Jello Biafra on Politics, Brooklyn, and Wesley Willis
Legendary political punk provocateur Jello Biafra is returning with his band The Guantanamo School of Medicine to Highline Ballroom tonight, June 27. As energetic as he is outspoken, tonight's show continues his 35+ years of high velocity high concept punk plunder. We spoke to Biafra about how his approach has turned topical issues into timeless songs, as well as some of the gems in the 35 year history of his label Alternative Tentacles including his country album with Mojo Nixon which turns 20 this year.
Elizabeth Sloan Jello Biafra, the High Priest of Harmful Matter
See also: Jello Biafra Launches Rap Career
Over the past three decades, what have been some of the bigger changes you've noticed in New York audiences?
Boy, you could fill a volume of the Encyclopedia. Obviously, the great migration over to Brooklyn is the big one, and now that's getting gentrified too of course. It may not be as malicious as what's going on in San Francisco right now, but obviously people are chasing a dream, trying to create cool things and are getting pushed further and further. I'm all for getting rid of violent ghettos, but there's got to be a middle ground instead of clearing people out to move yuppies in. Everybody needs some place to go that they can have a home. Or a decent place to live, let's put it that way.
A big part of your legacy is your live performance. How different is your warm-up ritual for playing with The Guantanamo School of Medicine from your speaking engagements or other bands?
Well, spoken word I just kind of walk on stage and do it. Sometimes it's literally pulled from the back door, trot on stage and go. That's how it was at the Punk Voter Festival because I drove my own car and took my sweet time getting there.
That's impressive, considering some of those shows have gone five or six hours.
Well I have so much to say and so little time. If I had Hank Williams or Ian MacKaye's gift for saying a lot in a few words, I'd go that route instead. But, I gotta do what I gotta do. I also haven't had time to assemble a full spoken word show since the band started, and they've become few and far between.
I actually attended one of the longer ones at First Avenue in Minneapolis in Fall, 2002.
Yeah, that was kind of a dark day because it was either that day or the day after that Senator Wellstone was killed in the plane crash. The Senate would be a very different place if he was still there.
But, to answer your question, I've always done a lot of body work and vocal warm-ups before my shows because I always have to. I try to run around a bit before I go onstage to get the blood pumping so I don't wind up in pain from head-to-toe from going 0-100 within the first five minutes of a song. I wish I'd known things like that in the Dead Kennedys days but I didn't. I gotta workout more at home. I'm never going to be Henry Rollins or anybody like that, but having a little more physical strength helps me shave off the feeling that I am 56-years-old. That, or I was in piss-poor shape in the Dead Kennedys days and I didn't know it.
It's interesting to look at how your discography captures so many political topics over the past three decades which your fans old and new still find a passion for. With how quickly dated a lot of political music becomes, how does your music still strike a chord and not have an expiration date?
Well, I kind of calculatedly do this on purpose. Document some things but go into some of the deep stuff and whack people over the head with it in a way so people can refer to the same situation later. Sometimes I think I should quit writing worst-case-scenario songs because they keep coming true. Although, I learned the lesson with the original "California Uber Alles" with Governor Jerry Brown that maybe that got too close to one time period, especially after the Reagan Regime stormed in and I realized there were worse things out there, so I updated it with "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now." Now when we play it, we update it with the Schwarzenegger lyrics.
With so much activism and faux-activism in music today, where do you see the line between raising awareness for a cause or problem and exploiting it?
Sometimes you have to do one to accomplish the other. I see no reason not to keep whacking people over the head with things that I can report. I just try to find interesting ways to do it that will get people to think or make them want to react in some way.