Jello Biafra is tricky to decipher. Despite the nearly 20 albums of music that he's released, despite the dozens of hours of spoken word discs that he's cut, it can be tough get a glimpse of what makes up the seminal musician, and moreso, what he thinks about internally. There are hundreds of hours of Biafra attacking the president or other political figures (and those are well worth your time) and there are numerous tunes of Biafra lashing out at big biz types who trample the less fortunate. But, how often does Biafra really open up about how he's feeling deep down? And moreso, how did he become the living fireball that he is? To cap off Jello Biafra week at Punknews, Editor John Gentile spoke with Biafra and a few of Biafra's close friends about just how the iconic singer/label owner/provocateur, came to be.
Photo by Dod Morrison
Jello Biafra likes to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. And, when he’s done talking, he likes to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk some more. Then, after that, he likes to talk and talk and talk and talk. After that, maybe it’s time for a little more talking.
It’s a good thing he’s got something to say. As a founding member of seminal punk rockers the Dead Kennedys, Biafra brought a caustic wit to early punk rock, blending a biting take on the contemporary political climate with MAD Magazine style humor. After that band fell apart, he zoomed from groundbreaking project to ground breaking project. With LARD, he teamed up with Ministry’s Al Jourgensen and smashed out four platters worth of crushing industrial-punk. With Mojo Nixon he put on his cowboy hat, saluted and dissed Nashville in equal spins. With the Melvins, he cut epic metal-punk gazed inward in the deeply revealing “Enchanted Thoughtfist.” With his current band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, he storms through super intense hardcore rippers at the age of 59 that blows down most bands half, and even one quarter, of his age.
Also, he once ran for Mayor. Also, he was once arrested for obscenity and beat the wrap by sticking to his convictions despite facing serious jail time. Also, we founded the longest running independent record label. Also, he has put out just about 500 different releases through said label. Also, he gets really, really excited about things.
If you’ve ever seen him in concert, you know that Jello Biafra isn’t so much a person as he is a nuclear reactor sealed inside a fleshy form. On stage, as his band tears through riff-charged rockers at volume 11, Biafra leaps and prances and darts across the stage, his arms lashing in all directions, almost as if he doesn’t have control of them, sort of like the inflatable waving men outside of used car dealerships. Meanwhile, his face contorts from one expression to another- one moment it’s a grin of demented madness, the next a sickened revulsion, the following a look of naked fear.
And through all the spastic crashing of the GSM, through the charging tank rumble of the Melvins, through the methed-up yeehaawing of Mojo Nixon, through the boozy blare of the New Orleans Soul and Raunch All-stars, through the pummeling, unforgiving, mashing beat of LARD, comes that iconic timbre, that unique warble, the high pitched trill, that corkscrewed, twisted, frantic, piercing, you-know-who-it-is-within-one-second-of-hearing-it VOICE.
One part madman. One part pointdexter. One part classic rocker. One part Batman villain, that voice is what has launched a million records, cut hour upon hour of spoken word disks, blasted across bar and theatre and festival, inspired countless bands, and to be frank, changed the world, or at least changed many of us in the world.
And to think, it was all kickstarted by accidentally turning the radio dial the wrong way.
”After that, there was no stopping me.”
“I was seven years old and my father was trying to get me to shut up and go to bed,” Biafra tells me. “He was trying to find something on the radio to put me to sleep and accidentally came across a rock station- I think it was KIMN in Denver. Suddenly, I was like, ‘No! No! Leave it there! I like this! After that, there was no stopping me.”
Biafra drank up the nascent British invasion bands, focusing on the harder end of spectrum, like the Rolling Stones and one of his personal favorites, Paul Revere and the Raiders, which he is quick to point out, don’t get their due. Soon, he was moving on to local Denver garage rock bands, including mostly forgotten band like the Moonrakers and the Astronauts. “I was supposed to be falling asleep, but I was jumping up on my bed like I was Eric Burdon of the Animals!” he says. (Fitting that he would go on to give a hearty nod to the Animals with his 2015 cover of “House of the Rising Sun.”)
