The vocalist and co-founding member of incalculably influential The Dead Kennedys, Biafra introduced radical, specific politics into American punk. Later, he would go onto record many different projects with artists including DOA, The Melvins, Mojo Nixon, and Ministry. Now, he’s just released the third album by his band, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine. White People and the Damage Done is the bands hardest, most rockingest, most fact-jam-packed release to date.
In order to get some of the details behind the new album, Punknews staffer John Gentile recently rang up Biafra where they talked about the album’s title, contemplated depression, and argued whether Elton John was good or not.
The title of the new album is White People and the Damage Done. Are you saying that white people are inherently evil? Are you saying that many of our current problems come from people in charge, who tend to be white? Something else?
Well, number one, it’s just like “Kill the poor,” or calling a band the Dead Kennedys, or the Guantanamo School of Medicine - value in shock value. It’s a way of getting people’s attention and striking a raw nerve. Usually, at some level, if people’s nerves are struck, they might start to think - jar loose some of the sediment in their corporate media-addled brain.
To me, the whole album is kind of my feelings about this worldwide austerity scam where the banksters smell blood in the water, and keep claiming the country is broke and people that are broke should keep living like people in third world countries and be thankful for the opportunity.
The fact that these deficits and economic crashes are going on all over the world indicates it’s being coordinated by these people who have so much money they don’t even know what to do with it all. It’s all a game to them.
What’s the worst form of addiction, the most dangerous addiction in the world? Is it meth? Is it crack? No, it’s wealth addiction. How much more money do you need? A lot of people, when they get to that point, it’s like a video game they can’t stop playing, or it’s like a game of paintball of them versus everybody else. It’s like “more, more more!” and “for me to win, somebody else must lose!”
Back to the title, if you check the title track of the album, it’s not saying that the white race or any other race is inherently evil. I don’t think any race is inherently evil. But, some of these Euro and Yankee supremacist attitudes that we force on the world is responsible for a lot of needless trauma and misery, not to mention pollution. Some of the examples that I mention in the song - some of our boneheaded foreign policies, like our involvement in Vietnam, clown prince dubbya trying to conquer Iraq so Cheney’s friends can loot the place. Iran, that’s another one. If we go into Iran, we’re going to lose much worse.
Some of the examples that I mention in the song are things like Iran and nuclear weapons. I’m far more frightened of Netanyahu and Israel being a threat to world peace than of anyone running Iran at the moment. But, there’s still people beating the drum to go bomb Iran, “Let’s bring democracy to Iran just like we did Iraq.” No, wait a minute. Iran was a democracy in the early 1950s, but then the CIA got the idea to overthrow the Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddegh, because he was nationalizing the oil and BP didn’t like that. So, we overthrew him and replaced him with the most hated person in the entire country, the Shah, who was technically an illegitimate monarch, like Kim Jung Il or Kim Jung Un, and did some of the brutality that we’re now seeing from Bashar al-Assad, except that we were arming him and training him how to use these implements of torture- Because we wanted a bully in the Middle East and because we wanted him to be our puppet.
But, against incredible odds, the people overthrew him anyways. But then, it was out with the old dictator and in with the new, of course. Now, it’s this frightening theocracy where the Iranian people still suffer. How much of this problem would we have today if we just left the Iranian people alone in the 1950s and let them elect their own leaders?
Another example in the song is Afghanistan. The intel-term for what happened there is “blowback.” Imagine how far I shot through the ceiling when Jimmy Carter’s old national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski bragged in an interview that we had started organizing, financing and training the Mujahedeen guerillas, in Afghanistan, complete with Jihad fervor before the Soviet Union ever invaded the country. We thought, “yeah what a great idea, and then it will become the Russian Vietnam and crack apart the empire and yeah, we win!”
Well, did anyone win anything? We never came back and took these weapons back from any of these warlords and groups, including a young hothead named Bin Laden, and we didn’t come back and rebuild the country, either. And in that part of the world, it’s called “The Great Betrayal.” If there was no great betrayal, there would have been no 9-11, and all those people would still be alive. So, that’s an example of white people and the damage done.
One of my favorite things about your records, especially the newest ones, is how you include very specific examples in your lyrics instead of generalities. Do you think people are less informed then they were in previous generations?
It depends on the person, of course. I was a news hound since the time that I could walk. I saw Oswald get shot in my parents’ living room, live on TV when I was five years old. My parents would leave the news on either right before or during dinner and I’d be seeing things like bloody soldiers coming back from Vietnam, the race riots in the south, the Biafra war in Nigeria from where I got my name, and this was all discussed with me and my sister. Instead of my parents changing the channel to something more “pleasant” so as “to not upset the kids.”
No, parents! Don’t hide reality from your kids! There’s the question of “when should you let your kids know what happened in 9-11?” The answer is as soon as they ask. Preferably before that.
It fired me up. I had very strong views, even in grade school about racism, corruption, war, and pollution. It was also the 60s, so everyone knew who was for and against the Vietnam war, even in the fourth grade. Then, years later, I come back to Colorado, haven’t see people in years, and I bring some of that up, and they have no memories of that stuff, no memories of the war, or even of stuff that we did together. I don’t think I have a better memory than other people, but I think I filled it up with other stuff. I’d hate to remember my childhood and teenage years through reruns of The Brady Bunch or something like that.
