An Unfiltered Chat With Jello Biafra
Jello Biafra (second from left) and his fellow Guantanamo School of Medicine surgeons
Photo courtesy of Alternative Tentacles
For more than three decades, Jello Biafra has remained the brassy conscience of punk rock, willing to knock down the sacred cows of politics and rock and roll. First honing his diatribes in the Dead Kennedys, next dabbling in film and spoken word, and ultimately joining forces with DOA, NoMeansNo, the Melvins, and Al Jourgensen for projects aplenty, he has remained ever-potent and enrapturing, a changeling that never quite sheds his skin.
As a news junkie, edgy showman, political reformist, and punk shaman, he has continued to curate fabled label Alternative Tentacles, survived a bitter feud with former bandmates, and kept retirement far away while firing up Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, his vociferous psych-punk band with ex-members of Victim's Family and Rollins Band.
Rocks Off's David Ensminger rang up Biafra before he hits the road for Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin and Houston's Continental Club this Sunday night. Here are some excerpts.
Rocks Off: Does Rick Perry coming to power instill a kind of fear in you? Jello Biafra: I would be really surprised if he ever became President, but if he was put in charge of say, Secretary of the Interior, or something in a Jeb Bush administration, then watch the fuck out, especially since he is connected with the New Apostles [the New Apostolic Reformation].
When people talk about the dangers of ISIS or Islamists, we have to realize that America is under threat not just by market fundamentalists but by Christianists, and Perry is a hardcore Christianist, who -- if these allegations of this cult he belongs to are to be believed -- considers himself as one of the new prophets sent by God to cleanse the earth of devil-worshipers and Democrats. But I think on a national level, he is looked at as more of a buffoon now.
On the other hand, so was Ronald Reagan the first two times he ran for President. But after they marinated him long enough and realized the time was ripe to pounce, suddenly he wasn't always portrayed as this scowling, dangerous warmonger or a completely clueless cowboy actor in all the national media. Suddenly he became the guy you always wanted to be your grandpa. And he stormed in, and the rest is sordid history.
And I try to remind people of that when they just missed another national laughing stock by the name of Sarah Palin. I mean sure, she is one hell of a buffoon, but she is also an electrifying speaker and has more stage and screen presence than all the other Republican talking heads combined. And she is younger than I am, so her very existence will torment and plague me the rest of my natural life because I think they are just marinating her until the time is right.
Of course, once they do they can spin all the dumb stuff she's done anyway they want to.
You've also spoken of Texas as giving birth to the Tea Party. What do you think of them right now? More and more I think they are showing their true colors. Back when I was a kid in grade school, the had another name - they were called the Klu Klux Klan. Now they are smart enough to leave the hoods in the top drawer, plus they have vastly more money both in oil-stained Texas billionaires like the Koch Bros. and whatnot.
I urge people who find the Koch Bros. as easy boogiemen to blame stuff on now, and there's a lot of good ground for that, like actively trying to John Birch-ify this country for decades and helping put up money for the Heritage Foundation and all these other things, but people seem to be forgetting another moneyed family that helped get a lot of that going with money and influence, named Coors.
It's harder to boycott the Koch Bros. because you can't just go out and boycott a refinery or something. It just doesn't quite work that way. Sure, you can avoid Georgia Pacific paper towels, but for most part their money is not in consumer industries. Coors, for the most part, was a different matter. I got hip to what that was when I was still in grade school because my parents kicked Coors out of the fridge and out of the house, and never let it back in, because of Joe Coors' political activities. Later, he was in Reagan's cabinet or was credited to be the one that planted James G. Watt in the interior department.
People don't believe me, but I tell them that's part of the motive of these people is that a lot of them are reconstructionists or dominionists as they are called. I believe Perry is another one, and Palin another one too, and W may have been one too. They believe it is the End Time, and Jesus is going to come back, and when he does, he's going to put all the forests, all the natural resources back, and even all the money that has been looted out of Washington that created the deficit because Jesus loves America.
They believe this shit. Watt came right out and admitted it. So then Clown Prince W gets into Washington and takes another Coloradoan, Gale Norton, to be interior secretary, and guess who she worked for, the Mountain State Legal Foundation, another strip-mine, clear-cut, drill-baby-drill fetishizer.
Who do think is worse, the wolves of Wall Street or the bankers of Dillinger's time, since you sing songs about both on the last album? I think they are the same animal, are they not? I mean they have been working to rewind the clock back to the roaring twenties ever since the market crashed in 1929. And if they can get it back that far, then hey maybe we can go back another century, the Robber Baron era, then maybe even go back a little further and have a lot of slaves or at least a sharecropper existence for a good part of the population while they laugh all the way to the bank.
Again, they are wealth addicts, like crack addicts, and they already have so much money they can't figure out what to do with it except to scam more.
You obtained a LP by the 13th Floor Elevators in the early 1970s; did that make a profound impact on you? The first one I got was Easter Everywhere in the free box at the used record store I went to in Boulder. That was one advantage of growing up in a town infested with country-rock and Scientology jazz fusion -- stuff like that the Elevators would show up in the free box, the MC5 would be 50 cents, and I got Fun House by the Stooges for a dime.
