Interview: A Year’s Supply of Jello Biafra

The early hardcore punk scene was a hotbed for loquacious, politically-minded singers who saw music as not just an art form but an avenue for change. And Jello Biafra certainly fit the mold. Actually, he created the mold, and then he broke it. So is it fair to state that an hour-long conversation with one of punk’s most distinctive and animated frontmen is truly a year’s worth?

No. Not a chance. But it makes for a clever headline.

Jello hasn’t truly helmed a band since the dissolution of the Dead Kennedys in 1986. Sure, the Jello Biafra And The Melvins project had his name right on the marquee, but all of his musical projects had been collaborations. His spoken word career, as well as heading his label Alternative Tentacles, running for office and dealing with seemingly endless litigation from his former DK bandmates, had been his main gig until 2009’s The Audacity Of Hype, the debut release from Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine.

Still pouring over at the atrocities of the Bush administration while acknowledging the new realities of the Obama era, The Audacity Of Hype is proof enough that Jello’s barbs are as sharp as ever, over 30 years into his music career. And as evidenced by our conversation, he ain’t quieting down anytime soon.

I got on the phone with Jello as he was sorting out some passport problems for his current Northeast run with his new band. This is the complete transcript.

Ya’ll set?

Set as I’m gonna get right now. Okay, first the smellphone is going to go off, yay. Goodbye and fuck you. Okay. People wonder why I don’t have email in this house.

Are you trying to get to Europe?

Well, at the very end of the swing we’re making through the Northeast, we’re playing in Canada.

Right. Three dates.

Yeah. And in large part thanks to the Bush administration the Canadians are a lot nastier about all the hoops you gotta jump through to get into their country.

It used to just be you needed a birth certificate.

Not even that. A driver’s license.

Oh. Yeah. I used to go over there when I was a kid so I didn’t have one.

Yeah. I had to do that with a birth certificate when I was a kid too. They found pot in the car anyway. I was the only guy over 18, so I had to take the rap. (laughs)

Is that why you’re having trouble getting the passport?

No, that’s off the books so long that the last time I was honest about it, they looked forever for it and finally told me with no small amount of irritation not to mention it again because it was so old they didn’t want to have to look for it, and to get out of their office and get on into the country.

A friend of mine had some kind of problem with that where he bought a bubbler while he was up in Montreal, and they were convinced there was some residue in it. And they kept him.

The Canadians or the Americans?

The Canadians. I don’t remember exactly how the story went. They ended up keeping him all day trying to get him back to the States but they couldn’t make it happen for whatever reason. And then would they’d let him go at night. So he would go out and get smashed all night and have a good time and get fucked up and he would come back and have to report at the airport in the morning, and he would have to sit there all day, waiting to get shipped back and they never got it done.

(laughs) That’s really bizarre. The really bad one that I’ve heard now is that people coming in from British Columbia are asked by the Americans, ‘Have you ever smoked marijuana?’ And if they even say ‘Oh yeah, tried it when I was a kid. I don’t smoke it now.’ Stamp: Banned for life.


They even did that to somebody who was coming down here on scholarship to go to the Stanford Medical School.

Is it that bad where you have to lie about it? Because it’s not illegal to have done it, is it?

I don’t know. It’s basically, you lie and then you come clean creatively at the right time like Newt Gingrich did when they were trying to get the pothead right-winger on Reagan’s Supreme Court. Remember him? [After] Robert Bork Jr., complete with a beard, that guy Douglas Ginsburg. He got derailed because he’d smoked weed so all these right-wingers came out and said, ‘I smoked pot too, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal,’ but of course if it was an Obama nominee it would be a very big deal.

Another big disappointment is now Jerry Brown is coming out vehemently against the legalization of marijuana even though it’s happening anyway. I remember when, in ’92, when he was running against Clinton in the primaries and they were trying to say, ‘Wait a minute, you smoked marijuana,’ and he denied it, and a guy sitting on the couch in my living said, ‘Hey wait a minute, I smoked pot with Jerry Brown myself!’

Is he trying to run against Obama in 2012?