To a degree that a little kid could be, I was there. I’m really glad that I got to feel the 60s both all the unrest, and the way it opened people’s mind up and started new movements. Of course, that went hand in hand with music. My parents blundered into a rock and roll station trying to make me go to sleep in 1965 when I was a seven year old, and from then on I was hooked. So, I even experienced the 60s garage era when commercial radio stations still played local garage bands on the air.
On one of your spoken word discs, you talk about how you used to watch the news and cartoons with equal excitement. Do you still watch cartoons?
Oh, I haven’t in a while. I’ve gone through South Park phases. I think Beavis and Butthead is the only good thing that MTV ever came up with. I really identified with Beavis and Butthead. [Beavis and Butthead’s]Mr. Van Driesen reminded me of Reid, the bumbling recording studio owner that Ministry and Lard recorded at, where we forced him to pose on the back of The Last Temptation of Reid forcing him to pose, humiliating him while his girlfriend was laughing just out of the camera frame. He was told that if he didn’t pose like that he wasn’t going to get paid.
Me and John Greenway, the original co-author of “California Uber Alles” - he did the sleeve for “Halloween” - he was the main demented brain that I grew up with and met in first grade. We were Beavis and Butthead, but the problem was that we were really smart, too. So, who were the real Beavis and Butthead? Then I finally figured it out- it was the guys in Bl’ast.. Sadly, I heard that one of those guys was in prison and the other one had killed himself.
That’s sad. For some reason, some of our most artistic and creative people have trouble fitting in with the confines of more normal society.
Depression is depression. I know it well. I learned the hard way as a teenager I was so fucked up that I couldn’t even kill myself, right. Once you’ve gone too far in that direction it never totally leaves.
Are you still dealing with that stuff?
Oh, hell yeah.
Does it affect your day to day life?
Not to the point where I’ve gone crawling to some certified dope dealer for psyche meds. It might be for some people but it’s not for me. I don’t trust that at all. So, I just deal with it. It runs in my family. Sometimes I feel good and sometimes I don’t. That’s the way it goes. Although, sometimes when I’m writing my darkest lyrics, I know that I’ve hit the nail on the head when I’m dancing around the room giggling with glee.
I’m a little surprised by that. I’ve seen you live on stage nine times and it seems like you’re having such a great time up there.
Well, I try to work my ass off on stage. I’m still a huge music fan.-That same wide eyed kid who liked watching The Animals, and Paul Revere and the Raiders and Mitch Ryder on that prime time rock show in the 60s called Hullabaloo. Thankfully I wasn’t born with the substance addiction gene, so I haven’t really fucked myself up with that. Music is really my only vice and I’ve never been able to cure myself of being a vinyl junkie.
How many records do you have?
Oh, I have no idea. But, what I’m getting at, that I also go to a lot of live shows. Big one and little ones. Ones that I have the time and interest to go to. When I see something that really blows my mind, the Walter Mitty/Cinderella me goes “That’s what I want to be.” I want to do a show that tear people’s heads off and blows people away, just like I want to be blown away. I hope I succeed. I try.
Well, I’ll tell you, your cover of Roxy Music’s “In Every dream Home a Heartache,” which you recorded with the Melvins, totally blew me away, that’s for sure.
Yeah, I did that real quick on the fly. They mixed that with Toshi Kashai, who worked on the Biafra/Melvins stuff. They actually rented a second practice room in the practice complex and set up a really primitive, but really effective, recording studio. Toshi knows what he’s doing, so it still sounds really good.
I just went in there and reeled it off, while [Melvins] Buzz, Dale, and Kevin Rutamanis were snickering in the background. There you have it. They approached me and said they wanted me to do a Roxy Music song to see how I react. I guess they asked J.G. Thirwell the same question and he agreed. [Editor’s Note: on The Melvins cover album, Thirwell and the Melvins do a Bowie cover.] I wanted to do Roxy Music and I said “Aha! I know the perfect song! The most demented Bryan Ferry song I’ve ever heard in my life. The one about the inflatable doll and the swimming pool.” It blows his unflappable debonair image completely out the door.
In that Bryan Ferry voice, [singing in a creepy tone] “I blew up your body but you blew my miiiiiind!” My friends and I used to just roll on the floor listening to that song when we were in our late teens before I moved to San Francisco. So, it had to be that one. It couldn’t be anything else.
Did you ever get to see Ferry do that song live?
Well, imagine my surprise, when were on tour, on an off day, in 2011, we played at a festival in Paris. Queens of the Stone Age were there. LCD Sound System were there, and oh my God, Roxy Music was there. We could either go to the next town or go see Roxy music. Well, “Let’s go see Roxy Music.”
Not only did they play all the rockers, they played “Remake/Remodel” which I didn’t think that they would do, they played “The Strand.” They did “Editions of you.” Then, my jaw dropped. Of all the songs they could have played for that festival audience, they played “In every dream home a heartache.” That was pretty awesome.
