The Onion talks to punk-rock icon Jello Biafra about his new album with Lard, as well as every political issue in the universe.
Ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra likes to keep busy. In addition to running the seminal indie label Alternative Tentacles, he's found time to put out a bunch of spoken-word albums, play some cowpunk with Mojo Nixon, and perform in Lard with Ministry frontman Alain Jourgensen. The Onion recently let Biafra bend its ear as far back as it would go on a lengthy list of topics.
The Onion: How's it going?
Jello Biafra: Next question. I just did another long interview, so let's just draw a blank on a question like, "How's it going?"
O: Okay, I'll jump to the really tough stuff, then. Everybody wants to know the story about your legs getting broken [by punks].
JB: No, I'm not gonna answer that. That's boring, tabloid, O.J. Simpson shit. I'm not interested. Not gonna do it. Ask an intelligent question.
O: Then tell me the story of how you hosted that Make-A-Wish Foundation kid.
JB: God! Umm... How'd you hear about that?
O: I'm not telling.
JB: Well, basically, he came to visit, and we took him some places, and he enjoyed it and went home, and I hope he's okay. I was never quite clear from his condition whether he was somebody who was destined to live a short life or destined to be very ill a lot of the time. He went off and bought a guitar, he went to record stores. We mainly hung out at the label, and went out to dinner, and I sort of gave him some tips on other places to visit around San Francisco. You know, avoid Fisherman's Wharf, go to the redwoods, etc. A lot of people who visit from Europe or Japan or Australia go only to big cities and then wonder why they're not finding stuff that's as interesting as they'd hoped for.
O: Well, what's cool out in San Francisco these days? What's your take on "The Scene"?
JB: I can't think of a good answer to that. There's 500 scenes in this town, just like any other town now, and they don't communicate enough with each other. There's lots and lots and lots of bands that want to sound like Green Day or get on Fat Wreck Chords or something, and there's lots and lots of bands that want to sound like Nirvana, and lots and lots of bands that want to sound like Pearl Jam, and lots and lots of bands that want to sound like R.E.M. And every once in a while, someone cuts through who sounds completely unique, and often they wind up on Alternative Tentacles 'cause nobody else will touch them. The reward of AT is being able to put out some really cool music that wouldn't turn up or even be out there otherwise. That was the original goal when not enough of the great bands were being documented. It was just to get music out there that I liked, and to try and help out other people whose minds are similar to mine; that is, they want to operate totally outside the straight entertainment industry and not worry about major-label jackasses in satin baseball jackets telling them what to do and say, or to jump around and look stupid in a video, or to get on MTV or something like that. Contrary to what the commercial industry would like you to believe, there's plenty of room just to play music your own way 'cause you want to, without having to worry about getting signed, making a video, doing a CD-ROM, or whatever.
O: And the state of punk these days?
JB: I think that what's perceived as punk out in shopping malls or in chain stores or on MTV has almost nothing to do with what punk is about. Punk was originally about creating new, important, energetic music that would hopefully threaten the status quo and the stupidity of the 1970s. Now we have an entire audience of people who call themselves "punk" because they've written the name of a British band that broke up 15 years ago on the leather jacket they bought the day before at the mall, who only want to hear one kind of music. They're as conservative as Republicans or fundamentalist Christians. I like to shock and torment those people as much as I liked to shock fern-bar idiots and disco zombies when punk first began. I think the spirit of punk has almost completely evaporated from most of what's popularly thought of as punk music. The sound is a faithful imitation of earlier bands, but the very fact that it's a deliberate, faithful imitation is what makes it not punk anymore, in my mind. I mean, conservative, narrow-minded power brokers like Maximumrocknroll have played a major role in ruining punk as a forward musical force. People should all think alike, people should all sound alikethat's exactly the opposite of what punk means to me. I think the true spirit of punk has more in common with the spirit of the early beats, the diggers, the early hippies, when that was centered around stopping the Vietnam War and fighting for civil rights and cleaning up the planet. That's sort of where that spirit moves from movement and