Five questions with Jello Biafra 

Former Dead Kennedys frontman: ‘Michigan is one of the ground zero areas for grand theft austerity.’

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ELIZABETH SLOAN.
  • Photo by Elizabeth Sloan.

Former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra has never been short of a word or two and, when we grabbed him as he was about to embark on a tour with his band the Guantanamo School of Medicine alongside Detroit hardcore vets Negative Approach, he was in fine form. If you’ve seen his What Would Jello Do? Web show or ever heard his spoken-word performances, then you know he has a keen political mind. He’s well aware of what’s going on in Michigan, as we found out. …

1) We’ve been watching your What Would Jello Do? YouTube show, and you’re so ahead of the game. You were talking about things like net neutrality months ago. Do you ever watch The Daily Show and John Oliver, and think, “Finally, you guys have caught up”?

I don’t watch those shows that closely. I really like Jon Stewart and respect him, and let’s not forget when Dead Kennedys came through and played City Gardens in Trenton several times, he was the bartender. I think it’s interesting that corporate cartoon McMedia has gotten so dumbed down and censored that people turn a lot to Stewart and Colbert around election season because it’s the only place they’re going to get a straight story. The only way to report on that stuff is to make fun of it all. I also have to hand it to the punditoids who have to deliver that much passion for half an hour to an hour every single day, and be up on everything that happened that day. I’d have to give up music and everything else if I was going to be half as good as that. Nevertheless, when Sirius was handing out all those shows to people, I thought that I have a cooler record collection than anybody. I could turn it into a talk show and do things like, “Hey, Ralph Nader, what do you think of this song by Wesley Willis?” But no such luck.

2) How close an eye do you keep on Detroit politics — could you believe the Kwame scandal?

I think pointing at Kilpatrick is not the answer. Look what your governor’s doing. Michigan is one of the ground zero areas for grand theft austerity, where the people who already have so much money they can’t figure out how to spend it are trying to steal the rest. This whole scam of doing nonviolent coups against elected city governments and school boards and appointing financial managers — what kind of a scam is this? I’m surprised there haven’t been outright fucking riots yet. If Snyder gets another term, we may see that too. I’m not advocating violence, I’m just really frightened for the victims here. Let’s make sure that public beach in Benton Harbor gets turned into a private golf course for the rich white people. That’s what the whole financial manager scam is. The fact that it was overturned by public initiative and then they brought the law back in early December, this is out-and-out racketeering on a scale Putin could only dream of. A lot of it is racially motivated. Snyder, the Mackinac institute, and the rest aren’t going to come out and use the N-word right, left, and center; they know how to really fuck with people, bring back Jim Crow, prevent people from voting, without using the N-word or pulling a white hood out of the top drawer. It’s a very, very vicious time, and who would have thought that Michigan state government is one of the worst examples — not just in America, but anywhere. If Kilpatrick was white, he never would’ve been charged with a crime. They’d just make him the financial manager of Lansing or something like that. 

3) Are you able to keep an eye on Detroit music?

I try to, but there’s so many cool things going on musically all over the world that I don’t even pretend to try and keep up anymore. The last time I talked to Mick [Collins] or Ben [Blackwell] about the Dirtbombs, I had no idea that they hadn’t played in such a long time. It took me months to find out that one of the true treasures of Detroit music, Nicodemus, had died. 

4) Do you like coming here?

I guess the most vivid memory would actually be the time I came to Detroit as a child. I was about 8 or 9, and we were visiting my grandparents in South Haven, on the other side of the state. I was familiar with the civil rights struggle and current events of the time, and I thank my parents for not changing the channel on the TV when we were watching the news and bad news came on — you know, the bloody soldiers in Vietnam, the race riots, whatever. They didn’t obscure it from me; they didn’t try to blind me to it. They explained it, which played a big role in my growing up having very strong opinions about justice at a very early age. I’d never seen a ghetto before. “Hey, Daddy, can we go see some slums?” Sure enough, to show me the reality of the situation, my dad drove me through the slums of Detroit, and I was horrified at all these buildings that were clearly occupied and the windows were gone. I was thinking, “I can see why people are so angry.” We drove back across the state to South Haven and, within a day or two, the Detroit riots erupted. I was fascinated, horrified, and not the least bit surprised. 

5) What can we expect from the show?

It’s an interesting co-bill because we’re doing the whole tour with Negative Approach. Many people would have viewed that as the ultimate oil-and-water tour back in the 1980s, but there was never any animosity between Dead Kennedys and Negative Approach themselves. There are right ways and wrong ways to do old music, and this is clearly not N.A.-lite. 

Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine plays with Negative Approach and Crashdollz at 8 p.m. on Sunday, June 15, at the Magic Stick; 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; $17-$19.

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