Below is a recent interview I conducted with Jello Biafra, including portions not published by Houston Press last November. In addition, my interview with Mauro, iconic singer of Italian crossover punk veterans Raw Power, was just published by Maximum RocknRoll in their Jan. 2015 issue. Click here to order it! The photos and flyers from the layout were culled from my own photography (live shots I snapped last fall during their incredible tour) and flyer archives as well. Last, but not least, I hope the holidays find you in good spirits. I just finished editing a huge punk history book re-release/second edition for PM Press (top secret), and I am working with Gary Floyd on dates in Texas during Feb., so keep checking back to find out more details!
Jello Biafra: Punk Got Soul
All photos by David Ensminger, shot at the Continental, Houston, TX, Nov. 2014, except when noted.
For over three decades, Jello Biafra has remained the brassy-mouthed conscience of punk rock willing to knock down the sacred cows of politics and rock’n’roll. First honing his diatribes in the Dead Kennedys, next dabbling in film and spoken word, and ultimately joining forces with D.O.A., NoMeansNo, the Melvins, and Al Jourgensen for projects aplenty, he has remained ever-potent and enrapturing, a changeling that never quite sheds his skin. As a news junkie, edgy showman, political reformist, and punk shaman, he has continued to curate fabled label Alternative Tentacles, survived a bitter feud with former bandmates, and kept retirement far away while firing up Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine (G.S.M.), his vociferous psych-punk band with ex-members of Victim’s Family and Rollins Band. Plus, he has gigged twice, both notorious, with the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All Stars, a “done on a dare” band with Bill Davis from Dash Rip Rock and Fred LeBlanc from Cowboy Mouth.
Ensminger: Is your spirit today just as intense as when you played the Rock Against Reagan Tour gigs?
Biafra: Oh, very much so. At some point, I hope I finally finish my song “They Saved Reagan’s Asshole.” I just visualize the Fantastic Voyage scenario, being part of the camera that went up his ass during his colonoscopy looking for all the polyps and there’s the Reagan cancer everywhere to be seen. I mean if you look at the way we have been treated in this country, now every single national leader that has been pressed in front of us, every single President dressed in front of us on the TV set, has been one more flavor of Reagan. And that very much includes Obama. I now realize, compared to a lot of people that listen to my stuff, I am so damn old I actually have visual, tangible memories of when there were actual differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. I have actual memories of when even the big three TV networks took real pride in their news departments and attempted to out-scoop and out-muckrake each other because they hadn’t all been swallowed by global corporations who then decreed that the news must make a profit.
That’s one of the main Reagan entrails that has really poisoned our society, and look no further than Texas for the very idea that there should not be any idea of a community whatsoever. It should be about everybody for themselves: they don’t need to do anything about, well, I’m not going to call it climate change, let’s call it climate collapse, but the reply is, no, the markets might not like that. Instead of Islamic fundamentalism or even Christian fundamentalism, I think maybe market fundamentalism is fucking up this country and this world even more. We can’t put any of these bankers in jail. They’re too big to fail. The market might not like that. Fuck the market, put the fucking markets in jail. How many decades has it been now since I took up the cause in the California Green Party platform of enacting a maximum wage? These market fundamentalists are basically like crack addicts. Only instead of crack addicts they are money addicts. They are wealth addicts. I mean how much more money do you need if you’ve made your first million? You can live really well off that for the rest of your life. But no, these addicts are like, “Now that I’ve made this, I’ve gotta make more, more, more” and start shaking like they need their needle of whatever, more, more, more, and more. So, I think the maximum wage would send the clowns into rehab. Sorry, Ron Paul, I am very pro-tax. I just think the people with money should be paying it. Our payback, of course, would be a free education for all, free medical care for all, clean transportation, including airfare. You could have some high-speed rail built and hop on the train and go from Houston to Austin in an hour. Sure, Europeans pay way more in taxes, but you can see the benefits all over the place.
Ensminger: What do think of mayors coming forward and taking the initiative and increasing the minimum wage; is that one way to handle these issues — to make local responses?
Biafra: The stuff from the ground up is really important. Sometimes it can be very powerful. That’s why the supposedly liberal hip cool governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, is trying every which way he can to ram through a state-led law that no city or town can ban fracking. It would have to be done at the state level, where the governor and legislators are more corrupt, and you have more right-wingers and Tea Party people that are able to jet on in from Colorado Springs to weigh on in on whether my mother’s backyard in Boulder should have a fracking well in it. Even Jerry Brown, who I remember well from the Earth First rally that I was part of, is now hell bent on fracking. I don’t get it.
Ensminger: You’ve said he is a different man than the fellow you wrote the song “California Uber Alles” about many years ago; for instance, he is trying to convince Californians they need to raise taxes.
