Like every other teenage lunkhead who heard Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, I was a big Dead Kennedys fan back in the ’80s. I even saw them during their one and only visit to Winnipeg in 1984. (Check out the poster here.) And when Jello Biafra came to town in 2001 for a spoken-word gig, I was more than happy to chat with him. Here’s the transcript of that old interview, with a few minor edits for clarity.
• • •
“We’re gonna have to make it quick,” cautions a weary Jello Biafra at the top of our interview. “I’ve done way too many of these things today.”
Biafra is the last guy you’d expect to beg off from a chance to spout off. For two decades, the outspoken punk pioneer has never been at a loss for words. As singer, frontman and chief provocateur of San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys, he penned a lengthy list of punk anthems — California Über Alles, Holiday in Cambodia, Nazi Punks F— Off. Since the band broke up in the ’80s following a notorious obscenity trial over a poster in their Frankenchrist album, Biafra hasn’t gone away quietly. Now a spoken-word performer, lecturer and owner of the Alternative Tentacles record label, he’s issued albums championing free speech and skewering big government and big business. He’s got a mouth and he’s not afraid to use it.
Of course, Biafra — born Eric Boucher in 1958 — has spent more time than he might like lately talking about a subject he finds especially distasteful. After he refused to license Holiday in Cambodia for a Levi’s Dockers ad in 1997, his former bandmates accused him of financial improprieties and took him to court. The divisive trial ended last year with the band wresting control of Dead Kennedys, their music and their back catalog from Biafra. No wonder Jello sounds weary.
Even so, for Biafra — who returns to Winnipeg to speak at the West End Cultural Centre and promote his new CD, Become the Media — even a “quick” chat is intense. One of the most intelligent, articulate and outspoken performers of his generation, the voluble Biafra weighed in on everything from his legal battles and the recent presidential election to rockabilly music in the course of 15 minutes. We’d hate to see what he’s like when he’s not tired. Here are some excerpts:
DS: So, has this been the worst year of your life or what?
Biafra (sighing): Yep.
DS: Did you ever think the Dead Kennedys would end up this way with you guys battling in court?
Biafra: No, I thought they had more honesty and more class and more personal integrity than that. What they’re basically doing is trying to punish me for sticking to the principles of the band.
DS: It does seem sad.
Biafra: Yeah, well, (bassist) Klaus (Flouride) told a mutual friend about two or three years ago that he never understood my vision or what I was about and just stayed in the band because it was making money. That broke my heart. And he was the prime mover in this whole thing because he was the one who wanted to sell out to Levi’s desperately.
DS: How much money was it for?
Biafra: When (guitarist) East Bay Ray was pressuring me to cave in, he claimed $200,000. I warned him, “Sure, that’s $50,000 apiece from heaven, but it’ll be the last 50 grand you’ll ever see.” Unlike mainstream commercial pop stars like Blink-182 or The Clash, our message was taken seriously by the people who loved the band. But they don’t care about that because I’m the only guy who’s active and people know, so I get all the blame while they sit on their ass in suburbia and count dollar bills.
DS: It must feel like such a betrayal.
Biafra: Well, maybe we should move on to another topic. You’ve got the details, it sounds like. I guess the only updates are that there’s a rather dodgy individual who now thinks he has control of the Dead Kennedys catalog. And he and East Bay Ray and a large, rather intimidating-looking fellow walked into the warehouse of our distributor and took every single unsold Dead Kennedys CD. They didn’t pay for them. They just walked off with them and won’t tell me what they’ve done with them. Ray refuses to send me any sort of accounting. He did send me a couple of invoices recently and blacked out the names on them like it was John Lennon’s FBI file or something. They’re also claiming they’re doing a reunion tour now and are pushing it to promoters and only when really pressed will the booking agent tell people that I’m not involved. All I can say about all of this is buyer beware.
DS: What’s the next step in the legal battle?
Biafra: A motion for a new trial and after that, an appeal of the verdict. If I can’t extract Dead Kennedys from this mess, I at least want to be able to extract myself, so that people realize I’m not the one who can’t tell the difference between Dead Kennedys and Blink-182. That’s why I’ve been asking them to strip my name and my art out of all of the albums. As well as this new live album that they won’t even let me see. This is how vile and Mafia-like this whole thing is becoming. They go on and on about how now it’s a democracy, but to me that’s more of a kleptocracy.
DS: Is this what Become the Media is about?
Biafra: It’s a little more about the here and now than some of the other spoken word albums — kind of a little oral journal of the Year of Screaming Dangerously, shall we say. The title is a phrase that first popped up on my third album, I Blow Minds For a Living. I was talking about getting the real story out on the Gulf War. I said , “Don’t hate the media; become the media.” And I began to see that over the years on the backs of people’s jackets and home-made shirts and realized I must have touched a nerve. And if there’s ever a time to bring that back, it’s now. Especially because so many people are doing it. I think that’s one of the best things that came out of the Seattle anti-WTO protests — the Independent Media Center and the whole independent media movement. There’s been underground press and punk fanzines for years, but now, thanks to the Internet, they’re networking. Anybody with a camcorder can go to a protest like Seattle or whatever and voila! You’ve become the media. You’re part of the Camcorder Truth Jihad.
DS: I would imagine you have a lot to say about the new president (George W. Bush).
Biafra: I’m not going to go into too much detail on him. I think the smell of King George II is obvious to all. Let’s call it a pungent odour.
DS: You’ve run for office a couple of times. Do you think you could ever make a serious run for the presidency?
Biafra: I hope not. I’d much rather be doing what I’m doing than sequestered in a fancy white house trying to be King Bureaucrat. I’ve thought for a long time that most of the people running for president are too insane to be president. Anybody so egocentric that they really think they should be president is too insane to be president.
“Anybody so egocentric that they really think they should be president is too insane to be president.”
DS: Is there any music out there these days you like?
Biafra: Oh, tons of stuff. But it changes every day. I pick up a lot of music — mainly vinyl — wherever I go. I like diversity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I like retro. If I’m going to listen to rockabilly, it should be recorded in the ’50s, not somebody pretending to live in the 1950s. If I’m going to listen to something updated, I’d rather listen to Rev. Horton Heat or The Cramps because they’ve broken the mould. The same goes for ’60s punk, ’70s punk and ’80s hardcore. If you’re going to do it today, either do it properly or do it differently. Otherwise some of us get bored.
DS: Is there anybody doing punk rock today properly?
Biafra: In different ways. If you wanna call them punk — and I guess they’re broken up now — but Kittens from Winnipeg, I thought, were interesting. None of their CDs sound alike. You can barely tell it’s the same band. I much prefer that to a band that sounds exactly the same on every CD.
DS: Why do you think you’re such a controversy magnet?
Biafra (laughs): I like f—ing s— up. For some people, pranks ended in middle school. But for me, I just began thinking on a bigger scale. And I feel very grateful and fortunate that I’ve been able to survive off my big mouth and unmitigated gall as long as I have.