn't been cut. It's the same as the Rick Perry view of climate change, which I prefer to call climate collapse. A lot of it is down to money and all the people paying pseudo-scientists to claim that it's not really happening, it's not caused by man, there's nothing we can do. In Perry's case it's, “Jesus is coming back soon. Who fucking cares?” If half of Dallas came down with Ebola and President BarrackStar asked for multi-billions to fight the thing and keep it from spreading, the first person to step in the way and say, “No, it costs too much, and it's too much government intervention” would be Ted Cruz. We don't care if it kills thousands of people, as long as it fucks with Obama. Why Obama is such a threat to them, I have no idea. He got more Wall Street money for his campaign than anyone else — including Hillary [Clinton] or [John] McCain in 2008.
Finally, what can folks expect if they come out to the show on Saturday? Do you do any spoken word stuff, or is it just straight up rock?
I'm a strong believer in telling people what the song is about. If it is something I believe in, I'm going to tell you about it, but not to the point that it detracts from the rock power. If [I'm doing] a long, spoken word info-tainment piece, then I don't want any music behind me at all — not even folk or jazz. But if I'm performing music, then I like to do the kind of music I like — meaning not a lighter, old guy version of '80s punk. I like to try and do it as full on as I possibly can. What you get, I guess, is, say — if the stuff I did with the Melvins is halfway between Dead Kennedys and Lard, then Guantanamo School of Medicine might be halfway between Dead Kennedys and the Melvins. The surf and the psych moves are back in because I've got my own guys now — not just one guitar player, but two. There will be a Dead Kennedys song in the set here and there, but it's mostly new stuff. And when people coming for the old stuff hear the new stuff, they tend to really like it.
Jello Biafra & Guantanamo School of Medicine performs on Saturday, November 8, at Three Links. Get your tickets here.