Interview with Jello Biafra
Issue #30, February 1997
Jello Biafra is a punk rock singer, spoken word artist, label owner and free speech activist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Formerly the frontman for the legendary leftist punk band the Dead Kennedys, Jello was the lightning rod for conservative attacks on radical American music culture during the ninteen eighties. His most recent projects include country and spoken word recordings noted for their bitter, funny and informed political commentary on contemporary American society and culture. His third record with Lard, Pure Chewing Satisfaction will be out on Jello's own Alternative Tentacles label at the end of April.
Jello Biafra: Before we begin this interview and since this is a net magazine let me say this: I think the internet is a good thing and should remain as uncensored as humanly possible, but at the same time I have some cautions. Number one — Don't let it turn into the C.B. craze of the seventies. With some net surfers I have seen this happen. They are not just net surfers but net junkies, and their significant others can't get them to come to bed for sex until 4:30 in the morning. The other parallel is "Breaker. Breaker. Am I talking to real truck driver? Yipee! Yahoo!" How different is that from thinking you are chatting with Courtney Love when you could be chatting with anybody?
The old dictatorships controlled people by depriving people of information and numbing their senses that way. In America, we are so bombarded with information, our senses are numbed in a new way. Another thing I advise people on the net to beware of is this naive belief that if it is on the net, it must be true. There are several unofficial web pages on me, and when people were inspired by Maximum Rock N'Roll to argue whether or not I was a sell out, rich rock star and therefore deserved to get my knee maimed for life, a lot of misinformation was bandied back and forth.
David Grad: I don't have the new record, so I'm operating a little blind here.
JB: I don't either, but it's called Pure Chewing Satisfaction and hopefully it'll be out in April. The songs include "War Camp Renaissance," which was originally written as a sequel to Ministry's "N.W.O." [It concerns] the post Gulf war scenario that with the fall of the Communist Bloc, the arms dealers are running amok trying to arm these third and other world despots in the hopes that they will all shoot each other and buy some more weapons: a very, very dangerous situation, to put it mildly.
I also think that was the reason that there was no Marshall Plan for the former Soviet Union. The corporations were hoping for a Latin America style slave labor force that they could treat like absolute shit because they would be desperate enough to do anything the corporations wanted. Now we know that the infrastructure in the Soviet Union is so poor that they couldn't do that anyway. In the meantime, it's been allowed to become as corrupt as hell without any real financial aid coming except from Germany. And so I think what the Pentagon and arms merchants are doing is grinning ear to ear scrooge-like hoping for some crackpot like Zhirinovsky or a Milosevic type to take over so they can start the arms race up again go from there. They claim that we have to keep the defense budget high in this country or people will lose their jobs. Fine. There are all kinds of things you can do with that kind of technology and know-how: more space exploration and, more importantly, more and cheaper mass transit in the United States. Europe is light years ahead of us in the development of high speed trains. We need those desperately in this country to move people back and forth. Instead we are making more bombs.
DG: There was a piece in the New York Times today which says that just to maintain and monitor the present nuclear stockpile will cost forty billion annually, which actually I think is more than it actually took to produce them....
JB: I like the proposal from Paul Leventhal of, I think, the Nuclear Policy Institute (or something like that) to stop making the radioactive isotope tritium and slowly but surely the entire world's nuclear arsenal will be rendered impotent at the rate tritium naturally decays which is a lot quicker than the other elements.
DG: [On the subject of the corporate music business] Brian ( AKA Dexter Holland of the Offspring) has done some productive things with the money he's made. For instance his record label Nitro has signed bands like the Adolescents who never really got their due.
JB: What I mean by "constructive" [when talking about how punk bands handle their fame] is finding a way to put that financial clout back in the community. Punk politics have never had financial clout in this country. What can we do with it? One model is to look at what the Grateful Dead, of all people, did with a good chunk of their money, which was to form a grant foundation called the Rex(TK) foundation. They would play benefits for it every year. It started out with an endowment of thirty thousand dollars from a couple shows. Last time they did it, Rex got 1.2 million.
