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Interview with Jello Biafra (english)
Address: Mass Resident
19 Nov 2002
Jello on recent events
An interview with Jello Biafra
--Former Green Party Candidate for President of the United States (2000), and former singer for the Punk rock group Dead Kennedy's.--
I met up with Jello just after his speech, where he was mobbed by people asking questions and asking for autographs, and was able to stick my tape recorder in his face and ask him questions for a good length of time before one of the event's organizers asked me to stop and give other people a turn.
In the interest of full disclosure, I also caught up with him in the hallways to his room and was able to ask him a few more questions, but the tape this was recorded on was lost, because of my own incompetence. However, most of these questions weren't nearly as good as the questions on the saved tape, and in fact, I kind of bumbled it, so I'm not entirely dejected that I lost the tape (though it sucks that I did). Also, my current day job is in the employ of the News Corporation, the company that owns FOX and all it's subsidiaries, a fact which has a small importance to this interview.
This interview was conceived of as a co-venture between YanktheChain.com and the Basement Internet Show http://www.basementshow.net and the show's host, the Friendly Fascist, was the one who initially suggested it. You can listen to a RealAudio stream of this interview, along with the rest of TFF's latest show by looking at the basementshow.net website archives
YanktheChain: Do you think the corporations are more powerful then the members of government?
Jello Biafra: The members of government are members of corporate government. Y'know, they know that their first obligation is to the wealthy who put them where they are and bought them through so-called "soft-money" and all them big P.A.C. contributions. I mean, even the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill doesn't go far enough, if you really want to reform campaign finance do what they do in Canada and Europe and limit the amount of campaign time to six weeks, and put "none of the above" on every ballot, so that if over half the people vote for "none of the above" they have to run a new election with all new candidates. That'll put a lot of these assholes out of office rather quickly.
Q: Are there any countries that have "none of the above" on their ballots right now?
Biafra: At one point they had it in Russia when they first started having elections, and over a thousand elections had to be re-run.
Q: So, do you think there's any likelihood of anything like that happening in the United States?
Biafra: It's on the ballot in Nevada, but "none of the above" has never won an election. They had a ballot initiative for that in California this June, but it lost, in part because it was so toothless. If "none of the above" won, then "none of the above" won and that was as far as the law went. There was nothing in there about having to re-run the election with all new candidates.
Q: Will you run for any lower offices, other then President, such as congress or the senate or governor?
Biafra: I have no idea. I mean, part of what doing this with the Green Party means is I can't just go tromping all over them and make it the Jello Biafra publicity agenda. We're working to build a party here, and seeing as how Reform is gonna probably be gone after this election, Buchanon and reform canceling each other out, hooray, hooray, the Greens are in the prime position to be THE third party in this country. Plus, there's a good agenda, instead of the yahoo agenda, the yahoo weaslings that passed for an agenda in the Reform Party.
Q: But the Green Party has no people in any political positions in the national government right now. Don't you think it would be more advantageous for them to get people in smaller roles before they tried to get the Presidency?
Biafra: I think it's both, I mean, the Nader candidacy is working for the Greens from the top down, while the Greens running for local offices and in many cases winning the past few years are building the party from the ground up. So it works both ways, and if Nader made a real big splash in the fall, that's gonna inspire a lot more people to go Green and run in the 2002 elections. Imagine how cool it would be if there were enough Greens in state legislatures and Congress to become the swing vote, where it would work almost like a parliamentary system, where either party had to adopt some of their ideas or they couldn't get anything passed.
Q: Do you think that people who work for corporations have a responsibility to try and sabotage the corporation from within?
Biafra: It depends on the behavior of the corporation, but most corporations didn't become large corporations by being nice people.
Q: Well, let's say, the News Corporation?
Biafra: Boy, would I love to see some joker figure somewhere, hack their satellite system.
Q: But do you think they have a responsibility, is my question. Do you think that they should, otherwise they're not doing right?
