News Column

Jello Biafra -- outspoken, never subtle -- to rock Strummer's

October 31, 2013


Oct. 31--Jello Biafra has little use for the mainstream -- whether it's music, media, pop culture or politics. Corporate media is censored, pop culture is boring and the political system is a complete sham (or worse).

Biafra has spent a career rallying against the status quo, first as the snarling singer of the '80s hardcore band Dead Kennedys and owner of the record label Alternative Tentacles, then as an activist and spoken-word artist.

But he's never been in it for the doom and gloom.

"I am not driven to do this kind of extreme music because of some inner guilt trip about the state of the world. It's exactly the opposite. I do it for film and I do it for fun. I do it for joy. I like to rock, in other words," says Biafra, who plays Friday night at Strummer's with his band The Guantanamo School of Medicine. "If I'm going to rock, I might as well make the lyrics a little more interesting than a lot of other people's rock. I don't believe in art that's subtle. I believe in whacking people over the head. Musically and lyrically."

Enter "White People And The Damage Done," a wall-of-sound, in-your-face concept album that attacks the current program of corporate bank bailouts disguised as austerity. It's the second full-length from the band, which Biafra put together from a cadre of local Bay Area musicians after being inspired by Iggy Pop's 60th birthday gig in San Francisco. Biafra is 55.

He has collaborated with proto-grunge pioneers The Melvins and industrial metal musician Al Jourgensen, but this is his first official band since Dead Kennedys broke up in 1986.

It is not a cash-in on his musical past.

"It's not a retro act and it's not Jello Biafra-light by any means. I come from an era of punk where the teeth were sharp and the lyrics were nasty," Biafra says. It was a time when no two punk bands sounded alike.

They couldn't. The underground was small, and if you didn't come with something new, people wouldn't be interested.

If Dead Kennedys and others didn't crack the mainstream, it was for good reason. It was never the intent, Biafra says.

The music did find its way into pop culture in the form of "pop-punk," a by-product of the success of bands like Green Day and Offspring.

"They got big because they were talented and good at what they do. But the net result was some dodgy imitations -- might as well be boy bands with Sid Vicious haircuts. We get a lot of those as demo to my label, sometimes with the return address of a modeling agency. My attitude is, anything that sounds to me like the Eagles with loud guitars, out of my stereo it goes. Life's too short to keep up with boring music and crappy pop culture."

An alternative exists, though it's buried in the underground. You'll find it in certain sub-genres metal, punk and hip-hop, but you have to search it out, Biafra says.

"It's not the kind of thing that is going to be picked up by MTV, sponsored by skateboard and beer companies and thrown all over TV commercials and Live Nation package shows."

Show information

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine play Strummer's, 833 E. Fern St., 8 p.m. Friday, all ages. Tickets are $14. (559) 485-5356,

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6479, or @joshuatehee on Twitter or Instagram. Read his blog at


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