MUSIC: Jello Biafra on the 'Dot Com Holocaust' and 'White People and the Damage Done.' Plus, new band Yassou Benedict delivers shoegaze dreampop.
TOFU AND WHISKEY Jello Biafra could be your theatrical political science professor. The still-charismatic frontperson and song-composer has long spewed knowledge deep from the underbelly of political theater, from his influential early 1980s Bay Area punk band Dead Kennedys, and projects like the band Lard, through his nine dense spoken word albums, and up to his newest musical endeavor, louder than ever in his 50s, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
That band, which also includes Victims Family guitarist Ralph Spight, plays the Uptown this weekend with D.I., the Divvys, and Gir-illa Biscuits — an excellent local Gorilla Biscuits tribute act (Fri/26, 9pm, $15. Uptown, 1928 Telegraph, Oakl. www.uptownnightclub.com.)
Given Biafra's affinity for weaving news-worthy (though oft-overlooked) scandals into contextual lyrics, I have often wondered from where he gathered his news. "Why, the Bay Guardian, of course! Where would a local voter be without your fine rag?" Biafra tells me from his San Francisco home, while finishing up making a juice of apples and greens. Is he mocking me? "I just hope the new ownership and staff goes pedal to the metal to keep up the standard of muckraking and ethics. There's so much corruption to dig up in this area." No, his tone is just often sarcastic.
"Locally, we have you folks, among others. And then you know, the Nation, Progressive, Mother Jones, interesting things people send me in the mail, digitally or otherwise, putting two and two together — trying to write songs about stuff that no one else has. Or at least, not in the same way."
He continues: "It's just filling in the gaps with what's interesting. I'm proud that no two of my music albums sound alike. Not even the Lard albums sound alike. From Dead Kennedys onward my mission as the main lyricist and composer of the damn tunes, I kind of stick to my punk core — whether I intend to or not, it's just who and what I am —but widen the base of the pyramid to what you can do with that energy."
Guantanamo School of Medicine's White People and the Damage Done (Alternative Tentacles, 2013) is the group's most recent album. A semi-concept album, Biafra says it's about "grand theft austerity, and how unnecessary it is."
He explains, "People have asked me...what I think is the biggest problem in the world today and they expect me to say something like 'climate change'... or inequality, or war, or whatever. I say you know, there's a worse one, it's corruption. Because that is what's blocking anything constructive from being done about all those other problems."
The title track of White People and the Damage Done, a pounding, guitar-heavy, Dead Kennedys-esque song, explicitly points a finger toward attitudes of the higher-ups in the US and EU regarding countries run by people of color, and the need to step in and take control.
Anthemic single "Shock-U-Py!" has a chantable chorus, and moment-in-time impact. In it, Biafra howls "Wake up and smell the noise/We can't take it any more/Corporate coup must go/We will Occupy/We will Shock-U-py." The Occupy movement may have left the mainstream radar for now, but Biafra's song commemorated the moment, much like he did in early career chants calling out yuppies and atrocities in places like Cambodia, in the early '80s. His lyrics are typically both rooted in the present, and packed with historical references.
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