Granddaddy of San Francisco punk and former Dead Kennedys frontman JELLO BIAFRA has been running his mouth for over 30 years, fronting a variety of bands as well as engaging in vociferous and political spoken word. Freshly inspired by the Stooges reunion (and his 50th birthday) Jello is now back with a new band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which features former members of Rollins Band, Sharkbait and Victims Family. Heil punk’s finest hector at Astra Kulturhaus on Friday, July 29.
EXBERLINER’S summer issue is on the shelves. Does Jello melt in the summertime?
I don’t know. I’ve never eaten much of the stuff, as a kid or anything. I love junk food and sweets but there’s no room in my body for bad ones. I have enough trouble with sugar as it is.
The sugar usually associated with your home of San Francisco is sprinkled with LSD.
Culturally, it’s where it’s at. I think I wanted to live in San Francisco since I was about 11 years old, saw the place for the first time during the tail end of the Summer of Love and knew there was more out there than what I was getting. Instead of being born too late, I was born at the perfect time. And the punk scene wasn’t all established like it was in New York. It was brand new, it was fiercer and it was more political. So it was the perfect place for me to be.
The West Coast had a late start when it came to punk.
Not that much later! Of course, New York was a much more direct-type line to Britain where these competing music weeklies were trying to outdo each other in finding the next flavor of the week. It’s also maybe why a lot of the stuff that came out was more interesting than in some of the big commercial media places, which even early on were very conscious of what critics thought of them, packaging and wanting to the get to the higher places quickly.
Need I ask what you think about the music press and music media today?
I ignore almost all music media; I don’t have the time, the interest in a lot of cases. I just kind of follow the sounds I dig. Picking up vinyl and the occasional CD wherever I go and lots of things get sent into Alternative Tentacles as demos and my interest in older music keeps me very busy; overwhelmed, actually. I never get bored with music.
Hence your new band.
Are you more comfortable with a band or with the spoken word stuff you’ve been doing for years?
It’s so different it’s hard to say: obviously being in a band takes a lot more out of me, but there’s no other reward like rockin’. Gotta have the brain food, gotta have the spirit food.
Your sixth spoken word record was called Become the Media. In some respects, the media has become you. I can see parallels between you and Jon Stewart…
How many people reading this in Berlin even know who Jon Stewart is?
They love Jon Stewart here almost as much as they hated George Bush.
I’ve only met Stewart once, I didn’t really know him at the time, and he said “Yeah, remember those shows you played at City Gardens, a venue in New Jersey? I was the bartender.” So we have that weird connection, and there’s definitely some, uh, punk spirit in both him and Stephen Colbert and because of the topics they got on, I think that goes a long way to explain, like, why people were paying more attention to them during the last two presidential elections than they were to the usual outlets of cartoon McNews. For decades people have been tracking the slow but sure dumbing down and censorship of corporate news, which of course coincides with multinational takeovers of the news, and reducing the big media companies of the United States and maybe the world down to a half dozen or less. And you get less and less actual stories covered, and the ones that do get cartoonified and dragged out more and more.
Do you see any simple solutions out of this?
Nonviolent extermination of the rich.
You’ve recently been involved in a controversy of your own. You were going to play in Israel, but cancelled at the last minute.
Whoa boy, that’s a roller coaster. Yeah, that’s still a tough one for me because, of course, when I went there I had to face all the people who were heartbroken that we didn’t play, pointing out that they’re not the ones that are down with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Israeli Foreign Minister of Affairs Avigdor] Lieberman and the illegal occupation and the apartheid practices within the occupied territories. On the other hand, I have seen some of the worst parts of the occupation, and the apartheid in the occupied territories. And it’s really, really horrific. Whether or not a boycott is gonna work as well as it did in South Africa remains to be seen. And then how do you boycott some of some really rich bankrollers of Netanyahu?
There are other bands, such as Pixies, who have boycotted Israel.
I am still up in the air about it, and one of the main activists said that if it was a consciousness-raising, rock-against-the-wall, pro-Palestinian rights, anti-occupation concert in Israel, it wouldn’t be breaking the boycott. So maybe if we can find the right event like that we can play for everybody after all, and do a little education at the same time. One of the things that has me reluctant to jump on the boycott bandwagon is, some of the first people from BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement] and other organizations who approached when we asked to cancel the show, were very diplomatic and communicative and wanted us to know why they felt the way they did. But then the people who joined in at the Punks Against Apartheid website or on our Facebook page became increasingly intolerant, to the point where I’m very reluctant to march in any protest under their banner because the rest of their agenda scares me.
But this seems to be more of a cultural boycott, maybe this is in some way intended to inspire the youth. Which could be called the crux of punk.
Well, the saddest part of that is when you talk to the young people is they weren’t getting angry and ready to rise up, they were just filled with this deepest, darkest despair imaginable. Even deeper than what we felt when Bush stole a second election. So there’s that level of heartbreak – the feeling that the extreme right has seized control of the country, and they’re only gonna get bigger and more powerful and dig their heels in deeper. And they just said, “There’s no point in even trying, none of the parties are even good. Fuck them all, they’re all shit. We can’t do anything.” I will say this: Tel Aviv has the same kind of nervous energy that West Berlin had in the 1980s. If there’s a wall around, there are people that want to tear it down.
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, Fri, July 29, 20:00 | Astra Kulturhaus, Revaler Straße 99, Freidrichshain, U-Bhf Warschauer Straße, http://www.astra-berlin.de/