Sept. 7 2011 12:57 PM

Veteran punk talks about vinyl, record labels, meeting Jerry Brown and a lot more

Jello Biafra

Jello Biafra has been a thorn in the side of middle-class values since his days as the frontman of the iconic punk-rock band Dead Kennedys. An acerbic entertainer / educator, he’s spoken out against corporate “McNews,” advocated for the West Memphis Three and even once ran for mayor of San Francisco.

But the eloquent 53-year-old still finds time to run alternative Tentacles, one of the West Coast’s most well-known indie record labels—a topic he’s likely to discuss when he sits on a San Diego Music Thing panel on Saturday, Sept. 10, about the resurgence of indie labels.

In a rare interview, we spoke with him at length by phone on Aug. 30 about running the label, why vinyl is better than digital and the time he met Gov. Jerry Brown, whom he famously lampooned in the West Coast punk-rock anthem “California Uber Alles.”

CityBeat: Let’s start with the San Diego Music Thing. What attracted you to this event?

Jello Biafra: I met one of the organizers at a one-off show I did at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. He said he was interested in having me come down and be on a panel. Now I’m coming down to spend a weekend in San Diego. I haven’t been there in a long time.

Has San Diego been good to you?

Up and down. For spoken word and later years, it was pretty good. I would say the comic highlight was at USD, which I believe is a religious school, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s Catholic.

I was part of a four-person speaker / debate / Q&A group called “The Spitfire Tour” and our dressing room was the costume department for the plays held in the same auditorium. And what do I find but a full angel suit complete with giant Styrofoam wings. So, I wore that on stage. It was kind of selfish and thoughtless of me, because then when I tried to sit down on one of the couches I realized the wings were so big nobody else could sit there and Exene [Cervenka, co-lead singer of X] had to sit there at the edge of the couch to avoid being speared by the sharp edges of my wings. As far as I know, she’s forgiven me.

What about some of the not-so-great memories of San Diego. Does that go back to the Dead Kennedys days?

Yes, it seemed like there was always a curse on us when we played there—the first time at a basement venue called the Skeleton Club. [Guitarist East Bay Ray’s] beloved black leather pants were stolen by an undercover cop from the dressing room. I think it was the next time a Marine or ex-Marine woman punched my girlfriend in the face, and then a huge fight ensued.

The last time we played in San Diego was at some kind of auditorium Downtown, and the cops came in and just kind of lingered there and said if anyone got out of their seat and danced in any way, they’d shut the show down. A very weird way to force people to watch The Dead Kennedys—like it was some kind of classical recital. I guess we played pretty good that night.

Going back to the San Diego Music Thing, what do you say to people who are surprised that you’re on a panel having to do with the business end of the music industry?

I’ve done that for years. Whether I like it or not, I am technically a businessperson because I am the owner of alternative Tentacles Records. The buck stops with me. And if there’s no bucks, I’ve got to forego my own royalties to keep the label going.

I know firsthand what it’s like to try to survive as an independent—now in our 32nd year and struggling to get to 33—in an age when file sharing is the primary way people get music. There’s a couple generations now who assume all music should be free, like turning on the radio, and any artist who wants to be paid anything is being a jerk. And some of the people who spouted this at me [are] wealthy dot-com yuppies, which I don’t quite get.
I don’t think we should go clear back to the days when people either exist only on MySpace and its descendants or they have to travel like wandering minstrels, hoping they get fed every night. Sure, there’s been an up-tick in vinyl sales, but it has not made up for all the money lost in file sharing.

And the bigger problem is our economy is so horrible and Obama and his banker buddies have done so little to fix it for the average person that people can’t even get music they like unless they file share because they don’t have any money.

And it’s really driven attendance at live concerts down. Several really cool bands on alternative Tentacles over the last few years have broken up a lot earlier than they would have in the ’80s or ’90s because they just couldn’t make a go of it. Sure, you can live on floors and peanut-butter sandwiches, but nowadays rents are a lot higher. There’s student loans hanging over people’s heads, which in other countries would be expunged, just so they can get their population educated.

The guarantees for a lot of bands, including mine, which would be in the upper echelon of the underground punk bands, is about the same numerically as it was for the Dead Kennedys in the early- to mid-’80s. The guarantees stay the same, but the cost of everything else—from tickets to rent to gasoline—has gone way, way up. You do it out of love and passion or you don’t do it at all.

I suppose one of the reasons I’ve been put on a panel is there’s a very corporate way of running an indie, and I’m not one of those people. I normally don’t even go to these conventions. I’m really surprised that there’s a cover story because I’m sitting on a panel in a convention. Where were you when I came and played live?

No kidding. There is a lot of buzz about you coming to San Diego, and now I suppose there will be a little bit more, but I’m interested.