One of the people who works with Rex boils down all the grant applications, presents a synopsis to the board [of directors] and they vote how much to grant these people. It's from $1500 to $10,000 or more, and it's helped prop up soup kitchens, rape crisis centers, Earth First's Redwood Summer and rural school districts in California who don't have money for music programs (because the Republicans stole it all through tax swindles etc.). It was a way of putting sixties radical politics into practice by granting money to people who knew what to do with it and putting money where it would mean a lot, instead of just giving money to The American Way or The American Cancer Society or another organization like that, which spends the majority of money on advertising. So what I'm hoping to see someday, whether I'm involved or not, is a punk Rex foundation. The Beastie Boys have already been in touch with Rex about continuing their work for the people of Tibet.
DG: What are the political implications of all this [corporate takeover of punk]? Do you think the fact that bands like Rancid or The Offspring (that were at least perceived as having a radical agenda) sold millions of records has had an effect on mass consciousness?
JB: All those bands got to where they are in part because they are good at what they do — not even the most vehement back stabber can deny that. And if they have a political impact, it will be greater if they take the bull by the horns and come out more in support of political organizing and organizations in such ways that I have already suggested. Green Day did a high profile benefit for Food Not Bombs, who are so controversial even in the radical world that I know of no other large rock band that ever went to bat for them. They raised $50,000. I don't think a small underground show would have benefited Food Not Bombs as much. They would raise $400 or $500 bucks and everybody would feel good in the end, but Food Not Bombs could spend that money in half a day trying to feed homeless people.
I'm curious to see if there is a long term ripple effect or not. People who work in record stores tell me that some of the mall kids who get into punk through Bad Religion or the other bands you mention, six months later look into the roots and pick up a Dead Kennedys record. They then find that the lyrics have a little different vibe and attitude connected to them. I'm frustrated about how many new people who discover Dead Kennedys through this scene have no clue as to where we were at, and they can't understand why I don't want to reform the band and do a Sex Pistols' Filthy Lucre Tour. They don't understand what punk was or what it is still supposed to be. Not only that, they refuse to understand.
But what I'm really hoping it will ripple down to is people taking a long hard look at clouding there future with what their parents, teachers and the mass media tells them to do. The ripple effect has happened to some degree already. It doesn't mean so much to me when people come up to me and say, "Jello! Dead Kennedys rule! You're God! Blah! Blah! Could you please give me an iron-on tattoo for my nuts! " That doesn't mean too much. What does is when somebody says, "I listened to your music and listened to your words and decided to quit majoring in business and do something else with my life." And then sometimes they'll hand me a record or a magazine or a video they have done. In another case, somebody I knew in childhood went the fast track to a cushy job as a professor at the University of Colorado and then got so disgusted by being thrust into a room of three hundred frat boys and rich kids, that he quit the job (where he had guaranteed tenure) and went off to teach history in a rural middle school where he could actually help kids learn. He said a lot of people in his class don't speak English very well. Some are so discouraged that they have never written a paper in their life, so he grades according to effort. People who don't show up for other classes, show up for his and even try to write something. I think that's really important. So that's an example of what I think is the heart and soul of punk. Just as I think it was the heart and soul of hippies of when they were radical — the beats, and many others throughout history.
DG: Many punks seem to assume that radical culture can replace radical political practice...
JB: It can't. Culture can help initiate better politics, while politics can be used to suppress culture — they go hand in hand. Look at the investigation into Death Row Records. They would like nothing more than to pin some kind of criminal indictment on Dr. Dre, so they can discredit every word that every Death Row artist ever said. I think the only reason why major labels picked up on grunge and punk to begin with was to avoid a whole generation of suburban white kids getting their political knowledge from angry black rappers. They don't want white kids to know that things are that bad for a large number of people.
DG: But going back to my point. So much of the punk community seems to think that cultural activity is a replacement for political practice ...
JB: I would counter to that that there is no punk community among that group of people. It's a safe little punk womb to have Maximum Rock n'Roll as your bible and to think that world's most important issue is whether Jawbreaker sold out, while ignoring the homeless people outside. That's not community. Bickering endlessly over stuff that doesn't matter is not community. It's junior high.
DG: So you think there is no cohesive social group that can be referred to as "The Punk Community"?
