Happy Birthday Jello Biafra
Happy 57th birthday to former Dead kennedys singer Jello Biafra.
Bill Gould played bass for Jello's band The Guantanamo School Of Medicine, recording the album The Audacity Of Hype in 2009, however due to FNM commitments only toured briefly with the band.
In the two decades-plus he last fronted the legendary Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra has busy developing his spoken word endeavours, his sporadic returns to music him collaborate with the likes of NoMeansNo, D.O.A. and Melvins over the years. But not since his last outfit — the Jello/Ministry hybrid Lard — was he involved in a 'proper' band. The first full album of music in over four years. The Audacity Of Hype, his forthcoming debut with brand new outfit The Guantanamo School Of Medicine, finally sees Jello back in the studio and on the road, and it's everything you would from the man responsible for some of the greatest records in the history of punk - and beyond.
"I'VE DONE HIT AND RUN collaborations for years" Jello says, "and being a wide-eyed music fan I couldn't resist being able to get in the ring with everybody from D.O.A. to NoMeansNo, to Mojo Nixon, to the Melvins, or the Steel Pole Bath Tub guys with the
Tumor Circus album. But there's always something gained but something missing, and this time I'm able to a little more fully call the shots. But that in no way is a put-down of the other work I've done. It's just that I was itching to be able to put back some of the outer fringes that weren't always captured when I was borrowing someone else's band and working under the gun."
Inspired by Iggy Pop's punk royalty-in-their-golden-years torch-bearing, Jello assembled a
brand new band after witnessing The Stooges celebrate their frontman's 60th (!), and like Iggy, he hasn't mellowed one iota with age. Far from it, in fact - as anyone who has witnessed his triumphant return to the stage on the recent GSoM tour will testify, there's still plenty of life and razorblade wit left in the man born Eric Reed Boucher yet.
"I saw The Stooges on Iggy Pop's 60th birthday and got caught up in the moment like everybody else in the room" he laughs, "complete with jumping up and diving off the stage, and it occurred to me - oh shit, I turn 50 next year, I better do something that, if it's half as good as The Stooges, I'll declare a victory."
Conceived and put into action last year as part of the Biafra Five-0 shows (see what he did
there?), which saw Jello's last musical adventure he likes to call Jelvins likewise take to the stage in celebration of the man's 50th birthday, the outfit was initially billed as The Axis Of Merry Evildoers. Fast forward several months and The Guantanamo School Of Medicine is born, featuring some of Biafra's closest compatriots and underground luminaries: Ralph Spight (Victims Family), Jan Weiss (Sharkbait, Horsey), Kimo Ball (Freak Accident, MolTriffid) and one Billy Gould.
"It was Ralph, Billy and Jon,and then we added Kimo, another guitarist, last winter" Jello explains. "I wanted a double-barrelled attack. Dead Kennedys was a five piece for the first six months, then when 6025 left we never found the right person to replace him, we just stayed as four."
Aside from Biafra, the presence of Billy Gould makes this bandthat much more tantalising, but since the recording of their debut album was completed Faith No More sprung back into action, meaning that Gould remains part ofGuantanamo only in spirit, and of course on record. "We've known each other for many years" Jello says of Billy's involvement. "I was at a Ministry show and ran into him. I told him I was putting a new band together and was looking for a bass player, and did he know anybody he would recommend - and he recommended himself [laughter]. Bill has since gone back into Faith No More, so for the tour we're borrowing Jon's brother AndrewWeiss, who you might know from Rollins Band, and Ween and his time in the Butthole Surfers."
And with Billy back on full-time bass duties in FNM, are there any plans for him to return to GSoM? "I'm guessing not, I think we'll have to proceed with a new new bass player from September."
SO FAR THIS DECADE, JELLO HAS kept a relatively low profile. Aside from the Melvins collaboration, he was briefly involved in the short-lived No WTO Combo at the turn of the millennium with Krist Novoselic and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, and guest-appeared on various records by Ministry, Napalm Death and the like, attributing the lack of musical output to what he calls "a series of adventures good and bad over the years" first and foremost
his spoken word releases and performances which diverted Jello's attention from the music side of things.
"When you discover you have another gift you didn't know about, maybe having more political influence than your music ever did, then you kind of have an obligation to use it, in a way" he says. "And there might have been more stuff with the Melvins but then they got more deeply involved back in their own band, and at the same time my spoken word shows slowly evolved into one of the best ones I'd ever done, I thought, so I wanted people to hear it. And I stayed out doing that for another couple of years. Of course this might have all started in the 90s if I hadn't been sued by greedy, ungrateful former members of my old band."
Jello's spoken word has certainly come increasingly into the spotlight over the years, his no-holds-barred, deliciously humorous, analysis of current affairs delivered with such conviction, not to mention the man's undeniable charisma, that you simply have to agree with everything that comes out of his mouth. It all started back in the 80s, just as his original band was coming to an end - perhaps an inevitable path given his lyrical preoccupations.
