Greg Prato (Songfacts)
Anyone who thinks that old age may have dulled Jello Biafra's rage and fury are in for a rude awakening when they give a listen to the latest release by his band the Guantanamo School of Medicine, White People and the Damage Done
. The former Dead Kennedys frontman remains as angry and fretful as ever, and he's not afraid to offer his two cents - something that should be applauded in this day and age where artists are increasingly sheepish to speak up.
I spoke with Mr. Biafra once before, for my 2011 book, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video
, and that interview remains one of my all-time favorites, as he had some very interesting views and opinions on the music video channel, which weren't exactly complimentary. Regarding his song, "MTV Get off the Air," he said, "There was so much to make fun of there. How could I resist? But part of the message of the song also was 'Keep your bullshit detectors on, people. You don't have to automatically be sucked into this. If you don't want to buy, you don't have to.'" He expressed similar sentiments in this interview when we got on the topic of love songs.
Here, Biafra discusses the latest Guantanamo School of Medicine release, the stories behind such Dead Kennedys classics as "Holiday in Cambodia" and "California Über Alles," and if the singer would be interested in rejoining his former band.
: How does White People and the Damage Done
compare to the previous Guantanamo School of Medicine album, The Audacity of Hype
: I never do academic comparisons of anything I do. I just make the stuff, okay? [Laughing] But it is a little different, I suppose. I think the mixes came out a little more savage. It doesn't have quite as many surfer psychedelic overtones, but that's just kind of how this batch of songs turned out. So it's got a different flavor even from the other GSM releases. I'm proud that over the years no two of my music albums have ever sounded alike, not even the Lard albums. And again, I don't plan it that way, it's just kind of how they come out.
Sometimes I do, because with Dead Kennedys we had a good chunk of the songs that went on In God We Trust
, and then later Plastic Surgery Disasters
, before we recorded Fresh Fruits for Rotting Vegetables
. And after the major labels had given us a blow-encrusted middle finger, there were very few bands remaining in the punk underground who were able to make albums. People didn't have money. They didn't have rich kids with money wanting to be indie labels. They weren't there. So it was very rare that a band got to make an album. The Germs got to do one that launched the Slash label, and their colleagues the Plugz in LA got to put out a live album through fundraising, where other bands played a benefit for them just so that somebody would have something to show for all the work everybody had done.
But we gambled and made the decision that we ought to gamble. That's because we had a couple of singles that through pure dumb luck had gotten a British release and taken off like a rocket over there, even though no American label would touch us with a ten foot pole, not even Slash or Rough Trade. We thought, "We're going to make this the first album, we're going to gamble on being able to one day make a second album."
So I decided that the first album should be mostly the first batch of songs and get those documented. I'm a vinyl junkie and I'm a librarian's kid, so I'm very document conscious. All these amazing bands before Dead Kennedys, like Screamers, Avengers, Sleepers, Negative Trend, Mutants, The Bags in LA - they broke up before they ever got to make an album. So I was really conscious trying to get that happening.
So I divided the songs up. Plastic Surgery
had a very different flavor than Fresh Fruit
, expanding on the "Holiday in Cambodia" side of the sound. And then in between was In God We Trust, Inc.
, which was more of a spontaneous, gut level reaction to the hostile takeover of our country by other Reagan regimes. That one actually began with the cover art. I saw that as a sculpture, a gallery exhibit of Winston Smith's work and was just floored by it and thought, "There's got to be a way to use this." And once Jerry Falwell began declaring him emperor of the country with veto power over the Reagan regime, there it was, In God We Trust, Inc.
"Kepone Factory" was the first song Dead Kennedys ever learned, "Rawhide
" went way back. As did "Religious Vomit," actually. And then "Hyperactive Child" was new and then there was the updated "California Über Alles," where I realized I was wrong about my conspiracy theory about Jerry Brown. Sure, I'd made it up all by myself and it turned out not to be true, so it was updated with Reagan lyrics until "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now," and the jazz version we goofed off with at sound check wound up becoming a staple of that record and the live show.
: How would you compare the songwriting in Guantanamo School of Medicine to the Dead Kennedys?
: It's mostly the same as Dead Kennedys, where I walk in with a song that's almost totally written right down to the guitar lead in some cases. Some Dead Kennedys songs had more than one writer - a lot of the best ones did. "Holiday in Cambodia" was one of the few that actually was group-written - or at least group-constructed.