theme to movement and scene. For all its violence, sexism and homophobic warts, I still think that rap, and gangsta rap in particular, is far closer to the true spirit of punk than all of the sound-alike pop-punk bands. I don't care how loud the guitars are. As soon as I hear a whiny voice that sounds exactly like The Eagles, it nauseates me as much as The Eagles did. I immediately take the record off and try to play something more interesting. I have very little tolerance for people whose entire lyrical focus is, "Boo hoo, my girlfriend left me, I feel so sorry for myself as a middle-class white kid in the richest country in the world. Oh, woe is me. Maybe I should die now." As far as I'm concerned, maybe those people should. I think punk is moving away from causes, except for two things: the punk scene as a cocoon where you hide from reality, and making money. I think they could stand to move much closer to things like environmental causes. I don't think it's too hippie to want to clean up the planet so you don't wind up dying of some kind of cancer when you're 45 years old. It enrages me that these big cancer-research organizations can't be bothered to man the front lines of environmental protest. If you clean up the pollution that causes the cancer, maybe you won't need some magic cure after all. Of course, the corporations would much prefer to pour millions into trying to find a magic cure so they can then force their workers into even worse conditions than they already have, and not worry about making them all sick. There's even been open pipe-dreaming among corporate executives allowing themselves to be quoted in commercial pulp-fiction like Newsweek, saying that they're almost to the point where they think they can require some kind of genetic alteration or DNA work to be done on prospective workers so they don't have to clean up the damn factories. First the lie detector, then the drug test, now this. My latest spoken-word thing, Beyond The Valley Of The Gift Police, breaks some new ground for me in that I'm trying to offer some solutions to the stuff I complain about, as well as looking under rocks to show people why they should really be worried. Forget O.J. and whether Green Day sold out when they signed on to Reprise; this stuff is really important, and it's affecting your lives. Arguing about what is and is not punk is not gonna feed the homeless person starving outside your front door. Get a hold of that one. There are two solution pieces in there. Both of them at times borrow liberally from my mayoral campaign platform, but again, there's the wiseass solutions and others that are dead serious. For example, the California Green Party had a great idea about enacting a maximum wage. You have a minimum wage; why not a maximum wage? Once a person starts getting really, really rich, it's like a narcotic. The most dangerous drug in America, much worse than crack, is money. Once people have it, they start getting obsessed with making more and more and more money, and they become much more predatory and uncaring toward all those people they're screwing by accumulating so much wealth and property while other people go homeless. People whine about balancing the budget. Why not just cut everybody off after a hundred grand? There'd probably be enough money left over to bring all the poor up to the level of having a hundred grand just to see what they'd do with it. Unlike right-wing pop culture today, I'm all in favor of more taxes, especially on rich people, and also in favor of more welfare. I've been to enough other countries in the world to know what happens when you have socialized single-payer health care. It works. People don't get sick as much. They don't lose their life savings with a catastrophic illness like cancer or AIDS. But here, some people are scared to see a doctor 'cause they'll either lose their shirt or they'll lose their home 'cause they'll get deported back to Mexico 'cause their skin's the wrong color or something. Now there's actually cholera in this country again. There's reports of cholera all up and down the Texas/Mexico borders, especially in El Paso and Brownsville. There's tuberculosis sprouting up again in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and other places. You'd expect this sort of thing to happen in Calcutta, but corporations and rich people are all too eager to let America turn into Calcutta if they can squeeze a few more dollars out of it to go blow on Wall Street. I think one thing people need to start working on is a self-help organization called Democrats Anonymous for people who still think there really is an alternative in a Mexico-style one-party state, which in America's case masquerades as a two-party state. People could all go to meeting halls and get up sheepishly before a podium and say, "Hi, I'm so-and-so, I'm a Democrat. But now I've learned, and I've weaned myself