Meanwhile, his youth in Colorado wasn’t exactly the standard Beaver Clever years. Biafra, who at the time was the more plainly named Eric Reed Boucher, was the son of a psychiatric social worker and a librarian. Biafra’s father was titled a psychiatric medic in the Korean War after he refused to pick up a rifle. “He saw real M*A*S*H hospitals, “ Biafra says, “not the giggly funny ones on TV. Often, blood was everywhere and sometimes he had to take the final dictations from wounded soldiers who were writing their last letter to their mother because they were about to die.“
Biafra’s father may have been a bit ahead of his time with regards to thoughts on what is now known as PTSD. Instead of telling damaged soldier to “toughen up” as was often the method of the times, Biafra’s father took a more nuanced approach. According to Biafra, one soldier was so wigged out that he scrambled up a tree because he thought he was a cat. Biafra’s father coaxed him back down- by placing a saucer of milk at the bottom of the tree.
After returning to the states, Biafra’s father became a social worker of sorts, flying across the state in a prop plane, treating people in state run hospitals. Here, may have been where the foundation of Biafra’s core values were cemented. Just as Biafra’s father made it a point to treat people outside of the context of institutional punishment, Biafra would make his life’s work out of showcasing, and even protecting, artistic weirdos who often clashed with society’s more rigid expectations. Even to this day, Biafra champions the deceased Wesley Willis, an absolutely unique artist who suffered from extreme mental illness. Willis recorded outsider poetry songs that often switched between hilarious and melancholy and, of course, Biafra released numerous records of Willis’ work and even covered him live from time to time.
Likewise, Biafra is known for his gargantuan music collection- if you’ve seen it, then you know it’s stacks and stacks and stacks of records, CDs, tapes. Much of it you’ve never even heard of. But, if you ask Biafra how many records he has, he dismisses the question with a somewhat exhausted, “I don’t know…” Interestingly, Buzz Osborne of the Melvins has been recorded as stating that while Biafra has tens of thousands of records, most aren’t really worth anything at all, implying that this is a collection built out of the joy of music, not the desire to “collect.”
Certainly then, it’s not a coincidence that Biafra’ mother ran inter-library loan an the University of Colorado. “Neither of my parents were ‘50s Donna Reed Shows parents,” Biafra is quick to point out. “They were both rock climbing pioneers which is something I never took up. They were very outdoors, very high energy, very high octane… and very demanding on their kids. I was the rebellious one.”
”My parents made a decision not to hide reality from the kids.”
Any conversation on Biafra has to make mention of his razor sharp intellect. His spoken word performances bridge the gap between news and commentary, with Biafra often detailing a contemporary event, and then proceeding to pick it apart and connect it to other unseen links using his insight. Theatricality and humor often plays a part to his talks, but at the core of it always seems to be a desire to cut away the bullshit and figure out what really is going on.
“People ask where my political views and visions come from,” Biafra says. “That started practically when I was old enough to walk. We didn’t get a TV for a while, but when we did, there was Oswald getting shot, live on TV in the living room. There was the Berlin wall going up, the bloody Vietnam war, Watergate, the race riots started by the police. Network news wasn’t so censored then. You would see how badly wounded people where when they took them off the chopper. News wasn’t all sanitized like it is today.”
He continues, “My parents made the decision not to hide reality from the kids. If that came on the news while we were eating dinner, they didn’t jump up and change the channels to some whitebeard sitcom. It was discussed with the kids at a very early age. Early on, I had very strong views about wars, corruption, and what is now called environmentalism.”
Biafra devoured the news, and by fifth grade, was reading the paper from front to back- National Affairs were given the same reverence as the Sunday Funnies, which honestly, is not a bad way to describe his art as a whole. “From a newshound perspective, what a great time to be around during the civil rights movement,” he says. “I’m so grateful that I got to experience all of that at once- I feel that I have very vivid memories. Later I ran into people that I went to school with that had no tangible memories of things like Watergate… We were teenagers by then and they don’t remember… but they remember some commercial jingle! Nixon’s Watergate was the best reality TV there is and Nixon went DOWN. It breaks my heart, now, that at almost every level of government is an army of Nixons.”
”I realized what a powerful weapon that was.”
