For Jello Biafra, it's "California Über Alles" all over again—and again, and again
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One would be hard-pressed to name another punk-rock icon who has gracefully endured an obscenity trial, a run for mayor of San Francisco, and a verbal sparring match with Tipper Gore on Oprah's couch. In addition to weathering the opposition that comes along with such an outspoken and politically subversive persona, Jello Biafra—along with other members of the Dead Kennedys—managed to find the time to record classic punk anthems that continue to influence subsequent generations. Although the ex-members of Dead Kennedys have toured with new singers, the outfit sorely lacks Biafra's cartoonish, nasally drawl (which has earned him the nickname "The Fred Schneider Of Punk"). In his post-Dead Kennedys years, Biafra carved a new niche as a prolific and engaging spoken-word artist. However, a 2007 Stooges reunion show for Iggy Pop's 60th birthday (as well as his own then-impending 50th birthday) gave Biafra the kick in the pants he needed to seriously pursue a new musical project. Recently, The A.V. Club spoke to Biafra about his new band Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine (performing March 30 at The Black Cat), the album The Audacity Of Hype, and his ongoing legal troubles with the ex-members of the Dead Kennedys.
The A.V. Club: What are your thoughts on Jerry Brown, the subject of "California Über Alles," running for governor of California again?
Jello Biafra: Well, I guess that would be better than the governor selling the whole state off on eBay, since the other main candidate [Meg Whitman] is the ex-chairwoman/founder of eBay. She's one of those "I know how to run a business therefore I should govern everybody" kind of candidates that sometimes leads to a complete fiasco. The extreme example being that huckster and car dealer Evan Mecham in Arizona who was so outlandish when he got elected that he got recalled. But I realized I was off-base with Jerry Brown when the Reaganoids stormed in in 1980. I rewrote the song as "We've got a bigger problem now." Now my "California Über Alles" is about Schwarzenegger.
AVC: Any plans to change the meaning of the song again if Brown should win?
JB: It will be interesting to see what happens because Brown was a budget hawk the first time around—when there was way more money in the budget to slash from essential services. Even Brown doesn't seem to want to stand up to the rich people and the land owners who don't think they should have to pay taxes for the public good. One of the chilling quotes from when Brown was governor the last time was, "We're going to move left and right at the same time." One of the cooler things he's done is when he ran against Bill Clinton and was helping out Earth First!, but even when he ran against Clinton what was weird to me was that he ran on a flat tax, where everyone pays the same rate of income tax whether you're homeless or whether you're Tiger Woods or Bill Gates. It's back in Brown's platform as well. As mayor of Oakland, that was an interesting one, though overall, I wouldn't exactly call him a progressive saber-rattler there—he set up a city-run military school, led a campaign to gentrify the downtown, and never really stood up to a completely corrupt and out-of-control police department.
AVC: That doesn't really mesh with his "Governor Moonbeam" persona from the '70s and '80s.
JB: He was "Governor Moonbeam" in part because of his longtime support for the space program. I'd rather have Governor or President Moonbeam than Governor or President Star Wars, especially if it's a Star Wars person who also believes in apocalyptic Biblical theories and End Times. You know, "This is the last generation, so we should just push the button now and spend our deficits way into the red because God will put all the money back." There were Bush administration people who actually believed that. That's the danger of a President Palin. That will never happen now, but stealth Palins abound and nobody will stand up to her and ask her point-blank on national TV, "Do you believe in the End Times?" She's made veiled references to it—such as her demands that the Israelis build more settlements in Palestinian territory as quickly as possible because there's going to be more Jews "flocking" there soon.
AVC: How did you convince Shepard Fairey to satirize his iconic Obama campaign poster for The Guantanamo School Of Medicine's album cover art?
JB: He actually convinced me. I had the idea ahead of time, and since Shepard is a friend who has done another one of my album covers—for The No WTO Combo's Live From The Battle In Seattle—I figured I owed him the courtesy of calling him and telling him that I wanted to make fun of his picture. He immediately jumped and said, "Wait, I wanna do the picture myself." So, I had the honor of working with him again.
AVC: The record title, The Audacity Of Hype, is a play on the title of Barack Obama's autobiography. What made you choose that?