Of course, by then I had unplugged completely from commercial radio and pop culture in general and followed my own interests and desires. Finally, I got a hold of The Psychedelic Sounds..., the first [Elevators] album, that's the one that really blew me away. I still love that album. All that Elevators stuff never gets old.
Story continues on the next page.
Jello Biafra with the Dead Kennedys at Houston's The Island, early 1980s
Photo courtesy of Ben DeSoto
What about the Texas slant on punk rock -- the Dicks, Butthole Surfers -- did you find so appealing? I think we have to take the two separately. When I saw the Buttholes, I thought, you know, maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but this may be the most important band to come out of Texas since the 13th Floor Elevators. Later, Mighty Sphincter and Sun City Girls came through San Francisco opening for JFA, and the New Mexico bands like Kor-Phu, Bent and others, began to make themselves known.
Tim Yohannon, of [legendary punk zine] Maximumrocknroll, while Sun City Girls or Mighty Sphincter were playing, said, "I think we need to do an entire feature on sun-damaged bands," and the first one out of his mouth besides the band we were looking at was the Butthole Surfers (laughs), which he liked at the time.
You can rewind a little further into early Texas punk, the Texas '70s and '80s punk. I mean, a lot of us were forming our bands and honing our sounds and attitudes almost in a vacuum because there were hardly any independent DIY records in America except a handful of singles, and the ones that got imported from Britain where the scene was a lot bigger. So, a lot of the bands had distinct sounds and personalities.
Big Boys were a good example. Because there weren't all these cookie-cutter punk and hardcore bands and genre-fied styles to copy. It was a visceral reaction against all the stupid stuff going on both politically in the 1970s and especially musically, where the radio was pushing soft rock and adult rock, and we didn't want to be adults. Or they pushed Triumph of the Will-style arena rock for the kids who wanted something heavy. People in different places wanted more, and they put their stamp on it. You couldn't keep them off the stage anymore. I mean, [Dicks singer] Gary Floyd would be a perfect example.
What also characterized those bands and gave them an edge, which we also saw with Really Red and some of the others, was...it's one thing to be up against hostile venues that would rather have an Eagles cover band, than put up with the likes of you and your friends, and jocks coming into the room just wanting to boo you offstage because you're not ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then of course there is the police.
Outside of L.A., the police department that scared the shit out of people more than anywhere in the country were in Texas, especially Houston. It seemed like Biscuit, Gary, Really Red, and AK-47 with that "The Badge Means You Suck" single, were challenging some of the most out-of-control, violent police departments in America. They were one step away from being full-blown Latin American death squads, meaning they were risking life and limb just to say this shit and play this music.
Nowadays a lot of people take the whole underground independent scene for granted. There's always going to be bands and message boards and blogs and endless things to entertain us, but it was very different earlier on.
Why did you feel compelled to make the Really Red discography available [through Alternative Tentacles] in February 2015? Because I always loved the band, they were my friends, and they walked a pretty unique tightrope. Sure, they were kind of the main people of the Houston punk scene, or so it seemed, but even though they were a little older than me, or say people in the Avengers or even the Sex Pistols, and a little artier and post-punk, they made the transition to the hardcore audience when a lot of the early punks walked away.
I am sure it didn't hurt that Ronnie [U-ron] had Real Records, the store where a lot of punk and hardcore kids bought their vinyl. So he was always up on what was going on. He called me up once raving about Minor Threat after seeing the five-piece lineup come through Houston and said, "It was almost as if I was seeing the Velvet Underground." That kind of a take on Minor Threat could come from no one but Ronnie.
I didn't know until reading your article [now the liner notes to the reissues] that those guys are a few years older than me to the point where they got to see the Elevators live. They absorbed that stuff when they were young. I didn't have that. I didn't have any older siblings with record collections. I was kind of on my own...I thought if Alternative Tentacles would have been much more off the ground or had more money back in the day, we might well have put out Teaching You the Fear right then and there.
I am really excited that the song I wanted for Let Them Eat Jellybeans! is finally going to come out. Their manager "Bob Philips" [Bob Webber] told me they didn't want to use "Little Death" on Let Them Eat Jellybeans! because they felt it was a puny live recording compared to all the people that had been in the studio, like DOA.
But I still think that was the best song to use, and much to my shock it wasn't even used on any of the albums, so now you can finally hear "Little Death." And I was surprised by what a better sound I was able to get out of the Despise Moral Majority EP, their hand-stamped looking official bootleg 7" EP back in the day. I tried to get them to sound as best as possible and tried to top the originals.
Plus, Ronnie in his lyrics was not afraid to show his own intelligence and depth and try to get people to think instead of spieling out "I hate this, I hate that." They are kind of on another level there, as was a lot of the music, and Kelly [guitarist] had all these unique little post-punk sprinkles going on. I finally threw up my hands while trying to write the press sheet today because I can't compare him to anybody! They were a punk band, and arguably a hardcore band, especially on the New Strings For Old Puppets EP, but they didn't sound like anybody else.
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine play Sunday, November 9 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 9 p.m.
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