As one of the key upstarts to the California punk/hardcore scene, Jello Biafra emerged as the singer of the Dead Kennedy's in the late '70's and hasn't gone away since. Whether he's singing, writing, acting, doing spoken word, or churning out records on his label, Alternative Tentacles, Jello has remained one of punk rock's true pioneers for the last thirty years. Fresh off the heals of Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine's newest album, Audacity of Hype, Mr. Biafra took the time to chat with Michael Dauphin.
You're now touring now with your newest project, which is Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine. And you guys just released The Audacity of Hype. What were some of your more prominent inspirations going into this album?
Boy, that's a hard one to analyze. I just make the stuff. All the musical things I do are just riffs I like with topics that concern me or things I think would make a cool song. You know, even if it's a dark subject… I don't really feel like I have succeeded when I'm working on the lyrics until I'm laughing. Or there's something diabolical about them.
I think that's what has kept you successful through the years. People grasp onto that humor and the sickness inside it, which gets to the point where it shouldn't be that funny but it is anyway.
Well, it's more than just that too. I usually am pretty picky about lyrics-just like with the music-in that I don't use the first thing that rhymes. Sometimes, I'll be thinking about a subject for years and if anything pops into my head I just write it down and file it away and then if something else comes, then I'll write that down and file it way. And then when I finally want to turn it into a song it's a great big mess because all the different things I wrote down are in different meters and time signatures and none of them may actually fit the song. So with me, it's not struggling to come up with enough words, it's trying to figure out how to cut the words out to fit the length of the song.
Is it a complete patchwork operation or do you kind of file them into separate files?
It all depends. Sometimes I can't figure out where to put something so I put it in a bunch of different places. Some of them keep migrating around from song to song for years but they never quite get in.
How much writing did you do, musically, for this record?
Practically everything. I teach the parts with my voice. I pretty much always compose with my voice. It's the same way I did with The Dead Kennedy's, and um… The very early days of Dead Kennedy's, I would try to show Ray the riff by playing a single string on guitar. I was never much of a guitar player so, eventually, Krause said, "Look, you sing well enough on key so why don't you sing us the part." And then I was a free man because I could come up with more intricate and complicated parts.
You know "Chemical Warfare," as opposed to "California Uber Alles" or something like that. And, weirdly, because I do this with my voice and haven't had any formal music training, it took the original Dead Kennedy's a month to figure out the chords to "California Uber Alles". Made perfect sense to me.
You need to create some sort of Jello Biafra voice tablature.
Well, I mean, I don't have much other choice. Also, what took me years to figure out, that there are a couple of other key things going on. If I was isolating myself trying to get some song written, or partially written, and bringing in some practice room riffs or something to add something the other guys came up with, I was listening to little or no punk music at all, subconsciously. Just sort of, I guess, a curiosity search for other ideas to blend in to make the songs a little more different.
Another thing that dawned on me years later, sometimes when I mix this stuff I'm so mood consciouse that I'm almost approaching it more like somebody would direct a film than somebody would produce music. If every instrument isn't perfect or audible but you get a chill down your spine, that's what I like to use. That also feeds into the lyrics too. You'll notice I don't usually do the standard sloganeering but a lot of people do with political music. I like to paint pictures. I like the scenario where you can practically see the stuff going on in the room.
I guess that came from all the method acting experience I had doing plays and theater as a teenager where you're supposed to build the character from within rather that just walk five steps turn thirty seven in a half degrees and then spit out your line. You know most of the great actors of the past several decades have been method actors, and Iggy Pop contributed that being a good crucial building block in his performances as well.
Sure. I think that's what some of the best writers around know how to do. They tell the other person's story and make it seem sincere. And they don't just bullshit it. I think that's what makes any type of writer worth a damn, right?