If you think Biafra stands out now, imagine how he must have stood out in Boulder, Colorado in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Perhaps because of an inherent (and inherited?) urge to question authority, Biafra’s school years were not so great. Interestingly, on one of his spoken word performances, he talks about how by as early as second grade, things started to go awry. He then pauses before stating that years after graduation, he went back through his school file and found that his first grade teacher saw him as a problem- the sickening part for Biafra being that, as he states, “I liked school then!”
Tellingly, when asked if Biafra was bullied in school, his response is obtuse: “I think most people are bullied throughout their entire lives.” When saying that, his voice isn’t the continually speeding up, erupting pinwheel that it usually is, but rather, a slow, dry monotone. Make of that what you will.
In fact, the way Biafra speaks just then, underscores how talking with the man can be a challenge. He’s smart. He’s insightful. He doesn’t like stupidity. And so, when you’re interviewing him, you’re constantly questioning, “is this question annoying him?” “Does he feel that what I’ve asked is dumb?” “Does he disagree with my premise?” If anything, Biafra can be mercurial, zapping from excitement to annoyance to sadness to pure joy over the course of a single answer. But, it would be one thing if you could tell he was annoyed by a question of line of thought. But, with Biafra, because he moves around so much, it can be difficult to tell if he’s just changing his inflection because he’s so animated, or if he really has been moved or aggravated by something. For instance, in a previous interview I did with him, at the 15 minute mark he told me that he had to go, but then stayed on the line for another hour. If you can fully understand Biafra, you are better than I.
Which is why, he wasn’t fully understood in his hometown. “To put it mildly, I was not into sports,” Biafra says. “I found out quickly that I was the worst athlete in school. In ninth grade I realized what a powerful weapon that was. I only had to threaten to sabotage the game and the bullies would leave me alone.”
Along with a small pack of friends, including John Greenway who is co-credited on “California Uber Alles,” Biafra was on a constant quest for good music. He used to scour the discount bin at Trade-A-Tape, mostly buying records on their covers- Fun House for ten cents- yes please. Black Sabbath, Hawkwind, New York Dolls, even the Ramones- one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
“When I was younger, for some reason there was a prime time TV show that my parents turned on,” Biafra reflects. “It was a lip-sync-y kind of thing on a show called Hullabaloo. There were a lot of great bands on that. The Animals were great, the Raiders were great, Mitch Ryder, the Young Rascals, a lot of pop and Motown people. I knew right then and there what I wanted to be when I grew up… Well… in third grade, when we could write well enough to say what we wanted to be, the boys were all ‘I want to be a cop!’ I want to be a fireman!’ But, I was thinking, ‘No, I want to be the Penguin! I want to be the Riddler!’”
”The gears began to turn.”
Remember that Ramones record that Biafra picked out of the discount bin for a few cents? At first it didn’t quite click. The songs were short and most of them had just a few notes and maybe two lines of lyrics. Biafra took the record around to his friends and they laughed at the utter simplicity of the songs… but, there was something there…
“In March of ’77 me and Joseph Pope when down and saw the Ramones,” Biafra says. “They were opening for an FM rock band at Ebbet’s field. That band was Nite City with Ray Manzarek and Nigel Harrison of Blondie pre-Blondie. The Ramones were opening. Boulder was ground zero testing for what they were going to try to make the next Eagles. Because it was a testing ground, all the music execs and cocaine cowboys were out there to see Nite City.”
“Out comes four degenerate looking guys in leather jackets. One chord from Johnny’s guitar and you knew it was going to be way fucking louder than you thought it was going to be and then they just ripped into the Ramones set. Leave Home had just come out so they did the first two albums… probably in a fraction of the time it takes to listen to them on vinyl. Not only were they just tearing our heads off, I couldn’t resist looking back from time to time at all the other people at the tables- all these people with Kenny Loggins hair and neatly trimmed beards and corduroy suit jackets and women with freshly done ‘20s hair and flowers in it.”
“Not only were they so powerful, but another thing was how simple they were. ‘This singer has one or two moves max… even I could do that! Whoa… maybe I should…’ And the gears began to turn. The Ramones were very friendly. I never knew you could talk to a rock star before because all I had been to was arena shows. I think they knew they were ambassadors everywhere they went. They were planting seeds to jump-start an entre new generation of talent and musicians. People from that show would go on to form the Dead Kennedys, Velvet Monkeys Angst, the Wax Trax label people. Al Jourgensen claims he was there, but none of us knew him. We were the Ramones fans in the front row- all twelve of us.”
