Picking up the phone to speak with Jello Biafra, it’s immediately apparent that the former Dead Kennedys frontman and spoken word artist still embodies the spirit of the rebel culture from which he first rose during the ’70s, and after 40 minutes our conversation had spanned the Occupy Movement, the follies of Obama and past presidents, the ongoing bitterness with former Dead Kennedys members and, of course, punk culture. He even slipped in a jab at Tony Abbott.
Biafra has made a career from speaking his mind and the 54-year-old musician has no plans of slowing that process down. His current band Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine recently released their second studio album, White People And The Damage Done – a powerful political statement that advocates activism and tackles the injustices of capitalism gone awry.
Before heading to Australia for a series of spoken word shows that act as a continuation from his YouTube series What Would Jello Do?, in addition to the currently underway Australian tour with The Guantanamo School of Medicine and an appearance at Vivid Festival, Jello gave Music Feeds a life lesson we’ll never forget.
Music Feeds: Later this month you’ll be touring What Would Jello Do? around Australia. For first timers, what can one expect from your talking shows?
JB: The spoken word show is still in preparation stage. I’m trying to get as much of it as lined-up and organised as I can before I leave. Then do a music show. Then hide for a few days to finalise what I’m going to try to do, then Melbourne becomes the guinea pig.
MF: You’ll also be a part of Sydney’s Vivid Festival, specifically Vivid Ideas, for a discussion on social networks called Ten Commandments: Build A Movement. What are some of your thoughts on today’s technologies and trends regarding transformation of communities?
JB: I think it’s all a matter of who is using the tools and how it’s being used. I have a reputation as a Luddite since I’m not real digitally literate and don’t rely on it myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely oblivious to it all and the power that it holds.
For the most part I think it’s been magic, but it’s a matter of, “Are you using the tool or is the tool using you?”. The positive side is when people are able tweet each other, Facebook, email, text, whatever and create spontaneous protests or inform each where the police attacks are coming from, if yet another non-violent march is being attacked by lawbreakers in uniforms whose job it supposedly was to enforce the law.
It can also be good for pranks too. I mean, I’m aware of Operation Titstorm.
MF: I’m not aware of that prank.
JB: It was a proposed law, either nationally or in the state of Victoria, to restrict pornography in some really weird ways – including banning nude pictures of small-breasted women on the grounds that is was child porn, which is about as neanderthal and backwards sexist, even for Australia, as you can get.
So a group of people – I think Anonymous was involved – flooded all the legislators with all kinds of… Look it up too, because I don’t have my notes in front of me on this one. It basically screwed things up enough and may have even shut down some national websites – I don’t know I can’t remember – that the attempt to pass that insane law was dropped. And initially, apparently, it was set to pass.
So it wasn’t just a simple bleeding-heart progressive “Oh, boo-hoo, you shouldn’t do this – we shall overcome!” No, it was a very carefully planned attack and it was also a hell of a lot of fun. There’s nothing like going out of your way to annoy the people who really need to be annoyed (laughs). Thus my salute to the Occupy Movement in song was “Don’t just occupy, shock-u-py!”
MF: There has long been an argument that listening to music about rebellion and activism can distract from taking any actual action…
JB: (Interrupts) I’ve hardly ever heard that argument in my life! It depends on what kind of music you’re listening too. If it’s all dumb love songs that lie to everybody about what romance and love really is, then, yeah, maybe that’s a distraction. Or confining oneself to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – maybe that’s a distraction, maybe not.
Then again, if people are out in the streets and causing trouble and having a great time of it, and they’re doing it in a non-violent fashion that does indeed ‘shock-u-py’, there’s no way to tell how many people have their favourite AC/DC song running through their head while they’re out there kicking ass, even if the lyrics have nothing to do with politics. On the other hand, every political movement is, in part, inspired and sustained by music. Always has been.
