Jello Biafra on Playing "Big Corporate Festivals" and Making a Punk-Southern Rock Hybrid
Bay Area punk-rock pioneer Jello Biafra has embarked in numerous high-profile collaborations in the decades since the mid-1980s dissolution of the legendary Dead Kennedys. While he has teamed with the likes of Ministry's Al Jourgensen in the industrial-punk project Lard and tracked classic albums with Canadian contemporaries NoMeansNo and D.O.A. -- in addition to recording and touring with grunge iconoclasts Melvins -- it wasn't until Biafra fronted the then-named Axis of Merry Evildoers at his 50th birthday concerts in 2008 that he once again was at the helm of a full-time band.
Lord Blasto Biafra with the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
In the five years since that illustrious debut, the re-christened Guantanamo School of Medicine has established itself as a ferocious outfit. Anchored by the twin-ax attack of Victims Family guitarist Ralph Spight and onetime Carneyball/Mol Triffid six-stringer Kimo Ball, the group has helped propel Biafra into a punk-rock renaissance similar to the one Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris has enjoyed with his quartet OFF!. Biafra spoke with All Shook Down last week about his new Alternative Tentacles album with the Guantanamo School of Medicine, White People and the Damage Done, and the band's upcoming performances at Coachella. Jello and the band also play a homecoming show at the Great American Music Hall this Sunday, April 14, with the aforementioned Victims Family and a reunited Harold Ray Live in Concert.
It seemed like the first Guantanamo album, The Audacity of Hype, stayed pretty close to your wheelhouse as far as the sound, but the two EPs and the new album feel like you've branched out more. "We Occupy" from the Shock-U-Py! EP has a ska flavor, and on the new record, there's an almost Mr. Bungle-style carnival freakout on "Road Rage" and a rockabilly feel to "Burgers of Wrath." Were you aiming to venture away from the more straight punk stuff?
It's interesting that you'd have that reaction, because to me, The Audacity of Hype and Enhanced Methods of Questioning were more diverse than this one. I always like to try new stuff. "Crapture" is by far the dreamiest, most melodic thing I've been part of since "Moon Over Marin" [from the DK's Plastic Surgery Disasters in 1982]. I don't really plan these things. I just write the stuff. As you probably know, I wrote most of the Dead Kennedys' music, too, and so far have wound up writing everything for this band. I guess it was just a matter of which set of lyrics went with which piece of music and whether this kind of a song topic can wait or whether it needs to come out right now.
Technically, "Brown Lipstick Parade" is a swing song, but it's a really, really heavy swing song. Paul Della Pelle, our new drummer who I first spotted when he was playing with Helios Creed and comes from that silly hardcore legend Ruin before that, he plays jazz when he's back at home in San Luis Obispo. He still rocks like a motherfucker obviously, but he is a skilled jazz player as well.
As you may or may not know, this is the second recording of "Burgers of Wrath." I also did it on Prarie Home Invasion with Mojo Nixon. Then I wound up performing a more punked-out version of it live at some fund-raising concerts with the Offspring, so I knew it could both be a roots-rock, countrified Bo Diddley-thing and a punk thing. And I really wanted to play that song live, because I really liked it and had played it acoustically at another protest situation with Vic Bondi from Articles of Faith up in Olympia, Washington. And I also realized I might not ever write another song that hits the nail on the head about unemployment and homelessness in the richest country on Earth better than this one. It fit right in on White People and the Damage Done.
I'd been trying to talk the GSM guys into playing it live anyway, before I was convinced it fit the album, but when we started playing it Ralph wanted to take it even more country than the Mojo version. I wanted it punked out. Then we started playing around with it and it got all these twin lead guitars in there. It was completely unexpected. It was like a punk Allman Brothers, and I'm not even that big of a fan of the Allman Brothers [laughs]. We were working on that song again yesterday to get it ready for prime time on a public stage. I've told people, "Look, this is totally uncharted waters. I don't know if any other punk-associated band has even attempted this." To get the "Ramblin' Man" vibe, but keep it balls-out punk at the same time and make it all work. But I think it's going to work. I had a couple of songs that related specifically to Ralph.
I've been a huge Victims Family fan dating back to when White Bread Blues came out in 1990. You've got a long association with him, having put out albums by Victims and his other bands on Alternative Tentacles since 1992, so I was wondering if you had been eyeing Ralph as a possible collaborator for a long time or if it only came up much later?
Well, this almost happened in the '90s, believe it or not. Maybe '98 or '99. He and I had jammed around with [Rollins Band/Ween bassist and current GSM member] Andrew Weiss and his brother John. Andrew was out to visit and he and John were going to be the rhythm section on a Helios Creed recording, so we just figured we'd go fuck around in the practice room and see what happens. It sounded really cool, but then Ralph said he didn't want to do it because he wanted to concentrate on the Hellworms. After they debuted, I could understand why. Ironically, out of that little one-day session in Ralph's practice room came early cassette recordings of "New Feudalism" and "Electronic Plantation" which I then forwarded up to Krist Novoselic when he wanted to throw a band together for the Seattle protests in '99.
Somehow we managed to learn those songs, and "Full Metal Jackoff" and "Let's Lynch the Landlord" and get them presentable in the middle of all the mayhem going on with those protests. Then we played them at the Showbox, and little did I know somebody recorded it on multitrack and out came the No WTO Combo album. But I'd always wanted to do studio versions of those songs because I really like them and wanted to play them more, so they were natural choices for launching Guantanamo School of Medicine.
It seems on this album that Ralph gets a little more of a vocal spotlight with the two of you trading lines on some songs. What was it like to have a vocal foil on the new recordings?
I got the idea from Slim Cessna's Auto Club. You know how Slim and Munly trade off and there are some theatrical parts from time to time? So I figured at some point maybe we could do that, and "Brown Lipstick Parade" might be a good time to do it.
Next: Biafra remembers taking shots at Sub Pop grunge bands and Sunset Strip rockturds.