Jello Biafra: “I’m not a drug addict, I’m not religious, music is my higher power, and I never know what’s coming next”
As the former frontman of legendary punk band Dead Kennedys, and a hugely influential artist in his own right, Jello Biafra has been a thorn in the side of authority since he was old enough to tie his own shoelaces. An advocate of freedom of speech, he ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 (finishing third out of 10), faced trial for obscenity in 1986 (finally acquitted but facing financial ruin) and penned such classics as Nazi Punks Fuck Off and Let’s Lynch The Landlord, many of which remain all too relevant to this day.
Since the demise of the Dead Kennedys in ’86, Jello has worked with everyone from Al Jourgensen, Pitchshifter and The Offspring to the Melvins, Sepultura and Reverend Horton Heat, along with releasing numerous spoken word albums. He’s also put out three albums with his band Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine, the latest of which – the brilliant Tea Party Revenge Porn – was recently released online. COVID be damned, Jello is a busy man, and he shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Tell us a little about your upbringing. Apparently, your parents let you watch TV uncensored. Is that true?
“The funny part is, they did get really weird about stuff they considered too violent, which included Star Trek! And I was never given a toy gun or anything, but I just realised, in adulthood, how rare it was that they didn’t change the channel the minute something unpleasant came on the news. I’d watch cartoon shows and then watch the news with equal fascination. I’m told my favourite cartoon characters were Bullwinkle and senator Everett Dirksen. So I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot, I saw the Berlin Wall go up… It was also back in the day when there were only three competing TV networks and they took pride in their news coverage, so things like Vietnam and starving children in Biafra – which is were I took my name – were right there on the evening news, completely uncensored. Instead of changing the channel, it was discussed, even if I was six years old. I wasn’t just informed, I was obsessed. I was a newshound even before the JFK assassination.”
You were born in Boulder, Colorado and moved to San Francisco in your teens. What was that like? Was any of the hippy vibe left?
“Well, I first went there maybe a summer or two after the Summer Of Love, and a lot of that was still going on. We didn’t go to Haight Street, but there was a lot of weird boutiques and art, and I liked the city and the energy. The seeds were planted that maybe I’d want to live here someday. When I did get to San Francisco, after doing very dirty laundry in a nursing home to get the money together, some of the hippy thing was still around, but the consciousness and the rebelliousness was long exterminated. Like, ‘This is organic, so it’s $50 instead of 50 cents.’ And try finding good acid when you’re finally old enough to experiment with it!”
How did you first get into punk or rock music in general?
“When I was seven years old I blundered onto a rock station, trying to get to sleep one night, and I was immediately hooked and went for the harder stuff. The Beatles – because Beatlemania was in full swing – Rolling Stones, and The Animals, especially when I found out the singer had the same first name as me. But the roots of punk do not start with the Pistols or the Ramones, they go back way further with the Stooges and MC5, even Captain Beefheart, and the social satire of Frank Zappa. That energy just stayed with me.”
According to Wikipedia, your first band was The Healers. Is that true?
“That was me and my friend John Greenway, and another person, banging on instruments we didn’t know how to play when our parents weren’t home.”
Did you play any gigs?
“Are you kidding? John and I talk about releasing that shit every once in a while, and then we’re like, ‘No, this was made for us and us alone,’ when we were barely out of school and just discovering drugs. But there was an original improvised California Über Alles, and John wrote the original lyrics based on my pet conspiracy theory about [former governor of California] Jerry Brown and Zen fascism, but then Reagan stormed in and I realised I was totally wrong, so the lyrics got rewritten as We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now, and I never sang the Jerry Brown lyrics again.”
You don’t seem to be bothered that some of your music is so on point and of the moment that it can almost become out of date overnight.
“I sometimes think I should stop writing this shit and letting my imagination keep creating all these worst-case scenarios, because they keep coming true! I tried to make the new album as un-specific to Trump as I could, but he had to come in at times.”
So would you prefer that your songs became out of date rather than staying relevant?
“Well, I always wanted the music to last, that’s why there were all the arguments with [Dead Kennedys guitarist] Ray about mixing and remixing until we got it as good as we possibly can. My argument was it shouldn’t be a half-assed, quickie, souvenir version of the live show, it should be the best version of the song that the band ever played, because that’s what people will listen to even decades later. I also realised, through Lou Reed and the Stooges and Zappa, that another way to last longer was to not aim for topping the charts but to put out something that you really believed in, that doesn’t sound like anyone else, and try to build a cult following that will stick with you. That was my aim from the very beginning, right down to having the picture sleeve jump out at your eye in the store, thinking back to my teens when I’d get something just because the cover looked really fucked up. So I was hoping it would last and people would still find something cool in it, both lyrically and musically, and I’m really grateful that anybody gives a shit and still likes it now.”
Do you think a big part of the legacy of your music is in its influence? Bands like Rage Against The Machine, Faith No More and System Of A Down, even Slayer and Sepultura, who might not even exist without Dead Kennedys.
“I don’t think you could go that far, saying they wouldn’t be here.”
Certainly they would sound very different.