But with GSM so far it's been all me. The other guys haven't brought anything in yet. Spight, one of the guitarists, is a top-of-the-line writer and lyricist himself. But he prefers to sing his own songs in Victims Family and Freak Accident and other projects.
The original "Holiday in Cambodia" is more a straight punk song. We called them "chainsaws" back then, "chainsaw punk" after the Ramones song ["Chainsaw"]. The other guys didn't like it. They didn't want to play it. I was heartbroken, I was crestfallen, they'd never done that to me before. And then Klaus began noodling around on what became that signature bass line. I thought, "Hey, wait a minute. That's cool. What would happen if we swiped everything from my 'Holiday in Cambodia' song - verse, chorus, bridge - but used that as the original root rhythm?"
Actually, we had a three-chord chorus and bridge that came from the original, and then the verse we swapped out. Eventually, Ray [guitarist East Bay Ray] came up with that signature guitar part when he enters the song. It was taking a while; we didn't even play it at our first show, although we knew we had it under our belt. It was a pretty chief song for making me decide I ought to stick with these guys and it might turn into something really unusual, because I was playing around with some other people, too.
Before we played, I came back out of the bathroom and back to Ray's garage and heard that lick, and I was like, "Yow!" And Ray told me he'd seen Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett at Winterland when he was a kid, and I took note of that. So when I was trying to get something to put on top of Klaus' riff, I kept trying to get it to fit there, and fit there, and fit there, and finally, it appeared.
That's still my favorite song. The reason I was so adamant against them putting it in a Levi's commercial. That would be kind of like spray painting a McDonald's logo on the Mona Lisa, which is kind of what they've done to Dead Kennedys ever since they ran off with the catalogue and the name and I had no say in anything anymore.
After the Dead Kennedys called it quits in 1986, it appeared as though two factions formed between the former bandmates. In one corner was Biafra, and in the other were the other three members: guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer DH Peligro. This was due to disagreements over royalties and publishing rights, via the band's record label, Alternative Tentacles. The matter went to court, where the outcome was Biafra having to hand over the rights to the band's back catalogue, which has resulted in reissues on another label, Manifesto Records, as well as archival live releases and a compilation - much to Biafra's dismay.
: And who would you say are your favorite songwriters?
: Oh, boy, that goes all over the map. Everybody from Hank Williams to Reverend Horton Heat. I'm not sure who exactly wrote what riff in The Doors, and then there's Ron Asheton with that signature sound that gave us The Stooges.
Lyricists, people like Dick Lucas from the British Subhumans. Citizen Fish, that last EP they did was some of the best stuff he's ever done. People who go back that far say Paul Weller is kind of the "poet laureate" of the British condition, but I nominate Dick Lucas for that instead. But he's a hardcore independent like me. The music industry powers that be in Britain are never going to recognize him for his talent.
Gerry Roslie from the Sonics. That's a really important one. I'd heard about them and then found one of their albums when I first moved to San Francisco in '78. And when you hear a little bit about them, "Oh, my God, this is going to be really, really cool," you build it up too far in your mind and you're going to be setting yourself up to be disappointed. When I put that Sonics album on, within the first chorus I knew it was going to be one of the most important bands of my entire life. Right up there with Stooges and Hawkwind and Sparks and Magma. There's another really unique set of songwriters, Ron Mael and of course Russell, the singer of Sparks. The "desert island disc" of theirs would be Indiscreet
, I think.
And I think maybe the lyrical style has had a bigger influence on me than many other times, because, say Iggy's words are usually very primal and sometimes even spontaneous in the studio, whereas the Sparks' lyrics are very intricate. They slice and dice things they want to satirize or make the point they want to. It's a very different way than Zappa does it with a lot of words. But maybe it's a closeness to what I've done.
Another big one would have been a criminally overlooked heavy rock band, pre-punk in Britain, called Third World War. I'm amazed hardly any British punk pioneers have ever cited them as an influence. You listen to the lyrics now in the era of hyper-paranoia about terrorism and all, and they're going to go down as one of the scariest bands ever. They were armed working class rebellion in early '70s Britain, and had really deadly riffs to go with it. So I guess that would be another influence.
At first I liked rock & roll only for the music and the lyrics, not even the sex and the drugs part. But all I could get on the radio was the love song part, which when I was real little I wasn't that into - I didn't relate to it. And then as a teenager, I realized all this stuff they're pushing about how romance magically solves all your problems is one big lie. It was designed to make people more pliant and stupid in corporate society, which it still is.