To finish what I was saying before—in some cases, and this goes for political panels, too, where they’re all handicapping the 2012 election, when they should be thinking about how to survive an economic collapse, it helps to have a Green Party person around instead of a Democrat to read people the riot act.

Does that mean we can count on you to be on the ticket in 2012?

I doubt it. I’ve only been a candidate twice and I didn’t plan it in either case. I ran for mayor of San Francisco as a prank and caused all kinds of mayhem to the point where it helped force Dianne Feinstein into a runoff against a bitter rival of her, and her spokesman said something like, “If Jello Biafra gets that many votes, this city is in real trouble.” At which point I thought—and I hate to use this term, but I will—“Mission accomplished.”

The run for president in 2000 wasn’t even a run at all. It sort of dropped in my lap when the New York state Green Party called me up and said they’d throw my hat in the ring. In the state nominating convention, I came in second to Ralph Nader.

“Hey, do you want to run? You are Green, aren’t you?” They at least remembered to ask me that. So I thought, if I left my name on the primary ballot and made a little noise, it would get people who were down with what I was saying and doing and inspire them to get off their butts and vote, pay attention to the Green Party and Nader for President websites, and show up and vote smart and hopefully keep voting in subsequent elections.

In the past, politicians have tended to be bland, milquetoast types who all blend together so the voters don’t really know what they’re getting. But that’s definitely not the case in 2012.

I don’t even want to bother with 2012 until it actually is 2012. I’ve crossed paths with the old chief of intelligence for the weapons inspectors in Iraq before Bush invaded the country, and he calls this “The Silly Season.” The reason it gets saturation coverage on cartoon McNews is, that way, they don’t have to cover any other stories. Well, let’s not call it climate change: it’s climate collapse. Let’s not talk about Mexican drug-cartel violence and the American firearms that keep it going. Let’s not talk about how hard it is to survive [being] unemployed in the United States today. Let’s just talk about the horse race between a bunch of coin-operated clowns.

Now, it’s getting harder and harder to get away from it. It’s on your computer; it’s on your phone.

Not if you don’t want it to be.

No, but people use those devices for everything, including when they buy music on iTunes or watch video on YouTube.

That’s why I stress that people have to do a better job of growing their own bullshit detectors. You have to grow that space antennae out of your head to spot media bullshit wherever it can be found and point it out to other people, to shatter the illusory looking glass. Once the mirror is shattered, you can’t ever put it back together the same way. It’s just a bunch of shard.

People need to start questioning what they are being told. This is especially important with young children, in an age when everyone is supposed to have a Facebook profile and be conscious of how they’re advertising themselves to other kids at school. There should not be that kind of pressure on teenagers. You are who you advertise yourself to be—that’s complete horseshit. And the stronger a bullshit detector a kid has, they know they don’t have to worry about it.

One of the things that helped me grow my bullshit detector as a child is I usually watched the news after cartoons, and I was equally fascinated by both. I’m told my favorite cartoon characters at the time were Bullwinkle and Senator Edward Dirksen.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a second. Without places like Facebook and MySpace and the cynical media, where are kids supposed to get their music?

Be curious. I’m not saying that all these different digital devices and tools are bad, I’m just saying we should use them more intelligently and encourage other people to do the same. And apply the same level of bullshit-detector cynicism to bloggers as you do to corporate McNews. Twice now, I’ve had people put up completely dishonest blogs about how evil and horrible I am. And there were all the lemmings and parrots chiming in, often too chicken-shit to use their real names. “Yeah, how horrible! This is just terrible! I always knew he was an asshole!” Things like that, and none of them were questioning whether this blogger was telling the truth. What is this Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1600s?

That’s exactly what the comments section is like on your average website.

Surely in the digital age we can use all these new tools in a smarter way. I think it’s great that when kids are exploring music for the first time don’t have to be the hardcore bargain bin-scouring vinyl collector that I was as a teenager. You can just go explore all kinds of music on the ’net and damn near everything is available. It’s not like trying to find rockabilly in the ’70s when nobody wanted that stuff. You want it? You can get it. Reggae? You can get it. 1920s jazz? It’s there, too. New hardcore punk bands, starting up in your neighborhood, they’re probably there, too. I think that’s great. Granted, there’s an awful lot of bad stuff out there you have to wade through, but somebody who is curious and not afraid of their own intelligence is going to have a lot of fun doing that.

You’re looking into your crystal ball: What’s a music label going to look like in 10 years?

I have no idea, because it’s changing so fast I’m not going to try to predict anything. It’s going to depend on whether our economy has rebounded at all, or if the corporate and ultra-wealthy bloodsuckers have succeeded in wiping out the middle class in the western world and you’re either very, very wealthy or you’re very poor, kind of like most of Mexico. That’s their goal. Even Obama’s economic people, that’s their goal, too. They’re making it a little too obvious for their own good right now.