”Are you in a band, dude?”
Because the Ramones were such a shot in the arm for Boulder’s small but dedicated group of art-rockers/nerds, Rick Stott, a guy with a local radio show, convinced the Queens foursome to stay for an extra day and play a second show. Local garage rockers the Ravers were selected as the openers.
Biafra lights up at the name, “Me, my friend Sam, and maybe one other person were anointed as the roaders for the Raiders. I felt ten feet tall! ‘Fuck all you people who gave me shit all those years! I’m a roadie for the Raiders now!’”
As luck would have it, Eric Boucher’s fast-track to superstardom wouldn’t last long. Not long after the show, the Raiders were picked up by a record label, shuttled off to the east coast, and converted to a band called “The Nails.” But, in all the commotion, the band took Sam with them and Boucher was left behind. “They went east, so I went west,” Biafra says.
He picked University of Santa Cruz because it seemed to be an arty school that wasn’t dominated by the frat scene. At first, Biafra was hoping to take film making, but after enrolling, was dismayed to find that students had to be pre-approved for the course by submitting a finished student film. So, on a whim he took beginning acting and the history of Paraguay.
Meanwhile, on the weekends, he was traveling up to San Francisco on the weekends looking for punk rock. Biafra says, “It took about a night and a half to find the punk club. We went up to the Mabuhay, but it turned out to be heavy metal night, which bummed out my friends and I. But then, there was a punk rocker there making fun of the meal heads, making faces, booing the bands, and my friend Mike Ellis said he knew him. It turned out that it was Russell Wilkinson- he had just changed his name to Will Shatter. He was in a band called Grand Mal that would go on to split off into the Offs and Negative Trend.”
The conversation between Biafra and Shatter went something like this:
Shatter: “Are you in a band, dude?”
Biafra: “No, I’m not really good at playing anything.”
Shatter: “Oh, that shouldn’t matter, dude. I’ve been playing bass for two days and I’m in a band. We’ve got a show here tomorrow night.“
Biafra reflects on the conversation with a certain enduring relish. He says, “You want to talk about the spirit of punk? There it is right there.”
”The goal was to do something special.”
Soon, Biafra dropped out of school, moved to San Francisco, and answered a newspaper ad in The Recycler looking for band mates. Of course, that band would become the seminal, hard-to-overstate-their-importance Dead Kennedys. While not in the first wave of San Francisco punk, the DKs are icons of the scene, combining snappy, surf guitar licks along with Biafra’s uniquely Biafrian viewpoint- Seminal track “California Uber Alles” dropped Governor Jerry Brown into Hitler’s shoes and had him singing with glee. “Police Truck” had Biafra adopt the guise of the boys in blue as they drove around town, smacking people on the head with ghoulish merriment. “Stealing People’s Mail” detailed finding unseemly connections from person to person via committing felonies.
“Some of it was pure dumb luck,” Biafra comments. “We lost two of our second generation punk bands- The Sleepers and the original lineup of UXA. So, suddenly there was a huge void. So, we came in the third generation. The first was Crime, the Nuns, and Mary Monday. The second was the Avenges, the Dils, the Mutants, Sleepers, and Negative Trend. Third generation was the Offs and KGB, who morphed into No Alternative. It’s not as though we started the scene or were the American Sex Pistols as [Dead Kennedys guitarist] East Bay Ray has claimed. We already had something built for us- something that I couldn’t have built had I went to New York city with its 21 and over scene, where most of the bands had already gotten to the next step.”
Biafra continues, “The goal was to do something special. But, unlike now, the peer pressure was to do something that sounded like something no one else was doing. If you sounded like another band, no one wanted to know you. So, for the Dead Kennedys, I wanted to make it unique. I wrote most of the lyrics and music. I’ll point out that most of the best stuff had more than one writer, but the only truly band written sing was ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ and that’s still my favorite one.”