Malcolm McLaren said pop culture is there to soften the blow of daily life. And so I just didn't relate to that.
The first time I said, "Wait a minute, you can mix interesting lyrics with rock and roll," it was, of all people, Alice Cooper. I just like the shock value. I've always been about the value of shock value - that's why the title of the new album is White People and the Damage Done
. You've got to read the words to get it all, but it's sure as hell going to get your attention. I'm not a believer in subtle album covers, either. I'm just not a believer in subtle art at all. I'm rarely a fan of that in any kind: music, film, literature, journalism, painting, sculpture, you name it. It's why I would be way more into somebody like H.R. Giger than David Hockney.
But anyway, where were we going? Rewind a little bit. Where was I going right before the visual art part? I can't remember.
: You were talking about the band Third World War.
: Yeah, and then there was Alice Cooper, and I was trying to find myself as a lyricist, after my friend John Greenway, who co-wrote the original lyric for "California Über Alles," was kind of the alpha dog of these two warped mystic kids who hung out together in Boulder, Colorado. He didn't come to San Francisco when I did. But I realized, "God, now I'm going to have to write the lyrics, too. If I'm going to write them, then I guess I'd better be good."
So Third World War was an influence there. With Alice Cooper, I thought, "Wow, I'm a very political animal. And the San Francisco punk scene is very political, and I relate to that, too. But what would happen if instead of writing about monsters and vampires and horror and screen horror like Alice Cooper did, what if I wrote about real monsters like the police? Or Latin American dictatorships and stuff?"
So I applied it that way. And I didn't realize till much later, long after Dead Kennedys was gone, how much all the method acting training I had as a teen worked. We had very demanding directors as a high school in summer stock playing one off against anybody in the city, and we held our own. But I think that helped influence the way I write a lot of "you are there" lyrics or lyrics coming from somebody else besides myself. You can whine 'til kingdom come about the evils of nuclear bombs and nuke plants and everything else, but why not write it from the Dr. Strangelove Pentagon point of view and thus out comes "Kill the Poor"? And things like that.
"Road Rage" on the new album would be another example of that. It's much harder to get too deep into the characters visually when I'm on a stage, because they have to change form every two to five minutes. And it also, as it turns out, had a major influence on my production philosophy with the album. Except for Lard, I've produced every album I've been on from Frankenchrist
onward. My engineer, Matt Kelley, he said that I approach the mixing process and the production more like a film director than like a musician or a regular music producer. I'm all about moods, vibe, and atmosphere, and not necessarily worrying about whether every instrument is crystal clear and mixing the whole band by committee. It's impact.
And I of course try to match the lyric to the vibe of the song. If I switch the lyrics between "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" and "Moon Over Marin," would either song be 1/10th as good? Extreme example, but I do a lot with that. I'm one of these people who composes with my voice. I'm no good with instruments. I used to show Ray and Klaus the early Dead Kennedys stuff playing a guitar single string, and then Klaus said, "Look, you sing on key well enough, why don't you sing us the part?" And then I was a free man. I could pop out more complicated parts. The first one I did on my voice was "Chemical Warfare." I can't keep everything in my head, so luckily for me, '77 onward, even before I had my own band, I was recording the singing parts and lyrics and ideas into a handheld Walkman from way, way back. And I still have all those tapes.
There are so many ideas piled up I'm never going to run out at this point. One of my biggest problems of my life is that I have so much stuff I want to do and I'm never going to have time to do it all. It's a good problem to have, but I don't have Billy Childish's talent to crank out 100 albums well before I turn 50 and still have them turn out good. I do what I can, but I tend to slave over the beast a little too much and go way too far in the hole financially. But what else can I do?
And then with lyrics, I just write down whatever comes into my head and don't worry about finishing them right away. Who knows how many "alleged poetry books" I could pop out if I just tried to finish everything immediately. But I have an idea, I'll pile them up, put them together, and then it's that connection saying in my head, "Oh, wait a minute, this topic really fits this music," then I'll pull out the idea cassette that I've been putting stuff on, getting them off the raw ones that I keep on the Walkman and start putting them together.
The hard part is after all the spoken word shows, I'm having a harder and harder time reducing everything I want to say about something into a three minute rock song with three verses and a bridge. The problem of finding enough lyrics to fill up the song kind of ended within the first few months of Dead Kennedys. The only song that's ever repeated a verse is "Kill the Poor."
