Posted August 20, 2012 by Jeff in Tunes

Jello Biafra takes the Barackstar to task

Guantanamo School of Medicine photo by Elizabeth Sloan
Guantanamo School of Medicine photo by Elizabeth Sloan

Former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra has had a prolific career ever since the band dissolved in 1986, which happened just before we had a chance to see them play live. (Thanks mom and dad for not giving us permission to see them when they came through town!)  Once the band split up, Biafra wasted no time and immediately started recording solo material and collaborating with a range of artists. (We really like the work he’s done with the Melvins). He’s currently touring with a punk band he’s sarcastically dubbed the Guantanamo School of Medicine, and we called him yesterday for an article for a weekly paper. The paper will only print a much shorter version of the article, and Jello had lots to say, so we’re posting the entire interview here.

It must be great to be touring during an election year.

There’s a difference before touring and traveling. Travelers get to sightsee. When you’re on tour, it’s like, get up, van, freeway, wolf down food, soundcheck, show. Then you get up and do it again and again. You have to focus on the job. I’ve never even been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, though I’m not sure how much I’d really dig the place.

There’s a big Grateful Dead exhibit on display. Would you be into that?

Definitely not, though I respect what they did with the Rex Foundation to raise all that money for other organizations and charities and students who needed a music scholarship and victim school districts who had no instruments for their bands. But that doesn’t mean I need to be immersed in their music or their fanbase. More to the point about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is that I think rock ’n’ roll is what I blast out of my stereo again and again and again. It gets the adrenaline going and make s you want to work out and makes me want to create shit and ideas pop into my head. To see things like that under glass like some precious, defanged museum piece is not what rock ’n’ roll is to me.

You criticized Jerry Brown, the governor of California at the time, in the Dead Kennedys’ 1979 song “California Uber Alles.” What’s it like now that he is governor of the state once again?

My original pet conspiracy theory turned out to be a little off base. I was fresh off the boat from a New Age guru-suckling town known as Boulder, Colorado and saw more scary shit there than there actually was. Thus, I updated the song to “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” when Ronald Reagan stormed in and Jerry Falwell declared himself the emperor of the country. Since then, it has been picked up by other people. When he was doing Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Michael Franti did a version about [former California governor] Pete Wilson. I’ve gotten lyrics for stuff about George W. Bush and his daddy and Attila the Stockbroker did one about Margaret Thatcher. Of course, I updated the song for [former California governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger. I still play the Schwarzenegger version now and again because I don’t think there’s enough teeth in trying to redo Jerry Brown. These days, Brown is confronted with a much nastier landscape. He has a gridlocked legislation and there is corruption up and down. He did say back in his heyday, “I’ll move left and right at the same time; you watch me.” He kind of did that as mayor of Oakland and he’s kind of doing it as governor. He’s faced with the disastrous effects of people failing to show up to vote. In California, people were misguided into passing Proposition 13, which was supposed to lower their income taxes and in reality just lowered landlords’ property taxes. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. The schools are broke, and the highways aren’t getting fixed. The Paul Ryans of the world are preaching cuts, cuts, cuts. Brown knows the easiest solution is to tax the hell out of the rich and make them give them back all the money they stole. But part of the poison pill of Proposition 13 is that no new tax of any kind can be approved at any level without a two-thirds majority, which is almost impossible to get. He’s trying to see if he can get some of it overturned on the ballot in the fall. On this one, I support him, but his hands are tied.

You wrote an open letter to Barack Obama when he was first elected in 2008 and, among other things, asked him to not forget the millions of American living in poverty. You feel he hasn’t lived up to your expectations?

Yeah, even I caught a little bit of the buzz from the hope dope dealer. I didn’t vote for Obama. I looked at his voting record in the senate and whenever there was anything legalize spying or holding people without trial and a variety of other Bush/Cheney wet dreams, he always voted the way Bush told him to. I voted Green with no regrets. As soon [Obama] picked people like [Larry] Summers and [Tim] Geithner to deal with the economic collapse, I knew we were fucked. I’ve since been told by the woman who runs the blog site Firedog Lake, who’s an old punk rocker from around here, that after [Obama] wowed them at the 2004 convention, he was going up and down K Street in Washington and knocking on the doors of Wall Street lobbyists and telling them, “I’m your man. I’m your guy.” I have a song about him called “Barackster O’Bummer.”

