Jello Biafra Interview – All In
In the immortal words of Wesley Willis, “You are a good punk rocker – You are a singing maniac – You can really sing your ass off to the max – You are a good person – Jello Biafra (x4)”. I am sure that most of our readers will be rather familiar with the over 40 years of material that Jello has provided for us. From the extremely influential punk rock band, the Dead Kennedys, in the late ‘70s to the industrial-laden Lard project with Al Jourgensen, and collaborations with Mojo Nixon, D.O.A., NoMeansNo, and Melvins (among others), a plethora of spoken word albums covering everything from politics to politics, and most recently – Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine now in their 13th year and having put out three full length albums and various singles.
GSM released their latest, and possibly best, album at the end of 2020 – ‘Tea Party Revenge Porn’. The new album is a hardcore head-kicker calling back to the early days of DK with misanthropic lyrics updated for the 21st century about the negative effect of technology and social media on American Society, over consumption, commercialization, and the ongoing global crises with provocative titles such as “Satan’s Combover”, “We Created Putin”, and “Taliban U.S.A.”. I spoke with Jello over zoom to learn more about the new album and his meandering career path over the last 40 years or so.
“I’m going to do my thing and try and go as far as I can”
Hey Jello! Thank you so much for giving your time to do this interview! Let’s talk about the latest release from Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine – ‘Tea Party Revenge Porn.’ I gotta say, I really liked it a lot! It’s definitely got that Dead Kennedys/Jello Biafra feel to it but faster and harder.
Jello Biafra: I wouldn’t call it faster if you compare it to ‘In God We Trust’ and a lot of ‘Bedtime for Democracy,’ but I do always stick a little hardcore in there just to show people how it’s done. I had some good hardcore going on in there. It’s a little slower tempo and pretty heavy overall, which I always try for. I mean, not every punk person of my age and legacy has really kept their fangs sharp. But, you know, we decided when we started the Guantanamo School of Medicine from the beginning, this is not going to be an “old people punk band.” This is not going to be a Dead Kennedys tribute band. This is for new songs and hopefully fiercer energy and everything.
Yeah, it comes across as its own completely new thing. I think it’s a really good direction and I learned a lot about past and present politics just by listening to the lyrics.
Yeah, and with what’s happening in Afghanistan right now, I’m one of many people who predicted exactly this when “Clown Prince Dubya” first stormed in there. There’s a lot of background on the origins of the Taliban, and how we betrayed the Afghan people once before. That allowed the Taliban to take over. That’s not really being discussed now but there’s a lot of that on the spoken word album, ‘Machine Gun in the Clown’s Hand’ (2002), and an earlier shorter single LP right after 9-11 called ‘The Big Ka-boom’ (2001).
Do you currently have any political aspirations yourself or is it just more trouble than it’s worth at this point?
I can only do so many things. The mayor campaign and the brief presidential run in 2000 both kind of fell into my lap and I ran with them. They might have been way more effective if they were planned but the amount of trouble the mayor campaign caused in that election is something I’m very proud of. I thought there was some really good proposals in there too. That just popped into my head when I was writing down my platform with a felt tip pen on a napkin while watching Pere Ubu play about five feet away from me. You know, it just popped into my head. Police officers should be elected. How many George Floyds, and Philando Castiles, and Oscar Grants, and Breonna Taylors, and everybody else would still be alive if the police had to run for election every four years? Voted on by the districts they patrol, which would also mean they’d have to live there instead of all hiding out in clusters of Cop World and Simi Valley or Novato, California up in Marin County. For the ones here, you know, you make them part of the neighborhood instead. There might be some unqualified people who’d run too, but I don’t think they’d last very long. That seems like a good start.
How long have you been out in San Francisco now?
I moved, I think, the last day of February 1978.
Are you thinking of staying in the SF area indefinitely?
It’s hard to say at this point. I mean, the stories of how badly poisoned this city has been by the dot-com-Holocaust 2.0 is not an exaggeration. And now the internetzis and the technocrats, the young bulldogs and everything, they’re starting to organize into their own political groups to try and drive progressives out of office and replace them with semi-left-wing libertarian capitalists and stuff. They are trying to recall the district attorney right now and put in a machine lackey instead. So, it’s getting really ugly with them. They’re more aggressive than the dot-com-Holocaust number one around the turn of our century, and they’re getting more aggressive now they’re networking with like-minded groups and starting to organize into factions and tip elections. They are not nice people. Not on the street, not at work, and not in the voting booth, and especially not on social media.
Yeah, social media is awful and I like how much you touch on that on the new album with songs like “People with Too Much Time on Their Hands” and “No More Selfies”. I take it you avoid social media at all cost?
