On Thanksgiving, we're betting you got together with friends and family, watched the parade, ate and drank a bunch, then slipped into a food coma on the couch. Well, we took a break from that this year because Jello Biafra decided that Thanksgiving was the perfect time for a chat with SF Weekly. The former lead singer/songwriter for The Dead Kennedys — who, in recent years, has turned to spoken word and political activism — spoke with us about everything from ISIS and "pulling a Kurt Cobain" to tech-related gentrification in San Francisco and his upcoming show at Slim's with his band, Guantanamo School of Medicine. For someone who once wrote an open letter of suggestions to President Barack Obama and tried to incur a law forcing businessmen to wear clown suits, Jello was every bit as charismatic, entertaining and opinionated as you might expect. Here are some highlights from what turned into a very long conversation ...
SF Weekly: You're the last person I thought I'd be talking to on Thanksgiving...
Jello Biafra: Well, you've gotta kill this day somehow. It's not everybody's favorite holiday. It's basically Euro-Supremacist Day, when you think about it. Someone on a cable comedy show said the other night, "Every time there's been a wave of immigrants coming into this country, people have been worried that they're going to come in and wreck the place and destroy the whole thing. And it has absolutely never happened — except for the ones that showed up and created the holiday that we're celebrating now."
Talking of invasions, as someone who's been in the Bay Area since the late 1970s, you've already seen one dot-com boom and bust ...
... I usually call it dot-com holocaust ...
Do you see any way for the city to recover culturally?
It's hard to say what's going to happen. It's a different crop of people this time, for one thing. Some of them strike me as being meaner, more conservative and more money-grubbing, even compared to the first batch. A lot of people are running around wishing they were Gavin Newsom or Ron Conway. There's no idealism involved. Hearing people say, "Hey man! Now the Summer of Love is a start up!" That's when I wish I had a grenade in my back pocket. Where's ISIS when you need them? It has changed the demographics and the flavor of the city.
Is there any way out?
As far as coming back from this, I think it's just going to depend on who shows up and votes. Proposition F never should've lost and the only reason it did was because it was an off-year election when the mayor and other high officials were all running unopposed, so people weren't paying attention and didn't vote. A lot of what turned things around the last time was when we got a progressive Board of Supervisors. They came in and said, "Enough is enough." It's always possible. I mean, I have hope. I wouldn't call it optimism, but I do have hope.
How much of the fabric of the city is left at this point?
I would say quite a bit. I mean, there's still a lot of Mom and Pop Latino businesses [in the Mission] that have been there since before I moved here. Not as many as there were, but they are still there, and their customers are there.
What is all this doing to music?
A lot of us, myself included, are a lot more unaware than we should be of other areas of culture and underground coolness going on in San Francisco, that doesn't necessarily involve white people. There are a lot of other things going on that we could be dipping into. I've had people tell me that they're thinking about moving to Vallejo. I mean, what's next? Concord? I hope not!
What do you find more satisfying on a personal level: spoken word or Guantanamo School?
Well, I've been back to rock the last couple of years, which I missed — it just didn't happen as quickly as I thought because there were so many adventures happening. Once the band got going, it eats up a lot of the time I might have spent putting together another spoken word show. It would be nice to have both at all times, but I just haven't had time.
What keeps you from getting burned out?
I would say that my sick sense of humor is what sustains me in all areas of life. Knowing what I do about the way our city and the whole world is really run, if I didn't have my sick sense of humor, I would've pulled a Kurt Cobain years ago.
I once read a review that said: "Jello Biafra is a man who's never really happy unless he's plenty pissed off." Is that accurate?
I guess that's one way of putting it! It's not quite right. Yeah, I enjoy ranting and raving and making fun of things. I'm sarcastic and I'm cynical and, yeah, I enjoy that. More to the point, I'm in a unique position where I can actually do something with those feelings. I'm really grateful that, at my age, I can still eke out something of a living just from my big mouth and bad attitude. It doesn't hurt that I'm still pretty good at making up words and music and cool songs, but I'm just glad there are some people still around who want to listen to me.
Is there going to be a new Guantanamo School of Medicine record soon?
I was hoping I'd have that done by now but I've fallen behind in my writing, which is my own personal problem to try and solve next year. Sooner or later, I'll get my shit together. I'm one of the few people my age who has all these fresh ideas — it's just a matter of getting away from all of these things yanking at me in my daily life. I really need to immerse myself and get everything written and arranged.
What can we expect from the Slim's show?
If you've seen us before, you know what you're in for. For those who haven't, it's in some ways, a heavier, fiercer version of Dead Kennedys, but because I finally have my own band again, the surf and the psyche moves have come back in. It'll mostly be newer GSM songs, with a little bit of Dead Kennedys sprinkled in as well. I'm not a retro act, for crying out loud! Even in places like Germany, when people are yelling for "Too Drunk to Fuck" three songs into the show, as soon as they hear the new songs, they're happy.
Do you find you have a new generation coming to see you now?
It depends on the place. The one at Slim's is all ages, which I try to do as much as possible because, when I started going to punk shows in San Francisco, I was 19. Where would I be now if I couldn't have gotten in until I was 21? It would've left me more likely to stay in school and get my degree!