Biafra: I agree with him on that, but another one of his quotes from way back in the day was I’ll move left and right at the same time, you watch me. Shockingly, he’s moved even further to right in regards to decriminalizing pot — cannabis. I remember when he was running against Clinton in 1992, and he flatly denied that he had ever smoked pot, then Winston Smith jumped up from the couch and said, hey wait a minute, that’s not true, I smoked pot with him! He’s very much a political animal moving left and right at the same time. I don’t think Brown has changed as much as my original pet conspiracy theory in the song misfired. Sure, I came up with it by my own little nineteen-year-old self, but then Reagan stormed in and Nixon’s silent majority was taking the masks and white hoods off and revealing themselves as the Moral Majority, and I realized, as I put in the rewrite of “Californa Uber Alles,” that we’ve got a bigger problem now. We still do “California Uber Alles” in the Guantanamo School of Medicine set usually, but now I keeping my lyrics about Schwarzenegger.
Ensminger: Do you think the sexual openness and candor of people like Randy “Biscuit” Turner of Big Boys and Gary Floyd of the Dicks and Sister Double Happiness, in terms of sexual identity, had a political presence beyond the politics of bands like Crucifix?
Biafra: Crucifix came later. By that time, the Dicks had relocated to San Francisco, first with the Texas line-up then Gary getting together the San Francisco line-up together. He told me way back then that he made a decision not to play any more Dicks show in drag because he thought in San Francisco [the band] wouldn’t be taken as seriously if it all revolved around that. I guess he didn’t want to be seen as a punk rock Divine. He had different ideas of what he wanted to do. I am so glad that I did get to see one of the Dicks shows with Gary in full drag the first time the Dead Kennedys played in Austin at the Ritz. He had on all kinds of make-up, a long blonde wig, a tight white T-shirt with a great big ‘ol bullet bra underneath, cut-off shorts, and nothing else. That multiplied the power of his stage presence by at least 10 if not 100. It didn’t matter how red in the neck anybody in that audience was, you didn’t dare challenge that person on stage. Wow, it was like a 300-pound drag queen that can sing like Janis Joplin, what more could you ask for in a punk band (laughs)?!
Biafra: I knew Evan before he moved to Austin. That’s a weird story too. There was a guy, I think Tim Sommer, who later started Hugo Largo, but he was a writer that interviewed me for Trouser Press in New York on the Dead Kennedy’s East Coast media splash tour in 1981. He did all the capsule reviews of all the independents singles, and we went into his dorm at NYU, bumping into Rick Rubin in the hall no less, another guy that lived in the dorm. He took down this huge 3 x 3 x 3 cube of a box down off the shelf with all the records in it he didn’t have the time or interest to review. “Here,” he said, “Take as much as you want.” So among the things I pulled out of there were GG Allin and all kinds of barely rumored to exist Killed By Death type of stuff, and this ten inch record with this guy with three pairs of sunglasses on the cover by Evan Johns. I had no idea what it was, but I put it on and was just immediately blown through the wall – [it was] really, really well done rockabilly, and roots rock, but with a very distinctive style, also a very distinctive voice, and god, what a guitar player. Later, it might have been when I was in D.C. for the Rock Against Reagan show with MDC, Dicks, Crucifucks, Toxic Reasons, and even the Velvet Monkeys were on that bill.
Anyway, I found out somehow that Evan Johns was playing at a bar somewhere, the kind where you play four sets a night. I got to see him, and he still played a lot of organ then. Beside the 10”, he had these really amazing songs. I had never met anybody from that side of the scene before. I had no idea if he thought of me as some kind of commie punk rocker or not. Evan didn’t know what I was either, but we hit it off. He started calling me and sent me a weird package, like it had a hospital bracelet in it and a one dollar check from B.M.I. with “Take the whole thing” written on it. He would say, “I don’t quite know what you do, but I think we got one thing in common … rock’n’roll!” When I sent him the “Too Drunk To Fuck” single, he decided we really did have a lot in common with rock’n’roll.
We just grew closer from there, and I think at that show in D.C. I talked him out of a cassette of the songs that would become the Rolling Through the Night album. There was another half dozen outtakes on there as well on there, some of which turned up in different forms on the later album. I waited and waited, and nobody would put that record out. He was trying the obvious people who put out rockabilly and roots rock, but they all rejected it because it wasn’t rockabilly enough. It was too weird for them. So, finally I thought, we might be the qualified label to do this, but it can’t just be sitting on the shelf anymore, and at least the people who know Alternative Tentacles know that no two of our releases sound the same. So, we were honored to have Evan on the label too. Knowing him closely over the years is like knowing Hank Williams Sr. for better and for worse. But he’s still recording songs and still writing new ones.