“At first, I started to try to figure out the melody playing a single string and I’d show it to Ray or [bassist] Klaus Fluoride. Klaus said to me, ‘you can sing on key well enough. Just sing it to us.’ And then, I was a free man and could make more complicated stuff. But, later on they would lie like fuck under oath when they sued me to swipe the catalogue- that I couldn’t write any music because I can’t play an instrument and worse yet… ’he doesn’t read sheet music!’ So, it’s kind of a sore point. Then can go on claiming that until Kingdom Come, but I think history is on my side. I’ve written and recorded tons and tons of other songs… and pretty good ones in my opinion- my not so humble opinion. Meanwhile, the fake Dead Kennedys lineup has been going twice as long as the real Dead Kennedys. Where’s the new song? Where’s the new album?”
When interviewing Biafra, one usually tries to avoid the topic of the infamous Dead Kennedys lawsuit. A happy, excited Jello Biafra is a lot of fun to talk to. An annoyed, or even sad Jello Biafra is not so much fun. While that version of the man might make for great headline fodder, for some reason, when Biafra feels bad, you tend to feel bad. Maybe it’s an effect of his boyish enthusiasm.
Long story short, the Dead Kenendys broke up in 1986, but Biafra, through his label Alternative Tentacles records, continued to release the band’s catalogue. By the late ‘90s, however, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride, and drummer DH Peligro sued Biafra and Alternative Tentacles for control of the catalogue. The whole thing didn’t wrap up until 2003 and the result for Biafra was not favorable- the other three DK stakeholders took control of the catalogue away from Biafra, and to put salt in the wound, started touring again as “The Dead Kennedys” (minus, of course, their lead singer Jello Biafra). You can rub even more salt in the wound because some reunited Dead Kennedys flyers featured Biafra on the flyer! Needless to say, the whole thing still riles him up and he’s obviously hurt by it on any number of levels.
Interestingly, though, when asked what where the tensions where that broke up the Dead Kennedys in 1986, Biafra has a curt reply: “Save that shit for TMZ.”
Those that know Biafra won’t really go into the whole thing, either. That being said, Jesse Townley, who, when playing in his bands the Pathogens or the Criminals goes by Jesse Luscious, and who worked at Alternative Tentacles for 15 years- including 10 years as the label’s general manager- has some insight. Townley says, “With any band, you’re in such close quarters with three or four other people, that you get close to those people and can be hurt by those people. This is true for pretty much any band. So, for people that don’t know each other, certain things might be written off. But, when you are in a band with other people, because of the closeness, any number of things- things that aren’t even salacious or extreme- can cut much deeper than they would have otherwise.”
It’s tempting to cut the story at that- Dead Kennedys went on to sell a whole bunch of records (they did). Dead Kennedys went on to influence hundreds of thousands (or millions?) or artists. (They did). Dead Kennedys change punk as a whole. (They did.). But, that’s… maybe one-fourth of the story.
After Dead Kennedys ended, Biafra launched into a spoken word career before zipping through a list of daring collaborations in the late ‘80s and throughout ‘90s. His combo with Al Jourgensen resulted in LARD, a pummeling punk-industrial freakout, whose first record had a 30 minute, single track b-side. Team ups with DOA, Nomeansno, and Steel Pole Bathtub resulted in albums of chaotic, noisy punk and sometimes metal. With Mojo Nixon he recorded an album packed full of pure country rockers that saluted and pissed on the genre in equal measures, at the same time.
After the nasty trial we mentioned above, he linked up with the Melvins to show his former bandmates who really had the skills and, honestly, the proof is in the wax. Check out “MGruff the Crime Dog” or “Voted off the Island”- one of Biafra’s most fiery (and greatest) works and it lasts all of 50 seconds. When the so-called Jelvins went on pause, Biafra built up what could be called his second “touring” band ever and formed the Guantanamo School of Medicine. With that band, Biafra gave the fans what they wanted and smashed out several albums of screaming, oft-hilarious, pumping hardcore punk rock.
Oh, also he also was arrested for obscenity due to a poster in the Dead Kennedys Frankenchrist album. Instead of buckling and accepting a plea deal, Biafra went toe-to-toe with the DA and fought back- losing over a hundred thousands dollars in the process. He won in the end, in part, because he was willing to put his feet to the fire and fight back against the systematic oppression that was growing around artists in the ‘80s.
