Many bands meld politics with their music. However, no one does it quite like Jello Biafra.
The former Dead Kennedys frontman is coming to Palm Desert for a post-Coachella encore at The Hood Bar and Pizza on Friday, Nov. 8, with his band, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
Dead Kennedys formed in 1978 in San Francisco as part of the hardcore punk scene that was sweeping America. When Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray put out a newspaper advertisement for band mates, Jello Biafra (vocals), Klaus Flouride (bass) and Ted, aka Bruce Slesinger (drums), joined together and took the hardcore punk scene by the horns thanks to their psychedelic, surf-guitar-infused sound, and Biafra’s political satire-based lyrics. Songs such as “Holiday in Cambodia,” “California Über Alles,” “Too Drunk to Fuck” and “Police Truck” became their most recognizable anthems. The band released its albums on its own label, Alternative Tentacles; Jello Biafra presides over the label to this day.
The band quickly drew the attention of police in San Francisco and other cities—as well as, most notably, Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center. When the band put out the album Frankenchrist in 1985, the Dead Kennedys members found themselves in a world of trouble over the H.R. Giger-designed poster insert showing rows of penises and vulvae. They were charged with distributing harmful material to minors and faced a criminal trial. While the trial ended in an acquittal, the controversy and the ever-changing punk scene led to a breakup in 1986.
Biafra’s fascination with music and politics came in part from his parents, who encouraged him to take an interest in current events as well as music. During a recent phone interview, he said his music was a product of the times in which he grew up.
“In a way, even the music that didn’t have political lyrics back then scared people. Even liking … the harder-edged, garage-rock side of rock ’n’ roll, or even the Beatles—or long hair, for that matter—was all kind of an outlaw act, and therefore, political,” Biafra said. “It was a real struggle, though, to find music that rocked as hard as I like it (and that’s) a tad overt with political lyrics instead of the same old sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with a little Satan thrown in.”
Biafra said his parents’ tastes in music led to his diverse tastes.
“My parents were mainly classical-music listeners. At that point, they were still listening to a fair amount of folk music, too—Pete Seeger, Joan Baez … Gateway Singers, who were a local group back there that they saw perform live a lot. My dad had this Japanese kabuki record with kabuki musicians. By the time I was a teenage pothead listening to Hawkwind, among other things, I dug that kabuki record out of his collection and thought it was really cool. It had some of the same driving feel to it. My pothead friends agreed. I traded (my father) an Erik Satie album to get the kabuki record.”
After the Dead Kennedys split, Biafra stayed active in music while he also made spoken-word appearances. He made records with Mojo Nixon, D.O.A., The Melvins, and his previous band, Lard. However, he didn’t return to material that was as hard-hitting until he formed his current band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
“It was never my intention to not ever have another band. I just kept getting derailed on good and bad adventures. When I saw the Stooges on Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday, I thought, ‘Oh shit! I’m turning 50 next year. I’d better get this band thing together one of these days.’ So I finally had a deadline.”
Since forming in 2008, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine have put out two albums and toured the world—including an appearance at Coachella in April.
The band’s most recent album, White People and the Damage Done, released in April, includes a song called “The Brown Lipstick Parade” that references some of the Tipper Gore/PMRC fiasco.
“I got the term ‘brown lipstick’ from Frank Zappa when he testified at that Senate hearing that Al Gore had arranged for his own wife to investigate evil music—you know, how Ozzy makes you kill yourself, AC/DC causes crime to increase, and later on, if you listen to political hip-hop written by African Americans, you might turn into some kind of gang-banger or something. One of the things Zappa said in a prepared statement to those pompous senators was, ‘No one looks good in brown lipstick.’”
“What he meant was the way things are done from City Hall to Washington: People get themselves elected—or should I say selected—not to do anything for the voters or the public good, but to prove themselves to be as corrupt as possible, as quickly as possible, and put on as much brown lipstick as possible, so when they leave Congress or the Pentagon or whatever, they can get on corporate boards of directors and rake in millions of dollars through lobbyists.”
When it comes to Tipper Gore, he expressed an amusing point of view.
“Let’s put it this way: I think Tipper Gore had more to do with costing her husband the 2000 election than anything Ralph Nader or the Green Party would have hoped to have done. Where was the youth support for Al Gore in 2000?”
