Jello Biafra may be best known for pioneering the West Coast political punk scene of the ‘80s with his band, Dead Kennedys, and his record label, Alternative Tentacles. However, his interests and activities throughout the years have varied widely, from spoken word and political activism, to collaborations running the gamut of everything from punk and roots rock to industrial. He even formed The New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars with guitarist Bill Davis (Dash Rip Rock) and drummer Fred LeBlanc (Cowboy Mouth). They performed a lively set of rhythm and blues covers here in 2011, and will return this March with Kimo Ball (Guantanamo School of Medicine) on guitar, Brian “Bruiser” Broussard on bass, Pete “Wetdawg” Gordon (The Toadliquors) on piano, and a horn section that includes Derek Houston, Chris Klein, Eric Belleto, Tuba Glenn Barbarot, Mike Joseph, and Paul Grass.
How did the idea for the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars develop? What was it about the idea that made it attractive enough for you to want to bring the project to life?
Haha! Well, I was actually visiting family in Colorado, and went to see Cowboy Mouth and Dash Rip Rock, who were touring together. I guess one of their crew overheard me singing along to some of the covers that Cowboy Mouth veers in and out of. So, Fred LeBlanc and Bill Davis approached me and dared me to come to New Orleans during Jazz Fest and do an entire set of old New Orleans songs. They were thinking more along the lines of rhythm and blues and whatnot. Of course I got some soul and garage things going, too, and we kind of collided in the middle. And a great time was had by all! The recording was a trainwreck, but Ben Mumphrey from Studio in the Country got a hold of me and said, “Look, I was at the show. I think I can rescue these recordings.” And slowly but surely, he’s been piecing them back together. So at some point, there’s going to be an album documenting that first show. It isn’t done yet. You know… Typical me, not getting my shit together; I never really pushed the thing hard enough to get it ready in time for this show. This time around, you know, I’ve never been to Mardi Gras in my life, and I’ve always wanted to go, so I figured if I’m going to go to Mardi Gras, I might as well be part of it.
I noticed one of the original members of the Raunch and Soul All-Stars isn’t returning this year…
What, Pepper [Keenan]? Oh, he’ll be on tour with Down in Australia during the time of the gig, which opened the door for me to bring out one of the wonder guitarists from GSM, Kimo Ball. You know, he and Ralph Spight work really well together in GSM. There’s no prima donna rivalry as to who the lead guitarist is and who the other one is; they both do it all. Kimo has played in R&B bands before, so I figure this might be a really good time for Kimo to pull out some of the other things he knows that don’t get used much in GSM. It’s going to be interesting to see how he and Bill Davis blend together.
Is there any other city you would try to put together another project like this for?
Hahaha! I can’t look at it that academically; I just did the whole thing on a dare! I mean, my own musical roots are very wide because I’m so damn old… I experienced the ‘60s garage era as it was happening, you know. I got hooked on rock’n’roll when I was 7 years old, and I never looked back. I always went for the harder stuff, first the early Rolling Stones, then Steppenwolf and Led Zeppelin. By the time I hit high school, I blundered into the MC5 and the Stooges. Being the vinyl junkie I am, I decided I wanted every hard rock record ever made. But I also remembered all those songs I really liked from when I was 10 years younger, so if something like a Music Machine or a Seeds album would pop up, I’d grab that, too. Then when punk hit in ’77, it was at the Wax Trax store in Denver where I realized I’d have to break down and open Pandora’s Box and start buying 7” 45s. I had to get the singles; and so within two visits to the store, I began thumbing through their old singles bin, and there were the old Colorado ‘60s garage singles from local bands I’d heard on the radio as a child. Then there was no stopping me! And you could still find a lot of cool 45s in thrift stores then, so the magic accidents began. I went looking for other ‘60s punk bands and blundered into surf instrumentals. I looked for more of those, and blundered into rockabilly, and that led to rhythm & blues and country. In the meantime, I’d also started checking out movie soundtrack composers, one of my secret weapons in writing Dead Kennedys songs.