Biafra has never been afraid to voice his opinion on politics, and one of his best political tunes remains "California Über Alles." The song has been recorded several times over the years - initially as the Dead Kennedys' first single, with lyrics that focused on then-California governor Jerry Brown. Then came "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now," which featured a jazzy take on the music of "California Über Alles," with new lyrics penned about then-US president Ronald Reagan, for the DK EP, In God We Trust, Inc. And then most recently came another lyrically updated version of the tune, focusing on ex-California governor/muscled actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the form of "Kali-Fornia Über Alles 21st Century," on the Biafra/Melvins live album, Sieg Howdy!
: Why did you remake "California Über Alles" as a jazzy version years later?
: Well, that's an update. "California Über Alles" evolved into a heavy duty electric American folk song where people would update Woody Guthrie songs or even Bob Dylan songs or Phil Ochs, like I did with "Love Me, I'm A Liberal," which I've done twice now. But "California Über Alles," the first update was "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now," and then Attila the Stockbroker came out with one about Margaret Thatcher, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy with Michael Franti, he came out with one about California Governor Pete Wilson and his racist anti-immigration agenda. Then several different people sent me versions about George W. Bush, some of which were really good, but I never used that, because then the Schwarzenegger scam recall happened and there was my pigeon. I couldn't not do one about Schwarzenegger. I don't see the point about doing one about Jerry Brown now in his current situation. Maybe I will someday, but for now we're still doing the Arnold version.
How can you drop a song that has lines like "Steroids for the master race, So you all can have my face." [Laughs]
: And then something else I'm curious to get your thoughts on - I recently interviewed Mark Arm from the band Mudhoney
, and we talked about what the best anti-war songs are, and he chose Bob Dylan's "Masters of War
" and Flipper's "Sacrifice." I said Black Sabbath's "War Pigs
" and CCR's "Fortunate Son
" were the two best ones. What are your favorite anti-war songs?
: Well, I've tried to come up with some myself. You get to decide if I succeeded or not. It's a theme that runs through a lot of my work, including the title track of White People and the Damage Done
and the opener, "Terror of Tiny Town," based on that midget western film from the '30s with George W. Bush added to the cast. That in a lot of ways is an anti-war song, as well. I like "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag
" by Country Joe McDonald. "War Pigs" is a pretty damn good one. "War
" by Edwin Starr comes to mind. And almost every Discharge song can be plugged into that, too. There's a lot of them.
There's one other really powerful one that Willie Nelson did and I can't for the life of me remember the title. It's about a veteran who I suppose would be a Viet vet, but I'm not sure Willie cites the war, because it's happened to tens if not hundreds of thousands of our children since, and the government continues to neglect them. But it's a really touching indictment of what happens when somebody comes home from war and they fall apart.
: And also a year or two ago I interviewed Ray for Rolling Stone
, and I asked him if him, Klaus, and DH would ever be interested in working with you again, and he said that they all would. Would you be interested in working with them again?
: Well, Ray, as is his norm, just spat out a bald faced lie, like a reunion was about to happen, and claimed, "Oh, yeah, his people are talking to our people." But why would I want to reunite with anybody when it would have to be my people talking to their people? They've surrounded themselves with people who really give me the creeps. And the sheer viciousness of the lawsuit and the continued threat that comes from their direction in that regard... I mean, the whole way they've dumbed down Dead Kennedys into one big cash scam and my picture keeps appearing in fake reunion show ads and then they run off with the money to the next town, I don't want any part of that. I'm not a "retro guy," anyway. I've worked really hard to set myself up so I've never had to be. So yeah, if they're willing to undo every last bit of damage they've done, maybe we'll talk. But so far, they've been too caught up in their own star trips and are just too plain cowardly to even consider it. I'm kind of cynical about a lot of reunions, anyway. Some I've enjoyed - Stooges, Sonics. But you know what, I don't want to re-form a band for the wrong reasons, because people are going to smell that from the stage, just like I do as a fan, and then I want no part of it.
Besides, I've got new songs, I want to play new music. Sure, there's a little Dead Kennedys in GSM sets. But it's primarily new and once the audience hears the songs, they love them. Like, "Holy shit, here come all the lost Dead Kennedys albums." Which is not probably what they are, but it was mainly my beast and my songs have come out a certain way whether I like it or not. Buzz and Dale of the Melvins said that about me, too.
June 4, 2013.
Greg Prato first spoke with Jello for the book MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video.
Info about Jello Biafra and his label, Alternative Tentacles, is at alternativetentacles.com.