An Interview with Jello Biafra

Scott Thill

For years, Saturnine has been entertaining crowds on the indie circuit.

PopMatters: I understand this is a sensitive issue for you. In the sweep of this court case against the other members of the Dead Kennedys about the catalogue ownership, what do you feel is the major injustice being perpetrated here?

Jello Biafra: Theft of intellectual property, basically. Not to mention the fact that I busted my ass and put up the money for 22 years to keep those albums in print. So they didn't wind up as some obscure collectors' items that only eBay people could afford. They kept selling enough because of the way we managed the catalogue. The other three guys never had to get jobs or anything, but nothing was ever enough for them. The fact that they'd go running to a big-time corporate lawyer rather than talk about stuff smells. And everything they've done since they seized control of the catalogue just reeks of sheer greed.

PM: How did this all start? There was some blurb on the back of the Manifesto press release barely explaining how they ended up there at all.

JB: It's because they were turned down by Epitaph, Sub Pop, Lookout, Caroline, etc. who had ethical and financial problems with monkeying with the Dead Kennedys when the main guy was so obviously getting screwed.

PM: What was their big problem? They didn't feel they were getting enough money?

JB: Yeah. I mean, even Peligro who didn't even play on all the albums was getting over $30,000 a year, free money. Which is a lot more than some people who work hard every day for decades ever get. But there was no gratitude whatsoever. They just allowed themselves to degenerate into these greedy prima donnas. So now they even gone as far to run around two continents doing phony reunion shows with the former star of The Courtship of Eddie's Father (Brandon Cruz). They've gone to great length to disguise the fact that I'm not in the band, even sending out a photo to promoters with my picture in it which then winds up in some of the ads on the flyers.

PM: It's mind-numbing to think that this is all about money.

JB: Well, once you get involved with bloodsport litigation, you can not only get drunk on your own greed but start to believe your own lies. And they knew full well there wasn't some 15-year conspiracy to hide their precious royalty money from them. There was an accounting error along the way and when we -- not they -- found it, we paid them. And then they sued.

PM: It's hard to believe a judge wouldn't throw the case out.

JB: That's why we're appealing the verdict. Because very little of what went on in that courtroom makes solid legal sense. I mean, there was unfortunately some animosity over the years, which I did not go into in public because I didn't feel it was right. But East Bay Ray even called me in the studio in 1993 -- in the middle of the night and in the middle of recording my album with Mojo Nixon -- and yelled at me for an hour about how I ruined his life because we didn't sign with a major label twelve years earlier. And that's where some of the roots of this are: bizarre delusions in the minds of people with too much time on their hands that somehow I -- who was the main creative force in the band by far -- deprived them of being major label rock stars. They even said in BAM Magazine when this got ugly that we could have gone on and on for years like R.E.M. or U2. Also, he's showed repeatedly over the years disrespect for the people who've kept him so nice, comfy and fed -- Dead Kennedys fans -- by just saying that they'll buy anything. And now they're testing that theory.

PM: By going so far as lying to them. Do you have any Dead Kennedys fans chasing you down, wondering why you're not onstage with them?

JB: Most of the anger is directed towards them by people who feel that they were deliberately ripped off. They saw the name Dead Kennedys in the ad, not totally aware of what had been going on, and assumed it was the real band. And felt that there was a bait-and-switch going on. I mean, there have been some angry promoters that have contacted Alternative Tentacles.

PM: And you tell them, "Hey, we don't have anything to do with these guys".

JB: Yeah. What they're not doing is marketing the Dead Kennedys in the spirit of what the band stood for. Or any kind of respect. It's the exact opposite, even to the point where somebody is monkeying with the artwork on the albums to make it come off a bit more toothless and hokey. Especially what happened with Frankenchrist. They've even cut up some of Winston Smith's artwork. And the live album was so bad that I asked them to please take my name off of it. How much pride do people take in their work when they put out something where Ray blows "Police Truck" six times, and that's just the opening song? All of these reissues were not authorized by me, I do not endorse them, the live album was put out without my permission, and I've not seen a dime at this point, either. The lawyers sent a letter last August declaring that they weren't going to pay me anything anymore -- unless I pay them $140,000 which they claim was my share of their bill to sue me -- for anything to do with Dead Kennedys. Perhaps that was their real goal in the lawsuit, who knows?

PM: When will the verdict on the appeal come down?

JB: It would have come down by now but the other side has been stalling like crazy, asking for extension after extension. It's a drawn-out process anyway: there's a brief filed, then a counter brief, then more briefing and more arguing and finally the appeal is argued in open court and the appellate court can release an opinion on it whenever they want within the next six months or so. We haven't even made it to round one because of so much stalling on the other side. It's almost as if they're behaving as if they fear they might lose the appeal, and are trying to squeeze every last drop of blood out of the corpse before running off with it.

PM: Hoping you'll just give up.

JB: Yeah, or loot the store before the court comes down on them like they should have all along.

PM: How does this make you feel about what you've created? Can you even listen to it?

JB: I've never even been able to listen to the remastered ones; I was completely cut out of that. The other band members nor Manifesto have never showed one ounce of respect or attempted to contact me on this. I never even signed Manifesto's contract.