You know, not very many people were into surf music or John Barry, who did the James Bond soundtracks, or Morricone’s spaghetti western stuff. Now, of course, more people are… But it also meant that I’ve performed a lot of different things at different times. I did a set of country music in Tucson a few years ago with Al Perry and the Cattle, as well. It was more straight country than the Prairie Home Invasion album I did with Mojo Nixon, which I guess now people would call “Americana.” I thought it was roots rock at the time. I still think it’s got a pretty sharp set of teeth and holds its own against anybody that does that kind of music full-time. I’m very proud of it. Of course, that was the first time I got to work with Pete Gordon, a.k.a. “Wetdawg.” You know, I’ve seen him playing with Mojo and the Toadliquors, and went, “Holy shit! Who is this keyboard guy? He’s got every Jerry Lee Lewis move in the book down.” And then when we went into the studio, he showed even more of his talent by coloring each song in all kinds of cool ways that went way beyond what even Jerry Lee would have. I’ll use any excuse in the world almost to get on stage with that guy again! You know, I’ve told him, he has an open invitation to move to San Francisco and join my band any time, but he’s a Houstonoid now.
Do you have any plans to do a studio recording with the Raunch and Soul All-Stars?
No plans at present. Mike Perry wants to record some of the practices for the hell of it. We’ll see what happens with that. I don’t mind documenting stuff, but whether or not it sees the light of day is another matter. I take so long to finish my own damn studio albums that I wouldn’t want to drag another ten people into that! So, I think with something like this, it’s cooler and more fitting to capture the hot, sweaty Southern roadhouse atmosphere right into the recording. Let’s not forget: the purpose of this show isn’t to make a recording, it’s to play a show.
Has anything been added to the set since the last show in 2011? If you could add anything that’s not on there, what would it be?
We’re talking about switching some stuff out, but we’ll have to decide what happens in rehearsal. I think we may widen it a little outside of New Orleans this time, because I’ve always wanted to cover “Treat Her Right,” by Roy Head. It’s a cool song, it fits me, and the lyrics are borderline feminist, especially for the time, whether they were intentionally that way or not. I mean, there was even talk of covering it in the Dead Kennedys, but we never did. The LeRoi Brothers covered it years ago, but I’m not sure if anyone else has. There’s a really obscure Cramps song I’d love to see us bring to life, called “New Kind of Kick.” I’ve only heard what was probably a demo that wasn’t supposed to be released. But then, when they left IRS records, of course that label went to town and began repackaging… But it was a b-side off a British 12” single, and I said, “Why the hell didn’t they bring this song to life?!” It almost sounds more like the Sonics than the Cramps! Or at least, it potentially could, and the horns would fit right in.
Do you think you’ll keep this going? Do you think maybe every now and then you’ll come back and do it again, or take the show somewhere else?
I think we’d all like to expand it a little, time and schedule permitting. I have GSM and all this other shit going on. Bill has Dash and Fred has Cowboy Mouth plus a family. So, getting something this unwieldy out the door is easier said than done. The two Continental Clubs in Austin and Houston wanted us to go there, too, but that also would’ve meant driving back from Austin into New Orleans during Mardi Gras, trying to make it to the show on time. Being the stress-case that I am, I figured, you know, part of why I’m doing this is to take a vacation from that entire side of my personality and what it does to me on a daily basis. But we might try that in the future.
I mean, both Pepper and Fred said they’ve never had so much fun in their lives as when we did that show, so I guess the pressure’s on me to make that happen again!
Let’s discuss The Guantanamo School of Medicine. You just released a new album last year, White People and the Damage Done. As a matter of fact, you’ve released a recording, even if it was an EP, every year since 2009 except 2010. Haven’t you said, though, that the two EPs came from the first recording ?