When asked about what it was like to put his neck on the line in the name of art, Biafra says, “Go listen to the spoken word record. I talk about it there for two hours.” Touché, Jello, touché.
”Now he’s performing.”
“I think the true line between Eric and Jello is a complicated one, “says Dominic Davi. Davi became AT’s general manager after the Townley left the label (on good terms, mind you). “Jello is a part of Eric and I don’t know the place where it blurs. He’s been both for so long… I’ve seen him go from being just a regular person to being a performer in a split second- you can see the change if you pay attention. Now, he’s performing for you. Now, he’s in the moment.”
“When he goes to a show, he has to be Jello. He can’t just be Eric,” Davi says. “People want to take photos with him. He’s constantly being hit up for selfies. He comes from a different time and he’s not always down with that. He usually tries to be cool, but everybody comes up to him thinking, ‘I just want a picture, it’s no big deal.’ But, he gets hit up 24-7. He doesn’t ever get to be the guy that hangs out.”
Biafra’s long time publicist, Melanie Kaye, supplies some further insight. She says, “He’s many things, as most people are. He’s committed to whatever he is doing and puts his all into what drives him. His passion for music and his need to have a creative outlet- to have his thoughts heard is as sincere as it gets.”
Townley agrees with Kaye’s description. In fact, Townley uses the word “sincere” completely independent of Kaye’s own analysis. Townley says, “I think what a lot of might not realize about him is how sincere he is. He is a gigantic, gigantic fan of music. I mean, I’m a fan of music- it’s what I do for a living and in my bands- and he is beyond that. Like, if you talk with someone about a band that maybe they know about, they might be like, Oh, everyone knows that…. But Jello, is just so sincere, he never does that- he’ll engage you about the band because he is so passionate about it.”
”One Huge Addiction”
Everything is a two-sided coin, though. Biafra has endured bands, band squabbles, tours after tour after tour, the ‘90s punk boom, the ‘00s record sales crash, divorce, and he’s still here, and, if you ask me, cutting some of his very finest work.
That is to say, Biafra is still here, but a lot of his friends and contemporaries aren’t. Will Shatter is dead. Darby Crash is dead. Tomata Du Pleny, dead. Dave Brockie, dead. Wesley Willis, dead. Ricky Williams, dead. Charles Tonay, dead. Lux Interior, dead. D. Boon, dead. Frankie Fix, dead. Joey, dead. Johnny, dead. Dee Dee, dead. Tommy, dead.
A lot of his pals are dead, but for some reason, Jello has survived.
“Jello has dealt with a lot of his family and friends passing and I think it really wore on him,” Davi says. “He’s lost a lot of people. A lot of people that he is friends with have been passing away and I think he’s been feeling it.”
On why he never succumbed to addiction like some (not all) of his pals and contemporaries, Biafra says, “In my case, I had so much trouble back in Boulder when I wanted to quit smoking weed and couldn’t stop. I realized that I had to be careful with any drug, though I’ve tried them all… well, the only one I haven’t tried is crack and I think I’m a little too old for that now…”
He continues, “I realized that you might want to do this a little bit and glean what you can from it and move on. All the depression and paranoia with smoking weed all the time may have delayed the rise of Jello Biafra by at least a year. I realized early on that it can get in your way. When I tried to keep up with Will doing speed and doing blow with some of the people in the acting school I was going to, I realized that I couldn’t keep up. It was the same old story. The person who can’t make any friends can’t keep up with the drug crowd either.”
“In some ways, it bummed me out. But, on the other side, I saw some of these people aging pretty dramatically before my eyes and going borderline senile at 21. Plus, the important part- the rents weren’t so insane back then. People could chase a dream. People hardly had any fucking money. Even like 50 cents had to be budgeted very carefully.”
“But, I did have one huge addiction- my vinyl collection. ‘Oh, I have an extra five bucks. I could spend it on speed or spend it on records… and the choice was obvious. You can’t listen to speed again and again. Sorry Tipper, music didn’t lead me to drugs. Music kept me from drugs.”
”I just like records.”