So I don’t think music in itself, let alone punk, was a movement. There is no ‘punk movement’. That part is a myth. Punk is a culture. And my part of it is definitely a rebel culture. And this kind of rebel culture, when the words are designed start some fires in your mind and the music gets you up off your ass and fills you with adrenaline and the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, each works with the other to inspire people to think about it and hopefully get up off their ass to take action as part of helping a wider movement.
MF: As you just mentioned, you’ve recorded the song Shock-U-Py! and you are linked with the Occupy Movement. The Occupy Movement never gained the same traction in Australia as it did in the States. What is the current status of Occupy in the US?
JB: Maybe similar to Australia, I don’t know. Please keep in mind I had the privilege of visiting the Occupy Melbourne camp within hours of it being violently destroyed by out-of-control Victorian and Melbourne police, who were throwing people’s bicycles and laptops into trash trucks and crushing them. You know, something you’d expect from, I don’t know (chuckles), Mubarak before he fell in Egypt – that’s the kind of thing they would do.
But what was good about it was the energy and there was so many people giving a shit and feeling inspired… “I want to be part of this, I want to be something wider that helps fight corporate power and counter this worldwide agressive push” – I’ll even call it a corporate coup, where they’re trying to switch away even from capitalism back to feudalism.
Tony Abbott is very much a part of that… when they let mining companies run amok and don’t seem to be putting the brakes on coal seam gas drilling, or fracking as we call it in the United States, the way they should be.
I have received emails saying that Australian schools are underfunded, as well, even though your economy is doing pretty damn well.
So where does this leave Occupy? I think it depends on the occupier. I knew the tent camps weren’t going to last. Especially not in New York or Colorado, where I’m originally from, or somewhere like that where it’s too damn cold. By the time winter hit, it was below freezing. So it was real easy for the police to persuade people to pack up and leave.
But the spirit of Occupy, and I think the spirit of ‘shock-u-py’, is much wider than those tent camps. Even my 83-year-old mother said she was totally down with what Occupy was standing for and what they were trying to do. And she may be a bit radical for somebody her age, which is nowhere near as radical as I am, but still she understood, she got it, she identified with it.
So the spirit of Occupy, it’s kind of like the ripples in a lake after the initial chunk of cement got thrown in. You know, it keeps coming and coming – it’s just that people keep looking at how depressing the big picture is, and it can be pretty overwhelming. But if you break off one chunk of it and start thinking of achieving smaller, winnable, local battles, then we start getting things done.
Even if it’s a simple, you know, waking up to lifestyle changes like, “Hey, wait a minute – I don’t need to suck up to this corporate food chain and be a part of everything they tell me to be. I don’t have to buy what they tell me to buy. I don’t have to shop at chain stores and go to chain restaurants if I don’t want to.”
I mean, even if I go into an independent store, would Coca-Cola taste as good as it did when I was a kid? Uh, not really (chuckles). And it can mushroom from there. And, hey, even if you have to work for one of those global corporate predators, the digital age is ushering in a whole new fronteer of sabotage on the job.
I believe in insurrection on the streets, in the voting booth and where and how we spend our money, all at the same time. You don’t get much done unless you’re pushing all three. And for that reason I think Obama owes his ass to Occupy, at this point.
It wasn’t as though he and his opponent Mitt Romney were talking about inequality or corporate bankster gangsterism at all before Occupy hit. They were just going to yell at each other about whether or not we should ban burning the flag or who loved Israel more or other bogus shit like that.
They didn’t want to talk about inequality at all, but after Occupy it shot right to the top of what was on everybody’s mind and they couldn’t get away from it. Not even Rupert Murdoch’s media could get away from it.
MF: On the new Guantanamo School of Medicine album White People and the Damage Done there’s a track, Werewolves Of Wall Street, that mentions a concept you call “wealth addiction”. Would you mind explaining what you mean by “wealth addiction”?
JB: Wealth addiction is like if you’re a crackhead or a methhead but it’s all about the money. It’s the most dangerous kind of addiction on earth for that reason because it’s done the most damage.