Well some people, even friends over the years, have complained that I don't write enough personal stuff. But, hey, this is what's personal to me. It's my way of singing the blues. Plus, a lot of other peoples' personal lyrics just bore me to tears. I hated love songs from the moment I found out what they were as a seven year old, when I first discovered rock and roll. Then, by the time I was in high school, I realized all these teen romance songs were one big lie designed to sell people a product and make them obedient, insecure consumers. So I didn't get into that. In some cases too, some of what is stereotyped as emo now is, "Oh my god, my poor life. I have so many issues, I have so much anxiety. My parents just bought the band new equipment and we are about to sign to Interscope. Oh god, life is so hard!"
Are you saying that you really don't get into any love songs or anything of that nature?
Very few. They don't speak to me, they just push romance as a cure-all carrot on a stick to get people to buy or at least buy into something.
Very effective tool, too! It's really hard to write a punk love song. And I'm not talking about all the dippy-ass pop punk girly-poof songs. Those are just plain stupid. Might as well be Donnie Osmond with loud guitar. But, I mean, one example of a good one would be "Trust" by 7 Seconds. I mean, that was honest and straight from the heart but it was real.
But when you think about some of the older Replacements, I think they had a very sincere angle running through them.
Depending on how much alcohol and drugs were working. Maybe that's not fair to say. I don't know. I don't know their work that well at all. I only have their first couple of albums and I don't have any of the others…
One tid bit out that might enhance people's appreciation and understanding of our fine work and new album [Audacity of Hype], "The Terror of Tiny Town," that opens the album, is based off a movie with the same name from the 1930's. It's an old western and the cast is all midgets.
The cast is all what?
Midgets. Or dwarves. I don't know which? I guess there is a difference between the two or maybe some of each. But there're no regular-sized people in that movie. There's a still photo from the movie on the cover of an Adrenaline O.D. album. When I saw the movie again, I thought, "My god, what a perfect metaphor for what Bush did in Iraq." Here's the black hat evil midget cowboy saying how he's going to trick everybody into handing him all the land in the area and then he killed one of the good cowboys and he's eventually trapped in a building and it blows up on him. It was too good.
There is a spoken word track called "The Terror of Tiny Town" too, but I just had to turn it into song. You know, it isn't just some last minute attempt to squirt in a song about Bush before it's too late. The last part of the song says, "Hey, wait a minute. So what now? He ain't gone, so they're all brought to justice for war crime. So act fast for this laugh, 'cause before you know it, guess who'll be back?" We were kind of talking about the war criminals earlier and that's exactly what I meant.
I actually just read an interesting interview with J. Robbins where he was talking about his band, Report Suspicious Activity (Alternative Tentacles). And J pretty much said-in so many words-now that the Bush Administration is over, they don't have much to sing about. But you made me think about that when you raised the point that it's not over and we are still dealing with the same bullshit as before.
Far more of it than I thought we would, at this point. Even though I'm a pretty cynical person I'm still really disappointed on where he has gone with the economy. I mean, a lot of the money that we pissed away to the banks was to compensate them from losses of money that may have never even existed. You know, it's like you have a cow, a dairy cow, and the cow dies prematurely. What is the value of the cow? The milk produced so far or the milk it would have produced if it lived another 5 or 10 years? And if you're claiming that you have lost all the money from 5 or 10 years of milk that didn't exist, it's not fair. That's what a lot of these Wall Street crooks have been doing. You know, "Well, with the mortgage boom, the house will be worth even more 5 or 10 years from now. Therefore, you should give us all that money now or we are going to make the economy go belly up and every body looses," and they fell for it.
Switching gears, you have played with a lot of different artists. If you could come up with your own kind of "dream team" of living musicians, who would you pick?
Boy, I got asked that question last night too, and last night I decided not to answer it because I'm concentrating on who I have right now.
Yeah but tonight's a new night, is it not?
Well even though I'm not usually good with a co-lead singing, I'd sure like to do something with Wesley Willis. But that would be a little hard now. We almost got him in for back-up vocals for the second Lard album, Pure Chewing Satisfaction, but in the end, the members of his old band, Wesley Willis Fiasco, they couldn't find him so the other guys did it instead.
He's one of those guys that I'm really happy I got to see a couple times before it was too late. And I could only imagine what that song would sound like.
