Interview: Civics 101 with Jello Biafra

Jello Biafra

Civics 101 with Jello Biafra
Music legend and political activist Biafra discusses vampire cereal mascots, why Obama is an O’Bummer, and why illegal file sharing is definitely not punk rock

By Jason Webber

Even Jello Biafra’s answering machine is hardcore.

After being instructed to call the founder of the Dead Kennedys and longtime political activist at his home by his publicist Alan (who, for the record, is the most organized and friendly PR guy I’ve met in this business), I end up getting an answering machine message that runs about three minutes long. It’s Jello’s unmistakable voice narrating a long political statement about, well, a bunch of stuff—Greece, the election; other stuff I can’t remember. When I finally hear the beep to leave a message, I’m a bit too stunned to leave a message – is the guy even home? – so  I hang up and call Jello’s cell phone.

It turns out this was a mistake.

“Hello?” Yup, it’s Jello, sounding ever so slightly annoyed.

“Um, hey, man…”

“You should’ve stayed on the other line,” he says. “You’re not supposed to hang up. You’re supposed to SPEAK!” Oh. Sorry, dude.

I excuse myself for the unintended faux pas and call him back on his land line. We’re supposed to talk about the forthcoming album White People and the Damage Done from his most recent band Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine—and we do—but when you’re talking to the Noam Chomsky of punk rock, you’re going to get more than just your standard “so tell me about the new album…” music interview.

For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the last 30 years, here are the Cliff Notes on Jello Biafra: He founded the legendary L.A. punk band Dead Kennedys and became one of the loudest political voices in the American punk scene. Years later, he established himself as a respected spoken word artist and became one of the strongest anti-censorship voices during the reign of the Parents Music Resource Center, the pro-record labeling organization co-founded by almost-First Lady Tipper Gore. Gore and Biafra became fierce sparring partners for a while and while some would argue that the PMRC won the battle — after all, we did get that now ubiquitous ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics’ sticker as a direct result of Tipper and the efforts of her fellow party crashers — Biafra was one of the one most coherent voices of reason during one of the most unreasonable times in recent American history.

Today, Biafra continues to run his underground record label Alternative Tentacles, makes music, does spoken word performances and is still trying to wake up the world from its cultural and political coma of apathy and human rights erosion. In an age gone mad with so-called “right to work” legislation, fiscal cliffs, the Tea Party and dishonest politicians on both sides of the political aisle (Biafra’s upcoming album includes a song about our current president titled “Barackstar O’Bummer”), we need Jello Biafra more than ever.

So how did you spend Election Night?

How did I spend it? Watching the boob tube while waiting for a call from the studio because we’re trying to finish mixing the new album and the sound in the studio in a little bit different from my home stereo because my home stereo is the barometer that I listen to everything on. That’s how I can tell if the mixes sound the way I want them to.

So you weren’t glued to the TV watching the returns?

I kind of was. I mean, I’m a political junkie. Granted I was too disappointed in Obama’s first term to vote for him. I didn’t vote for him the other time either. I had studied his Senate voting record and concluded that it was just more of the same. But I got to admit I’m grateful that we’re not looking at four years of President Romney and that cereal box Dracula character Ryan running the show.

So you just compared Paul Ryan to Count Chocula? That’s beautiful, man.

Well, no, he was in between Chocula and the other one. Another cereal vampire.

I think Chocula was the only vampire cereal mascot. There was Franken Berry, Boo Berry…

No, there was another vampire too. Can’t remember his name. Years ago I came up with the idea for Beirut Berry when there was a hostage situation going on—those hijackers with the pillows over their heads. So I drew up a cereal box that said ‘Beirut Berry’ and put it in as an insert on one of my spoken word albums.

Nice. So since you brought up Obama, I’m really digging your new song “Barackstar O’Bummer.” It’s classic Jello. Do you think it’s feasible that America could ever elect an independent candidate?

Unfortunately, it would depend on how much money the independent had. The only independent who really made a dent in recent years was unfortunately Ross Perot, who got about 15% of the vote twice. As Michael Moore put it, what does it say about the America voters when that many people voted for someone who they knew was insane? He got that many votes the first time even though he withdrew from the race at the time when he was ahead of both Clinton and Daddy Bush on the grounds that the CIA was plotting to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Then he came back in and still got 15% of the vote.