I mean, you make your first million dollars you’re doing pretty damn well, right? What’s the point of trying to make any more? You can live of that the rest of your life, very comfortably if you live smart. But no! People in that bracket, often by then they’re wealth addicts who are like, “I must have more. I must have more. Why have $1 million when I could have $2 million? Why have $2 million when I could have $200 million? I love playing this game! It’s like a video game I can’t stop playing! Only, in order for me to win, real human beings must lose!” I mean, they just can’t stop themselves.
When somebody has so much money they can’t figure out how to spend it all it should be taken away from them – it’s that simple.
MF: By that definition “wealth addiction” would effect most of us in a capitalist culture. In that regard, does Occupy go far enough or should we look at alternative forms of society that aren’t based on a monetary system?
JB: I’m not sure. I mean, bartering for every last little thing you require in order to feed yourself and survive, it seems to me that would be tremendously time-consuming. I mean I’m not against capitalism, per se, I’m against capitalism when it’s abused and when it becomes taken over by crackhead mentality wealth addiction, instead of just trying to make a little money and pay your bills.
MF: You previously stated that individuals who run for presidency are exceedingly vain. Could the same not be said for musicians and performers?
JB: I don’t agree with that at all.
JB: No, that’s ridiculous. I’ve said before that anybody whose ego is so huge that think they should be president is probably too insane to be president. Does that apply to musicians? I don’t think it does at all.
Musicians are not trying to rule over everybody else. They’re not making music to acquire power. Yes, there are some who are trying to take as much money off of people as they possibly can and laugh all the way to the bank but the magic of music itself is what rises above that. I think that premise doesn’t apply at all.
MF: Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff makes the point that 30 years of conservative political discourse has enabled conservative ideas to be viewed as “mainstream” and progressive ideas as “leftist” and “extremist” and that “the very use of the left-to-right scale metaphor serves to empower radical conservatives and marginalize progressives”. Is that a statement you’d agree with?
JB: Well, there’s something else that empowers right-wing extremists in this country, and that’s money.
Oil barons and the top Wall Street wealth werewolves and corrupt-ocrats and money addicts, they identify smart, gifted right-wing hardliners when they’re teenagers. There are summer camps you can go to, to try and turn into a meaner businessman or conservative operative even before you’re 10 years old.
Right-wing radical extremists are groomed from a very young age and, of course, the ones that were born wealthy in the first place, they go to exclusive prep schools where they only hang out with people like themselves. And they go to top-of-the-line. expensive and often conservative universities that are designed to churn out the type of people that global corporate predators want to have at the top of their own workforce.
So people on the other side, what we’re armed with is the power of ideas, which make a lot more common sense when applied to actual people’s lives. So, of course, the other side, who have a lot more money, you know, this is why they find it necessary to acquire as much wealth and power through media ownership, as somebody like Rupert Murdoch.
In America what the impact of Murdoch is, he has this right-wing extremist television network called Fox News but then there’s all these other corporate-owned news networks that all wish they were Fox News but they have to disguise themselves or people won’t watch them.
CNN is almost as right-wing as Fox News, at least in the United States, and were very openly cheerleading for Mitt Romney in the last national election. Now they’re talking about the “inevitability” of a war with North Korea and the “inevitability” that we need to attack Iran and Syria and… Well, I guess we’re not willing to attack Venezuela for a while because Chavez died, but you get the idea.
It’s thinly disguised propaganda that is, again, very far to the right and when you have corporations owned by very conservative money addicts controlling almost all the mass media in any form in a country, of course they’re going to try and shift the meter slowly to their own extreme right because it’s in there financial interest.
Therefore, an extremist like Ronald Reagan shifts the mainstream to the point where Bill Clinton, a supposed radical leftist, was actually to the right of Richard Nixon. Obama is also largely to the right of Richard Nixon, and nobody was under any illusion that Nixon was in any way progressive or left-wing when he was president. He was a frightening individual who was also one of the great monsters of the screen.