Biafra: I don't want to put it in black and white fundamentalist terms where it's like the more radical-then-thou are the only people who are doing right, and if you don't do as much as I do you're against everything, I mean, that's bullshit. It turns people off to good ideas as badly as fundamentalist Christians do. I mean, there's fundamentalist radicals, fundamentalist punks, fundamentalist vegans, I think we all know a few of that. Fundamentalism is poison. So, we do what we can and doing something is better then doing nothing. But it also means picking up actions and a life style you can live with and live up to, instead of something that makes you miserable to the point where you cross over to the other side 'cause you don't see any other way out 'cause you see stuff in too much of a black and white way because you're a radical fundamentalist. I try to encourage people to get away from that. I mean, there's a side of me that's a decadent rock-and-roller as hell, and some people don't like that, but that's me too.
Q: So, do you think there's something inherent in the concept of the corporation that is bad, or do you think that it's something that people who have been in charge of corporations have done?
Biafra: It's another example of a good idea being seized by the wrong people and used against us. In the nineteenth century, the laws governing corporations were very different, they had charters that had to be renewed every few years with public hearings. That, of all laws, needs to be brought back in the worst kind of way.
Q: What do you think about the Microsoft break-up ruling?
Biafra: I haven't followed it that closely, I mean, it's a complicated legal issue and I've been mired in my own complicated legal issue, but people have been comparing Bill Gates to John D. Rockafeller for years; I think there's a reason for that.
Q: So, does this lawsuit end all chances of a Dead Kennedys reunion?
Biafra: That was over a long time ago for a variety of reasons. I'm not sure any of us really wanted to do it, and I was very much against it because I think nostalgia is poison. I mean, back in the days when people now labeled old-school where in fact blowing up the school, one of things we felt was that we were a little bit hipper and a little more cynical then those who came before us, and weren't going to fall for the stupid retro nostalgia act. I mean, in the late seventies, fifties nostalgia was everywhere. "Happy Daze" spelled D-A-Z-E if you want were about. But now, that might be why I kind of get sickened by Punk Rock's Fonzies who sometimes actively heckle bands that are trying to do something new with Punk Rock, and say "why don't you sound more like the old street Punk bands?" or something. Y'know, there's all these rules now that weren't there then, and I didn't write those songs to give people sedative entertainment to give people exactly what they want and nothing they don't expect.
Q: Is Punk dead?
Biafra: Unfortunately, not. I mean, neither is Swing music, so it all comes around in circles, and thankfully Punk has been enough of an underground thing for so long that even when the bigger bands get co-opted by corporations, there's still enough people who are smart enough to spend their time supporting good, underground band instead of spending all their time moaning and groaning about Green Day and Bad Religion and the Offspring and Rancid going commercial and all. Y'know, if you don't like that then blow 'em off and support the underground people and I try to support the ones who take chances with their music, even if all it means is playing virtually the same Punk Rock only a little more extreme. Even that is better then trying to sound exactly like a '77 Punk Rock record. The formula retro bands are no more interesting to me then Sha-Na-Na.
Q: Do you think that the underground now is just good as the underground was in the past?
Biafra: It can't really be compared, I mean it was more diverse earlier because the small number of different kinds of mutants who were all united in wanting to destroy seventies culture, and re-open consciousness on issues that the yuppies went to sleep on. But bottom line it was always more entertainment then movement. It could spawn movements, but Punk was never a fucking movement. You can't call something as diverse as, like, in the early days Blondie and the Talking Heads being called Punk, all the way up to Bad Brains, the Circle Jerks, Survival Research Lab, or, oh, I don't know, Blink 182, all being labeled Punk. That is not one movement. Add Crass in there somewhere, too, in the middle, I forgot the other extreme. So it's basically, it's more diverse now, which is good and bad, I mean, there's more and more people getting off their butt and trying to create music then ever before, but less and less of them seem to be pushing themselves to do something new that genuinely shocks the shit out of people.
Q: Who was the first musician to influence you?