I’ve never looked at them in my life. I have become more active in contributing to Alternative Tentacles’ social media. You know, we finally really went to town on setting up a proper Jello Biafra Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and all that. In part to try and get rid of all the fake Jello Biafras, which was worse during the Myspace days when there were about a dozen fake Jellos and two dozen fake Wesley Willises and he had died many years before that. But it’s still, you know, I don’t want to get so engulfed in it that I start worrying about what somebody thinks about me who’s too chickenshit to sign their own name. Fine. I don’t care. I talked about that in “People with Too Much Time on Their Hands.” As the great philosopher Jerry Lee Lewis once said, “I am what I am.” Even with all the little nitpicking and backbiting from everything from the quarterback at school, or Maximum Rocknroll, or social media, I realized early on with MRR, I’m never going to please everybody and there’s no point in trying. I’m going to do my thing and try and go as far as I can in as many ways as I can without being an asshole about it. I haven’t always succeeded, but I try.
That particular track made me think quite a bit about when I was young and the internet was just arriving in everybody’s homes and everybody’s parents were worried about the internet and saying “stay away from the internet! You will get addicted to the internet, and abducted from the internet, and get false information, etc.” and now those parents are the ones with severe social media addiction talking to strangers and spreading bogus “articles.” I had my own mother send me an Onion article from 10 years ago and I had to explain to her that it was satirical.
There you go. Well, I think part of this is also the result of cutting education budgets to the bone. Much more than any western country, percentage-wise, because people are too greedy to pay their taxes and the ones who are too greedy to pay their taxes are the first ones to complain when their kids graduate all violent and stupid when they come out the other end, but it keeps happening. I mean, Devo has been saying about the people supporting Trump who got him in, that’s de-evolution right there. It’s happening right now in front of us and there’s your fucking evidence. You don’t need a bunch of study groups or focus groups or anything to see it. It’s all around us. I think we need to do a far better job of teaching media literacy. I don’t think anybody should be allowed to graduate from high school until they pass a class on media literacy. But, of course, they don’t have those classes in schools and I have a feeling that this might be by design as well. So, that means we have to keep trying to wake them up as best we can.
Yeah, I agree with that statement and that would be a good way to start battling the “disinformation age”. Do you have a favorite track on the new album? One that stands out as the strongest or most meaningful to you?
Boy, I can’t pick one. I mean, I put a lot of work and sweat and hell into that album. I’ve gotten all kinds of compliments on my singing and I’m more relieved than anything else because some of those vocals came out so bad I had to re-cut them three different times. After compiling the best of three or four tracks, I’d fire off all at once and go through them to try and get a better performance than my feeble talent would allow in one day. Then that would turn out to be bad too and I’m like, “Oh, god. I gotta start over again. This is all totally off key. Have I wrecked my voice for good?” But it turned out – No. But there was some heart wringing there at times and yeah, it was kind of on again off again with covid going on but finally, we got it out. But it now takes so long to turn a record around to the vinyl pressing plant or even a CD plant, which is now up to a year when it used to be the same day, but that was a long time ago. So, it’s just crazy. This huge logjam. Even though there’s more and more pressing plants opening up but now the majors gobble it up for Record Store Day and this, that, and the other. It’s leaving people like us in a really tough position. We’re running out of some of the Guantanamo School of Medicine, some of Lard, and some of my other stuff and we may not get it back ‘till next summer. So, I finally threw up my hands and realize, okay, I’m not directly on farcebook or any of the others. I don’t want that screwing up my life but the digital age is my friend. So, we initially had to release ‘Tea Party Revenge Porn’ online, long before we got the hard copies back so people had access to it, the lyrics and the music and everything else, before election day last year. And no, it’s not a Trump album. It’s about the wider spectrum of things. As you say, ‘People With Too Much Time on Their Hands’ about people not being smart when they’re using the internet and spreading things without trying to figure out if it’s true, et cetera, et cetera…And “No More Selfies” about that whole scene where people have no borders. When they barge into conversations, jump on stage in the middle of my shows, or even try to fight me if I won’t do selfies with them on the spot. They don’t stop and think. I mean, there’s a place for that and when I’ll do them and there’s other places where that really really really isn’t cool. After the memorial for Dave Brockie of Gwar, a very dear friend who can never be replaced and died stupidly of an overdose of fentanyl thinking it was heroin and he knew better than to be doing heroin too. Anyway, Gwar has a “Gwar-B-Q” every year, a little festival in Richmond by a lake, and the first day was a memorial for him for the fans. It was a public ceremony and I talked and the singer for Lamb of God [Randy Blythe] talked and many more and then Danielle Stampe, who was the original character Slymenstra Hymen way back when, and it parlayed into the fire breathing skills, and the fire twirling, and everything else she slowly learned and into doing stuff with the Ringling Brothers from time to time and many other things – she’s an accomplished painter and set designer too! Anyway, she came back for this one and they put big wings on her like a Valkyrie because after we were done talking about Dave, with heavy hearts, then it was a Viking funeral that ended where they put Oderus Urungus’ body, or at least his costume, on a little Viking boat and then from a far bluff, Danielle drew the short straw to fire the flaming arrow into the body. She hit it the first time and Oderus caught fire and she just fell apart into my arms crying and crying and all her black makeup running down her face and clear onto the ground and, you know, her saying, “we were together for three years. It was the best relationship I ever had and nobody knew that part.” And she’s an old friend too. So, I was trying to do my best as possible to comfort her and I was crying too…*tap tap tap* on both our shoulders from several different people. “How about a selfie?!” That was so wrong. It was right then that I decided – Fuck this shit. I’m writing a fucking song about this. This has gone too far. I mean, overall, the internet and the digital age has done far more good than harm but, like any tool, are you using the tool or is the tool using you? And is it making you smarter or making you stupider or doing both at the same time? The night before that, I had been hit up for so many selfies in a restaurant that I didn’t get to eat my food for an hour or two, and it was quite cold by then.
