DNA interview with Jello Biafra

Interviewed by DNA

It is widely accepted that Jello Biafra's band "Dead Kennedys" was the most influential punk rock group of the eighties. His trademark raps and rages, liberally splattered between songs during his live performances, became the basis for his spoken word performances, which have endured since the band split up in 1987.

 Even as a child, Biafra knew his calling. While other elementary school kids wanted to be baseball players, cops and nurses, he dreamed of being a villain on Batman. Ever the iconoclast, Biafra's description of the punk scene as being about "breaking down barriers and smacking people in the face with the unexpected" mirrors the Native American myth of the Trickster, or Coyote. His antics have included running for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, using the slogan, "There's always room for Jello," and recording a country and western album with Mojo Nixon because, "I hadn't been picked on enough by uptight Yuppies."

 One of Biafra's favorite targets is politicians and their wives, especially Tipper Gore, whose demand for labeling albums for their explicit lyrics led to the introduction of "Tipper stickers."

 In this interview with Magical Blend, Jello Biafra displays the trenchant wit and coyote-like views that have helped to spur an entire generation of Xer's.

 What has been your creative process over the years in developing your songs?

 Jello Biafra: I would say the early ones were the hardest, because I had no practice or modus operandi for putting tunes together. I just had all this music in my head since I was a small child, and I've kept adding to it over the years. I keep a little recording Walkman next to me, so that when I get an idea I can get it on tape quickly. Then I'll wade through the tape to see what I have.

 I don't play any instruments, so I keep the songs logged on cassette. I arrange them when I think I have enough parts and I have some lyrics that match the mood. I'm very mood conscious because of a Method acting background.

 You couldn't very well use the lyrics to "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" and the music to "Moon over Marin" and have the same impact, and vice-versa. So that's how I put stuff together. Sometimes it can be an agonizing process taking days, or even years, of concentration that leave me physically drained. Other times, they come together in a matter of minutes.

 The same thing goes with words as it does with music. I'll try to accumulate parts of music for songs. Some I end up using, and some I don't. If I can't get it done right away, the lyrics end up piling up, too. I'll have a subject in mind, and whenever something pops up in my head that fits, I'll just write it down and add it to the pile. At times it can be a horrendous editing job, but the results speak for themselves.

 Is there a spiritual base attached to your songs?

 Jello Biafra: I hope not.

 Your lyrics are the kind the Religious Right loves to hate.

 Jello Biafra: When it comes to censorship, I think people hide behind religion just to push their own agenda, from the Pat Robertson point of view to new age snake oil aimed at the rich, brought to us by people like Arriana Huffington [wife of failed California Senatorial candidate Michael Huffington], who wants us to think that if we all wish the problems away, they'll go away. It's nothing new. One of the worst censors in the history of our country was Anthony Comstock, who, in the late nineteenth century, was nastier and more powerful than Jesse Helms. The term comstockery comes from him. It means being prudish or uptight about things, wanting to censor what other people do and see and read. His impact has lasted well into the twentieth century.

How does the sting of censorship affect you these days?

 Jello Biafra: An ex-cop, right-wing talk show host on KSJO said that I was an example of judges being too lenient on criminals, because I wrote songs promoting the killing of cops and pushing drugs at children. So I would say there is some definite bias, as well as stupidity and lack of knowledge.

 Did they confuse you with Ice T?

 Jello Biafra: Maybe they confused me with the Crucifux or Sammy Hager. Of course bias will blunt my impact, but the impact is going to get through. If someone blunders into something I, or someone like me, has said it can strike a chord, even if they have never heard anything like it before, because it puts their feelings into words. The thing that means the most, as far as the impact of my work goes, is not when someone comes up and asks for my autograph, or an iron-on tattoo or telling me I'm God, but when someone comes up and says, "I was majoring in business and I heard your stuff, and I sat down and took a long look at my life's direction and decided to do something else." Or a case of "Your stuff affected me, and now here's something to affect you." It might be a record, some writing, a zine or a film script. One guy I knew from childhood got a cushy professor's job at the University of Colorado. He felt like he had all these people who didn't want to learn anything being thrown into his classroom. Now he teaches history at a middle school in a small rural town. Even the people who never go to class go to his class. And he grades everyone on effort, which means some of them try to do a paper for the first time in their life. That's pretty cool.

 Before his demise, Richard Nixon's prediction for president in 1996 was Pete Wilson. Is this a personal belief of yours too?

 Jello Biafra: I would file it under nightmare. Wilson is painted as a moderate by the national corporate media, but he's a lot meaner than that, as I think Californians have seen. Like Nixon and like Wilson's predecessor, Dukemajian, Pete knows enough to do a lot of his own dirty work, not even telling anyone what he's done. Nobody will know that Wilson has begun leasing out our state parks to people like Arco until they pull up to a gate across the road of what used to be a publicly run state park and find a sign that says, "Brought to you by Arco." That's not being publicized at all. Wilson put Charles Hurowitz of Maxam Corporation's right-hand man, Barry Munitz, in charge of the State University system. That is an incredibly evil and calculated vicious thing to do. That has not been reported in the straight media one bit.

 You ran for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979. Do you have any aspirations for a further political career?

 Jello Biafra: I think my art reaches a lot more people than putting on a suit and saying, "Hi, vote for me." I learned that from the San Francisco mayoral campaign. Even though I was considered the prank candidate, I was getting both individuals and representatives of pressure groups trying to make little deals. I figured if that was going on at that level, it's no wonder people have no idea what they believe when they finally reach positions of real power. In Clinton's case, he married into money and it was all over, but who knows how idealistic he ever was to begin with. There was a quote from an Oxford University Professor in the Anderson Valley Advertiser out of Boonville. He said that he organized a lot of the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations by the students at Oxford and couldn't recall seeing Bill Clinton at a single one.

 How has the spoken word performances differed from your earlier music.

 Jello Biafra: If you look at the material you will see that it is different. Some of it expands on ideas that have turned up earlier in songs, and some of it is an expansion of actual song lyrics themselves. The spoken word performances have taken off in a different direction once I realized I wasn't much of a poet and what people were really responding to was both the humor and the suppressed information. So I decided to focus on regurgitating suppressed information to a wider audience. In these days, when eighty percent or more of all mass media in the Western world is in the hands of a dozen, or less, multinational corporations, artists should use their power and their position to get the news out, so people can know what's really going on.

 What's up ahead for America?

 Jello Biafra: Proposition 187 and the ominous Gingrich problem will inspire more people to take more direct action to fight back. The Anderson Valley Advertiser reports that even before the November elections, the Mendocino county sheriff and the INF were driving around together in an unmarked white van, abducting brown-skinned people out of Safeway, or even right out of their yards. If they didn't have proof of citizenship right on the spot, they would be taken away, righ in front of their families. Sometimes the legals got together and surrounded these vehicles, creating a standoff that could last for hours or even days. That's how the Berkeley free speech movement was born. They tried to haul away an activist in a police car, and people wouldn't let the car go for thirty-two hours. That's the kind of galvanizing actions we need. Otherwise Newt Gingrich might just succeed in placing the children of "undesirable" elements in orphanages.

 Actually Newt has a good idea with the orphanages, but he has it all wrong. The people that need to be taken away from dysfunctional parents and locked away to be raised properly are the children of rich people. We need to stop the Huffington problem right here and now. No more Michael Huffingtons or Pete Wilsons. If someone makes over a certain amount of money a year, say half a million, they put their children in grave danger of joining white-collar gangs later on, participating in stock and savings and loan swindles. Look at the Bush children. If they had been taken away and locked in orphanages, maybe they would have some empathy for real people by the time they were adults.