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Dead Kennedys - Interview

  by Denzil Watson

published: 21 / 10 / 2007

Dead Kennedys - Interview


Former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra speaks to Denzil Watson about his spoken word solo shows, Bushism and global capitalism and the demise of his one time band

He’s performed nude in front of 3,000 Clash fans and an infuriated Bill Graham. He’s run for Mayor of San Francisco finishing fourth out of a field of ten. He’s fallen out with his ex-band mates and been embroiled in a court case with them that found him liable for fraud and malice by jury (a decision upheld in the appeal courts three years later). There’s rarely been a dull moment in the Alternative Tentacles boss man’s career since he first came across rock’n’roll as a seven year old back in 1965. And Jello Biafra still has the fire in his belly. November sees him bringing his spoken word tour to Britain in support of his current three CD spoken word album 'In the Grip of Official Treason'. Pennyblackmusic caught up with Jello on the eve of his UK tour for a chat about what we can expect from his solo shows, the evils of Bushism and global capitalism and the sad demise of The Dead Kennedys. PB : North California’s Zero Magazine recently described you as "part stand-up, part preacher, part activist, and part protester". Is that a fair description? JB : That covers part of it, yeah. PB: Are you looking forward to your forthcoming spoken word tour of the UK? JB : Yeah it’s been a while. I’m kind of getting things together here. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do yet. A lot of it will be similar to 'In the Grip of Official Treason' but of course it means coming to a different country from America so I have to tailor the things a little differently. PB : What’s the make up of your spoken word audience? Do audiences differ between the UK and the US? JB : Sometimes the audiences in the US can range from eight to 80. In England it’s mostly younger people. More to the point, in both cases, it’s people who know usually both my music and spoken word and come for the “brain food”. People who were really into the lyrics of the different projects that I’ve done. And of course political activists. The main difference, of course, would be the difference between the two countries. I always make a list before I come over of terms and ideas and people and parts of American culture, good and bad, that people might have heard of. Then I run it by people when I get to Britain. PB : You’re certainly going to get a receptive audience with your anti-Bush message. JB : That also invites the charge of preaching to the choir. But in my case even at a time when so many people hate him so deeply part of my job is to fire up the choir. As well as getting things away from focusing on one person and go after Bushism itself which is a disease that affects more than one party in more than one country. PB : How long do you normally do in a spoken word set? JB : Over here it usually runs four, four and a half hours with a break in the middle. I always think the next show is going to be shorter but by the time I get it organised it winds up so being so damn long again. If I could get it nailed and over in 45 minutes I would. When you are talking about Bushism and the overall threat to planet earth there’s so much to say in so little time. PB : Do you think spoken word works better in the live environment where you can get crowd interaction or in its recorded medium? JB : It’s hard to say. At least if you have the disc you don’t have to put up with me in one sitting. PB : Do you encourage crowd participation? JB : It depends on the crowd. Some are very quiet and some very active. Occasionally you get drunks interrupting everything demanding a question and answer session exclusively with them and then all they want to talk about are 9/11 conspiracy theories and space aliens! I would do more Q&A if there was time and if the show wasn’t so damn long and I haven’t had time to do this in England at all. Maybe this time, maybe not. PB : I love some of the titles on the new CD. 'Iraqnophobia' is very clever. JB : It’s a play on that film 'Arachnophobia'. It came out about the same time as Saddam Hussein first invaded Kuwait. I was in Vancouver at the time working on one of the albums I made up there and there was an editorial in the paper with a spider dangling from a tree with Saddam Hussein’s face on it titled 'Iraqnophobia' so I swiped it from an old cartoon. PB : And I guess 'Holiday is Guantanamo' is a sequel to the Dead Kennedys' 'Holiday in Cambodia'? JB : Surely you can draw your own conclusions from that one. And you know what, you may even be right! PB : And do I detect from one of the other titles of your current spoken word album ['Junk Mail from Hell'-DW] that you’re getting fed up with spam mail ? JB : Should I do the junk mail section in England or not? PB : I think you should because we get a lot of junk mail from the states. You know the stuff - "Penis not big enough" etc etc. JB : This is actually snail-mail that I'm talking about. I have the items with me as props to prove to people that they do really exist. PB : Yeah I'd go with that. It will definitely strike a chord. Anyway, getting back to the serious stuff, do you feel your civil liberties are under threat more now than they have ever been in the US? JB : What scares me is some people who went through the McCarthy era in the 1950's say they feel a lot more frightened now than they did back then. So yeah, not only are civil liberties under attack in a very big way but the Presidential Executive Branch of the Supreme Court are saying that it’s OK to torture people just like the Nazis did and none of the candidates for President are saying boo about putting an end to torture or closing Guantanamo bay. And then there’s John