That is terrible that people are so self-absorbed and oblivious. That is just wildly inappropriate timing at a memorial. I can’t believe that fans treat people that way.
It’s like being treated as a subhuman species. Like being treated as a thing. It’s not as though I wouldn’t have done them all out in the parking lot afterwards. I might have made everybody get in one big group and do group shots and they all have to trade emails with each other and make some new friends.
“Starting with ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’, the first Dead Kennedys album, I would get an order together and then drive around in a car and see how this all flows and affects me while I am driving at very high speeds”
I hope those people hear the song and know it’s about them! And that was really my favorite track on the album with that rockabilly style beat. I was kinda’ bummed it wasn’t on the LP but I guess it had to be cut for time constraints?
We could have gotten him on but because it’s vinyl and the more stuff you put on, the narrower the grooves are and the less the sound is. I’d made a couple of Dead Kennedys albums too long and paid for it but we had good mastering engineers and they pulled it off. I tend to sequence my albums, starting with ‘Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables’, the first Dead Kennedys album, I would get an order together and then drive around in a car and see how this all flows and affects me while I am driving at very high speeds. That’s how you find out if your album fucking rocks or not. If not, you can shuffle the cards and it might rock a lot more – you’d be surprised on that, you know, how much the sequence can influence the overall feel and even power of an album. So, with ‘Tea Party Revenge Porn,’ it went through about nine sequences. Some of them had all the songs and even a couple more on there that haven’t totally seen the light of day yet. And I thought, some of this is feeling too long. Another order did have “Selfies” and “Ghost of Vince Lombardi” in it but I thought this is such a fucking adrenaline ride, but it’s sagging in the middle even with those songs. I pull those off, I’m gonna have a louder vinyl disc and it’s really gonna leave you fucking drained by the end. So, that’s what I did.
So, you put those other two tracks as a 7”, right?
They work pretty well as a 7”, don’t you think? I’m almost wondering if “Ghost of Vince Lombardi” should have been the A side now that I hear it isolated. And I’m wondering if the digital single of “Blunder Blubber,” from those sessions that we put out digitally to celebrate the death of Rush Limbaugh, should have actually been a 7” too but we wanted it out straight after he died because having him off the planet, you know, he never did any good for anybody. The planet is better off without Rush Limbaugh and so we couldn’t gloat enough on that one and breathe a scream of relief.
Absolutely! Good riddance to that guy! And you had started writing this in the ‘90s?
Yeah, Guantanamo School of Medicine is a mixture of stuff I wrote on a long writing spree after doing the one I did with D.O.A., ‘Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors,’ and the one with NoMeansNo, ‘The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy,’ Lard ‘Last Temptation of Reid’, and the ‘Tumor Circus’ album, and I finally just decided to shut myself away. I wanted my own band again and wrote all these songs. Although, when I came out of my cave a couple years later, a lot of the people I thought would be good to start it with were all gone. Either their bands had gotten bigger, and it was their bands after all, and went through a major label and came out the other end doing drugs and hating music and no longer being somebody I wanted to be around in that sense. So, it just kind of sat for a while and then East Bay Ray and company sued me to yank away a Dead Kennedys catalog and pimp it down the river in unspeakably horrible ways ever since. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I didn’t want to put “Holiday in Cambodia” in a Levi’s commercial and then it was war. So, you know, I’ve turned down offers as high as $4 million to do reunion shows with them but the way they’ve acted is so goddamn ugly in so many ways that it’s just not an option. It’s not something I’m pining to do anyway. In no small part because of all the complaints I get from people who do go to the fake Dead Kennedys shows, and then write me complaining about how poorly they play.
