This is an interview I did with Jello Biafra – ex Dead Kennedy’s frontman – for the German magazine Style and the Family Tunes. Jello makes you call him at 3am his time, then wait on the phone through a three-minute answer machine message about the evils of Bill Clinton. Interviewing him, everytime you make an interjection, Jello jumps back with a “Don’t interrupt me”. Quiet right. If he runs for office again, I’d throw him an old vote or two.
Jello Biafra does not have a Facebook profile, neither does he have a computer in his house. If he had, he jokes, he’d probably go straight for the porn. But Jello doesn’t come across as much of a comic, although appearing as the voice of Osama Bin Laden for an audiobook and calling his latest collaborative work, Sieg Howdy, is as amusing as obese people in a microcar. In interview, Jello is a straight-talking, hard-focused, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking,” activist. If you call him he treats you to a three and a half minute minute recorded message on the evils of John McCain, Bill Clinton and Sara Palin. He didn’t vote for Barack Obama – Jello is a Ralph Nader supporter and Obama is a Patriot Act supporter, and that’s ample reason for not doing so – but he does want him to succeed. In order to do this Jello’s going to be like a dog barking at his heels. He’s even written a letter to Obama outlining his list of demands. Jello’s new album is out in Autumn and depending on how the forty-fourth president does in the next months might well be released with the blunt title, Audacity of Hype.
This issue we’re covering punk activism yet this publication is far from a punk magazine. Should punk be fashionable?
Activism tends to get a lot more done when it’s fashionable. If it weren’t for protesting being trendy, we never would have stopped the Vietnam War.
You ran for president. Did you seriously think you had a chance?
I’d be a much better president than some of the ones we’ve had recently, but then again so would a cockroach. I don’t know. I wasn’t planning on running the last time but I got nominated and thought people who don’t know anything about Ralph Nader or the Green Party might get off their asses and show up. It brought a punk spirit into the Green Party which wasn’t there before.
So if the old punks are running for office today, who are the new punks?
Oh that’s for you to say. Punk was never a movement. It was a sound at one stage, maybe even a fashion and definitely a punk spirit but that in itself is not a movement. For me a movement is political, has a mission, there’s an eye on the prize. Punk is culture, and culture itself can be part of a movement but it’s not the movement.
And that culture is now responsible for a lot of bad music and, more unfortunately, the title of Ashton Kutcher’s MTV adventure. Was mainstream success a very bad thing for punk?
My attitude when Green Day and Offspring and Rancid got famous was, okay this is going to screw up the underground in someway but we had been ready for this for the last fifteen years. The music was cool and we always knew that if it got on mainstream radio other people would like it because it brought back the spirit of rock and roll. I told people if you’re upset about Green Day or Good Charlotte or any of the crap that came later, don’t listen to it. Just support the music you like, don’t worry about the shit that you hate. That’s why I never run out of interesting bands to go and see.
I’m into seeing bands doing something new, something shocking?
But what’s left to do on a punk stage?
Well you’re obviously not going to the right shows anymore. You’re having to share the same country with U2 and that’s making you discouraged.
Your spoken word shows are the most popular thing you do now. How did that come about?
It took off more than I thought it would, but part of the reason for that was because the LAPD decided to make me the big example of why musicians should be censored and put in jail when they dragged me into court over the Frankenchrist album. After that I got all these requests from universities asking me to lecture on censorship, and I brought the spoken word on tour. If you find you have another gift to the one you already know sometimes you have an obligation to use it.
Do you think there’s a limit to punk music that you could surpass through the medium of spoken word?
I don’t know whether it surpasses any limits. It’s not superior or inferior. It does mean I can go into more detail and infect people’s brains with a positive disease at a deeper level. I can give them more germs without the noise drowning them out. I like causing trouble and this is a great way to do it.
It’s hard to not feel that the majority of what we listen to now is insipid and dumb compared to the counter position music took in the eighties.
Commercial pop music has always been insipid, as I put it, to sedate people and convince them that the main pleasure they can get out of life is to shut up and shop. But that doesn’t make all music insipid all of the time. Again, people say the eighties were so great and the music was so good, but there were only certain elements of the underground scene that made the eighties bearable because the rest was so awful. Otherwise Reagan was president, Thatcher was prime minister. Every last gain of human consciousness [from the seventies] was being ripped down and destroyed.
What’s your take on artists throwing their weight behind causes?
I get much more angry at the artist who doesn’t use his position to advance something good. And it isn’t just the artist, compare what Mohammed Ali did as a famous sports figure with what Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or David Beckham have done. I’m much more on the John Lennon than the Paul McCartney side of the fence. In some ways Paul McCartney has thrown away his worth as an artist.
So, if for example, an artist whose music you liked was an ardent Republican, would you still listen to their music?
It wouldn’t help but I’m not sure it would turn me off completely. I’ve had to argue this point with radical hardcore punks before that if you listen to nothing but radical hardcore punk then your music and art will suffer. I try to bring the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis into my work and my spoken word but I couldn’t imagine a conversation about politics with Jerry Lee would go very well.
If you could go back and do it all again tomorrow, would you do it the same way?
I can’t think of another way. Granted the other former members of Dead Kennedys have turned out to be some of the greediest most dishonest people I’ve ever known in my life but that doesn’t take away from the music and I see no point in having any huge regret over anything I did or didn’t do. I was just another nineteen-year-old who moved half way across the country to make some noise in California… and I was young enough to not know any better.
Jello Biafra has a new album out in Autumn, which may or may not be called the Audacity of Hype.