Kerry who would have been great in those 70s' vampire movies that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were in. Well, they are not around any more so why not put Count Carey in there ? There was this issue to knock Bush out early but he said quiet on Abu Ghraib – so he was a toothless vampire. He went “Oh, gosh that’s terrible” and went on with the same old drivel. PB : When the Abu Ghraib thing broke it was big news in the UK press ? JB : In a way though I wasn’t surprised because we’ve trained death squads for Latin American dictators for decades and a lot of the tactics used in Abu Ghraid came right out of the manual for the what was once called the “School of the Americas”. It was a training ground for Manuel Noriega and Salvadorian Death squad leaders and the like – it was the same techniques. And they now admit that some of the techniques they were using to experiment on prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq and all were the CIA just trying to see what would happened if they actually acted out the torture tactics that they had trained their own agents to resist, fearing that’s what the Soviet evil empire would do to spies if they were caught. And what is really sickening is basically that the corporate American media is lock step with the Bush administration saying that “torture is necessary, torture is OK and watch this popular new show called '24' with Kiefer Sutherland. Torture is cool now”. And quietly about a year ago, congress passed what was called the Military Commissions Act, way worse than the Patriot Act. With the Homeland Security Act, this one specifically legalises torture, it legalises so called “rendition”, where Americans kidnap somebody from one country and send them to be tortured in another country. PB : There was controversy in the UK about CIA planes touching down on British soil on these “rendition” flights last year. JB : Well ,I hope there’s some more controversy. At this point the rest of the world needs to rise up and stop Americans. But the Military Commissions Act not only legalised these things but it gave retroactive immunity to any more torturers caught abusing people like in Abu Ghraib. It's the scariest law that's ever came down yet and it could happen to me and it could happen to you. And you don't hear a word out of the mouth of Hillary Clinton to get this law repealed. They don't even want people to know that the law even exists. And Clinton voted to make the Patriot Act permanent. It's the most disgraceful twist of American jurist prudence since we rounded up all Japanese Americans and threw them into concentration camps during World War Two and the Military Commissions Act is even worse. PB : Despite all this can you see things getting better in a post-Bush America? JB : Not if the troops stay in Iraq and the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act stay on the books. And corporations own and operate two supposedly opposing political parties. It's actually a one party state masquerading as a two party state. Call it what you want - the corporate party or the Republicrats. PB : What else fires you up apart from the Bush regime? JB : Where do I begin? I can't do an interview as long as my life. I guess I feel most threatened by the legalisation of torture. What they are doing to the environment is horrific, the privatising and corporatising of what used to be community services. That just marches on. PB : Does the American media wind you up? JB : You have to come to this country to realise how dumbed down the tabloid media is compared to in Britain. You think you've got it bad! Just wait until to you come to a country where there's no 'Guardian', no BBC and the media is as tightly controlled and propagandised that used to come our of the Soviet Union, only it's all Rah Rah Walt Disney Entertainment Celebrity Star driven. With a lot of war mongering and anti-immigrant crap thrown in to keep the people militantly stupid. PB : So there's no US equivalent to the more informed broad-sheets we have here in the UK? JB : There isn't one single progressively-minded daily paper in the United States. That point of view is just completely shut out, apart from the underground and lefty media. PB : Do you think the FBI has got a file with your name on? JB : Well, a writer asked for it a while ago and they claimed they didn't have one. They also claimed they never kept a file on Rosa Parks so I think they're just lying like fuck these days because they don't want to give up the information they're supposed to fork over under the Freedom of Information Act. PB : Do you think there are an ever-decreasing number of people like yourself who are prepared to stand up for the small guy? JB : In some ways I think there are even more now that the internet and the advances in digital technology have made media acceptable to more people. More people can become the media. You catch a cop beating the crap out of an innocent person on a camera-phone and put it up on the net and everybody knows it. PB : I meant more from the point of view of politicised musicians such as Joe Strummer. We haven't really got an equivalent of Jello Biafra here in the UK, apart from say Billy Bragg. JB : You're giving me a little too much credit in some ways. I guess I'm not that well known but I have been very influential poisoning and warping a few minds over the years. PB : Coming back to music, your last band outing was with the Melvins back in 2004. JB : There were two of those. The first was called 'Never Breathe What You Can’t See' and then we put out a second one called 'Seig Howdy'. PB : How did you get together with the Melvins ? JB : They approached me actually, because they were so angry at what the other three ex-members of Dead Kennedys were doing to trash the legacy and their own memories of the band. And so they proposed that we go on tour doing Dead