And where music sits when people have no money, that’s one variable. But if people have money and want to have things, that’s something else. But what things are we talking about? More and more people that grow up digital-friendly or digital-dependent are more and more interested in collecting virtual things and / or portable things. Who needs to fill room after room with vinyl when you can have it all on an iPod? Which means, strangely, that a lot of people buying the LP editions of music today are not buying them to listen to the LP. They’re buying them to possess the LP and then use the free download card to put the music on their iPod, and that’s where they will actually listen to it. Meanwhile, they have an artifact they can show off to friends.

That market will always be limited as long as there are so few people, especially young people, who have the money to pursue that.

Is the actual physical component essential to the music transaction?

It isn’t for everybody, obviously. A lot of people my age put their vinyl collection in the basement and put everything on their iPod. For me, [vinyl] is still the format that’s magic. It’s the one I grew up on. It’s the one you hold in your hand. It’s cool artwork. You pull a record out and put it on the turntable and see what’s there. It still often sounds better than CDs. There’s a certain warmth to it that I really like.

In some cases, like old rhythm-and-blues and soul and maybe even funk music, it almost sounds better if the record has been on the floor during wild house parties on the other side of town. It’s part of the atmosphere when you have to wade through all the scratches. I mean, is James Brown really the same if you can hear every cymbal tinkle perfectly, but his voice isn’t quite there? Some of that kind of music, if it ain’t scratched, it ain’t diddly.

That’s exactly how I feel about punk-rock records. We just have a different frame of reference, because I grew up listening to your records.

In spite of my own feelings and personal relationship with the digital world, I’m not tuning it out or ignorant of how it’s supposed to work for the good or how it can be regulated for the bad. I think the very first punk-rock record to come out on CD was not [Sex Pistols’] Never Mind the Bollocks, but [Dead Kennedys’] Fresh Fruit. Later, alternative Tentacles was one of the first labels in the world to offer digital downloads for sale.

Going back to alternative Tentacles, let us into your office. What is the thing about running the label that flummoxes you the most?

Well, I’m rarely at the office. It is best I stay away. I’m the absentee thoughtlord and I hire people to do the business management, the mail order, the promotion and everything else, usually wearing several different hats in this day and age. Because if I had to do all that, not only would I not do it as well, but it would mean no more new art from me. I wouldn’t have time. So, I have to cut people some slack and not micro-manage them because, not only would that drive me crazy, but it would drive them even more crazy and they’d quit.

The title of your panel is “The Resurgence of Indie Labels,” but are they resurging?

I guess that’s going to be part of the panel discussion. Maybe I’ll learn something rather than opening my big mouth. It’s hard to say. There’s more and more cool bands, and more and more cool labels than ever before. It mushroomed after Nirvana got big and mushroomed again after Green Day broke. But what that also means is that the audience has not grown in the same proportion, let alone their disposable income. So, the slice of the pie for each band gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller with each passing year.

I have a friend who has a theory: In 1979, it was possible to own every punk-rock record there ever was, but now you can’t even own all the records that get produced in your scene. There’s so much material out there.

That, to me, makes the vinyl hunt interesting again. Because I’ll pull out a huge pile of 7-inches or unknown LPs—I rarely have time to check the CDs, there’s not as much sentimental value there, either—flip through them on a turntable, see what’s cool and sure enough something I never would have found grabs me. I love magic accidents like that. I can even find cool unknown records in thrift stores, but not if you’re curious and take chances.

True or False: Jello Biafra loves California.

I like parts of California.

But you still live here and have for most of your life. Is California stuck in a pattern that’s repeating over and over again? That must have occurred to you when Jerry Brown was re-elected.

I think it’s a very different Jerry Brown under a very different set of circumstances. He may even have been able to talk some sense into the voters about raising taxes, so the state doesn’t go completely down the toilet. We now have right-wing, anti-tax fundamentalists whose sole purpose in life is to block everything. They signed in blood like they do with the devil—this one greedy little jerk in Washington named Grover Norquist saying, “I will never vote to raise taxes at any time, for any reason.” And Norquist himself has said he wants to take government itself and drown it in the bath water so corporations can just run amok, even more than they are now. That’s the goal.

No, I think I have seen a lot of changes in California, and a lot of it is the misguided greed of the anti-tax movement and how middle-class people and lower-class people who supported that shit don’t ever seem to wake up and realize that their taxes aren’t going down at all, they’re just letting rich people off the hook and they’re just continuing to get screwed.

Have you ever met Brown?