I went to one of those shows when I was in high school around 2002 and I didn’t even know that that you were not going to be there at that point. I guess I missed that part…
Yeah, they try to make sure as many people as possible miss that part. You know, not identifying the scabs by name at all. I’ve heard the current one even now apes my moves and everything. There’s a new category for that, it’s called “fraud-core.” I mean, the Germs with a movie actor who played Darby Crash in “What We Do is Secret” replacing the real Darby on stage and only using old Darby lines from live tapes between the songs. I’m sorry, those are my friends, but dammit, I can’t go to that show. It just felt too much like “fraud-core.”
I noticed on the Alternative Tentacles website, that a few bands say “disease rock” under them. Is that a term that you coined?
That’s one of them. Yeah, I mean, people want me to categorize this and okay, let’s just call it “disease music,” “disease-core,” “disease rock.”
It’s really interesting seeing how many different genres and styles are on Alternative Tentacles. How much of a role do you play in “discovering” and/or signing these bands?
Well, for the most part, I am to blame. That’s my fault. There hasn’t been like an “Alternative Tentacles sound” like there was a “Lookout sound,” a “Fat Wreck sound,” an “Epitaph sound,” an “Amphetamine Reptile sound,” a “Relapse/Century/Metal Blade/Whatever sound.” We go all over the place because I’m still a fan and my tastes keep widening and widening and widening.
I like that you have been relatively consistent with the design/artwork using a lot of Winston Smith covers over the years – including the newest GSM cover.
Yeah, that’s all Winston. I don’t always work with him, I’m more along the lines of, you know, I kind of think of the design first and then put it with the albums. I have a huge collection of those from him and other artists of “nominees” shall we say, including just photographs cut out of magazines or newspapers or whatever or pulled off the net. I have a lot of that too. Thus the “No More Selfies” 7” cover is a found photograph.
Okay, and that’s the one with the woman with a crocodile or alligator behind her?
It’s a gator. Crocodile have a narrower snout. I think that might have come out of the Weekly World News – I don’t remember. A much-missed publication. Although, I guess now if you open up the New York Post, it is the Weekly World News. I guess it’s long enough that the younger people don’t even remember that paper. It was what the National Enquirer started printing up because they didn’t want to get rid of their black and white printing press when they went to color. So, they decided to make a much sleazier, much less believable, almost “Onion-oid” version of the National Enquirer, which is already pretty far in that direction. But it was in the pages of the Weekly World News that all kinds of weird things like ‘Dead King Found in Shoe Box,’ or ‘Rush Limbaugh Hanging out with Space Aliens.’
Oh yeah, like ‘Bat Boy’?
Yeah, ‘Bat Boy’ repeatedly appeared! They even sold ‘Bat Boy’ t-shirts after a while. It’s a shame they shut that thing down.
That is a shame. Someone should bring it back. Well, normally I would ask about touring plans, but of course, everything is so crazy and shut down and getting crazier right now. I’m sure there’s zero plans for that…
People are starting to call me chicken shit and all that. “What’s the matter with Jello? He won’t even come to our show!” No, I won’t go to your show. I mean, I am old enough and have enough pre-existing conditions that have hit me in the past two or three years that I have to operate under the assumption that if I get covid – I die! And I have to run my life that way. Period. My survival is at stake. And I told my booking agent that I’m sorry, but I don’t want any bookings of any kind. Not for the band. Not spoken word. Not to DJ. Not even a panel discussion. Nothing until I feel safe going to other people’s events without a mask on. I’m starting to think Al Jorgensen is right when he told me, “if you’re going to do that, dude, you’re going to be waiting a hell of a long time and you may never perform again.”
Have you considered doing any live stream type shows? Or is that too lame and just not worth it?
Well, we have to be able to get in the same room and practice at full strength, meaning two guitar players, and Kimo [Ball] had left the band, and then covid hits, so we never did auditions or anything to get another one. And I don’t want to do any other shows short-handed. I wanted the double wall of sound like when I saw Black Flag with Dez [Cadena] on guitar, when Henry [Rollins] first joined or TurboNegro. I never got to see the five-piece Minor Threat but boy did I hear rave reviews. Or just like more of a space rock band like a really raunchy one called the Freaks from out in the desert down south. They’ve got two guitar players who almost never play the same thing at the same time and interact with each other in really trippy ways. I mean, they even admit they take a lot of their inspiration from that amazing British band called the Heads. Especially on their debut, “Relaxing with the Heads.” You want full on heavy wall of psych stuff that will rip your head off – there’s your band.
