The artist known as Jello Biafra (née Eric Boucher) has made an indelible imprint on modern rock and roll music. Known by most for his genre-defining, politicized punk rock in San Francisco band the Dead Kennedys, Biafra has been quieter recently in terms of musical output than most would think. After a long, protracted lawsuit between him and his former Dead Kennedys band mates, East Bay Ray, Klaus Flouride and D.H. Peligro, Biafra’s music releases have been limited to collaborative albums with bands such as D.O.A., NOMEANSNO, Mojo Nixon, an occasional release with his side project Lard with Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, the short-lived protest band The No WTO Combo and two stellar albums with The Melvins, Never Breathe What You Can’t See and Sieg Howdy!
All photos by Raymond Flotat
Diehard fans are familiar with his regular spoken word tours and albums and his insistently counter culture label Alternative Tentacles. Finally, after many years of his music in the background—including one unsuccessful attempt to run as the Green Party Candidate for the President of the United States—Jello Biafra now has his own band for recording and touring. Appropriately titled Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, the project is now two full-length albums into its existence and just recently completed a tour that included the now industry-standard Coachella Festival. Just before the release of their new album, White People and the Damage Done, we spoke with Biafra in detail about his now full-time band, his thoughts on Barack Obama (and nearly every other current major political hot point) and whether Lard will produce another album or tour.
Biafra explains that the idea for forming his own band at this point in his life came from working with The Melvins. “Even Dale [Crover] from The Melvins told me, ‘You really gotta get your own band, dude,’ when I was working with them,” he says. The formation of his band the Guantanamo School of Medicine was done out of necessity. “The whole reason for the band is I needed a band that was my band to play my songs my way.”
Although he’s now fronting his own group, fans who are hoping for regular albums and tours may need to be patient. “It took damn near a year to finish this one, so it may go more in two or three year cycles,” he says. “I don’t thrive on being constantly on the road either. We tour for a while, as much as I can do and still put on a decent show. Then we break for a while. Then we go out again.” He explains this band will keep him busy enough that doing spoken word shows—long a staple of live performance for him–will be harder over the next stretch of time. “I’m trying to get spoken word fired up again, but it’s really hard to carve out the time,” he says. “I’m not good at wearing a million different hats at once. I kind of have to immerse myself in something and let all the lights come back on and see where this goes.”
With Guantanamo School of Medicine now in full swing, a new album from Lard appears less and less likely. Amazingly, he details how the recently deceased Mike Scaccia was trying hard to get the band active again prior to his death. “So there’s been talk here and there over the years,” he says. “The problem is that he [Jourgensen] has all his projects and I have Guantanamo School of Medicine so carving out time to try and do the thing keeps going further and further onto the horizon. So it may happen someday it may not. Sadly one of the instigators who really wanted to make it happen was Mike Scaccia. To the point that he flew up here and I was singing him some riffs in my living room and we were making recordings of what we thought might be cool Lard songs.”
What’s even more surprising is that two of the songs from these sessions actually ended up on the new GSM album White People and the Damage Done. “The two that we actually got through coming out good were ‘John Dillinger’ and ‘Crapture,’” he says. “Both of which are on the new GSM album, and it really breaks my heart that I’ve never been able to send Mikey the album and be like, ‘Yo. Surprise! Guess what’s on this?’ He told me a year ago when I ran into him on one of the Ministry tours that he really was still stoked to try and record ‘John Dillinger’ and that he really liked the song. And now he’s never going to get to hear it and that breaks my heart.”
It turns out many songs released in other forms were songs originally planned for Lard. In regards to “John Dillinger” he says, “Like several other songs I wrote for Lard, I realized, ‘Well what if there is no other Lard album?’ I can’t get really sit on these songs forever. Out comes ‘John Dillinger,’ out comes ‘Crapture,’ ‘The Cells That Will Not Die’ was written for Lard, ‘Plethysmograph’ off of the one I did with The Melvins called Never Breathe What You Can’t See, that was originally written for Lard as well.”
This rolling of material he credits to what it’s like working with Jourgensen. “I mean I came at it a little differently, because of course you bring something to Al and Al is in charge and if he wants to completely change the song to something else, that’s what’s going to happen,” he explains. Jourgensen’s approach is to refine and simplify as much as possible. “He does have these really good–dare I say–pop songwriter instincts from back when he was trying to make pop hits with the early synthesizers/synth pop version of Ministry and all that he applies to what he does now. Where if you bring him a riff he’s probably going to want to simplify it into the most power-packed catchy thing he can.”