from being lied to again and again and again by Nixonian corporate puppets like the Hill-Billarys and their religious-right trojan-horse friends the Gores." What puts the spinelessness of Clinton in its place is, here he is getting bashed up and down over a non-scandal like Whitewater when the Hill-Billarys losing 60 grand is a drop in the bucket compared to George Bush's own kids making off with over a hundred million bucks and not going to jail. If you really want to turn the tables on Whitewater, why not start prosecuting all those savings-and-loan crips who got away with murder in the Reagan-Bush era? We're still paying thousands of dollars apiece in taxes to bail out those assholes, when they should be locked up. You sure have to dig deep to find the good guys in this day and age, don't you? Umm... It was interesting that Ralph Nader ran for president, but I think he should have openly campaigned more, or at least run some op-ed pieces and some ads. I'm sure they could have raised the money to do that. What good are a bunch of decent new ideas when you don't really tell anybody about them? I like Michael Moore, and believe it or not, this long after "California Uber Alles," I think there's some good ideas that have come out of Jerry Brown. I have very mixed feelings about Jesse Jackson. He's very good about labor, and human and civil rights issues, but not so good on cultural issues. He's been as anti-rock music as any of the Tipper Gore types. He characterized it as child abuse in his 1988 campaign, all because he took his kids to see Funkadelic and the singer told the audience to light up joints. That was a reactionary response, but keep in mind that for the many good things Jackson says, he's also a reactionary preacher. I think Noam Chomsky is a national treasuremake that an international treasure. Did I mention Michael Moore already? I definitely think the farty old left is as much an enemy as the conservatives in power, as far as turning people off to activism and change. Resistance should be fun. Resistance isn't some pain in the ass; it's great fun. It's not just good for the soul, and uplifting spiritually; it can also be a great kick in the ass. Remember how much fun you had shooting spitwads at the teacher in seventh grade? Imagine applying that kind of attitude to actually fucking with Mitsubishi! A more mature, sophisticated version of that spirit was probably the driving force of my campaign for mayor, and now several other people's too. One friend of mine, Richard Hunter, who played in Killbilly and Trial By Jury, ran for mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, and for several weeks up until the actual voting, he was running second in the polls. The powers that be began to get a little alarmed. Ultimately, a family-values stealth candidate who used the Pat Robertson tactic of only speaking in churches, etc., finished ahead of him, as did a veteran black woman activist who had offered to endorse Richard if he came in second and there was a run-off. He's got enough of a name for himself now that he might get on the Fort Worth city council should he choose to use his newfound clout and momentum. I'd recommend running for office, or something on some level. You can [hear] a lot more about this by listening to the story of my San Francisco mayoral campaign off my album [I Blow Minds For A Living]. I tend to get absorbed in wherever I am. I didn't get much of it in Chicago 'cause I was mostly in the studio working on Lard, but I got out a lot more in Austin when I was working on the album with Mojo [Nixon]. For about a year, Vancouver was a second homethere's always been a big Alternative Tentacles/Vancouver connection, cause of DOA, Subhumans, NoMeansNo and Facepuller. I just tend to pick up on wherever I'm at. I start reading local publications, asking people what's up and making my own observations, bouncing 'em off other people, having fun. Sometimes the result is a pretty warped album. With that Mojo Nixon thing, the problem was that Mojo's fans fled in horror when my name was on the record, and my people fled in horror when Mojo's name was on the record. Especially after people like Maximumrocknroll caught wind of my attacks on conservative punks on that album in "Nostalgia For An Age That Never Existed" and "Buy My Snake Oil," among others. It was extreme ignorance and lack of curiosity. I love torpedoing the illusions of people who think punk should be some cocoon of a scene where you can argue over bullshit and non-issues like Green Day and Rancid as a way of avoiding the real world. You can argue about whether Offspring sold out when they signed to Sony until you're blue in the face, but that ain't gonna feed the homeless person outside your front door. Or did I already say that?
O: That's okay.
JB: But it's not going to do a damn thing to put a stop to the drug war. How's that?
O: That's fine.