You’re a huge record collector and have been pretty much your whole life, correct?
Well, I think that’s partly why my punk rock or punk-based songs don’t sound like other people’s punk-based songs. That’s why there’s so many different things on Alternative Tentacles. There’s a live Itchy-O album coming out this fall and there’s nobody else like Itchy-O anywhere in the world ever. We wound up with them because no other label would touch them, basically. They’re too polyrhythmic for the EDM crowd and too tribal for the punk crowd. Although, I think there’s a lot of metal people starting to show up at their shows now just because of the sheer power of the whole thing because they have 57 members now. They are a marching band so they can engulf you from several different entrances to a venue at once. And yeah, the guitar, the bass, and the Japanese taiko drum corps have to stay on stage but everybody else can move. And you’ve got women running around weirding people out wearing burkas and stuff and a Tesla coil may or may not appear. The venue wouldn’t let them hang it in San Francisco because of the fire danger. But yeah, they are a very unique thing. Anybody who really dug Crash Worship, this is kind of a shorter, more diverse version of that. A lot of hypnotic drums but there are melodies or songs. There are changes and in live shows, long before covid, you’re safe from Itchy-O because they’re all masked. I mean, in the new ones, you can’t even see their faces at all – even their mouths now. And they threw me into the band. They did that several times and over the final time they did that, I had a new costume on and I couldn’t see a goddamned thing.
I don’t know them but yeah, I’ll definitely check them out. [and I did and they are awesome!]
Yeah, I would start with the debut, “Burn the Navigator,” and go from there. Every once in a while, there is something that’s unclassifiable. Like we put out this incredible, what we would now call americana, roots, rock guy, singer/songwriter named Evan Johns. And the reason we got him was he was just unorthodox enough as a writer, his vocal style, and as a master guitar player he studied under Danny Gatton who sometimes joined his band with him the H-Bombs. The rockabilly labels wouldn’t touch him and then he was basically getting to be friends with me and it was kind of a different world and I hadn’t met anybody from that world before but I found his 10” record he put out in a big box of stuff that the reviewer for Trouser Press, that was Tim Summer at the time who later started Hugo Largo, and he said, “take anything out of this box you want.” So, I took tons of stuff, some of which would later turn out to be some of the most ridiculously overpriced punk rarities imaginable. But also, here was this guy with three guitars around his neck and cat eyeglasses, filing his nails in front of his house, like, “Who is this guy?” and I put it on and it just blew me through the wall. It was kind of rockabilly-based, but I’d never heard anything like this in my life. So then, lo and behold, I get to DC for ‘Rock Against Reagan’ and the night before, he’s playing and so, I finally got to talk to this guy, and kind of explained who I was and that was completely alien to him. But he said, “Oh. Here. You want to hear a set of my songs?” And he handed me a cassette of an unreleased album and I thought, “oh my god, this is the next John Fogerty and possibly more,” and he really shouldn’t be on AT. He needs to be on… well, I don’t know what, but then nobody put it out and I kind of got to know him and he sent me another little care package in the mail of things like a hospital bracelet, and a BMI check for $1, and all these other weird things. I’d sent him a little bit of my stuff not knowing what he was gonna think trying to connect musically and he said, “oh yeah. I like that “Too Drunk to Fuck.” I think I like “Holiday in Cambodia” even more.” I thought, “okay, there’s a lot more there than I even realized.” We just became closer and closer friends and we wound up doing the debut, “Rolling through the Night” before he eventually went to Ryko and some other things. I mean, the sad part of Evan is he was also a severe alcoholic it turned out. So, knowing him as well as I did was like knowing Hank Williams senior for better and for worse, and maybe three years ago, we lost him. You lose a lot of people in this scene and some hurt more long term than others and losing Evan is one of the ones that really hurts. It just doesn’t go away. Same with Dave Brockie from Gwar. The only real regret about getting into this line of work is you lose an awful lot of people often for preventable and stupid reasons.
“I live for magic accidents”
Yeah, that sounds pretty rough. I suppose it can often be a rather destructive career for a musician with so much shit to deal with.