Biafra: I got turned on to rock music almost by mistake when I was seven years old. In 1965, my father was just twirling the dial of the radio to find something that would make me go to sleep, and as soon as I heard rock and roll there was no stopping me. It was during the height of Beatlemania and the British invasion, but I gravitated toward the harder, heavier music going on then, you know, the early Rolling Stones, the good Rolling Stones, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, who don't get the credit they deserve for spearheading the American '60s garage sound.
Growing up in a family that listened to almost nothing but classical music had its effects, as well. "California Über Alles," the first Dead Kennedys single, was inspired musically more by Japanese Kabuki than anything else.
In many ways, I have no idea what would have become of me if punk hadn't happened, because the '70s turned out to be so stale, and so boring, and so backward compared to what had come just before. We were too young to have fully experienced the '60s and the fervor of the anti-war movement.
And some of the people who had caused so much trouble for what used to be called the establishment were opening overpriced hanging plant stores on the downtown mall and becoming the early versions of hippie capitalists.
Then punk happened. And I saw the Ramones, early on at a country-rock palace in Denver. They were opening for some record-company band, so the local music establishment, and I emphasize the word "establishment," was there in force, and the handful of us who knew the Ramones were up in front. And half the fun was, you know, not only were the Ramones the most powerful band I had ever seen at that point, but they made it look so simple--that anyone could do it, hell, even I could do it. This is what I should be doing.
Q: So what did you get out of this realization?
Biafra: What I got out of that immediately was that now, all of a sudden, rock music had become a spectator sport, that corporate labels and their bands were the new establishment, and punk was there to fight them the way the activist hippies must have fought what the establishment must have been ten years before. And it was interesting to see the reactions in different parts of the country.
In San Francisco, most of the older activists, especially at Berkeley, were very hostile towards punks. The music, certainly, wasn't nice and mellow for them, and neither was our look or our attitude. While in Vancouver, the two most important early punk bands, D.O.A. and the Subhumans, were both managed by former yippie activists, who saw this as a logical extension of what they were already doing.
Q: There's always been a strong element of theater in your work. You've mentioned that you're trained in method acting. Do you use any of those techniques today?
Biafra: I've used it in more ways than I first realized. A lot of the best acting training I had was in junior high and high school. We had very demanding directors and did real plays. You put our plays up against any theater troupe of any age, and they usually did pretty damn well.
I later used that in acting out different characters within the songs. From the beginning, there was so much pressure in the early San Francisco punk scene for everyone to be different than everyone else, to flaunt your intelligence and insights instead of every band sounding alike, like what plagues punk music in particular today.
Method acting has had a major influence both in writing through the eyes of other people, and seeing through the eyes of other people, trying to address different ideas in a way that would go beyond preaching to the choir.
Also, looking back, I didn't realize until years later what a huge influence Red Skelton was in my stage demeanor with the band. I mean, I always liked things that were funny, and later I realized that having a sly sense of humor was a way to get attention and even respect in school. And so I guess there's been a strong influence of different comedians: Red Skelton to Bullwinkle cartoons, and later on George Carlin, who's still pretty good.
Q: Finish this sentence: I was the kid in class who ...
Biafra: I was the kid in the class who was looking for the angles to question things or make wise-ass remarks, not knowing enough to be afraid of being myself or showing intelligence. But I wasn't the only kid like that in my classes because of where I grew up. I'm really thankful I grew up in a town where there were a lot of other mutant kids. I'm from Boulder, Colorado, which went through a lot of dramatic changes when I was growing up. But because there was a university there, plus several scientific research centers, there were a lot of professors' and scientists' kids, who were very intelligent, very questioning, and often a little odd.
When my sixth grade teacher opened the class with subtle praise for the guardsmen shooting four people to death at Kent State, I'd given up arguing with her by that point. But I was very riled up inside and vowed that I would never forget that.
Things like that happened in class every day. In the early part of the year we were drilled on why America is such a great free country, and the Chicago riot conspiracy trial--Chicago Eight, later Chicago Seven--was going on at the same time. So me and another person in the class were saying, hey, but wait, but wait, the police are not always our friend.