A full tour with Lard looks unlikely as well. “I’ve done cameos on a couple of Ministry tours where we come out during the encores and do some Lard songs,” he says. “That was really amazing and Mike Scaccia was on both those tours. And you know what a wild circus a Ministry tour can be. I’ve never been confident that I can actually sustain myself all the way on one of those. I’m not even good at sleeping on moving vehicles like a bus. I can only do three or four shows in a row where I need a day off to rest my batteries and recharge my voice.”
In terms of collaborations, fans might remember that originally the Guantamo School of Medicine band featured the incredible bass playing from Faith No More’s Bill Gould. Gould was recently replaced by acclaimed producer Andrew Weiss (Ween, Akron/Family, Rollins Band). Biafra confirms this change is permanent, quoting Weiss who told him, “I’m here until you fire me.” Biafra says of Gould’s involvement, “Yeah, Bill was trying to help us get off the ground. I was trying to put the band together and ran into Bill at a Ministry show and asked him if he knew any bass players who might be into it and he nominated himself. I looked no further.” This lasted until the sudden reformation of Faith No more. “For a while, he was trying to stick with both bands until his wrists were about to fall off. Then [he] gave us a deadline of when he had to leave, so we tracked Audacity of Hype and Enhanced Sense of Questioning and got the bass parts down and then he went off to Faith No More.”
Predictably, the conversation changes into a deep dissection of politics and his need to write lyrics about content other than his own personal feelings. Why does he so relentlessly challenge political institutions worldwide? “I like to,” he explains. “It’s my way of singing the blues. Sometimes people ask me from time to time, ‘Why don’t you let us hear more of your personal stuff? Your personal lyrics?’ My attitude is ‘Yo, why waste a good piece of music on whining about myself?’ I can’t stand people who waste all their songs doing nothing but singing about themselves. I’m a very cynical person. I always have been and I’ve always thought love songs for the most part were kind of stupid.”
This distaste for conventional pining in music goes back to his formative years. “By the time I was a teenager I hated love songs because so many of them were such a bunch of lies,” he says. “They had nothing to do with how human friendship and romance works at all. Nothing. ‘Oh, everything’s going to be automatically better if you fall in love.’ And then it’s just like Cartman on South Park, substitute the word ‘Jesus’ for ‘love’ and you’ll make a million dollars as a Christian rock star,” he says with disgust.
Instead, he focuses intently on the craft and message of his lyrics. “If I’m going to be the one that winds up writing the lyrics, I want them to be really good ones, so I kind of slave over those too,” he explains. “Usually there will be a pile of papers, sometimes an inch thick, of different ideas for the same set of lyrics all in different meters as they came to me before I figured out which piece of music it matches to. So, instead of struggling to fill up the song with words, it’s even a bigger struggle especially after all the spoken word shows to cut the words down and still have them pack a punch.” He adds, “I like shit that gets me going. Makes my brain spin. I have adrenaline going through my whole body ‘cause I’m thinking about shit [that] pops into my head because I saw or experienced this cool piece of artwork. And what pops into my head may have nothing to do with the art itself. Or does it?”
His creative process is centered on rolling one influence into other ideas and on and on again. He explains in detail how his part in the movie Terminal City Ricochet became a domino effect of these inter-connected influences. “I was juggling around these different hats trying to conjure up all the old method acting instruction I had as a teenager, get the character built, wrangle the rights to soundtrack for AT [his label] and then have to come up with a song for the soundtrack,” he explains. Initially, the idea was that one song would be performed by D.O.A. and one song would be by NOMEANSNO. ”Suddenly all this stuff began coming up. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s an album with both of these bands here. I’ll just put off starting another band and work on these. They’re coming out so well we’ll make more songs. Why the hell not? We may never get another chance,’” he says excitedly.