Well, anyway, back to records. One thing that keeps driving me to keep picking up more and more and more records… You would think I have enough because I’d go on a trip back to Colorado or go to another country and just go crazy in the stores there for their own stuff. Bring it all back and every last thing I buy, I buy it because I want to listen to it and often already did sample it and stuff. Then, when I get it all home, where’s the time? I get to some of it periodically over time. I mean, there’s still stuff I picked up in Australia in 1983 that I still haven’t played. Those amazing Mandingo albums started that way and then I heard it was actually not really disco stuff and I was starting to be open to the weirder more ethnic side of euro-disco anyway. And I’m having a weird appreciation for Boney M and Dschinghis Khan and whatnot. People are after Mandingo now for that kind of stuff. So, I finally found that record I brought home from Australia and I put it on and it was the most freshest most unusual thing to blow me away in years and years. But yeah, that’s an example of magic accidents. I live for magic accidents. I always did. And things started to get pried open pretty early, I guess, because around when I started high school, I discovered the used record store. And there was one called “Trade A Tape and Records” a couple blocks down from Boulder High School and they didn’t just have $2 Records instead of $5 or $6 ones. They had $1 records. They had 50-cent records and even a box of free records. And so, in addition to buying things, I started grabbing every single record out of the free box that looked interesting every single day for three years. I got all the Doors albums in six weeks that way. It was a good side of being trapped in a country rock Mecca. The Denver-Boulder area was ground-zero for test marketing who was going to be the next Eagles, or the next Firefall, or the next John Denver. Firefall were based in Boulder, although they were all LA guys who had moved out. And the only other thing that was pushed for that crowd was Scientology Jazz Fusion, which I liked even less. But that also meant the 13th Floor Elevators in the free box, Nazz in the free box, and then one fine day, somebody dumped their big collection and I got ‘Fun House’ by the Stooges sealed for a dime.
Sounds like some really good finds in there! Except the Scientology Jazz Fusion…
I picked up the MC5’s ‘Back in the USA’ for 50-cents. Good starter record. Good rock and roll. I liked it enough, well, maybe I’ll get this other one called ‘Kick Out the Jams.’ Brought that home and that changed my life from that point onward. Right when a lot of my other friends were falling whole hog for that elfen-prog-dreck like ELP and then especially Yes. I went all in on MC5 and the Stooges and the Detroit stuff. And the net result of that was they were the ones who were starting to learn how to play rock instruments, which is almost unheard of back then. But no garage bands for this man, they were all wanting to be super accomplished technical musicians because they like prog and Yes so much. Well, they’d kind of put up with what I like. I mean, our common denominator was ‘Tyranny and Mutation’ by the Blue Öyster Cult and again, I bought it only on a hunch and I liked it so much. But okay, no more relying on radio ever again. Then Trade a Tape entered the picture and I bought stuff on hunches. And then finally they had a ‘listen before you buy,’ you know, a record player station in the store and I slowly but surely went through every interesting looking record in the store, as well as bringing home even singer-songwriter looking stuff just to see what it was, and occasionally striking gold there as well. So, my tastes began to widen. Then, in the original Wax Trax store in Denver, they put this punk record on and, of course, the minute I heard punk I was all in. Favorite kind of music, nasty, sick lyrics. Scaring the shit out of all the right people. What’s there not to like? And the Ramones had just been through Denver and the people lining the front row all went out and started bands, basically. And the Ramones had a day off, So, they came to Wax Trax the next day and pronounced it the best record store they’d ever seen. But anyway, another time I come in there, and I hear some really, really insane, intense punk song from Britain, I think it was “Neat Neat Neat” by the Damned, because I caught a quick glimpse of the label design, I’m pretty sure it was on Stiff Records so it would have to be “Neat Neat Neat.” And then I realized, oh my god, a lot of this is never going to come out on an album at all. There’s going to be one song and then the band is gone. I’m going to have to start buying these singles even though they’re costing twice as much as my usual limit on used LPs. I have to have them. This music is saving my life. Basically, instead of being bogged feeling I was born too late, suddenly, I was born at the right time and might even be able to participate eventually.
What are some of your favorite or most highly prized records in your collection?
I can’t go into too many because there are so many. I mean, there’s my 2 Live Crew album signed by Phil Donahue. That made me want to start collecting autographs gone wrong but the only other one like that I was able ever able to get was Marianne Faithfull signing a Weekly World News. I haven’t done much of that but I would say the ones that are the top two that never get old are ‘Fun House’ and ‘Space Ritual,’ the original double live album by Hawkwind when Lemmy was still in the band. He contributed a lot to the edge on that record, but Hawkwind should never be looked at as “Lemmy’s old band.”
Did you ever get much into krautrock?