Finally, the boyfriend of the student music teacher came in: "Hey, kids, this is a real Air Force pilot." I asked him something to the effect of how it felt to be dropping bombs on children in Vietnamese villages. And it got very icy in there all of a sudden, and finally the teacher said, "Oh, well, Eric reads a lot of newspapers. Next question."
Q: How old were you when that happened?
Biafra: Eleven. Another part of what gave me a questioning, rabble-rousing, activist heart and soul is that when all these heavy events went down, my parents did not shelter the kids from it. I'm appalled at how many people my age, or even five or ten years younger, have no tangible memories of important history that happened when we were growing up.
I was born in the late '50s, was a child of the '60s, then the '70s, then the '80s, then the '90s, and I have mental fingers in all those pies. News footage came on the TV during dinner of bloody bodies coming back from battle in Vietnam, or the race riots in the South, people getting hosed in Selma, Alabama, or the Biafra war, where I got my name. In my household, it was explained and discussed with the children, as a way of educating us from when we first started grade school why racism and war were wrong, what this all really means.
Q: There's a school of thought post-September 11 among child psychologists that a child's television viewing should be kept to a minimum. What do you think?
Biafra: The problem is they've already seen it; it's already being discussed in schools, and who knows what kind of exaggerations and horror stories are taking place? It's important that all issues like this be right out in the open. It's very irresponsible as a parent to follow Tipper Gore or the Religious Right's advice and just take the offending CD or game away from the kid without discussing it. It's better to just sit down and discuss the offending item person to person. It means there's much more open dialogue and closeness within the family, instead of creating all these artificial divisions.
To this day, we get letters at Alternative Tentacles.com from young teenagers who hide their Dead Kennedys albums behind their mirror or in the mattress of their bed. Wouldn't it be better if the parents just discussed this with the kids instead of creating this culture of sneaking and dishonesty within the family? The moral of the story being, you don't hide reality from your kids because then they grow up to be smarter, more aware adults.
Q: Would you describe your work as poetry, commentary, theater, performance art, or all of the above?
Biafra: I would say all of the above. I realized very early on that, sure enough, I wasn't much of a poet, but people were really zeroing in on my sick sense of humor and all the buried information I was weaving into the work. Such as the early piece "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up," which, of course, was a deliberately shocking title to put the value back into shock value.
The point I was trying to make was quite serious, in that the next shuttle scheduled to go up would have had over forty pounds of plutonium on it, and if that one had blown in the same point in the atmosphere that the Challenger blew, there would have been enough, according to the literature I was reading at the time, plutonium dust in the atmosphere to kill as many as several billion people, not to mention an awful lot of critters.
Q: Shock Value. What is the value of shock?
Biafra: The value of shock is to stir the sediment in the brain, and wake people up. All my different kinds of artwork have been designed to inspire people to think. They may not always agree with me, but at least they will have some feelings and some passion about whatever it is I'm bombarding them with at the moment. I also think there's plenty of room, even in the most serious activist circles, for humor. Humor can be very effective both to inspire, and as a weapon. Just ask Frank Zappa and Charlie Chaplin.
Q: Do you see any artists today who are, as you once said, "slipping inside the villains"?
Biafra: I don't know whether I see it as slipping inside the villains, but part of what makes Ralph Nader and Michael Moore such effective speakers and communicators is that they know how corporate culture works, how our lawmaking bodies really work, and where the bones are buried.
And in the case of Michael Moore, (Writer for Movie:Bowling for Columbine), having a deep, I'd even say passionate, understanding of other types of people in America who might be progressive thinkers without even realizing it. They see the same things we do from a very different lens. I suspect even a large part of Rush Limbaugh's audience buys into what he says because it's the same basic frustration that forms this wedge of discontent in this country called "Why can't I put food on the table?"
Q: In 1997, the ad agency FCB Worldwide approached the Dead Kennedys requesting permission to use "Holiday in Cambodia" in a Levi's Dockers commercial. What was your first response when you heard that?