While Biafra has earned success and praise from the punk-rock community, he isn’t without critics. Punk-rockers with a libertarian ethos, as well as foes of the punk-rock ethos in general, have chided Biafra for being a hypocrite, in part because he makes money from his political works.
“They’re people who have their heads firmly up their asses and never bothered to research any fact, that’s for damn sure,” he said. “It’s not as though I’m rolling in mountains of money. I’ve never made a dime off Alternative Tentacles, either, and I think in any society where the mass media continues to be corporatized, censored and dumbed down, it’s that more important for the artist to speak out and tell people what’s really going on. For some reason, because I’m a musician, I shouldn’t speak out on anything besides shop talk on the punk-rock scene? That sounds as boring as talking to anarchists about anarchy all night long.”
Biafra made it clear that he is no fan of libertarianism and its influence on punk rock.
“As far as I’m concerned, Libertarians are Republicans who smoke pot. I have a very different attitude about what they do—not just about guns, but also about taxes,” he said. “I don’t think taxes should go down; I think they should go up, especially on people who have made so much money that they can’t figure out what to do with it all.
“Drug addiction causes enough problems in the world, but the far worse addiction is wealth. The only way to put wealth addicts into rehab is to follow the suggestion of the California Green Party and enact a maximum wage. The first six figures are free—OK, I’ll compromise—the first seven figures, and then it’s payback time.”
And speaking of the Green Party, of which Biafra is a member: He offered the 1992 election as a history lesson when asked if the country will ever see a third-party president.
“It depends on which kind of party it is,” he said. “I mean, the closest in this lifetime was clear off the scale, Tea Party, right-wing, and that was Ross Perot. He got something like 15 percent of the vote (actually 18.9 percent) when Clinton defeated daddy Bush in 1992. Michael Moore made the point later: How disillusioned are Americans with their lack of choice in the electoral process if that many millions of people voted for someone they knew was crazy?”
He’s also no fan of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
“He’s good on pot and good on pulling the military out of our stupid wars. Beyond that, he should just go back to being some exhibit of a crackpot under glass who looks way too much like E.T.’s grandfather. Some of his comments about race, a woman’s right to choose … and taking an issue with the Civil Rights Act—he strikes me as far-religious-right and quite possibly a white supremacist.”
While fans have hoped for a Dead Kennedys reunion that includes Jello Biafra, it’s unlikely to happen. Biafra fought a bitter legal battle with some of his former band mates, who have since began performing again under the Dead Kennedys name. They’ve gone through a cycle of replacements for Biafra, one of whom was Brandon Cruz, a former child actor (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father). Currently, Ron “Skip” Greer is the lead vocalist.
While bad blood remains, Biafra does agree with East Bay Ray’s position on royalties and online streaming companies such as Spotify and Pandora.
“I know Ray is kind of on a crusade against file-sharing, and he’s not very good at communicating his point of view to the public,” Biafra said. “I probably agree with him to some degree that … (it’s not) cool for Google to be running ads on illegal file-sharing sites. As an independent artist and especially an independent label, I’m experiencing firsthand when people would rather file-share than support an underground independent artist, and buy the album or song. Of course, our crashed economy feeds into this, because people want to listen to music and have something to cheer them up when they don’t have any money. … Sharing major-label files is no big deal to me, because (the big labels) go so far out of the way to rip off their artists that I don’t really feel like the art itself is being ripped off.
“For a smaller, independent artists and labels like myself and some of the others, it’s very different. We have had several really good bands break up prematurely on Alternative Tentacles, because they couldn’t make a go of things. … Eventually, people decide, ‘I just can’t do this any more,’ especially when they have a family to feed. What happens when you lose some of the stuff when it’s really good?”
When it comes to political action, Biafra encouraged people to become engaged.
“People should show up and vote, especially in local elections, because that’s where people can really make the most difference,” he said. “It really matters who’s mayor, who’s sheriff, who’s on the school board, who the county commissioners and who the city council members are. They are the ones who decide how to spend our money that gets taken in taxes. Do we need to build a shelter for the homeless people? Or do we put up another golf course? Things like that—those things are important and have direct impact on our lives.”
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine performs with Death Hymn Number 9, You Know Who and Fatso Jetson at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 8, at The Hood Bar and Pizza, 74360 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Admission is $10, and there are no presales. For more information, call 760-636-5220, or find the event’s page on Facebook.