Yeah, I mean, I held off on smoking weed, but then once I did, I was kind of all in. Last year in high school and I took a year and a half off. I graduated early and decided I’d take that year off because I was sick of being in school all the time and shit. Plus, I had a pizza delivery job so, there was money coming in to buy more records. Eventually, I kind of blundered into some of the krautrock on my own. Early Tangerine Dream was one, Silver Apples was another one. My old friend, John Greenway, was the first one to get Silver Apples because he liked the cover. And so then we were tripping out on that and then another guy I met showed me that there was actually good, likeable, and trippy prog rock and it wasn’t all just this ghastly elfen-dreck. So, Magma’s ‘Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh’ was 25-cents. I already started to go through all the prog and the krautrock. There’s stuff here that is really cool and there’s probably more I have to reconsider. I’ll start with the ones that keep turning up in the 50-cent bins and the 10-cent bins and stuff. Many of which were pretty good. Magma, who I had listened to briefly on a traded tape and hated them, but then, I have to reconsider all this stuff now that I’m a little more hip to this kind of music. Plus, I was raised in a classical music family. All I heard from the parents was a lot of Beethoven and Mozart and Stravinsky. The one me and my parents agreed on was Carl Orff. You know, Carmina Burana? So then, when I hear ‘Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh’ by Magma, I was like, “Oh my god, a Carl Orff rock band. This is amazing stuff!” And I had already heard another one called ‘Köhntarkösz,’ which was the follow up to MDK, but sounded nothing like it. I like that one too but this one was even better. Magma is still on my top five bands of all time.
Do you organize your record collection by genres or are they just kind of jumbled up?
Unplayed by genres, and then played by a great, great big alphabetical library. There’s also stacks for the 45s too. Then some more still in the bedroom that I guess we’d call them ‘heavy rotation.’ The favorites in front of those are divided by genres, like all the mix tapes I was ready to make, and then just never made them. But I still have little files and the only way anything gets kicked out is if I listen to it again and it just isn’t pulling its weight anymore, then out it goes and something else goes in.
I also wanted to ask you about Wesley Willis and how that all came about?
Well, with a lot of these sort of things, it finds me. It’s hard for me to credit ‘discovering’ anybody because often they find me and whatnot. My old friend, Tammy Smith, she said “oh, I think there’s somebody you need to hear,” and puts on a cassette of Wesley Willis in her car. I realized within one verse of “Rock N Roll McDonald’s,” that… oh my god. Now I’m hearing more and more and it’s not just one song and then the rest are normal. It’s not somebody trying to sound exactly like the Beatles or obsessed with Johnny Mathis or whatever. This is completely his own thing and there’s just one song after another like this. Okay, if we ever put out anybody like this, it’s gonna have to be him. So, then I began trying to get ahold of him and Tammy already knew him a little bit and whatnot. By that time, people knew about him in Chicago and his band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, was playing and touring and at one point even, Rick Rubin signed him to American Records for a not very Rick Rubin size advance of 15 grand for, I don’t know, was it three albums? And Wesley went and turned in five albums a few weeks later and wouldn’t edit them. And he was putting out more and more of his homemade CDs, and they’d have something that was just vintage, amazing Wesley, then as many as 80% of it would be songs about bands he went to see and kind of the same template for every single song. And I thought, there’s got to be a way to edit this guy because he really belongs on AT but I don’t want to just put out one other Wesley Willis album. What can I do? Hey Wes, I want to put out your Greatest Hits. [In Wesley Willis voice] “Yeah!” And these are your Greatest Hits. I want “Rock N Roll McDonald’s.” “Yeah!” Which hadn’t even been released yet, I just had a cassette of it. And your “Kris Kringle was a Car Thief.” “Yeah!” “I Wupped Batman’s Ass.” “Yeah!” Most of Greatest Hits One had never come out yet because they were on the unreleased albums that were only on tapes and people had a few files of them and stuff. And so, oh my god, what a goldmine. And then some from the CDs he had put out, except for the stuff on American because he can’t get us major labels and everything. Wes turned in five albums, they released two of them within a few months of each other, and called it a day. But very rewarding. I think in a way, that’s my favorite artist we’ve ever worked with on Alternative Tentacles. I don’t like having beauty contests or playing favorites and all that because most of the people going on AT are still very dear friends of mine. And unless I mentioned them, they’re going to be a little bummed except there’s this paramount thing. It’s like nothing else in the world and that would be Wesley as well as the adventures I had with him. I mean, you think his songs are unusual ,then there was the rest of him. Nothing was normally wired in him. Nothing whatsoever. Thus, to greet you he head-butted. You never knew what would happen if you asked him a question. Me and Tammy and her then husband and Wesley were eating at a pizza place, and I think it was actually in Evanston, Illinois, north of Chicago and a wide eyed fan comes up, “are you Wesley Willis?” Didn’t matter what or who I was, but uh, “you Wesley Willis?” [Wesley Willis voice] “Yeah! Want to buy a CD?! Gimme a head-butt!” “What do you think of Jewel?” And Wesley ponders for a minute, looks up at him, and says, “It’s a good food store.” That’s the main supermarket chain in Chicago – Jewel Stores. So, the guy just stood there for a few minutes in shock. Of course, he was asking about the female singer and stuff and then he finally just turned around and slowly walked away. I said, “Yup! You’ve been baptized.” You ask Wesley a question and you never know what’s going to come back at you. It’s like, “Hey Wesley, that was great. You emceed the whole show at the venue, the Bottom of the Hill, tonight. You should be a talk show host.” “Yes. I would like my own TV talk show.” “Who would be your first guests?” “Richard Roundtree and Broom Hilda.” The guy who played Shaft and Broom Hilda, the little witch in the comics. Those were gonna be his first guests.