No, no, no. He’s over 70 now. I think he wants one more crack at straightening out the state of California. But already he’s living up to that remark he made when he was governor the first time, ‘I’ll move left and right at the same time, you watch me.’ And right now, he’s mostly moving right, even though the field is clear for him in the Democratic primary because our idiot, yuppie mayor in San Francisco dropped out. Couldn’t get Hollywood to give him any money for some reason. Maybe they thought better of investing all this money in Gavin Newsom and ending up with a toxic hybrid of Gray Davis, Dianne Feinstein and Tom Cruise.

I hear there’s not a lot of money available for anything California these days.

And that’s both parties’ fault. Because they both cater to this greed that’s drilled into people from the time they start kindergarten all over this country that taxes are automatically bad. There’s a loony fringe now that identifies themselves as ‘Tea Party’ people, but almost every American citizen since I’ve been alive has been minted as a Tea Party person in a way, deep down in their brain, because that’s how we’re taught about taxes.

‘It’s my money, it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine. But goddamnit, why aren’t the schools any good? Why aren’t the roads fixed? Why don’t I get health care like people do in other countries?’ There is a connection people, duh. It just astonished me, although I shouldn’t have been surprised when California voters rejected a single-payer health care system a few years ago, and it was a runaway favorite until the disease industry—read: hospitals and insurance companies—ran all these scare ads saying that ‘Oh my god, if you vote for this, it’ll raise your taxes.’

And that was all it took to sink the thing overwhelmingly because they knew nobody would do the math that if they pay a little bit more in taxes they’ll get vastly better health care for free. Other countries want a healthy workforce. They’re happy to get everybody to a doctor. Other countries want a smart workforce. They’ll pay to get you to go to school.

The other thing is we’re busy putting $600 billion into our military every year.

That connects too. But at the state level, it’s just because everybody from Jerry Brown to the big bad macho Terminator are too chickenshit to raise taxes. Or even come out in a crusade to raise taxes, because thanks to that horrible Proposition 13 that was passed in ’79, that you can’t raise taxes except for with a two-thirds majority of either the legislature or the people. You somehow have to sell that to Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Not to mention all the dot com yuppie scum in the Bay Area.

I’m surprised that you’re not an income tax atheist, so to speak, or someone who doesn’t agree with direct taxation.

Well, as far as I’m concerned, Libertarians are Republicans who smoke pot. That’s as far as that goes. The reason being that I’ve been to enough other countries where taxes are higher to see the payback, where there’s still a sense of community and doing things for public good. Like having a decent train system so people don’t have to drive and fly everywhere. Even if I, a visitor, get really ill, I can go in and take advantage of their health care system.

I know one friend of mine who had a heroin problem and then kicked it and was told all his gums had rotted as a result, and he should fork over $20,000 or more and get his teeth yanked and replace. So he goes over to Holland and they have another solution for it that fixed the same problem for free without yanking all his teeth. There’s such a corrupt daisy chain in the disease industrial complex that is only beginning to come out because a lot of people—if the insurance company paid for it—they don’t read the details of their medical bill where a $1,000 pair of rubber gloves got used or something like that. It’s as bad or worse than the Pentagon.

And I give enough money to charitable organizations, and I’m thinking, I’d gladly give more money to the government if the money to the right place instead of war taxes. Taxes are not a bad thing. I’m far enough in that camp that I agree with the Green Party that we need to have a maximum wage.

What causes more problems for this world, especially this country? Crack addition or wealth addiction? Hands down, it’s wealth addiction. How much more do you need after you’ve made your first million? It’s all a game after that. It’s like being addicted to some really violent video game. ‘I must have more, more, more and therefore for me to win, other people must lose, lose, lose.’ And I’ll bet if they were put into rehab long enough, via a maximum wage, people like Bill Gates and Tiger Woods and Dick Cheney could do good.

Well, Bill Gates has donated a fuckload of money.

Yeah, but it’s such a trickle of the total amount he has, it’s ridiculous.

Buffett donated something like $50 billion.

If they put their money into things like launching an electric car company or something instead of trickling it around here and there, we might have a much cleaner planet at this point. They’re not willing to invest that amount of money into a serious future.

I’m also a real booster of high speed rail systems and mass transit like that. My spoken word tours in Europe were so much nicer because I could just hop on a train and go from city to city with a backpack. Gates or Buffett could build one of those all over this country all by themselves and they still wouldn’t even feel it. But they don’t. Why? Because they’re wealth addicts.