Kennedy songs and that I said that might be cool but that I'd rather do new songs. So we made some new songs. The irony was that I brought in the slower rock tunes and Buzz walked in with the punk riffs. PB : Which is the opposite to what you'd expect given the Melvins sound. JB : We were obviously trying to tailor the songs to each other. PB : Were you really saddened by the way things turned out with the Dead Kennedys ? JB : It gets uglier with each passing month. In their hearts those guys became Republicans. They became totally greedy and they despise everything the band ever stood for. One of the last little stunts was to OkY a cover of 'Too Drunk to Fuck' to be used as the background music for a rape scene in that new Tarantino movie. They don't even care. They don't bother with that part anymore. They just want more money now and they don't care who they hurt in order to get it. PB : Which goes against everything the band ever stood for, right? JB : Oh of course. They've repeatedly done shows over in the States with my picture in the ad. And they don't even introduce the scab singer by name on stage so all these young mall kids go there and think they saw the original band. PB : Did your deteriorating relationship with East Bay Ray come about over the proposed use of 'Holiday in Cambodia' to sell Levi Jeans? JB : Yeah. It didn't help that there was a genuine accounting error on Alternative Tentacles part. But when we, not they, discovered where the error was, we paid them in full and then they sued, claiming that paying them honestly was evidence of a conspiracy to try and deprive them of their precious royalty money which only really amounted to $1,500 dollars per person per year. PB : The other interesting thing was this notion that they could sue Alternative Tentacles for "failure to promote" the Dead Kennedys back catalogue. JB : Yes, among the things they claimed was that they were owed damages because they weren't regularly on the pages of 'Billboard' which is an industry mag and 'Rolling Stone' and on MTV on heavy rotation for 15 years after the band had split up. And this is the band that now claims they wrote 'MTV Get Off the Air'! PB : Was it a case of the side that could afford the best lawyers won? JB : They certainly found the dirtiest lawyers. There was wholesale perjury and coached witnesses on the stand and it was by far the ugliest episode of my life. I still back Dead Kennedys' music 100%. I obviously love and care about it more than they ever did but those three guys are the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my life. I deeply regret ever trusting them. PB : If you go on the fake Dead Kennedys' website in the news section it says "Holiday in Cambodia to feature on Guitar Heroes 3”. That wasn't why that song was written, was it ? JB : It sure as hell wasn't written to be in TV commercials or rape scenes either. PB : You've effectively had the control of songs you've written wrestled away from your control in a supposedly democratic group of four of you? JB : It's not a democracy. It's a kleptocracy. It was a hostile take-over by people who don't have an honest bone in their body any more. They even went and re-registered the songs with the American equivalent of the MCPS to claim they wrote them all. So now [drummer] D.H Pelligro is credited as a co-author of all the 'Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables' songs and the songs on the single that were recorded a year or two before he was even in the band! PB : That’s ludicrous. JB : Well they know I don't have the money to hire a big Hollywood lawyer to sue them so they just keep plundering and plundering to see how much they can get away with. PB : Do you think it's slipped East Ray Bay's mind that without Jello Biafra there may not have been any Dead Kennedys in the first place? JB : He seems to be very delusional. It seems to me that he believes he wrote 'Holiday in Cambodia' all by himself. He claims that in an interview long before they even sued and he seems to believe it was all him. He has also blamed me for years and years for wrecking his career. You know, that he would have been this great big major label star or whatever if it hadn't been for me. PB : But by being in the Dead Kennedys surely that is what he was railing against in the first place? JB : This is what happens when you sit around the house doing nothing for 15 or 20 years. All kinds of demons go to your head. And he also ranted and raved publicly and started attacking me. And this is a quote: “We could have gone on and on for years like REM or U2”. PB : He actually came out with that quote? JB : Yep. He laid into me. Before when I was finishing my album with Mojo Nixon he called the studio in the middle of the night claiming that I destroyed his life because Dead Kennedys didn't sign with a major label in 1981, 12 years earlier. Apparently it never occurred to him that if they had signed a major label contract offered back then I would have quit the band on the spot. Talks got serious with both Virgin and Polydor and I felt really threatened by that. But I didn't want to quit the band because it's a sort of prima donna thing to do. And the more you do it the less people take any notice so I kept my mouth shut and let it be known to Polydor that the first single would be called 'Too Drunk to Fuck'. And suddenly Polydor quit calling. Mission accomplished. PB : Coming back to another of your best known songs, have you ever had a holiday in Cambodia? JB : No. I've been told that they sell 'Holiday in Cambodia' T-shirts in Phnom Penh but nobody’s ever brought me back one though. PB : While we're on trivia, I also read somewhere that you don't own a CD player. Truth or urban myth? JB : That is indeed a myth. I've had one since they were invented, but I still prefer vinyl. But if there's music I still want to hear not on vinyl I've