That would be something all right! Do you own any of his artwork?
I have some, not as much as I wish I had. I think I have at least two buses and some cityscapes. And the two collections that are way beyond the others, I think at least one of them has put a lot of it up online. There was a guy from the art gallery world named John Stulgate who was buying drawings off of Wes when he was still selling them on the street. He had not yet become a ‘rock star at last,’ so, he was doing pictures of downtown and buildings and intersections and stuff. Very, very detailed. Much more than the later drawings that he had to kind of mass-produce them or so he thought. Although, every bus in the bus drawings is a very specific bus he saw go by on the Dan Ryan Expressway, the freeway. Snapshot. And here’s where the Rain Man stuff comes in with the autistic side. The license plate, the ads on the side, the number on the top, all accurate. A specific bus he saw for a split second, sometimes more than one but they’re all specific ones. Anyway, the stuff John was buying was mainly these detailed cityscapes with all these little cars and people and, of course, the buildings were dead on accurate for what they were. I’ve heard tell that he sat in somebody’s college art class and he was allowed to just hang out and began drawing another aerial city scape from memory.
That’s pretty amazing! I’d really like to see that one.
Blowing everybody’s minds that way. He also knew 1500 pop songs. I wish I’d known that when he was still alive because apparently if he was in the right mood, he’d start singing and serenading you with one after another. But that would also explain the odd choices of cover tunes for the Wesley Willis fiasco. “Amie,” by the Pure Prairie League was one and I guess “Jailbreak” by Thin Lizzy was a little more logical but then they got invited onto a Duran Duran tribute album and Wesley doing “Girls on Film.” It must be heard to be believed! It’s on ‘Greatest Hits Volume Two’ and on the vinyl, it was the bonus 7” that came with the record.
“The world is your library and the library is your world”
That’s very cool. Thanks for sharing all of that. Well, Jello, we are coming up on almost 3 hours and I don’t want to keep you all night. We always do a wrap up with any final words you’d like to give to readers of Psychedelic Baby! Magazine.
Don’t be afraid of magic accidents. After my interview in an incredibly strange music volume to come out, people began coming up to me saying I’d ruined thrift stores for them because they couldn’t find Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman records in them anymore. And I thought, “well, why is it that I can still find stuff in thrift stores?” Because I still take chances on things I’ve never heard that look like they might be interesting which very much includes ethnic records that were pressed in foreign countries that somehow made it over here. You just never know what’s going to happen with some of these things. So, you know, the magic accidents are where you find them and what that also means is, I don’t think anybody who’s really hungry to hear new and different music and discover music and magic accidents, needs to go at it by collecting records. Not now. People say, “oh, music was better before. Music died when Darby Crash died. Music died when this, that, and the other… Now, get out of your apartment. Put down the drugs and the bottle and go see some bands at random. Go to a store and buy stuff just because the cover looks interesting. Or especially if you’re younger and more of a digital person, to start surfing around. Anything on YouTube is gonna have all these other things following it and sometimes I’ll try and listen to all of them if it just looks like something that I might like. Especially with old 45s and some of them are good. Some of them are boring, but sometimes they’re just amazing. I can’t believe there’s that much more out there. Especially 60s garage records that are that good and have never been comped but they’re out there. So, it means basically, we’re not living in a down era for music. Even with covid killing the venues and everything else, this is the best musical era I’ve ever been a part of. Because everything is available again. Everything is in print. In a way, you can say because Napster or the others that came after that, suddenly everything was available. Imagine trying to find cool rockabilly singles in 1975 or something like that. Now you get interested in that, and it’s the rare ones that go for hundreds of dollars. Just listen to it on YouTube. Everything’s available to the world. The world is your library and the library is your world. So, make the most of it and I guarantee you’ll have a hell of a lot of fun if you don’t shut your mind out from magic accidents.
That’s perfect! Thank you so much, Jello!
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Headline photo: Jello Biafra performs with his band Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine Photo by Matthew Kadi