JB: There are threads of it, but punk has gotten so popular that the name gets attached to all sorts of things — everything from Jawbreaker to Brutal Truth. There are all kinds of communities there, all net-working with each other. None of them are as tight culturally as the death metal community where you have people in Norway swapping tapes with people in Malaysia, and all the bands sound more than a little bit alike. And isn't it ironic that death metal is the first form of rock music that has caught on with poor people over the world. When I was in Brazil, I was told that all rock music and punk was scorned by the people of the slums. It didn't speak to them. They thought of it as a bourgeois [art] form they didn't want to have anything to do with. They would rather listen to samba or death metal. Death metal is popular from Moldavia to Cuba.
JB: Partly because in the grindcore form it's easy to play and have a lot of attitude and fun with it. Also the violent and anti-Christian imagery has a world wide appeal.
DG: A radical response to a Catholic education...
JB: You would have no Brujeria without a pope to beat up on. I've been told that a lot of the illegal youth in L.A. have been blowing off Mexican music and hip hop to listen to death metal. A lot of them have their own bands and have been attempting to play on the street and the cops drove their cars right through it. Anything the gangster rappers say about the LA cops is true. Everything! I've seen Dead Kennedys fans treated just like Rodney King in front of the Whisky and at Wilmington — which wasn't even in the L.A.P.D.'s jurisdiction.
DG: Brian (AKA Dexter Holland from the Offspring) has told me that the first time he got beat up by the police was at a Dead Kennedys show.
JB: It was Wilmington. They stormed a show we were playing at an independent municipality surrounded by the City of Long Beach with a history of labor union flare ups — the cops were down on Wilmington to begin with. They left one exit open and routed two thousand people through two double doors, and outside there was a gauntlet of cops swinging nightsticks at people's heads. Helicopters were flying overhead, and tear gas was being thrown. Other cops in helmets and riot gear were seen smashing windows of small businesses up and down the streets of Wilmington and smashing the windows of cars. The L.A. Times of course claimed this was caused by Dead Kennedys, but it wasn't. East Bay Ray knew a woman who worked in a local hospital who said that an L.A. Sheriff was down there that afternoon saying, " You better have extra people in the emergency room tonight, there are going to be a lot of casualties." This stuff does go on in The United States Of America.
DG: Maximum Rock N'Roll seems dead set on this line of sectarian purity where anything that creates a basis for mass support is looked on with suspicion and ultimately rejected as a sell out.
JB: It's the same kind of fundamentalist mind set that makes fundamentalist Christians so dangerous. And the same mind set that has isolated the animal rights and Vegan movement. You take one step out of line, and they bite your head off. Young people who are curious about the politics spend ten minutes with people like that, and they would rather be apathetic. This could be a major turning point in their lives and instead .... This is what has turned a lot of people off to punk politics.
DG: Why do you think that punk, which started out so all inclusive, humanistic and anarchistic evolved so rapidly in the direction of the worst traditions of American radicalism?
JB: Tim [Yohannon of Maximum Rock N'Roll] is also a music fan and keep in mind that fan is short for the word "fanatic." There are certain sounds he likes and other stuff he doesn't. He has allowed the fan side to cloud the political side, and somebody who makes music that doesn't fit his narrow definition of punk is considered politically incorrect. If "Holiday In Cambodia" were released today, it would be banned from Maximum Rock N'Roll for not sounding punk.
DG: So what are the solutions? Where do we go from here?
JB: The underground scene is still a cool way to meet a lot of cool people, see a lot of interesting bands and get a lot of food for thought, but people have to remain curious and get their brain activity food from other places besides punk. Many of my spoken word shows are at universities, and [some of] the people who bring me in are either political activists, who may listen to Tracy Chapman or The Cocteau Twins or something like that. In fact, there was a whole tour where people kept saying, "I'm really getting into alternative rock now. Do you like The Cocteau Twins?" It happened again and again, and to this day I've never heard them. But what I'm saying is that I discovered that a lot of vibrant minded activists either had nothing to do with punk by default or actively despised punk because their opinion of it had been tainted by fundamentalists and crusties.
The other people who brought me in were conservatives, who just happened to be on the student activities committee. Since my fee was lower than other people's, they figured they would get their money's worth. So it's a fascinating spectrum of people to talk to and absorb ideas from.
