It’s always a surreal blast when the past arrives in the present, especially if it’s my interview with the defiantly principled punk pioneer, Jello Biafra.
Two blasts recently surfaced, one in the New Musical Express and the other in Consequence of Sound, citing (as usual) Biafra’s insistent refusal to rejoin his band, Dead Kennedys. When I spoke with Jello, we wondered why Levi’s would ever want to make a commercial using the brutal “Holiday in Cambodia” in the first place, much less think Jello would sign off on it.
But that was when the other Dead Kennedys got involved, with lawyers. Read my interview with Jello in the original Morphizm, for punk’s sake.
I’m Not an Ad Man: Jello Biafra Breaks Down the Current Dead Kennedys Swindle
For years, the Dead Kennedys have been global culture’s unremitting anti-corporate conscience, spitting out condemnation and analysis of its take-no-prisoners consumerist ethos, its connections to international campaigns of terror and greed, and its overarching emphasis on the profit margin.
Then (corporate) reality set in and it seems that everyone besides Biafra decided that they preferred the rock star residuals rather than an adherence to the band’s decidedly hardline stance. So, in true American fashion, they sued. And won.
Now the DK catalogue has been torn from its previous punk home at Jello’s Alternative Tentacles label and set down roots at the more musically diverse Manifesto. And, pending yet another legal recourse by Jello and AT, it looks like that’s where they are staying.
Now it’s just a question of money: who’s getting it and who isn’t. Or is it? We finally pinned down a reluctant Jello Biafra to shed some light on the issue, and when he got going, it got good. And nauseating.
Scott Thill: 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.
ST: 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.
ST: 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.
ST: 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 fifteen-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.
ST: 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 REM 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.
ST: 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.
ST: 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?
ST: 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.
ST: 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.
ST: 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.