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Jello Biafra on Politics, Brooklyn, and Wesley Willis

Jello Biafra, the High Priest of Harmful Matter
Jello Biafra, the High Priest of Harmful Matter
Elizabeth Sloan

Legendary political punk provocateur Jello Biafra is returning with his band The Guantanamo School of Medicine to Highline Ballroom tonight, June 27. As energetic as he is outspoken, tonight's show continues his 35+ years of high velocity high concept punk plunder. We spoke to Biafra about how his approach has turned topical issues into timeless songs, as well as some of the gems in the 35 year history of his label Alternative Tentacles including his country album with Mojo Nixon which turns 20 this year.

See also: Jello Biafra Launches Rap Career

Over the past three decades, what have been some of the bigger changes you've noticed in New York audiences? Boy, you could fill a volume of the Encyclopedia. Obviously, the great migration over to Brooklyn is the big one, and now that's getting gentrified too of course. It may not be as malicious as what's going on in San Francisco right now, but obviously people are chasing a dream, trying to create cool things and are getting pushed further and further. I'm all for getting rid of violent ghettos, but there's got to be a middle ground instead of clearing people out to move yuppies in. Everybody needs some place to go that they can have a home. Or a decent place to live, let's put it that way.

A big part of your legacy is your live performance. How different is your warm-up ritual for playing with The Guantanamo School of Medicine from your speaking engagements or other bands? Well, spoken word I just kind of walk on stage and do it. Sometimes it's literally pulled from the back door, trot on stage and go. That's how it was at the Punk Voter Festival because I drove my own car and took my sweet time getting there.

That's impressive, considering some of those shows have gone five or six hours. Well I have so much to say and so little time. If I had Hank Williams or Ian MacKaye's gift for saying a lot in a few words, I'd go that route instead. But, I gotta do what I gotta do. I also haven't had time to assemble a full spoken word show since the band started, and they've become few and far between.

I actually attended one of the longer ones at First Avenue in Minneapolis in Fall, 2002. Yeah, that was kind of a dark day because it was either that day or the day after that Senator Wellstone was killed in the plane crash. The Senate would be a very different place if he was still there.

But, to answer your question, I've always done a lot of body work and vocal warm-ups before my shows because I always have to. I try to run around a bit before I go onstage to get the blood pumping so I don't wind up in pain from head-to-toe from going 0-100 within the first five minutes of a song. I wish I'd known things like that in the Dead Kennedys days but I didn't. I gotta workout more at home. I'm never going to be Henry Rollins or anybody like that, but having a little more physical strength helps me shave off the feeling that I am 56-years-old. That, or I was in piss-poor shape in the Dead Kennedys days and I didn't know it.

It's interesting to look at how your discography captures so many political topics over the past three decades which your fans old and new still find a passion for. With how quickly dated a lot of political music becomes, how does your music still strike a chord and not have an expiration date? Well, I kind of calculatedly do this on purpose. Document some things but go into some of the deep stuff and whack people over the head with it in a way so people can refer to the same situation later. Sometimes I think I should quit writing worst-case-scenario songs because they keep coming true. Although, I learned the lesson with the original "California Uber Alles" with Governor Jerry Brown that maybe that got too close to one time period, especially after the Reagan Regime stormed in and I realized there were worse things out there, so I updated it with "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now." Now when we play it, we update it with the Schwarzenegger lyrics.

With so much activism and faux-activism in music today, where do you see the line between raising awareness for a cause or problem and exploiting it? Sometimes you have to do one to accomplish the other. I see no reason not to keep whacking people over the head with things that I can report. I just try to find interesting ways to do it that will get people to think or make them want to react in some way.  

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of your Prairie Home Invasion country album with Mojo Nixon... It is? Time flies when you're overworked.

Do you have fond memories of that release? I recall it being received as perhaps your most polarizing project. In what way?

The reception from "punk" magazines taking issue with the fact that it's a country record. It was kind of the least likely thing I could have done, which is part of the reason I did it. Grunge-mania was in full swing, Green Day-mania was about to take off. It definitely wasn't what people expected or what I expected, when the opportunity arose I said "why not?" I wanted to make something like that at some point, so there it is.

With this being the 35th anniversary of your label Alternative Tentacles, I wanted to ask you about a few different artists in the catalog. As a big Wesley Willis fan myself, I'm curious if in the ten years since his passing you've noticed a change in his legacy being more accepted or understood? I think it's mainly among the people who were already into him. There haven't been that many new people on board, but that can change, you never know. If more people saw the Wesley Willis Joyrides documentary, I'm sure they would be very curious indeed. We might even pull out a little tribute to him on Friday.

Are there any plans for another Wesley Willis compilation. All I need is the time. Ha. Ha. Ha. I'd like to get Volume 4 happening some time, but now is not quite the time even though it feels like less years than it has been since I put out the last one. New unreleased albums turn up every day. I even found a CD sitting in my bedroom that I put in and realized I never played it. I can't remember the name of the album, but I was just so happy that I put it on because it was a whole bunch of songs he showed me the notebook for earlier that I thought were lost that he never recorded. Songs like "Look Out For the Turd Burglar," "Get Your Brains Splattered" and a hilarious song about Michael Jackson, and he told me he was afraid to record that song because he was afraid Jackson would sue him. Even though all he does is say "You are a pedophile to the max / why don't you keep your hands off those little kids," if Jackson tried to sue Wesley over that he wouldn't get very far I have a feeling. Who would he bring as an expert witness, Jerry Sandusky?

With how prolific your career has been, do you have any projects that you're particularly proud of that you wish were more known and discussed amongst your fanbase? I'd say my most criminally overlooked album was Tumor Circus. That total noise-grog-semi-grunge-amphetamine-reptile kinda-sounding thing I made with Charley Tolnay of Grong Grong and the guys of Steel Pole Bath Tub. We went in thinking we were making a single and then Mike Morasky was laying down so much stuff we thought we had a full album. If we had put a midwestern address on it, it would have been huge. It also would have helped if I had been a little more patient and not released it three months after my album with Nomeansno. I still think it's my most demented project, except maybe The Witch Trials.

The second single had a Clive Barker etching and I believe he did the art. It was a gut-level scream against these people who claim "right to life" but don't give a damn about the person when the baby is born. I might go after them again now that the Supreme Court has put it in that there's law-after-law and state-after-state that's totally beating up on women and their right to do what they need to do to make their own decisions. Reproductive rights are under a quiet but really nasty assault nationwide right now. We're probably going to do "Shock-u-ppy" as a salute to the Occupy Movement. Sure, the tents are gone but the spirit lives on. One of the ways it has is people breaking off smaller winnable chunks of the big picture and winning smaller winnable battles like the battle to keep fracking illegal in New York and, for that matter, our beloved President Barack-Star owes his fucking ass to Occupy. It was Occupy that put the horrific 3rd-world-ization of this country on the front page. Without Occupy, we wouldn't have people walking out of McDonald's demanding a living wage. That's where the spirit of Occupy and the spirit of Seattle lives on. The anti-Corporate movement has only begun to grow.

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, Highline Ballroom. 6:30 p.m. $20.

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Highline Ballroom

431 W. 16th St.
New York, NY 10011

212-414-5994

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