Friday, October 14, 2011

Jello Biafra interview: 2011


Boulder, Colorado-born Eric Boucher began life ‘small-town USA’ style, in front of the television absorbing all the menace and mirth it could spew out into his young mind. Not being the sporty type, he fixated on music, cartoons and news broadcasts in his free time, growing increasingly fascinated - and disgusted - by how atrocious world events were televised and reported on by his country’s media. The anger and bewilderment he experienced, combined with a natural gift for writing and self-expression, ultimately gave rise to Boucher’s notorious - at first on-stage only – persona, Jello Biafra. Whatever life had in store for small-town boy Eric Boucher, it was surely crushed once the mighty Biafra was ‘born’, and to this day, it is the peculiar name of Jello that continues to raise eyebrows, hackles and conservative backs through-out small, big and all-towns-in-between, USA.

The mushy dessert of his name-sake, an easy to swallow, much loved children’s favorite may have been an ironic choice of pseudonym for the one-time Dead Kennedys' singer, but Biafra has always been an unashamed attention seeker. He knew when he chose his tag, that every kid in the USA would at some time or another been spoon-fed that very thing by a caring parental figure. Perhaps he saw his own high level absorption of crass news media as a rather tasteless kind of ‘spoon-feeding’, and so took a punt that if he was going to have a public forum to unleash his anti-establishment woes, then it was gonna come with a sweet and fluffy handle that nobody would forget!

Biafra’s most noted platform came in the form of punk legends The Dead Kennedys – once more, a name that was certain to stick in the public’s craw in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination – and perhaps for that reason, in their new home of San Francisco, Biafra and his band were treated as a blight on the landscape of a city under the spell of neo-hippie-dom and rising yuppie-dom. However, this didn’t prevent ‘Blight Biafra’ from raising sizable interest in his absurdest campaign to become mayor of San Francisco in 1979, or even prevent The Dead Kennedys from charting with singles like Too Drunk To Fuck and Holiday In Cambodia. Biafra had proved beyond doubt he had enough support to be the voice for a broadening sector of society not content to just ‘suck it up’, and its precisely that voice – one that’s never waned in its convictions despite the trouble it’s bought him and his band - that has earned him a new career as a spoken word performer. The gloves no doubt come off when Jello hits the stage for his Melbourne spoken-word debut in October – they certainly did when it came to answering some of my questions in this rare, but utterly engaging interview.

What can people expect coming to a Jello Biafra spoken word show these days? Well I haven’t done one in a while, so I’m not quite sure what I’m going to discuss at this stage. I’ll just pull it all together at the last minute I’m sure. I mean events and news stories happen so fast these days, and I like my show to be right up to the minute, you know.

Do you see a lot of your – especially political - subject matter as relatable in countries outside of the US?
Yeah, I mean it seems as if nobody is spared the heavy handed moves by the banks and the super rich to step on the gas and ramp up the whole corporate coup, pushing the idea that community is a bad thing, and it doesn’t work. They just want it to be every one for themselves, conditioned to just make more and more money regardless of how and who it affects and that mindset is why you see basic social services suffering. The banks are desperately trying to save their own arses and so its community and environment be damned. I’ve heard rumblings from Australia about a carbon tax, and I’m sure any argument against that would bare more than a passing resemblance to the American Tea Party – a grass roots movement who were actually funded by oil barons and the like. These guys know not to pull out the white hoods, but you can see clearly where their loyalties lie.

The song, Invasion of the Mind Snatchers from your last album, Enhanced Methods of Questioning digs neatly at the US’s problem with insane religious right-wing nutters getting into positions of power, but are people like Fred Phelps and Wolf Blitzer a genuine threat in your opinion?
Well, Fred Phelps hasn’t got a lot of support, but he’s obviously getting money from somewhere. I’ve been to his compound in Kansas, and they’ve taken over an entire block in a residential neighbourhood, apart from two houses whose owners wouldn’t sell, and so excluding them, there’s a gigantic fence around all the Phelps houses, which is floodlit 24 hours a day and it’s covered in the usual ‘god hates fags’ kind of crap, but that compound is really the only place he holds any power in thankfully. He has no political support, in sharp contrast to Blitzer and Sarah Palin, who are just as extreme as Phelps is, the only difference is, they know how to package themselves more cleverly.