JB: Well, let's connect it up with the last song on the album, "I Won't Give Up," which is dealing with the aftermath of people realizing, you know, when they get that feeling like what Johnny Rotten said at the last Sex Pistols show, "Did you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Keep in mind the Obama campaign won all kinds of advertising awards for marketing hope and change and for that "O" logo. It's the most brilliant piece of propaganda art I've seen since the swastika. It's got it all: the fields of grain, the flag, the setting sun—oh yeah. That's a brilliant triumph of propaganda art, I can't deny it. So, it's basically to make fun of that and to make people question it more. And, now that people are questioning it more, the "I Won't Give Up" song asks, "Well, okay, we're getting our hearts broken again, what do we do now? Do we give up?" My feeling is no, we should be fighting harder. It's not so much Obama's fault as it is the so-called "Obama Nation" not bothering to back up the better ideas from the campaign—or at least the hopes they invested in the administration. So far, it's just like when Bill Clinton got in and people were so relieved that Bush wasn't in the White House. They were just like, "Ding dong, the Bush is dead. We can rest easy." And people just went to sleep.
AVC: What would you like to see people do, then?
JB: If anything, we need more insurrection and more protests in the streets to drive people in the right direction. So far, all we've got is a handful of Tea Party bozos being handed airtime by corporate media when there really should be a Million Uninsured March on Washington. A better example would be something Amy Goodman wrote when Obama first got in, pointing out that when Franklin Roosevelt first got elected, a previously scorned labor leader handed FDR a list of demands. Supposedly he took a look at them and said, "Oh, this is all great, now make me do it." That's exactly what he meant by that, drum up popular support from the ground up, march in the streets if you have to, but make sure this gets pushed in the right direction. Light a fire under the ass of some of those coin-operated legislators who need to get the bill through. All the people who voted for Obama assume that their job is done and they can go back to texting and playing video games all day. Well, the job is not done, it's only started. There needs to be a blowtorch up the ass of that whole administration the whole time they are in power.
AVC: Your band was initially called Axis Of Merry Evil Doers. Why the name change?
JB: Well, initially—when the band couldn't agree on the name—I thought, "Let's just make it like the Butthole Surfers originally did when they had a different name every time they played." Eventually the Gitmo School Of Med stuck. Part of the reason I pushed for it is because of my feelings on torturing war criminals. We can't let this be forgotten no matter how much the powers that be and corporate McNews would like us to think that it's not nearly as important to our daily lives as Tiger Woods' penis.
AVC: Your post-Dead Kennedys musical projects have been short-lived. Is this band going to stick around for a while?
JB: A lot of them were intentionally hit-and-run projects. I'd just find myself in a room making noise with Al from Ministry or with the guys from Nomeansno. Long-term, I always wanted my own band again, but good and bad adventures kept derailing the whole thing. This is something that will hopefully go on for a while—more live shows, more recordings, more sabotage and mayhem. It also means putting spoken word on ice for the foreseeable future. Plus, I want to see how the dust settles around the Obama era before I take up spoken word again.
AVC: What's your worst-case scenario with the Obama administration?
JB: We're really close to it right now. I had a feeling they might squander their congressional majority within two years and that's looking more and more likely. How much have we really lost when the Supermajority included wingnuts like Lieberman? Then there's that Senator Nelson from Nebraska who's barely done anything during his whole career except wear the worst toupee in the entire Senate.
AVC: You once remarked that the remaining Dead Kennedys touring without you was akin to them touring as a "Dead Kennedys cover band." Did they ever respond to that?
JB: I get threat letters from their lawyer every once in a while about one thing or another. It's still a very ugly situation and the whole Dead Kennedys catalog and legacy is slowly but surely going down the drain thanks to the way they've run things. It saddens me to see that. They're apparently trying to get yet another farewell tour in Europe off the ground for August and they hired a manager whose other main client is a Christian folk act. And yet, his own family values were perfectly cool with putting a cover of "Too Drunk To Fuck"—which none of those other guys wrote a note of—as the background music to a really brutal, graphic rape scene in one of the Grindhouse movies. It's all money über alles—and, in the long run, it's hurting everything. These are the same guys who have been running around Hollywood trying to get people to pony up money for a Metallica-type documentary movie about the band and they can't understand why I don't want to be in it.
AVC: How has all of that affected the way you feel about your time with the band?
JB: Don't get me wrong, it's not like I hate Dead Kennedys. I'm really proud of the music and the legacy—and for crying out loud, I wrote most of the music for that band, too. What really makes me mad is that when the shows are advertised, the photo is an old picture of the band with me in it. It's just out-and-out fraud. They claim it's the promoter's fault each and every time, and yet it keeps happening. I've also heard that they don't introduce the scab singers by name, so all the mall kids who found out about the Dead Kennedys at Hot Topic go to the shows thinking its me. They could at least do it with some class, just list two or three names and say that they will be playing the music of The Dead Kennedys—which is something the people from The Germs should be doing too. Or, they would have a lot more class if they did what Bauhaus did. Peter Murphy is out of the band so you launch a new band, a new name, to some degree, a new sound, and presto, you have your own identity. Then again, if they tried that, they'd need somebody to write the songs.