(Breaks for phone call)
Writing the name of a British band that broke up fifteen years ago on the back of the jacket you bought at the mall does not make you radical. It doesn't even make you intelligent. In some cases it makes other people laugh and ask whether they have heard a single note of the Abrasive Wheels before they reproduced their album cover on the back of the jacket they bought the day before. I think being radical means interacting more with a lot different kinds of people and making up your own mind about where you fit in and what you want to do. I didn't agree with the hard line Crass or MDC took over the years, but it helped me decide what line I wanted to take instead. Namely, live my life the way I wanted to but not to the point where it made me a miserable, dangerous person.
You have to identify what can you as an individual do. What are your skills? How do they fit in? Are you somebody who is making a lot of money at a lawyer or computer job but doesn't have a lot of free time? Well, funneling money to organizations that need it is one good place to start. Phil Ochs ridiculed that [idea] in his original version of "Love Me I'm A Liberal," but it's far better than spending your money on Wall Street, rare coins or old colored vinyl punk collectibles. Or if you have a lot of free time, there are a lot of people with activist skills who need help — be it clinic defense, environmental work or grass roots political campaigns to get somebody with a heart elected to a city council or a school board or even the mayor's office, depending on the town. Richard Hunter, who used to play bass for Killbilly and is now in I,The Jury, just ran for mayor of Fort Worth Texas because he gave a shit. What really terrified the powers that be is that he was running second in the polls up until election day, when a "family values" guy, who had gone the stealth candidate route through right-wing churches came in ahead of him as did a black activist. But he made a lot of noise and inspired a lot of respect, and hopefully he inspired a lot of people to try doing the same thing.
I'm down with both radical resistance and trying to do what can be done through the system. That is one of the reasons I ran for mayor way back when. And all this should have an end goal in mind. Corporate dictatorship in my opinion is heading for a train wreck and that train wreck will happen in our lifetime. They are throwing so many people out of work in this country that the people they depend on to buy their products won't have money to buy them anymore, and a lot of them are already hopping mad. They may be falling for Rush Limbaugh and the militia movement in the short run, but in the long run when the shit goes down I hope it doesn't become like Romania or the L.A. Riots.
I fear that deeply because we live and die by the gun so much in this country. In Czechoslovakia, it was a non-violent change of power, same ultimately with South Africa. The reason those change-overs worked is because people who had been involved in very radical resistance movements knew there had to be a plan afterwards — even some loose idea of who should be doing what. The time has come to start planning now, at least mentally, for what happens if there is a big takeover and the corporations fall. You don't want some horrendous dictatorship cooked up by multi-nationals and the Pentagon taking our current system's place.
This whole thing could be accomplished democratically, but if there are going to be rock musicians and film makers in the legislature (like in Czechoslovakia), it better be people with ideas and some knowledge and a network to implement them. It's time now to start thinking, "What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?" I don't think it's egocentric for everybody in this country to go beyond calling Clinton a sell-out corporate asshole and start asking themselves, "What would I do in his shoes?" Take the hard issues — the Middle East, Bosnia, and how about giving everybody a place to live and a livelihood in this country. Meaningful work is almost extinct in the land of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
What are we going to do? Write down ideas. Bounce them off your friends. If you don't have intelligent enough friends, get new ones. Talk to your parents, your teachers. In some ways that sounds like jive, but I'm trying to find a better answer to that myself. It may take me my whole life, but this is what I've come up with so far. And above all, most of the people reading this aren't going to be radical activists or punk rockers forever... unfortunately. So it is important to learn from the mistakes of people who came before us, people we admire like Tim Yohannon and people we no longer admire like sixties radicals who turned around and became right wing cyber-yuppies. And don't let the attitude you have now evaporate if you start making money working for I.B.M. Always keep that with you and make sure it's passed down to your children. Don't give up and don't mellow out.
For more information on Jello Biafra, contact Alternative Tentacles at email@example.com.
David Grad is a music critic, cultural commando and general malfeasant with big fans at Bad Subjects. A regular contributor to The New York Press and Entertainment Weekly, David has aslo written for Puncture, Under The Volcano, Guitar World and Sound Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.