"I'm not sure it was even my idea," he says of his early foray into spoken word."I kept getting
these phone calls from a guy in L.A. named Harvey Kubernik, who was instrumental in getting Henry Rollins started with spoken word, and he worked with Exene Cervenka and John Doe and Jeffrey lee Pierce, as well as people on the literature side of the fence,
local poets likeWanda Coleman and MichelleT. Clinton and Michael C. Ford from central California. And his little label put out a spoken word album by Charles Bukowski and kept urging me to give it a try, and it went over really well, especially my warped sense of humour and the buried political information I was weaving into my work. I never was much of a poet so it's good that I tried it with spoken word, which is kind of a catch-all term. It can be poetry, literature, comedy, theatre, commentary, performance art, or all of the above."
"And then when the Los Angeles police decided it would be a great idea to be the first on their block to bust a musician at the urging of Tipper Gore and the Reagan administration" he continues,"I wound up being their pigeon so I fought back, and I fought back publicly, and in a lot of cases it was Harvey Kubernik drowning me in interviews. But all those interviews proved important because it helped turn the tide against a well-organised, well-funded anti-music and anti-culture campaign. And because of the publicity from the trial over the not-so-obscene content of Dead Kennedy's Frankenchrist album, suddenly my spoken word appearances vaulted from little readings in coffee houses to being brought into colleges and universities as an alleged expert on censorship to lecture to people - but instead of giving a lecture l gave a spoken word performance. By the time the Gulf war happened I realized that my talk on 'censorship', as I called it, could include just about any topic because almost everything relevant was being censored out of corporate McNews in America. I thought
it was dumbed-down then, but it's even more dumbed-down now."
And if you think for one moment -nat the end of the presidential term of Jello's archenemy Bush means that things are quieter in Biafra-land, think again. Not only is the album title a pun on Obama's book. The Audacity Of Hope, but there's the little issue of Guantanamo itself. "Don't believe the hype" he deadpans. "Obama said he was gonna close it but now they're talking about building an exact replica of it somewhere in the state of Michigan, where people will still be treated exactly the same, and they're saying they may hold some
people without trial for the rest of their lives. I think the reason they're scared to bring them to trial is either because they consider them dangerous but know they're innocent, or they can't prove anything. Or that all the evidence they gathered against them was obtained
by torturing other prisoners at Guantanamo or Iraq or wherever. It frightens me that Obama is backsliding so badly already, not just on healthcare and the economy, but also on war crimes. I mean, there's no middle ground about war crimes, you can't be neutral about something like that."
So what's Jello's verdict on Obama's tenure to date? "Basically, America is a one-party state that's packaged for the masses as a two party state. It has two corporate controlled parties, two right-wings: the Democrats and the Republicans. But the Democrats are about as pro-Democracy as the Labour party is pro-Labour in this day and age. And don't forget that Obama got more campaign contributions from Wall Street and the giant megabanks than any other candidate in the last national election. The same people put all their money into
Clown Prince W -George W. Bush. They put the money to Obama this time. Not Hillary Clinton, not McCain, they put it into Obama. Some might say he's paid them back a
trillion-fold. I mean, the heartbreak of it all is when you see Obama on TV you really like the guy, he seems like somebody who's really right on, you might even want to hang out with him or something. But then looking at his voting record at the Senate and the people he's surrounded himself with in the White House, and the policies they're pursuing, it hurts a lot more because you expect the worst from somebody like Bush - and people realized pretty quickly that Clinton was just more of the same Reagan/ Bush policy - but with Obama it
hurts more because there's that little flickering bit inside everybody that does have the audacity to hope that fínally there will be some real change. But so far it's basically a Vaudeville show to keep people docile in the corporate dictatorship."
BIAFRA'S RAISON D'ETRE, SO TO speak, was always to be the perennial thorn in the side for politicians and corporates, and his work in spoken word continues the same objective he had since Dead Kennedy, minus the music of course. So does he foresee, in the coming years, foregoing music entirely in favour of spoken word tours?
"If I saw that I wouldn't be making music now, would I?" he laughs. "It's kind of a thankless time to be making music because anybody who likes it is gonna fíle-share it, because they don't have any money and even if they do have money they'll do it anyway. But there's still all these songs inside of me and these cool riffs and lyric ideas that I figure I ought to get out at some point."
And speaking of file sharing, how are things at Alternative Tentacles Towers these days? "We're having a more and more difficult time surviving" he sighs. "Having Dead Kennedys stolen out from under us and then sent out to Hollywood pimps didn't help. In this day and age it's a combination of a poor economy - and people have sky rocketing rents, lousy job wages and student loans hanging over their head - and at the same time thanks to the Nirvana boom and the Green Day boom and what's come after, more and more people
than ever before are making music and there's more and more cool bands and more and more cool labels. But the audience has not grown in the same proportion, so the slices of the pie get smaller and smaller. Even in a country the size of America, if you sell a thousand copies of anything you might as well give yourself a gold record in this day and age."