There’s a certain part of the electorate that’s so desperate for anything that doesn’t smell like anything that’s business as usual that they’ll vote for George Wallace one year and Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, Perot or Nader after that. There are people like that but others will argue that Nader made a huge dent in the 2000 election and boy, I wish he had. But Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the election. That’s a myth propagated by corporate Democrats. Gore cost himself the election. Perhaps he should have used the information that Greg Pallas, the author of “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” offered his campaign about how Katherine Harris was digitally altering the voter rolls to steal Florida and he didn’t do it.

On top of that, he goes back down to Florida, bitching and moping about hanging chads and the old Jewish lady vote but completely ignored a very large number of African-Americans who were barred from voting in Northern Florida. What was he, allergic to being photographed with civil rights leaders or what?

Another thing that cost him dearly was picking Joe Lieberman for vice president, who was a known right wing demagogue, even though he was a Democrat at the time. That smelled. I was working with Free Speech TV at the time, covering the Republican convention in Philadelphia when Gore picked Lieberman and the guy with me, who was from Philadelphia, said to me, “Yeah, my mother was so excited when she found out that Gore had picked a Jewish person to be the vice president.” Then she saw an interview with Lieberman and announced to her son that she was voting for Nader. That happened with a lot of people.

When it came down to Florida, Lieberman was the one who spoke out for counting all of the military ballots that were postmarked ‘day after the election’ or weren’t postmarked at all, claiming anything less was disrespecting soldiers and that helped tip the election to Bush. So it’s no surprise that McCain wanted to run with him the next time around, but he was buffaloed out of it and we got stuck with Sarah Palin instead.

The other thing that cost Al Gore the election, even more than Ralph Nader could ever hope to, was his wife. Where was the youth support for Al Gore? Did it even exist? Even John Kerry, who is as about as empty a husk as you could imagine, had way more youth support than Gore did and I think that’s because of the bad taste in people’s mouths that Tipper Gore left with her mean spirited, bigoted, anti-music campaign (the Parents Music Resource Center). I remember during that campaign, I’d mention her name at my spoken word shows and the audience would start booing and hissing. And these were people who were too young to vote then or too young to see how fucked up that campaign was. Angry gay activists who were pissed at Nader for supposedly costing Gore the election, I had to remind them that one of the things that Tipper Gore wanted red flagged and stickered in music was gay content. She also wanted a sticker and age restriction for anything mentioning suicide, even if it was anti-suicide.

Right. And she wanted a sticker for anything that could be labeled “occult.”

Well, the reason for that was because all of her co-conspirators were not so-called liberal Democrats, they were extreme right wing Christians; Christian supremacists even. He main co-founder Susan Baker, the wife of that gangster (former Treasury secretary) James Baker, was on the board of directors of Focus on the Family, which  to this day is one of the most well-funded and powerful Christian right hate groups. She networked with Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, Pat Robertson, the works.

When that PMRC flap was going on, were you in contact with Frank Zappa at all?

Yeah. That was one of the few silver linings of being dragged through court as the test case and through Tipper’s kitchen, if you will, but one of the things was people were taking what I was saying about the religious right a lot more seriously so my spoken word shows got vaulted from readings of my alleged poetry in coffeehouses to being brought into universities to speak on the subject of censorship. And the other was getting to spend time with Frank. He was very friendly, very supportive, and he knew the ramifications of the case and I think he was sniffing me out a little early on to make sure I wasn’t a Motley Crue or a Sid Vicious type of person who was going to blow it for everybody else. The first thing he said to me was “Remember—you are the victim.”

What’s so interesting about Frank is that he was also pretty politically conservative at times.

In some ways, yeah. I think he was pretty Libertarian because he really wasn’t down with taxes and I have to disagree with him on that. I’m very pro-tax as long at goes for the right things. I don’t mind paying more money as long as it’s going to provide shelter for people sleeping in the street or getting the schools getting fixed back up, getting the infrastructure up to the standards of other countries, including a high speed rail system. I’m totally down with that.