What do you get out of spoken word performance that maybe is lacking from fronting a band, such as Dead Kennedys? Well for a start, activism, spoken word and music is all connected for me, but you don’t get the great adrenalin rush doing spoken word as you do playing music live of course, but then touring as a spoken word artist, you can go deeper into ideas and into people’s brains. I mean I never expected spoken word to take off, but I have to thank those fascists at the LAPD and hate-mongers like Tipper Gore who dragged me through court over the Dead Kennedy’s Frankenchrist album. (1985’s Frankenchrist holds the ‘honor’ of being the token reason for banning and censorship of music in the US, resulting in massive legal costs for Biafra and ultimately the end of the ‘Kennedys). That was the first time a charge of ‘distribution of harmful material to minors’ had been brought against a music album in American history.

Frankenchrist - killed the Kennedys?
Are fans encouraged to actively participate in the spoken word shows and enter into a discussion with you?
It all depends; sometimes I have time for questions sometimes not. When people come to see me though, I think they already have some idea of what I’m about and what to expect, and the kinds of things I talk about are what they probably discuss among their friendship groups already. So I’m just offering a viewpoint that can maybe add something to their own conversations. I mean I’m not afraid of being asked questions, but doing just question and answer sessions can quickly turn into a forum for a handful of conspiracy theorists wanting to debate the Roswell space alien or the whole 9/11 inside job thing.

Do you subscribe to any of the popular conspiracy theories yourself?
In my mind, the biggest conspiracy was that America went to war while being governed by Spinal Tap. But in reality, part of the problem was the FBI had all this so-called intelligence and voice recordings in several different languages that nobody in the US government could even understand. Conspiracy theories are great, but I much prefer to make my mind up using logic and fact. 9/11 happened because our (the US’s) powers that be at the time were completely ignorant.

Being in the privileged position of two public forums – spoken word/punk music - do you think you’ve always been successful in expressing your viewpoint?
Well yeah, I mean I’ve encouraged people for all these years to not hate the media, but to become the media. That doesn’t mean living your whole life on Facebook, and sending out little tweets from your phone, it’s about grasping the potential of the new media and saying what we’re being offered isn’t good enough. There’s a lot of people power going to waste on obsessing over pointless celebrity culture. But to answer your question, I’m just one guy and I’m not a mainstream force to be reckoned with, I’m just making a living off my art, and I’ve tried to use my art in a positive way, but now I’m saying it’s up to you to go out and inspire people in the same way I’ve perhaps inspired you.

Do you think running for mayor of San Francisco in hindsight, you were in fact much better positioned to make a difference outside of politics altogether? Yeah for sure, but I was never going to be that guy who put on a suit and went door to door telling people a different lie each time just so they’d vote for me. What I was trying to say is politics doesn’t have to be just that one thing, but as an artist I didn’t have to try and change a whole system to get up there and say ‘this is exactly what I believe in, take it or leave it.’ I’m living off my big mouth and bad attitude, yeah, but that’s gotta be better than bullshitting as a career.

Does coming back to Australia fill you with good memories of your last tour here with the Dead Kennedys?
What comes to mind immediately is, after a show in Brisbane one night myself, DH Peligro (Kennedys’ drummer) and members of The Johnnys were having a few drinks out on the street and a police car pulls up and they arrest Peligro basically for drinking while black! They didn’t go after anybody else and so that to me was a first hand experience of the banana republic dictatorship of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Then after a second show in Brisbane, fans were coming and telling me their favourite stories about Bjelke-Petersen, and I think the most outrageous one I heard was about a dude who got arrested in broad daylight for carrying a concealed weapon in a bag of groceries – it was a pineapple! I mean doesn’t Queensland grow like the entire pineapple stock for the rest of the country? You would think they would know the difference between a weapon and a piece of fruit is all I’m saying.