"It also means that some of the greatest bands we've ever had on our 30-year, 400-release history of Alternative Tentacles have split and given up a lot earlier than they would have in a different kind of climate he adds. "I know how easy it is and tempting it is to file-share
but I urge people to think about whether they're hurting the artist or not, and in the case of a small independent it definitely does hurt the artist. If it's a major label artist that's
totally different, because the major labels go so far out of their way to rip their artists off that I don't think file sharing really damages the artist at all. But for underground peopie... I mean the saddest example is when somebody who doesn't have a lot of extra cash spends years
trying to record and release something they've had in their hearts all this time. If everybody just rips it off and file-shares it then they're never gonna make another album, we'll never get to hear them again."
What's the solution? Is there one? "I'm not sure there is a concrete solution. I don't support the major label cartels running around suing teenagers and single mothers for file sharing just to see if they can shake them down for several thousand dollars in advance'cause
people are afraid to be dragged into court. It's just the kind of shakedown that you'd expect from the Sopranos or the Godfather. In America the major labels made a hundred million dollars from suing people, I think that they decided behind closed doors that's the main way they wanna make money. You know - why waste money putting out music we already know is shitty when we can just run around suing people, extorting them? And of that hundred million dollars guess how much has gone to the artist? Not even one dollar. Not even one
penny. They say it all goes to a charity organization that's used to hire more lawyers to sue more people. That's charity? The people who run major labels might as well be running Exxon or Halliburton."
In spite of the current climate, however. Alternative Tentacles is busy as ever. Never strictly adhering to any kind of specific sound or genre, Jello's label has released such iconic artists as Neurosis, Zeni Geva, Butthole Surfers, NoMeansNo and of course the numerous
Jello-related projects to name but a few, while the past couple of years have seen everything from oddities like Slim Cessna's Auto Club to acid punks Triclops! (also featuring a member of Victims Family). And there is a lot more to come.
"In the fall we have Star Fucking Hipsters, their second album which features Sturgeon, the singer from Leftover Crack" Jello reveals. "It's one of the most heartfelt and emotional albums ever made, and we're gonna reissue both albums and a lot of other things
by a rather unique and viscerally intelligent West Virginia hardcore band from back in the day called -you guessed it-Th'Inbred."
One thing that's missing, of course is Dead Kennedys. His former bandmates have wrestled
the rights to the albums, meaning that Jello is no longer able to release them on his label. "For now anyway" he says. "At some point they're gonna have to realize that all they've done is dumbed down the catalogue and shrinked the audience with every stupid move they've made."
For years, and embroiled in what seems like an eternal legal battle with Jello, the other Dead Kennedys have been busy gigging with on-off vocalists, and while unlikely reunions have happened, Jeito finds any notion that he may work with the other three again "insulting".
"Believe me, I love and respect the music far more than Ray and Klaus and Peligro ever did" he stresses, "and no way am I gonna have it put in a Levi's commercial or anything else. They put a cover of 'Too DrunkTo Fuck' as background music to a brutal rape scene in the Grindhouse film that Tarantino was involved in. Now they've got this person they've
hired as a manager who seems to think he's my manager, running around Hollywood trying to stir up interest in making some kind of horrible Metallica-type documentary about Dead Kennedys"
DK aside, the rumour mill has been working overtime on the possibility of a new record from another of Jello's classic bands Lard. "There might be eventually. Al [Jourgensen] has talked about wanting to get it done this year although this year is rapidly evaporating away, so I don't know what's gonna happen. I'm open to the idea, I think there needs to be another Lard at some point. Al announced a new one existed about three Ministry tours ago in
the English press, and I thought: Oh wow, that's cool, except it would help if we recorded it first [laughter]. But Al is one of these Field Of Dreams kind of guys, youknow, build it and it will come."
FOR NOW, JELLO IS WELL AND truly back with Guantanamo School Of Medicine, and the
debut album, slated for an October release, will be vintage Biafra by the sounds of it. Though not one single note has been released to the public at the time of going to press,
fans are already coming out in droves, with shows selling out across Europe and more recordings to come. "We'll play some more shows in Europe and then we have the 30th anniversary of Alternative Tentacles Blow-out party going on in San Francisco the first weekend of November" he confirms, "and then we'll probably make more recordings. Another five or six songs that we recorded didn't make it on this album, but they'll all see the light of day someday. I don't like to waste recordings." "I'm really kind of blown away"he concludes, "that there's this much interest in a live tour of a band that, at the time the booking agent asked me to give it a try, had no name, no photo, no bio and no recording. I'm very grateful that anybody would be interested in anything I'm doing at my age. I'm 51 now, but in a reverse way that also puts more pressure on me and the others to make it as good as we can."