A Fistful of Jello: Houston's Top Dance Party Welcomes Punk Legend Biafra

Jello Biafra
Jello Biafra
Photo by Elizabeth Sloan

It's easy to forget our favorite musicians were first and foremost music fans. If the artist in question has also fronted a seminal punk band, been at the center of a landmark obscenity case and been touted as a candidate for the presidency of the United States, those origins are cast even further to the recesses of one long, strange shadow.

Jello Biafra has done all those things in a music career that's spanned decades, but one that truly began with a love for music. In Biafra's case,  that love is more than just some abstract notion; it's manifested in his diverse and multitudinous vinyl collection. He'll be in Houston Friday night to share some treasures from that trove as A Fistful of Soul's guest DJ. If the Houston Press Music Award-nominated DJ night and the face of the Dead Kennedys seem like an odd mix, think again, says A Fistful of Soul co-founder Stewart Anderson.

"I actually played records with Jello about a year ago, the day after he came through town with his new band, and we had talked about it then. Then out of nowhere a few weeks back Tomas from Sig's Lagoon hit me up and asked, 'Can Jello play Fistful this month?' And how could I turn that down?", Anderson shares. "I don't think it's a particularly odd union. I got into soul and rhythm and blues through punk and by constantly digging into its roots. You'll find a lot of soul collectors/DJs with the same story."

Include Biafra in that group. The ringleader of Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine said he “only recently decided to start liking” soul music after years of collecting albums.

“I’m real excited to be at The Continental Club," says Biafra. "Stewart did a last-minute DJ thing at The Big Top next door a night or two after GSM played, so we got to know each other there and being vinyl junkies we were all kind of pawing at each other’s collection. ‘What’s that you just played? What’s that you just played?’ But, of course, that’s part of the fun.”

“We talked plenty about records last time he was in town and were constantly looking over each other's shoulders to see what was being queued up,” Anderson agrees. “I think people are pretty excited! A lot of people didn't seem to believe it at first but if you've been in record collecting circles long enough you know that Jello has a great and varied collection.”

“My musical tastes are very wide and, keep in mind, I’m so damn old that I heard a lot of those ‘60s garage classics in the ‘60s, as a second grader, when I first got into rock and roll and immediately gravitated towards the wild stuff,” Biafra says.

The first favorites for the man who wrote iconic songs like “Too Drunk to Fuck” included early Rolling Stones, Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Count Five, Eric Burdon & the Animals and the local bands that were getting airplay on the Boulder, CO radio stations he listened to, acts like The Astronauts and Moonrakers.

“I was buying singles hoping to find more of what was then called ‘60s punk and began blundering into really cool instrumentals," Biafra says. "Then I looked for more of those and blundered into rockabilly records, and when I looked for more of those I blundered into country and rhythm and blues.”

A Fistful of Soul continues growing as it nears its sixth anniversary
A Fistful of Soul continues growing as it nears its sixth anniversary
Photo by Mars Varela

Although Biafra cultivated his own collection the old-fashioned way, he’s not a vinyl snob. He’s fine with people building their own music libraries digitally. There are two reasons he hasn’t employed the Internet to add to his accumulation.

“Number one, I’m not very good with computers and number two, if I went on eBay to look for still more records, when would I ever get off?", he says. "Not even after I went broke, let’s put it that way. So I’m more into the treasure hunt of going to stores when I can, especially in towns I don’t live in, and finding things I never knew existed.

“I realize people can do that on the Internet too and, in a way, when people say, ‘Oh music’s no good anymore,’ they’re totally wrong," he says. "They’re acting jaded and need to put down the bottle and put down the drugs and get out of their apartments and go see some new bands at random. But that also goes for music you listen to at home. Luckily, nowadays if somebody young is a real music hound and wants to explore all kinds of things and blunder into some really cool magic accidents that might even inspire them to make their own music, they don’t have to accumulate some oversized record collection that clutters up every room in my house except the bathroom. And maybe the kitchen. Not yet anyway. You don’t have to because you can find it all online and I think that’s all for the good when people have that much more choice. Everything is available.”

As Biafra can attest to, hours of digging through music bins can ultimately mean one’s own music eventually gets added to record-store stacks.

“I think it really helps as a songwriter, too. I’m no good with instruments, so I compose in my head, meaning, instead of practicing my guitar, I’m just listening to all different kinds of music and then sometimes I’ll kind of get a riff in my head and think, ‘Oh, if I apply this riff to this energy, this tempo, this rhythm and then put this other part in, oh, that’s a cool song. I do a lot of that.”

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He’s doing it now, he said, working on songs for a new GSM album he hopes to complete after the band’s European tour later this summer. His latest release is Walk on Jindals Splinters by Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch & Soul Allstars. The album is a live recording of soul, R&B and garage-rock classics from a one-night-only set from 2011. It’s available on Biafra’s label, Alternative Tentacles.

“Well, it was done on a dare from Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock and Fred Le Blanc from Cowboy Mouth who dared me to come down to New Orleans and do a whole set of New Orleans songs during Jazz Fest,” he said. “It’s got a great southern roadhouse atmosphere, that’s for sure. Sure, there’s mistakes in it, but on a night like that the mistakes are half the fun.’

We couldn’t resist the urge to ask Biafra to share a recollection from past visits to Houston. Not surprisingly, he came up with a doozy, recalling a show Dead Kennedys played at The Island.

“The stuff going on on the stage was amazing," he says. "I think it was Doomsday Massacre and then Really Red then the Butthole Surfers and then us. There may even be video footage of that show. What a show. But then backstage, the whole thing was like vaporized vomit and then who decides to show up and surround the building to attack people but your friends and mine, the Houston Police. And this was not that long after all those murders they committed that are documented in that Really Red song, ‘Teaching You The Fear.’ The Houston cops had one of the worst reputations in the country, maybe even worse than the LAPD at that point.

“They surrounded the place, a lot of people got out, but we didn’t. And, if I recall correctly, East Bay Ray had the wherewithal to phone in and report an armed robbery in progress at a gas station that was spotted near the club, or somebody did anyway,and then the cops all took off in a hurry to go stop the armed robbery that didn’t even exist. So, we got the hell out of there. We were in no mood to be taught the fear first-hand, face to face, club to skull. And neither was anybody else.”

Even with A Fistful of Soul growing by the month in numbers and energy, it’s doubtful such history might repeat itself tomorrow night. Not even with a punk legend on the turntables.

“There have been a few older folks from the punk scene that have mentioned they were coming out, as have friends who haven't been to the party in years. I'm actually a little worried about the capacity as we're already getting pretty full on 'normal' nights,” Anderson notes. ”I'm sure there's going to be a ton of people there who haven't been before and don't know what to expect, hopefully they enjoy it and come back! It's great that we will hopefully be reaching some people who may not have come out before or may not have heard of our party.”

A Fistful of Soul feat. special guest DJ Jello Biafra,  10 p.m. Friday, July 17 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main Street. Free.

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