One of your most interesting ‘projects’ was helping launch the music career of Wesley Willis. Australia has a special kind of love for Willis’s brand of laugh out loud, apparently nonsense tributes to his favourite celebrities; Alanis Morrisette, Oprah Winfrey etc..; I wonder, what do you miss most about him? People say ‘oh such-n-such is a larger than life character’, you know, but Wes really was larger than life. I mean, every single person he came in contact with was just blown away by his energy and his wit, but Wes was utterly exhausting as well. I mean, I would be doubled up in fits of laughter and unable to breathe because of some bizarre observation or statement he would make. Like one time I had to get on a plane with him and make sure he was okay getting to where he needed to go, and this was only in a short space of time after 9/11, and we’re in the airport lounge and all of a sudden Wes just yells at the top of his voice, “Hey Jello, do you think if I hijack a plane they’ll put me in jail?”, and I just froze thinking there were going to be all these security dudes come running out and crash-tackle us or something, and I said to Wes, you know, “You gotta keep it down, man you can’t say that stuff!”, and so he went “okay”, and then sure enough ten minutes later, “Hey Jello, do you think if I hijack a plane they’ll put me in jail?”. He was always doing shit like that and that’s what I miss so much about him not being around. I thought a lot about Wes the night Obama was elected and when he got up to do his speech, all I could think of in the back of my mind was how much that moment would’ve meant to him. Wes would’ve been in that crowd at the White House, and even if he was 100 metres back, his booming voice still would have come through, and he would have been singing, “Obama is the greatest, he can really whip Saddam Hussein’s ass! He can really kick a mule’s ass!” That’s how Wesley was man - just a great communicator of emotions. Nobody could sum up the feeling of a moment like Wes.


Hey Bono, Jello's onto you, you fatuous swine!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Joanne Catherall (The Human League) interview: 2011


In what could've been seen as a bid to off-set the synthetic-foundations of their music, the ‘human’ side to the Human League was always overtly the central focus. The spotlight was on three radically styled and made-up vocalists - Phil Oakey, Susan Anne Sulley and Joanne Catherall – each presenting a strong individuality, yet functioning smoothly as unit, delivering warm, yet exclusively machine-made tunes. In the early days of electronic music, the embryonic Human League (Mk I - before Catherall and Sulley), were among a handful of groups who saw potential in dragging synths out of the underground clubs and into the mainstream. Once they shook-off a few computer programmers posing as musicians - and a Kraftwerk obsession  found on first two albums, Reproduction and Travelogue - a band emerged that would set the blue-print for a whole new direction in music.  In 1981, following a smart line-up change which remains to this day, The ‘League Mk II’ was born and it is they who are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘new romantic’ movement’s first ever break-through record, Dare! - an album fashioned on the hope that ‘this synth-pop thing was gonna take off’.

Everyone either had or wanted a synthesizer in 1981 - or so it seemed - but it’s interesting to note now that this must-have addition to any band was treated with great suspicion by established artists in fear of redundancy. It was the marker of the times, forcing many acts who’d trail-blazed in the 1970s into an ‘adapt or die’ situation, which saw many four-piece rock acts suddenly scramble to work a bit of ‘new wave’ into their sound. Meanwhile artists like New Order, Vince Clarke, and Thomas Dolby were fast taking over as the ‘new innovators’, as their mastery of the synth gradually helped earn it acceptance. The Human League however, were young enough that this new synthetic sound was a mere formality and rather than make a ‘press-play-and-go’ programmable keyboard their main feature, it was simply the engine under their swanky hood, upon which leapt a wave of image-conscious front and centre singers, all reaching for the lippy and hairspray, while busting out robotic dance moves.

Ahead of Human League’s Australian visit for the ‘80s Rewind Festival, speaking with me today in defense of the humble synth - and dodgy robot-dancing - vocalist Joanne Catherall from her home in Sheffield begins by recalling the massive influence of, Dare!, and how her band had to fight to release the record that would ultimately define the new romantic movement.