JB: Personally, I think even heroin and crack should be legalized. No, make that decriminalized. There's these reruns of The Untouchables that come on TV late at night here. It amazes me to see people machine-gunning each other to death over selling beer. But how different is that from what's going on now? And here we are with the largest per capita prison population in the world, mainly because of small-time drug offenders. Whereas in a place like Holland, where they use what they call "harm reduction" instead of a drug war in their own drug problem, they've decriminalized even hard drugs, so if you get seriously hooked you can at least get them on prescription so you don't pay the mob's high drug prices. The result of that is: Where's the drive-bys? Where's the gangs? Where's the crack epidemic? Right now there's lines around the block in San Francisco for people who want to get off crack, but the wait is six months long. Instead we're putting the money that could go for more clinics into building more jails. It's become a business. The California prison guards' association is one of the most powerful labor unions in the state, to the point where we pay a guard almost 50 percent more in salary than we do a teacher. Someday, as a result of that, there's gonna be hell to pay, and when there is, I sure as hell hope our generation has the wherewithal to quit bickering about bullshit and start identifying what's really important, and at least thinking about how they'd try and run things if they woke up one day and found themselves in charge, like Mandela in South Africa or Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. In both cases, it was radical activists who spent years fighting a horrible dictatorial system, but at least there was some sort of plan or concept in mind of what the hell to do if you get rid of the corrupt dictatorial system. People have got to start thinking an extra step besides what's fucked up about the world, like, "If I was put in this particular position to change this particular thing, how would I do it?" I don't think it's too egocentric for people who follow current events to start thinking about, "Well, if I was in the president's shoes, what the hell would I do about, well, Bosnia?" Which I don't have an answer to at all. It's so damn complicated. But, say, if you hate your boss at work, start thinking about how you'd run the place if you were in charge. Imagine what you would do if you were suddenly in charge of cleaning up a corrupt and violent police department. At the very least, there's always school boards. That's an office people can get elected to right here, right now, and start learning the ropes. Unfortunately, the only people who've caught wind of this are fundamentalist Christians. I think people have to try to change the system from both within and without. The Gulf War protests, as you may remember, were way more massive than the commercial media wanted people to believe. I mean, when there were 20,000
people at a rally against the Gulf War in San Francisco, the evening TV news spent five seconds to say, "Oh, look how crazy they are, it's those faggots acting up in San Francisco," and then quickly cut to a longer piece on 50 people who showed up waving pre-provided plastic flags at a shopping mall in the suburbs, saying, "Rah rah, Bush, we support the war." [Sound of splashing, paper rolling.]
O: Hey... Is that you? Are you taking a crap?
JB: I just finished.
O: Ah, well, that's all right.
JB: When you gotta go, you gotta go.
O: I respect that. It's fine.
JB: It's not a matter of respect, it's a matter of, um...
O: It's necessity. It's hydraulic pressure.
JB: Even somebody who knows very little about science can figure that one out.
O: Of course. So... Do you want to say anything about the new Lard album that's coming out?
JB: Well... Maybe you should just comment on it when you hear it. Have your own take on it. It will hopefully put alternative rock in its place, at least for a while. And join the other Alternative Tentacles acquisitions as our continuing effort to provide an antidote to the escapist pop-punk plague. We have started putting out a lot of punk again, but I want it to be something that was either way more interesting or way more extreme than what currently had punk written on it in the music marketplace. The Fixtures, Buzzkill, Facepuller, they all have very distinct personalities. Dead And Gone is almost unclassifiable. Is Pachinko a punk band? Are they a noise band? What the hell are they? They're way too severe to wind up on Amphetamine Reptile. They play at twice the tempo, for one thing. They're a missing link between punk and hardcore, or noisecore, in a way. At least they put in a lyric sheet. Interestingly enough, once I started peeking into the master-tape reel boxes for the Ministry albums while we were working on Lard... Well, you can't understand a word of Ministry's lyrics, either, but they were pretty damn good. I told Al [Jourgensen] it was a shame he didn't provide lyric sheets for his album. He said he didn't want Tipper Gore telling him what to do, but I'm saying, "Hey, man, if you want people to know what's on your mind, you might want to let 'em know the words." Like any strong personality, working with him had its ups and downs. One thing that doesn't come across in Ministry is that he's got one of the most razor-sharp and quick wits about him of anybody I've ever known. He has a great sense of humor. Thus the man-goat song was born, although that was a real incident. There's other people from Chicago who know about the guy who tried to shave hair off his back with creamed corn in the back of a Jewel-Osco store, and resisted arrest when they brought him out. But it's all on the albums.