When I grew up you had monsters of the screen like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Werewolf and Nixon.
MF: I’d love to talk more politics but we’re running out of time and better move on to music matters…
JB: Let me finish one thing… We talked about Occupy. I think one of the best things about Occupy and the impact on the media… You talked about shifting perceptions so far to the right as to what is mainstream, what is right-wing extreme, Occupy is the only thing in recent years that’s helped to shift things back.
MF: Noam Chomsky has released a book on Occupy and your label Alternative Tentacles has released material by Chomsky. Do you recall when you first encounter Chomsky’s work?
JB: Well, I’d heard about him for years but the first one I’d actually read was in an underground punk zine, of all places. I read it in Maximumrocknroll. It was a Chomsky article pointing out that the whole arms race and Cold War between the United States and The Soviet Bloc was all complete bullshit.
Not just designed to keep the pentagon and American military industrial complex in power, but it was doing the same thing for the communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc. The arms race was there just to sustain their power as well. [Chomsky] pointed out statistically that the Soviet Union would not be able to sustain itself if it kept going overboard building more and more weapons for a war that was never going to come.
And sure enough the Soviet Union collapsed, not because of anything Reagan or the first George Bush did but because of the dumb things the communist leaders did. They had their own military industrial complex and it did them in just like the military industrial complex, in many ways, is doing the United States in right now.
MF: Last year you said that you run Alternative Tentacles at a loss since the Dead Kennedys back catalogue was legally removed from the label. Will you be able to maintain Alternative Tentacles for much longer?
JB: I’m trying. I mean, it’s getting harder and harder every year, especially in the age of file sharing. Of course, when an economy collapses, like America’s has, more and more people are going to file share because they don’t have any other way to get music anymore – they’ve run out of money. It’s a terrible catch-22.
So all I can ask is that people who do file share to please stop and think about who they may be hurting by that. If you want to do it to major label artists, I could care less. Major labels go so far out of their way to rip off their artists anyway it’s not as though you’re ripping off the people you love because the labels are doing it for you.
But with somebody like me, both as an artist and as a small label, it’s totally the opposite. We’ve had several really good new bands on Alternative Tentacles break up prematurely, over the past decade or so, because they couldn’t make a go of it. You know, rents are higher, gasoline is higher, the cost of touring is higher. But when you’re not selling some albums to help maintain that because people file share instead and you’ve got high rent and student loans hanging over your head, people are more likely to give up their band.
If you’re really into somebody’s music and you want to turn other people onto it, I would say file share a sampler of the album and not the whole album. File share a sampler of the artist’s song but not the whole thing.
MF: You recently described your former Dead Kennedy bandmates as a “coven of Mitt Romneys“. What exactly did you mean by that?
JB: (Laughs) Well, I mean they may be mainstream Hillary Clinton Democrats politically, but in their hearts they’ve become Republicans. Money is the most important thing in life and it doesn’t matter how you get it, even if it means sticking a knife in somebody else’s back and tearing their life to pieces to make a few more bucks. It’s all justified because it’s money über alles and nothing else should matter.
That’s why I called them a coven of Mitt Romneys. They value wealth – to the degree they even have it – over hearts and community. Has it made them any happier? Obviously not (chuckles).
MF: Considering the magnitude of the political and social matters you discuss, does the ongoing conflict with your former Dead Kennedy bandmates seem a petty and unfortunate thing?
JB: Of course it’s an unfortunate thing. It’s one of the worse heartbreaks of my whole life. I have way more love and respect for Dead Kennedys and what it is and what it means then they ever will, at this point.
I hate seeing it dumbed down and misused. Every time they put my picture in an ad for a fake reunion show and another round of complaints come into the email pile about how badly they played and their attitude, on and off the stage, I get really, really sad. But what can I do?