“Our first record deal was for ten albums, which is just unheard of today, but the catch was, we were told in no uncertain terms, we could not make Dare! the way we wanted to.” Catherall says, “But we decided we had nothing to lose really by ignoring them (Virgin), I mean none of us owned a house or any of that, and so broke as we were, we went ahead and made the record that we had in our heads and it obviously became very successful. But we made Dare! almost in direct opposition to what the label wanted us to do. They wanted us to get in a full live band, but Phillip (Oakey) was only interested in using synthesisers, as that was how the first two Human League albums (Reproduction, Travelogue) were made, but the group was changing, myself and Susan (Ann Sulley) had joined, and I think the label thought we might as well get a guitarist and drummer too… Phil wasn’t having any of it, though.”

In what sounds like a quaint notion by today’s standards, The Human League was singled out at the start of the 1980s as reluctant poster stars for a campaign called ‘Keep It Live’. Using synthesisers was viewed by the media old guard as ‘cheating’ and some sectors of press launched attacks on the burgeoning new romantic scene, claiming the bands shouldn’t be seen as ‘performing live’ in the traditional sense. “It is quaint to think of that now, as you say when you have tours by artists like Britney Spears who, it is claimed, do not even sing live.” Joanne continues, “The dancing has become so elaborate that it must be impossible for them to sing and perform, which is why you always saw me and Susan just doing our sort of robot routine,” she laughs, “It was the only way we could sing live and dance at the same time!” Making their own mark within The Human League was important for Joanne and Susan, so as not to be seen as just ‘backing dancers who sang a bit’. So after fronting up as co-lead vocalists on Dare! single, The Sound Of The Crowd – which became the band’s first chart hit – Joanne’s confidence bloomed. 

“I was genuinely thrilled that people reacted so strongly to that song, I mean, it’s very unusual in a lot of ways, and honestly Susan and I didn’t think it was going to be a hit at all, but our careers really did take off because of that song.” In Australia, The Human League enjoyed a level success on the back of Dare!, only rivaled by the UK. The band’s first tour in 1982, Susan remembers, was ‘akin to Beatle-mania’. “There were hoards of fans at the airport with banners when we arrived, and camping in the hotel’s reception area. I mean, we couldn’t even leave our hotel rooms without being mobbed.” She giggles, “It was like ABBA: The Movie!, and I can tell you, we hadn’t had that kind of reaction anywhere else in the world, so Australia will always be a bit special to us for that reason.” The Human League were in Australia just two years ago promoting a new album, Credo, yet their current billing on the ‘80s Rewind Festival places them squarely in the ‘coming out of retirement’ sector. Never in the past has Joanne been comfortable with the retro tag, but she is content to claim her band are nothing if not survivors. 

“The thing about the three of us, is that we’re all too stubborn to just give up on The Human League. Never have we sat down and all said ‘let’s just call it a day’, you know, and we got a lot of strength by proving how wrong the people were who wrote us off as a ‘80s flash-in-the-pan act.” Surviving has also meant remaining close with her ex-partner, Phil Oakey - whom Joanne was romantically involved with for most of the 1980s - and enduring periods of declining interest. However, these days the trio are tighter than ever, and it seems, are rarely out of each other’s pockets. “We go away on tour so much together that even now there’s never more than two weeks in the year where we don’t see one another.” Joanne says. “But we couldn’t have stayed together as a band for 30 years if we didn’t get on though, and our secret to success has always been knowing our roles in the band and not stepping outside of those. I mean I would never go into the studio and start telling Phillip how to use the synthesiser – I wouldn’t know one end of it from the other – and Susan and I aren’t involved in the songwriting either, but we take care of the business of running the band, which means that we see each other pretty regularly when not on tour as well.”

The business side of things goes from typical band activities, to Joanne’s appointed role as Human League’s accountant. It became apparent that to get through the tough times, minding the band’s economy, as with all other aspects themselves, was essential. “We were burnt a few times financially, and there were some very trying years personally.” Joanne adds, “Our label went bust the day our 2001 album Secrets came out, and we obviously very depressed about it, but instead of walking away, we decided to tour extensively and reconnect with our fans, and it was tough at first, but it kept us going and we have hardly stopped since then, I’m happy to say.”