Biafra’s addiction lead him to founding Alternative Tentacles along with East Bay Ray. (Biafra bought out Ray in the ‘80s and became the sole owner). Now the longest running independent label, A.T. has released records by Dead Kennedys, Geza X, Bad Brains, MDC, Husker Du, Butthole Surfers, TSOL, Amebix, Nomeansno, Alice Donut, Neurosis, Michael Gira, Joey Ramone (as Sibling Rivalry), the Dicks, Zolar X, Leftover Crack, Melvins, Nausea, F-minus, Pansy Divison, Blowfly, Mischief Brew, World/Inferno Friendship society and many, many, many, many more. And that’s not to mention seminal spoken word discs by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. In fact, they’re just about to hit catalogue #500.
“I just like records,” Biafra says. “I like holding them in my hand and looking at the coves and reading everything. I’m aware that different people like to listen to music in different ways. But, I’m not going on the internet to listen to demos. The car is the only place for the amateur gong show. After weeding through the icky pop stuff and generic shit, once in a while I’ll find something incredibly amazing.”
If you’ve ever seen Biafra’s vinyl collection, then you’ll know it was like to be Ozymandias (before the sands wore him down to nothing, of course). Iconic punk records, blues records, calypso records, weird “frat” comedy records, Polish metal records, obscure alt-rock from the ‘80s, the latest records by Keith Morris’ OFF!, unlabeled records, bootlegs of the long lost Zolar X recordings- it’s all there. In fact, the pack is so massive that every few years or so, A.T. has a garage sale and bits of Biafra’s massive library are weeded out and sold to public. You, yes YOU, could own one of Biafra’s very own records.
I once asked Biafra how many records he owned. His answer was a somewhat exasperated, somewhat uninterested, “Oh… I don’t know.”
“I’m a librarian’s kid, so I archive all of it,” he proudly announces. “People who say, ‘oh, music isn’t good these days,” I’m like, ‘Hey, wait a minute! It’s the digital age!’ as far as I’m concerned, if you want to explore underground stuff, there is no better time than now and you don’t have to through bins or pay inflated process on Discogs or eBay. You can listen to it online, or buy it from the artist or label online so the artists get some of the money… HINT. HINT.”
This is something we all know. Not just the so called “record industry,” but bands, labels, artists, little guys are getting whomped when it comes making ends meet. There is basically no money at all left in music unless you are one of the 12 or so superstars playing LiveNation events. So, what does a fiercely independently, decidedly non-commercial label like Alternative Tentacles do in THAT environment?
“I’ve never made a dime personally from Alterative Tentacles,” Biafra explains. “That’s never been available. If people file share, I wish they would keep track of which files they have. It has hurt smaller labels quite badly and has lead to bands breaking up early because they couldn’t make a go of it. In these days of higher rent and student loans, it’s much harder for truly great bands to sustain themselves. So, A.T. is there to provide an outlet for people that want to do what they want outside of the restrictions of the corporate music industry- people telling them, ‘no, no, no you can’t put that on the cover because it’s too negative!’”
Biafra pauses, before stating bluntly, “the goal is the same as it ever was. Survival.”
”I have no average day.”
A perhaps lesser known aspect about Biafra is how busy of a guy he is. Yeah, he’s in a band that tours. Yeah, he’s the top-dawg of one of the world’s most famous record labels. Yeah, he flies all over doing spoken word performances. But, from the outside looking in, for some reason, it always seems like Jello has time to be Jello. That’s ain’t the case. For instance, during the course of our interview, his phone rings three separate times for three separate interviews. Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic, that in those moments, Biafra who has made a career out of ridiculing biz-types and tech-bros, somewhat resembles them- his phone constantly blipping, bleeping and demanding attention. Though, to be fair, whereas the tech-bros seem to feel that the phone’s constant demand for attention means they are ”important,” Biafra seems wearied by 2017’s need for constant-contact.
“I have no average day. I have no free time. I have no hobbies. I live through my obsessions,” Biafra says. “I’m a hardcore night owl and have been since I was 13. If there were ten of me, I’d probably be doing a better job. Looking at my piles of lyrics and cassettes, I’m never going to get all my albums out! I feel like I’m 25 albums behind.”
“There’s a certain level of perfection with him,” Davi tells me. “People should know how much thought he puts into everything. He doesn’t take shortcuts. There is a certain amount of sheer crippling time-consuming perfectionism that slows him down.”