got to hear it some how. PB : Are there any bands this side of the pond that have been catching your ear? Are you in touch with the current scene here in the UK? JB : Not as much as I would like. Brand new ones? Not really. The favourites from recent years have been Iowaska who we put out; the Heads from Bristol and Brain Donor come to mind. PB : What's the current state of the American scene like right now? JB : I don't like to generalise that way because there's so many different scenes at so many different levels. There's the MTV punk, there's the whole other layer of corporate punk below that with the really big muscular indie labels that function just like major labels with nasty contracts and then you have all the different sub-scenes. The music has been split into so many genres and sub-genres and you can find every single sub-genre within probably a thousand yards of my house. PB : The big thing on the UK punk scene is all of the original punk bands from the first wave reforming. For example The Sex Pistols have just announced four UK dates. JB : Oh gee, I can hardly wait. I almost always never go to reunion shows, especially for bands I saw back when they were really good. There have been some. For example I'll still go and see the Dictators and TSOL because they're my friends and they still come up with good new songs rather than bands playing covers of their old songs badly. There have been exceptions to this. One of the best shows I saw all of last year was Radio Birdman. They were so intense, especially Deniz Tek, the main guitar player. He played with the aggro and fire of a twenty-year old in a hardcore band and didn't miss one God dam note. I was just amazed. And I can't deny it was fun seeing the Stooges on Iggy's 60th birthday. PB : He's still in pretty good shape is Iggy. JB : I made a vow to myself at that show. I'm turning 50 next year and I better come up with something. If he can be that good at 60 I better be a 10th that good at 50. Maybe you'll get some more music out of me after all. PB : What American bands are exciting you at the moment? JB : That's always a tough question. I usually draw a blank and then have to defer to the bands coming out on Alternative Tentacles. So go to web site, insert names of recent releases and there you have a good chuck of them right there. There's others too like Hank Williams III and the Legendary Shack Shakers. There's also a really good hardcore band out of Pittsburgh called Behind Enemy Lines. There's so much generic hardcore but sometimes, once in a while, someone who knows how to do it right and deadly comes along and they're that band. PB : Can you see yourself touring in a band again? JB : Here and there. I was never really big on super long tours. The longest Dead Kennedys toured was for seven weeks. And I still like to put on a really physical live music show. I don't just like to stand there and bask in the glow of being some old guy who came up with some good music. I like to move. I like it to be psycho, I like it to be demented and have a lot of theatre. But of course it takes more out of me than it did then. So the shows with The Melvins were not as intensive as they would have liked. But the shows we did went really well. But Buzz and I agreed that we didn't want top do anything half-assed. I'd rather do a smaller number of shows and put everything I got into it than just slog on and on and on just standing and leaning on a microphone just singing out the words without enough feeling and enough soul. PB : So there's a really chance we may not see Jello Biafra touring the UK with a band again? JB : I'd hate to look at it that way so let's hope not. It came close a couple of summers ago but it didn't quite happen. PB : Jello, thank you very much for your time. Is there one last thing you’d like to say before we go? JB : The only other thing I can add is that I hope people in Britain realise that Dick Cheney is mounting an ‘all point’s assault’ within the corridors of the White House to attack Iran as soon as possible. He really wants to get Iran blown away before Bush leaves office. There are reports coming out than he now has the upper hand and it's only a matter of time. One thing, of course, that would help prevent this is massive protests, even in Britain, against an attack on Iran, which at the very least may put some pressure on Mr Brown to put pressure on Mr Bush. As discouraging as it may look, especially after the largest protest world-wide in all history failed to prevent the attack on Iraq, it still may have prevented the original "shock and awe" bombing attack that Cheney and Bush envisaged to bomb the entire country to rubble in just one go. I mean, a better example may be with Daniel Ellsberg. He was a Defence Department analyst who leaked the so call "Pentagon Papers" and damn near got charged with treason. But the leak of these papers help turned the country against the Vietnam War when people realised that even Nixon's own generals knew there was no point in continuing the war. But more to the point, he said fairly recently that at one big demonstration against the Vietnam War that happened in 1969 called The Moratorium, he felt utterly crushed that with all those number mobilised it still didn't force Nixon to pull the troops out of Vietnam. But then a few years ago he obtained some previously classified Pentagon documents that showed that The Moratorium demo spooked Nixon so bad that he reconsidered his plan to drop a nuclear bomb on Hanoi. So even if you don't get every thing you want every time you try an action like that. It shows they can do a lot of good. And I think it's time to turn up the heat again.

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Dead Kennedys - Interview

Dead Kennedys - Interview

Dead Kennedys - Interview

Dead Kennedys - Interview

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