“Well, it’s always an honour to know that of either Dead Kennedys or myself, because some people cite Lard or my spoken word albums as being a gateway drug into cooler music or another consciousness. I’ve had people come up to me and say they were majoring in business then they heard my stuff, and it made them think they’d be better off doing something that was better for the planet. It’s way cooler if someone gives you something that you helped to inspire, rather than, ‘Can you sign my testicles?’ or, ‘Can I get five selfies?’ It’s not always music, it can be books, journalism, film, or public interest law.”
Speaking of Lard, you’ve worked with a pretty diverse bunch of artists over the years, including Al Jourgensen with Ministry, Lard, and Revco, but it’s kind of difficult to image you two in the same room!
“I’ve heard that from other people, too! If you put us together, Al kinda turns into me, but the worst part is I turn into him. It’s amazing that he’s still here and it amazes him, too. I mean, the first time he told me we should do a Lard tour, because he might be dead soon, was in 1988 or ’89! Every day he wakes up, he defies science!”
You also worked with Sepultura on Biotech Is Godzilla for the Chaos A.D album, and sang live with them a few times. How did that come about?
“Well, a lot of people in the early thrash scene grew out of punk and hardcore, and some of the political consciousness crept in. Then later generations of metal bands and fans found themselves becoming more politicised because there was so much back and forth with hardcore, and because they were getting harassed so much more by the police, just for being metalheads. By then, [PMRC co-founder] Tipper Gore had launched her bigoted anti-music campaign, claiming that this stuff was leading kids to commit crimes and worship Satan and become drug addicts.”
How good did it feel to call her out on the Oprah Winfrey show?
“Well, I had it planned, because I’d been on Oprah with her once before and every time I tried to say something to Tipper Gore, Oprah would interrupt and give the floor to Tipper. But I was asked to come back when Tipper was playing the race card, going after Ice‑T and NWA, and I’m like, ‘Okay, Oprah’s gonna give me one chance.’ She has this unseen hand gesture that points to whose mic should go on or off, and by that time I’d been given this interview that Tipper did in a Nashville newspaper where she took credit for my obscenity trial. So I brought that newspaper with me and sure enough, she denied ever saying that, and lied on national TV. I pulled the newspaper out of my pocket and read her her own words. Oprah was making the hand gesture repeatedly, but I wouldn’t stop talking so she couldn’t cut the camera. I said, ‘What kind of example are you setting your children when they see their mother lying on national television?’ and that was when Oprah said, ‘I’m sure you’ve been misquoted too, Jello,’ and cut to commercials.”
And speaking of TV, you also appeared on Portlandia.
“You probably know that Fred Armisen was the drummer in Trenchmouth, so we already knew each other a little bit from that. And then word came down that they wanted to do that and I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’ I already had acting credentials and I was trained in method acting before I was ever in a band, which proved enormously helpful for turning into different people onstage. I played Scrooge once, and I’d love to do that again. That was fucking cool! I always wanted to be different as a frontman and I wanted to be theatrical without being Alice Cooper. I realised that if I needed an object onstage, I would just illustrate one without having to carry all this stuff around.”
What does Jello do to relax? I remember seeing you wasted drunk in Vegas at the Double Down Saloon, so presumably drinking is a hobby?
“I like to go around sampling local microbrew beers, and nobody told me the one they were handing me was 9 per cent alcohol until I almost keeled over onstage. But I wasn’t proud of that. That wasn’t me. The only good thing is that it happened in Vegas, because the previous time, I got in my car and drove home, and I never should have been fucking driving. That’s not something I do very often or intentionally. I don’t think the hangover was that bad the next day, and I’ve only had a few skull-splitting hangovers, but that’s not the way I like to live. My girlfriend doesn’t drink and doesn’t like it if I drink around her, so if we go out, it’s a no-drinking night no matter who’s playing. But it also means that my resistance to alcohol is so low that just one pint means I won’t get a damn thing done when I get home. I don’t like being interfered with like that. It’s also why I quit smoking weed. It wasn’t opening my mind, it was dulling everything.”
Despite occasional online rumours of your death, you seem to be going pretty strong!
“There’s been at least three of those, including one where the singer for one of our bands and the publicist for Alternative Tentacles both left messages on my answering machine, choking back tears because they’d heard I was dead. It’s really weird that they would be leaving me messages to ask me if I was dead, but apparently that story had got that far. The moral is: don’t automatically believe everything – especially if your only source is the fucking internet! Reporting me dead or making up lies that could get me arrested is one thing, but now it’s got dangerous enough that someone walks into a pizza restaurant in D.C. with a fucking machine gun, looking for the basement where Hillary Clinton keeps all the children! That building didn’t even have a basement, and luckily the guy didn’t freak out and start shooting everybody. And this is gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”
At 62 years old, what keeps you active and creative?
“Well, I still have all these cool ideas, and I’ve learned that if I think something’s cool then someone else will, too, so I just do what I want. I’m still a really big music fan, and this is what sustains me. I’m not a drug addict, I’m not religious, music is my higher power, and I never know what’s coming next. I never get tired of it, because if I’ve never heard it before, even if it was recorded 20 years before I was born, it’s still new to me. I can’t understand people who just listen to the same stuff over and over, year after year. I never run out of ideas, and I never run out of stuff I like to listen to.”
Tea Party Revenge Porn is out now via Alternative Tentacles.
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