“Jello knows what he wants,” says Ralph Spight. Spight is the guitarist for the Guantanamo School of Medicine and often acts as the hype man for Biafra on stage. He continues, “Working with Jello was a new experience for me. He usually has an idea of what he wants to do for music. But, when the rest of the band has other ideas, I usually act as the voice that expresses that.”
Spight continues, “I first saw Jello perform with the Dead Kennedys in ’81. It was absolutely amazing. It was like, ‘at last, I’ve found my people.’ Over the years, I ended up opening for him, was on his label, and now I’m in a band with him. When I first met him, it was kind of like he was otherworldly. I know him now, of course, but there’s an element of that still in there.”
And really, that’s what it all comes back to. It really can be difficult to figure out exactly who Biafra is. For our interview, when Biafra first picks up the phone, he seems somewhat cagey and asks me to call him back in 10 minutes. After I do, he needs about another five minutes. After that, I say to him, “if you want, we can do this another time. I don’t want to bother you if you’re busy right now.”
“No, let’s just get it over with,” he says. Now, of course, that sort of implies that he doesn’t want to be doing the interview. But then, we proceed to talk for almost three hours about his early years, his thoughts on music piracy, his feelings on drugs, seeing the Ramones for the first time, and even a run through of his entire discography. So, did he not want to do the interview, but was generous with his time anyway? Was he not sure if he wanted to do the interview? Did he want to do the interview, but I was unknowingly talking to Eric in Eric’s somewhat more calm voice whereas I was expecting to talk to Jello? (As a side note, the more we got into the discussion, the more and more “Jello” appeared, and the quieter, less bombastic Eric seemed to fade into he background.)
Perhaps it could be, he was uncertain of me at first, but upon learning I brought good tidings, he warmed up? Or, is Biafra such a seminal figure that it was I who was acting weird, and seeing things that weren’t there?
Davi has his own take, “Jello is a sensitive person that can hurt by criticism more than you might think. But, sometimes, he’ll just say, ‘fuck it!’ and not care at all about what people think. He really does not like the internet. He doesn’t read comments. He can get hurt so he avoids all of that and he doesn’t care, really.“
“He has very strong opinions, and he has gotten there by thinking about it,” says Townley. “Some people might just pick a side and repeat anything that side has to say. But, the reason Jello expresses something is because he’s considered it… he’s considered it a lot, actually. That being said, his mind can be changed. It’s not easy, but if you are able to lay something out to him, and he thinks about it, if he thinks it makes more sense, he’ll change his stance.”
Davi adds, “One of the things he expresses, he says, ‘I don’t like things that make me sort of a hero.’ He doesn’t like to be the face of things. There is a side of him that likes to make noise and get attention and get people talking. But, people would be surprised at how genuine he really is. He does want you to make music that is interesting and isn’t just a copy of something else. He really does want you the reader to look at things and don’t just go along with it. He has a good heart and means well. He wants people to think and challenge everything. It’s not an act.”
With that, I think back to a line in “Enchanted Thoughtfist.” The track is an unusual point in Biafra’s discography. Relatively slow in tempo, the song, in contrast to most Biafra tracks which find him attacking yuppies or corrupt politicians or close-minded punks, features Biafra opening up about his own insecurities. He talks about being raised with TV. He talks about being intimidated by Ginsberg. He talks about the pressures of being in the spotlight. And, perhaps most interestingly, he states “Don’t just question authority, don’t forget to question me, question everything…”
With that, there’s only one thing to do. I ask Biafra, “How do I really know that you’re being sincere with all of this?”
His response is steely and straightforward: “I’ve always tried to live and act in a way that I thought was right. I always try live by the things that I say.”
And really, what else is there to say? There’s forty years of evidence, about 30 albums, countless tours, and any number of people who have been influenced by Biafra to prove that point. But, if you still had your doubts, the last lines of “Enchanted Thoughtfist” may be the secret key to unlocking the man. The final section isn't a pat on the back or the donning of a crown. To the contrary, it’s the handoff of a baton. In his wonderfully singular warble, that high pitch zing, that pitch that fluctuates between comedy and earnesty constantly, that one-of-a-kind sincerity that he has, Biafra calls out:
Now it’s your turn
To start a fire
Start your own fire
Bring the world FIRE