People bitch and moan now about taxes but they’re basically just fronting for the rich, who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. But they go into overdrive and get their Scrooge on whenever taxes are mentioned. Even if it’s not going to hurt them, they don’t want to pay a damn dime. They’re obsessed with this. And my attitude is “Fuck them.” There should be a maximum wage. After all, what really causes more problems in this world—drug addiction or wealth addiction? After you’ve made your first million, what’s the fucking point? You have enough money to live for the rest of your life. But people who go that route usually become obsessed with making more and more and more millions. They’re like crack addicts. “I must have more! I must have more! I must keep playing the game to win! I must win! Therefore everyone else must lose” (evil cackling laughter).

And that’s where you get people like Mitt Romney. If the wealth addicts are put into rehab with a maximum wage and they stayed there long enough to clean out their heads, maybe even Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney could do good. You never know.

My attitude has always been, OK, that may mean you get quite the surplus. But how do you spend that surplus? You spend it back into the community. Remember that concept? Community? Corporations and corporate media want us to abolish that from our thinking, so were saying “It isn’t right, it isn’t possible, you shouldn’t even have schools or disaster relief unless someone can make a profit on it.” And that’s what’s turned us into a country that’s not only falling behind but that’s just filled with unhappy people who just put themselves and their kids on psych meds. The payback from the money made from the maximum wage would be—what do you get?—free education for all, all the way up through med school, law school, whatever. Free transportation everywhere, including air travel. Fixing up our infrastructure and not waiting until there’s some profit motive and just winterizing every building leaking heat now as a way of bringing down global warming and fighting climate collapse.

Notice I didn’t say ‘climate change;’ let’s face it, folks, it’s time to call it ‘climate collapse.’ Even though he patted it on the head during his victory speech, when Obama reverted for a day or two back to the cool dude we used to think he was, he does not have a good record in that department. He didn’t exactly send people to Copenhagen and wanting to make progress and get a deal done, they were doing the opposite.

You’re heavily active in the Occupy movement. Do you think the movement still has teeth? Where does it go from here?

Well, you’re giving me too much credit by saying I’m “heavily active.” Yes, we put out the “Shock-U-Py” song but I was sending a lot of time in my cage trying to get the recordings done in time for the election. It was a tough choice. Do I go down and live in a tent or should I keep working on my art as a way of helping motivate the troops, so to speak? It was a tough back and forth and I do what I can. I emceed the anniversary concert in New York, which was a great honor and pleasure. People kept showing up late to the stage so I had to do a-capella versions of four or five songs to kill time.

As far as where Occupy goes from here, not a lot of hardcore Occupiers agree with me on this but rather than disappearing or giving up, I think there’s a ripple effect. Even though many Occupiers think we should occupy completely outside the electoral system and just fight the whole damn thing because of how corrupt it is, I think Occupy played a major role in Romney and Ryan losing and were the major catalyst for inequality being named a major issue in this election. That wasn’t was the Obamathons or the Romnoids wanted on the first burner at all. You’re not supposed to talk about this. They still restricted the debates to saving the middle class without even mentioning that there’s a lot of people in this country who aren’t middle class anymore – they’re poor. P-O-O-R. What about them, Barackstar? C’mon! It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. If Romney and Ryan got in and everybody’s last part of the safety net got shredded, I was afraid there were gonna be riots.

In Greece it’s gotten to the point where people have even gotten cynical about the riots. “Oh, here they go again. The same old stuff.” But it’s definitely still having an effect. I was just there and Greece is the petri dish or the Frankenstein lab, if you will, for what the robber barons and the banksters want to do to everybody else.

There’s been a slow-but-sure corporate coup going on, at least since Reagan was in office, moving very slowly, like a tank moving down the street trying to crush everything in its path. Every once in a while, you barely feel the tread on you until it’s just about to crush your skull. Every once in a while when they figure they can get away with more, like after 9/11 or right now with all of the money grabs that went on after the economy collapsed and Obama wound up helping the banksters instead of the people with the underwater mortgages. Every once in a while they try to step on the gas and see how much they can get away with. Draw a line in the dirt, cross it. Draw another line in the dirt, cross that one too. That’s how they do things. And Greece is ground zero with Spain and Portugal not far behind. And part of it was because the banks that did carry the Greek debt decided to all call in the loans at once, saying “Y’know, you better pay up. We’re gonna make an example out of you. And hey Spain, hey Ireland, hey Portugal, if you don’t do the same and start coughing up blood money, we’re gonna do the same thing to you! Then we’re gonna get Britain and then the United States.” That’s their attitude.