Biafra: I got pretty frightened because it became obvious that my former band members, who should know better, seemed to be all for the idea. And the motivation turned out to be sheer greed. Those songs were not created to shill for corporate products. When "Search and Destroy" by the Stooges came on as a Nike shoe commercial, I got physically sick. That song meant the world to me, and I didn't feel this was the way it ought to be used.
But it wasn't just the political reasons that made turning down that Levi's commercial a no-brainer. It was having to live with the sheer nausea of having what was probably my favorite song the Dead Kennedys ever did used in a commercial that nauseated me. I would hate to have "Holiday in Cambodia" become as tiresome to other people as hearing "Like a Rock" in a Chevrolet commercial.
As an individual artist, somebody had to draw the line and say, "No. This music is not for you. We don't want your dirty money."
Q: Your sixth spoken-word album is called "Become the Media." How do you become the media?
Biafra: I would say there's been a huge widening of the do-it-yourself 'zine culture that may be the best gift punk has given the world, even more than all the cool music. It widened further when Riot Grrrl happened, and now it's caught on to the point where even high school students are publishing their own 'zines about their school, or about the education system itself. There's a great one out of either Louisville or Lexington, Kentucky, called Brat, and I don't know if it still exists or not. I hope it does. What impressed me the most was it had quickly moved on from the "Why School Sucks" articles to "This is how we who are actually going to school right now feel the education system could be reformed."
One of the best things that's come out of the Seattle protests is the birth of the Independent Media Center. It's not as though the independent media movement wasn't already there, but it's given it another jump-start. There's the feeling that not only should we report on our underground culture and our own situation, but now we have to start telling people what's really going on at a time when everything from CNN to USA Today is as tightly controlled as Tass or the Cold-War Russian Pravda.
We've never had a situation where mass media has been so censored, at least in my lifetime. When I was younger, networks like NBC, CBS, were independently owned, and took their jobs as journalists seriously. There used to be documentaries like "The Selling of the Pentagon." There was another one detailing the connections between the harsh treatment of workers in Florida's citrus groves and Coca- Cola. PBS even had a series on for a little while called "The Nader Report." You don't see stuff like that now. So we have to replace that by communicating among ourselves.
Q: From an activist perspective, how does the current atmosphere compare to other periods?
Biafra: As a human being with notoriety and a big mouth, I've felt most threatened during the first Bush Administration. Whenever there's a Bush in the White House, many people die, and the rest of us are threatened. I just didn't think it would happen quite so quickly. The so-called USA Patriot Act, and the announcement of trying people in military tribunals if Bush or Rumsfeld's or Ashcroft's people think they somehow qualify as terrorists, basically, this is McCarthyism run amok. You know, it doesn't take much stretching of the imagination to see where they intend to go with this. It wasn't that long ago that we rounded up thousands of immigrants and labor activists and jailed them for the crime of publicly opposing World War I. I fear this may be what they have in mind again. Already rightwing punditoids and the prime minister of Italy have claimed anti-globalization protesters are terrorists.
At the same time, I never expected the movement against globalization and corporate rule to mushroom as quickly as it has, either. And right now the strongest electoral arm of that movement is the Green Party. I try to stress to people cynical about voting that the Greens are the most effective electoral arm of the so-called Spirit of Seattle, and it's great fun to cause trouble in the streets, but that's not going to accomplish much without insurrection in the voting booth at the same time.
Q: Where do you find hope?
Biafra: The sheer numbers and impact of the Seattle protests and what came after them gave me a lot of hope that this may be the beginning of a very long fight that could quite seriously turn the tide of corporate feudalism. I went to Seattle as just another geek in the food chain, thinking, "Well, in my own puny little way, I'd rather be a part of history than just sit and watch it on TV." So, the fact that so many people are starting to ask the right questions and rack their brains for solutions does give me hope.
I think one of the beauties so far of the so-called Spirit of Seattle is there aren't any leaders, pop stars, or guru figures that everyone else is falling in line with and following. No Mandela, Havel, or Subcomandante Ski Mask riding in on a white horse and everybody else just wanting to follow them to the promised land. We're stitching it together and doing it ourselves.
Jello's Hacktivism speech: Real player
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