Oh yeah, I didn't realize until he died how deep of an affect he had on people who only met him once. People say they had been head-butted at a show or something. You know, cracked open their whole mind and changed their life. And I thought, in a way, Wesley was almost like a Shaman but he didn't even know it.
Well, hopefully he knows now. He definitely had an effect on a lot of people. And you're exactly right all it took was about five seconds with him and you felt like you knew the guy and there was just some kind of a weird bond you guys had.
Yeah, and who knows if there really is a hereafter like the cartoon Christian heaven. Can you imagine him singing "Purple Haze" with Jimmy Hendrix or head butting John Lennon?
That's quite an image to have in my head. So is that your final answer: Mr. Wesley Willis? There are no other musicians you would feel comfortable naming?
I know enough people and I've learned over the years, playing favorites with people or putting them in weird unexpected positions-it's not quite as damaging as dissing somebody you don't know and then meeting them later, knowing that they know you dissed them, but it's still something where it sort of leads into one of the main reasons I quit reviewing records for Maximum Rocknroll. People were bumming out if I didn't put their record in my top ten. And it's because this kind of, I don't know, "You love me, you love me not," kind of pecking order thing that don't want to be a part of.
It's enough having to play god with everyone who asks me if Alternative Tentacles will release their stuff. And, of course, 99% of the time I have to say no and I know what it's like to be on the other end of that. I mean, some people just refuse to listen to anybody's work-I guess Tool's management forbids them to listen to demos because they don't want some scam artist coming back later saying, "I gave you my music two years ago and your new album sounds like mine, now I'm suing you."
You know, apparently, that happened to Trent Reznor and he paid out a six-figure sum just to make the motherfucker go away. Luckily, we are dealing with a little more underground trust where I come from. Because early on, maybe even before the Dead Kennedy's had a name, I gave a rehearsal recording to the old drummer for The Avengers and I was really anxious to know what he thought. Then, when I finally asked him what he thought, he was like, "Oh, I think it's still in the glove compartment of my car." At least he was honest. What's the name of that band… is it No Empathy who did the song "Ben Weasel Don't Like It?"
Oh yeah, yeah.
It's a seven-inch and they are imitating him, saying to somebody who gave him a demo, "Well it pretty much totally sucked." I would have a very hard time saying that to anybody unless it sucked on so many levels that something had to be said. I mean, it would both have to suck on a lot of levels, and the artist in question would have to have an obnoxiously high opinion of themselves.
I remember hearing a funny story about some band (Hickey). They apparently had beef with the Voodoo Glow Skulls and they released a seven-inch split with the Voodoo Glow Skulls. But the B-side was just a voicemail from VGS threatening to go after this band because they apparently thought somebody stole a saxophone or something. But that was their way of handling it.
Wow. Where the Voodoo Glow Skulls are from, I wonder if they found a Hollywood lawyer and went after them?
Now I have you worried about stuff you've left on answering machines.
I have a couple of tapes of really wacky voicemails. There're a couple of great ones from Wesley [Willis] too.
You could probably just release those and people would buy them.
We were staying with a friend of mine, Tammy Smith, the woman who first hooked me to him in Chicago. But I was working on Lard and then one day we came back to her apartment and flipped on the voicemail, and there's Wesley singing, "I just bought me a new keyboard and it tastes like whipped cream!" Wesley was usually on-what he would call-a "joy ride" or a "hell ride" and he was definitely on a joy ride that day. A couple messages later there he was singing, "Taste a pony's ass, taste a pony's ass."
Never erase those tapes, please.
I'm pretty sure I saved that somewhere, but I wouldn't be able to find it right away.
Speaking of Lard, this could be rumor or true, you guys were working on another album-or you've already recorded another album?
Uumm, let's see. There are about five songs we recorded that we didn't have room for on this album. If we made it a super long CD and a double LP then, yeah, we could have put them on. But I kind of like albums that are lean and mean and leave you wanting more.