The first EP came from the first batch, but the second EP came from the second batch. I originally wanted to get White People and the Damage Done out for the 2012 elections because it is kind of one long concept piece about the bullshit age of austerity our corporate lords are trying to force us into, at a time when both political parties are more corrupt than I’ve ever seen them in my life. I guess you kind of expect it in Louisiana, but now it’s national. Now it’s worldwide. I mean, it used to be that all these governments that claim they’re broke had plenty of money to educate their citizens and try to keep their roads fixed, and get homeless people a place to live. And now they’re saying, “Oh, all you poor peasant scum have to live with less,” and I’m thinking, “Hey, wait a minute! The reason there used to be more money for the greater good and the community services that decent countries provide is because rich people used to pay taxes.” And now we’re being fed this crap that we shouldn’t expect rich people to pay taxes, and just be prepared to live with less and less ourselves instead. But this whole idea that people should be willing to go without a doctor their whole lives and work three jobs at fast- food places and call it a life, while a handful of predators laugh all the way to the bank… That’s just ridiculous.
It’s not even capitalism anymore, it’s feudalism. They’re not just trying to drag us back to the 19th century, they want us clear back in the 9th century! A lot of the motive is because they just don’t have anything to do anymore. They already have more money than they’ll ever be able to figure out how to spend, and they’re running out of things to steal. So, it becomes more like crack addiction, or a meth head who’s high on money, wealth, and greed. Wealth addiction is the worst kind of addiction on earth.
Once you makeyour first million, what’s the point? And to think they only call hip-hop artists thugs and gangsters. I think we all know who the real ones are, and we all know who the real terrorists are, too. They tend to congregate around the stock exchange.
As you know, Obama recently gave his “State of the Union” address. What would your “State of the Union” address sound like?
Oh, boy… You might want to go back to my fourth spoken word album, Beyond the Valley of the Gift Police. I started it off with a piece called “Message to Our Sponsors.” It was originally something I did for National Public Radio, where they wanted all these people to contribute messages to the next President of the United States, which turned out to be Bill Clinton at that point. But what I was asking for then still applies: call off the drug war, call off the Iran/Afghanistan wars, commute every small-time drug offender’s sentences to “time served,” spend the money on education… We have a minimum wage, how about a maximum wage? I went with six figures as payback time, but maybe I’ll compromise and go to seven figures now. You make your first million, you’re done. And what would we do with all the money? Well, finish rebuilding New Orleans, for one thing, and get to work on my home area in the front range of the mountains of Colorado. Some of the houses got obliterated in the mountain flash flood equivalent of Katrina. I’ve been there; I’ve seen it. I’m trying to raise money for the people in the hills in different ways and whatnot.
It’s a reminder to me of when I came to New Orleans after Katrina. Even though I was there after six months of clean-up, I was just devastated by what I saw and what had happened. That’s where money should be spent, not on another nuclear aircraft carrier and on sending zillions of troops out to countries that don’t really want us. Let’s not forget that the tax rate on rich people used to be 90% back when a Republican president named Eisenhower was calling the shots. It didn’t start to go down until a Democrat, yes, a Democrat (isn’t it always a Democrat that pulls this shit behind the scenes) by the name of John F. Kennedy started chopping down the tax rate of the wealthy. And it plummeted further under Reagan, and of course way further under Clown Prince W. This allowed enough of the money to flow upward, and they smell blood in the water; they’re in for the kill now.
I am assuming that most people reading this realize that the Tea Party is a completely false movement being financed and controlled by oil barons, like the Koch Brothers, who just want to skew the income even more to become a feudalist society and just take everything. Sure, I guess I mostly call myself an “anarchist,” but what does “anarchy” really mean? Each person will give you a different answer. I think as far as government goes, it’s better to live your life as an anarchist person so you don’t need some babysitter in the form of a policeman to tell you to quit screwing other people.
But, you know, in the short run, yes, we do need a government because of things like Katrina, and because of racial inequality. As Tim Yohannan in Maximum Rock‘n’Roll put it years ago, he said he was a socialist because we need a government to transfer the wealth from people who have too much to people who have too little. And I’m totally down with that. I’m one of a majority of Americans who agree with what socialism is about, and when they take opinion polls, they don’t tell people it’s socialism, they say, “Yeah! There should be government-funded healthcare, there should be publicly- owned electricity so you can vote for the people who control the electricity and water rates and stuff.” It’s a no-brainer. There should be more power in the workplace for the actual workers.