You know, Buzz Osborne said he thinks you are heavily influenced by Bryan Ferry’s vocal delivery.
I’ve always had a pretty good imitation of Ferry’s voice, by intention or not. By high school, I realized that I was never going to be very good with instruments, so I needed to be a singer. I was prone to theatrical excess anyway. I was a big Alice Cooper fan at the time. When I was driving around delivering pizzas to make money, I thought, what if instead of imitating all the teachers to make people laugh, I started to imitate people that I liked and admired and learned how to do what they do. By trial and error, I got Eric Burdon down, I got Iggy down, Peter Ivers, Rocky Erikson, Sky Saxon, Jim Morrison. I even got Robert Plant down before I burned him up by smoking too much weed in the tail end of my hippy days.
So, when Dead Kennedys were recording Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, I thought “Oh, there’s an open track on the two inch master of “Kill the Poor” I wonder if…” So I recorded vocals in my Bryan Ferry voice as sort of a piss take-two comment on what was going on in the song. We almost used it, but then we went with the other one. I had more trouble hitting the high notes than I do now.
Because you are such a news junkie, do you use your art as a tool to inform?
Hell, yeah. Not just inform people, but whack them over the head with what I think is important. I’m not a subtle artist and I’m not a fan of most that are. This applies to music, paintings, sculpture, journalism, film, literature, you name it. I like being blunt. I haven’t done too many lyrics like “The man with the dogs” where nobody could figure out what it was about. I was like “Okay, this just isn’t a good style for me. I’ll try this other style that I like better.”
I still use surrealism from time to time, especially with Lard. That project was hatched on a whim with about five minutes notice. The Christian Lunch remix had stalled, so I said to Al Jourgensen, why don’t we just do something ourselves. He said “yeah, what should we call it?” I just said “Lard” and he fell on the floor laughing.
But then I needed lyrics, because we tracked something practically the next day. I had to quickly pull out of my head orphaned one liners, things that practically popped into my head, things snipped out of real estate adds of the Chicago Tribune. Only later did I realize that “there is a thread to this “Power of Lard” song.” Part of it is how our corporate McMedia and Fashion Police makes people so scornful and self-conscious about how they look and makes them easier to control.
It especially pisses me off how reality shows from peer pressure to parents beat up on young girls. No matter how inspired, intelligence, or dynamic you are, “you’re too fat” or “You’re too ugly.” “You need to fit in.” “You need to have the right Facebook friends” and shit like that.
Overall, these advances in digital technology are a good thing. One of the areas that I question it is with these kids’ Facebook pages, and even adults- it’s a kind of peer pressure that I never went through when I was growing up. That is, you are who you market yourself to be. You must advertise yourself in order to have any friends. I think that’s really dangerous. Hopefully, parents are steering their kids away from that, just saying no to fashion police and dig who they are.
You asked “are people more or less informed?” Again, it comes down to the person. We have access to more information than ever before through the magic of the internet. Now more than ever, instead of being controlled by the state’s lack of information, we are being controlled by the state’s bombardment of information where it’s that much harder to wade through all the crap and figure out what is more important. What’s more important? Tiger Woods’ penis or the fact that our economy is about to collapse? An now that it has is it the fault of “brown skinned immigrants” or the banksters, who stole all our money and that perhaps, raising taxes is a good thing if it makes them give it back?
People caught up in constant texting, e-mailing, and updating Facebook at night until you crash out before you wake up and go to your drone job. It comes down to, are you using the tool or is the tool using you? It’s a constant battle. It’s a constant tightrope walk.
But people have got to be aware of that’s what they are doing and just fall into it. I mean, I’m more digital than I used to be, but am I happier? Well, on lonely nights, porn sure is interesting, but overall, it’s scary. I’m trying to keep up with texts and e-mails, instead of getting done something I wanted to get done, and before you know it, I finally look up and it’s several hours later and the sun has gone down.
There’s a lot of Jello Biafras on Facebook, but none of them are me.
But the Alternative Tentacles one on Facebook is real, correct?
Yeah. That’s real. And I think they may run one under the name of Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of medicine for the band. But, I don’t look at any of them.
You know Jello, just as a bit of levity, I’ve been meaning to bring something up with you for seven years. In 2006, at a spoken word show, you challenged the audience to name one good Elton John song. I kept quiet at the time and that’s bugged me ever since. So, Jello, I submit to you that “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is an awesome jam.
I might recognize it if I’ve heard it before. Overall, Elton John is one of those tormenting figures from my adolescent years. It made it harder to make friends with the girls at the school, because I was into The Stooges, the MC5, and Black Sabbath. Even the drop dead gorgeous hippy girls were into James Taylor, Cat Stevens, or Jazz fusion. Even the straighter people were into the Eagles and Elton John.
But Jello, that song is basically proto-goth!
Well, maybe in a way those bands were a huge punk influences to me because that’s what punk rock and the Dead Kennedys were meant to be against, meant to an alternative for. We’re another generation and we’re not into any of that soft rock, adult rock, or big chill shit. One of my biggest achievements is helping to burn down the Hotel California.