Ensminger: And he still lives in Austin.
Biafra: Some would even say his voice is shot, though I haven’t listened to him that close. Sure, he sounds like a raspy old blues guy from the delta, but he sounded like that as a teenager too (laughs)!
Ensminger: Tell me about the Raunch and Soul All Stars down in New Orleans, which happened as you were making records with G.S.M., which is back to the DK’s style of sound.
Biafra: That wasn’t by design. That’s just what happens to come out of me. I have my sound, and I have my style, and I have things in my pea brain that make sense. It may be a little heavier and little more rockish with G.SM., but if people wander what’s going on, I describe those albums I did with the Melvins (Never Breathe What You Can’t See, Sieg Howdy!) as halfway between Dead Kennedys and LARD, and the G.S.M. is halfway between the Dead Kennedys and the Melvins’ albums, with the surf and pysch back in now that I got my own guys. Finally, a double-barreled attack again with two guitars, like the original line-up of the Dead Kennedys.
Ensminger: But what do you enjoy about the Raunch and Soul All Stars?
Biafra: That was kind of done on a dare. I was back visiting my family, and Cowboy Mouth and Dash Rip Rock, who by then were on Alternative Tentacles, came out doing a tour together. I don’t know whether a crew member heard me singing along to some of the Cowboy Mouth covers, or whatever, but then Bill Davis and Fred LeBlanc came to me afterwards and dared me to come to New Orleans during the Jazz and Heritage Festival and do an entire set of old New Orleans soul and rhythm and blues songs. You know, when R&B meant rhythm and blues and there was actual rhythm and blues in it, not what they call R&B today, which is as far from Little Richard as what now passes as industrial music is to Throbbing Gristle, and for that matter, boy bands with Sid Vicious hairdos that call themselves punk.
Ensminger: You talked about getting the voice of Eric Burdon down, Sky Saxon, mastering Iggy Pop…
Biafra: I’m not sure I’ve mastered anybody.
Ensminger: Who is somebody that you’ve tried to emulate, but have not been able to?
Biafra: Roky Erickson. Have you ever tried to hit all the shit he does on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” let alone those other songs? Yeah, it’s amazing. Eric Burdon too. I actually did “House of the Rising Sun” for the Raunch and Soul All Stars. He goes insanely low and insanely high within about twenty seconds. It’s just one of those challenges, but I was pleasantly surprised how well I pulled it off when we went down there and did the songs. We did an obscure Fats Domino one. I wanted some garage rock in too, so we did the Animals version of “House of the Rising Son” and the Amboy Duke’s version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” “Bangkok” too, which we could squeeze in because Alex Chilton wrote it, and he was an accepted transplant in New Orleans who had just died. A lot of people knew him there and were really upset about that. So, I had to have a Chilton tribute in there.
Ensminger: And how did you end up doing a Roy Head song?
Biafra: That was the second time we did it. We did it during 2014 during Mardi Gras [at Siberia]. I mean we all have our schedules and our regular touring bands. We aren’t able to do this very often. But I wanted to expand it a little bit, so I had always wanted to do “Treat Her Right.” East Bay Ray even talked about doing it as a cover during Dead Kennedys, but we just never got to it. The others wanted to do “Ride Your Pony,” which made three Lee Dorsey songs, but what the hell, they are great songs. There was even a real obscure Cramps song that never really got properly recorded called “New Kind of Kick” that I dug up. I always wanted to do that and give it the Sonics’ treatment. I think we added “Trick Bag” by Earl King too.
But at that one in 2011, a great time was had by all, but the recording was a total fucking train wreck. Then this guy Ben Mumphrey (producer and engineer for Dash Rip Rock) called me up and said, “Look, I work at a studio in the country, I do Frank Black, I do Pixies stuff, I’ve done Andre Williams and many more, I think I can fix this recording.” So, slowly and surely around his better paying projects, he has been piecing together the 2011 show that will finally get released as an album almost a year after the 2014 show. The 2011 show featured people from Corrosion of Conformity, Down, Dash Rip Rock, and Mojo Nixon.
.Ensminger: You once said your previous biggest achievement was burning down the ‘Hotel California,’ but what is the achievement you want to have with G.S.M.?
Biafra: (Laughs). Maybe help turn the tide against market fundamentalism? If you’re going to burn down the Hotel California then why not burn down Wall Street, that’s an even better way of putting it. That’s why I did that song “Why Occupy when you can SHOCK-U-PY?” Granted, it’s more non-violent protest oriented than the whole concept of burning Wall Street down, but their influence should surely be burnt to the ground. Those people are so carried away with screwing everybody, I sometime wonder, shit, where is ISIS when you need them?