He admits that the movie “was a worst case scenario sci-fi Blade Runner-on-a-budget look at an urban dictator trying to rig an election to keep himself in power.” His part was playing the dictator’s G. Gordon Liddy-type henchman. While shooting the movie, his stay at a high rise apartment hotel had its own surprising creative effect on him. “I could see all these other high rise apartments into all their windows with their lights on at dusk before they pulled their curtains,” he says. “So, that kind of helped get me in the mood of this pervy, secret police guy. So, eventually I even wound up masturbating as Bruce Coddle the character, and then flipped on my handy recording Walkman to record all the thoughts that came to me while I was doing this in the bathroom.” This quite literally became a song all its own, “Only later did it occur to me that maybe I should transcribe that and turn it back into a song which became the song ‘Bruce’s Diary’ on the album I did with NOMEANSNO The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy.“
As with Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, Biafra is extremely critical of Barack Obama, going so far as to call him “Barackstar O’Bummer” in a recent song of the same name. “Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay still not closed, even though the vast majority of the prisoners there now have been cleared of any wrongdoing,” he decries. “What is up with that? The smiling Barackstar, that cool dude you see on TV promised to close Gitmo as soon as he got in and it’s still there.” Could Obama be in over his head? “That’s why in ‘Barackstar O’Bummer’ I compare him to Rodney King,” he responds. “Beaten up again and again instead of fighting he just says ’Can’t we all get along?’”
He also thinks the Occupy movement had more to do with Obama’s reelection than anything the President himself did. “Some people think Occupy was a big failure,” he points out. “I think exactly the opposite. I think it was a resounding, overwhelming success, because it pushed inequality, corporate feudalism, grand theft austerity, whatever you want to call it, to the top of the election issues agenda in 2012. It’s not what the Barackstar was planning on running on, that’s for damn sure. Whether he likes it or not, Occupy saved his ass.” To Biafra, Obama’s reelection had less to do with the voters’ desire to keep Obama in power. “It was an anti-Romney vote. More to the point it was an anti austerity vote–anti Tea Party and above all anti Wall Street.”
Biafra was a fervent supporter of the Occupy movement and he describes its effect on our country as more of a ripple effect. “To me, Occupy was more like throwing a great big cinder block or a chunk of cement into a lake and then watching the waves ripple and ripple and ripple and keep on going as far as the eye could see,” he says referring to its effect on the public consciousness and voting priorities in the 2012 national election. “I’m for insurrection in the street, insurrection with our money and insurrection in the voting booth. You don’t get much done unless you’re working all three at the same time.”
But if he has so many complaints about our current establishment, what does he think it will take to make for real change in the U.S.A.? “Things won’t get straightened out even a bit in this country without intense, relentless, sustained pressure,” he offers. “Keeping up that pressure can mean stepping away for a while to recharge your batteries and get on with real life and then go back into it just so long as you don’t burn out. If it wasn’t for that kind of pressure and refueling the blowtorches to put up the asses of the people in power, we’d still be in Vietnam.”
Predictably, there are few American presidents Biafra thinks has done a truly good job. “Some did good jobs in some areas but not others,” he says. “I think the work that Lyndon Johnson did on civil rights and the war on poverty was a good thing. It’s just too bad he let his generals hornswoggle him into pissing away all his gains in the Vietnam War.” He backs this up with a reference to a recent report on The Rachel Maddow Show. “The really sad one reported on Rachel Maddow’s show that seemed to have gone by everybody was that they’re starting to release more and more secret tape recordings not only from the Nixon White House but also the Johnson White House,” he says. “And speaking of October surprises… right before the election it came to LBJ’s attention that Nixon’s people had been going to the South Vietnamese ambassador and got him to pull the plug on a peace agreement everybody was ready to sign right before the ’68 election. Johnson made the fateful decision not to use the information to send Nixon packing and possibly to jail because he got the information from J. Edgar Hoover and he got it from an illegal wiretap.” He continues with disgust, “So they never used it. How consequential is that? All it meant is five more years of the Vietnam War and tens of thousands of Americans killed and who knows how many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and it didn’t have to happen. That blows my fucking mind.”
Biafra may not be proud of how American presidents have made decisions, but he is proud of his own music. “People can compare GSM to Dead Kennedys all they want,” he says. “In a way we’re honored because I wrote most of that music too and my songs just tend to come out a certain way whether I like it or not. But on the other hand, I feel really proud that no two music albums I’ve ever done have sounded alike. Not even the Lard albums.” He credits this nonstop expansion to his never-ending record purchasing habit, that, and never over-mining his past. “One thing I’ve tried very carefully to avoid is ever falling into the retro ghetto,” he says. “Where I wind up doing nothing but cash in on the supposed glory days of the 1980s and singing, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ over and over again. I’ll mention no names of who actually let that happen to them. I’ve never been a retro person because I’m still such a rabid music fan.”
Fittingly, he’s nowhere near the end of his creative output either. “I’m not worried about running out of ideas any time soon,” he states with a laugh. “Not musically and especially not lyrically, as long as Americans go so far out of their way to be so stupid.”