Rather than some songs that are really good, and some sound like clunkers because there's too many songs on the album before them. And with some test sequences I made, that was starting to happen. So we pulled a few off for some other project, compilation, seven inches, EP or part of another album… I don't know yet. We also had a couple of really, really long kraut rock type songs that might come out as two-song limited LP or something later.
I would be interested in hearing that.
One of them was sort of a work for hire. It was latched onto a tribute CD for the Deviants and the Pink Fairies. You know one band morphed into the other. The Pink Fairies are probably the closest thing Britain had to The Stooges back in the day and then The Deviants lived up to their name in more ways than one-including showing up in front of commercial rock festivals on a flat bed truck and blocking the entrance and playing for free. Very much in the spirit of punk rock before it was called punk rock-right down to the music in many cases. [The tribute CD] was supposed to accompany a book about the band, but the book came out and CD apparently still isn't done so I hope it comes out eventually.
We were so close to going to the studio for our album that I didn't want to drop another song on the guys and have [the band] learn one of the Pink Fairies skull-crushing rock n'roll classics. So you might know one of them because both Henry Rollins and Wesley Willis have covered "Do It" and I think the Feelies did it too. I figured, "Ok, let's just do one of The Deviants' weird jams and see where it goes. So we kind of released the opening base line to "Metamorphosis Exploration" off of Deviants No. 3 and then I put some spoken word or semi-improvised spoken word on too, [about] what it's like to be a Deviant and like it. It will hopefully come out eventually and we'll figure out some other way to let it out of the bag too. I think there's more than one mix of it anyway. Ralf and Kemo both overdubbed more guitar parts and Ralf put keyboards on it. John put metal percussion on it.
Would you say that's as far out of your element you've gone so far, musically?
It's hard to say. I mean, some of the things I did on Prairie Home Invasion with Mojo Nixon would come to mind in a different way. Although, I am still hoping I can talk the new band into putting some of the straight country tunes off the Mojo album into our live set. It would be great to do all this rip your head off heavy shit and then switch to old school country, and then switch back again. Not even Hank III does that.
I think anybody that pays attention to your label, and your roster, they can see you are influenced by a lot of different styles. What Alternative Tentacles albums do you consider the most overlooked?
Well, there are so many of them. I guess I'll start with my Tumor Circus album. I think I released it too close to the one I did with NoMeansNo and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. I think it's one of the sickest things I have ever made. If you would add a smoke stack on the cover and make it limited edition colored vinyl with a Midwestern address, it would have been huge.
What about non-Jello-related albums-just straight up Alternative Tentacle releases?
I think most of them qualify. I mean, were not exactly as big a label as Epitaph or Fat or Lookout! in their hay days, so there's a lot of things that I would love to see get more attention.
My buddy Rev. Norb offered some talking points going into this interview. He mentioned that you have said that you found Giger's "Penis Landscape"-featured in the Frankenchrist insert- in an old issue of Hustler. He was curious whether you remember any other "articles" from that particular magazine?
I remember seeing a feature on Giger's work and I was totally blown away-even before I turned the page and saw that piece. I thought he was the most amazing artist I had ever seen since Hieronymus Bosch. And then I saw that picture and was like, "Wow. What a perfect metaphor for Reagan America." You know, the way Americans treat each other on a daily basis right there on the page.
I think the best art of any kind, if its music or painting or something you read or something you watch… The best kind is the kind that just gets the brain whirling and swirling and all these other ideas start popping into your head, weather they're related to the original art or not.
That's what happened when I saw Giger's work and I realized, "Holy shit, I didn't even realize that Frankinchrist is almost a concept album and on the same subject. If I tweaked a word here and there in the lyrics I haven't recoded yet, it would stitch it all together." Which made me want to use that picture even more. My original concept was to have it on the outside of a gatefold sleeve, where you'd have Giger's picture on the outside with Frankinchrist and cursive candy cane writing across the top, and then you open up the gatefold and find the Shriner parade on the inside. With no explanation or artist name or song titles or anything. You just have to deal with it.
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