When did you start calling him that?

About 2007. I’m surprised other people didn’t think of it. At the end of the song, what I’m saying ties into the first verse of “SHOCK-U-PY.” During the Depression, FDR gets this list of demands to save the country and says, “Now make me do it.” We didn’t do that this time. We thought the Barackstar would take care of everything. Ding dong the Bush is gone; now we can sleep easy. People just went to sleep. I have no doubt that if we’d done our part and had a million uninsured march on Washington, we’d have the public option right now. But people are so passive and so docile and so caught up in updating their Facebook posts and reminiscing about high school, that they have given up. There was a window there where we could have gotten more than we did by putting the necessary heat on the Barackstar. Now, we think we’d better line up behind the Barackstar because Romney and Ryan will be far worse. Yes, they will be more openly what they are, especially Ryan. But how much worse is debatable.

Any songs about them?

No. I learned from “California Uber Alles” that it helps to at least try to make songs about specific events work in such a way that they will continue to be relevant long after the event. I don’t always succeed but I usually do. I didn’t write the first Moral Majority song but it’s the one people remember. Or, I try to be more creative and instead of another boo-who nukes are bad song I put on my method acting hat and sing it from the point of view of the military industrial complex and do “Kill the Poor” instead or “Werewolves of Wall Street.”

Your new tune “SHOCK-U-PY” is a tribute to the Occupy Movement that you hoped would be sung at rallies. Has it?

Uh, no. I don’t know if it will or not. I just tossed it out there. People will do with it what they want. They can just listen to it and enjoy it, though I’ve gotten some emails back from Occupiers who are still at it and they said it helped picked up their spirits. I learned that at the Seattle protest [in 1999]. Sometimes the best thing I can do is just act as cheerleader and help pick everybody up. There was even a room in the independent media center where they had me talking in front of a room full of people who were much older than me. I was thinking, “What are they going to learn from me? I should be learning from them because they’ve been doing this since I was a kid.” But what it did was pick up people’s spirits.

On your new album, you revisit “Burgers of Wrath,” which you originally recorded with Mojo Nixon. What made you want to go back to that song?

I wanted to play it live again for a long time because it works as a roots Americana song and as a punk song. I did the punk version with the Offspring and it worked really well. I figured that with things as they are today that I couldn’t come up with a better song about unemployment and homelessness. I thought it needed to be said. It’s a song that was overlooked that I wanted to shove in people’s faces. I only had to change one word of the lyrics. I updated “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” too, but I haven’t played that with Guantanamo.

Since leaving the Dead Kennedys you’ve collaborated with a wide range of different artists. Who have you enjoyed working with the most?

Considering almost everybody involved is a close friend of mine, I don’t think it’s good to play favorites. I’m proud of all my albums. I’m proud of the Kennedys and the only one who still cares about the quality of the work and the legacy and the impact. The only albums with my name on them that I don’t like are the live ones they tossed out without consulting me. They could have been vastly better if somebody cared about quality control. I’ve asked them to take my name off them. My picture still appears in so many ads for their fake reunion shows, that I just shake my head. [Kennedys bassist] Klaus [Flouride] put up that melodramatic post that his heart was causing him problems and he was going to retire, but as soon as a large amount of money is waved in his face, it seems like Klaus’ heart condition went away and there they are again, claiming they wrote all the songs but wehre are any new songs from them. I put out more albums without the Dead Kennedys than I did with them. So far, the Guantanamo songs are all me: words, music, and everything.

You put together a big concert and celebration when you turned 50. Have you started to make plans for Biafra Six-O?

That’s a long ways away. I never thought I would live to be 25 or 30, let alone 50. I take things as they come. I have other songs and albums to learn, record and release before then and then I’ll take stock of things. We’ll see what happens.




Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].