The scariest part in Greece was that I was afraid that with all these actions on one side, there was going to be an equal reaction—and there is. Keep in mind the last time Greece got this wild was in 1967 when there was a military coup supported by the United States. So I worry about that. Everybody says “No, the European Union would not allow them to stay in if there’s a full on coup.” You have to have a coup that doesn’t look like a coup, so what they’re doing is stoking a full-on Nazi party that calls themselves, of all things, the Golden Dawn. Kind of a New Age-y thing and also the name of a legendary Texas band that recorded a great fucking album. But what an insult to them.

When I was there, the leader of the Golden Dawn seig heiled on TV and said “At least the palms of my hands are clean.” People there were telling me that the reason they’ve gone from 0.1% to getting 7% of the last election and seats in Parliament is because they’re the only ones who talk plainly instead of gobbledygook to people, similar to the Tea Party. But the Golden Dawn are armed and they’re violent and they estimate that half the police force voted for the Golden Dawn and are involved, as are a lot of the upper military brass who were young, gung-ho soldiers wanting to rise in the ranks back in the days of the military dictatorship. So what you have is a combination of the Tea Party, the militia movement and the underworld all operating with the cooperation of government. It’s a scary situation.

I checked out Crete after the tour was done and the people were saying “Yeah, the Golden Dawn aren’t that scary here. They tried to open an office here but we threw them out.” But then that same guy who told me that came up to me later and said “A friend of mine just called me and said that three people who identify as Golden Dawn came to his workplace and told him ‘We’ve seen you at these demonstrations and if we see you at another one, we’re gonna fuck you up.’”

It’s full on brown shirt shit. Scary as fuck. It’s almost as scary as when Oliver North suggested using the militia movement to crack down on everybody who was protesting using military force on Nicaragua back when he was working for Reagan.

How are things at Alternative Tentacles these days?

Pretty rough. We’re trying to survive. It’s getting to the point where if you sell a thousand copies of anything, it’s a gold record. That really cramps our style because we have to be more limited in how many albums we put out and how many people we’re able to help and how good we are at keeping up with our bills or keeping things in print.

It’s becoming a bigger and bigger struggle and I hate to say this, but a major chunk of that is indeed file-sharing. That doesn’t mean I’m down with the RIAA trying to sue twelve-year olds and single moms for millions of dollars, which is a shakedown scam that you would normally only associate with the old school mafia. It seems like they made a corporate decision to go for nothing but Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift-sized blockbusters and then spend the rest of their money suing people instead of trying to put out better music.

But at the same time, I wish people would be cognizant of the fact that when you’re illegally downloading underground music, you are directly hurting the artist and the underground label that’s trying to survive. We’ve lost bands on A.T. prematurely—some of the best bands we’ve ever had in recent years—because that weren’t selling enough albums and weren’t able to sustain themselves on the road.

Plus at the same time, rents have skyrocketed since the Dead Kennedys days, you got student loans hanging over your head, jobs are hard to find. It’s harder to get a really cool band off the ground and the more people actually buy their stuff, the more likely it is that that band will last long enough to make more music. It directly connects. I wish people would think about that. Courtney Love just said “We shouldn’t even worry about file sharing, we should all be willing to work for tips.” But this is somebody who was born into millions of dollars and who has gone through fortunes ever since. It doesn’t apply to real life.

(Jello Biafra and the Guantamo School of Medicine’s new album White People and the Damage Done will be released in March. Their EP Shock-U-Py! is available now from Alternative Tentacles at www.alternativetentacles.com.)

6 Comments
  • peter

    “here are the Cliff Notes on Jello Biafra: He founded the legendary L.A. punk band Dead Kennedys” … they were from San Francisco.