PM: I read that this all started with a Dockers commercial featuring "Holiday in Cambodia".

JB: Yeah, yeah. The ad agency contacted Ray who contacted me and I said no, so Ray threatened me, saying if I didn't do it there were going to be repercussions. And it turned out that Klaus Fluoride -- who normally tried to mediate any disputes among current or former band members to keep it from turning into something like this -- was hell-bent on selling out to Levi's. So after all these years of trying to keep the Ray that called and screamed at me in Texas from running amok, keep things cool, keep checks and balances going on the other end, he at that point fell in and hitched his wagon to the greed train. I mean, he went to two of my closest friends asking them to "persuade" me to sell out to Levi's. When I asked about this and reminded him of what would happen to our reputation if this went through -- reminding him that if it was money he was after to think about how much he was going to lose when people don't respect us anymore because everything we ever did would be a lie -- he said, "Why don't you just go to the press and tell them we did it for charity?" Five percent to charity and keep the rest of the money. That's what he wanted me to. I didn't and they sued. They claim it was the accounting error that sparked the lawsuit, but we were all trying to settle that together. Until I wouldn't do Levi's.

PM: What kind of crazy commercial did they have planned for "Holiday in Cambodia?"

JB: Oh, the commercial aired. But they used a Pretenders song instead. The commercial didn't last very long, for good reason. It wasn't just the obvious moral reasons that I didn't want my favorite Dead Kennedys song trashed by being in a coporate commercial; it was also personal or emotional because of the sheer nausea of being in a commercial, and this one was pretty damn bad. It saturated the screen for about two days and then it appeared to be yanked. It was two young yuppies in a loft -- which is a sensitive issue in San Francisco right there -- and then a mouse runs across the floor. The girl in Hollywood stereotype screams and the hunk guy jumps into his Dockers, turns into superhunk, and catches the mouse; she feels sorry for it so they put it in the cage by the bed. That's the end of it. No dialogue in it at all. That's what they wanted "Holiday in Cambodia" for.

PM: That's surprising because Levi's is a Bay Area business.

JB: Only in theory. I mean, ironically as Klaus was making the case to me that we should do it, that they're a good, responsible company, they laid of 6,400 workers in Texas while simultaneously giving out a $100 million bonus to a retiring executive. And then a few months later announced that they were opening up manufacturing plants in China. Levi's may be based here but their community roots don't seem to go very far anymore.

PM: That's what I was trying to point out. You guys are punk icons in the Bay Area. It's hard to believe that they wouldn't understand that, of all songs, using "Holiday in Cambodia" for a commercial that inane wouldn't make any sense for them.

JB: Number one, they feel that anyone can be bought and that everyone has a price. And number two, they're thinking that, "Hey, all those skater dudes and snowboarders are wearing baggy clothes and some of them are getting older and have money in a ponch now so maybe we need to sell them some of our baggy pants. And we need a beloved punk rock song to do it". That might've been the logic, I have no idea. I'm not an ad man.

PM: Well, that's the only thing that seems to make any sense.

JB: So basically the understanding on these so-called reissues is that they were done behind my back, without my permission, and the band informed me that I would no longer be paid on them at all. So the people that give their money over for these things might not be the only ones who aren't getting what they're supposed to out of it. They should think twice before picking one of them up. No one likes the remastering, either. I've never heard it so I couldn't say.

PM: It doesn't sound any different to me.

JB: Not everybody says that. Some people say now it's way too slick. I don't know whether or not that's it, because they won't let me hear it. I'm sure as hell not going to go down to a chain store (which is the only place that stocks these things) and line the pockets of the people who are screwing me. Basically, I am being punished for sticking to the principles of the band.

PM: That's what so amazing: that they would throw away almost twenty years for a Dockers commercial.

JB: Not just the Dockers commercial. They're throwing it away now by trying to recast the whole band as a toothless, fun, poppy, punk thing that just wants your money.

PM: A karaoke band, as you've said on the site.

JB: Yeah. I mean, what really galls me is that not only would they put out such a god awful live album when we could have put out a good one, but they've taken the attitude into their fake reunion tour, as well, where Klaus was witnessed bragging onstage in San Francisco that they had only practiced twice in thirteen years. And they were asked by a radio interviewer in Denver about Brandon Cruz never really learning the words, blowing them, and they just thought it was funny.

PM: It's punk, that's the way it happens, right?

JB: Well, not with everybody.

PM: I was being facetious.

JB: (Laughs). It's a shame that they didn't put some creative thought into this. They could have at least gotten Gary Coleman to be the singer. And if this works with Brandon Cruz, think of the floodgates they would have opened up for scamming on the respect of old punk bands. You could have . . .

PM: Danny Bonnaduce!

JB: Well, Danny Bonaduce and the Necros is too obvious. People used to tease Barry Henssler by calling him Danny Partridge because they look so much alike. No, get the kid from Malcolm in the Middle to be in the Misfits.

PM: Webster!

JB: You could get Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen to be in Black Flag. Hey, how about Emmanuel Lewis in the reunited lineup of the Germs?

PM: Or Bad Brains! I can't believe this is happening.

JB: I'm really shocked by how low it's gone, too. It's like watching a crazy uncle in the basement go through a second childhood.

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