And yet, recently, even Klaus [Flouride, founding member and current Dead Kennedys bassist] went off in the media again about how upset he is that I won’t do scam reunion shows with them, claiming I’m punishing the audience by refusing to suck their dicks and get onstage with them and have their lawyer and their manager be my boss.
I’m sorry, but I think it is somebody else that’s punishing the audience here and its called fraud.
MF: Guantanamo School of Medicine is touring Australia this month. What can fans take away from the show that they may not from some modern, younger punk bands?
JB: Well, that depends on the modern, younger punk band. I come from a time when there was no old-school, we were blowing up the school. And the peer pressure was not on every band to sound the same but for every band to sound different, or people weren’t interested.
So I just kind of have to follow my heart and my whims of where I am as a music fan, where I don’t like my songs to sound the same. I’m proud that no two music albums of mine have ever sounded the same, not ever the Lard albums.
Punk is the well from which I spring – that’s the core of my musical vision – but I try to push the envelope and widen the base of the pyramid as much as possible so that the songs sound different from each other but they’re still good and they rock, and all.
We will play a bit of Dead Kennedys but this is a new band, not a retro act – and I emphasise the word ‘act’ for that whole side of things. So there will be some DK but mostly new stuff and once people hear the new songs they don’t seem too upset about that at all.
MF: Being that it was the culture of punk that first inspired you are now comfortable being a statesman for that culture?
JB: Sure. I think “culture” is a better description of punk than “movement”. Movements, to me, are political – they have their eye on a specific prize and there’s many different kinds of people involved in a movement – whereas punk is a culture, and the kind of side I like, where I come from, is rebel culture.
And if that inspires people to kick more ass and helping out other movements and making some different decisions on how they want to live their lives, so they aren’t just unhappy apparatchiks of the corporate food-chain strung-out on psych meds then sure, I’ll be a statesman for that.
I like “statesman” better than “elder statesman”. I’m too much of an immature spoiled brat to fall into that category, no matter what age I am.
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School Of Medicine are currently touring Australia. Jello Biafra’s ‘What Would Jello Do?’ talking tour commences immediately after, concluding with an appearance at Vivid Live’s discussion on social networking ‘Ten Commandments: Build A Movement’. All dates are below.
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School Of Medicine Australia tour dates
Thursday, 16th May
+ Special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets: $48.00 + bf from http://www.thehifi.com.au, http://www.feelpresents.com
phone 1300 THE HIFI or in person at all Oztix outlets.
Friday, 17th May
Coolangatta Hotel, Coolangatta
+ Special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets: $44.00 + bf from the http://coolyhotel.com.au, http://www.feelpresents.com
phone 1300 762 545 or in person at all Oztix outlets.
Saturday 18th May
The Metro, Sydney
+ Special guests Hard-Ons & Zeahorse
Tickets: $47.70 + bf from http://www.metrotheatre.com.au, http://www.feelpresents.com
phone 9550 3666 or in person at all Ticketek and Oztix outlets.
Sunday 19th May
Cambridge Tavern, Newcastle
+ Special guests Hard-Ons
Tickets: $44.00 + bf from http://www.yourcambridge.com and in person at the Venue.
What Would Jello Do? tour dates
Thursday, 23rd May
The Gershwin Room, Melbourne
Tix: http://www.oztix.com.au, ph: 1300 762 545 or in person at all Oztix outlets.
Friday, 24th May
Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne
Tix: http://www.oztix.com.au, ph: 1300 762 545 or in person at all Oztix outlets.
Saturday, 25th May
The Founders Room, Hobart
Tix: Talking show and DJ set tickets $35.00 + bf / Talking show only $30.00 + bf from http://www.moshtix.com.au, ph: 1300 GET TIX or in person at all Moshtix outlets.
Vivid Ideas ‘Ten Commandments: Build A Movement’
Monday, 27th May
Museum Of Contemporary, Sydney
Tix: http://www.vividsydney.oztix.com.au, ph: 1300 762 545 or in person at all Oztix outlets.