Couple times. Two or three, yeah. It was a little bizarre. There was a dinner for Michael Moore at his place when he had the loft in Oakland before he ran for mayor. Someone else was helping Jerry with his projects and lived in the loft with him and he invited me because I was hanging out with Michael Moore after he spoke in San Francisco. So then he brings Jerry Brown over: “Hi, Jello. This is Jerry. Jerry, this is Jello. I was playing Jerry your album this morning.” I thought, Oh, shit! He was mechanically, coldly friendly, but I can’t remember what I said. 

I will say that I misfired on the original lyrics for “California Uber Alles.” Sure, it was a conspiracy theory I’d come up with all by my little self, but it wasn’t quite right. So, after 1981, when Reagan got in, we changed the lyrics and re-titled the song “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” You know, “California Uber Alles: The Sequel.” That was on In God We Trust, Inc.

Then I updated it for Schwarzenegger, and I’ve done that version live both with The Melvins and Guantanamo School of Medicine. It’s almost become like an old-style folk song where people update the words as time goes on.

I have a fond memory of stumbling out of a house party in Long Beach and there was a guy playing “California Uber Alles” on a washtub bass and a crowd of punks singing along by firelight, like it was some modern-day hobo camp.

Interesting. I never tried it acoustically. I did my first unplugged show with Vic Bondi, the old leader of Articles of Faith, in Olympia, Washington, at a punk and activist kind of festival they had there. Yeah, the debut of Simon and Biafrafunkel—I’m not sure it was an interesting thing to try. It never occurred to me to do “California ber Alles.” I did do “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “I Won’t Give Up,” which closes The Audacity of Hype album that my new band made. The ones that went over the best were my second update of an old Phil Ochs song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”—.

I don’t know that one.

I re-wrote the lyrics for Clinton yuppies when I did the album with Mojo Nixon in the early ’90s called Prairie Home Invasion. I’m surprised at how few words I had to change when Phil Ochs was aiming his vitriol at wishy-washy Hubert Humphrey liberals.

And again I didn’t have to change much to Obama and people who live on their cell phones and don’t know how to talk to people anymore. They figure their job is done because they follow and blog to people who already agree with them. People like that drive me nuts. It’s not as though Obama failed America as much as his own supporters failed him. I betcha we would have a public option for healthcare if there had been a million uninsured march on Washington instead of his yuppie supporters staying home and updating their Facebook page every night. Instead, all the media attention went to this fake grassroots movement funded by Texas oil barons that’s now known as the Tea Party.

Speaking of your new band, the song “Electronic Plantation” kind of reminds me of “California Uber Alles”—the pacing and the way it unfolds.

To me, it’s a completely different rhythm, a completely different groove, inspired more by Hawkwind and The Wipers and Helios Creed—whereas “California Uber Alles,” the chorus [is] kind of inspired by Japanese Kabuki music and the main riff I just found by accident, noodling around on my roommate’s bass.

“Electronic Plantation” addresses different aspects of being tied to your computer and living your life online.

It’s not about the supposed electronic recreational side of things. It’s about working in an electronic sweatshop. So, things like Facebook aren’t going to turn up. You’re not supposed to be on Facebook during your time at the office. You’re supposed to be working for the man. That’s what the song is about.

I saw you many years ago in Los Angeles at an event for the West Memphis Three, so I wanted to get your take on that.

I’m absolutely thrilled they’re out of prison. I’m so happy for them. My main feeling for them as human beings is we should leave them alone and give them space to recover and rebuild their lives. They’ve been locked up for a crime they didn’t commit for 20 years. They got thrown in the slammer when they were teenagers. Damien Echols came within three weeks of execution once in the ’90s and slept on a concrete slab all these years, so his body isn’t what it would be otherwise.

Basically, they’re beginning their lives as free adults with the snap of a finger. To be locked up for that long, there’s a hell of a lot to learn and absorb. Who knows what the post-traumatic stress is with somebody who’s been through something like that.

You sound familiar with the plight of people who have been incarcerated and the long road they face re-entering society.

That comes from talking to people, reading about it, hearing about it. An ex-girlfriend of mine and several close friends of hers who I still know, worked very hard on the West Memphis Three case for many years. So, I got regular updates on what as going on with them. What really outrages me about that whole miscarriage of justice is that the cops, the prosecutors, and even the judges were too chicken shit to admit they were wrong.

The same thing happened to Randall Adams, the wrongfully convicted prisoner they made the documentary The Thin Blue Line about. It was obvious for years he was innocent, but Texas couldn’t release him because Texas couldn’t admit it was wrong. What really, really blows my mind about that whole stance, even more so with Mumia Abu-Jamal, where a cop was killed—if you’re so down with law and order and you’re supposed to protect the public, wouldn’t you want to catch the real killer before they kill again? That’s completely backwards as far as law and order is concerned.

Jello Biafra will speak on a panel for San Diego Music Thing at the Lafayette Hotel at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10.