Vik Kaos of Maggot Sandwich told me he approached you about getting his music put out on Alternative Tentacles when he was young. He says you suggested to him, since he could afford to, why not start his own label, and he did. Did you often help inspire other musicians to just get out there and put out their own stuff, and not wait for anyone else to help them?
Oh, yeah! I mean, in some ways, it’s good that Alternative Tentacles isn’t about the only game in town like we were in the early ‘80s. I’ve always felt really bad about having to playing god to all these great Bay Area and national bands, knowing full well that if we didn’t pick them up, they’d never get a record out at all. Now there are so many cool bands on so many cool labels, that the slices of the pie have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller, going back to what we were talking about earlier. You know, it’s really, really tough to break even on anything these days. You do it as a labor of love and hope enough people want to hold an LP or a CD in their hand instead of just becoming a file-sharing sensation, in which case, both the label loses and in some cases, the band loses. We’ve lost so many bands prematurely because people would rather file-share than buy their stuff and help them out. I have no respect for major labels running around suing 12 year-olds and single moms for file-sharing one song and demanding a million dollars. That’s sick! They’ve taken $100,000,000-plus that way and I’ve yet to hear of a penny of that money going to the artists. Where is that money going? I have no idea. On the other hand, I think people should stop and think about how much of this they do, and who it might be hurting. I mean, if it’s a major label artist, I don’t think file- sharing matters because labels go so far to rip off their artists anyway. But when it’s a small band who may not even continue to exist or make another album recording unless they can do something with what they have, that’s different. This is about supporting the community. I mean, if it’s someone like Slim Cessna who has several albums out but still has to work a regular job to feed their family, maybe the best way to hip your friends to Slim is to compile a few songs off the album and send out a sampler instead of the whole thing. I mean, file-sharing isn’t going anywhere; the toothpaste is out of the tube. But, I really hope people, by their own word of mouth and social media, will spread the word a little more about the ethics involved and things people can do to help out their favorite artists, instead of expecting everything for free all the time.
I mean, is it really asking too much of people to pay $.99 for a song so they can have it to listen to whenever they want, if they don’t want to buy an album?
Yeah, but in today’s crashed economy, how many people can afford to pay $.99 for every single song they want to put on their iPod? It’s a double-edged sword. The less people have gainful employment, and the less disposable income they have, the more the artist is going to lose in that sense. People just don’t have the money. So, that’s why I keep asking people, “For crying out loud, do what you can!” You know, I have never made a dime off AT; it’s always been a labor of love. But now I don’t even have my own money to throw in anymore when we wind up in the hole.
Referring back to the Guantanamo School of Medicine, how does it feel to be in a working band again? How does the feeling of writing and performing with this band compare to other experiences you’ve had in the past?
Well, I wear many hats. I immersed myself in spoken word for years just because I realized if you stumble into another gift you didn’t even know you had, it might be a good idea to use it, and take it as far as you can, especially if it may have a deeper political impact during very political times. Of course, there’s no substitute for rocking on stage with a wall of volume for the full sonic catharsis. I realized at political events that I was a little bit of a fish out of water because not everyone from that circle does what I do with music, and of course, vice versa.
Do you guys plan to tour much, or more specifically, tour the South?
We’d like to. We don’t do super-long tours, partly because I’m not so good on the really long ones. I’d rather just give it everything I’ve got for a couple of shows than just stand there like some kind of wooden mannequin, then just go on to the next town. I want to have the kind of live act that I, the picky fan, would like to go see. I’m hoping we’ll get back down there. We played that Voodoo Fest show which we landed at the last minute, when Eagles of Death Metal cancelled. That was a lot of fun.
Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All Stars play Siberia on Sunday, March 2nd with Mountain of Wizard and the Split () Lips opening.